Although many aspiring academics enjoy the student lifestyle, it is hard to imagine that any of them enjoy the income that comes with it. And with the job market for new tenure-track hires so competitive, it is critical that graduate students build their academic profile early. It is this profile – the scholarly reputation you have built through your academic accomplishments– that gets you to the interview. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if you are interviewed once (outside of your home institution), even if you are not successful, there is a good chance that if you persist and are flexible in your demands, you will eventually find a permanent position.
With these thoughts in mind, how can you best use your time as a graduate student to maximize your attractiveness to hiring committees?
First, and most important: Finish your degree. An unfinished dissertation makes it easy for a committee to remove you from its list of prospects.
If you make the first cut, you will typically be evaluated across four broad criteria: research, teaching, service and fit. The first three are within your control, but the last one is not.
Research is typically quantified at three levels: grants and awards received; books and papers published; and conference presentations and other public lectures given.
Keeping in mind your aim to maximize your research profile without delaying your convocation date, consider the following:
- Finish your degree as quickly as possible
- Apply for grants regularly
- Make everything you write for credit count: turn course papers into articles; review books on your reading lists for major journals
- Turn course papers into conference presentations
- Give public talks about research you’ve completed
- Write articles that are unrelated to your coursework or dissertation unless they are guaranteed publication
- Feel guilty about asking for letters of reference
- Organize conferences unless you’re sure they will lead to books, and/or edit books unless you’re certain that they’ll be published quickly
- Write new conference papers that you don’t plan to publish
- Spend days developing new lectures that you’re only going to give once
There are four basic kinds of teaching experience: sessional teaching; TAing; writing instruction; and working in a teaching development centre.
Assuming that you are seeking a traditional academic position, the first two are the most important. The latter two (and particularly the writing instructor position) might be valuable in applications to primarily undergraduate institutions. In seeking to optimize your experiences, consider the following:
- Teach courses in your research area if you can plan them quickly
- Teach first and second year survey courses. This experience is what hiring committees are looking for
- TA for your research supervisor once or twice
- Accept a marking TAship if it introduces you to a new supervisor
- Work in a writing centre if the pay is good and the student body is diverse
- Agree to teach courses just for the money. The money you earn is not worth the time you will give up
- Teach courses outside of your general areas of expertise before your dissertation is finished
- Deprive yourself of other potential (teaching) referees by TAing for the same supervisor every year
- Think that a marking TAship has any value on the job market as teaching experience
- Work in a writing centre more than 10-12 hours per week. It will exhaust you
Additional Teaching Opportunities
Since universities are becoming literate in the scholarship of teaching and learning, other, less traditional ways of demonstrating your commitment to teaching also count:
- Take or audit a course in university teaching methods;
- Draft a teaching philosophy and/or a statement of teaching interests;
- Begin compiling a teaching dossier;
- Supervise a senior independent study; choose particularly strong students and encourage them to present or publish their work.
Service to your institution fulfills two important functions: it demonstrates that you are a team player, and it gives you insight into how departments and hiring committees really work.
Keeping these goals in mind, as well as the need to finish your degree in a timely manner, consider the following:
- Agree to participate on a search or hiring committee
- Volunteer to participate in tenure and promotion committees that don’t involve anyone you know or work with
- Think of service on your graduate student council as anything but an excellent social networking opportunity.
- Over-invest yourself in committees that focus on curriculum development. They are too time-consuming for someone without a completed dissertation
For more on this topic, see Paul Gray and David E. Drew’s new book, What They Didn’t Teach You in Graduate School (Stylus Publishing, 2008).
Adam Chapnick is the deputy director of education at the Canadian Forces College and an associate professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.