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PhDs - What to Do When You Advance To Candidacy

Congratulations!! Your qualifying exams are successfully behind you (I always had faith in you), and for the first time you can focus exclusively on what you want to do for your dissertation. No pressure yet. You won't be on the market for a couple of years at least; revel in your freedom to pursue that idea or question that first drew you to graduate school. Believe it or not, you're not going to spend every waking moment teaching, working on your dissertation or in a lab. So spend a little time looking past that glorious day when you file that baby. If you don't know who in your department helps with placement and where jobs in your field are listed, read What You Can Do As A Second Year Grad Student.

Learning About the Job Search Process

It's time to start educating yourself about the job acquisition process. Many departments will put together a series of workshops for their graduate students about the search process and the elements you need to compile to be successful (i.e., a CV, a cover letter, teaching portfolios, letter dossier, interviews and presentations). If yours does not, be sure to attend the presentations offered by the Career Center:

  • The Academic Job Search - Social Sciences & Humanities
  • The Academic Job Search - Sciences & Engineering
  • Nailing the Job Talk or Erudition Ain't Enough

Each is always offered in the fall, and usually in the spring semester as well. To view a list of upcoming workshops, login to Callisto, click on the Events tab, then the Workshops tab, and then choose Program Type Graduate Student and PhD Programs.

Other useful information is also contained in eGrad (a monthly electronic newsletter) and The Graduate (a semi-annual newsletter) produced by the Graduate Division's publications unit. Past issues are archived online and contain information and resources about a variety of topics in addition to employment; ranging from teaching to post-docs to surviving your dissertation.

Practicing the Art of the Job Talk

Once you get an on-campus interview, your formal presentation or job talk will be one of the most important factors that decides whether or not you get the offer. Most job talks are fairly dismal. The innate ability to make an organized and thought provoking presentation before a diverse audience under pressure is rare, most of us have to work at it. The job talk is the single most effective way to convey your potential as a teacher, a scholar, and a professional colleague, and a poor performance will almost certainly eliminate you from further consideration. So, how do you put yourself in a position to succeed when you face this inevitable hurdle?

Start now. Attend practice job talks given by advanced students in your department. Put yourself in the shoes of a search committee member who has already sat through a few of these (some departments have more than one search in a given year). How long can you listen before you start to play with your keys or wonder what's in the fridge for dinner? If the talk holds your interest (most will not), what makes it more compelling? When it's time for you to give your job talk, most of your audience will not be experts on your specialty and the topic of your presentation, but they will have a vote. How are you going to communicate what is unique or distinctive about your work without either flying over their heads or boring them with the basics? The answer is not to sit in your room and obsess about it; rather, go out and practice.

Seek out opportunities to give presentations and lectures on-campus and off. Broadway shows start off with trial runs in the hinterlands so they can work out all the bugs by the time they hit New York. So should you. By the time the search process reaches the on-campus interview stage, most committee members have had more than enough of the process, and would love nothing better than to have you come in and sweep them off their feet with a great presentation or even an organized, concise, clearly presented one. It doesn't happen very often. It's hard to do. After all, many Broadway shows close after a single performance.

You can do yourself a lot of good by getting the kind of experience now that will allow you to separate yourself from your peers, i.e. your competitors, when you get to the final stages. Developing a good job talk requires some work and a willingness to speak in front of strangers before you have "perfected" the product. But better you should make the inevitable, rookie mistakes before the annual meeting of the Northwestern Hermeneutics of the Edwardian Age Society, than at the research presentation for the job you really, really want.  You have great material.  You know your research is fascinating and important to your field.  Work to create a job talk that will let them in on this secret.

If there is a search in your department try to be one of the graduate students selected to participate in the process. It can be a lot of work, but it will give valuable insight into how the process plays out in your particular discipline.

