(Another) Preparing for the academic job market workshop

Below are some of my notes from a workshop on the subject of preparing for the academic job market. Dr. Elizabeth Jameson led the workshop, which took place on February 18th at the Center for Great Plains Studies. This is the second formal workshop I’ve attended on preparing for the academic job market, but I learn something new each time. It’s encouraging to see that conversations about the difficulties of the current job market are becoming more commonplace in academia, and that the newest generation of humanities graduate students are being prepared–from the very beginning of their academic careers–to consider the different trajectories their training can take them. I found the advice related to networking and organizing to be the most useful and inspiring.

Preparing for the academic job market:

  • Dr. Jameson entered the academic job market for the first time in 1975
    • 10 jobs in social history at that time
    • states she was “very, very lucky” to “score” one of the jobs, considered it “miraculous”
    • (Jameson says she did not have her dissertation or degree completed yet when she “scored” her first academic job –> different job market)
  • when Jameson left her first academic job, and lost funding for her second, she freelanced “in the wilderness” for a while (adjuncted for a time, low-pay, tenuous situation)
    • but kept working w/in women’s history & studies –> published two books (but still hadn’t completed her dissertation, into the 80’s)
    • eventually able to re-enter academia: tenure-track, “invited to apply for 3 chairs”
      • very successful, finished her dissertation, recognized for her experience
  • academic job ads now: “want you to teach everything AND do Digital Humanities” (a little tongue-in-cheek about the “walk on water” tone of some job ads today)
    • Dr. Katrina Jagodinsky: read the job ads early in your academic career and figure out how you steer your training to fit within the categories they are looking for
    • recognize that your entry job = “not necessarily where you’ll stay” (in job or intellectually)
      • & there is “a lot out there, beyond academia”
  • advisers and mentors = critical throughout the process (of your entire career, not just for your first job)
    • you will need letters of recommendation even 10 or 20 years on –> constantly cultivate an array of mentors and letter-writers
      • have multiple mentors, some outside your institution of training or employment
    • if you are “stubborn, flexible, and creative” you can make it into a career you like over time
      • be prepared to retool & look for ways to do so
  • networking, publishing:
    • if you have 1 or 2 potential articles, “get them out there”
    • early in your academic training, attend events like the Pacific Coast branch of the AHA – receive friendly feedback on your early work
      • then move into national conferences
      • e-mail folks ahead of conferences you are attending to ask for lunch/coffee dates to talk about your research –> be bold
    • “get involved in the movements that excite you”
    • take long enough on your dissertation that it is “close to publication,” so your adviser can attest to this, so presses can “start cruising you”
  • academic job interviews:
    • prepare 1, 5, and 20-minute descriptions of your dissertation
    • pay attention to the mission statements of the institutions AND departments you are applying to –> be able to articulate how you will contribute to their mission
    • do mock interviews
    • have drafts of your cover letter reviewed
      • find something to make you stand out in your cover letter
    • workshop your job talk AND a sample lecture
    • get on the AHA/OAH program the year you interview and invite your interviewers to your panel
    • ask for copies of teaching recommendations from anyone who has observed your teaching
      • include these in your teaching portfolio (this is in addition to, and separate from, your letters of recommendation)
    • constantly cultivate letter-writers and be sure they are tailoring their letters to the job
      • Jagodinsky: can include more than 3 letters of recommendation, provided: (1) each writer knows who else is writing and what (generally) they will talk about; (2) if are sure the additional letter(s) will be of high quality; (3) it won’t look like “fluff” or padding
  • get something good on your c.v. every year –> show you are “a professional and engaged historian,” even (or especially) if you are freelancing and hoping to return to T-T job market
  • organize: YOU will be the generation that has to defend the professoriate from serious efforts to de-skill, to turn academia into a factory system
    • “don’t settle”
      • “but be strategic” –> when you get “higher,” protect those who are still struggling and vulnerable
        • Jagodinsky: “don’t get caught up” in negativity and high competition among your fellow graduate students –> they will be your colleagues someday, don’t let harsh job market destroy valuable networks & relationships
          • tell close colleagues when you are applying for the same jobs & recognize that “one of you is mustard and the other is chocolate” –> both “make life great, but you don’t know if the search committee is having wine or hot dogs” so you shouldn’t beat yourself up over their decision, don’t lose confidence

“Demystifying the Publication Process” workshop notes

Dr. Denise Cuthbert, Dean, School of Graduate Research, RMIT University, Australia
Dr. Denise Cuthbert, Dean, School of Graduate Research, RMIT University, Australia

Below are my rough notes from an excellent workshop I attended last week. The workshop, entitled “Demystifying the Publication Process,” was sponsored by UNL’s Office of Graduate Studies. Dr. Denise Cuthbert, Dean of RMIT University’s School of Graduate Research was the workshop’s leader. Few workshops I attend got me as excited to get started on a project as this workshop. I can still hear Dr. Cuthbert’s charming Australian accent, spurring us on to publish!

