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How would people classify departments by "type" / approach to grad education?


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Hi all, curious if people on this forum have any thoughts on a question I've been kicking around.

By way of background, I applied to five programs last cycle (2020-21), got waitlisted at one and rejected at the others. My field, broadly, is 20th C. US History, with a focus on race, urban political economy, and institutions beyond the public sector (philanthropic foundations, community groups, businesses) as vectors for politics/policy. 

As I think about re-applying this year, with (potentially) more programs admitting new students at all and (potentially) cohort sizes closer to "normal," I've encountered two "types" of programs in my research. Really, these are more like stereotypes / ideal-typical examples and most programs probably have characteristics of both. The first type would be programs (often at very highly ranked institutions) that admit big cohorts (even 20+) of people in every specialty under the sun. The other would be programs that very clearly signal they admit a smaller (often < 10) cohort in a limited number of areas of excellence they are committed to graduate education in (Penn State and Vanderbilt strike me as examples closer to this model). Curious if there are other variables people think are as important in sorting programs as cohort size.

(1) How many history PhD programs at "top" (I know this is a problematic label for graduate studies, but I think a relevant one since we'd probably all agree the job market is bad for graduates of ALL programs, but that in an environment of scarcity, pedigree/network/signaling, not to mention funding and access to other resources, stratifying programs is important) programs actually resemble the latter model? Are there other examples people would call out?

(2) Are there any historical reasons these programs operate this way - e.g. readjusting for the post-2008 job market, or more idiosyncratic factors that vary by department?

(3) Any thoughts on whether these programs tend to actually foster better professional development opportunities and career outcomes? If so, what is the best evidence for it, given that career outcomes can potentially be a 5-7 year lagging indicator (maybe longer if you're talking post-postdoc placement) of how a department is approaching first-year admissions?

I know these are somewhat broad topics (and it's definitely on my to-do list to try and get student and faculty input directly) but since there are many knowledgeable people on this board who I'm betting have opinions on this, wanted to pose these questions to the forum. Thanks!

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@AP @OHSP @AfricanusCrowtherand @dr. telkanurucan give diverse perspectives on this topic. 

1) Keep in mind that public R1s, no matter their rank, are at the mercy of the upper-level university administration. Departments' cohort sizes largely depend on funding availability and undergraduate enrollments (more undergrads = need more TAs). It also depends on the historical record of yields. The negotiations between department chairs, graduate school, and the upper administration are beyond, way beyond the scope, knowledge, and power of most faculty members. 

 

2) There is no such thing as "magic" number to achieve excellence.  What matters is the overall commitment of the faculty to ensuring high quality training. In my PhD department, the modern European, Ottoman, and East Asian fields were much more successful in helping PhD students to land fellowships and academic position than US, Ancient, and Latin American, simply because of shared communication and values of the faculty within each field.  There are most certainly faculty members who should not be advisers but somehow they still have the political leverage to recruit graduate students, who then ultimate seek refuge in other professors for mentorship. This last point has always disgusted me and my heart breaks every time I hear of schisms between advisers and graduate students.

3) Relatedly to #2, it is hard to change the faculty's mind regarding the realities of the academic job market (as well as most graduate students'). Should it have to take a pandemic to get professors to wake up? Unfortunately, it appears to be so. Some programs like Columbia and Michigan have been more proactive in broadening students' horizons. It also depends on the graduate students themselves and their culture.  My PhD department, because of its ties to the military and government, already had fairly open attitude towards non-academic positions when I arrived in 2012. However, I found that the graduate student culture to be steeped in passion for teaching. Therefore, it was pretty lonely to be one of very few who loved researching and writing grant/fellowship applications. Nothing stopped me from what I want(ed) to do, which was/is to apply for postdocs and professorships with teaching loads of less than 6 preps/year. Also, regional PhD programs tend to serve much more to the region's needs for university-level teaching (i.e. SUNY Albany, Kent State, UT-Knoxville).

As with history itself, there is no categorization to be made here about PhD programs. You apply where you find the best fit (adviser, culture, availability of resources in your area of interest) and solid funding package.

