Image: Painting of Academic Regalia (1902), by Dodd, Mead and Company, New International Encyclopedia
The first installment of Career Lingo dealt with the difference between “required” and “preferred” qualifications for a faculty position. Now we will review the expectation of a Ph.D. (or other terminal degree) and the “expected” date of its completion.
The job ad may state that the institution wants you to already have a Ph.D. “completed” or “in hand.” But does that mean you should have the degree before applying? Or before the start date of the position? Is there any flexibility? Can you start the job while still finishing your degree?
The query seems simple enough, but I've often seen differing interpretations of “completion” lead to miscommunication and even major problems. Also, there are nuances in what is meant by “expected” completion. You need to understand what they mean, since they will affect your application materials and your self-presentation at interviews.
In brief, most colleges and universities define completion as your committee having signed off on your dissertation and you having finished all of the revisions. You've turned it in for binding and printing or final uploading. The university (typically its graduate school) has certified the degree. In short, you are 100 percent done.
Still, there might be some wiggle room. Perhaps the grad-school certification is “in progress” -- and some administrator at your degree-granting university will need to confirm that fact for the hiring institution.
Warning: It's very important, even as you're hustling to head to your new job site, that you sweat the details of degree completion. More than a few doctoral students have had to fly back to their home university to sort out problems with the filing and certification of their Ph.D.
What happens if you don’t finish in time? In my own case I defended my woefully late dissertation a few days before I started my first tenure-track job. Revisions took me another semester. Fortunately my new dean seemed not too concerned. But that was 20 years ago and employment today is more legalistic. Often a contract will state a variation of the following: “If you have completed your degree by the start date of August 16, your salary will be $XX,000; if have you not completed your degree your salary will be $YY,000 [lower].” Once you finish the degree, the salary will rise to the original figure -- perhaps starting as late as the next academic year. If you have not completed your Ph.D. by a certain date -- typically a year later -- you may (or will) be terminated from the position.
While we are talking completion scenarios it is relevant to note that not a few doctoral students have found themselves struggling in their first year on the tenure track while still trying to complete their dissertations. I did – and endured profound stress.
As the year progresses, you may notice your department chair starting to get anxious as well. Remember, she has pledged to her dean, “This person is a good bet to finish.” Work as smart and hard as you can to wrap up the dissertation, but if you find you need more time, consider reaching out to the chair. Any possibility of a course release that you will make up later? Or perhaps a part-time research assistant? Can you have a relief from some committee assignments -- just temporarily?
The answers you get to those questions are often dependent upon how well you're doing on the job. If you're proving to be a lauded teacher and a well-liked junior colleague and the department still has faith in your research potential, then it is likely a wise chair will find a way to accommodate you. If you are stumbling on your assignments and alienating the senior professors, well, they may decide to cut their losses.
Completion anxiety affects the hiring process as well. You need to assure the committee that you will truly be done with your doctoral degree obligations by the start date of the new position. You can raise that issue yourself in your cover letter for the position. Do not protest too much that you're “bound” to be finished in time. Rather lay out your plan and timeline. Of course, we won't just take your word for it. Your adviser should reiterate that you seem to be on track and on schedule to complete your degree.
Even with all of those pledges, committees and chairs can still get nervous when you show signs that you may not be as ready to finish your degree as you or your adviser are insisting. One “poker tell” situation, rife with revelation, is the research talk. When doctoral students offer a research presentation that is unfocused, unformed, incomplete, or missing important elements, the warning klaxons blare. You can imagine the search-committee members meeting afterward. Prof. Von Doom will remark, “Well, he says he's going to be finished with it … but I doubt it!”
It's essential for you to realize that -- as in all cases on the job hunt -- the people who are seeking a new colleague have legitimate concerns about whether you are really going to be ready to join them in body, spirit, and qualifications.