What I am writing now, I wish I had access to over a year ago! The purpose of this post is to shed light on several misconceptions about the dissertation and higher education job process (for current doctoral students). As most of you know, I have recently defended (YAY!) and I also landed a job in higher ed (YAY again!). I will give details about where/how/what university on a later post, but I wanted to take time to share my experiences (in order to help upcoming students who are starting their dissertations and/or on the higher education job search).
This post will be arranged in two sections: dissertation tips and job search tips. I understand everyone’s experiences are different, but I think having a conversation about what to expect is helpful. Some of these things I got right, others I got REALLY WRONG! Knowing what I know now, I hope to help future students.
(Section 1): Dissertation Tips
- The committee can make or break your dissertation experience: I got some priceless advice from fellow blogger (Christopher Cameron) about the importance of the dissertation committee. I took his advice and selected people who: a) got along with each other, b) supported the topic, and c) were generally interested in my well-being. This made all the difference! Using your dissertation as a social experiment for testing faculty relationships/collegiality is unwise. You’ll be stuck in the middle of a battle.
- Pick quality people, not necessarily “big names:” Sometimes lesser-known faculty members are more knowledgeable about your topic and that is okay! It is my advice to pick knowledgeable members who will help enrich your research, not validate it based on their prestige in the field.
- Have a faculty mentor outside of the dissertation process: I had a wonderful mentor outside of my dissertation committee who gave completely objective advice. It was beneficial to have an unbiased sounding board separate from my research. Sometimes I just wanted to vent a research idea and get scholarly advice, without risking it being a new addition to the study!
- Your timeline is your timeline: It is helpful to have peer/colleague accountability and to “check-in” from time to time (especially on dissertation writing), but be careful! Comparing where you are in the dissertation process to other graduate students is risky. Every student has a different committee, with different expectations and different research studies. It is best to focus on your committee’s individual goals and timeline, not stress about being 20 pages behind your peers.
- And last, (practical tip): Have an abbreviated version of what your dissertation study is about when friends and family ask. I got this wrong too! Most of them care about you, but not so much about lengthy methodology and theoretical frameworks. Figure out what your study is about in 2-3 sentences.
(Section 2): Job Search Tips
- Have some extra cash: This is a very practical tip that I wish I would have known! I was lucky enough to be invited to more than one campus visit. Each university handles travel arrangements very differently. Some universities pre-pay everything, others request that you make arrangements and will reimburse you after your campus visit. On a modest grad student budget, I should have better prepared for that. I assumed all universities pre-paid the trips. Have some extra cash in case you have several flights to book before reimbursement.
- Secure several recommenders beforehand: Most supportive professors are more than willing to write a recommendation letter for you. Before the call goes out in the fall, chat with several professors one-on-one to tell them your intentions about applying to jobs in the fall. Many have expressed their appreciation for the “heads up” before the fall semester gets too hectic.
- Location matters: For some reason, I was duped into believing that ambition (and landing a great job) superseded all relationships, family, and even my own preferences. I was also fearful that jobs were SO hard to come by, that you need to “take what you can get.” I admit that faculty jobs are pretty tough to land, but location matters! If you have no desire to be in the cold, and it will make you miserable, do not apply to Montana State! I was finally honest with myself leaving an interview on the West Coast, that location mattered to me. I wanted to be in the East (which was closer to my family). This is important to determine when searching for jobs. I could have saved some time (and stress) being honest with myself before the interview.
- Institution type matters: To me, this is even more important than location. Everyone is different, but it is important to know what type of institution you are applying to. Every university will have different expectations for teaching, research, grants, etc. so make sure wherever you apply is a good “fit.”
- And last, (practical tip): Don’t call professor “Dr. (last name)” on the interview! To be honest, I got this WAY wrong at first. It made me feel really uncomfortable (as a graduate student) calling members of the search committee by their first names. I was still a graduate student! It took lots of practice to unlearn this.
I encourage my fellow AAIHS colleagues to post any additional comments (from your own experiences) that could help students. Your feedback is appreciated! I plan to spread this to my UNC Charlotte community and to other doctoral student networks. Any/all help is welcomed!
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