Taking the Risk

Going on the job market without a nearly done dissertation can not only help some people economically but may spur them to finish up, writes Melissa Dennihy.

September 24, 2014

In “Too Soon?,” Cheryl E. Ball warns against going on the job market without a “(nearly) completed” dissertation. Hers is a viewpoint I have heard many times, and she raises valid concerns that A.B.D. candidates should consider. But failure isn’t the only possible outcome of going on the market while A.B.D. — taking that risk may help to propel the stagnant graduate student forward into a new phase of professional life.

Here’s why I went on the market a year before I defended: In summer 2012, I had been an A.B.D. candidate in English for over a year, but had made little headway on my dissertation. During the approaching academic year, I would be juggling my usual 4/4 course load as a teaching fellow at one campus and an adjunct at two others. Even with a modest fellowship and additional adjunct work, I was struggling financially, and growing increasingly worried that I would never finish my dissertation, find a job, and get on with my life.

As the job market season began that fall, my dissertation was still far from finished: I kept reading and researching (when I wasn’t teaching), but I was doing very little writing. I estimated that I was a year from completion — but if I waited another year to go on the market post-degree, I would be in employment limbo throughout that academic year, applying for jobs that would start the following fall. My teaching fellowship — the bulk of my income — would be gone, and I knew from past experience that surviving on adjunct income is nearly impossible. If I went on the market a year before completion, I could possibly start a full-time job as I was finishing my degree, avoiding (un)employment limbo. Once I began confronting the bigger picture beyond the dissertation — my future as a person and not just a doctoral student — I knew I had to take that chance.

It turned out to be an excellent decision. I landed five interviews, received three offers, and accepted a tenure-track job, all sans completed dissertation. (While most of the colleges I interviewed with are teaching-oriented institutions, they were all interested in my research as well.) More important, going on the market did something to me that I desperately needed in my seventh year of graduate studies: it motivated me. It revitalized me. Suddenly, I was excited about my dissertation again. It was no longer a seemingly endless project with a completion date that could be continuously postponed; instead, it became the major hurdle holding me back from a new life. Finishing the dissertation was my ticket out of professional and financial instability, and I became eager to tackle it.

For many A.B.D.s, finding motivation is the most challenging obstacle on the path to degree completion. Writing a dissertation is isolating, daunting, and overwhelming, making it easy for students to put off or drag out the process for far longer than is beneficial. I became so frustrated with my slow progress while A.B.D. that I occasionally considered giving up and pursuing a non-academic career. I was considering this again when I decided, instead, to take my chances on the market and commit to finishing my dissertation within a year.

All of my most trusted mentors warned against this, sharing the concerns Ball raises in “Too Soon?”: they worried that I wouldn’t find time to write while job-searching and wouldn’t be able to successfully discuss my dissertation without having finished it.

But there is perhaps no greater motivator for a stagnant A.B.D. student than the prospect of landing a job. Crafting cover letters and research statements — and, later, preparing for interviews — necessitated that I confront my dissertation head-on and make its murky shape take on a fuller and clearer form. Ball warns that without having completed your dissertation, “you can’t talk in coherent ways about your research,” but knowing I had application deadlines and interviews approaching forced me to concretize my project and start thinking and writing with more specificity, focus, and dedication.

No longer could I discuss my dissertation using fuzzy language and half-developed ideas understandable only to me and my advisers. I had to develop, cohere, and refine how I wrote and spoke about my research, and this helped to clarify and propel the research itself. Applying for jobs didn’t take time away from dissertation-writing; instead, it fueled dissertation-writing, giving it focus and purpose, and I started writing much more regularly than I had been before going on the market.

Was it stressful to be on the market while teaching four classes and writing my dissertation? Yes, it was horribly stressful. But those seven months — which flew by amid dissertating, teaching, applications, and interviews — were not nearly as stressful as the ongoing challenges of graduate-student life, particularly when one is without adequate, or any, funding. I worry that tenured professors who advise students not to try for a job "too soon" might be out of touch with the stresses and risks of living off of a graduate student "salary."

Even the best funding packages make it hard to keep up with current costs of living, and many students don’t have funding, making their income solely by adjuncting, as I did for two of my seven years of graduate school. Adjuncts not only struggle to survive on woefully meager pay, but often lack benefits such as health insurance. Considered from this perspective, A.B.D. isn’t necessarily too soon to seek stable employment and improved quality of life.  In fact, the motivation students might find in the prospects for improved professional, financial, and personal satisfaction just might boost their productivity in ways that are exactly what many A.B.D.s need.

I accepted a tenure-track position in the spring, wrote much of my dissertation that spring and summer, and finished it in the fall, defending during my first semester of my new job. And no, that wasn’t disastrous; it was actually easier to work on my dissertation as a full-timer than it was as a teaching fellow/adjunct — I now had a lighter teaching load and my own office space, two things that made a huge difference. My story had a happy ending, but had I not gotten a job, I wouldn’t have considered my decision a misuse of time. The motivation going on the market provided was invaluable, not to mention that a “first run” on the market, even if unsuccessful, may prove as important to future job-search success as dissertation completion.

Graduate students spend years learning how to research and write, but very few receive extended training in how to talk about their work, whether in a two-minute interview answer or a 90-minute job talk. These are skills that need to be learned, practiced, and refined — I know my earlier interviews were much less successful than interviews I gave later in the job market season, after several months of practice. Opportunities for such practice, combined with the motivation job-searching can provide the stagnant student, suggest that going on the market early can have its advantages.

While taking this chance might not make sense for everyone, some A.B.D. candidates may find confrontation with the market to be exactly what they need to push their dissertations — and careers — forward.



Melissa Dennihy is assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.


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