Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


I woke up early this morning, despite being mentally and physically exhausted from my first comprehensive exam yesterday.
Logging onto Twitter at 5a, the hashtag #AdviceForYoungAcademics started scrolling across my screen. Some generic, some supportive, some a little random. In other words, pretty much what you'd expect from a large diverse group.
And by 630a it had already gotten nasty and condescending.
A little gatekeeping. A little making fun of the silly idealistic young academics.

And it hit me for a couple of different reasons.
Yesterday I had an outpouring of support from my online support system about comps (when even my Dad didn't call me). And I just returned from #ACMRS15 where I got to catch up with old friends who I taught with in New York City, and they couldn't be more supportive. But I also had a conversation at the conference about people in our program (or others we knew from other programs) who we were starting to wonder what they were doing here.

I've written some of these before, but perhaps it bears reframing in a new light.

Unless you're in a paired M.A/PhD program, I do not understand why you would go to school full time to get an MA. I worked full time getting both my M.A and M.S. Ed. And I think this goes to WHY you're in grad school. So perhaps we should start by rewinding...
Last year an older student said he was thinking of going for his Masters in English. When I asked him why he just stared at me blankly. And what I wanted to say to him:
Grad school is hard. And expensive. So if you don't know WHY you'd go,  or WHAT you plan on doing with your advanced degree, I'm very confused. Unless you're 22 and don't know how to get a job and be an adult and just use school to put off real life. There are very few jobs that require an M.A in English. Teaching is the only one I can think of, and even that varies from state to state. So I think that's an issue that more people need to talk about.
There are a lot of books and blogs and articles that offer advice about grad school, specifically about getting your PhD. After I earned my M.S. Ed. in Secondary Education (as part of my NYC Teaching Fellows contract) and my M.A in English (to better prep me as a high school teacher and because I was starting to think about PhD programs) I spent three years reading all of them I could get my hands on. I took notes. I followed the advice that made sense and ignored what didn't or what didn't seem like a good fit for me. And it's the reason that I am racing through my PhD program. The best tips I read and have followed in no particular order:
  • Know why you're going. I've taught high school. I've adjuncted at a community college. I want to be able to teach at a four year college or university. But I also know that with my experience, and enjoying teaching as much as research I would be happy in a variety of colleges. I'm hoping that range will help me in the fall on the job market.
  • Have a plan. For grad school, for the job market, for what happens when you don't get a job. I cashed out my retirement money so I'd have a safety net during this time. I had a color coded timeline before I got here. Get organized.
  • Make sure your timeline reflects your field. MLA releases the job list in September with applications usually due in October. MLA or Skype interviews usually in January and campus visits anywhere from February to March. So my timeline has drafts of my dissertation to committee members THIS semester. Second drafts to them by August with a goal of defending in January/February so that my committee members can mention this in their job market letters. And I will have a firm defense date by interviews. I know people on the job market this year who do not know when they would defend. And I understand that things come up. But I can also see that if I was a hiring committee that if it was a choice between someone with a firm defense date or was just ABD, I would go with the one I knew would have degree in hand by the time they report for the job.
  • Unless you desperately want to go through years of torture and can't imagine doing anything BUT being a college professor, THERE IS NO REASON TO GET A PhD IN ENGLISH. I don't care what the alt-ac people say.  I think it's great that alt-ac is more of the conversation for newly minted PhDs that aren't finding jobs. But I also think we can head this off a lot at the pass (see "Seek Life Elsewhere" above).
  • Once you get accepted to a school make sure you're fully funded. Yes, a more name school might nudge you up the line come job time. But that's not worth the trade off of $20,000 of debt per year every year you're in school.
  • If you can, have a topic and/or set of interests before you go and tailor every thing you do towards that. Your course work, your conference presentations, your articles for publications. It's the "always be closing" of grad school. This means your reading lists for comps will be tailored towards your dissertation, and each course you take builds on this. It also means that because you're making everything work for you you're more likely to shorten your time to degree.
  • There's a balance between work and life (Google it, a gazillion posts for academics). And you do have to take care of yourself or you're not going to get there. BUT also beware. Camping trips, taking on lots of extracurricular activities, nights out, vacations all of these will suck your time away and can make it so you're not working. Find your balance, but keep in mind you want to get finished and get DONE. I don't have a life. I turn down social invitations all the time. Because for me finishing in three years is the more important goal.
  • Get on Twitter, makes friends with people in your field, form a support network. Blog about your work. Get business cards, introduce yourself at conferences and hand them out. Walk up to people on panels afterwards and talk about their work. Follow up on social media and email. Do your best to make sure that people know you and your work. The support will get you through tough days, the constant writing will improve your other types of writing, and the networking can't hurt. However, don't blatantly call people out on social media just to force an interaction. Everyone knows what you're doing and it looks tacky. Be organic. Be yourself. Show genuine interest and people will do the same.
  • Then there's the flip side of social media. I think it's great to share work, and show your personality. As I said, it's been a support network for me when I don't have an in-person one. But remember the internet is forever. I see people (potential academics) posting dirty laundry about their department, sharing graphic personal details, constantly complaining about things. Now this may not affect their future or their job chances. But I read some of these feeds and think I wouldn't want to work with someone who complained all the time or overshared and had no concept of audience and occasion. I haven't seen data on how these new-ish social media connections affect job searches, but our fields are small (and getting smaller) so I can't imagine it won't start to have an effect if it hasn't already.
  • Be willing to work. Have a work ethic. If a call goes out for a panel or writing opportunity, respond early and be enthusiastic. Then follow through. Be the writer an editor or panel chair can count on. Follow their deadlines. Turn revisions around. Show up. A good work ethic separates professionals from the rest of the group.
  • While the publishing landscape is changing, publishing is still what distinguishes one job candidate from another, and certainly affects advancement. Do not listen to people that tell you it's fine if you're ready to graduate and go on the job market with no publications or one. It's not. That may have been true when your mentors were on the market but it's not anymore. IF you're tailoring everything towards your research project, and IF you have a plan you should not have a problem shopping out one article/book chapter per year (since that's roughly the expectation for tenure). This is what you're choosing for your career. If you can't produce now what makes you think you'll be able to once you graduate?
  • Do not fall in love with the university you're getting your PhD from or the city you're living in. Your home university will not hire you. So if you want a life there you've chosen wrong. One student I know bought a house at their home university for a Masters program. Which tells me they've chosen the city and life over an academic career. Because there's no real estate return in three years. So they must not really be serious about academic life. And that's fine. But if that's true, why spend the money and time?
  • This one is for students and mentors. IF you take a long time to complete your course work. Or if you have a hard time passing your comps. Or take a really long time to write your dissertation prospectus someone needs to sit you down and get you to reflect on what you're doing. I know people in their programs who have timed out of their program. So they're looking at finishing the dissertation on their own dime. I know people who passed comps then realized they didn't want to be there but still stayed. If you're putting things off, if you do not have the discipline to get things done then I don't know what you're going to do upon graduation. If you can't self-motivate now how will you self-motivate as a professional. But here's the thing- it's perfectly okay to get here, get into the work and realize this is not for you. If you came to get a PhD in English because you like books get a library card, it's cheaper.
A lot of people write how their self-worth becomes tied up in their PhD work and their job search. And I can see that. But it's okay if this is not for you. It's okay if you don't want the pressure of publishing. If you don't want to face the job market. I always used to say that teaching was hard and there were easier ways to make money so there's no reason to put yourself through all this crap if you can imagine doing anything else. PhDs in English are this only to the 100th power.
Sometimes it's just not a good fit.
Sometimes you rather have a life.

But if you're going to do this, have a plan.

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