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Hello from the Other Side

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Hey folks -- Old Bill here, reporting in for the first time in several years. Now that I've finished my Ph.D., I figured I would weigh in on a few things I learned throughout the process in the hopes that it will help your decision about applying to graduate programs, or what to do if you actually get accepted to one.

First, a brief update on my experience. In a nutshell, I very much enjoyed the process of obtaining the Ph.D. I managed to do it in five years, though fair warning: I'm one of only two people in my cohort (which had around a dozen Ph.D. admits and several M.A. / Ph.D.'s) who got through it in that time. I think it's starting to become more common to take as much time as you have funding for, though my own personal circumstances (including a touch of "vaulting ambition," as Macbeth would say) caused me to want to finish in five years, no matter what. As of right now, I'm still not entirely sure what the next academic year holds, though I have secured adjuncting locally, which I'm fine with. I've had several interviews over the past six weeks, and that's apparently unusual -- it's more typical to not receive interviews until you actually have the degree in hand. But I think that may have more to do with a shift in employment expectations than anything unique about me personally.

Anyhow, thinking about the job market is something comfortably down the road for many of you, though I'm guessing you've already had a great many people tell you about how awful the academic job market is. They're all correct, of course. If you have a fairly limited idea of what kind of institution you want to work at (i.e. an R1 institution, a SLAC etc.), and are adamant you need to teach your special subfield (i.e. 18th century, literature and medicine etc.), you're likely going to face a lot of disappointment. I applied quite broadly -- to generalist positions at institutions of all kinds, ranging from R1s and R2s to community colleges to SLACs to HBCUs and others. Most of those were tenure track jobs, but some one-year positions and a few seemingly permanent full-time gigs were sprinkled in there too. To be clear, I was never indiscriminate about where I applied, but was instead open to a lot of options and adapting as needed. Out of forty-four applications, I've had four interviews (thus far), which has a yield of one interview out of eleven applications. And that's considered good! I say all this relatively personal stuff simply to highlight that you ought to be aware of what the situation is like before you even decide to draft those Ph.D. program application materials (assuming an academic job is your initial hope, that is). As for myself, I was quite aware of the state of the market when I started down this path, and nothing I've experienced has surprised me too much. Many of the folks I know who have burned out, disappeared, or otherwise turned against the very idea of an academic career have done so out of disillusionment -- not having a realistic sense of how the hard work of a Ph.D. (and it's very, very hard at times) doesn't pave a clear road to the seemingly glorious tenure-track position. So don't be deluded. You can spend five, six, seven years of doing this and be faced with poverty and no secure job prospects. That's simply true. The question is whether or not you are mentally prepared to do that, and whether the payoff is worth it (to you personally) in the long run. It certainly was for me, but in this I do have to admit I'm something of an exception.

Assuming you still want to go down this path ("no power in the 'verse can stop me," I hear you cry...), I just have a few tips that I didn't quite glean from GradCafe's heyday. First, program fit is important, but advisor fit is equally so, if not more. If you're in the enviable position of having multiple offers once your applications are out there, make a point of talking to as many of your potential advisors as possible. And here's a very, very, very important point: don't default to the person with the best publication record or reputation. That only matters in some rare circumstances. It is far more important to find an advisor who you vibe with -- someone who has the same kind of working style as you, or has the kinds of expectations of you that you want. And here's another related very, very, very important point. Hell, I'll even put it in all caps: YOU CAN ALWAYS CHANGE YOUR ADVISOR. This process inevitably feels terrifying when you're early in the program, but there are almost never any hard feelings on the part of the advisor, and it's exceedingly rare for them to be at all vindictive. I changed my advisor after my comprehensive exams -- part of it was due to fit over field (I'm a poetry person, my first advisor was not), but the other part of it was working style. My first advisor was a very top-down taskmaster sort, which worked great for a lot of his other students. But I realized that that style doesn't work well for me. I like more of a hands-off approach, and to feel that I can work on my own for a month or two with self-imposed deadlines rather than advisor-imposed ones. I switched to an advisor that was more this way, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed the dissertation process as a result. I did my own thing, reached out as needed, received a boatload of constructive criticism when I was ready for it, and never felt pressured or coerced. The moral of the story here is that your choice of advisor may be the single most important choice you make in a Ph.D. program. I put that in bold, because it's something I really never expected once admitted.

One other tip is something that I'd heard, but never really internalized: think about publication options early and often in your graduate career. You're going to start out green, of course...but literally everyone does. Once you've made it through a year of the program, you'll likely have a good sense of A.) whether you want to keep doing it, and B.) what, specifically, you want to focus on. Yes, I know that you'll enter the program thinking you already know your focus, but more often than not students switch it up. And that's to be expected. But publications are a key metric on the job market for most positions. I did manage to get a nice publication during the writing of my dissertation, but I do wish that I had been thinking more seriously about it beforehand. The jury's out on whether having a single academic publication will hurt me on the market, but whether it does or not, the simple truth is that more can only be helpful (and ignore people who tell you it's too early -- editors and reviewers will screen out substandard work; let them be the ones to do it).

This post is getting long, so I'll just end with this little suggestion that I'm sure is going to sound impossibly twee: approach the academic path (from applying to Ph.D. programs to your scholarship in one and beyond) from a standpoint of joy. I'm not trying to Marie Kondo you here, or spout toxic positivity, but my observation is that a large portion of success and well-being in academia is attitudinal. There are many bitter academics out there who don't seem to love what they do. Resist that. It doesn't have to be the norm. Moreover, most of the academics I have gravitated toward do love their work and their students. Approaching this from a standpoint of joy simply seems to work far better than from a standpoint of "struggling through" or "grinding away." Find what you love about the process, and embrace it.

Hopefully this is helpful to some of you! I know GradCafe isn't as populous as it used to be, but I'm guessing there are still enough lurkers to make a post like this worthwhile. Be well, folks, and good luck in your academic journeys!

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