Too Soon?

Grad students face real risks by going on the market before they are ready, writes Cheryl E. Ball.

September 10, 2014

Entering the academic job market before your dissertation is nearly done is a risky proposition in many fields. But the job market typically occurs during very specific time frames in academe -- time frames that are different for each field, and that sometimes occur simultaneously with finishing writing one’s dissertation. So the question arises: When do you go on the market? When is it too soon?

This question may be less of a problem in the sciences, where new Ph.D.s are taking non-academic jobs more often than academic ones, and the dissertation itself is often radically different in form and methods -- and as a result often quicker to write -- than in the arts and humanities.

There are different pressures to deciding when it’s time to go on the academic job market, but here are some of the major ones to consider, in order of importance. I’m focusing, in this column, on A.B.D.s outside the physical and biological sciences, because the state of the dissertation is one of the biggest factors that impact a candidate’s ability to answer this question.

When does hiring occur in your field?

The expectations for having (nearly) completed your dissertation before the job market will vary greatly depending on your field’s timeline for hiring. Some fields, such as political science and business, begin interviewing candidates a full year before their start dates. (The poor political science candidates and search committees caught up in #ASPAonfire last week in DC is the stuff of job-market nightmares.) Humanities and arts, by contrast, tend to interview in the spring semesters before job start dates. Interviewing comes in the middle of a candidate’s job-seeking timeline, as that must be prefaced with simultaneously preparing and sending materials, waiting for weeks/months, conducting preliminary interviews, and, after the on-campus interview, negotiations.

It’s not atypical for this process to last six to eight months, and since the economic crash, we’ve seen the job market season extend almost exclusively from fall- or spring-semester postings (depending on the field), to academic-year-round postings, which seems to perpetually expand the hiring season in a way that can be both a positive and a negative for job-seekers.

The positive aspect of an extended hiring season is that one can decide when to go on the market. In a field that previously had fall-only job postings, a candidate can now postpone applying to jobs until the spring, if needed, and vice versa. (If you don’t know when the season occurs in your field, it’s definitely a sign that you are not ready for the job market, and you should make plans NOW to meet with your dissertation adviser to talk about these things.)

The negative aspect of an extended hiring season is that job candidates can now obsess for even longer about their hiring prospects. This is problematic not only because being active on the job market takes precious time away from your research and teaching, but because the market is expensive as well as, for many candidates, psychologically and emotionally disempowering. The longer one stays on the market, the more personally damaging it can potentially be.

In any case, if your dissertation isn’t done, or nearly done, it is the rare person who will have time and energy to focus on finishing it during the job market season. I tell students that they won’t work on their dissertations AT ALL during the six months or so that they’re actively on the market. None believe me. All agree with me afterward. I’ve only met one person in my 10 years of giving this advice who was able to do both at the same time successfully. Ph.D. students like to think they’re unique and will break the trend (don’t we all?!), but going on the market without a nearly finished dissertation will only serve to stress you out even further. And it might actively damage your chances of finding a job, as described below.

The point is: If your field’s hiring has multiple or extended seasons, discuss with your adviser (and your family, if pertinent) when might be the most advantageous time for you to enter it.

Can you explain the impact of your dissertation research in two or three sentences?

I wrote above that if you go on the market without a (nearly) finished dissertation, you will likely hurt your chances for getting a job. (I would love to hear, in the comments, about fields where this isn’t true.) Why? Because you can’t talk in coherent ways about your research.

What does a nearly-finished dissertation mean? That may depend on your committee’s expectations (see below), but you should, at the least, have completed your IRB and dissertation proposal, collected your data, coded it, analyzed the results, and started drafting the discussion. (If you don’t do what you’d call “data-driven research,” replace “data” with “text(s)” or “archive” or the like -- the research process will essentially be the same, even if you don’t use the same terms.) In addition, although it is something that job-seekers often leave until later, you probably should have written a full draft of your literature review. Why? Because you have to be able to talk coherently about your dissertation study and its relevance to your field. If you aren’t familiar enough with the scholarship in your field to write your literature review, then you won’t be able to answer questions about your work’s impact.

Being able to explain the impact of your work in two or three sentences is NOT the same as being able to describe your work in the ubiquitous job-market question, “Tell us about your research.” That’s where you outline the data, methodologies, analysis, and results, concluding with your short impact statement. If your answer to these two questions keeps changing during mock interview practices, then you are not nearly done enough with your dissertation to go on the job market. (Or you’re nervous and need a LOT more interview practice.)

