Truths to Be Told: Leaving Grad School and Getting a Job

Terri E. Givens looks back on how she made the move to her first academic job after graduate school.

August 3, 2017
University of Washington

This is an ongoing series detailing my experience in academe as a first-generation college-goer. In part, it is a response to the loss of several colleagues in political science, particularly my colleague Mark Sawyer. There will be a panel in memory of Mark at the upcoming American Political Science Association annual conference in San Francisco on Saturday, Sept. 2.

One of the hardest things to get used to during graduate school was the constant negative feedback that came with papers, exams and ultimately the dissertation. Graduate school has many painful parts -- anyone who has been through it can tell you that. It can be full of constant reminders of how much we have to learn, and my mantra became “that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

But despite being a first-generation student, I generally thrived in graduate school. I had many mentors who helped me along the way, including a number of my classmates who were an important part of my support system. My boyfriend, then fiancé, then husband also played a significant role in getting me through those years, even helping me out with calculus. (He’s an engineer.)

Graduate school for me was mainly about writing (with some statistics thrown in), and if there is one thing that the poli-sci program at the University of California, Los Angeles, did right, it was to give graduate students plenty of opportunities to write. Sometime before my arrival in the program, they had shifted to a system of qualifying papers instead of exams. My understanding was that they felt students were getting to the dissertation proposal stage without enough writing experience to draft a successful proposal. Looking back on it now, having been a professor for many years, I feel this may have been an artifact of the quarter system that didn’t give students enough time to write term papers. I have always felt that quarters were great for undergraduates who wanted to try lots of classes, while semesters were better for graduate students who needed time to write quality term papers.

I was fortunate that I had several good mentors who helped me with my writing and language skills in graduate school. As I noted in my previous post, my stats professor took me under his wing during my first year as a research assistant to help him finish a book project, and another professor encouraged me to learn German since there were many funding opportunities for German speakers. That paid off at the end of my second year of graduate school when I received funding to do an intensive language program in Germany, which was followed by a pre-dissertation fellowship studying immigration politics in Germany and France. I spent my second year of grad school planning my wedding and the five-month trip that would follow our honeymoon in Europe.

I was married in July 1995 and went on a romantic honeymoon in France and Italy in August -- and then promptly said goodbye to my husband to spend 10 weeks learning intensive German, followed by three months of traveling around Germany and France interviewing government officials about immigration policy. Nothing like getting a marriage off to a good start. I am lucky to have a spouse, and now children, who have been supportive, and sometimes beneficiaries, of my regular travel to Europe.

When I returned, it was time to work on my qualifying papers and to start thinking seriously about my dissertation topic. I passed my first qualifying paper with no problems, working closely with my adviser. The second paper seemed to be going smoothly until my adviser asked me to come see her after I had turned it in. Up until that point, she had assured me that all was well. But on that day, she had decided that I should write a third paper that would be closer to my dissertation topic. All of my protestations that this would put me behind on doing my dissertation proposal defense were for naught. She had decided I should write a third qualifying paper, and I couldn’t do anything to change the situation. That was not my first lesson on the powerlessness of grad students, but it was certainly one of the most painful. Having support at home definitely helped me during that difficult period.

I pushed ahead, and in the end, realized that I had to write to move forward, in any case. I realize now, looking back, it was similar to getting a revise and resubmit-- or even more like having a paper rejected by a journal. In fact, it made me a better writer, and I had chosen my adviser partially because she was known for helping her students become good writers. The proof is in the pudding: throughout my career, major presses and journals have accepted most of my articles and books. I also chose my dissertation committee based on their ability to push me and the impression that would make when I went on the job market. I have rarely taken the easy path, and it has helped me make my way successfully when the going gets tough.

The dissertation topic came to me as I developed my interest in voting behavior and the topics of immigration policy and the radical right hit the headlines in the mid-1990s. However, the fact that I had a strong interest in statistics helped determine the approach that I took. One book in particular made a big impression on me and led me to focus on strategic voting. My experience with grant writing helped me get support for more fieldwork, and I was able to complete the dissertation by the summer of 1999, although health issues kept my adviser from being able to finish reading it until that fall.

In the meantime, the job market situation began to play itself out by the spring of 1998. Networking would have a key role. A friend from graduate school had gotten a job at the University of Washington, which had a target of opportunity opening for the fall of 1998. Another friend was at the University of Michigan, and they were also interested in a possible pre-doctorate position.

I was more interested in Seattle since my family was there, so I decided to go see my parents and just make a visit to UW on an informal basis. Despite the temptation, I decided against taking a position at the time. I was aware of what I like to call “the target of opportunity trap.” It can be dangerous to take on a teaching position before finishing the dissertation, and I wasn’t in any hurry to start a job. In the end, I was offered and accepted a regular assistant professor position at UW in the fall of 1999, and I was able to get my dissertation signed off on in December 1999.

Looking back on those years, it seems like it went smoothly in some ways, but it was incredibly stressful at the time. It was nothing like the stress I have felt getting through the tenure process or being an administrator, but the uncertainty and sense of the unknown was hard, since I didn’t know what to expect as a first-generation graduate student.

That said, I definitely felt that I had much more support as a graduate student than I did as an undergraduate. Being in a solid relationship, having helpful peers and not having the money woes I’d had as an undergrad all combined to provide a much stronger foundation. I was still very naïve and had a lot to learn as I started my first job as a professor. Department politics would be the next set of hurdles I would have to learn to manage.


Terri E. Givens is provost and dean of the arts and sciences at Menlo College.


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