Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

Should I Defend or Delay?

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I'm a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at [a midrange R1]. I have finished all my requirements and am capable of defending this spring. I’ve oriented myself toward a faculty position at a SLAC and, beyond an admittedly limited publication record, I feel I have done many things well in this regard. I've taught my own courses at other colleges, earned a master's in education, performed undergraduate advising, and been involved in leadership and curriculum committee service at my current campus. I've selectively applied to about 20 positions, mostly on the tenure track but some lecturer spots, all at small or regional colleges. No bites so far this academic year. That has left me slowly embracing the prospect that I won't have one of these jobs next year, and if I do, it may not be a good fit for my career goals.

My question: For a career at a selective, well-known SLAC, which option makes the most sense for my future? Should I defend and start a tenure-track career at a less-than-ideal fit? Defend and find adjunct experience at a more competitive institution? Or not defend and stay in school, likely as a teaching assistant.

I'm currently leaning toward defending, but I'm unsure of the best option. Are there other factors that I am not considering? Finances are not a concern for the upcoming year — simply what best sets me up for competitive applications next year.

I can tell by your question that you haven't been paying attention to what's happening on the tenure-track job market. And that’s a mistake that will hurt your search. I’ll be blunt: You must publish.

To be competitive for any tenure-track offer at any institution of higher education in America (and frankly globally), you must publish sole-authored articles in traditional high-ranking, peer-reviewed journals — and not just online or open-access ones.That is the minimum requirement for consideration. I am not saying such publications guarantee anything, because they don’t. But without them, you may as well directly toss your own applications directly into the garbage, and skip the search-committee middleman.

You say that you are orienting yourself to a SLAC career, which you later amend as a “selective, well-known SLAC” career. Apparently you think that elite liberal-arts colleges don’t attend to a candidate’s publication record? They do. They expect records that are on par with R1s — that means multiple peer-reviewed journal articles, presentations at major conferences, national grants, and letters of recommendation from illustrious mentors. You may have some of those things on your record, but you didn’t mention them.

Now I turn to your question: Should you finish and adjunct or delay graduation?

I recommend you delay. A finished Ph.D. is not a magical talisman of competitiveness. The magical talisman — to the extent there is one, which there isn’t — is peer-reviewed journal publications, and the rest of a quantitatively impressive record of grants, conferences, and reviewers. You can accomplish all of that while still enrolled in your Ph.D. program, and by staying enrolled, you have an affiliation, a legible status, and a campus letterhead you can use, all of which are extremely important in job applications. By contrast, applying as an unaffiliated adjunct — while common nowadays and by no means a kiss of death in the current market — can possibly raise red flags for some reviewers.

It’s also critical that you continue to accrue solo teaching experience to fill out your record. Ask your department to allow you to teach some important courses on your own. They can be either the bread-and-butter intro/survey/methods/theory courses that all departments need, or a boutique seminar that showcases your particular expertise. A combination of both is ideal. If your department doesn’t allow that, seek such teaching opportunities at nearby colleges.

If you can’t make those arrangements, then graduating and adjuncting might be a reasonable option for you because you specify that finances are not a consideration. I take that to mean that you are not in dire circumstances, and have some kind of spousal or family support to prevent you from sinking into poverty. Adjuncting is usually disastrous for those who depend on the pathetic income it generates, but it is a reasonable short-term choice for those who do not, as it allows you to gain sole-teaching experience if you need it (which isn’t entirely clear from your query).

But again, no matter which route you choose, focus the bulk of your energy on getting published, not on classroom activities. Teach competently but don’t make it the core of your identity, and make sure at the end of next year you have an irrefutably impressive CV.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to The Professor Is In! Karen welcomes any and all questions related to the job market, preparing for the job market while in graduate school, coping with the adjunct struggle, and assistant professorhood. Send questions to gettenure@gmail.com.

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