Professionalization as a doctoral candidate can be somewhat anxiety-inducing, especially for those of us who navigate that liminal space between student and potential/future colleague. We have to strike the right balance between confidently knowing our stuff but also showing respect to established scholars in our field(s).
As someone just beginning the academic job search, I do not intend this to be a post about how to get an academic job. Clearly, I haven’t crossed that bridge yet, and there’s no magic formula for that anyway. Instead, this is a post describing things that I’ve learned while preparing to make the transition from doctoral candidate to job candidate.
Going to conferences is usually how graduate students are taught to network, and generally, conferences can be very useful for meeting other people and building your networks. There are lots of tips on how to make the best use of conferences, so I’m just speaking from my experiences.
1) Always make the conference paper useful in some other way beyond the conference (i.e. turning it into an article and/or dissertation chapter).
2) Find out what mentorship opportunities exist for your professional organizations. This year I participated in the National Women’s Studies Association’s mentoring program, and it was such an incredible experience and a great use of conference time. My assigned mentor reached out to me before the conference, and we have been in touch since then. And while we should not expect conference mentors to keep in touch with us beyond the conference, it is very encouraging when they do.
3) Don’t neglect establishing peer networks as well. Start to establish relationships with other graduate students in your field(s) because you will likely continue to see and work with each other at various points throughout your careers.
One of the main drawbacks to depending on conferences for professionalization is that conferences are ridiculously EXPENSIVE. Even when there are funds set aside for students to attend conferences, they almost always operate on a reimbursement model, which can be tricky on a grad student budget.
That’s why it’s important to realize that there are other low-cost ways to network as a grad student. These include:
Fellowships: Apply early and often for fellowships even if you have funding. Start looking early too. I started looking for dissertation fellowships during my first year just to see what is out there and to stay on top of deadlines. As one professor told me, applying for fellowships is a way for people to begin familiarizing themselves with your work. Even if you don’t get the fellowships, if your application is impressive, people will start to take note. Another reason to apply for fellowships is because it is excellent preparation for writing your dissertation proposal/prospectus. You start to articulate your project more precisely. And of course, you might actually get a fellowship!
Summer Institutes: A lot of summer institutes cost money, but there are some, like ones offered by NEH, that cover some (if not all) expenses. Additionally, some summer institutes like the Digital Pedagogy Lab offer fellowships to help defray the costs of attending. These kinds of programs can be even more conducive to developing professional relationships than conferences because there are fewer people, and you typically spend more time with them.
Future Faculty Programs: This year, I was accepted to participate in a four-day workshop (two days in September and two days in March) called Faculty First-Look at the Steinhardt school at NYU, and it was amazing! Through the program, we learned ins and outs of applying for academic jobs, had opportunities to network with faculty, administrators, and other graduate students, and got the chance to receive feedback on mock job talks. And it was FREE. There are other schools that offer similar programs through their faculty affairs offices, so I recommend looking at diversity initiatives at universities you are interested in to see if they have these types of programs.
Publishing: One time when I was fretting about not having presented at many conferences, my advisor reminded me that even though conferences are good places to meet people and form relationships, networking in academia is ultimately done through your work. Expectations around publishing, especially as a grad student, vary from field to field. As a humanities graduate student, most of the advice I’ve been given encourages us to try to have at least one peer-reviewed article published (or at the very least accepted for publication) by the time we start the academic job search but to also avoid over-publishing from the dissertation. If you are planning to publish while in grad school, keep your timeline in mind because the turnaround time from initial article submission to final publication can take well over a year, especially you have to revise and resubmit.
Get on Social Media: At least half of the lines on my my CV are the results of CFPs and announcements that I saw on Twitter or Facebook. Additionally, there are so many academic communities on social media that share information and resources. Developing your digital presence is another topic for another blog post, but you might as well use the social media platforms you are already using to expand your networks.
When it comes to professionalization, there is nothing wrong with trying to make yourself competitive, but it’s important not to obsess over doing all the “right” things to the point where you’re just adding lines to your CV at the expense of your health and actually finishing your dissertation.