How-To(sday): The Ten Commandments of Going on the Market as ABD

Dr. Karen is on vacation in Italy July 2012.  During that time she is re-posting older blog posts  her regular Tuesday and Thursday posting days.  She’ll recommence new posting some time in August.


(Tuesday Post Category–Strategizing Your Success in Academia)

Today is the second in our occasional series of “How-To(sday)” posts. This one is in response to a Special Request by Lauren, who wishes to know how to go on the job market while still ABD.

This is a good question. The whole issue of whether or not to go on the job market as ABD is quite fraught, with some advisors taking a strong position against it, and others taking an equally strong position for it. What’s a poor ABD to do?

Let’s see what some experts have to say. (Yes, there are a few experts that The Professor will grudgingly acknowledge have a modicum of wisdom). David Chioni Moore, in an older but still valuable 1999 article in the MLA Publication, Profession, argues that a dry run on the market is a wise choice. He argues that a first, ABD year on the market gives the candidate a chance to gain the knowledge that he or she needs while the stakes are still relatively low, and prepares him or her for success the next year, when the stakes are high.

Gregory Semenza, in his book, Graduate Study for the 21st Century (which I strongly recommend you buy), gives credence to the value of Moore’s viewpoint, but then cautions:

I would advise you against making an early entry on the market unless you are absolutely certain of three things.

  • Can you deal with the emotional fallout and depression of a failed job search?
  • Are you able to say with a straight face that going on the market will not derail your schedule for finishing your dissertation?
  • Are you prepared to turn down a job that falls short of your standards for a “good” job? (Semenza 243)

These are excellent questions. I would urge anyone considering launching into the job market while still ABD to consider them carefully, especially the first. Can you cope with a year of failure? Can you in fact be energized by it (as was my own case)? Not everyone can. So think carefully.

Our final expert, Kathryn Hume, in her spectacular Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt (soon to be reviewed right here by yours truly!), suggests going on the market only after your dissertation is defended.  “You start with a heavy black mark against you if you turn up for a research-oriented job without degree,” she cautions (Hume 3).

However, for the purposes of this post, we are going to assume that you HAVE considered all the excellent reasons not to go on the market as an ABD and have concluded that you will do it anyway.

Actually, I applaud you. My own personal advising philosophy is to urge anyone who asks to go on the market before they actually finish. It is my strong belief that only after large quantities of painfully humiliating failures on the job market will you gain the skills to succeed. This may not be true for others, but it was most definitely true for me. My first year on the market, as an ABD, was a bloodbath. Sometimes I still lie awake at night remembering all the ways I humiliated myself. If I had not had that year while still safely affiliated with (and getting a stipend from) my graduate institution, I would never have learned what I needed to to prevail on the market the following year.

And contrary to popular belief, ABDs do, occasionally, even in this market, get job offers. Especially if they’re in hot fields.

So, with no further ado: here are the ten things you must do to prepare for going on the market while ABD:

  1. You must have your dissertation substantially finished, and have a rigorous writing schedule and a firm defense date.  This defense date must be stated clearly in your cover letter, in the first paragraph. You must not deviate from this writing schedule.
  2. You must have at least one publication in a refereed journal.  You will not be competitive without this. If you lack this, don’t bother going on the market as an ABD.*
  3. You must have a sexy dissertation topic, however that is defined in your field. It must be sexy enough to seduce the search committee into taking a chance on you, against their better judgment.
  4. You must have a vibrant conference record at the leading national conferences in your field, presenting papers (not, god forbid, posters) on well-regarded panels, on your dissertation topic.
  5. Your ABD year, you must organize a major panel for the leading conference in your field. You must gather leading young scholars (NOT other ABDs and graduate students!) to speak on the panel. You must score a hugely important senior scholar in your field to serve as the discussant. Ideally, you acquire for your panel whatever “special” status your national conference confers, such as “invited status.”
  6. You must have recommenders who are not all from your Ph.D. granting institution. The presence of a third recommender from an elite outside institution proves that you are far beyond the normal run of ABDs and are in fact a dynamic young scholar soon to be launched.
  7. You must be able to see beyond your dissertation to the book/series of articles that it will eventually become, and articulate that publication plan clearly.
  8. You must not make querulous excuses about the state of the dissertation (“I am still working on chapter 4….” “I know I need to add more discussion of race….” “I need to revisit the archive to gather more material for my second case study…”) This is graduate student talk, not job candidate talk.
  9. You must be able to speak about teaching as if you are already a full-fledged faculty member, not a TA. You must have your own original courses developed, as well as ideas for basic intro courses and core seminars in your field.
  10. You must be able to articulate the import of your dissertation in advancing disciplinary boundaries and forging new knowledge and connections in your field(s). Nobody wants to hear about what your dissertation is. They want to hear about what your dissertation does.