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Hi TMP - this is a super helpful response, and I really like your second point, because I think it opens up a great line of questioning (for example, "how much of a community is there in field x vs. other fields in your department?") for conversations with current students at programs I'm doing due diligence on. Thanks.

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I'm hesitant to put a number on it, but for the sake of argument let's say a program which takes more than ~10 per year is either painfully ignorant of the past 20 years of academic hiring trends or deeply reliant on graduate student labor. Or both. I haven't looked in a while, so IDK how many that is.

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@TMP's response is exceptional, so I'll use it as a springboard.

1) Very broadly speaking, the majority of programs enrolling 15+ students a year are state universities which depend heavily upon graduate student labor (between TA, RA, admin, and lecturer appointments). Wisconsin, Michigan, and several others fall within that category. Bluntly, I don't think it's a good model, especially in this atmosphere of belt tightening and financial insecurity after one of the most impactful pandemics in a century. The best examples I can think of with your "smaller" model are dedicated history of science programs like Hopkins (which never has more than 10 students), Harvard, or Penn's HSS.

2) The historical reasons fall much along the same lines as #1. Some universities have historically used their graduate cohorts as a replacement/substitute for other labor. Think also in terms of stated university missions. Hopkins was, like Chicago, founded as an American equivalent to the German research university model. The university almost explicitly exists to facilitate research. Compare that to somewhere like Wisconsin, where one of the major principles is helping bring knowledge to the people of the state of Wisconsin.

3) This area I'm more hesitant to speak on, as I don't have a ton of knowledge. I'll say that the biggest obstacle for some of the research-focused programs is getting out of that area when it comes to PhD applicants. I had a faculty member tell me during a conversation "we prepare students for an academic career," which, while understandable, showed a disconnect with the field as it currently exists. The vast majority of your PhD students will not have academic careers! Some programs have very entrenched cultures; Wisconsin's was also rather teaching-centered, and it was very common for students to take quite a long time to complete (7+ years for US history PhDs, longer for European).

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Posted (edited)

The two programs (one small, the other large) whose admissions policies I know well accept as many talented students as they can find and the university allows them to take without regard for the job market. I don't think maintaining a pool of cheap labor is the main motivation for this practice (although the ability to teach large lecture courses does matter in an era of declining enrollment). Professors just like having graduate students.

Edit: I should clarify that I also know faculty who look carefully at the market in their field and use that to inform their decisions about admitting their own students (of course, using present information to predict the state of the market 6-7 years from now is somewhat flawed reasoning).

Edited by AfricanusCrowther
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1 hour ago, AfricanusCrowther said:

The two programs (one small, the other large) whose admissions policies I know well accept as many talented students as they can find and the university allows them to take without regard for the job market. I don't think maintaining a pool of cheap labor is the main motivation for this practice (although the ability to teach large lecture courses does matter in an era of declining enrollment). Professors just like having graduate students.

Edit: I should clarify that I also know faculty who look carefully at the market in their field and use that to inform their decisions about admitting their own students (of course, using present information to predict the state of the market 6-7 years from now is somewhat flawed reasoning).

I know faculty like that as well. I had one professor who didn't take students for 5+ years, because of how brutal the job market in his sub-specialty looked. It's flawed reasoning, but I also think it's very realistic. The market isn't likely to get much better. University education is fundamentally changing in the US, and not for the better.

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Thanks to everyone who's responded to this thread. I really appreciate the engagement and the high-value comments from everyone.

@TMP Do you think there are any programs that might be off my radar that are sneakily pretty good at placing candidates into teaching-centric R2s? I would think, given the state of the job market, that a TT job at an R2, even if 3-3, would be considered a great outcome by many of the applicants and early career folks on this forum; though I also know that there are plenty of people graduating from "top" programs who would also kill for those jobs, so maybe there are fewer stories of "lower ranking schools with good placement, just into less shiny jobs" than you hear about in other social sciences with healthier undergrad enrollment trends. Any particular reason why you bring up Albany, Kent State etc. in your post or just using them as examples of more regionally-oriented publics?

