Is There Life After Grad School?

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Read about the Experiences of Other PFF Students

by Wendy Erisman, Ph.D.
Graduate Student Assembly Newsletter
Vol. 4 Number 2 (Spring, 1999)

One morning last spring, after tossing and turning all night, I sat bolt upright in bed, jolted into wakefulness by the sudden awareness that I would almost certainly be graduating within the year and that I really had no clear idea what would then happen to me. For six years, I had been tightly focused on the process of attending graduate school--the classes, the qualifying exams, and above all, the dissertation. I had never really thought much beyond the moment when I would hand in my dissertation, endure the defense, and bask in the glory of finally getting my Ph.D. But on that morning, with more than half my dissertation completed and my advisor pressing me to set a date for the defense, I realized that I had to face the future.

Unfortunately, my future, like that of all too many graduate students, seemed rather bleak. The academic job market in my field, cultural anthropology, is extremely competitive, and while there are certainly some job possibilities for anthropologists outside of academia, I had little idea what those might be or how to position myself for them. In response to these harsh realities, I did the only logical thing. I panicked. I abandoned my dissertation writing and cried on the shoulders of my friends. After several weeks of this, however, I came to the reluctant conclusion that not finishing my dissertation would be just as unpleasant, if not more so, than getting my degree, and so I set about looking for resources which would help make me into a more marketable and more confident professional. I found some useful information through my professional association, which not only provides services such as job listings and conference interviews for academic job seekers but also has a variety of resources, including publications, workshops and a mentor program, for people interested in becoming practicing anthropologists. For more general information and training, however, I found a very valuable resource in UT's Graduate School which, for the past several years, has made a determined effort to provide professional training for graduate students as a complement to the knowledge and skills taught by the various graduate programs.

Prior to my panicked realization that I was rather unprepared for the future, I had already participated in two of the Graduate Schools professional development workshops. One of these workshops, offered each spring, was on the topic of dissertation writing and offered suggestions on choosing and working with committee members, organizing ideas and structuring the dissertation, and dealing with procrastination or writers block. While I found these tips helpful, they really came too late in my graduate career. I should have attended this workshop when I was writing my prospectus rather than when I had already embarked on the dissertation itself. The other workshop, on the academic job market, was an immensely valuable session for me and one that I would encourage any grad student interested in academic employment to attend. This workshop, offered each fall, covers the process of academic hiring with suggestions on how to write a vita and cover letters and how to interview for positions. It also includes a panel discussion on hiring at different types of universities in which representatives from UT's Preparing Future Faculty partner schools--St. Edward's, Huston-Tillotsen, Southwest Texas State, and Austin Community College--speak about what their schools look for in new hires. Since the likelihood is that a new Ph.D. will be hired by a school that is not a major research university, these different perspectives on the hiring process are a central part of the workshop.

From this academic job market workshop, I knew that teaching experience is an essential part of getting a tenure-track position at most universities. My immediate problem was that I had very little teaching experience and even less training in pedagogy. I was a TA for two years, with one semester as a discussion section leader, but my department no longer requires TA's to take the supervised teaching class, 398T, and the professors for whom I was a TA were too busy to offer me more than the most basic advice on teaching. The theory, of course, is that we will learn to teach by watching our professors, but the reality is that neither graduate seminars nor enormous lecture classes are very good places to learn the skills needed by good teachers.

With a sense of desperation, I decided to enroll over the summer in one of the Graduate Schools professional development classes, GRS 390T, Advanced College Teaching Methods. In this class, I hoped, I would learn some useful classroom skills and also develop some materials for a teaching portfolio. I found that the course was really more about the whys of teaching than the hows, intended to build on practical skills already learned in 398T, but I still found it very useful. I learned about a paradigm for education which emphasizes learning rather than teaching, about research on the value of active and cooperative learning techniques, about the importance of student feedback, and about changes in higher education that will have a fundamental impact on faculty members in the future. Most importantly, as a class assignment, I articulated my own teaching philosophy, a document which I have used in my job search and which has come to be a touchstone for me as I develop syllabi for courses I would like to teach. Rather than a mishmash of unrelated teaching techniques, I gained a solid philosophical foundation on which I can build my teaching repertoire.

Last fall, as I worked on job and post-doc applications, I also took advantage of a more in-depth look at academic life at different types of universities offered through the Preparing Future Faculty Program. In a series of campus visits, UT students can spend a half day at each of the four partner schools visiting with students, faculty, and administrators, attending classes, and learning about the roles and responsibilities of faculty members in very different academic settings. While I found all of these visits interesting, I was especially excited by my visit to St. Edward's, a small liberal arts college much like the sort of school where I would like to teach. I learned that, although St. Ed's does not have an undergraduate anthropology program, they have several anthropologists teaching in the New College, a program for working adults, and they also offer an innovative general education program called Cultural Foundations. I found this program, which addresses cultural diversity and social issues from both American and international perspectives, so interesting that I decided to sign up for one of the internships sponsored by the Graduate School. So, rather than spending this semester as an unemployed and unhappy Ph.D., I am now co-teaching a course on American multiculturalism and observing in a course on social problems which emphasizes critical thinking and writing skills. I have been made welcome by my mentor and other faculty members at St. Ed's, and I am both enhancing my marketability and learning some really useful teaching skills.

If I were to do it all again, I would make some changes in my path through graduate school. Most importantly, I would start working on professional development earlier, before graduation was in sight. I would also take more of the professional development courses offered by the Graduate School, particularly GRS 390C, Academic and Professional Consulting, and GRS 390M, Academic and Professional Uses of Technology. Nonetheless, my experience with the Graduate Schools professional development programs has been extremely valuable. I have now graduated and still don't have a job, but I do have my internship and I feel a lot more confident about my future prospects. I have used things I learned in the job market workshop and the teaching course in every one of my job applications, and if none of my many applications for tenure-track and visiting academic positions works out for next year, I have some good prospects for adjunct positions here in Austin, arising primarily from contacts gained through the professional development program, and I have some resources to use in considering non-academic work. Maybe there is life after graduate school, but the future seems a lot brighter when you have the skills and resources needed to turn a degree into a job.