Anything can happen during the five or more years you are in graduate school, training for that dreamy tenure-track position somewhere far away. Even if you think of your institution’s locale as a stop on the way to bigger or better places, it is possible that somehow, unexpectedly, you put down shallow roots. Before you know it, you have become attached to the place you’ve called (temporary) home. Working in higher education, it is always assumed that you will move for the right opportunity.
In the Ph.D. job market this year, there has been a fair amount of talk about "embracing your inner North Dakotan," (there are jobs there) and preparing for the prospect of moving far away to find that plum job (or any job really). But even if you are geographically mobile, in an overburdened job market, being able to move anywhere does not guarantee that you will find a position. Perhaps you have discovered that the tenure track is not for you or that you prefer teaching to research. Over the course of your graduate training, you may have established valuable local networks and severing those ties could be detrimental to your professional and personal sanity. Before considering a long-distance job search, it may be time for a realignment of professional aspirations. Consider staying.
Since the start of my graduate training at a large research university in a small college town, I have always considered staying. Many of my colleagues wonder how I will negotiate the academic job market when I finish my dissertation because I felt rooted before I even started my coursework. Over the last six years, I discovered that I like where I live, and a long-distance move may not be the best personal or professional choice because it would take me away from my family. I’ve decided that I’ll likely focus on finding a professional opportunity closer to home, but I have found that there is little career advice for job-seekers who plan to stay as local as possible. Following are three strategies I’ve employed to get myself ready to find local employment.
First, start thinking early on in your graduate career about your potential post-grad job prospects. Your professional life is happening from the moment you step into the graduate seminar room. Even if you think you might be training for one professional path (tenure-track faculty), you may find you love other aspects of your field or your institution along the way. If you are interested in knowing more about those “alternative” professional pathways, ask someone. If there is no support for “alt-ac” jobs in your department, start asking around your institution. People love to talk about their jobs, how they got them, and how you might prepare for them.
Secondly, if you want to stay in higher education locally, draw a radius around your current institution and decide how far you can reasonably travel for another position. I know that the diffusion of institutions varies across the country, and I have always lived in the northeast, where there is a high concentration of colleges and universities. Even still, it is important to figure out the institutions to watch and start paying attention. Now is not the time to overlook institutions that have mostly local recognition. Finding a job in higher education is part effort and part opportunity. The wider the local net, the better the chances you’ll find something that pays the bills.
I adopted this particular strategy last year when I was unsure of my graduate funding for this academic year. I started networking with the local institutions of higher education by sending my C.V. blindly looking for teaching opportunities. My C.V. bounced around and I received two responses from local departments that happened to be looking for instructors. Neither had posted their opportunities publicly yet, and my C.V. had caught their attention because of my teaching experience. I was lucky to secure a two-year teaching fellowship.
Finally, you may need to think outside of academe. I happen to study educational inequality in a state where the achievement gap between rich and poor students is the highest in the nation. There is no shortage of good work to be done both inside and outside the academy on the issue of educational justice. I recognize that many scholars-in-training have intellectual interests and research specialties that are less applicable to a local social problem. However, that does not mean your work should remain within the walls of the academy. Opportunities for Ph.D. candidates exist where you least expect to find them: in the public or private sector, in arts or philanthropic organizations. Take advantage of the services your institution has to offer regarding professionalization and career development, especially how to sell your grad school training to a real-world audience. Your institution may also have local networks you can tap into.
Whether it feels like it or not, we have agency in the professional job market. We have a choice in how our professional lives proceed. And not engaging with a national job search does not mean you can’t hack it. It simply means you’re navigating the future of your professional life as best (and local) you can. Sometimes taking control of the job search can be the most empowering part of the process. Even if you always thought you would move far away, consider staying.
Rachel Leventhal-Weiner is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Connecticut.
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