The Fourth Stage of a Ph.D. (the Job Search)

A few years ago, a grad school professor told me there were three stages one must go through on the road to a Ph.D. He said there was coursework, the exams, and the dissertation. The coursework is the work you do, he said, as you learn what others have contributed to the field, and you do this work with other students and under the guidance of a professor. The exams are the work you do synthesizing the information from others into your own argument, and you do this, mostly, under the direction of a committee. Then there is the dissertation where you create your own “original” argument, and this work is done–more or less–by yourself.

I believe now, now that I’m going through it myself, that there is a fourth stage of this process, a stage that the first three stages do not prepared you for. It’s that stage of professionalism that comes when one is on the academic job market. This stage has allowed me to know where I might fit in the larger scope of higher education.

Nowhere but academic job talks and campus interviews would I have had an opportunity to talk about my current or future research projects or how my research and my teaching inform one another; additionally, I have learned how to tailor my research to a specific location and population . . . to an audience who is (for the most part) really interested in what I have to say.

To also have the opportunity to visit a number of campuses has significantly broadened my perspective about the role of higher education in America. Institutions, depending on the population they serve and even their geographic region, have different missions and purposes. Clearly, one mission or style is not better than another. They are merely different, different purposes and different goals. Meeting administrators and faculty who oversee the implementation of these missions has helped me to not only understand the role the institution plays in its community, but also how I might (or might not) be a part of that system.

I have had the opportunity to visit different types of campuses and these visits have helped me know where I might be the most effective. As I started the job market process, I intentionally selected teaching institutions, as that is my strength, and over the past month or so, I have visited several teaching-focused universities: large state universities, satellite campuses of large state universities, small private colleges, rural universities, HSIs (Hispanic Serving Institutions), or HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). I have been to universities that value Division I-A sports, but I have also been to Division II and Division III institutions where the sports culture isn’t quite as prevalent.

The schools have been in the North, the South, the East and the Central United States. Snow country, pine trees and woods, oceans, mountains, prairies. Cloudless skies, open skies, lead skies, fiery sunsets, brilliant sunrises.

Student populations differed: some were very conservative and traditional (18-22 years old), some were returning students, some second-language learners, some were overprepared academically and some were underprepared academically, some were students who were resided on the campus and some commuted to campus.

I have learned about the job search process from a search committee’s perspective. I have learned all about the “you snooze, you lose” process and the importance of timing in job searches.

The roles I would occupy at each also differed, so I was able to see myself in various positions within the academy. Some were positions that limited my teaching to only first-year writing (this limit would be for years). Other institutions allow a broad range of teaching and mentoring opportunities at the undergraduate and the graduate level. Some other positions combined teaching with administrative duties. Some institutions value community interactions and service-learning. Others avoid technology. All cities had a Starbucks (but one).

Over the next little while, I have choices to make– and I’m so very fortunate to be in this position to have choices (this I know)– and the choices come more easily after this job search experience. I am more and more certain of my professional identity after experiencing this fourth stage of a Ph.D.

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