Why You Need a Second Project. An Urgent #Facepalm Fail Addendum

In the middle of an Interview Bootcamp with a client yesterday, I suddenly realized with a jolt, and to my horror, that I had inexplicably and senselessly forgotten one of the major #Facepalm Fails of the academic interview in my earlier post on that subject.

The Fail is: “Tell us about your next project.”

Do you know how many candidates have no answer prepared for this? My figures are never scientific, but I’d guess, among my clients, the percentage is around 85%.

Those of you who have worked with me on your job letter, or read my post Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks, know that all good job letters have a short paragraph on the second/next project.

That element certainly elicits the most aggrieved grumbling among clients, no doubt about it. “Why should I have a second project already??? I’m not even done with the first one!!! How can I be expected to have a second project when I haven’t even defended my dissertation yet????” etc. etc. etc.

Complaints like these reveal, once again, your profound misunderstanding of the nature of the tenure track position and the tenure track search.

Tenure track searches are expensive, draining, and ridiculously time consuming. When a search is done and a hire is made, outside of a tiny group of Ivy League schools that do not tenure their assistant professors, the understanding is that the person hired is tenurable.

Anyone who does not appear tenurable will not be offered the tenure track job to begin with. Nobody wants to go through the sturm und drang of a tenure track search for nothing.

I pause to point out that I’ve recently come to understand, through work with a specific subset of clients, that this issue of “tenurability” is one of the leading distinctions between VAP, Adjunct, and Instructor applications, and effective tenure-track applications. Many individuals who are either mis-informed about tenure track applications, or who have spent many years in the VAP and adjunct track, are unaware of the ways that they signal a LACK of tenurability in their job cover letters, interviews, and self-presentation in general. Although they are seeking tenure track work, the applications they send out scream “I AM A PERENNIAL ADJUNCT!”

One of the primary ways that they do that, is by not specifying a plausible major second/next project.

Let me explain.

As a Department Head for five years at an R1 institution, I put five junior faculty through their (successful) tenure cases. In all cases, the tenure case hinged primarily on the candidate’s research profile. Teaching and service played a role, but research reigned supreme. The research profile, in order to be successful, had to show what we usually called an “arc” of scholarly productivity, and sometimes called a scholarly trajectory.

This arc or trajectory articulated strong forward momentum from the dissertation through the refereed publications deriving from the dissertation, through a “major next project” that emerged organically and coherently from a set of consistent scholarly or thematic preoccupations, with funding, conference papers, and publications based on this second project anticipated or achieved. The arc demonstrated, more than anything else, that the candidate would not become deadwood after tenure, but would continue to produce high profile scholarly work during the sabbatical year post tenure, and into the foreseeable future.

We have all heard about how at certain elite institutions two books are now required for tenure. That is still the exception (although be prepared for that if you are applying/interviewing at one of those schools). At my two R1 institutions (in book fields), two books were not required, but a first book and a second book-length project clearly articulated and anticipated through funding, conference papers, and some preliminary publications absolutely was. You could not get tenure without the second project.

The second project demonstrates that you are not a one hit wonder, a flash in the pan, a dilettante, a space cadet, a graduate student, etc. etc., but rather, the real deal, a scholar of the first rank, with a sustained program of research that continues out into the future, motivated by enduring scholarly convictions and a commitment to a scholarly community and its members.

A dialogue recently popped up on the Professor Is In’s Facebook page, that this second/next project might IN REALITY be something totally random that you pull out of your ass for the sake of the job market, and then only retrospectively narrate as part of a consistent and sustained scholarly project. That’s fine. It really doesn’t matter. Pull away. The point is, you need a second/next project, because it demonstrates that you think like a tenure-track—ie, TENURABLE—faculty member, and not like an adjunct who is marking out their career semester by semester, or year by year.

So, candidates, get a second/next project, STAT. It should derive, as I said, organically from a consistent set of preoccupations and concerns to the previous project, so that you don’t look like a dilettante or manic, but it should differ sufficiently to be a genuinely new and original realm of inquiry. You should be able to speak of it intelligently in terms of the methodologies you’ll use, the funding you’ll seek, and the scope of publications you anticipate. And you will articulate it as another major intervention into your field or fields.

