Postdocs for Humanists

July 24, 2002

Starting this summer, graduate students on the academic job market will begin scouring Web sites, disciplinary newsletters, and departmental bulletin boards for job announcements. Although a variety of openings will be available for visiting-lecturer and administrative posts, the holy grail of faculty-job seekers remains the tenure-track position. That was my aim last year, and I'm relieved to have succeeded, but I would like to suggest an alternative goal: the postdoc.

Postdoctoral fellowships are the standard first step for Ph.D.'s in the sciences on their way to the tenure track. But in the humanities and social sciences, postdocs have only recently become common. Campus career centers still do not give them the same attention as more traditional jobs, and there is no centralized place for humanists and social scientists to find a listing of available fellowships. When I began contemplating my job search, I was not even aware of the postdoc option until my dissertation adviser recommended that I apply for one.

Postdoctoral opportunities for humanists and social scientists can seem invisible. A few large organizations like the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation sponsor such fellowships. Then there are the prestigious societies of fellows, whose exclusivity and decorum preclude them from advertising junior positions too widely; for example, Harvard's Society of Fellows operates by invitation only. The postdoc that I accepted is, like many, attached to an interdisciplinary institute and includes participation in the seminars and conferences that it sponsors.

Understandably, graduate students are reluctant to expend their limited time and money on pursuing postdocs, which usually offer lower salaries than regular teaching jobs, and do not always carry the same benefits of full-time employment. Although the selection process is not as onerous as for faculty searches, applications for postdocs can request nearly as much material as a hiring committee does. My fellowship asked for 15 copies of my research proposal, three letters of recommendation, and sample chapters from my dissertation. Moreover, the majority of fellowships do not exceed two years. Mine lasted only one year, so I had to start looking for another job as soon as the fellowship began.

An additional drawback to being a postdoc is our nebulous status in the university. Postdocs are neither faculty members nor graduate students, thus wreaking havoc on a bureaucracy used to clearly defined categories. Library administrators don't know how long to allow us to borrow books, insurance coordinators don't know which health plan we qualify for, and parking offices can't figure out the proper permit to give us. After having endured the indignities of being a graduate student, it can be frustrating to remain in a low-status position even after receiving your degree.

Given these caveats, why am I so enthusiastic about postdocs for job seekers in the humanities and social sciences? For me, this year has helped me transition from student to faculty member.

When I first arrived at the institute, a staff member escorted me to an office emblazoned with my nameplate on the door. That small detail immediately made me think of myself as a professional academic. Unlike in graduate school, where student work space on campus was scarce and telephone lines shared, I enjoyed my own windowed office, computer, printer, telephone, and voice mail -- all the accoutrements of a serious scholar.

Best of all, I had minimal teaching obligations. Most junior faculty members must contend with the adjustments to a new job and pressures to publish while also designing several new courses. As a postdoc, your time is meant to be devoted to furthering your research. With an unfettered schedule and keys to the building, I took advantage of this chance to revise my dissertation. Even the most polished dissertations rarely resemble a book, and the process of trimming the literature review and broadening the scope requires an inordinate amount of time. Just the review process alone at a university press can take several months. Rather than juggle this with the demands of writing lectures, I could focus on preparing my manuscript for publication free of distractions.

During my postdoc year, I also benefited from additional guidance that junior faculty members typically do not receive. Although my graduate advisers shared their tips for professional success with me, much of the daily routine of a professor remained mysterious to me. In casual hallway conversations at the institute, colleagues spoke candidly about their experiences in the academy. This was particularly useful when I was writing cover letters for jobs. One visiting scholar gave me the perspective of the person who receives all those applications. She told me that the main concern of most committees is to ensure that the candidate they hire can get tenure, so they do not have to repeat the search process again in six years. Mindful of that concern, I emphasized to search committees my progress toward publication and my ideas for a second project.

The postdoc fellowship afforded me a chance to meet scholars outside my discipline. The institute that housed me hosted four other postdoctoral fellows from anthropology, history, and philosophy. Since we were all working on book-length manuscripts, we formed a writing group to exchange chapters and give feedback. Not only did my writing improve from the range of comments they offered, but I also learned about recent research in fields related to my own. Keeping up with newly released anthropology books and journals usually prevents me from reading in other disciplines, so I welcomed the chance to talk with colleagues from different backgrounds.

Finally, the postdoc positioned me well to compete for more permanent positions. It automatically separated me from the larger pool of applicants who may still be working on dissertations. It carried the weight of external recognition for my scholarship; so valuable is this imprimatur that many vitas list postdoctoral fellowships awarded but declined. It gave me the institutional support, from letterhead stationery to laser printing, that makes the grueling application process more bearable.

I am looking forward to entering the ranks of full-fledged faculty members in the fall. Without students and committee work, academic life has been more contemplative than usual. Still, I'm grateful to have enjoyed a year gaining the skills and confidence that will enable me to succeed as an assistant professor. For one, I've learned not to look shocked when I see my name on the office door.

Peter S. Cahn, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, chronicled his search for a tenure-track job this year. He will join the University of Oklahoma in the fall as an assistant professor.