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Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Iowa where he teaches in the Department of Rhetoric. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.

This past summer I attended a weeklong job placement collaborative put together by two students in my department, Anna Williams and Kate Nesbit. Each day was devoted to a different type of job document–C.V., cover letter, research statement and dissertation abstract, teaching statement, and diversity statement–and each was structured around one or two faculty members coming in to discuss the day’s job document in the morning with collaborative workshops in the afternoon. The faculty included tenure-track and instructional faculty from our own institution as well as faculty from liberal arts and community colleges and each discussed both their own experience with specific job documents as well as the way that their institution looks for candidates to position themselves. It was an intense week with a lot of writing, revising, and reflecting, but it was also the single most efficient and effective professional development event that I’ve attended.

Let’s Do It Anyway
I recently sat down with Anna to discuss the experience of pulling together the placement collaborative and what advice she has for grad students looking to do something similar in their programs. The initial idea, Anna said, came during a presentation on professional tools like Imagine PhD that Anna and Kate attended last spring. As she was thinking about all of the things that she had to do in preparation for going on the market, she turned to Kate and said “you know what would be really great, is if we had some kind of summer workshop where we got a set of job materials together and then we didn’t have to worry about it in the fall while we’re teaching and working on our dissertations and working on everything else.” Kate immediately agreed and they brought their idea to the department. They were told that it was a great idea but that, because of the way faculty contracts are structured, the department couldn’t be the one to organize it. So Kate turned to Anna and said “Let’s do it anyway.”

The Process
Anna and Kate began by sending out an email to the graduate students in the department to explain the idea and gauge their interest. When they received an overwhelmingly positive response, they set up a meeting with Professor Adam Hooks, a faculty member in our department who has worked with a lot of graduate students during the job search and even developed a
placement guide for the academic job market. They also sent out a pre-workshop survey to gauge students’ level of confidence for preparing for the job market and the results were, in Anna’s words, “pretty abysmal. On a scale of 1-5, I think no question came in more than a 2.5 in terms of confidence and feelings of preparedness.”

Building from these initial elements, Kate and Anna sent out surveys to get an understanding of the types of institutions where people hoped to apply. From there, they approached the rest of the process as teaching and writing problems and began to scaffold discrete lessons and activities, beginning with sending out periodic emails throughout the summer with references to Karen Kelsky’s The Professor is In to help each participant begin to prepare their materials. They also talked to faculty and several alumni from the department to organize a full contingent of panelists who would be willing to come and talk about each job document for an hour on its respective day.

During the week of the collaborative itself, Kate and Anna continued to coordinate with faculty, send out emails, grab the pastries and coffees contributed by our department, and organize the afternoon workshop sessions. They also populated a Canvas course with job materials for different positions that were donated by various faculty and alumni. Though the C.V. sessions on the first day were by far the most popular, there was a strong turnout on each of the days, and the organizers also helped to direct and keep the conversation moving forward. One of the best elements of the whole week was the level of intense focus on the materials and application process itself. Far too many conversations about the job market quickly devolve into doom and gloom, but, by focusing on the process of applying, the conversation largely remained focused on how to be proactive about the job search. Not surprisingly, the post-survey for the week revealed significant increases in confidence about the ability to navigate the job market and an overwhelmingly high level of satisfaction with the structure of the placement collaborative.

In talking with Anna, the amount of work that went into coordinating a week of career development became abundantly clear. It was also clear that this is a program that graduate students can absolutely organize at their own university. With some space, planning, and some faculty members who are willing to volunteer an hour or two of time, putting together an event like this for any department, in any discipline, is very doable. The key to making it into a really great and productive experience, Anna said, is “having a collaborative spirit with your colleagues, instead of a competitive one,” as this “is essential to making something like this work, because if you feel competitive with your colleagues, you probably feel insecure and scared to show them your C.V. and your cover letter and all of your job documents because you’re scared that they’re judging you.”

This collaborative spirit is something that she suggests trying to cultivate from the start of your graduate program. The unfortunate reality is that departments might not always be willing or able to provide adequate support for graduate student placement (though our college has since thrown its support behind future, larger iterations of the placement collaborative), but if, as Anna said, you can work with your fellow students to “set the culture in your own learning environment,” you create a collaborative community that will not only help pull events like this together, but that will also support each other as you face the job market.

Does your department or university have any great professional development events or programs? Please share in the comments below!

[Image by Unsplash user rawpixel and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]

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