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It Can be Done - Getting a Tenure-Track Job as an ABD in the Humanities

Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs

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Get out of the peon mindset that most doctoral programs promote. This will be easier to do if you've presented several conference papers, taken part in professional organizations, and generally impersonated a full-fledged adult professional periodically throughout your years in grad school. Your interviewers will expect you to be a grown-up. Think like one and behave like one even if your grad program has tried to beat this ability out of you. Try method acting if necessary. 



The posting below offers some practical advise for humanities graduate students in the academic job market. It is by Sean Heuston, assistant professor of English, The Citadel,in Charleston, South Carolina and is from the book: Job Search In Academe - How to Get the Position You Deserve, by Dawn M. Formo and Cheryl Reed. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC [], 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. Copyright © by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work


Tomorrow's Graduate Students and Postdocs 

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It Can be Done - Getting a Tenure-Track Job as an ABD (all but dissertation) in the Humanities 



After reading yet another discouraging reminder of the grim state of the academic job market for Ph.D.s in the humanities, it occurred to me that some lessons I learned during my own successful search for a tenure-track English position would be helpful to both Ph.D.-bearing job seekers and people who do as I did and decide to look for jobs as ABD candidates. After all, The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes no end of articles about how bad the job market is, how candidates unwittingly shoot themselves in the foot, and how many highly qualified candidates are left out in the cold every year. I can't pretend that those things aren't true, or that they aren't important to recognize. What I can do is offer some encouragement alongside some advice from someone who walked away from the job search as an ABD with a great tenure-track job. With that in mind, here are some pieces of advice that might help you decide if you want to go on the market as an ABD, and will help you strategize if you do decide to hang your academic ego out in front of hiring committees like a piñata:

Be realistic, but not too realistic:

The simple fact is that the job market (at least for most humanities Ph.D.s) really is extremely competitive. You should recognize that some schools will not even entertain the notion of hiring an ABD candidate. That said, you should be aware that many schools will. You can't do anything about the possibility that a particular school might simply discard all applications from ABD candidates (though you can save time and postage by refraining from applying to schools that clearly state this as their policy). You can, however, present yourself in such a way that you are at least favorably comparable to candidates who have already completed the Ph.D. This is where realistic self-evaluation becomes important. If your field places a lot of emphasis on publications and conference paper presentations and your CV. has little to offer in these areas, you can't realistically expect to compete with Ph.D.-wielding professionals, many of whom will have published and presented conference papers several times. If you have published and presented enough to give hiring committees the sense that you are likely to continue to do so in an adult capacity while gainfully employed, then perhaps you should think about not being too realistic. By that, I mean don't simply accept the conventional wisdom that says ABDs have no chance at tenure-track jobs these days.

Don't test the market; hit the market:

Don't underestimate the time and energy a job search will take. Unless you're planning to apply only for one or two jobs, you'll be spending a great deal of time and effort writing cover letters and putting together application materials. Remember that in addition to spending your own time, you'll be asking people to spend their time on your search. At the bare minimum, you'll need several professors to write your recommendation letters. Yes, this will all be good experience if you end up having to hit the market again next year. The second time around would be easier, I'm sure, in part because you'd have a better sense of what to expect, and in part because you'd already have gone to the trouble of generating materials, such as cover letters, teaching philosophy statements, proposals for special-topics course and graduate courses, and writing samples, many of which you could revise or recycle instead of starting from scratch all over again.

Take advantage of people in your department:

I don't mean to suggest that you should deceive and exploit people without their knowing it. You should be very explicit about treating people as resources for the purposes of your job search. Many people in your department will be happy to help you by offering anything from general musings to pointed criticisms. As a matter of fact, you might find that you have too many people offering you advice. For me, going on the job market was a bit like my experience as a dog owner. A few years ago I realized that it seems as if just about anyone who has ever owned a dog, known a dog, or known someone who has owned or known a dog is eager to give you the benefit of his or her dog-related expertise. Some of this advice turns out to be good, some of it is common sense, and some of it is flat-out bad. I apply this model to my job search, with the acknowledgment that relatively little of the advice I received fell into that third category. I was lucky in that Vanderbilt's English Department (where I did my Ph.D. work and planned my job search) recently began designating a faculty member as the job-market advisor. Those of us on the market benefited greatly from her efforts on our behalf, which included everything from one-to-one critiques of a candidate's C.V. and cover letters to mock job interviews a couple of weeks before the MLA convention. If your department doesn't have this type of support system already in place, you should establish your own network, preferably drawing on the experience of newly hired faculty members (who'll be able to tell you vivid job-market war stories) and faculty members who have recently served on search committees.

