What Your Ph.D. Can Do For You

This is what professoring is like.

This is what being a professor looks like.

After so many years in graduate school, I couldn’t quite believe it when I walked into my new department and saw my name outside the door of my new office. The surprise wasn’t having windows, though that was a delightful discovery. It was realizing that I’d finally and officially moved on from graduate student to professor mode.

I have an office!

That isn’t to say that I hadn’t been preparing for this move all along. As a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, I had great mentors who taught me to understand myself as a professional. They showed me how to develop courses, how to interact with students and introduce assignments, how to apply for grants and conferences to support a research agenda, as well as how to publish articles, apply for jobs, and—more generally—how to survive grad school. But there’s a difference between the theory and the practice. Here’s the advice I can give you from what practice I’ve had so far.

  • Diversify your interests.

You may come into graduate school expecting to spend as much time as possible on your research and getting published. And that’s not a bad idea: publications do help you get jobs. But the academic job market is tough, and looks to only get tougher. It’s important to have a diverse CV to prepare you for both academic jobs, #altac gigs, and other kinds of employment.

When doing academic interviews, I found myself talking as much about the multimedia assignments I’d designed while working the Digital Writing and Research Lab and the blogging I’d done for viz. as the research fellowships I’d taken or the dissertation itself. Likewise, when I applied for non-academic positions, my cover letters stressed my administrative experience working as the Assistant Director for the English department’s Sophomore Literature program and the skills I’d learned working as a Writing Consultant for the Undergraduate Writing Center.

Graduate students are expected to wear a lot of hats. Sometimes you might feel like the stuff that isn’t your coursework and writing is a distraction. But value that work: it may turn out to be what gets you a paycheck.

  • Practice self-care

There’s a culture in many universities that prizes busyness. Have you ever gotten into a conversation with your colleagues where you competed to see who stayed up the latest working on their reading for a class, or finishing a paper? Whoever sacrifices the most, wins? But by the time you get into writing your dissertation, you need time away from the project to let it develop. You need time to renew your energy and your enthusiasm after a long writing session. Also, it’s just plain bad for your health.

Your self-care will change depending on your interests, but taking time for yourself to relax and to pursue your own interests away from graduate school is not only how you’ll make it through, but also how you’ll be able to sustain working in an academic job.

  • Manage your time wisely.

In order to have time to practice self-care, you need to make your work time productive. In graduate school, balancing your activities, your coursework, and your dissertation is hard. Learning to meet self-imposed deadlines is difficult, especially when academic culture tends to be extremely lax about them. And the professor’s life can have even more demands than the graduate student’s: committee meetings, department meetings, professional development meetings, your classes, office hours, and endless replying to student emails can eat up an entire week. Limiting the time you spend in certain areas will help you find the 15 minutes a day you need to get your writing done.

  • Teach broadly.

I won’t go in-depth here because Victoria said it so well, but teaching different kinds of classes and student populations was incredibly valuable. When interviewing for my current job, I was able to talk confidently about my classroom practices and my ability to adapt to a new environment because I’d already done that as an instructor. I taught freshman rhetoric and writing as well as topics-based rhetoric coursework. I taught undergraduate studies courses alongside introductory major English courses. Teaching all kinds of different majors prepared me to move into teaching at a primarily STEM school much better than just teaching English majors ever could have.

Teach ALL THE THINGS

So: while it’s great if you can teach a specialist eighteenth-century course, you’ll still be able to make a great claim for being able to teach it if you’ve designed many other courses. But so many of the jobs you may end up taking won’t have space for you to specialize so closely, either.

  • Present your work to lots of different people.

Going to ASECS has been very helpful for my professional development, as I’ve interacted with great scholars and got feedback on my dissertation research as I was writing it. ASECS was also a great place to practice my elevator talk, as I explained my topic there. But it’s also important to know how to present your research to non-specialist audiences, since most of the people interviewing you will fall in that category.

Going to generalist conferences like the Midwest Modern Language Association and the Society for Textual Scholarship helped me make great contacts with professors from other research areas as well as practice thinking about my research questions for literary studies more broadly. Joining a dissertation writing group full of rhetoric scholars also forced me to think about my project from different angles. I believe these experiences made it so much easier to talk about my research when I applied for library research fellowships.

So: that’s my advice. If you want to ask me any followups or exchange ideas, message me on Twitter!

Thanks to Cate Blouke, Kathryn Dolan, and Dustin Stewart, who all helped me brainstorm ideas for this post.

Rachel Schneider is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English and Technical Communication at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. The post is expressly her opinion, and does not represent the views of ASECS, nor Missouri University of Science and Technology.

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