Two of my doctoral students wrote with extensive worry about how to strategically plan one’s dissertation to coincide with job market value and so I am writing my opinion about this. I want to caution all doctoral students who read this that any one person’s advice, no matter how wise it sounds, is always compromised by the small corner of this process we each have experienced. Take this and any other advice with a grain of salt and perhaps these will become notes for another publication of some kind.
FAQ: Will my dissertation topic be valuable on the job market? How can I broaden what I’m doing to make it more marketable?
As architect Mies Van der Rhoe is famous for saying, “God is in the details.” My own experience with doctoral advising as well as interviewing other new PhDs for positions in our department, is that the more specific and focused your dissertation, often the better. You may think, for example, that a dissertation focused on the general question of second language acquisition would be a more marketable theme than one focused on study abroad programs to Beijing. However, a general topic is at risk of being perceived as unfocused and too broadly defined. I believe you must first ground yourself in a very specific case and from there, you can draw important specific as well as general implications for the general field—your ability to take a specific focus on study abroad in Beijing and connect it to the wider field of TESOL or Mandarin instruction or approaches to world language education will be what makes the difference to your success. While there may be a position specifically seeking someone with expertise in Beijing study abroad—this is unlikely. More likely, it will be your whole package that will be evaluated for fit. If the job you want has one committee person vested in only hiring someone fluent in Turkish—you may not know this and you may not get the job. What can you do? Your responsibilty as a doctoral student is to find your passion and dive into this world deeply, making connections between literatures and theories that may never have been brought together before. What makes you a unique candidate is your unique and specific focus and then the way you take that depth and specificity and help it become relevant to a wider community. However, this does not mean that all specific foci will be equally valued in the job market place for faculty or administration. This leads to the next FAQ.
FAQ: If I do focus my dissertation topic on something very specific, how can I situate myself to get the job that I want (or a job in XYZ state for with ABC teaching load etc.).
When I was completing my dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, I had never imagined I would take a job in Athens, Georgia. I had hardly been to the South and couldn’t imagine how I would fit in such a place. But when I completed the dissertation and there was a job announcement that seemed to be a good match with my degree, my dissertation focus, and my skills, I knew that I would apply for this job and I was thrilled the committee felt I was a good match and voila! My life was changed. I realized then, that when pursuing an academic position, one seldom has much control. When one year the “hot” issue is a need for a focus on face to face courses on immigrant education and the next cycle, the need is for “online second language courses”—you will drive yourself crazy if you try to shift your coursework, writing, and research according to what appear to be market trends. All you can do, is to strive for depth and quality, write to publish, network with a variety of experts in your subfield(s) and consider how you might “diversify the portfolio” of what you do—e.g. if you focus on a narrow topic of co-teaching in the push-in ESOL classroom (for a real example), then perhaps also consider how to publish on your research methods (case study or performative focus groups; mixed methods or classroom discourse etc.), and articulate your unique theoretical framework as well. Don’t change WHAT you do, but how you package what you do and its relevance in different terrain. Maybe your work is “education” generally but might lend itself to a Romance Language or Comparative literature department. Maybe your methods are qualitative but you also integrate software programming that may be relevant for a position in Instructional Technology. You have no control over this. Repeat. You have no control over what kinds of jobs will be available when you are ready to apply for positions. But you do have control over the passion and depth you invest into your subject and to review the job availability trends. You can begin in your 2nd or 3rd year of your Ph.D. to review the Chronicle of Higher Education regularly and begin to identify what types of positions are the closest matches for what you bring to the table. You will also be able to see who is posting these jobs and keep your eye on the field. You can also note who is moving the field in articles you read—where are the authors employed? Does this department look like a good fit? You cannot tell if you would be an addition to such a program or viewed as redundant. You have no control. So what can you do? When jobs are important and you can’t control what the academy will want when you graduate, what options do you have…..
FAQ: What if I never get a university position or the only positions available have extremely high teaching loads that leave too little time for writing or are in locations where you don’t want to be?
Again, repeat: you have no control. But you do have control over researching what kinds of related work you might pursue if your ideal university position is not available or even a job that is not ideal at all. University Professorships become fewer and fewer while our economy is falling to pieces. State university budgets become tighter—as faculty retire or leave, these positions aren’t always replaced. Language departments have suffered deeply. Who would have thought French departments would be removed? But this has happened because of some perceptions that fields of literature are no longer desirable or sustainable. We can grieve these changes, fight them, but we also need to ask why these changes are taking place and what we might do to keep ourselves relevant. This includes being able to shift how we use our doctoral degrees for a position in the field. Some students look at different administrative and planning offices on K-16+ campus for work: Centers for Teaching and Learning; Study Abroad program directors; Language program directors; interdisciplinary work across language education and other programs; K-12 school leadership; other campus entities (e.g. Latin American Studies institutes, Asian American Studies, African Diaspora Studies, Women Studies, Qualitative Research Programs, etc etc.). Some students complete Phds and work in governmental positions (United Nations, Centers for Disease Control; Fulbright offices, positions with other national governments looking to develop L2 and/or English world language programming); others work in private business (Testing agencies, curriculum development, publishing houses). There are many many jobs for which those holding Ph.D. degrees with expertise in second or world language programming qualify. There is no use in worrying but there is value in getting to know the interconnected web of those who are interested in what you do and/or could value from your area(s) of expertise.
FAQ: What do people really look for in a prospective candidate for a university professor position?
From my experience drafting calls for position announcements, the committee often tries to balance the specific needs held by the program (e.g. need to find a new colleague who specializes in online TESOL instruction or expertise in assessment, bilingual education in the U.S., etc.) against more general descriptions to draw a healthy pool of applicants to consider. Committee members often create rubrics that identify the extent to which a candidate matches the job ad criteria (holds a Ph.D. in the specified field; to things that are more specific, e.g. “fluent in Korean and one other non-English language,” for example. Look closely at the required qualifications and do not waste your time with applications for jobs where you do not fit the criteria. If you may fit, but you are not sure, you may inquire with the chair of the search committee. Often these queries are positive ways to identify yourself as interested in the position. You should maintain a professional demeanor in all such correspondence—everything you write can and will be used in discussions of your candidacy. Maintain a formal and interested tone as you determine if you are truly a good fit for any given position. Committees look carefully at letters of recommendation—who is sending them, are they online, do they professionally and positively evaluate the candidate. Letters are very important. Accomplishments are also important—are you actively publishing your work? Are you pursuing grant support? Does your teaching philosophy match the department’s interest?
In Sum: You can never know if your Ph.D. work will come together at the right time and with the right degree of rigor and relevance to land you the job you want, where you want it. Instead of focusing energy on the “what if” situations of a precarious job market, it is wise to invest all that energy into a focused and passionate dissertation as well as side projects (with other mentor faculty and peers) that create a varied yet focused portfolio of work that will help you put your best foot forward for academic as well as related positions requiring or desiring a Ph.D.. While we all require jobs at the end of this process, we also must acknowledge the limited control we have over what job and where. However, a focus on high quality reading, writing, and thinking will always result in opportunity. “Do the best you can.” That is what I suggest you say to yourself over and over. “The best dissertation is a done dissertation”—yes and one that is focused and meaningful to you personally. You are making many sacrifices to pursue this degree so it should be one that you are doing because you must, because you care about this field and topic, and because in the end you will bring an informed wisdom to a wide variety of opportunity which you are prepared to find and/or create.