Tips about the Dissertation and Job Process from a Graduate Student’s Perspective: What to Expect!

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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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Comments on “Tips about the Dissertation and Job Process from a Graduate Student’s Perspective: What to Expect!

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    Great post, and very useful. May I take the liberty of offering some thoughts from my twenty years on the hiring side? I should say that I don’t intend to speak for anyone but myself here, and am entirely open to contrary viewpoints.

    Help the search committee do its job. Candidates understandably tend to be deferential to search committees. But not all search committees are created equal. Some are very experienced and quite professional. Others may be led by people new to the search process, or people who are lazy or unprofessional. You think you’re intimidated about applying for a job? Well there are committees that are intimidated about interviewing candidates from big-name graduate programs. (As a candidate, I have had interviewers literally say, “you wouldn’t want to teach here, would you?”) Help them do their job by asking them to clarify anything you don’t understand. So long as you are professional and courteous, you are likely to be doing them a favor.

    Know the institution. Ms. Watson has said this, but it’s worth repeating. Graduate students tend to be trained at big universities in cool places. Most professors tend to teach at smaller schools in cruddier places. Learn about any institution you will visit. Is it an ivy, a huge R1, a liberal arts college, or a satellite campus of a state school? Does it have a religious affiliation, and what exactly does that mean for those who teach there? How much teaching is expected? Is the system of which it is a part in sound condition or undergoing major stresses? These questions are important not simply in figuring out where you might or might not want to be, but in shaping your approach to potential colleagues. It is not flattering to them when candidates reveal a profound disinterest in their institution (as when, for example, someone calls my college a “university”).

    Take the job talk seriously. The job talk is probably the trickiest parts of the interview. Your graduate department and mentors may have all sorts of thoughts about what a job talk “should” be. A better source of information would be the hiring department itself. Listen hard to what is being asked, and do not be afraid to ask a lot of questions about matters that remain unclear. If you get a blithe response — “oh, it’s just a little talk, don’t worry about it” — keep asking questions. What format is preferred? Is it ok to read a paper or refer to notes? How much time should it take, and how much time for questions will be allotted? Is the use of technology and handouts encouraged or discouraged? In what kind of space will it be offered? Will the talk be open to the public? Departments forget that everyone does things differently, that their standard may not be obvious to others, and that candidates have a right to know about the most important performance of their interview. You’re looking for the search committee to commit to a mutual understanding of these things.

    Deans and administrators matter. Know who your appointments are with. Remember that paper pushers are academics, too. If you can, find out about their fields of specialization and be ready to discuss potential intersections with your work. If you’re not ready for them, deans can surprise you badly by asking penetrating questions about your work. Have your spiel ready for all and sundry. Don’t talk about money until you get an offer. This is absolutely the time to ask about the academic benefits that may go with the position, such as funds to expand the library collection, the sabbatical policy, competition for internal grants, etc. It is not the time to ask about the best office spaces, or to suggest that you will probably actually want to live two hours away because the city there is so much cooler than the dump the university is in. This can get tricky, though. If you have a strong personal consideration, such as an academic spouse, it may be appropriate to ask about any formal policies that exist regarding this (searching on the institution website can be a big help). Hiring committees cannot legally open these kinds of personal doors with you. If you do it, conversations can open up — not always in ways you may wish.

    Students and coordinators matter. The impression you leave with everyone you encounter will factor in to the evaluation of your candidacy. Good search committees will take seriously thoughts from students about your visit. Take those students seriously, and try to learn about the matters that concern them. If possible, follow-up with them after your visit via email. Likewise, department coordinators should be treated with courtesy and respect. If they are efficient, do not stall them (submitting receipts and paperwork, etc.); if they are not efficient, help them be efficient by courteously communicating with them about details that still need attention.

    Personality matters. Particularly in smaller departments, it is important to offer a sense of the kind of colleague you will be. Relations developed through the hiring process can often last longer than marriages. Too much deference signals that you’re not yet fully “grown.” Being confident means being courteous and professional, not arrogant. And it’s ok to let a little personality out. Hold your cards too close to your vest and you’ll look like a cipher.

    Fit matters. Candidates cannot know the innumerable factors that can influence the final decisions in a search. In good searches, the final decision often comes down to minute considerations that the committee itself did not clearly appreciate at the start of the search. Most candidates who make it to campus interviews are excellent. But only one can be hired, and this final choice often has nothing to do with anything a candidate can control. Especially if you come close but do not get an offer, try not to take it too personally. It’s your candidacy for a position that’s been rejected, not you as a person or academic. It’s ok to ask if you could’ve done anything differently, but don’t get your hopes up for useful responses. Even after the process is done, professionals involved in searches can’t divulge much to candidates lest they leave their institution liable to complaint.

