• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


What's Next, Doc?

Three recent Ph.D. graduates discuss their transitions

May 27, 2019

Neelofer Qadir received her Ph.D. in English in May 2019 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Starting Fall 2019, she will be Assistant Professor of English and International Global Studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Follow her on twitter @_neelofer and check out her website.

After a long journey, the train signaling the end of graduate school has pulled into the station: I defended a dissertation, accepted a great job offer, and participated in Commencement. Even my diploma has arrived (much earlier than anticipated!).

The experience I describe above is a unicorn of sorts: this timeline — though perceived to be the normative one in my field of literary studies — does not represent the reality that most Ph.D. graduates encounter. In fact, perhaps because I prepared so long to have a more circuitous journey to a stable job that I now find myself caught off guard about how to transition out of being a graduate student and into being a faculty member.

While talking with my colleagues Jacinta Saffold (‘17), Lauren Silber (‘18), and The Junior Prof (‘18) about their post-Ph.D. transitions, I realized my own process began as early as two years ago, in May 2017, when I decided I would begin applying for academic jobs the following September. Having heard that it, at best, takes three years to find a job, I chose that number as my cut off point, promising myself that I would not continue applying after that. It helped that I had excellent examples of colleagues who left the conventional academic path during graduate school, or completed our program without an academic job as their primary focus and that while I enjoyed the trifecta of academic labor — teaching, research, and service — I had other ambitions for my research focus: to engage with a broader audience and influence public perceptions on global labor migration. Setting that timeline for myself also gave me the opportunity to be strategic in applying to and working in assistantships during those final two years of graduate school, which would broaden the scope of what I could offer as a candidate for an academic, alt-ac, or non-ac position. In a way, I was retraining my brain by exploring different professional identities.

With the idea of multiple phases to a transition in mind, our conversations cohered around three threads: managing the transition timeline, navigating new roles and responsibilities, and cultivating mentor networks.

The Transition Timeline

In an ideal scenario, I wanted as much transition time as possible because I had seen friends and colleagues defend their dissertations, move, and begin their new positions in really short time frames. For Lauren, these three monumental life changes happened within one week in the dog days of August. Her split appointment at Wesleyan as an administrator and faculty member meant that she went from intensive months of revising her dissertation to running programs for new faculty orientation without much more than a breath in between. She told me this “immediate transition produced a sense of imposter identity. I literally just finished. I felt like I had to keep [that] a secret.” But, often we have little to no choice in what our transition timelines look like. Waiting to defend was important to Lauren strategically because of finances and healthcare. Thus, setting one’s defense date involves managing significant risk: have a definitive defense date while on the market that assures search committees that you will finish your degree with time to spare, but find a way to remain eligible for graduate funding (and healthcare, if your assistantship includes it) should you not land a job.

Meanwhile, Jacinta’s first post-Ph.D. transition into an ACLS/Mellon Public Fellows postdoctoral fellowship offered her several months between defense and Commencement to the start of her new position in the fall. Currently, Jacinta is in the midst of a second transition, from working as a diversity administrator to starting an assistant professorship. In both cases, she has had 3-4 months but, unlike her first post-Ph.D. transition, this one is “purposeful,” which brings both challenges and opportunities. Because she is in between three locations — D.C., where she worked for several years, her hometown in Wisconsin, and New Orleans, where she will begin her new job — finding healthcare and summer work has been difficult. A substitute teaching job she relied on throughout graduate school has changed its eligibility requirements, making it much harder to get back into the system, especially since her availability lasts only a few months. On top of that, residency requirements make it a bureaucratic nightmare to access healthcare in the state. Jacinta says, “These are the hardest things when you’re hopping around among different career fields.”

Yet, this down time has allowed her a creative license to pursue fellowship opportunities that she otherwise might have missed. She told me about The Black Book Interactive Project where a cohort of scholars are digitizing under-circulated, lost, and out-of-print Black novels. The project gives her access to software engineers and computer science specialists that can help “ramp up” her individual scholarly project while making a contribution to a collective endeavor. Had she not made a second transition from alt-ac back to academia, such opportunities would have likely remained in the ether for the priorities and responsibilities in the higher ed sector that she worked in would not have valued similarly this kind of pedagogical, scholarly, and community project.

New Roles and Responsibilities

As our departments and professional organizations slowly begin to catch up to what we are doing #withaPhD, we are largely tasked with navigating new roles and responsibilities on the fly. This compounds for those who are entering alt-ac environments on or beyond college campuses.

Jacinta initially began an academic job search in her final year of graduate school, but, by December of that year, she decided to switch paths. She said “it didn’t feel right to pursue academic jobs. A number of the searches were struggling with incidents of racial violence. One institution doing a diversity cluster hire had a blackface incident involving a professor.” That it wasn’t a single incident increased the volume on an already loud alarm about the persistent challenges around diversity, inclusion, and equity that colleges and universities are facing. Instead of “teaching every day in a classroom,” Jacinta applied to work for a higher ed nonprofit through the ACLS/Mellon Public Fellows program so that she could work with “hundreds of colleges rather than a single institution.”

