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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.