Demystifying the Publication Process, September 4, 2014

  • Your publishing plans:
    • need to consider what your article is about in tandem with where you plan to publish it (and why)
    • should have a mindmap of the key journals in your field
      • which are prestigious, which will reach local/national/regional audience, which are more theoretical, etc.
      • go to the editorial page and/or website of journals to help map out your field
        • particular approaches, research will be good for one journal and not another
    • too late to begin thinking about all of the above after your paper is finished
  • Workshop goals:
    • learn more about the academic publishing system & how to target the right journals
      • big reason articles get rejected
    • talk about a range of writing techniques to help you refine your abstract (important writing tool) and get your paper to draft form
    • how to handle the submission and peer review process
  • publication = “the ultimate destination of all of your work” “It’s really not research until it’s published.”
    • “Research seeks to advance the stock of human knowledge and academic publishing is the key way in which knowledge is disseminated and shared amongst researchers. This occurs primarily through peer refereed scholarly journals, books and conferences.”
    • key feature of academic articles:
      • contain original research/findings or reviews
      • are blind peer-reviewed or validated
    • Cuthbert believes reach of journals = better than edited volumes, book chapters due to the digital reach of journals, potential and ability for “generating citations” of your work
  • Why publish during the doctorate?
    • Major change over time, within the last 30 years – changes in the purpose of the doctorate
      • leave grad school only with completed dissertation = no longer enough
      • 2-3 published papers whether published or “in the pipeline”
  • Academic publishing – Why is it so hard?
    • Kamler and Thomson (2006):
      • writing is a social practice → solitary nature of writing = deceptive. “We write ourselves, but we write for others.”
        • goes back to point of WHO are we writing for?
  • have an outlook that emphasizes writing for publication
    • to publish, you need to have something to say, but how will you know?
    • Discuss with your supervisor how to position your research
  • What makes a good paper? LESS is MORE
    • don’t make it more than it should be → keep it small, contained, focused, targeted
      • can briefly describe the larger project, but make clear which one to two major ideas/theses you’ll be focusing on
    • one great idea/significant finding/compelling argument = one good paper
      • see journals in your field, will see these examples
    • don’t make the mistake of attempting to put too much in a paper
    • a publication plan for a given paper should slice of ‘bits’ of the research and craft them into publishable papers
    • you cannot fit a whole thesis into a paper
  • “Fit the article to the journal, not the other way around.”
  • “Plan your publications before you start your research and experiments.”
  • Be prepared to go through many drafts as you exercise the “less is more” principle.
  • Making abstracts concrete:
    • through the writing process, the abstract is a living document
      • a very disciplined form of writing
    • concise “road map” of paper you intend to write/are writing – but modifiable as the writing process shows a better way through
    • a good abstract can keep you “honest” as a writer
    • on completion of paper, abstract needs to be revised and finalized to accurately reflect the paper now completed
    • good abstracts do not undersell or oversell the paper they describe
    • good abstracts will invite appropriate audience(s) to read paper
  • Responding to readers’ reports:
    • stay calm! → “blind review process = a brutally honest process”
      • also need to understand the “economy” of the reviewer process → reviewers not paid for their work – taking papers on a volunteer basis, on top of all their other work and duties
    • Accept – rarely happens that a paper is accepted outright (only twice in Cuthbert’s personal experience)
      • minor revisions
      • major revisions
    • reject (for that particular journal = the end, move on to another journal)
    • highlight main criticisms (major vs. minor)
    • criticisms versus suggestions for improvement
    • scope of journal, IF etc.
    • re-read the next day (not the same day you get the paper back)
    • send to co-authors (assign tasks with deadline)
    • track changes
    • usually several weeks to revise – thinking time!
  • building your C.V.
    • aim for both breadth and depth
      • get some runs on the board – not all need to be high-ranking
      • don’t ignore quality though
      • conferences
      • book chapters – can open a wider range of publication options (but often less accessible for citation purposes)
      • look for opportunities to publish different kinds of articles – i.e. review, methodological, results, etc.
    • consider time to publication (often longer than journals estimate; usually about a year)
    • cast a wide net
  • Finding the right journal
    • about 25,000+ peer reviewed English-language academic journals
    • different categories:
      • peer reviewed/non peer reviewed
      • subscription/open access
      • disciplinary/cross disciplinary audiences
      • special issues/standard issues
      • influential/not so influential
    • What are the journals that you’re currently reading, that you keep coming back to?
    • What are the key journals in your field?
      • Impact factor
      • average number of citations to articles per journal
      • journal rankings
    • particularly when you start out, consider not aiming too high and risking disappointment → take advice
  • look at the journal for:
    • aims
    • scope
    • nature of contribution sought
    • intended readership
    • editorial board members
  • also ask your supervisor(s) where they publish and why
  • Write early, write often:
    • from day one
    • “identify do-able chunks of writing that could form the basis of an article, say 700, 1000, 1500 and up to 3000 words on a specific topic or theme”
    • build up a body of writing by accretion – i.e. small bits at a time, one article after another
    • “Treat writing as research planning and development: Don’t turn what should be molehills into mountains.”
      • treat writing as exploratory, contingent, provisional → should always be able/open to revising, re-packaging for another process
      • every article is just another idea – not the whole thesis
    • get over perfectionism and masterpiece syndrome
      • good writing = heavily vetted writing
      • “there’s no such thing as perfect”
      • this is an attempt to give an account – the very best attempt one can give at a particular time, but an attempt nonetheless
  • Thinking things through:
    • many criticisms have merit, ask: Did the reviewer make a good point? Did you write clearly?
      • Sometimes reviewers miss the point, don’t appear to have read the paper carefully → if you really disagree with a criticism of the paper, you can argue your case—politely and respectfully—to the managing editor (be judicious, be polite)
    • keep a detailed list of all the revisions made, which reader (A, B, C) recommended → use when sending paper back to managing editor to explain what you’ve done
    • consider more experiments, major rewrite versus submitting paper elsewhere
    • bear in mind, overwhelming majority of the papers submitted through the peer review process are improved as a result of the process
  • What makes a good abstract?
    • “abstracts” key, salient features of the paper: it does not retell the paper in miniature
      • the what, why, how and so what statement of the research paper
    • What is the paper about? From what larger project does this paper arise?
    • Why is the research reported here necessary and important? So what? Why the paper addresses a significant gap in knowledge.
    • How was the research reported in the paper conducted?
    • Generally this statement is between 150-250 words
    • every word counts
    • consider vocabulary of abstract and keywords: accuracy and web searchability are key considerations (in BOTH abstract and the title of the paper)
      • you want people to find your paper
      • Cuthbert in favor of “non-poetic” paper titles – keywords, searchability over poeticism
  • examined abstracts submitted by workshop participants