Make contacts, not just at other schools, but at other kinds of schools:

Reach out to graduates of your doctoral program who are now teaching at schools unlike yours (small, liberal-arts colleges, colleges with religious affiliations, teaching-oriented state schools, and, if you want to broaden your search, community colleges, high schools, publishing companies, and perhaps university administrative posts). If you've met and talked with people in your profession at conferences, consider asking them for brief advice about how someone in your situation might proceed. Some of the comments you elicit might simply reinforce what you already know, but some comments will strike you as totally unexpected (and therefore valuable, and perhaps encouraging). A case in point: I exchanged some brief e-mails with a full professor I had met a year or two before I hit the job market. This professor's position at a midlevel, teaching-oriented state university gave him a perspective on my job search that was somewhat different from the perspective of my Vanderbilt professors. He told me that despite the research-uber-alles message that many doctoral candidates receive from their professors (who tend, of course, to be wholly committed to such an ethos by virtue of their presence at research universities), other factors often come into play. He told me that within the last few years his department had repeatedly extended job offers to candidates who didn't necessarily have publication accomplishments superior to those of other candidates. He also came right out and said that, because of the overall mission of his university, some committee members had expressed concerns about certain candidates being "too geeky" to teach a wide range of students effectively. This is not to say that anyone is looking to hire a substandard scholar. In this job market there's simply no need to do so. It is to say that at some places social skills actually count not only in terms of one's ability to interact successfully with interviewers and potential colleagues but also in terms of one's ability to do the job. It seems to me that this is worth mentioning because humanities doctoral programs tend to create a culture that emphasizes the importance of being the alpha geek--a culture in which vita length trumps classroom skill every time. The simple fact is that the majority of the jobs out there are not at research universities, and that many institutions do look for candidates who can teach a wide range of students as well as publish.

Be prepared for questions about your completion date:

It's best if you can tell interviewers exactly when you plan to be done with your dissertation. Expect them to ask how you can be so sure. At this point, any hesitation on your part will likely hurt your chances of landing the job. Some schools will interview and hire ABD candidates with the understanding that the candidates will have earned the Ph.D. by the time they begin the job at the new school. A smaller number of schools will hire candidates knowing full well that the candidates will still be ABD when they begin teaching there. In either case, interviewers will expect you to have a coherent plan for completing the dissertation. In my case, I was able to tell interviewers how many chapters I had already completed and how thoroughly I had scheduled out my time in order to make sure that I didn't fall behind. I also told them a true story about a friend who had failed to stick to this type of a schedule, had fallen behind, and had ended up needing an extra year to finish the dissertation. I explained that this friend's misadventures made me hypersensitive to the possibility of falling behind, and that micromanaging my writing schedule was my way of ensuring that this sort of thing wouldn't happen to me. In general, confident and detailed answers to this question are crucial. Think of it this way: If you've made it to the interview stage, the interviewers are interested in hearing about your plans. If they were completely hostile to the idea of hiring an ABD, they wouldn't even be interviewing you.

Look beyond your dissertation; your interviewers will:

Don't think that questions about your research agenda will begin and end with your dissertation. Some interviewers, no doubt, wanting to avoid the overlong extemporaneous speech that anyone working on a dissertation can unleash at a moment's notice, won't ask you about your dissertation at all. Instead, they'll ask you what you plan to do next No one will expect you to have begun substantive research on your next book project before you've even finished your dissertation, but neither will they expect to hear that you have no idea what comes next. This would be a good time to revisit ideas that you decided against when you chose your dissertation topic (i.e., think about other dissertations you considered writing). You should think about smaller scholarly projects, such as edited volumes you might like to edit or interdisciplinary research you might like to pursue. You won't be expected to produce a contract from a publisher when asked such a question, but failing to describe a coherent research agenda would likely hurt your chance of being offered a job.