@psstein Your point on larger grad programs proxying dependence on grad student labor makes a lot of sense. I guess one thing I'm trying to figure out is regardless of whether these programs are doing the right thing by the profession, is whether there is an independent effect on grad student experience/outcomes ... I could imagine a corner case where a student who has good funding, faculty mentorship etc. at a program like this might come out better prepared for jobs at, say, LACs ranked #50-150, than the candidate who cobbled together enough grant and fellowship money to largely avoid teaching.

@TMP @psstein @AfricanusCrowther @dr. telkanuru Do you guys think that the pandemic has spurred larger programs to rethink what a "normal" cohort looks like? Setting aside the longer-term demand backdrop (which I think best case scenario gets back to ~2019-20 levels of maybe 500-600 full time openings, o/w probably less than 300 TT?) it seems like it would be very healthy for the profession for the supply of PhDs to take another leg down . . . I think we would all trade a ~50% lower chance of being admitted for ~50% less competition for jobs and postdocs 5-7 years down the road (though maybe I'm underrating how much people dislike what they would be doing if they hadn't gone to grad school!). 

As an aside, I put some cohort size #s together from looking at a few grad programs' sites. Yale and Princeton strike me as outliers on the high end and Duke surprised me to the low side w/ 8. Curious if anyone w/ intimate knowledge of those programs can comment on the internal thinking on this at any of them. @psstein you seem pessimistic about forecasting longer term supply and demand in the field - I think the harder data to gather and structure is probably faculty age and university/departmental retirement policies, but if someone could scrape that you could probably build a pretty robust model for at least the US, ofc importing your own assumptions about what % of tenure lines go away upon retirement . . . or maybe I'm just overthinking it 😁

Cohort sizes . . .

Harvard … 12-15

Yale … “roughly 22”

Princeton … “approximately 25”

Columbia … 20-25 (may include HoS)

Johns Hopkins … nd

Michigan … “approximately 18”

Wisconsin … 15 (2015-19 average)

Northwestern … 12-15

Chicago … 15-20

UCB … ~20? (110 total students, admits ~30)

UCLA … 14 (2013-17 average)

Duke … 8

Vanderbilt … 8-10

Brown … 10-12

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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, LeSamourai said:

Curious if anyone w/ intimate knowledge of those programs can comment on the internal thinking on this at any of them.

 

For the two programs on your list that I am familiar with, those numbers have been pretty consistent for the past 7 years or so. The pandemic caused these programs to limit the number of graduate students they accepted, but that's only because they wanted to redirect some of the pool of money that the university gives them to advanced graduate students. I don't expect these departments to change their practices in light of the lasting consequences of the job market unless told to do so by their universities. Who knows -- maybe there will be some enterprising DGS or Chair who convinces the faculty otherwise.

Edited by AfricanusCrowther
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Posted (edited)
16 hours ago, LeSamourai said:

As an aside, I put some cohort size #s together from looking at a few grad programs' sites. Yale and Princeton strike me as outliers on the high end and Duke surprised me to the low side w/ 8. Curious if anyone w/ intimate knowledge of those programs can comment on the internal thinking on this at any of them.

Programs almost always accept more students than they actually want to have in a cohort; they are accounting for the fact that some students will turn them down. So admitting 18 students doesn't mean that the intended cohort size is 18. Of course sometimes they get this wrong and more students accept their offers—this was maybe in 2014 or so, but I recall that Michigan ended up with an 18-person cohort one year and then actually suspended admissions for the next year to compensate.

16 hours ago, LeSamourai said:

Do you think there are any programs that might be off my radar that are sneakily pretty good at placing candidates into teaching-centric R2s? I would think, given the state of the job market, that a TT job at an R2, even if 3-3, would be considered a great outcome by many of the applicants and early career folks on this forum; though I also know that there are plenty of people graduating from "top" programs who would also kill for those jobs, so maybe there are fewer stories of "lower ranking schools with good placement, just into less shiny jobs" than you hear about in other social sciences with healthier undergrad enrollment trends.