“Preparing for the [Academic] Job Market” workshop notes

Dr. James Coltrain, UNL
Dr. James Coltrain, UNL

Below are my rough notes from a whirlwind workshop on the subject of preparing for the academic job market. Dr. James Coltrain led the workshop, which took place on August 21st at the 2014 History Department Graduate Student Retreat.

Preparing for the [academic] job market:

  • every aspect of getting a job will be a grind”
  • being a good job candidate = not same as being a good grad student
  • To be a good job candidate:
    • for an elite position, at a Research I university have:
      • publications (ideally 2-3 peer-reviewed article in your field; any other kinds of publications = a good idea; chapter in edited edition; anything shows through an editorial process)
      • major conference presentations (as many as you can – esp. the big ones like the AHA, OAH; you need people in your field who can advocate for you)
      • a fellowship or two (money to go to a library = very good; apply early – in the Fall; EVEN if it’s only a week’s stay at a library it will help your C.V.)
      • teaching experience (do everything you can to teach your own class + develop the major courses you know you’ll be expected to teach)
      • for digital jobs: do something with strong disciplinary purpose (significant historical questions) AND be knowledgeable about a particular kind of technology (esp. good if its innovative)
      • show impact on your field: If you nail your dissertation, what would the textbook companies be OBLIGATED to change (a chapter, even a sentence)?
  • Where should you look for job listings?
    • Hnet.org
    • academic jobs wiki (google this, disciplinary areas divided by subfield)
    • AHA – “last generation”
    • Chronicle of Higher Education
    • follow a bunch of people on Twitter, institutes – see what pops up
  • Your cover letter – no more than 2 pages; single-spaced
    • must be PERFECT → okay if you spend a month on it
    • VERY direct intro – you, what you’re applying for, your research
    • how your research changes your field, your major field → explain in way that non-experts can understand
    • methodology, which archives you used, travel you’ve done, previous discourse you’re engaging with
    • your WIDER research, how you fit into a school, a mode of analysis, pitch your NEXT project → your next book, connected in some way to your current book (not committed to this, so BE BOLD)
    • brag → don’t just repeat your c.v. – substantive things that don’t come across in your c.v. (communicate its importance); remember: people evaluating you are NOT in your area
    • everything else, especially TEACHING and SERVICE (up to two paragraphs); good place for school specific arguments (particular center you’d be excited to work in; you have a relationship to the place – but don’t go overboard)
    • change this cover letter for different DISCIPLINES you are applying for & for different LEVELS of universities (research, community colleges)
      • work influenced by debates in other fields, taught classes in other areas, etc.
      • cover letter for teaching institution versus R-1 institution → ALWAYS start with your dissertation, adapt your paragraphs after that (emphasize teaching experience and philosophy)
  • Your C.V. – every important thing you’ve done in different categories
    • emphasize professional-level stuff over grad-level stuff (prioritize/list them in this order)
    • 3-4 sentence abstract of your dissertation on your C.V. = good sometimes
    • 2-3 pages of GREAT stuff is better than padding it
  • 3 letters of recommendation
    • 1st person = your advisor → CUSTOMIZED letter; CRITICAL (hopefully “says it all”)
    • 2nd person = could be a committee member, someone who knows your RESEARCH very well 
    • 3rd person = lots of options: someone you taught for that knows you very well, someone at another school IF you know them WELL; want someone with a NATIONAL profile whenever possible
    • NO LAST MINUTE stuff on requests for letters → send a spreadsheet with deadlines, start as early as possible
      • about a month’s notice = the “sweet spot”
    • Interfolio = good; generic letter of recommendation that YOU write for the advisor to give them an idea of what you think you need
      • don’t be afraid to GET ON your letter writers if they’re not keeping up with deadlines – “it’s part of their job” to write letters for you
  • Some things often (but not always) asked for in job applications:
    • writing sample
      • dissertation chapter OR peer-reviewed published article → whichever is BETTER
      • stay within the page limit
    • teaching evaluations → pick the best, most informative ones
    • teaching portfolio – including syllabi (classes taught, planned), evaluations, teaching philosophy
      • come back to those books from your comps for the basic courses you know you will be asked to teach (show your historiography)
      • what you do, why you do it, assignments given (avoid buzzwords without examples)
    • research statement – same as you would do in your cover letter
      • your dissertation, methods
      • final 3rd = future project
    • diversity statement: have someone who actually IS from a diverse background read it
      • how you approach your subject with diversity in mind (pedagogy, research, community)
        • e.g. content of what you teach; can mention your background (but don’t assume that has significance)
  • do as much as you can during the SUMMER
    • different applications will ask for different things, so you’ll constantly be tweaking your application materials
  • significant, polished segment of your dissertation ready to go (in the summer if applying for fall jobs)
    • don’t be shy → go for it if you’re interested
  • Stages of the interview:
    • job posting come out June – January
      • most to Dec. 15th
    • get 70-100 applicants – few cuts may happen early on
      • e.g. send more writing samples (as much of your dissertation as you have)
      • e.g. Skype interviews – look at the CAMERA, wear what you wear to teach in, be in a quiet, well-lit space
      • e.g. phone interview – dress up for your phone interview (state of mind for your interview), have the internet/notes up
      • e.g. conference interview – not all have a conference interview (cuts made to 15-20 or 7-8) → it’s an accomplishment to get there, take it as a good sign
        • be prepared to be at the AHA → think about your finances (ask the department, the center you’re involved in to support your need to be there)
        • make sure you have enough turn-around time (1 hour or so) between interviews
        • ask for names of committee members → do research on them
        • be relaxed for the interview
          • as nice as you can look without being too formal (NOT about style here, about professionalism)
        • get to hotel early, get to the room 5 minutes early
        • bring a clipboard with paper to write on
          • small amount of notes = okay
    • 1st question is ALWAYS – tell me about your research (3 minutes, just like your cover letter – research, methods)