Making Professional Contacts

As you get deeper into your dissertation, you are likely to become more of an expert on your particular topic than your chair, and external sources of feedback can be very helpful. If you attend a conference and are impressed by someone's remarks on an area of mutual interest, go up and introduce yourself. More than likely, they will be flattered and glad to talk with you. Mention your work and how it relates to theirs. Offer feedback on what you've heard, or, better yet, ask if you could email some thoughts and comments. If they express an interest in your work, ask if you can send them chapters or simply discuss ideas via email, fax, or phone. Don't be shy about expressing opinions in areas where you feel well informed. Having recently finished your qualifying exams, you are much more likely to be familiar with the cutting edge of your field than most of the people (soon to be colleagues and professional peers) you will meet at academic conferences. As a Berkeley PhD candidate, you will be accorded some measure of respect and people will be interested in what you have to say.

Think about having cards made with your contact numbers and especially your email address (you can have them done very cheaply at a copy place, or use a program that allows you to make them on an ink jet or laser printer). Cards are not simply an affectation. They are a very effective way of remembering the people you meet and how to get in touch with them. If you offer yours, they will generally reciprocate without your having to ask. Email provides an easy way to maintain contact and build a professional relationship with scholars and other graduate students who share your interests.

Professional contacts can also be very helpful when you go on the market. Letters from members of your department are sometimes taken with a grain of salt because of the presumption that members of your committee have an understandable desire to help you get an academic position. A strong letter from a respected scholar familiar with your work who does not have the same personal/institutional ties is usually considered more objective and, therefore, more impressive.

Avoiding Social Isolation

Writing a dissertation can be one of the most socially isolating and emotionally difficult experiences known to humankind. You can avoid the worst by taking steps to limit the extent to which you allow your dissertation, and all its associated phobias, to take over your entire life. One way of reducing the sense of isolation and anomie (yeah, I read Rousseau) is to form or join a dissertation group. It will make you feel better to know that you're not the only one who spent two hours trying to get one sentence exactly right, or had your chair look at you with an expression that seemed to say, "remind me again how you managed to pass your exams." He/she, in fact, probably just had heart burn.

A dissertation group can provide a safe haven for you to test out new ideas that you're not ready to share with members of your committee. When you lose perspective, which at some point you will, they will know enough about the forest you set out to describe to pull you out from among the trees. They will understand what you are going through and empathize in a way that family, friends, and significant others simply can't.

Regular physical activity is good (no, going to the store for more diet coke does not count); regular, social physical activity is better. Playing basketball, racquetball, softball even badly will get you out of the lab, carrel, or kitchen, and give you a chance to run off some of that nervous energy instead of letting it all settle into the point between your shoulder blades.

You're never going to spend all your time working on your dissertation, at least not productively so. Consider devoting a few hours a week to community service. Volunteer work takes you out of your daily routine into a setting where you can have an impact and, oftentimes, observe immediate and tangible evidence of your efficacy. The Cal Corps staff, located in 505 Eshelman Hall, can work with you as a graduate student to help find a situation that conforms to your availability and interests. Don't underestimate the psychic value of escaping academia for a few hours a week, and going elsewhere. You may feel that you can't afford to "waste the time," but you are likely to find that you are more productive in your research when you take a regular break and find a venue where you experience tangible progress or victories on an ongoing basis.

Advisors

As you enter this stage of your graduate career you need a dissertation advisor and a job placement advisor. If you are lucky, they will be one and the same person, but often times the person you select for the former will be either unwilling or unable to serve as the latter. If this is the case, seek out a sympathetic member of your department. What you are looking for from a placement advisor is an honest assessment of the market in your sub-field, and, later on, your cover letters, CV, and other elements of your placement file. The more junior they are, the more in touch with the vagaries of the job market and how best to present yourself they are likely to be. Many departments have one or more faculty who serve as placement advisors and have volunteered to provide these services. If they don't seem able to address your needs, don't hesitate seek out help from others on an informal basis (though admittedly this may be more problematic in some departments than in others). You can also always make an appointment to talk with one of the PhD counselors.

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This page last updated 1/24/2011 (ag)