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Why You Need a Second Project. An Urgent #Facepalm Fail Addendum — 29 Comments

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  2. A question, as I prepare for tenure-track interviews in a book field:

    Is the second project something that can arise out of (and be a substantial revision of) my dissertation? Or is that dissertation-revision-update book my first project and the second is something else again? I am having trouble navigating the semantics.

    Thanks for all your wonderful ideas and suggestions. Your blog makes the process much less terrifying for this first-timer.

    • I’m so glad the blog is helpful, but OMG questions like this make me want to wring my hands in despair. How do you not know that the first project is the diss project??? Where is your advisor? Don’t answer that, I can guess.

      Anyway, the second project CANNOT be derived from the diss, unless you had a single chapter of the diss that really deviated from the main theme, and you are taking that as the core of a large new project. But in the vast majority of cases, the second project must be completely distinct from the diss.

      • Thanks for clarifying. For the record, the advisor is in Australia and I’m in the midwest. (In fairness, his move is temporary and family-related, but undeniably terrible timing while I’m prepping for the market and finishing the diss.)

  3. Thanks for another fantastic post! A question, though: can the second project be something that might appear, at first glance, to be VERY different from the first? Or does that make one appear unfocused?

    I’m ABD and just beginning to write the dissertation, but as I’ve been doing my research, I’ve come across a lot of primary sources that have made me start thinking about a possible second project. Of course, at this point, I have no time to devote to that, so I’ve been putting that evidence aside and filing it away for the future. But it occurs to me that, as a project, it might not appear to follow my dissertation naturally.

    • If you can make the case that there is a logic to the new interest, and to me, coming across primary sources in the process of doing the first research is a very plausible logic, then it is fine.

  4. Hi Karen,
    Can the second research project be something you are already involved in (in graduate school or as a post-doc) that is not the diss project? Or does it have to be something you start working on at the T-T job?

    • A postdoc is a perfect time to commence the second project, and in fact, most postdoc proposals should include a discussion of how the second project will be undertaken toward the end of the psotdoc year or years, since there may be downtime after you submit the first project to a press (if it’s a book), and it’s out for review. You would articulate a plan to use those months to undertake the research on the new project.

      I’m not sure how many people will have significant second research projects dating from graduate school. But I would say that if you have done some substantive research, collected materials, done background reading, and have an idea of an argument or hypothesis while still in graduate school, then certainly write it up into a short para about how it will be transformed into a set of publications or book.

      • “since there may be downtime after you submit the first project to a press (if it’s a book), and it’s out for review.”

        Hello Karen:
        I would like to ask about the idea of self publishing. Do you think this would be frowned upon in the scholarly realm? Just seems that in this day and age it is the way to go. My exposure to this idea comes from my mother whose first two books are published by Wiley and Sons and her last three are self published.


        • Greg. My friend. You are clearly insufficiently socialized in the ways of academia. The primary operational principle of academia is external validation. The validation goes up as the status of the validating unit goes up. The academic career is one long scramble for validation of increasingly higher status–whether by journals, universities, granting agencies, or presses.

          It is impossible for you to validate yourself. What do you think this is, the Oprah Show?

          While poets and novelists and ideologues can (and probably should) self-publish, academics cannot, and expect to have an academic career. A self-published book will count for precisely nothing on the job market.

          I hope the logic is clear. I’m not endorsing it. I’m just dedicated to explaining it.

  5. Karen, thanks for another great post. Two follow up question: for those in Anthropology, where one’s dissertation research is frequently area based around a specific population, and one has acquired in-country professional networks and language competence, is it acceptable to work for that second project with either the same population, or a related population on a topic quite different than one’s diss. but related?

    And 2) when is it generally considered acceptable to develop a new research site, i.e. a different country…post tenure? for that second book?
    Thanks again,

    • Anthropologists and area specialists of any ilk can always spend a career working on a single country or region. That is expected. It is the thematic or topical focus that will change with each project. Now, in terms of the “same population”—well, no, I would not say it’s appropriate to keep mining the same group of people in that country. In other words, same country is fine, but same group of people is most likely not. What I mean is, you’ll come off looking like a one-trick pony.

