A Good Bet
When a department hires they are making a gamble that the new faculty member will perform their duties sufficiently well to be tenured in 6-7 years. Searching is a lot of work for a department, and denying someone tenure is worse. Departments want to choose well. Your job as a candidate is to give hiring committees as much evidence as possible that you are a good bet.
What kind of evidence? Some of the basics:
The academy loves status and loves to rely on the judgments of others. Your graduate institution, as well as your advisors, will be viewed as a marker of status and quality. These are not good measures of quality, but they are common. (On that topic, one of our readings this week was this brief post, Superpowers: The American Academic Elite). This is sometimes referred to as a “halo” effect: A Ph.D. in Garbage from Harvard is still a Ph.D. from Harvard.
Maybe your department or advisor is recognized as a leader in your field. Maybe not. There’s not much you can do about it at this point. You should be aware that you might have to prove yourself a bit more than some other candidates, and less so than others. Do not let a lot of prestige make you lazy, and do not let less prestige intimidate you. Show them what you’ve got.
This can be a hard one to game. The ability to pursue your own interests is one of the very best things about this profession. Even if you wanted to choose a topic you expected to be in high demand, it’s nearly impossible to know what will be “hot” the year(s) that you are job hunting. (I once met a political scientist who finished his Ph.D. on Soviet politics in 1991; nothing worse that expertise in a government that no longer exists). So, study what you want. BUT! Be prepared to explain why your work is interesting to people outside of your area, how your work relates to other subfields and fields, and how you speak to big questions in your field. Also be ready to talk about how your work prepares you to teach a range of courses. In my field, a student who works on judicial politics in Brazil, for example, should be able to teach introductory courses in comparative politics, as well as courses related to judicial politics, Latin American politics, political institutions, and so on.
A Gender Studies graduate minor can work to expand your fit on the job market. Departments often search for lines funded in part by or in collaboration with other units, such as gender or women’s studies programs. The minor gives you credibility in claiming you are prepared to teach cross- listed courses and collaborate with others in a gender and women’s studies.
Evidence of scholarly potential
Whatever the research expectations may be in any department, your job is to provide evidence that you will be able to meet them. What might that evidence look like?
Publications. The best evidence that you can publish is to do so. This is challenging, and I am among those who fear rising expectations mean we are pressuring students to send material out too early. Unfortunately, it’s still the reality. Discipline norms vary, but think strategically about how you might develop a research pipeline. A well-received seminar paper might become an article with a bit more work. A research assistantship or a conversation in class might develop into a co-author relationship with a faculty member or fellow graduate student. A measure you developed for your dissertation might merit a stand-alone methods paper, or an early chapter might sustain an article or chapter.
Grants and fellowships. Not only do fellowships and grants provide necessary support for your research, they also provide early external signals of the quality of your research and of your willingness and ability to secure external funding. Every university loves to see faculty bring in grant money. Even small grants demonstrate your entrepreneurship. Successful grantsmanship speaks well for your future research agenda and your ability to publish.
Conferences. Conferences can offer useful deadlines and opportunities to connect with other scholars. They also signal to departments that you understand how the profession works and are developing work that can be shared with others. You don’t have to attend dozens of conferences, but a few under your belt are useful. In my field, there is a major conference in Chicago every year that provides at least one cheap alternative; keep an eye out for nearby opportunities since budgets are always tight.
Evidence of teaching potential
Here again, the more evidence you can offer that you are prepared to teach a variety of classes and to teach well, the better. Departments do not need you to be the greatest teacher since Socrates, they need you to be able to attract students, teach without instructor-related problems, and cover necessary classes.
Independent teaching. As with publications, the best evidence that you can teach your own courses is teaching your own courses. Opportunities to do so vary by department, but seek to take advantage of these when offered. Teaching a course for the first time is an enormous amount of work, and you will never think you have time to do it. Yet, juggling teaching responsibilities with research demands is exactly what this job entails, and graduate school is a good time to start practicing those skills.
Teaching assistant. TAing for a class with discussion sections is more work, but it also offers important practice of key classroom skills. Strategically, sections generate teaching evaluations for your teaching portfolio, further evidence of your teaching potential. Sections or not, talk to your faculty member about the possibility of giving a lecture; this permits your faculty member to observe (and later write about) your teaching, and provides you with one more concrete experience to use when writing up your teaching statement.
Other teaching. Did you used to teach high school? SAT prep? Immigrant education classes? Have you directed any independent research, advised undergraduates on graduate or law school, or otherwise been involved in “teaching outside of the classroom”? These are all great experiences you can draw from in your teaching statement as evidence of your ability to manage a classroom, lead productive discussion, mentor undergraduates, and other key pedagogical tasks. In addition, these “other” teaching experiences may be a way for you to answer the common question: Sure, you’ve taught those elite Notre Dame students well, but what about our student body, which is much more racially/class/age/etcetera diverse? The ability to teach a range of students is valued.
Kaneb Center workshops and courses. We are incredibly lucky to have a resource like the Kaneb Center here at Notre Dame. I strongly recommend all students avail themselves of their workshops, courses, and consulting. You will learn skills and become a better teacher. You can earn certificates that can be listed on your CV, demonstrating your commitment to and preparation for teaching.