Job Letter Issues When You’re Beyond the Dissertation

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Amy, who wishes to know how the standard “dissertation” paragraph of the job letter should be adapted when the writer is well beyond dissertation stage.

This is a good question!  Applying for jobs mid-career is remarkably tricky. It’s hard to know how to frame your research when it has moved on from the single, discrete dissertation project.

The key here is to stay specific, and show a scholarly trajectory from the dissertation to the present.

Stay Specific:

You want to have a “current project” that you will be able to describe with the same level of care and specificity that you once used for the dissertation. Begin with this current research.  The project should be described in terms of the topic, the methods you’re using to address it, its significance, and the field-changing interventions that you are making through it.  You will then follow this paragraph with a discussion of the publications that have derived or will derive from it.

The temptation for people beyond the dissertation is to mention two or three or four new avenues that they are pursuing….but this is a mistake.  The candidate being hired as an advanced assistant professor still needs a coherent “second book project” (or series of articles) to get tenure.  The candidate being hired with tenure will still be scrutinized for promotability to Full.  These promotions hinge on the same kind of single-minded focus and productivity as the first project, under far more challenging conditions.  A discrete and specific project, with a clear publishing trajectory, communicates this productivity.

Scholarly Trajectory:

The second (or third) project should be shown to arise organically from the original dissertation project and/or other major project that preceded it.  These projects will be listed after the current research, and before the still-necessary “next project” paragraph.

It is not necessary to devote extensive verbiage in the letter itself to describing the old diss project, but it is important to reference it, in sentences like this:

“All of my work to date has been dedicated to using anthropological methods to study the impact on uranium mining on Native American populations in the U.S. southwest.  From my dissertation, which focused on cancer narratives among Navajo miners in Arizona, to my current work, in which I turn to Havasupai activism against mining in the Grand Canyon, I have used oral histories and collaborative ethnography to construct a “bottom-up” analysis of the U.S. nuclear industry.”

This trajectory shows the kind of scholarly focus and consistency that search committees want to see in mid-career hires.  This doesn’t mean you have to keep doing the same thing over and over.  But you do need to be able to show that your general scholarly profile is going to remain somewhat consistent.  In my own case I had a first project on Japanese women pursuing internationalized careers and life trajectories.  My planned second project (which I never actually brought to fruition) was on Japanese alternative, back to the land communities and their connections to a global eco-movement.  These projects are pretty different, but they are also: 1) both on Japan; 2) both on globalization; and 3) both on people who stray from the mainstream.  That is the level of consistency I’m talking about.

Think about it from the department’s point of view.  They want to know that the person they are hiring to fill a specific pedagogical and scholarly role is the scholar who will continue to do so for years into the future.  They don’t want a dilettante, or someone easily distracted, or who is going to leave a bunch of graduate students who came to work on U.S. nuclear issues in the lurch when he suddenly switches over to a major project on Pacific Islander taro farming techniques.

Trajectory shows maturity and consistency and predictability.  Again, this doesn’t mean you harp in a backward-looking way on a long-past dissertation.  And it also doesn’t mean that you can’t pursue interesting new areas of research.  Rather, you quickly and gracefully demonstrate the deep convictions and scholarly preoccupations that have continued to inspire you over many years.

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Job Letter Issues When You’re Beyond the Dissertation — 17 Comments

  1. Thanks Dr. Karen! This is very helpful. As we approach the interview season I wonder if you could also post something about accepting an offer and bargaining. I know you said not to accept an offer immediately but how should you approach, for example, the question of a spousal hire?

      • I think so. I am learning a lot from your posts (about how to frame myself and my experiences) If offered a job I would then write to say, thank you for your offer….I am happy with the offer but would you be willing to negotiate a spousal hire and a reduced teaching load for the first year.
        I think my primary concerns are the possible spousal hire and teaching relief (I am trying to finish up my monograph).

        • Your tone in this is concerning me. “Would you be willing to” is not the right note to hit in the negotiations, because you’re setting yourself up for a simple “no.” Clearly I need to write another post on this!

  2. First off, Karen, I love your blog. Following up on Ally’s comment, it might be nice to see a post focusing on negotiating a spousal hire (how to word the request, what compromises to expect, how to increase the odds of succeeding in securing a spousal hire, etc.). I’m sure there are many of us out there who have academic spouses, both in our own fields and outside them, but advice on how to tackle the job market as a couple seems hard to come by. You mentioned this topic briefly in the post cited above, but more details on this topic would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

  3. Great advice, Karen! Having slogged through 100+ job applications, I can only concur. There is one thing I would amplify: “This doesn’t mean you have to keep doing the same thing over and over.” Absolutely right. In fact, applicants should at all costs avoid giving the impression that they are doing the same thing over and over. So often applicants proclaim their intent to do the same thing in the next county over…a ginormous turn off, which basically says that the applicant has already run out of ideas and is not likely to acquire new ones any time soon. In every applicant pool there are some who know how to present themselves with the same blend of continuity and change that you describe, and the rest cannot compete with them.

  4. Hi Karen!
    In the publications paragraph… it would be great if you could provide an example of how to balance between I published XX and XX and XX out of my dissertation, and I am working on XXX from my new project, while still workign on XX from dissertation. I am finding the balance between the projects tricky. Oh and I second (or third) the spousal hire discussion. Have I mentioned I love your blog. I love it.

  5. I just read this post and it is very helpful! But I agree with Debora’s comment above. Do you mind laying out the order that may work best to describe these different projects. Or is better to keep all that in the research statement?

    • OK, the way I work with a more advanced scholar is this:

      Para one: self intro; I am writing in application to….; etc.
      Para two: Current research and pubs
      Para three: This research grew out of my eearlier work on xxxx. that research and pubs.
      Para four (if nec). Dissertation research, as starting point to above, and pubs.
      Para five: Next research
      Para six and on: teaching, etc.

  6. Hi Karen, great post. Question: I am writing a letter for a second job and am beginning with a description of my book which just came out in March. This book was based on my dissertation. I spend some time describing it and explaining that it won an award in my field, etc. Then I talk briefly about a follow up project but spend most of the time on my current project, where it is in development, how it fits in line with my trajectory and central lines of inquiry, etc. This seems to be in the reverse order that you suggest above — you write that we should begin with the current. My question is: do you think what I have done is okay given that the dissertation became a book (and did so recently)? Thank you.

    • I agree with a brand new book you probably want to start with that, but be careful–if you’re years and years beyond the diss, you do need to switch to starting with the newest project soon.

  7. My problem is a bit different: I enrolled in a PhD program after already having a career as a curator and independent researcher. I have published in peer-reviewed journals before I actually began my dissertation research and those publications are on topics not directly related to my dissertation. Should I still begin with my dissertation? I feel like I’m having a really hard time fitting my work into the standard template.

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