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I was an anxious graduate student. I worried about the usual things: the quality of my writing, my dissertation topic, the amount of time I spent on research work. However, I mostly worried about walking hooded across the graduation stage, with all of my family and friends looking on with pride -- but without an academic job at a prestigious university waiting on the other side.

The fear is real. The academic job market is grim, and tenure-track professorships are scarce. In fact, Slate Senior Correspondent Jordan Weissmann calls the current state of the job market “terrifying.”

Other people in my grad school class shared my concerns, and as a response to our discussions, our professional seminar instructors invited tenured and tenure-track professors to our class to share their “How I Made It” biographies in order to make the process of becoming a professor more visible. While I’m unable to remember the many tales shared with my class with absolute precision, the vignettes often went like this:

  • Male full professor: “Well, I was marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when the president of Harvard University approached me and we began talking. Next thing I know, I’m a professor at Harvard.”
  • Female associate professor: “I was finishing my dissertation when I received a call from the POTUS’s educational adviser asking me if I wanted to work with him. I said, ‘Why not?’”
  • Female assistant professor: “I gave a presentation at the annual conference and the department chair of the university was in the audience. She and I chatted after the session, and she called me a few weeks later asking me if I was interested in a new job in her department. I took it and have been here ever since.”

In my mind, all of these narratives communicated one thing: success in our field was a serendipitous achievement. It seemed as if the professors attained their jobs not through stellar dissertations, pages of impressive application materials and top-tier recommendation letters, but by being in the right place at the right time in the company of the person with unilateral hiring power.

What did this mean for me and my job prospects? While those professors may have worked extremely hard, produced excellent dissertations and charmed their future bosses with inspiring educational-policy talk, they failed to articulate the usefulness of these steps in obtaining a job. I took my concerns about my future being left up to sheer providence to my adviser. So patient and kind with me, she listened, she nodded. Then she told me to stop worrying about finding a job. Stop chasing the conference acceptances and the calls for manuscripts. Don’t chase the networking opportunities that are not expected or effortless occurrences.

Her solution: just do good work.

What did she mean by “do good work”? It had to be code for something, right? Was it another riddle alongside an extensive trail of graduate school enigmas I failed to solve, like “maintain a work-life balance”? I finally gave in and devoted all of my time and energy to completing my course work to the best of my ability. I wrote literature reviews, edited literature reviews and, when in doubt and already behind deadlines, I edited them again. I spent a great deal of time mastering quantitative methodology but grew more enamored with qualitative approaches. I participated in a multiteam, multisite research project, rising in the ranks to qualitative team project manager. I engaged with my colleagues and cohort members, taught classes, attended seminars across campus that related to my intellectual interests and even enjoyed a happy hour or two with friends in my other waking hours. So busy with my graduate school life, I failed to notice that I had fallen in love with all things professorial -- research, teaching and even the meetings.

I was by no means the perfect graduate student, and I’m sure my adviser spent more time with me -- and more money on me -- than she would have preferred. I missed deadlines and double-booked meetings. I also ignored my adviser’s advice to follow my interests instead of the available large-scale data set, only to take an extra year and a half to follow my interests instead of the available large-scale data set.

Then, as if overnight instead of over many years, it happened. I entered the job market and received not one but three tenure-track job offers at research I institutions. I would love to share an exceptional story with you of how this came to be, something like, “I was at the airport waiting for a flight, and a woman beside me began choking, and after I saved her life with the Heimlich maneuver, she introduced herself as chancellor of the university where I recently applied. No surprise, I got the job!”

That did not happen.

After years of not fully understanding what my adviser meant when she told me to “do good work,” I finally got it. Part of it is easy, at least on the surface. We can grasp the concept of doing good work in regard to our written work. We should engage in rigorous scholarship, think critically about our intellectual contributions and attempt to publish our best writing.

But I think she meant more in this seemingly simple refrain. She pushed me to engage in a topic that interested me and one that could sustain my attention for years to come. She invited me to be a part of her multiyear research project -- an experience that taught me more about qualitative methodology and the meticulousness that accompanies it than any semester-long course ever could. She constantly raised the bar on my work and my commitments, and while I was exhausted, overworked and underpaid, I always felt appreciated. I rose to every occasion, to (almost) every intellectual challenge that my adviser presented. I said yes to great opportunities and declined only a select few.

I was so focused on the work -- day to day, year to year -- that my concerns about finding the perfect job faded to the background. I found intrinsic and extrinsic importance in the work I was doing as a graduate student; I felt my research was making a difference, however small, and other professors expressed interest in working with me based only on my reputation.

I think that is what she meant by “doing good work.” Because of my good work, she and my committee members were able to write letters of recommendation with no qualifiers, no reservations. They were confident in my potential as a scholar.

And I was a confident academic by the time I applied for jobs. I no longer doubted my intellectual command of my field, I had no misgivings about my writing or research skills, and I had no reservations about holding inspiring educational-policy talks with my peers and colleagues. I knew how to create and manage a research team (if I ever wanted to navigate that fresh hell again). All of my job application materials reflected my growth as a scholar and teacher, and I knew where I wanted the next stage of my research to go. There is good work yet to be done.

So let us lift the veil on the academic job market for our graduate students. Our “How I Made It” biographies need not be neatly packaged vignettes missing the uncertainties, mishaps and mistakes. Attributing part of our success to luck is warranted, but we must also include the good work that enabled the luck to stick.

We have to make the seemingly invisible standards of obtaining a tenure-track job more evident and obvious. We know what the standards are for academic success, even when we are not the creators or perpetuators of those standards. (We may even be adamantly trying to change them.) Possessing a depth of knowledge matters, gaining relevant and timely research skills matters, and being a collegial participant in the campus environment all matter. Perhaps what matters most is a mutually beneficial relationship with your adviser, who, in the end, should be hard-pressed to confine your merit and potential in three pages of a recommendation.

Will all that I’ve discussed here lead to the tenure-track position at the institution of your dreams? Maybe -- but then again, maybe not. And there’s the rub. You may do great work, exceed all expectations and lay waste to the longstanding beliefs about the potential of graduate students, and you still may not have your choice of institutions. But do good work anyway. I have come to believe that it is unlikely you will find good work -- a job that sustains you in positive ways -- without doing that first.

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