Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The State of Things- A First Year PhD Student Looks at the #MLAJIL

The MLA Job List went live yesterday.
And the influx simultaneously crashed the site, the Chronicle (for posting about the site), and resulted in a flood of gloom and doom on Twitter.
As a first year PhD student, it's enough to make some throw their hands up in the air and despair.

One of my professors started our first class The Paper Chase style- look to your left, look to your right, some of you won't be here...He said there were eight students in his cohort, and two actually earned their PhDs. And that was a decade ago. That's a 25% success rate. There are 7 PhD students in my cohort, equally divided between American and British literary studies. There's one medievalist, and I am the only one straddling the medieval/Early Modern age.

I'm two years away from being on the job market. But I think it's important to know what the trends are. One of the biggest, as pointed out on a list-serv I follow this week, is the collapsing of time periods. Some see this as eradicating fields or reducing them, some see it as an opportunity to study works more in context. I'm in favor of it, only because my dissertation spans Old Norse up through Milton's Paradise Lost, so I'm all in favor of long centuries, because it means my research will fit the current trends.
So, I put in my search criteria (or what will be my search criteria in two years).

This search resulted in 97 hits. 23 of which I'd be qualified for:
  • Early 17th century
  • Late Medieval
  • Shakespeare/Early Modern
  • Late Medieval
  • Medieval Literature (4) (1 visiting)
  • Early Modern British Literature
  • Early English
  • Early British Literature
  • Medieval English Literature
  • Early Modern II
  • Shakespeare
  • Medieval Literature and Culture
  • British Medieval Literature (2)
  • Renaissance/Early Modern (2)
  • British Literature before 1900
  • Medieval Intellectual and Cultural History
There are roughly one hundred R1 universities in the United States. If my professor's math holds true (and it seems 25% is about right), that's 200-300 PhDs every year competing for the listed jobs. That doesn't include the hundreds of PhDs that for the last several years have not been able to find jobs, and are also in competition for these jobs. Most estimates say that for every position, there are 300-400 applicants.

So, if we assume that each of these applicants satisfies the basic requirements (PhD, publishing credits, teaching experience) then how to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack? What, in this economy, and with this job market, distinguishes one candidate over another?
To phrase it more selfishly, and succinctly, what can I, as a first year PhD student, do to make me the most attractive candidate you've ever seen?
  • Will more publication credits help?
  • Better networking?
  • Does the long view of my research help?
I will be the first to tell you that I ignore a lot of the "Don't Go To Grad School" arguments (obviously, I'm in my first year of my PhD program). But not because I think they aren't valid. I do think English faculty has more of a responsibility to clarify for undergrads the economy, and what it means. I do think students need to know that their Dead Poets Society ideals of teaching are not the reality. I think there should be more opportunities, and press, for altac careers.
But I'm not a doe-eyed 22 year old. I'm 37. I have a Masters in Education, and one in English Literature. I have twelve years of teaching experience at the high school and college level. I worked as an independent scholar, presenting at conferences, and publishing, before I even entered my PhD program. I have retirement savings, socked away to both pad my TAship while I'm completing my PhD program, and to fund my job search in the future. I own a house. I've been in the work force, I have real world experience, and I have the work ethic. If everything goes well, I'll comp next Spring, and defend my dissertation a year later.

So here's my question for the universe- if you've been on hiring committees, or been through the process yourself recently- what distinguishes candidates? How did you decide to hire your new professors? What counted?
In a field so glutted with qualified applicants, how much of this is a crap shoot, and how much depended on a single thing?


  1. Teaching experience is one of the most important "X Factors" that you can bring to the table. So, it sounds like you are ahead of the game in that respect.

  2. Publish in nationally recognized journals where the acceptance rate is somewhere between 12 to 7 percent.