Paying for the Job Search

Fordham’s English department is giving those finishing doctorates $4,500 each to help with the many costs associated with finding a position.

November 16, 2017
 
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Between registration for and travel to academic conferences, new clothes, a haircut and possibly child care, the financial costs of the academic job market really add up (not the mention the psychological ones). Those costs are hopefully an investment in a career, but the money spent finding a job represents a big share of the average graduate student’s budget.

Fordham University’s English department wants to help alleviate some of the financial pressures of finding a position, via a new fund for graduate students in their sixth and final year of funding. In addition to their regular fellowships, students will receive an additional payment of $4,500 meant specifically for the job hunt.

John Bugg, a professor of English and director of graduate studies for the department, said the fund is about making sure students don’t have to restrict their searches -- and therefore their professional opportunities -- due to money. The norm for many searches is not to cover expenses associated with travel to meetings and some cases even campus visits for job interviews.

Fordham is already relatively generous in terms of funding, having moved to six-year packages from five two years ago. (Stipends begin at $23,600, and advanced students may apply for distinguished fellowships of up to $31,000.) The change contributed to the department receiving its highest number of Ph.D. program applications in a decade. So “there is a growing awareness that we’re doing as much as we can to improve the experiences of our students and to help them thrive professionally,” Bugg said in an announcement about the job search fund.

‘Concrete’ Support

Bugg told Inside Higher Ed via email that the fund was inspired, in part, by a National Endowment of the Humanities-funded seminar on campus last year about the Ph.D. for the 21st century. A major takeaway was that “we need to do our best to help our students with their various professional ambitions,” he said.

That means paying attention to the challenges students face in terms of declining numbers of tenure-track jobs, but also the often “eclipsed” issue of cost. While job candidates are typically reimbursed for campus visits, Bugg said, they pay out of pocket for the initial interview and travel -- in English students’ case, to the annual Modern Language Association convention. Many grad students regularly complain about getting asked to interview at MLA at the last minute, adding to the expense.

“Until the discipline officially moves to Skype for the first round of interviews, this is an expense that we must try to offset for our students,” he said. “We also anticipate that this fund will help our students to set aside a full summer month to work full-time on their job search documents.”

Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will foot the bill. Rather than any meticulously calculated amount, Bugg described the $4,500 figure as “the most that we could guarantee for our students right now.”

The fund is a one-time deal; students may not apply for a second round the next year. But there are no restrictions on how students use the money, meaning for work inside or outside academe. In addition to the new fund, Fordham’s English faculty already helps students pursue a variety of jobs, Bugg said, noting that preparation for different markets “requires a lot of strategic work.”

“Students are faced with an incredibly time-consuming process -- the days of sending out a single ‘job letter’ are long gone,” he added. “Beyond this, the fund will help with expenses that tend to add up during the job search process,” such as electronic dossier fees.

Bugg said students have thus far responded to the news of the fund in two ways: pleasure in knowing there’s a “concrete” amount of money they can count on and budget how they wish, along with gratitude. “In my experience, graduate students are very appreciative of any efforts to take seriously the challenges they face,” he said.

Leonard Cassuto, another professor of English at Fordham, said he thought the new program benefits students most obviously because “the job search is expensive.” Perhaps more important, though, is that this kind of support “shows students that we care about them at a time in their lives that's undeniably stressful,” he said. Professors “want to be broadly supportive in an emotional and concrete way, not just a scholarly way.”

Something New

Russell Berman, Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford and professor of comparative literature and German studies, has been an outspoken advocate of reforming humanities doctoral programs -- including increased financial support for students. A past president of the MLA, Berman said he’d heard of departments providing funding for conference participation and similar professional events, but never what he described as “a direct subsidy for the search itself.”

Saying it’s crucial for any such subsidy to fund job searches inside and outside academe (which Fordham’s does), Berman said departments must also “prepare graduate students for that full job market and for the search.”

Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, said many doctoral programs offer travel funds for their students but that she wasn’t aware of any offering them at Fordham’s scale.

In any case, Krebs said she applauded Fordham’s effort and hoped doctoral programs in general will support students’ pursuit of a range of careers. “Graduate students on the job market can certainly use additional support, whether they're applying for tenure-track positions or any of the other kinds of professional employment that Ph.D.s in the humanities seek,” she added. (Krebs also noted, per Bugg’s point about officially moving to first-round interviews via Skype, that MLA guidelines for search committees ask them to offer candidates remote screening interviews.)

Karen Kelsky, a former tenure-track professor, advises students and graduates looking for faculty jobs through her blog and business, The Professor Is In. Like Krebs, Kelsky noted the scale of funding Fordham is offering -- or what she described as its “generosity.”

“This is not a small amount, $500 here or $1,000 there,” she said. “This really acknowledges the considerable expenses of the search, in terms of dossier services, travel to conferences, new clothes or equipment,” and even possible professional development or assistance. Kelsky noted, too, the “labor costs of the countless hours spent preparing materials” and possible expenses related to nonacademic career preparation.

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