      • theory, method that influenced your research, how it fits within your field
      • the next project
      • teaching experiences, philosophy
      • classes willing, able to teach (make sure you aren’t taking anyone else’s classes at the institution you’re applying for)
      • they’ll tell you about the department, position → you’d BETTER HAVE QUESTIONS FOR THEM
        • read everything on the department website, “stalk” your committee members
        • make YOU and THEM look good with your questions
        • don’t go off on tangents (stick to the basics – emphasizing your research/teaching in your questions)
  • 3-4 folks in the interview on campus
    • everything else in your life is on hold” → don’t be a problem for them, put everything else aside
    • will be stressful, lengthy → give recovery time to yourself between these
    • research every single person you’ll be meeting with on your campus visit
      • try to memorize some names & faces
    • get an itinerary
    • pack a carry-on if you can in case your bags get lost
      • layers, options
    • TONS of meetings – be as friendly as possible, have good posture, emphasize positive things (topics of convo reflect well on them)
    • if you have a weak spot in your candidacy – find a strength to focus on
    • lots of meals – dinners, lunches; “you are on the clock” (do not get drunk); if anyone else gets water you get water
      • do not gossip but be human → bring conversation back to you and the job if it drifts TOO far off
      • order neat, fairly moist food (you’ll be talking the most out of everyone; something easy to eat, not messy)
      • you’re always on; you’re never off”
    • the job talk → 35 minutes to 1 hour
      • questions can be very long sometimes so NEVER go over
      • practice!
      • Have great visuals BUT be prepared to have NO powerpoint
        • have handouts as your backup
      • always have a hard copy or two of your presentation
        • usb drive
        • adaptors
        • e-mail your presentations
      • probably a chapter, or a combo of 2 chapters → but hit on every important aspect of your dissertation
        • mention ALL the important work you’ve done
        • have as many people review this in advance as possible
        • bring water with you
        • clear, direct loud voice – speak slowly and DO NOT READ, make eye contact
        • speak to the person on “your team” as much as you can
        • build natural speech into your talk
        • Q & A: set up possible questions in your talk
          • end your answers with seeding another question
          • anticipate things you’ve been asked to emphasized in your application process
        • stand up for your project → defend your work
        • do the best that you can with “the jerk(s)”
          • there will be people who are aggressive → handle it as respectfully as you can and explain your perspective
        • most of the people in the audience don’t know who’s right”
          • can say something along the lines of “historians continue to debate this point…”
        • think about talking to the aggressive person right afterward → “My committee and I have talked about and debated this too…”
  • adopt a “dating” attitude toward this
    • don’t smother them, don’t creep them out
    • the thank you e-mail after your interview, to the chair of the committee, = a MUST (right after you leave) → show them you don’t take them for granted
      • exercise restraint in impulse to check in on progress
    • don’t be a problem → your personal preferences don’t matter
      • go with the flow
      • only exception = ask for a minimum of half an hour before your job talk, alone, preferably in the room you’ll be speaking in
      • don’t say a negative thing about a person, place, thing, entity the ENTIRE time you are there → you never know who you’ll be making angry (connections of connections)
    • you are nice to everyone the entire time you are there
    • If they had you, they wouldn’t need you.”
    • may not even be the committee that makes the final decision → could be a total faculty vote, higher up considerations
      • keep your distance from any personal connections you may already have at the institution
    • salary, disability, information about the town → DON’T ask until AFTER the offer
      • be light on personal information
      • don’t engage in controversies
      • job offer: be clear about expectations
        • only time you get in touch = if you’re considering another offer (to give them a timeline so you can make a decision)
        • make an effort to negotiate a salary, but realize there is not a lot of wiggle room
  • teaching colleges may ask you to do a guest lecture → they may even dictate which course you’ll lecture
    • so don’t OVER-REACH or over-sell yourself in your application on what you can teach
    • especially true at small liberal arts colleges
    • do a “super-lecture” → rich with sources, images
      • and be a politician with the “students” (who may or may not actually be teaching the course) → get to know them a tad
  • you cannot get down on yourself about rejection
    • & you cannot try to analyze the cause of that rejection
      • it’s such a HUGE combination of circumstances that inform the final decision
    • the pool is too large, the sample size is too small
    • don’t read gossip about jobs (e.g. on the job wiki listed above)
    • also DON’T complain about why you think you didn’t get a particular job
      • don’t check this more than once per week
      • don’t post on this wiki
      • don’t count yourself out → might be a failed job search, other people might have taken other jobs → be patient (this process can literally take a very long time)
  • What if I can’t get a job?
    • Major use of time and effort to get on the market
    • be realistic in both a positive and negative way
    • if your diss is done, don’t get a single conference interview → you may have learned something useful and can try again
    • there are no guarantees because it’s so competitive
    • diversify your skills while you’re here
      • e.g. alt-ac, digital → but don’t over-romanticize the opportunities here (these are still very competitive)
      • think about what else you can do and get started on it (volunteering, internship)
    • post-docs = NOT a “fallback,” still very competitive
      • know yourself” – what this does at best is to extend your shelf-life a while longer
    • know the geography of your job search and weigh your options against the post-doc (compare the resources, connections you have where you are against where you are going – what if you don’t get a job after your post-doc?)
      • consider work a post-doc requires of you too
    • you are probably qualified, but that might not be the way things shake down
      • (American Idol comparison)
    • discourages ANYONE from taking adjunct position in hopes that anyone will turn it into a permanent position
      • okay” for just a year
      • it’s a dead-end” → better investment to focus on writing, researching, speaking (not being a 2nd class citizen basically – no health insurance, pitiful pay, no security, etc.)