While much of her position made substantial use of her researching, writing, and speaking skills, there was a disconnect around the use of time. Jacinta tells me that it was challenging to maintain a scholarly profile in the non-profit sector because she was writing articles and attending conferences in her new role in an adjacent field, while conferencing and publishing in her primary scholarly arenas as well. Although Jacinta applied to and received an NEH and Mellon grant for her digital humanities work, using the summers to do that work posed a challenge since, unlike the time afforded to her on an academic calendar, she was expected to remain in the office instead of attending summer institutes relevant to her research. Part of navigating these issues was the reality of a two-pronged hire: the ACLS/Mellon Program was very supportive of the full range of her endeavors and paid her salary yet her day-to-day work at the non-profit had different expectations around her time and responsibilities.

Lauren’s transition into her combined faculty and administrator role also involves figuring out a new relationship between scholarly and administrative forms of expertise. From an early stage in her graduate program, Lauren considered such a position as part of her Plan A. She tells me that she is not only good at administrative work (which, I can vouch for having collaborated on many projects), but also that she enjoys it. Because much of her work as Assistant Director of Academic Writing involves working with faculty and administrators across the institution, she quickly realized “how much [she had] absorbed at [her] graduate institution about the culture of the university: ethos, allies, money.” Having to learn this anew was challenging, especially because the position itself is newer to the institution and thus the roles and responsibilities “might not be fully represented in the job ad.” It calls for a great degree of creativity and collaboration because “unlike a tenure line, people don’t have expectation of what it looks like” and, at the same time, “people see the writing person as [someone] who can fix everything in one session … it’s hard to navigate how to share that it makes much more work than that.”

Having secure employment in the current environment can sometimes create a sense of survivor’s guilt, which then feeds a sense of imposter identity and/or a sense of despair about what you can do to support graduate school colleagues on the market for the first time or current mentees (undergraduate, or graduate). @thejuniorprof suggests looking at the transition periods as a time for asking questions more than giving out prescriptive advice. Still, as Lauren’s revised approach to undergraduate hiring demonstrates, especially for those of us in tenure-stream faculty positions, there is plenty to do in terms of supporting colleagues with contingent positions. Yet to do so requires knowledge about the department and institution. Without that context, it can be challenging to advocate well.

These experiences in navigating new contexts and their power dynamics show how important it is to think of your role specifically and career broadly as it engages with a broad range of administrators and colleagues. Lauren put it well when she asked, “Who is in power and how do I relate to them? How do I fit into this as a person with a particular kind of plan for my life and for my specific job?”

Cultivating Mentor Networks

Both Lauren and Jacinta spoke highly of their mentors in and outside of academia. A common thread emerged between them: in addition to seeking advice from their faculty mentors, they reached out to family and friends across a range of work sectors to smooth their transitions, whether that meant getting advice on writing résumés and emails or learning about standard practices for the hiring process to become a stronger candidate.

Lauren noted that building a new mentor network with colleagues who have similar positions to hers is slow going. Her combined admin-faculty role involves a lot of mentoring of others, including a fellow and 45 undergraduate staff in addition to her students and thesis advisees. But she is already making meaningful changes. For instance, she moved away from the practice of using word of mouth as their primary outreach strategy for hiring undergraduate tutors. Instead, Lauren met with the Dean of Equity and Inclusion and Resource Centers’ staff to ask how they might reach wider, more diverse audiences. Then, she workshopped the job ad with them to identify what language would invite and empower students who otherwise would not have self-identified as writing tutors to apply. Finding people who work in a role similar to hers and view the profession and its responsibilities in the same way as she does “takes way more time.” She said, “As a contingent employee, being able to stand up for what you want in relation to the job you’re in is not something I would’ve ever thought to ask anyone about.”

@thejuniorprof echoed the slow and challenging nature of forming new relationships even as a tenure-stream faculty member. Although such positions involve assigned faculty mentors at one’s new institution, there is no guarantee that those mentors are prepared to see you through the transition. Indeed, for year one, @thejuniorprof benefited most from “friend-quaintances” from new faculty orientation. This remains an area for growth in year two with a new approach that involves identifying people who make them think, “I want to be like this person in 10 years,” and then asking that person to coffee.

For Jacinta, a significant peer mentoring opportunity arose when she presented on her archival and digital humanities research at a symposium for the Association for Black Women’s History. Through that, she realized that there were several other ACLS/Mellon Public Fellows, who were presenting their scholarship while working in alt-ac settings, such as museums. “Even though we do different things, we all came to the same academic conference. Each of us was on this alt-ac path, but we saw that work aligned to our scholarly concerns.” Such experiences at academic conferences and summer institutes led to reconsidering the academic career path and, with a job in hand, Jacinta decided to apply for academic jobs once again where she found that search committees were intrigued and invested in the work she had done during her postdoc. She told me, “I could not afford to stay in graduate school, but to be successful on the academic job market, I needed to do this other work. Intentional timing is really important.” While post-Ph.D. job number 2 might have re-routed her career trajectory once more, Jacinta’s experiences and networks have given her a strong foundation from which she can pursue her next chapter.

What these stories show is that transitions are long, community is critical, and our careers can be more creative and fulfilling than the precarity of the job market often allows us to imagine. For more on post-Ph.D. transitions, check out Beyond the Prof’s fantastic collection of transition Q&As and the Junior Prof’s public diary on being a new assistant professor. On June 21 (10:00 a.m. EST), @juniorprof and @AcademicChatter will host a four-hour discussion on transitioning out of graduate school.

[Image by Flickr user Marc Solaris and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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