Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: I’m Still an ABD. Should I Go on the Market?

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I'm a humanities Ph.D. student at an Ivy, entering my fifth year. I was planning to finish my degree and go out on the market in my sixth year, as my funding will last until then. Recently, faculty members have suggested I go out on the market this year as a “test run,” to practice prepping job materials, to gain interview experience, and to create a “buzz” that will help me in future cycles. Everyone I've spoken to is frank about the improbability of me actually getting a job as an ABD, but they claim the experience will be worth the time spent. What do you think? I have a pretty strong CV for a grad student.

I always tell people to go on the market as ABDs—especially in cases like yours. when they are from elite programs and have decent records. The fact is, facing the market is hard, and you’ll make mistakes. It’s far better to make those mistakes when you’re an ABD and have a cushion of continued affiliation and funding to fall back on. In a way, it’s applying from a position of strength, since you’re not desperate.

At The Professor Is In, I have seen countless ABDs get tenure track offers, and I do not believe that the completed Ph.D. in and of itself is that big of an advantage on the market. Let me be clear: In the current environment, experienced candidates hopping from one tenure-track job to another, or from a prestigious postdoc to a tenure-track job, often monopolize hiring. Their records are so much denser than the newbies’. But when I compare the success of ABDs and brand new Ph.D.’s who have worked only as adjuncts or VAPs, I see no significant difference. In fact, the ABD from an elite program is often seen as a wunderkind—someone “exciting” and “young” who can bring cutting-edge ideas to a department while remaining malleable, docile, and nonthreatening. (This latter part is never said. It doesn’t even have to be consciously thought. It’s just one of the many unspoken operating assumptions of the academy.)

I would dispute the “buzz” rationale, however. Unsuccessfully applying for jobs does not create buzz. Getting a job creates buzz. There is no master job-market surveyor who is keeping tabs on your application success or failure. Going on the market and not getting a job will not tarnish your reputation in any way. So apply away.

Years back I wrote a column for The Chronicle called “Graduate School Is a Means to a Job”. It is a compendium of the things that the most competitive and successful job seekers do, and the elements of the record that they build for the market. In that column I write that an ABD with those elements is more competitive than a finished Ph.D. without them. That continues to be true. If your CV approximates a record like the one I describe there, then you’re a strong candidate and can expect to gain traction on the market.

Many Ph.D. advisors make a practice of saying this to their unsuccessful and panicked ABD advisees who have struck out on the market: “Don’t worry, it’s just because you don’t have the Ph.D. yet.” That is lazy and irresponsible advising. The finished Ph.D. will not alter a subpar record. A good advisor would instead take a hard, critical look at the CV and the job letter to see what the unsuccessful ABD advisee might be doing wrong. That advisor would then help the ABD put those documents through five or 10 drafts of edits to reach a state of perfection. And then she would help the advisee prep for interviews through intensive mock-interview practice.

Last thing: There are a few things that every ABD candidate must be alert to in her cover letter. You must specify a defense date that is in the coming spring—and plan to stick to it! You must have a major second book-project plan, just like any other candidate, even if it seems preposterous when you’re still writing your dissertation. You must have concrete and specific ideas about teaching particular, named classes, even if your actual teaching record is minimal.

And you must comport yourself like a peer. Jettison mewling grad-student habits like referring to faculty members as “Professor So-and-So” or “Dr. So-and-So,” going on about the “honor of studying under So-and-So,” and droning on and on about your grad school classes, your undergraduate days, your study abroad, your master’s thesis, etc. etc. They don’t want a student, they want a peer. Write like one.

Dear Readers: Have a question about the academic job market and/or professionalization? Send it to me! I welcome 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 me at gettenure@gmail.com.

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