Surviving life as a first-generation grad student, part II

Image of flower in concrete by KittyThis post has been percolating in my head for some time, perhaps since I first entered graduate school or maybe even since I became an undergraduate. I’ve whittled it down to what I hope are those points most useful for my primary intended audience: other first-generation students — both those currently in grad school (a.k.a. “FGGS”) or those considering grad school. But I also hope non-first geners find this post insightful and informative. Anyone involved in academia should be attuned to the issues and experiences that impact first-generation students, particularly given the recent political push away from affirmative action and toward income and class-based college admission policies as well as the fact that nearly one in four American children are currently growing up in families living below the federal poverty level.

Academic culture has many layers, and it takes time for those new to the academic sphere to recognize, process, and understand its many nuances. Although specific conditions vary from one discipline and professional environment to the next, most cases of culture shock among FGGS revolve around systemic issues of class present throughout academia as well as questions related to adaptation, conformity, integration, and (gasp!) dissent to certain elements of academic culture.

FGGS must first develop an awareness of the character of academic culture, then learn to employ their knowledge of both academic culture and the culture from which they came in a way that not only promotes their personal academic success but hopefully also enhances the scope of academia to the benefit of other disadvantaged and non-traditional students who follow in their footsteps. Below are just a handful of points that may aid my fellow FGGS in this difficult work:

Be idealistic, but not too idealistic. If you’ve made it this far chances are good that perseverance, resilience, and a positive attitude about your own potential played no small role. Hold on to these qualities as you move forward in your graduate career, but monitor your expectations of academia as you move through graduate school. Every system has flaws and, yes, even your professors are human. Too much idealism about the nature of academia and its members will make you more likely to be much too hard on both yourself and those around you, and will probably hamper your academic progress.

Find an academic adviser that is also a mentor. Surround yourself with as many positive examples and as much support as possible. Do everything you can to find an academic adviser you admire, both as a professional and a person. This may be difficult if your program pre-selects your adviser, if your options are limited, or simply because it takes time to get to know another person. Certainly ask around about someone you are considering as an adviser, especially among fellow graduate students in your program who’ve been around the block. One good way to test the waters is to set up a face-to-face meeting with your prospective adviser, “come out” to her or him as a first-generation student, and ask for some specific recommendations on how you can succeed in the program. If this person draws a blank, grows visibly uncomfortable, develops a hostile tone, or completely dismisses the notion that the FGGS experience differs in any way from that of other graduate students, seek someone else. If you don’t have any alternatives to such a person, stay positive and build a collection of other people — both within your program and without — who can be the mentors you need to be successful.

Stay connected with your family and your past. Don’t forget where you came from and who helped get you to where you are now. Your network of family and friends can help carry you through any culture shock and other stress you experience as you work toward your academic goals. Given that many first-generation students come from low-income backgrounds, however, there may be experiences and elements of your past you would rather not think about or engage with. But your past made you who you are, and your perspective and insight are greatly needed in academia. There are many others who would like to be where you are, but for whatever reason will never get there. Consider the ways you can be their spokesperson, but don’t feel pressure to be the representative of a given culture, gender, race, or class.

