Before the Job Market: Building Those Credentials

Diversity of Competence:

Obviously, the more areas of academic competence you can claim, the more attractive you'll be to a potential employer. Aside from situating your work in a literary period, you should probably be able to demonstrate competence in a particular methodology/theoretical approach (e.g. textual editing, gender studies). In addition, if you have some research or teaching experience in related fields (another historical period, areas such as women's studies or popular culture), this should improve your marketability. (This is particularly true if the "related field" is "writing," whether that writing is Composition, Creative Writing, Business English, or Technical Writing.) Hiring committees are often looking for people who can fill several of their teaching/research needs.

All of this leads into the choice of a dissertation topic. You should, of course, write about what interests you, but, in selecting a topic, you do need to keep in mind current trends in your field. Generally, the movement in recent years has been away from New Critical single author studies and toward dissertations that link an author or authors to the cultural context (e.g. Whitman and civil war photography), or that address a broad cultural or theoretical topic (e.g. the representation of masculinity in English literature from 1840-1900; ideas of motherhood in American literature and film since 1920), or that put a new theoretical twist on familiar material (e.g. performance criticism of Shakespeare's tragedies). The advantage of such dissertations is that diversity of competence is built in: you can claim to be an expert, for example, both on Shakespeare and performance criticism itself.

Advice: Make sure that your dissertation topic places you within a recognizable historical period or area of study since these are the rubrics that are used to divide up the field of job applicants. Your dissertation analyzing the decentering of the concept of the gerbil in literature using Marxist-Feminist standpoint theory may be brilliant, but unless you can demonstrate that it clearly matches one of the job categories, such as Twentieth-Century British or American Literature, you will have a difficult time positioning yourself on the job market.

Conferences:

These are important. Hiring committees want some evidence that you have some experience presenting papers and that your research has been validated by acceptance for conference panels. And, in any case, conferences are a good way of making professional contacts ("networking") and increasing your visibility.

 While it is hard to overdo conference attendance (no one is going to trash your job application because you have too many conference presentations), it is important to remember that quality here is as, or more, important than quantity. An MLA presentation is probably worth three or four papers at regional divisions of the Popular Culture Association. By the same token, presentations at graduate student conferences or in state will be discounted (because the assumption in the former case is that such conferences are not "real" and the assumption in the latter case is that you had an "in"). This is not fair, but that's the way it is. Obviously, such presentations won't hurt you, but it's good to be able to include them in a list of other presentations. If you have any questions about the relative prestige of various conferences, ask a professor who works in that field.

Keep in mind, though, that you can't establish your research credentials on conference presentations alone. Beyond a certain point, your energies are more wisely spent on publishing.
 

Publication:

This is it. This is the biggie. This validates the quality of your research. Ideally, by the time you hit the market, you will have at least one major (20-30 pages in manuscript) article published or forthcoming in a national, refereed journal. While it is possible to get a job without this, this is often used as a way of making a first cut among job applicants. Since it can take as long as a year and a half or two years to get an essay accepted somewhere, you should begin now (last week) to start revising seminar papers or expanding conference presentations to send out. For help with revising, selecting appropriate journals for your essay, or finding out about the submission process itself, don't hesitate to ask faculty members for advice.

Advice: Just do it.

Teaching:

I know, you have to do this anyway. Increasingly, however, because all the applicants who make the short list for a position have published, teaching ability has become an important consideration in deciding which candidates to interview. This is especially true of smaller schools and liberal arts colleges. More and more schools are thus asking for teaching materials early on in the application process, and, when you get to a job interview, people will be interested in hearing about innovative ideas you have about assignments for composition classes and which literature surveys you can teach and what special topics courses you might put together. As such, when you design the materials for your literature classes, it's probably wise to keep in the back of your mind that many schools will want to see sample syllabi, paper topics, and so on. Keep track of assignments that worked particularly well (both in comp and lit classes) and of ideas for that dream course (undergraduate and graduate level) you'd love to do. Starting a teaching portfolio early on in your doctoral career might seem a bit anal, but it could save you some trouble at job-hunting time. Also, given the growing interest across the country in computer-assisted instruction, it might not be a bad idea to develop some familiarity with this if it interests you. If you'd like to know more about opportunities within the Department for developing this sort of competence, Susan Warshauer would be happy to talk to you.

Service:

Hiring committees like to see that a grad student will be a "good citizen" of their department. As such, it's always good to be able to claim some "service" experience, whether this entails being an editorial assistant for a journal or serving on committees or holding office in a grad student organization such as EGO or acting as the graduate assistant for a departmental program such as the Summer Seminar. Also, membership in one or two professional organizations (MLA, NCTE, the regional MLAs, etc.) will confirm your claim that you are professionally involved (and most of these organizations have lower rates for graduate students). Don't put too much of your energy into service activities, however. Finally, it doesn't count nearly as much as research and teaching.

Revised: 9/9/99