Rachel Toor, who notes that most jobs she’s landed seemed out of reach at first, offers advice for graduate students in this exceptionally difficult employment market. From Inside Higher Ed

 February 2, 2021


During a recent conference for graduate students in the humanities, I heard a keynote talk where the speaker extolled the virtues of swagger. I can’t remember exactly what she said, because her words sent me down a reflective journey of my own. Pretty much every job I’ve gotten is one that seemed out of reach at first.

When it came time for me to do my talk — on a topic on which I had no real expertise — I muddled through. I agreed to the gig because being tasked with something that feels like a stretch forces you to prepare and learn things. It’s scary, sure. But at this point, overreaching has become a habit.

Asked to introduce myself, I gave a brief account of my zigzaggy career. Afterward, I got an email from one of the students in attendance. She wrote that she had gone to graduate school with an awareness of the bleakness of the job market. Then she discovered she didn’t much like academe. Now, almost done, she wondered how and where to pivot next. She wrote, “I have been really stuck in circling thoughts that I missed out on something, or pigeonholed myself in a dead-end career path, or won’t be able to find engaging and fulfilling work.”

What can anyone say that will be of use to graduate students in the humanities right now? They will be entering the toughest market in history, as we all know. Other things we know: most dissertation advisers continue to instruct the way they always have, that is, to create mini-mes. Many deny an alt-ac career is an acceptable outcome after earning a Ph.D. Many believe there’s only one way to write a dissertation (the traditional way). Writing instruction is either nonexistent or relies on deploying jargon that serves to exclude all but the most specialized readers.

We all know the laundry list of problems. We all read about the sad state of academe in this publication and others pretty much every week.

Much of the advice about needed change is directed toward administrators or people who are already professors. Graduate students don’t tend to have extra time or disposable income to lavish on books about how the system they are desperate to enter is broken.

So, to respond to that student who will soon have a Ph.D. that comes with worry she’s wasted her time and lots of questions about where to go next, here’s what I’ve got.

Overreach. Apply for everything that seems remotely interesting to you, regardless of whether you meet the stated qualifications. What’s the worst that can happen? Your application will be denied or disregarded. But it won’t be held against you. Many top students haven’t learned how to fail. Flopping early — and often — toughens the skin and helps you learn the process of getting up and trying again.

When I was a young editor, upset because the author of a manuscript I wanted to publish decided to go with another press, the president of Oxford University Press said to me something I’ve long kept in mind: if you’re not losing some projects, you’re not being ambitious enough.

Write good cover letters. When I’ve gotten a job or a gig, it’s usually because I wrote a letter that, while acknowledging the ways I wasn’t quite qualified, laid out what I had to offer. I imagined the job I could do, rather than the one that was listed. More important, I wrote like a human.

Years ago, I heard back from a vice president who emailed after reading my job letter. I was, he wrote, “completely unqualified” for the position for which I’d applied. He was hiring someone with an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in economics from Ivy League schools. But, he said, I sounded interesting and I should come in and talk to him. He’d find something in the university for me. We talked, he made some calls and I got an interview that led to a job. The cover letter got me in the door.

Say yes. Agree to do to scary things, things that feel beyond your current abilities or expertise. If you’ve never written a book review, try. If someone asks you to present your research, even if it feels too soon, say yes. The short-term preparation required — maybe even learning new skills — will only help in the long run, and perhaps in ways you can’t anticipate.

At times I’ve looked at the skimpy credentials of people who have written on topics about which I have some expertise and thought, Oh, please. Then, if the work is good, I move on to: Chutzpah! Nicely done.

Show up. Even though time always seems tight, go to events and talks that don’t seem applicable to your work. You never know whom you will meet who may introduce you to someone who may tell you about a job doing something you didn’t realize you’d love.

Branch out. In grad school, you become accustomed to writing in one register: academese. That won’t necessarily be helpful unless you score one of the seven tenure-track jobs left in America. So, write an op-ed for the local paper. Volunteer to help work on a grant proposal. Get an internship and read manuscripts for a university press. I know — there’s no time. But there’s more than you think (are you really working every hour you say you’re working?), and also less (the years flutter by).

Reflect on the skills you’re building. So much of the work of graduate school is, in fact, transferrable to other professions, other industries. Everyone needs people who can read, write, think, analyze. Remind yourself that no time spent writing is ever wasted. Know that doing research is an essential part of many professions beyond the academy. When you are tempted to feel like you’ve wasted your time, talk to someone who has used their degree outside of academe. Or use LinkedIn to look at the résumés of people who have jobs you think you’d like to do. You might be surprised who else has had graduate training not directly relevant to their current employment.

Find mentors. Some professors treat their students like members of the family, while some hardly know the names of their thesis advisees. If yours feeds and nurtures you, consider yourself fortunate. But if she doesn’t, find others who will help you think through career issues. Everyone likes to feel important and to be asked for guidance. Attach yourself to people you admire and take advantage of their knowledge, connections and goodwill. If you’re not getting good mentorship from your official adviser — or even if you are — create your own committee of counselors.

Swagger in action, not in attitude. As we know from watching The West Wing, no one likes the smartest kid in the class. Most of us who enter academe were that kid. Arrogance. Pushiness. Insufferable confidence. I had them all. I think back and shudder. My brashness served me well in some instances, not so much in others. But if I’d doubted myself more, I might have been able to do less.

Early on, it’s tempting to proclaim how great you are to the world so the world hears it. But really, if you do the work and the work is good, you’ll gain the real confidence that makes swagger feel like an unnecessary mask.