Work through any difficulties with impostor syndrome, anxiety, depression, personal tragedy, the struggles of family members and friends, and the frustrations that accompany years of work as a low-wage, low-status graduate student. You won’t do yourself any favors by trying to avoid any of these problems. Learning healthy ways to cope with stress will be critical to your success as a graduate student. It can be tempting to harp upon how unfair it is that you have difficulties and disadvantages to cope with that others don’t, but focusing on these differences changes nothing and can be unhealthy. A little commiseration with fellow FGGS goes a long way in relieving some of this tension, but is no substitute for counseling and psychological help when it’s needed. If you find yourself overwhelmed or struggle with your daily habits, sleep patterns, academic progress, and personal relationships seek professional help. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Most colleges and universities have a variety of mental health services available to students, either free of charge or at very low cost, and all mental health providers operate under strict privacy guidelines. Consider how such tools can help you succeed and check into your options.

Speak up. Be a voice for your experiences and perspectives. Doing so will not only make the road less bumpy for those who follow in your footsteps; it will also enhance academia’s educational environment by pushing those within it to expand their understanding of the diversity of cultures and circumstances in which people live.

Surviving life as a first-generation grad student, part I

Following a semester filled with dissertation work, constant lecture writing, grading, and meetings, pedagogical experimentation, a hurried research trip, a cross-country conference presentation, and all the self-doubt, exhaustion, elation, and humility that comes with teaching one’s first course, I now return to regular blogging.

And I’d like to do so, first, by pointing to some excellent posts I read recently in GradHacker on the subject of first-generation students in graduate school. Those of you familiar with my blog know I’m a first-generation college and graduate student and believe many of the perspectives and concerns of first-generation students have yet to be fully recognized and appreciated within the academy, so I was glad to see some attention devoted to this topic in GradHacker. Jess Waggoner, Auriel Fournier, and Alicia Peaker each contribute insightful posts that not only offer honest advice to first-generation grad students (a.k.a. “FGGS”), but also explain aspects of the first-generation experience to those outside the FGGS community. Most of their recommendations wisely focus less on what separates FGGS from their peers than on ways FGGS can connect with others–be they other members of academia, mentors, or even members of one’s own family. Although I’ll leave the meat of each post for you to peruse on your own I’ve listed some of my favorite highlights below and, in the second part of this post, I’ll offer some of my own recommendations for first-generation grad students.

First up, by order of publication: Jess Waggoner’s “Beyond Imposter Syndrome: Graduate Study for First-Generation Students.”

‘Impostor Syndrome’ is often thrown around as a one-size-fits-all pathology for first-generations, women, students with disabilities, and students of color who feel uncomfortable with the conventions of the academy. Let me change the terms of the conversation a bit: you don’t have a ‘syndrome.’ Academia is just a confusing system that isn’t always the most transparent.

Well said, Ms. Waggoner, well said. Dominant systems and cultures generally expect would-be members to “climb up” and conform to their norms rather than recognize, appreciate, and integrate the norms of “lesser/lower/outside” groups. Many academic disciplines have documented the tendency toward this process in detail, but it can be difficult to discern in one’s own behavior and interaction and still more difficult to discern the ways it weaves itself into the structures of an entire system. Waggoner describes herself as a “slightly obnoxious class warrior” by the end of her undergraduate career. To this I say hey, aren’t most people who challenge dominant systems and cultures, who prod so-called insiders to confront the experiences, perspectives, and realities of so-called outsiders usually considered at least slightly “obnoxious”? If educators within the academy expect to be able to challenge their students’ beliefs, to make them confront problems of thought and analysis even if it makes them uncomfortable, why should members of the academy expect any less of themselves? But yes, discomfort can be obnoxious.

Next, Auriel Fournier’s “Family Ties and Grad School ‘Why’s’.”

I’m the first member of my family to go to graduate school. In their mind I’m still ‘just a student.’ They don’t understand the intricacies of my job or that I even have one…If your family and friends aren’t academics there can be some communication breakdown since they aren’t going through the highs and lows of grad school.

Ah, yes, the “when are you going to get a real job?” perspective, generally also accompanied by the “what do you mean you’re busy working?” line of thought. I admire all Fournier’s recommendations for maintaining solid family ties while pursuing a graduate degree. Communication problems can, of course, arise in the life of any graduate student but I agree they are much more likely to occur when one’s family has no personal knowledge of the college or grad school experience. It takes a lot of hard work to explain what’s involved in grad school and why certain activities are required within a given profession or career path. Often it can seem like another side project, one that requires constant monitoring and regular adjustments to maintain. Like most everything else in grad school, it’s a balancing act.

Finally, Alicia Peaker’s “From First-Generation College Student to First-Generation Grad Student”:

Always remember that these kinds of regular failures are NORMAL and do not mean that you are incompetent, merely learning. And there is a LOT of learning in graduate school. At a certain point, graduate school is more a test of how well you can learn from failures and keep persevering rather than producing perfect work.

