Finding a Job While A.B.D.

Melissa Dennihy offers advice on how to juggle the tasks.

October 22, 2014

I made an argument here recently for going on the job market without a degree in hand, emphasizing that holding off on job-searching until the dissertation is complete is a luxury that is not available to everyone. I also suggested that the prospect of landing a job can be an invaluable motivator for an A.B.D. candidate struggling with dissertation procrastination. But, admittedly, job-searching while writing a dissertation is a tricky balancing act (even trickier if one is also teaching), and it requires effort to ensure that the rewards outweigh the risks. Here are some tips for A.B.D.s on how to juggle the demands of grad student life and job-searching while maximizing your chances at job market success:

  • Make the most of spare moments: While on the market, I was also writing my dissertation, teaching four classes at three campuses, and commuting four hours each day.  I learned to exploit every spare moment: I would practice discussing my research and answering potential interview questions while making dinner, showering, going for a run, or grabbing groceries.  There are a lot more spare moments in your day than you might realize – look for them, and figure out how to use them.
  • Have one solid dissertation chapter completed: Search committees don’t want to hear about your entire project.  What they do want to hear is that you can speak articulately and with specificity about some aspect of your research. If you only have a minimal amount of your dissertation completed when you go on the market, make sure you have at least one chapter done that you feel really good about and can talk about concretely, with confidence and clarity.
  • Make job materials serve your dissertation-writing: As I was writing cover letters and research statements, I found myself explaining my research in concise, articulate ways that had been largely eluding me during dissertation-writing. I used the brevity of my application materials — and the distance I had to gain from my dissertation to explain it to people unfamiliar with my work — as ways to improve and refine the writing in my dissertation.
  • Remember that research statements can look forward as well as backward: I was warned that it would be very difficult to write cover letters and statements about my research without having completed it, but research statements can focus on future plans as well as past progress: mention dissertation chapters you will send to x or y journal, and discuss how the project can be turned into a book once it is done. You don’t need to have your dissertation even half-finished to envision and articulate these plans – in fact, the ability to think about where your unfinished research is going and what you will need to do with it in the future is a skill as valuable to you as it is attractive to search committees.  
  • Build a strong teaching portfolio: Search committees are looking for a colleague who can fulfill all of the job requirements, which includes teaching as well as research. Many graduate students have an impressive range of teaching experience, and effectively showcasing this can pay off. When I went to campus interviews, I always brought a teaching portfolio consisting of student evaluations, faculty observation reports, sample syllabuses and assignments, a list of student recommendation letters I had written, and a list of former students’ accomplishments (scholarships, graduate school acceptances, professional achievements, etc.).  It’s never too early to start gathering materials for a teaching portfolio.
  • Think of yourself as a colleague, not a student: This is a point that academic career coaches emphasize, and it’s excellent advice. But it can be especially hard to break grad student habits and behaviors when you are still very much a grad student, months from dissertation completion. Be extra cautious of how you may be acting “grad student-esque” in everything you do, from talking about your work (don’t say “my dissertation” — say “my project” or “my research”), to addressing and communicating with search committee members.
  • Don’t overlook teaching-oriented institutions and community college positions: You might be daydreaming of an Ivy League gig, but a great way to begin building a career (and to keep yourself financially stable) is to land a job, period. R-1 institutions might not be willing to look at applications from A.B.D.s, but if you have a strong record of teaching experience, an unfinished dissertation may not matter as much to committees at colleges where teaching is as high (or higher) a priority as research. 
  • Prepare for a possible round two: Not every run on the market will lead to an offer, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be a waste of time. Because I was fully prepared for the possibility of not getting a job while A.B.D., I became determined to make my experience on the market serve me if I had to do it again the following year. After every interview, I went home and immediately wrote down every question I was asked and the answers I gave — as well as answers I thought of afterward that would’ve been better. I also spent time writing my own potential interview questions and answers once I began to recognize the types of questions committees (and administrators) tend to ask. I ended up with a 35-page document of sample questions and answers, and a lot more confidence about interviewing than I had when I first started job-searching.
  • If you accept an offer, push yourself to defend before your start date: Not only is finishing your dissertation before starting a new job important in terms of being able to manage new responsibilities, but failing to complete the dissertation before your start date can also mean a lower starting salary and longer pre-tenure period (if it means a breach of contract, you shouldn’t take the job unless you are 100 percent sure you will finish in time). Do everything possible to put grad student life behind you before beginning full-time employment.


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


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