Part I: PhD to Tenure Track Panel

Crashing events at the University of California Irvine is my new favo(u)rite hobby, because they have some really great events. Plus, their grad students are friendly, funny, and generous – who wouldn’t want to crash?

Today, I’ll give interested parties an overview of the panel “PhD to Tenure Track.” This panel piqued my curiosity for lots of reasons, including a strong interest in finishing my PhD and jumping on the Tenure Track, as well as the overwhelming abundance of evidence pointing out that the current academic job market is more like Getting Hit By A Train on the (Tenure) Track.


In light of all the evidence to the contrary, this panel about applying for academic jobs was surprisingly encouraging.

Part of the History Department’s professionalization seminars, “PhD to Tenure Track” featured panelists Emily Buam from History, Anita Casavantes Bradford from Chicano/Latino Studies, and Braxton Soderman from Film & Media Studies. (Links jump to their bios.)

Two awesome graduate students, Kristen Galvin from Visual Studies and Mark Ocegueda from History, led the Q&A section.

I took relatively detailed notes (as I am wont to do), but didn’t necessarily note who said what. The advice applies mainly to an academic career path, but some of the suggestions (i.e. “be prepared”) are useful in most contexts. Here are some of the comments from the panelists in no particular order:

– Professor Soderman recommended applying for Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships, which is very good advice for students studying in the U.S. He also suggested applying for relevant post-docs, specifically at Duke and Princeton. (Links go to what I think he was talking about!)

Apply to relevant dissertation completion fellowships and post-docs.

Network! Ask your advisor to put you in touch with people who will be helpful in your job search.

– Applying for jobs is a full time job. It’s terrible. Good luck with that “time management” thing, and expect to work 12 hour days before (and after) you land a position!

– When you compose your cover letters, don’t reinvent the wheel. Ask junior faculty for copies of their letters as templates or examples to follow. People on search committees are busy (read: skimming your application), and they are looking for structured, conventional answers that use keywords from the job posting. It may feel formulaic, but it’s supposed to be (at least a bit). Collaborate with your peers – ask for help and proof reading. Offer beer in exchange.

– Even if the search committee is skimming, you should still tailor your cover letters to each school. Use Google! Read the job descriptions, explain how you fit the position, and then specifically discuss on-campus connections you could forge, or institutes you could work with.

In particular, don’t close with “I’m looking forward to working with graduate students in your department” if you are applying to a liberal arts college that doesn’t support graduate studies (true anecdote).

– The job market is pretty bad (duh?). One panelist cited the statistic that only 20% of PhDs in History get R1 positions.


A lot of this advice was oriented toward R1 universities, but that isn’t necessarily a term that translates, so here’s my (non-wikipedian) brief overview of that whole designation:

Apparently an R1 is a Tier 1 Research Institution, typically universities with lots of grad students, a good library, and loads of grant funding (generally not liberal arts colleges). I like to call liberal arts colleges T1 schools because they prioritize teaching. (Seems better than calling them R2 or R3, which just sounds like they came in second place, as well as kind of Star Wars-y).

In another conversion with a friend, KS, I was given advice more specific to applying to liberal arts colleges, such as developing a really strong teaching portfolio and emphasizing your pedagogical calling in your cover letter.


– Since a member of the audience had a Skype interview coming up, we talked about practicing for that format of job talk. Practice your Skype interview over Skype with a friend! Set up the background so you look smarter (one panelist suggested moving fine art and / or copies of Das Kapital into or out of the frame). Check the lighting, your hair, your outfit, and, importantly, don’t be afraid to stop things.

One panelist said that the worst interview was one where 5 or 6 people were conducting the interview via Skype, but only 2 were visible and only 2 were audible, so the interview went badly, quickly.

– Practice, practice, practice your job talk! First find out what type of job talk you will be giving. Ask the search committee for an itinerary for your campus visit. Do they want you to give your best talk (academ-ese lingo and all) or showcase your best teaching for a panel of students?

Practice the talk. Manage your time. If you have 35 minutes, practice your talk so it is 30 minutes long. Don’t go over! But don’t go way under time, either.

– If you are giving a very academic talk for the search committee, focus. Don’t try to give an overview of your entire 500 page dissertation in 30 minutes. Provide a brief overview of your dissertation in the first 5 minutes to contextualize your research, then choose one chapter to focus on.

Talk about why the chapter matters, how it connects to your larger project, interventions you make, and future work that comes from your project. Ask junior faculty to share their job talks with you so you can see what worked for them.