Hmm, "placing candidates" is pretty dependent on subfields. As TMP said upthread, certain subfields within a program often do better than others in terms of fellowships and academic positions—whether that's because the faculty are more committed to graduate advising, the school is particularly known for that subfield, there's a stronger alumni network, that field happens to be a "hot" field, so on and so forth. So what can look like a strong program overall may be 1-2 particularly strong subfields and then a mixed bag for the rest.

Plus, I'm not convinced that "placing candidates" really happens anymore, at least not on a wide scale. The competition is fierce for every job, not just the R1s. Even visiting lectureships require the same materials and qualifications as TT jobs nowadays, and I bet you they get as many applicants. The less shiny jobs of 5 or 10 years ago are the shiny jobs now.

Edited by gsc
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Hey @gsc these #s refer to cohort sizes, not the number of students admitted, but point well taken - I'm sure yield is hard to estimate in advance and for the programs where there is a lot of data available (Michigan, Wisconsin and a few others have very elaborate tableau dashboards for this kind of data across their programs) it does seem to vary a lot historically. FWIW, Michigan's program has gotten smaller, more selective, and better-yielding looking at '17-'20 vs. '15-'16 (based on the grad school's data site) but not sure what that trendline looks like zooming farther out.

Your point on there basically not being any traditional academic jobs makes sense. I guess I'm just trying to dig deeper into the structure of the history job market (more out of curiosity than anything at this point, because as many older and wiser folks on this forum have pointed out, it's not a good idea to go to PhD school with the sole intent of getting a TT job, since it doesn't actually solve for that anymore). Does the "maybe 1 person gets a TT AP job" become "maybe 2" at, say, Harvard vs., say, Duke? Or does it stay "maybe 1" but at a public flagship rather than a regional school? Or is it all so flukey and field/advisor-dependent that it's impossible to prove/disprove any hypothesis about the job market (which, b/c it's so thin, maybe isn't much of a "market" at this point)?

 

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19 hours ago, LeSamourai said:

 

@TMP Do you think there are any programs that might be off my radar that are sneakily pretty good at placing candidates into teaching-centric R2s? I would think, given the state of the job market, that a TT job at an R2, even if 3-3, would be considered a great outcome by many of the applicants and early career folks on this forum; though I also know that there are plenty of people graduating from "top" programs who would also kill for those jobs, so maybe there are fewer stories of "lower ranking schools with good placement, just into less shiny jobs" than you hear about in other social sciences with healthier undergrad enrollment trends. Any particular reason why you bring up Albany, Kent State etc. in your post or just using them as examples of more regionally-oriented publics?

@psstein Your point on larger grad programs proxying dependence on grad student labor makes a lot of sense. I guess one thing I'm trying to figure out is regardless of whether these programs are doing the right thing by the profession, is whether there is an independent effect on grad student experience/outcomes ... I could imagine a corner case where a student who has good funding, faculty mentorship etc. at a program like this might come out better prepared for jobs at, say, LACs ranked #50-150, than the candidate who cobbled together enough grant and fellowship money to largely avoid teaching.

@TMP @psstein @AfricanusCrowther @dr. telkanuru Do you guys think that the pandemic has spurred larger programs to rethink what a "normal" cohort looks like? Setting aside the longer-term demand backdrop (which I think best case scenario gets back to ~2019-20 levels of maybe 500-600 full time openings, o/w probably less than 300 TT?) it seems like it would be very healthy for the profession for the supply of PhDs to take another leg down . . . I think we would all trade a ~50% lower chance of being admitted for ~50% less competition for jobs and postdocs 5-7 years down the road (though maybe I'm underrating how much people dislike what they would be doing if they hadn't gone to grad school!). 

@psstein you seem pessimistic about forecasting longer term supply and demand in the field - I think the harder data to gather and structure is probably faculty age and university/departmental retirement policies, but if someone could scrape that you could probably build a pretty robust model for at least the US, ofc importing your own assumptions about what % of tenure lines go away upon retirement . . . or maybe I'm just overthinking it 😁

 

I can answer a few of your questions here.

