I grew up thinking that everyone went to grad school, but this position is probably no surprise when you realize that I spent preschool and kindergarten as a resident of Oklahoma State University’s married student housing apartments. I formed some of my earliest lasting memories there as my parents finished their master’s degrees (my dad’s second master’s, my mother’s first).
I also grew up with parents who fully endorsed the idea that I could be anything I wanted, and I ran through ideas constantly. Archaeologist! Teacher! Martial Arts Instructor! International Business Professional! Neurosurgeon! Plastic surgeon! (I was really in to the medical profession as a high schooler, for a number of reasons.) I changed majors in college about half a dozen times, becoming officially “undecided” by the end of my freshman year when I decided to leave school for awhile.
When I returned a year and a half later, I knew I wanted a PhD. I knew I wanted to major in English. In the end, I added a second major in history, got in (but no funding) to the MA in English, and ultimately found success in a PhD program in history. I wanted the PhD – but it took time for me to discover where my real interests lay. I wanted the PhD – but I can’t say I was specifically focused on “I want to be a tenured professor in XX.” (Not that I didn’t think about being a professor, of course.)
I was working for a relocation/career transition assistance company when I got my acceptance to Washington University in St. Louis’s PhD in history program. Basically, I spent my time consulting individuals who were job searching because of relocation or outplacement. I knew a lot about resume writing strategies, job search strategies, the importance of networking, and things like that. In short: I felt like I came into the PhD program with my eyes wide open about the realities of the academic job market, how to best position myself to be a strong candidate in the end, and how to proactively prepare for the job market over my time in grad school.*
During my six years in grad school, I did everything possible to position myself as an excellent candidate for the academic job market. At the same time, I never saw academia as the end-all, be-all. Rather, I saw the academic job market as the most intensive and potentially most time-consuming arenas of my future job search. More importantly, it was simply ONE FACET of my ultimate post-grad-school job search plans.
Think about it this way: in academia, departments post jobs as far as a year in advance of when the position starts. In summer 2010, for example, Texas A&M University posted an ad for a position designed to begin in August 2011. This means you spend basically an academic year on the job market (assuming you get a job at the end of that year).
In contrast: government jobs can sometimes have long lead times as well – I know people who waited more than 6 months to hear back on government job applications – but that’s still shorter, in general, than the academic timeframe. In private industry, things can move much, much more quickly.**
All of this is to tell you that when I started the job search process a year ago, I came at it with a multi-tiered strategy (which I outlined to my advisors in writing).
Tier 1: Keep abreast of and apply to academic jobs (prep began in spring/summer 2010 and process ran through March 2011)
Tier 2: Identify and apply to government jobs (began keeping an eye out in October/November 2010, but submitted no real applications until early 2011)
Tier 3: Seek out teaching opportunities in private schools and possibly public schools (in Missouri, a PhD makes it possible to get teacher certification to teach public school). (I knew none of these jobs would be posted until the spring.)
Tier 4: Look for opportunities in the private sector (kept my eyes open beginning in January/February, since lead time is so much shorter).
I want to end by noting that I didn’t rank these in order of preference, but simply by logistics of when I should be looking for jobs in each of these arenas. And mostly, I tell you all of this so that you understand that when I went on the academic job market last year, I sure as hell had a Plan B (and C, and D…).
I also had a dissertation that was guaranteed to be defended by the end of the school year (since my advisor had seen every chapter and got a full draft in her hands – intro through conclusion – by October 1). I had a prestigious fellowship from the American Association of University Women, I had a strong record of leadership in my institution (and service in general). I was also, on the other hand, a historian of US and women’s history (who dabbles in military history).
In short: I was a strong candidate in many, many ways – but so were the other five million Americanists on the market last year. In my next post I’ll say more about the academic job market itself, then round out this series later this week with thoughts on why I decided not to keep trying for an academic job.
*Those academics out there might be thinking that private industry is different than academia, so how could I have known what I was doing? Trust me, there’s a ton of overlap. I learned very quickly how to take my skills from the corporate world to academia, partially by paying attention to those how-to-succeed-in-grad-school books.
**Sure, there are employers anywhere who will drag their feet with applications over a two- or three-month period, but they’re not looking for people who can’t start for six months.