From Candidate to Colleague

I've been fortunate to take part in a few recent professionalism panels intended to prepare current graduate students for the academic job market. Each panelist encouraged their respective audiences to avoid acting like, sounding like, or dressing like graduate students. Good advice, even if it's a bit nebulous and softly offensive. This advice is not intended to mark graduate students as less qualified on the market--and current nattering suggests the opposite--but to encourage candidates to move their discourse and professional identities into a new peer network before they're actually there.

What does it even mean to move from grad student to professor? At the time of entry, students have many models from which to choose; however, those performances of professors in classrooms and at conferences offer only a gloss. What do professors even talk about over dinner? What's protocol for talking about the dissertation? Are new shoes really necessary?

I thought it might be useful to open discussion on that move from job candidate to colleague and to operationalize some of the more obvious markers of graduate student identity. While these points apply most urgently to the current job market, I think they're equally applicable to conferences and other opportunities to meet the people who will be future colleagues.

1. While the dissertation is certainly top of the mind for those about to graduate, it's not especially the most interesting thing to talk about. Work to avoid making it a topic of conversation, primarily because they've already gotten a version of it in the dossier and have or will in the job talk. If someone asks, it's prudent to have the short version ready. No more than 2 minutes should give enough detail to be interesting without reaching the dreaded ramble. And keep it positive: no complaining about committees or deadlines. Once graduate students are close to market time, committee members are colleagues, not evaluators.

2. Polish it up, to the best of your abilities. Pressed pants, clean shoes, business casual at the most relaxed end. Jeans are perhaps appropriate for travel, but be wary. Err on the side of more conservative, rather than less. This doesn't mean that every candidate needs to own a $600 suit, but do pay attention to clothes that fit, are clean, and look professional. (And, yes, I hate this kind of body policing, but the unfortunate reality of the market is that some people are not understanding or compassionate when it comes to these sorts of things.)

3.  First-Name Basis: Your committee members and professors are colleagues now. When talking to other members of the disciplinary community, use of the honorific reminds people of the student positioning.

4. Be conversant in local projects. It surprises many graduate students to learn that their professors have projects outside of dissertation advising and classroom teaching. By knowing the projects their committee members are working on, graduate students show that they can peek beyond the mountain range of the dissertation. Likewise, recognizing search committee members' current work (by looking through recent conference programs, for example) is a good place to find information about recent or ongoing projects. Anyone can read a published article on the plane on the way to the campus visit. A colleague will remember that Professor Smith gave a talk a the Cs in St. Louis. The most well-adjusted academics, in my experience, are those who move away from self-centered models and more toward community-minded ones.

5. Learn the language. Faculty life is thick with acronyms, and TNP is perhaps the most important. Having the knowledge to thoughtfully discuss tenure and promotion expectations means that graduate students are already thinking about their reappointment as assistant professors. Advisers can help here as contact points for home institution requirements. Informed candidates will be familiar with current MLA discussions about the status of TNP while also understanding that expectations are incredibly local and historical.

6. Research all the schools. It's common knowledge that job applicants should know both programmatic and institutional details about each school to which they apply. It is just as important to know this information about home institutions. If, for example, a candidate from an R1 Land Grant institution is applying for a job at an SLAC, that candidate must be able to articulate the ideological and pedagogical connections between those institutions and student populations.

7.  R1 Land Grant? SLAC? Academics trade in acronyms. Reading around in disciplinary journals, attending talks, and talking to professors as colleagues can help.

8. Practice humility, avoid desperation. Even when they are desperate, even when every thought returns to finances and living situations, candidates move to colleagues when they practice open-minded humility and refuse desperation. Self-deprecation is as persuasive as narrow-minded, uninformed self-confidence. Fatalism is rampant in graduate school. Avoid any semblance to the stereotypical grad student in PhD Comics.

9. Redesign documents. CVs shouldn't foreground graduate student activities. No one cares if a candidate served three selfless years as social chair of the Graduate Student Organization. (I was, and it made me sad to learn this.) Quest about for examples of CVs of senior academics. Most departments require that professors upload their CVs to their public site. Use these CVs at models. Writing samples should look like journal articles, not seminar papers.

10. Attend talks. The very best professionalizing I received was free: I attended both job talks by job candidates and research lectures by visiting scholars. Even if the talk was far outside my field, I gained facility with the language that academics use when they speak with other academics, and I learned a great deal about how I wished to be perceived.

All of these fairly minor points help move job candidates from their lived reality to their hoped-for future reality. It's awkward and not-at-all intuitive to be asked to inhibit an identity that's not yet real, but that's exactly the demand for graduate students on the academic job market. Knowing the code and thoughtfully engaging in the expected ways can help move a very anxious graduate student job seeker from job candidate to future colleague.

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