1) No, there aren't. The market is so horrific that Harvard/Yale graduates are fortunate to get R2/R3/PUI jobs. In the past, regional universities had a very strong reputation for placing PhD students into places like Kent State, SUNY Albany, or a myriad of other state/regional institutions. That market, post-2008, and especially post-2014, is drying up. I don't think the figure of "50% of all colleges will close in 10 years" is correct, but there's undoubtedly a significant contraction occurring. Your intuition and information is 100% correct. There are a few places with one or two faculty members who pump out TT faculty left and right, but otherwise place rather poorly.

2) I'm not quite sure what you're asking in your second question. Yes, you do need to teach, especially as an independent instructor (TA-ing doesn't count for much). With that said, someone with a CV full of grants/fellowships is more likely to have an impressive publishing record, or a very interesting project. Many senior graduate students fall into what I call the "teaching experience trap," which is "I need to teach X more courses before I can be a competitive candidate," often neglecting the dissertation in the process. If you have 2 classes as instructor of record, 4 isn't going to help you. To put it a different way: you can out-publish a mediocre teaching record. You cannot out-teach a poor publishing record.

3) I am and I'm not. One of the things I do in my day job is forecasting intermediate/long-term supply and demand. I think the issues are twofold: first, the oversupply of PhDs shows no sign of abating. While I firmly believe that 90% of PhD candidates have no chance at an academic job, I also don't see the field adjusting for that fact. Second, COVID has been disastrous for universities. Multiple SLACs have had to make difficult cuts in the name of paying existing faculty/staff and keeping the lights on. Smaller institutions (under 3000) are in a very tough position right now. That's also where most of the jobs have historically been located.

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Thanks @psstein, incredibly helpful (and sobering) thoughts as always. Sorry for the confusing second question, you tackled the spirit of it, which is basically, is there any upside to a program with higher teaching expectations (my read of your answer is, no, and especially not when you factor in all the other stuff that tends to be correlated with).

Your point on the challenges facing the demand side makes a ton of sense. Stepping back, the % of people with any kind of tertiary education in the US is so much higher than in most of the rest of the OECD . . . with seemingly little to show for it in social mobility, a more enlightened civic culture, or human fluorishing. So no argument from me that humanities enrollments (and therefore faculty FTEs) seem doomed to a long decline. Reading comments from more experienced folks on this forum always makes me think I should look into shoehorning my interests into a policy or urban studies SOP 😂 though a lot of us probably do need to be scared straight!

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20 hours ago, psstein said:

The market is so horrific that Harvard/Yale graduates are fortunate to get R2/R3/PUI jobs.

Data point: I have a BA/MA from Harvard, and a PhD from Brown. I also have a prestigious 2y fellowship from my sub-discipline's national association and four journal articles either published or forthcoming, many conference presentations, a papal license in a Hilfswissenschaft, and have been in charge of one of the larger DH projects in my field. 

I have applied to 30 positions this fall, from TT jobs to post docs to CC jobs, DH jobs, NTT teaching positions, and library positions. I have made it to one shortlist (still interviewing) for a postdoc which pays less than I make now as a grad student. As far as I know, my recommenders were never even contacted for any of the others.

 

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Posted (edited)
On 5/16/2021 at 2:22 PM, LeSamourai said:

Hi all, curious if people on this forum have any thoughts on a question I've been kicking around.

By way of background, I applied to five programs last cycle (2020-21), got waitlisted at one and rejected at the others. My field, broadly, is 20th C. US History, with a focus on race, urban political economy, and institutions beyond the public sector (philanthropic foundations, community groups, businesses) as vectors for politics/policy. 

As I think about re-applying this year, with (potentially) more programs admitting new students at all and (potentially) cohort sizes closer to "normal," I've encountered two "types" of programs in my research. Really, these are more like stereotypes / ideal-typical examples and most programs probably have characteristics of both. The first type would be programs (often at very highly ranked institutions) that admit big cohorts (even 20+) of people in every specialty under the sun. The other would be programs that very clearly signal they admit a smaller (often < 10) cohort in a limited number of areas of excellence they are committed to graduate education in (Penn State and Vanderbilt strike me as examples closer to this model). Curious if there are other variables people think are as important in sorting programs as cohort size.