It goes without saying that all of the other advice about the job market applies: You must have an impeccable c.v., a flawless cover letter, and a sparkling teaching statement. You must know how to decode a job ad. You must know how to dress and speak in interviews.

The difference, if you’re ABD, is that you must work harder to live up to the cardinal rule of the academic job search:

a) They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

b) Do. Not. Speak. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student. 

*It occurs to me that the field of History seems to discourage ABDs from publishing in refereed journals.  It is conceivable in that case that a refereed journal publication would be viewed as inappropriate or “premature” by search committees. By the same token, it is conceivable that some history advisors are clinging to an outmoded model of graduate training.  I need further education on this point, and would appreciate hearing from historians at all ranks about the best mode of advice for their field.

[8 PM Update:  After considerable Twitter discussion among a range of historians, the consensus seems to be that for History ABDs, publications are officially optional, but unofficially needed for the top jobs.  For second tier jobs, they are likely truly optional, and possibly outweighed by teaching experience.  Upshot: The lack of a refereed publication is not a total deal-breaker for a History ABD on the job market the way it is in some other fields such as English and Anthropology.]

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How-To(sday): The Ten Commandments of Going on the Market as ABD — 15 Comments

  1. Excellent post. Last year I hesitated going on the market as an ABD. Most folks in my program thought it was a bad idea. I ended up not listening to them and applied for 30 jobs. No interviews. But the whole experience was a major “eye opener.” I’m a completely different job seeker because of my failed first year on the market. Good luck to all ABDs out there!

    • This is what I’m confused about too. If you don’t go on the market as ABD then are you supposed to work as an adjunct while applying for jobs? How do you get health insurance?

  2. nice and timely post. The mixed advice sounds like my committee when I proposed going on the market, but the other came around to it :-). Don’t have number 5, and I only have number 6 because someone moved, but we’ll see how it goes!

  3. by the way, I’d love to hear your opinion about the formats that Hume advocates for things like the Dissertation Description. I just haven’t seen those before, and I’m wondering if someone on a search committee is going to say, “Hey, look at this application, another Survivor over here. These kids will believe anything you tell them….” People don’t talk enough about formats or structures for these materials. I think that’s half of the problem when it comes to producing them.

      • just noticed that you had responded to this over a year ago. What I was talking about was that Hume’s book had some unusual document formats in the samples (at least the first edition did). I was thinking particularly of the one-page dissertation description she had in there. I tried doing that format and got mixed (mostly negative) reviews from faculty at an R1 who, I think, wanted something more conservative in format. my post was a bit vague. The model in particular tried to boil the dissertation abstract down into a one-page resume type of format.

  4. I went on the job market last year as ABD; I had 7 refereed articles/book chapters and 8 conference presentations (all international, two of which invited). Had an external recommendation from an Ivy League school professor. Applied to 9 schools, one of which was an Ivy League school, the other being middle-of-the-road departments. Only heard back from the Ivy League school, meaning I made it to their long short list (they only do campus-interviews, no preliminary ones). The others were simply not interested. On the other hand I did not have any teaching experience beyond the TA level, so my conclusion had to be — and this also goes to your other post about how to write the CV and where to place “teaching experience” — that the problem with being ABD is more about not being able to demonstrate that you are ready to teach a 3/3 load without a significant preparation time. Occasionally, a top-tier research institution might contact you based on your research record, because you might just be the next superstar in your field, but otherwise I don’t see ABDs having a real fighting chance on this job market. That said I have serious doubts concerning your advice for structuring the CV. Teaching-oriented institutions are primarily looking for people able to teach many classes, with a record of being able to do that effectively, as visiting profs, postdocs etc. Your many publication and heavy research agenda will only tell them that you won’t be very happy in their not-so-research-oriented department with not-so-many resources, except ILL.
    Finally, I find this dissertation issue hilarious. If you already have a record of publication or can demonstrate that your dissertation is almost finished (e.g. by sending a draft), I don’t see how an ABD is any different from a recent PhD. How many people fail the defense after all…?
    Otherwise I learned a lot by going on the market as ABD and I strongly recommend that.