      Re changing countries—-as a general rule, changing countries in mid-stream is rather frowned upon! Departments hire area specialists more or less expecting that the area specialist remains an area specialist in that country! Now, changing countries within a region, especially when the language remains the same, (say, jumping countries in South America) may not be seen as as big a problem as jumping countries where there is no or little linguistic or cultural kinship—Japan to India, or Guatemala to Italy, for example. It certainly happens, of course. Creative people may find their interests evolving over time. Just, make things easy on yourself, and wait until after tenure. Please, whatever you do, don’t try to leap countries for the second project, on which your tenure case hinges.

  6. Great perspectives as always; this is yet another thing that I don’t think many diss. advisers discuss with their students. I know many a doctoral candidate who being somewhat tired of working in country X for their diss. wants to do their second project in diasporic country Y, figuring they have the language proficiency already. Thanks again,

    • Oh, hang on, the diaspora case is slightly different. If you must make a geographical shift, it is the most defensible one to make. Indeed, it may well make you look hipper and cooler than other staid, geographically bound traditional area specialists. It gets subtle here, and will depend on the job. In my own case, as a true area specialist (of Japan—a country whose language is spoken nowhere else) with dual appointments in Asian Studies departments, I “could” have proposed a diaspora project (Japanese in Brazil for ex.) but it would have been very problematic and may have worked against me. The Asian Studies departments needed, really needed, a basic Japan specialist to teach core courses. However, if the job is in a complit department or some other departmental home that isn’t organized around clear country/culture grids, or again, you work in a region with a language with wide applicability, like Spanish or Chinese, then the diaspora project could be fine as a second project. This is where you develop sophisticated judgment, and adjust. Remember the “pulling out of your ass” thing? This is where you might consider pulling several options and adapting as necessary.

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  8. In a job app that requires a separate (1 page) document detailing our research plans, what would you recommend? More expert tailoring to the department? Indication that we are aware of the funding field and what will attract grants? Citations? Thank you!

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  12. I am working on my letter of application for this round of hiring in anthropology – my dissertation project (in a sense) fell into my lap, which really doesn’t happen too often in our field. My other project that I was working on in Turkey, therefore, became secondary to a local project I was able to work on without acquiring funds. I am still involved with the project in Turkey – and wanted to know if that would be an appropriate “second” project, since I will be working there over the next few summers at least. Otherwise, I could try and spin something else off of my current dissertation project. Thank you for your help!

  13. I am struggling with the order of projects in my cover letter. During my PhD, I developed a second research area based on my MA research, and new ideas I had when I revised it for publication. The second area is distinct but related to my PhD research, and it also led me to a collaboration outside of my discipline (and several co-authored publications).

    I am just starting a 2 year postdoc for which I received external funding to do a project that stems from combining ideas from my PhD and this second research project. (By the way, thanks because I really benefitted from your posts on how to apply for grants and postdocs!)

    There are some jobs I am really interested in applying for this fall, but I won’t have really started my new postdoc research project yet. In the letter, what do I start with? Would it be better to start with my current postdoc project, even though I have no conclusions or publications from it? Or would I still start with PhD, second research project, and then put the postdoc research at the end? I want to show that I have a trajectory and also that my PhD is behind me. Any advice would be much appreciated!

  14. Dr. Karen,

    How do you begin a second project when : (a) you’re not doing a postdoc (b) you have no institutional affiliation since graduating, e.g. no job at all

    I’m in limboland where I’m unemployed so what would constitute “a second project” in this case? Working on articles? Writing a proposal for a second project?


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  16. I have a very solid (and safe) third project which is consistent with my first project (there was an intervening second project in my post-doc). I also have this other idea which is smaller, a little more risky and less developed, but potentially more significant. Does this (fourth?) project make its way into the letter, or save it for an interview (if it happens), or keep it to myself?

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