Practice! Did I say that already? Well, do it! Give a mock job talk to your friends, family, department – anyone who will listen to you. (This applies to Skype interviews, too.)

– Canned (er, “prepared”) responses are your friend. You should know your field’s literature, have the names of key theorists that you’re engaging with, AND have a well-rehearsed elevator pitch for each of the following:

—> What is your dissertation about?

—> What are you adding to the field?

—> What is your intervention in the field?

—> What is your next research project?

—> What courses can you teach?

– On the topic of teaching, it’s useful to develop syllabi, list textbooks you would use, and outline unique course assignments. This is useful because you can actually use those things when you are teaching.

– Have a website (or at least an site) to showcase your best work. If you can, upload YouTube talks of your conference presentations or teaching. (Channeling my mother, I did ask about Twitter / Facebook / curating one’s online persona, but the general consensus was “Don’t do anything too stupid in public forums” and “If you would stand by all of the things you have done and they don’t want you, then you probably don’t want them, either.”)

Within the realm of freedom of expression, be professional. If being critical and being political are part of your work, you might not want to work somewhere that doesn’t want you to be critical or political.

Research! In your abundant spare time, research the schools you are applying for. If you can list a course number that’s already on the books and say something like “I’d be happy to teach CDNS 100: Intro to Canadian Studies” that shows that you’ve done your homework and that you will be asking for a course release in exchange for taking over a survey course, but also that you are a team player who will volunteer for Charlie work. (I’m not saying that survey courses are Charlie work, but that they are treated as such in many departments.) (And don’t forget to ask for that teaching release!)

– Creepiest advice, but likely accurate, was: if the search committee says “would you be willing to…” the answer is usually “yes” (because the question is often “… teach a survey course”).

Negotiate. Get yourself a teaching release in exchange for teaching a survey course, or additional research funds, or a housing / relocation allowance. You are valuable. One panelist cited research that shows women have a tendency not to negotiate. Out of feminist solidarity, and an interest in getting paid what you are worth, negotiate! Use your negotiating power – it’s a feminist act. Delay the offer to consider if you need to. Tell the department that you are considering other offers, if that’s true. Transparency and honesty may be viewed favorably. (There might be other opinions on this – ask Google.)

– The best dissertation is a finished dissertation, but a finished dissertation might not be enough to get a job. Get a book contract, if you can. Publish! Show promise as a scholar by having publications in the works. BUT don’t publish your entire dissertation as articles, or a press might be reluctant to publish it as a book.

– In addition to all of this, plus any service you are doing (which apparently may garner no comments or interest from search committees, but should still be on your CV to show that you care about community-building), plus more that we talked about but this post is too long already, graduate school is very alienating, so take care of yourself!


In case you don’t click on all of my Easter eggs, here’s a partial list of articles on this topic that I’ve come across (or had sent my way):

– “99 Problems But Tenure Ain’t One” by Josh Boldt (via JKZ).

– “Hanging Up on a Calling” by Rebecca Schuman, 27 January 2014.

– “Thesis Hatement” by Rebecca Shuman, April 2014. (This is kind of her jam.)

– “Behind the Academic Curtain” by Serena Golden, 20 November 2013 (via Tomorrow’s Professor Listserv).

– “The Problem With Being ‘Just a Teacher’” by Elizabeth Keenan (via JKZ).

– “Your First Academic Job – I” by William Helmreich, 17 June 2013.

– “The Odds Are Never in Your Favor” by Atlas Odinshoot, 20 January 2014 (via JKZ. We talk about this a lot.).

– Inside Higher Ed is a reasonably good resource, as is University Affairs and the “Off Track” series at Chronicle Vitae.

These links are going to be most useful for English-speaking graduate students in the United States and (possibly) Canada.


The itemized list of advice (above) in no way serves as an endorsement of said advice, and if you click on the links provided, you’ll see that the situation is probably more complicated than the list implies.

All I can say is good luck and god speed and tell me how things go for you! Unless you never want to talk about it ever, which is a perfectly reasonable feeling, if unhelpful to those following in your footsteps.

UPDATE: You can check out Part II: Straight Talk on the Job Search.

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3 Responses to Part I: PhD to Tenure Track Panel

  1. dubitandus says:

    If you’re going to keep doing write-ups like this, please crash many more UCI events.

  2. Pingback: Part II: Straight Talk on the Job Search | This dissertation is going to be fun, like dessert

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