Peaker offers some excellent advice for FGGS struggling with their new status and workload as grad students. I most admire her encouragement to find common ground with other grad students and her recommendations for coping with failure. My impression, from a combination of personal experience and working with first-generation, low-income, and minority students as a graduate assistant in my first year of grad school, is that most FGGS already know a lot about perseverance. “Failure” might be less a problem for FGGS than letting go of perfectionism or over-worrying about the way academic performance and professional potential is perceived by faculty and mentors. There are also still many issues related to institutional support when it comes to students experiencing personal hardship or family crisis as a result of their background or circumstances. Often there are few formal protocols in place, for instance, to ensure that a student who is unable to complete a project on time due to personal crisis is not misjudged as academically, intellectually, or motivationally-challenged merely as a result of the personal challenges that student faces. Here there remains much work to be done, as opinion and interpretation ought not play a larger role than reality in matters of appointments, grades, funding, and opportunity.

Peaker writes, “there is a major lack of research about first-generation grad students (FGGS).” Hopefully the more FGGS who enter graduate school, the more their experiences and perspectives will contribute to the diversity of the academic community.

You can view part II of this post here.

“The Job Interview,” UNL History Department Workshop Notes

Below are my notes from the UNL History Department’s workshop for graduate students on the subject of the academic job interview. It was one of my favorite workshops of the semester and included a lot of specific insight into the interview process at community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and research one universities. I’ve included links to profiles of the panelists when possible.

Department Workshop: “The Job Interview,” 11/30/2012

Dr. Carole Levin introduces panelists: Joy Schultz of Metro Community College, Omaha; Meghan Winchell of Nebraska Wesleyan University; Timothy Elston of Newberry College, South Carolina; Katrina Jagodinsky of University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Joy Schultz, Metro Community College, Omaha:

  • job opening at Metro starting Monday, Dec. 3rd – requires 18 credit hours in the field to be an adjunct –> Schulz: great way to get teaching experience for your resume
    • Metro has 30,000 students across all campuses, 4 full-time history faculty – jobs more competitive now (more than 200 applications for 1 or 2 positions)
  • Pros of working at a community college: very student-oriented, full control over classroom (can go into context you are interested in/working on currently), small class sizes (10-35 students max), very flexible work schedule (evenings, weekends, online; standard schedule = 2x/week), can go very in-depth in your subject matter
    • emphasis on teaching and relationships with students (mentoring)
  • Cons: students of diverse backgrounds (16-60 years old), no academic requirements for entry into the course, heavy workload (18 credit hours/quarter – although sometimes same course twice + 2 online), time for research = very, very limited
  • personal relationships will help you make connections over time (adjuncting now helps with full-time interviewing later)
    • expect the interview to include a 20-minute teaching demonstration –> demonstrate range of teaching methods (for audience of diverse backgrounds) and use of technology in the classroom

Meghan Winchell, Nebraska Wesleyan University:

  • phone interviews = “tricky,” almost a separate topic from AHA interviews
  • research not just about the school you are interviewing for – prove to yourself and to them that you can live happily in the town the school is in (Winchell also thinks this helps build a personal connection right away)
  • Tips: small schools are looking for teachers (“jack of all trades” – SO also advises to get a lot of teaching experience now and come to interview with syllabi, teaching statement, teaching evaluations); be sure your courses are different from the faculty where you are applying
    • be prepared to meet with everyone at a small school (because everyone will talk about you); have fun and be personable
    • Winchell says sometimes it’s okay/appropriate to ask about the schools for kids if you have them or things related to your hobbies

Timothy Elston, Newberry College:

  • small liberal arts colleges (e.g. Newberry College = 1,100 students); faith-based colleges looking at starting good programs in teaching
  • these colleges often include students in the interview process (this matters); understand the accrediting agency that the college is responsible to (need to prove accreditation in areas you are teaching)
  • try to give the impression you are happy with everything about the college and will get along with everyone
  • get access to a faculty manual (many small liberal arts colleges don’t offer tenure – only 3 or 6 year contracts); teaching is #1 (service to college and town important too); beware the administrative assistants (they can make or break you)
    • perk = tuition exchange (for kids)
  • you will interview with everyone, take them all seriously – are you a good fit? (input from variety of perspectives)
  • Newberry College putting an ad out for U.S. History soon

Katrina Jagodinsky, University of Nebraska-Lincoln:

  •  echoes advice to “bulk up” on teaching experience while obtaining the PhD
  • Jagodinsky was on the job market for 2 years and applied to everything (especially community colleges in regions she wanted to live in) – says 1st year apply for everything; 2nd year apply in a more targeted way
  • interviews at research one universities: dissertation should be finished (or nearly finished) AND should be able to discuss your next project (to show you can achieve tenure)
    • demonstrate an ability to teach for both undergraduates and graduate students, balance service with teaching (service for networking – illustrates dedication and enthusiasm; CAN discuss your experience in a grad student organization or other committee work)
    • be sure to come off as positive and energetic
    • the job talk is emphasized but will have teaching demonstrations too, meetings with both administration and students
      • do NOT read your job talk (it’s about 45 minutes and should be strategic, not comprehensive coverage, high image, low text powerpoint)
      • be prepared for some people in your audience to be uninterested in what you have to say (based on faculty interest and your contribution to the department)
      • explain what phase your dissertation is in, what course you will teach with it, specify where you hope to publish it and how (specific presses, books or article series), demonstrate ability to recruit undergrads to your courses and into the department)
    • ask meaningful questions of the faculty – what is their experience with committees, chairs, diverse students, any other problems you’ve faced; illustrate desire and ability to organize workshops, symposiums (show off your networking)
    • re-emphasizing need to be positive: don’t appear tired, think of how others are feeling even when you are stressed out, nervous, and tired –> think of the interview as much easier than the job you are about to take on
    • graduate student meetings – demonstrate ability to fill a mentorship role, let them talk about themselves
    • ask tough questions of deans and administrators – tenure rate, department strategic plan, areas for improvement, opportunities for faculty research funding, diversity on campus re: faculty and students, benefit questions (here Jagodinsky says it is “safe” to tip your hand about kids, marriage)
    • wear suit to job talk, 2 other dressy outfits for rest of visit
    • be positive and humble (others are there to help you be better); know how you’ll fit within the department – know who the faculty are, what they study, and ask them good questions to show you care and are serious