Do your homework and address department needs:

Know about the school, the department, interdisciplinary programs, the makeup and mission of the department, and the interests of the interviewers. This all starts with the cover letter. Search committee members read so many cover letters that they get accustomed to seeing a certain number of obvious boilerplate letters. Such letters simply plug in the name of School X in a few places without saying much about why a candidate feels that she or he is a good fit for the school and vice versa. Look at each school's website for information that will let you make your letter stand out. Unless you are quite sure that your brilliance will be completely self-evident to search committees, you should make it a point to highlight ways you can be useful to each department. One of the simplest ways to do this is to speak directly to course coverage. If you are applying to schools that emphasize teaching, this is especially important. Interviewers from multiple schools told me directly that they liked the fact that my cover letter listed the courses I could teach if hired by their department Some hiring committee members said that they were impressed by my ability to teach so many of the classes their departments offered; even more said that including this material in the cover letter indicated that I had done my homework about their department. Your cover letter should reflect your ability to teach a range of special-topics courses, survey courses, and graduate courses (assuming the school in question has a graduate program-mentioning grad courses in a letter to a school without a grad program probably won't win you any points).

Tell them exactly what you can do for them:

Remember, you're competing against scores-perhaps hundreds-of other candidates, most of whom are also quite good at what they do. If you emphasize all the things you can do for a particular department, that might give you an edge over applicants whose C.V. lines are comparable if those candidates submit boilerplate cover letters that don't emphasize just how useful they can be. In short, you should be able to do everything the job ad asks for and more. I should note that this doesn't end at a list of classes you can teach. If you've done other things that would make you a useful member of a department, by all means mention those things. If you have experience teaching with computers or building class web pages, that might make you attractive to a number of hiring committees. If you've served extensively in the student government of your graduate program or your graduate school, you can present that as evidence that you're prepared for the committee work that a department will expect of you as a faculty member. If you've done anything else that would demonstrate personal initiative in the service of your grad program, department, or school, you should play that up in your cover letter. In my case, that meant mentioning an initiative I'd started in order to try to improve my department's teaching evaluation procedures, as well as mentioning aspects of the other things I listed above. I drew the line at mentioning all the times I'd tended bar at department parties or helped move large objects around our building, but I figured that anything north of that was fair game.

Search committee members are well aware that they are interviewing prospective colleagues, one of whom might work with them for decades. The same holds true of department heads, other faculty members, and the various deans, vice-presidents, and assorted administrators you're likely to meet when you advance to campus interviews. Most of these people aren't looking for prima donnas; they're looking for team players. Is that a cliche? Of course. Is it still true? You bet.

Don't think like a grad student:

Get out of the peon mindset that most doctoral programs promote. This will be easier to do if you've presented several conference papers, taken part in professional organizations, and generally impersonated a full-fledged adult professional periodically throughout your years in grad school. Your interviewers will expect you to be a grown-up. Think like one and behave like one even if your grad program has tried to beat this ability out of you. Try method acting if necessary.

Luck counts, so don't write yourself off:

Many of us are accustomed to hearing how terrible the job market is, how brutal the competition is, and how if we'd have been really intelligent we would have learned how to rebuild transmissions, engineer something, or buy, sell, or process something other than what it is we chose. Keep in mind that many people do get good jobs, even as ABDs. Keep in mind that sometimes good things will happen: maybe your interests will fit a department's needs; your skills will help a department do something new (maybe something above and beyond the things mentioned in the job ad); your writing sample or your statement of teaching philosophy or your cover letter might catch someone's eye; and you might get along really well with the members of the search committee, or with the people you meet on your campus visit, or with the students you meet, or all of the above. In short, maybe you'll get lucky. That's not to say that good luck is the same as blind luck. If you make it a point to present your best employable self, you'll give yourself a chance to go out and meet your good luck halfway, even in a bad job market.