Archive for August 31st, 2009

With job market season gearing up we get a fresh set of advice columns, such as this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education about how to get  a job at a liberal arts school.  This advice, while largely similar to what I’ve heard before at various conferences, seems to be aimed at two distinct crowds: those who are just starting to think about future job markets and those who have gotten a job and are in the negotiation stage.  As a grad student I knew early on what type of job I wanted and actively sought information that would be useful in that pursuit (I can’t believe how easy it is to talk about grad school in the past tense), so I suppose that having these distinct types of advice in one column is useful assuming students put it somewhere safe while they do things like getting teaching experience as a graduate student.

While students are doing the things that will make their CVs stand out from the crowd at application time (and possibly considering Jenn Lena’s recent advice on presentation of self), there is something else that I think can help job candidates or, at least, can’t hurt*: choosing a dissertation topic that is interesting to people in general (and, for bonus points, ties into one of these areas).  Obviously, this is something that needs to be done fairly early in one’s preparation for the job market, but I think that having a dissertation topic general enough that you can have a conversation with somebody about it while in line at the grocery store is incredibly helpful.

While I can’t say whether this was a factor in my own hiring, I would imagine that this is especially true at liberal arts schools where there are smaller numbers of faculty members and a greater need for people who can cover a wide range of topics in a way that is interesting to students.  Having an interesting topic has also been helpful as I’ve started to forge my post-grad, pre-tenure identity on campus.  I’ve spoken to a number of people who remember my CV because I’m “the person who studies clothing**.”  Because everybody wears clothing, everybody has something to say about it, giving me a chance to share my dissertation results and start conversations.  This isn’t to say that I think there is anything particularly wrong with studying thread, buttons, or cuff links, which may be fine topics in a large department where there is room for a variety of particular specialties.  When applying to a liberal arts school, however, don’t forget to talk about how the thread, buttons, or cuff links relate to the larger issue.  I would bet that not a lot of people in the grocery store want to hear about thread but most of them are interested in clothing.

*Note that because I’ve never been on a search committee, this advice is based on my own job market experiences combined with my experiences on campus in the short time since starting as an assistant professor.

**Clothing is a pseudonym for what I actually study.  Here’s a hint: I do not study pigeons, though pigeons have proven to be a successful dissertation topic for at least one person.

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