What I Tell My Graduate Students

Brian Taylor

March 06, 2011

In my mind, there is no doubt that an important part of my job is to make sure my graduate students get their own jobs. What that means is talking the turkey of job placement as soon as they walk in my door and tell me they want to do a Ph.D.

First I inform them of the current job situation, whatever that is at the time. I don't sugarcoat the dismal nature, say, of today's academic market. But I also say that I have had very good success in placing my graduate students. Then I make it clear that the first thing they need to do is start thinking about the minimum requirements for going on the job market.

They often look a little stunned to be getting a lecture about professional development when they have just come in to ask me if I'll be on their master's-thesis defense. But I think it's not just the early bird who gets the worm; it's the very, very early bird.

The next thing I do is set the bar for the minimum requirements in my field. To even get into the race, I tell students, you need three published articles, two or three book reviews, attendance and paper presentation at professional conferences, and, ideally, a contract for the publication of the dissertation.

I emphasize the need to have a geological sense of time when it comes to academic publication. The turnaround from submitting an article to its publication can be a year or two, if you are lucky. So to have three articles published, you need to start as soon as possible.

I point out that book reviews, which don't count anywhere near as much as an article, are relatively easy to do and quicker to get published. Students should just look at the journals in their field, turn to the back pages, where the journal will often list "books received," and write a letter on department stationery asking to review a relevant book.

I tell my students to plan their dissertation committees with the job search in mind. They should pick professors who not only are skilled in the field of the dissertation, but who also have national and international reputations. Letters from those professors will count a great deal. And as these things go, letters from full professors will count more than letters from associate professors, and so on down the line.

I advise students to attend professional conferences for a number of reasons. First, there is the inevitable networking, which helps you not only now but also later in your career. Second, by attending sessions at the conference, students can learn the latest scholarly insights circulating, well before the publication of those ideas (which will take those glacial several years of research and publication that I mentioned). So attending a conference can be a way of looking into the crystal ball in your field to see what the future will bring. Third, the book exhibits of such professional organizations will let students browse the newest texts and even unpublished page proofs before the material is filtered through the review mill and enters the consciousness of scholars and critics.

Another important reason to attend professional conferences is that often the editors of presses are there looking for new books to publish. Students always seem surprised to think that editors are eagerly looking for new books rather than shooing people away from their stalls. Getting to know those editors, and even pitching a book idea to them, is an important part of career development.

I normally attend the Modern Language Association convention, and I will literally walk my students through the exhibits and introduce them to editors I think might be interested in their work. I consider that assistance to be a crucial part of my job as a mentor. If the editors publish their books, those students will get and keep a job. If not, perhaps not. I remember one student who felt a bit embarrassed to be the chick to my mother hen in the aisles of the book exhibit, but she did end up getting a good book contract and a job.

Choosing a field and a topic also involves a strategic element. A student came to my office the other day telling me that he wanted to do his dissertation on physics and late-20th-century American literature. I told him, as I have told many others, to pick up a copy of the job list in our field and see, if he were applying this year with that topic, how many jobs would he be eligible for. He came back a bit sobered and decided to rethink his dissertation topic.

To some, that might seem to involve crass commercialism. Might not I be keeping a significant book or idea from seeing the light of day? Shouldn't we just nurture all good ideas and let the chaff fall where it may?

Perhaps, but I don't see students' lives as chaff. At the end of the academic day, having a job is really what should be the outcome of spending years in a Ph.D. program. You might have written the best and most provocative dissertation in the world, but if it didn't appeal to any job committees or employers, you could end up stocking the shelves at Barnes & Noble (not to disparage those who do that valuable work).

In terms of helping my students get their articles published, I suggest that they take any paper for which they received an A and expand it to article length. Then I go over possible academic journals, often ones whose editors I know, and tell them to send the article along with a mention of my name.

I also advise my students to write out an envelope with the address of another likely publication at the same time as they send off the first one. When, and if, the article comes back with a nice rejection note, I tell them to rewrite the piece, if there are any suggestions, and stick the revised essay in the already addressed second envelope. Quick turnaround is fair play.

There should be no shame or hesitation in sending out a good article, even if it has been rejected. Tastes vary, opinions fluctuate, and each publication has a feeling of the right fit for it. Keep addressing the next envelope in advance.

When the dissertation is done and passed, I welcome the student into the ranks of professorship, and then I ask to see the letter of application, the CV, the writing sample, the statement of teaching philosophy, and anything else sent out to a job-search committee.

I work with them on their letters, making sure they highlight and, yes, "sell" themselves and their special qualifications.

I've noticed that many graduate students are shy about pushing their unique qualities and often hide their lights in dull letters of application. Others can be too brash, of course, and so it helps to go over their materials with them.

That kind of mentorship is good not only for students, but for faculty members as well. I feel closer to my students and more involved in their fates. And that allows me to be happy when they tell me that they have, in fact, gotten a job.

Which is a job well done for all.

Lennard J. Davis is a professor of English, medical education, and disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.