(1) How many history PhD programs at "top" (I know this is a problematic label for graduate studies, but I think a relevant one since we'd probably all agree the job market is bad for graduates of ALL programs, but that in an environment of scarcity, pedigree/network/signaling, not to mention funding and access to other resources, stratifying programs is important) programs actually resemble the latter model? Are there other examples people would call out?

(2) Are there any historical reasons these programs operate this way - e.g. readjusting for the post-2008 job market, or more idiosyncratic factors that vary by department?

(3) Any thoughts on whether these programs tend to actually foster better professional development opportunities and career outcomes? If so, what is the best evidence for it, given that career outcomes can potentially be a 5-7 year lagging indicator (maybe longer if you're talking post-postdoc placement) of how a department is approaching first-year admissions?

I know these are somewhat broad topics (and it's definitely on my to-do list to try and get student and faculty input directly) but since there are many knowledgeable people on this board who I'm betting have opinions on this, wanted to pose these questions to the forum. Thanks!

I'm very late in the game (grading) but after the worst year on the TT, I can go back to this anonymous forum.

This conversation has been very fruitful. 

I'll add some thoughts, but I agree with much of what has been say. 

First, yes, as @pssteinthe job market is really abysmal that top program graduates find themselves in positions that might have looked unthinkable twenty years ago. An alum from my program working at a small branch of a regional university once told us that his department avoided hiring people from top programs because those are the ones that don't want to teach 4/4 and usually end up leaving. By this I mean, top programs might have the pedigree, the extra funded time, more dedicated faculty, but at the end of the day, the struggles are very similar. 

Larger programs, usually in public universities, depend heavily on graduate student labor so it's not just COVID affecting admission but department needs. And, as someone else mentioned, funding from higher ups. In short, there is no formula, which brings me to my next point.

As you think of where to apply, think not on the statistical probability of getting in but on building a profile and rapport that it makes sense for the program to admit you and train you. When potential grad students contact me, I see potential when they tell me right there in one well-packaged sentence why my program is a good fit for them. People that say "I like your article on..." means nothing to me. But people saying "I have questions about X Y and Z" usually spark an "ohhh!" on my part.  

I notice there are no programs in the south (Vanderbilt?) or the west, and I wonder why. I am not an Americanist, but I have colleagues in California, Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida whose programs might be up your alley. 

Finally, no one can predict the job market. We are scientists and we work with evidence and the evidence suggests this is not going to get better soon. However, we cannot predict much. So, when researching programs, you can certainly ask DGS/grad students if/how the program changed in the last ten years (red flag if they haven't revised it!), what opportunities for professionalization exist outside the classroom, how do programs see themselves in five years, etc. 

Good luck

Edit: Just a quick thing, remember that no matter when you start a PhD program, it's more often than not a transformative experience. You are not the same person when you start than when you leave because you learn a lot about yourself. Friends of mine realized that they didn't want to be college professors, others realized they actually don't like academia and are passionate about other things, someone in my program decided they wanted to work in activist organizations when they graduated. All this is to say that yes, there is a pressure from the academic job market but, as you journey on, you will (hopefully) have a say in what you want to do with your degree. While the market might push us in one direction, we also have agency on that. (I hope this makes sense, I'm foggy from second vaccine shot, so there).

Edited by AP
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On 5/19/2021 at 10:35 AM, dr. telkanuru said:

Data point: I have a BA/MA from Harvard, and a PhD from Brown. I also have a prestigious 2y fellowship from my sub-discipline's national association and four journal articles either published or forthcoming, many conference presentations, a papal license in a Hilfswissenschaft, and have been in charge of one of the larger DH projects in my field. 

I have applied to 30 positions this fall, from TT jobs to post docs to CC jobs, DH jobs, NTT teaching positions, and library positions. I have made it to one shortlist (still interviewing) for a postdoc which pays less than I make now as a grad student. As far as I know, my recommenders were never even contacted for any of the others.

 

I would bring you to my institution in a heartbeat! 

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