    Try to have fun. Impossible, I know, but think of it this way: there are not too many times when so many different people will be so intensely interested in just your work. You are the expert on your topic, and are likely to be bringing exciting new concepts to the institution that is evaluating you. If you’re not getting pressed sufficiently on your work, don’t be afraid to advertise why it’s so awesome. On the other hand, aggressive questioning is flattering because it means others are engaged with your ideas. Defend those ideas, but be open to suggestions and alternate viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to follow-up campus conversations later through email. Search committees are often much less interested in finding deferential junior colleagues than they are in finding new intellectual playmates.

    A final thought, which is more applicable to the cover letter and initial application then to the on-campus stage:

    In my experience, the number one difference between candidates who are ready to be hired and candidates who are not ready to be hired is that candidates who are ready to be hired know the story that their work tells. In particularly, they have a clear and concise sense of why their work matters to the scholarly conversations surrounding it. As you prepare to discuss your work, you must constantly ask yourself, “so what?” Remember that you will be explaining the intricate problems of your dissertation to scholars who are unfamiliar with your topic, and often your field (and sometimes even your discipline). If you can’t relate why your work matters to a smart outsider, you’re unlikely to be able to convince a committee.

    “My work complicates such and such.” “The dissertation offers a powerful intervention in blah blah.” “This book will yield broad new insights into yadda yadda.” Those are ok setups, but they should not be the punch line. The punch line has to be “this is the story I am telling and this is how it changes what we thought we knew.” Even if the work itself is fractured into a zillion little arguments, it is still important to be able to offer a clearly entrypoint into all those pieces.

    Now the reality is that many of us cannot do this even after the dissertation was written. (I did not arrive at this stage until I turned my dissertation into a book.) The important thing is that this is the question that (I would submit) should constantly be in your mind. It is very impressive to knit together a beautiful blanket of lace, but if you don’t know what bed it’s supposed to cover, it won’t matter much.

    Good luck!

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    Thank you for this post Marcia! And same to you Patrick for your wonderful comments.

    I wanted to briefly elaborate on the point Patrick made about knowing the institution. A blog post I read about a month ago on The Professor Is In ( spoke about this issue with regards to HBCUs but I think the advice is applicable more broadly, She noted that many schools with higher teaching loads want you to do research but want you to do it over the summer. So in your interviews, instead of mentioning how you will be applying for an ACLS to get a year off to work on the book, note instead that you plan to apply for summer research grants.

    Also somewhat related to this is your interactions with members of the department throughout a campus visit. We all want to appear knowledgeable about the faculty’s research interests, articles and books published, etc. You should try to show that knowledge off subtly, however. I’ve seen candidates come on a bit too strongly, referencing obscure travel grants that someone won a decade ago or talking about every article published by someone far outside their field. One of my colleagues on a search noted that it felt like the candidate knew so much about us that he/she would show up at our houses. This is not to say you shouldn’t do your homework and learn all you can about the department and their interests, just be politic about how and when you display that knowledge.

    Many people feel that they cannot or should not go on the market until they have actually completed the Ph.D. I think the main reasoning here is that they will be competing with others who have finished the degree already, done postdoctoral fellowships, secured book contracts, etc., and there is no way they can compete with that. That may be true in some cases but is not across the board. Search committees and department members recognize where you are at in the process and are not going to expect a graduate student to have achieved the same things as someone a few years out. As long as you have a strong research project, are a competent teacher, seem to be a good fit for the department, and have good letters of recommendation, a committee is likely to seriously consider you, even if you are still in graduate school and even if you have not published extensively. So do not let what you have not done deter you, just make sure you have a clearly articulated plan for developing as a teacher, winning funding, and publishing and you will have a chance at a lot of places.

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    good last point, Chris. academic job seekers have many “lives” (as in PacMan) on the market. being ABD is one such. then there’s newly minted Ph.D., book contract, and book, though searches often yield candidates at varying points in their career trajectory, committees usually understand that they can’t compare apples and oranges. even if the first attempt yields nothing, going through the motions of applying is very good practice.

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    I just wanted to thank Marcia, Patrick, and Christopher for being so generous with their advice. The post and the subsequent comments have been very helpful.

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    Patrick and Chris, thanks for your comments! It is reassuring to know that the search process is difficult on both sides. I will compile these and share this with my doctoral networks here in North Carolina. Several students have been asking, and I think this is the perfect compilation of “both sides” of the job search. So again, thank you!

    Michael, I completely agree!

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    veryyyyyyyyyyyyy gooooooooooood tnx dear admin

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