Graduate School Is Not Your Job.

For today’s post I direct you to my latest Chronicle column, entitled “Graduate School Is A Means To A Job.” It is an expanded edition of the post I published about two weeks ago, “Dr. Karen’s Rules of Graduate School.”

As I said in that post, too many of my faculty friends and colleagues employ a passive, hopeless resignation about “how awful the job market is” as a replacement for actual professional mentorship of their Ph.D. Students. “There’s nothing we can possibly do to prepare them for this market!” they’ll say.

And graduate students will pick up on this, as well as on the general aura of contempt in many corners of academe for an overt professionalization ethos (commonly dismissed as vulgar “careerism”), and stumble along, hoping and praying that some kind of “job market miracle” will happen to them when they need it.

I’m here to tell you that there are quantities of things that you can do to situate yourself for the academic job market, from day one. These things of course don’t guarantee you a job, and they certainly don’t provide for jobs where no jobs exist. But if you do every single thing that I note in the Chronicle of Higher Ed column, religiously, from your first year in the program, by the end you will have a CV that will place you head and shoulders above the competition. In addition, you will have the confidence and elan that comes from experience presenting your work in public and hobnobbing at the major national conferences of your field. Together, that background will give you an advantage on the market that pays off immediately.

Sure, there are countless horror stories of people spending years seeking their first job, racking up debt, killing themselves with adjuncting, sometimes ending in failure. I’m here to tell you that there are plenty of other job seekers (I work with them) who sail through to multiple job offers in their first year on the market and negotiate starting salaries in a stone’s throw of $100,000 (in the social sciences and humanities!). Those job seekers are the ones who learned these rules and followed them.

How did they learn them? Mostly by attending dynamic, highly professionalized graduate programs, aligning themselves with savvy mentors in their fields, and being grittily entrepeneurial (and ok, working with The Professor helped a lot too!).

If you lack these advantages–as I most certainly did back in the day– all may not be lost. Start today adding lines to your CV, getting out your refereed journal publications, organizing panels for your major conferences, and making yourself known. And print out my column and tape it to the wall above your computer!  Your fate, far more than you believe, is in your own hands.

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Graduate School Is Not Your Job. — 9 Comments

  1. Wow, I thought as an assistant prof in the social sciences, if I was lucky enough to get a job I’d be making about $35k. You have fully cemented my desire to work with you in a couple of years- I have $70k in student loan debt to pay off, after all.
    My advisor recently told me I’m the most ambitious grad student he’s ever had too, so I must be doing something right. He also keeps forwarding me new hires in our field at top institutions that are people who didn’t publish a thing. (I’ve mentioned he’s anti-grad students publishing…)

    • 35k? Woah. It isn’t that bad.

      Check out the salary ranges in the following places:

      – the jobs wiki for your field and similar fields
      – the FOIA-produced lists of faculty salaries

      In my social science 55-75k is the norm.

    • I also have this website bookmarked, the Chronicle Salary Database so that I can look up the self-reported average salaries for each of the schools that I am looking at. (Also realize that provides average data, there is a large amount of variance based on the field that you are in. Hard sciences tend to get more than humanities. And the Chronicle has some data on how much–national average–different departments compensate differently.)

      State schools, by law, must provide data on how much each professor is getting paid. (I don’t tell this to any students I tutor…it might make them mad to find out how much their profs are getting paid…) But here is a link to a place with that data for some schools.

      Arm yourself with knowledge so that you know as much as possible about the places you are considering.

    • I’ve actually been startled to see how high the starting salaries have gone in the few years since I formally left the profession. About $60-80,000 is what I’m seeing among brand new asst prof clients in the humanities and social sciences. If you add in various recurring perks such as research funding, conference travel, and the like, the sum gets up to, as I said, “a stone’s throw of $100,000.” These are good salaries. Not great compared to other highly educated professionals, but good. Business and hard sciences are of course higher.

  2. I appreciate the advise on early publication while still in grad-school. Most supervisors don’t expect students to produce publishable work during school, and even if they did, it is easy enough to talk them out of submitting. Most of us don’t know how to judge our own work and our own chances of publication anyway.

    I will say that I’m getting the feeling that publication only really counts towards post-PhD opportunities. I’m just out of my MA, (with a European history focus) and I am waiting on a second year worth of applications for funded PhD programmes (I’m Canadian, applying to UK schools). I have a cv with 5 conference papers (only one is a grad conference, which I participated in while a BA) and two papers in peer review journals (one small electronic one, one major print one) and I have another in submission. For all of that I’m still unsure this will pull in funding at PhD level. I get the feeling that while you are still a student, applying for student things, you are rated against student measurements (grades, the charisma of your past programme, supervisor, etc) and not against the ‘aspiring academic’ model. Considering that my cv looks like it belongs to a new PhD, not a new MA, you would think this would count for something. I know your focus is on the tenure track experience, but I thought it would be nice to know that the same formula of unreasonable expectations for decreasing returns is at work lower down in the system.

  3. Fascinating post. I’m Indian (not British) but on looking back at all the funding application letters I’ve written so far; it’s become clear that I’ve used the word “interested” far too many times. It’s almost become a crutch. Unfortunately, I’ve already used both “interested” and “particularly interested” in an introductory email I recently sent to a professor whom I’d like to have as my advisor (and he hasn’t replied yet, I wonder if I should be worried).

    Anyhow I begin grad school in September, and I just wanted to thank you for posting all this advice online. I’m tired of coming across blog posts and articles urging prospective grad students not to go through with grad school, and terrifying them with horror stories about broke and unemployed 45-year-olds who are now forced to regret their ”passion for the subject”.

    It’s refreshing to come across an online resource that breaks away from all the pessimism, and, instead, offers concrete suggestions on how to tackle the (admittedly very daunting) process of hunting for academic jobs. Best Regards Abhay

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