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed your post! Thank you! I am currently an ABD and I decided to go on the market. I applied to 44 schools and so far I have 5 interviews lined up (2 contract and 3 tenure-track). I’m trying to stay positive, but realistic at the same time. In my first interview I was asked for the date of my defense and I simply don’t have one yet. I’m sure that didn’t work in my favor, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. Of course the ideal situation would be to come out of all of this with at least one job offer. Either way, I know that going through the phone/skype/convention interviews will all be an excellent experience for the next year! Personally, I’m glad I did it because I see that there is some interest in me and in what I do, but I don’t like how much time I haven’t been able to put into my dissertation.

  6. Disciplinary comment…in social work, at least at my elite R1, everyone goes on the market ABD and defends before starting the new job they’ve lined up.

  7. Simply, If ABDs do not apply for a job, then that means “unemployment for one year”, which is tremendously damaging to your CV, not to mention “how would you pay your rent?” I have never seen this stupid advice about “not going on a job market as an ABD.”

  8. Hi Dr. Karen!
    I have recently become an addict of your website and wish I would have found this website my first year of graduate school. I am ABD and on the job market in Sociology/Gender Studies. I have two papers under review at major journals, an accepted book chapter and my dissertation is under review at NYU Press. Even though I do not have a journal article yet, will the book under review be enough? I have not finished my dissertation yet, but the press is just waiting for me to finish. Thanks!

  9. A question about your excellent recommendation to get a third recommender from outside of your PhD-granting institution: I have one lined up, from a top scholar with whom I have a rapport after coinciding at a few of the same conferences. He has also offered to read a journal article before I sent it out for publication, so he’s familiar with my work to a certain extent. However, I don’t think that his letter would be as strong as a third recommender from, say, my committee. Do you still think it is worth it to forego a sure-to-be strong letter from faculty at my university for a potentially weaker letter from someone outside of it? What about attaching it as a supplemental item, as some application forms allow you to do?

  10. This was a very thought provoking post and the comments were great. I am an ABD candidate who is dealing with this right now. I was fortunate enough to have a fellowship that supports my research, but the money ends the moment I submit my dissertation (next month). Of course who wouldn’t want to continue to have income without a gap, I have bills and rent, like everyone else…and student loan debt! I feel like its quite a catch-22 because there is this 6-9 month period between submission and having the seal of approval. We can either 1) get a job outside of academia which of course looks bad or 2) go unemployed but keep working on our papers without pay which also looks bad (especially if no papers are accepted) and diminished our quality of life and morale (are there other options?). I am not sure there is any other choice but to apply as an ABD really, even if there is no chance I will get a job. In fact, I have had a few offers to write grants to create my next position, but with the current climate of NIH funding that would take 9 months at least and it is a 1/10 shot of actual funding. I am in public health and I think if your research is specialized to what a department wants I think there is hope for ABDs. I haven’t even submitted yet and I have had one offer. I am nervous to accept it because I have 15 other applications out there and this would not be my first choice, but I am concerned about the current economic climate.

    I would be very interested to know what field of study each person is in because I also think that this can have an impact on whether or not to apply. Would anyone else like to comment on their field of study and their experience on the ABD versus non ABD job hunt?

  11. Good luck to all on getting a job. I also am an ABD, and feel optimistic, while many of my grad colleagues while in grad school, feel otherwise. Another way to look at it is, maybe you’d be there for another 4-5 years. Now THAT, would be a serious waste of time.

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