It Takes a Village

To find and secure meaningful careers, A.B.D. and Ph.D. job seekers need to reach out and rely on a diverse cast of supporters, writes James M. Van Wyck.

June 20, 2016

The odds of securing a tenure-track job are worse than the odds of beating the rigged claw game at the arcade. And while it’s encouraging that Ph.D.s do find work beyond the tenure track (surveys show nearly universal employment for those with Ph.D.s), as Gary McDowell points out in Science and Melissa Dalgleish underscores with characteristic insightfulness, it is reasonable to assume that some, if not many, Ph.D.s find themselves settling for less-than-ideal careers.

In light of those grim realities, my headline’s claim -- that it takes a village to find a job -- might come across as a hopelessly idealistic platitude. But it’s stone-cold pragmatism.

To find and secure meaningful careers, A.B.D. and Ph.D. job seekers need to reach out and rely on a diverse cast of supporters. It’s not an option, really. The academic job market is too harsh and complex to navigate alone, and the wider job market is tough for everyone, let alone someone who has been in graduate school for years.

Yet too often, graduate students rely on only a handful of people to help them find and secure the careers they want. A year ago, for example, I met with Veronica to discuss her foray into the academic job market. I agreed to read her application materials and asked her who else was reading them. She told me that her adviser had seen earlier drafts but I was the only other person who’d see the documents.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Veronica’s failure to reach out to others was born of a mixture of anxiety, anger and exhaustion. And I completely empathize with the temptation to shut down lines of communication when nearing the end of a Ph.D. After spending a day conducting research and/or teaching, who would want to spend additional hours researching disheartening career prospects or trying to cajole other busy academics into reading early drafts of cover letters?

Veronica’s case is not unusual; the unknowns of the regular job market and the cruel calculus of the academic job market make for discouraged, tentative job seekers. And discouraged, tentative people make mistakes that can hurt their chances.

Of these, one of the worst is to essentially go it alone. To combat that mistake, Thomas Magaldi has suggested a job-search buddy system. Magaldi describes the feedback, accountability and moral support he gained by partnering with a peer who was also searching for a job, and he concludes that if a “single partnership can increase your career success, think about what an entire team can do.”

This is spot-on. I think it would be ideal to couple the intense support of a peer partnership (such as the one Magaldi describes in his essay) with the skills and input of a wide array of professionals at various stages of their careers.

Whether you’re looking for academic work or seeking a job in industry, you’ll need a diverse group on your side. Such a team will help you on many levels. For instance, it can help you find leads on jobs, negotiate networking opportunities and draft and redraft your job application materials. So as early as you can in your graduate career, begin to assemble an array of advisers within and outside academe.

That’s because you need a village long before you begin to look at specific job ads, or seek to network your way to a job. For starters, diagnosing your own strengths, aptitudes and skills is best accomplished with help from others. Career counselors, advisers, friends and mentors all play a role here. Your job is to make sure they know you’d like their input.

So reach out well in advance of a job search to people whom you respect and ask them to help you identify your strengths and diagnose areas that need improvement. The insights that you gain through such an exercise will help you as you weigh potential career options, as you shape your job application materials and as you interact in networking situations.

When you think about your village, don’t only think about your immediate context. Of course, a good network begins at home, but you do yourself a real injustice if you don’t network beyond the arbitrary boundaries of your department, your school or even your discipline.

If you have a network that’s too local or too tribal, you might miss out on developments in parallel fields, and you will be vulnerable to the toxins of a poisonous environment. If you don’t know there are places doing things differently, you’re more likely to put up with unacceptable practices. For example, consult with colleagues far beyond the reaches of your institution to diagnose the kind of attention you’re getting from your adviser, department and school. You might be underestimating the degree to which others are helping their students -- and thus are content with the little that is being done for you.

You’ll find part of your support network online. You can look for moral and practical support using the largely anonymous space of an online community, such as those found over at The Versatile Ph.D. or even Reddit’s graduate school forums. But let those online communities be one group within your village; don’t rely too heavily, for example, on the ethos and advice of academic job search boards like the Academic Jobs Wiki. You can use those and other online communities to your advantage as long as they don’t wield an outsize influence on your decisions and mind-set. For example, don’t be dragged down by the negativity that often attends online discussion boards, but do skim them for relevant information and use them to find new contacts.

Help your contacts advocate for you. If your network doesn’t know you are looking for work, or if they are unsure what you’ve been doing the last several years, how can they help you? You need to communicate with your friends, family and broader network, educating them about your career interests.

This doesn’t take much work. Once you’ve identified some potential career paths, L. Maren Wood suggests you write a “broadcast email” to every single person you know, telling them about what you’ve been doing and describing the kinds of opportunities you’d like to explore. Don’t be shy about sending along your résumé in this email. In doing so, you’ve equipped your contacts to help get your name, career goals and capabilities out into the broader world. You’ll have other members of your village, as it were, getting to know your specific capabilities and goals. You can be assured that members of your network (perhaps those you least expected) will become invested in your success.

A village’s support can help you stay focused and moving forward. Having a group of people to whom you are accountable will make it more likely that you’ll follow through on things large and small, like meeting deadlines or accomplishing goals. And the more people you tell about your specific goals, the better.

For example, if you tell a career counselor, a job seekers’ support group and your thesis adviser that you are applying for three jobs in the next week, you’re more likely to follow through with that goal. The idea here is that each of the groups will support you in a different way: the career counselor might suggest to send out the résumé at a certain time (or might give you a contact at the company to mention in your letter); the job seekers’ support group might supply moral support and accountability; and your adviser might agree to give the letters a reading before you send them off.

I’m happy to report that Veronica’s situation is on the upswing. She connected with a senior scholar in the field who read her materials and provided meticulous feedback. She’s now a visiting assistant professor, a position that will hopefully provide a springboard to the tenure track. And she’s paying it forward by reviewing the job market materials of her colleagues.

It’s a good reminder that flourishing in academe doesn’t require cutthroat tactics. In fact, career success beyond academe is often dependent on your willingness to collaborate. So be a good neighbor while on the job search. Offer to read a colleague’s job application materials. Go with a hesitant buddy to career services. Arrange for a group of fellow Ph.D.s to attend a networking event and then debrief over drinks. Break with academe’s backward obsession with isolation and become a collaborative, neighborly colleague.


James M. Van Wyck is a senior teaching fellow in the honors program at Fordham University, Lincoln Center. He is also the inaugural GSAS senior higher education administration fellow at Fordham University, Rose Hill. He is a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on 19th-century evangelical fiction.


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