Taking the time to be involved

Hubble ultra deep field scanThe most esteemed Captain James Tiberius Kirk once said, “If something’s important, you make the time.” This quote stuck in my mind from the first time I heard it, and not simply because I belong to that cadre of academics who possess an affinity for most things Star Trek. No, high correlation between academia and trek-philia aside, I appreciate the sentiment that in spite of whatever else one has going on in one’s life, there are some things that one simply must make time for–either because they are just that important or because they are, in the long run, good for one.  This might also be understood as keeping an eye on the “bigger picture” and understanding that there are things in life that are larger and more significant than one’s own (selfish) needs and worries. In my experience it is often the larger, the more significant-than-thyself things that actually help me push through challenges and day-to-day problems. Knowing that I’m helping myself in the long run doesn’t hurt either. Taking the time to be involved can be difficult for the ever-busy graduate student, but it’s ultimately a game in which there are no losers. Being involved will not only help you stay sane; it’s also a very useful tool for gaining the sorts of skills and connections that improve your prospects on the job market.

There are several reasons I’m so pushy on this issue. Having spent most of my undergraduate career not being involved in any sort of service work–academic or otherwise–I speak from experience when I say that being involved pays off. As an undergraduate I paid my own way. My family did not possess the means to contribute to–let alone support–my college education, so I did it myself. I was fortunate enough to have access to the wonderful (pre-Bush level) federal Pell grants and I won a few scholarships here and there. But I also typically worked no less than two jobs simultaneously (at times it was three) while I attended school full-time and lived on my own. It used to drive me insane when I would overhear fellow classmates complain about the amount of homework they had to do, even as they admitted to not working, living at home, and sleeping in long hours every weekend. Fear of living in poverty the rest of my life served as one heck of a motivator, but so did my knowledge that I was extremely lucky to be receiving a college education at all and that my family was very proud of me for all of the work I was doing. Whenever I would get down about having to work 35, 40 or even 62 hours per week and still make time to write that paper or study for that exam, I would think about how great it would be to not have to live paycheck to paycheck and how I could–perhaps one day–even have the kind of job that would not only allow me to support myself but also help members of my family make ends meet. During those years, it was my involvement with family and appreciation of what a college education could mean for both me and them that helped me push through.

Much to my amazement I not only made it to graduate school, but was also financially able to attend thanks to a graduate assistantship with the Office of Academic Support and Intercultural Services (OASIS) at UNL’s Culture Center. My year at OASIS was crucial to my adjustment to my new status as a graduate student. Working with undergraduates who were also first-generation and from low-income backgrounds helped ease my culture shock by opening the door to an entire community of peers who faced many of the same issues I did. And, although I am an introvert at heart, I also forced myself to step up and join UNL’s History Graduate Students’ Association (HGSA). I quickly began to experience the many advantages of being involved in organizational service work while in grad school. Here are my top three reasons for promoting grad student involvement:

  1. It will pay off in the long run. This should appeal to both the humanistic and the selfish regions of your noodle. By being involved in a community of peers and volunteering your time to perform service work for the good of the whole organization you are simultaneously furthering your own interests. You are gaining experience balancing the various aspects of your life with the responsibilities of being a hard-working adult. You are collaborating, working, and communicating with others in ways that will help you forge the social connections and people skills that will serve you well throughout the rest of your life. You are demonstrating to your peers, mentors, and potential employers that you are not only capable but willing and ready to take the initiative, collaborate, and lead by example. This should make for at least a few good lines on your c.v., not to mention bragging rights about being all Spock-like by putting the good of the many above the good of the one or the few and what not.
  2. Wherever your career takes you, being involved will be key to your success. No one is going to hire you to sit in a corner all day grumbling to yourself about all the work you have to do. The jobs of the future are jobs in which the best individuals–and hence the best employees–are those who collaborate with others to the benefit of all. The sooner you start developing and practicing the kinds of skills and habits that you’ll need to obtain your dream job, the better. Like it or not, you will be competing with those of us who are involved and we’ll have all those extra lines on our vitae and pumped up reference letters to prove it. (Revisit point number one if you need more motivation.)
  3. It’s called part of being a decent human being. No moral judgment intended here but really–human society didn’t get where it is today by way of selfish individualism. You think those cave-babies made it to puberty on their own? No, they lived long enough to become your ancestors because their tribes (i.e. an aggregate of human critters working together) devised ways to shelter, protect, and provide for themselves as a unit. Surely, now and then a cave girl or boy needed time to themselves or held a few berries back as a special bedtime snack, but the point is that cooperation has done some serious good for humanity over the years. It wouldn’t hurt if we all took a turn.