What stipulations do your committee members have for you?

It’s not unusual for advisers to say that they won’t write a recommendation letter until you’ve produced three (or X number of) chapters. Dissertating students often think this is a stupid hoop we make you jump through. It is not; it has a serious purpose closely related to the previous point about your ability to articulate the impact of your research. Also, your committee members will be writing letters of recommendation for you. In order to do that, they will need to see your research, which means that you will need to provide drafts of your dissertation (or completed chapters, depending on their request) well in advance of your sending the first application letter.

In addition, that research has to be well-crafted enough at the point of letter-writing to allow them to write well about your research. If you can’t articulate your research well enough by that point (because you don’t have enough written to have thought through the consequences and impact), your advisers probably can -- because they’re experienced scholars who can usually see the endpoint before you can -- but that doesn’t mean they should have to guess. Or, worse, make something up about the impact of your research based on conversations or really rough drafts that, as you get the chance to revise before interview time, becomes incorrect or outdated.

The key here is: If your committee members each have different stipulations for writing you a letter, you have to address those individually with each of them. One reader requiring three chapter drafts (and which chapters?) isn’t the same as another reader requiring three finished chapters.

When does your graduate school funding run out?

Sometimes you have a limited amount of funding -- your fellowship will run out, your teaching stipend will not be renewed, etc. -- that prompts you to go on the market. If this pressures you to go on the market before you are ready, you may have to take some responsibility for whatever happened previously in your grad career that forced your hand.

Getting stuck for two years in the comps process because you had writers’ block is probably on you. Working through a change in advisers because someone left or retired is not totally on you.

But, in the end, it’s your degree, and you have to take ownership of it. Life happens, for sure, and there are all sorts of legitimate reasons why you might have gotten off the progress cycle through your Ph.D. program, but if you only have four, or five, or seven years of funding, you have to keep the ball moving. (And if your reason for being off-track was legitimately unavoidable, like a family medical issue, check with your graduate director and graduate school to see if there are options for you.)

I suspect that funding running out is one of the biggest reasons why people go on the market too soon. It is not an ideal situation by any means, but once you’re in that situation, you have to make the most of it. And you have to decide: Are you going to go on the market and try to finish? Are you going to spend time writing a fellowship application for another year of funding when you could be working on your diss? Are you going to apply for postdocs that will allow you time to finish next year somewhere else instead of tenure-track positions? Are you going to apply for jobs that will consider A.B.D.s, and potentially never finish? Do you have other means you can live on for a year to stay (unfunded) and finish?

Having your hand forced through financial reasons is the suckiest thing in the world because, while it feels like it is totally out of your control, at some point it probably WAS in your control. So have some hard conversations with yourself, your adviser, and your family about how you might proceed on the job market in this case. You might get lucky and find a great job despite not having your diss ready, but then you have to work like hell to get 'er done, ideally before that great job even begins.

How ready are you to be done?

As graduate students finish their coursework and their comprehensive exams, they get itchy. And bored with their work. And frustrated with being a graduate student. That glittery new job, making actual money, in some ideal new location is a siren call. So. Many. Possibilities. It’s certainly why I went on the job market a year too early, not nearly done enough with my diss.

While I lucked out, matching up with a university that didn’t require me to talk about my dissertation work at any length before I was hired (although I apparently faked it well enough to get an offer from a university that did require this, which still surprises me), I do NOT recommend pushing forward simply because you are tired of being a graduate student, if you don’t have to go on the market.

Why? I spent a miserable first year in that job rewriting my dissertation under the cloak of night because I was in danger of being in breach of my contract. I barely managed to finish the diss that first year, and, if I hadn’t, I probably would have been fired. Going on the market early because you are over being a graduate student puts yourself at all sorts of disadvantages that that shiny job will probably not solve. And yet it’s the biggest reason, next to funding, I hear from graduate students as to why they want to go on the market.

So, let me end with this: Writing the dissertation is preparation for life on the tenure track. It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work that takes a long time to come to fruition. You will never have more time in your academic life than when you are a graduate student, so enjoy it, and work hard, and ready yourself for the market in a way that will help you embrace it with less pain. When you do get a job, you can enjoy it without any strings attached from your previous grad-student life.


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