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The Difference CALS Makes on the Job Market

The academic job market for positions in literature, as many are no doubt aware, can be difficult and competitive. Many recent PhDs must spend a few years on the market before landing a tenure-track job, while others choose a path outside of academia, sometimes known as the “alt-ac” path. (CALS sponsored a symposium on this topic in 2014, which you can read about here.) For those who remain committed to the academic profession, the application process is full of ups and downs, opacities, doubts, and sometimes, great rewards.  This year, Penn State’s PhD graduates in American literature had much success on the academic job market, highlighting the difference exposure to CALS makes in preparing our grad students for success.

CALS provides graduate students with grant and award support of various kinds, which is making a real difference in the professionalization and maturation of Penn State Americanist graduate students (read about the kinds of support CALS offers in an article here).  Yet three Penn State Americanist graduate students who were successful on the job market this year—Laura Vrana, Michelle N. Huang, and Sarah Salter—suggest that the benefits of CALS extend far beyond the financial support the Center provides graduate students.  Just as important to their training and eventual success has been the singular introduction to the profession that CALS programs and its extra-disciplinary spaces afford the next generation of academic professionals.

LauraVrana.jpgEach year CALS sponsors  an extraordinary slate of programming that exposes graduate students to the academic profession and allows them to make contacts in unique ways. Laura Vrana, for example, has been successful recently in securing a position as a Postdoctoral Fellow in African-American Literature at Rutgers University. Vrana acknowledged the positive impact that the “Alien Form” symposium, which showcased the work of Penn State’s Ethnic American literature faculty, and other CALS events had on her scholarly development. In addition, hearing fellow grad students present their work at the annual CALS Graduate Awards Symposium, she said, was also helpful in framing and presenting her own work. Vrana’s dissertation traces the development and evolution of black women’s poetics from the Black Arts Movement in the mid-1970s to the present. She received many positive responses in her job search before accepting the postdoc position. From the fifty or so applications she sent in, she was offered 13 interviews, and two campus visits. While these didn’t turn into offers for a tenure-track job, she was happy to receive the prestigious post-doc from Rutgers, where she’ll be able to revise her dissertation and begin marketing it as a book, while also going back on the market next year.

CALS also provides extra-disciplinary space that empowers graduate students and allows them to make meaningful contributions to the programming and operations of the center. Because of these inputs, CALS-affiliated graduate students are able to envision the kinds of involvements they might have as future professors in the field. Michelle N. Huang worked closely with CALS as a graduate research assistant in the 2013-2014 academic year, where she helped organize, with CALS Director Sean Goudie and CALS-affiliated faculty member Tina Chen, the “Alien Form” symposium that Vrana noted was so impactful on her professional development. Part of the symposium’s events included a pedagogical lunch where participants read core texts from the visiting Ethnic American creative writers, and discussed how people might teach those texts in their classes. “It was invaluable to be exposed to organizing symposia at an early stage of graduate school. Events like Alien Form, which filled a much-needed gap in Ethnic American literatures at Penn State, really highlight how CALS creates spaces for areas of scholarship that lack institutional support. Additionally, helping graduate students and faculty who aren’t working in Ethnic American literatures access and become familiar with teaching and bringing these texts into their classroom was really important and meaningful to me.”

MichelleHuang.jpgHuang’s role as a CALS Grad RA and her efforts in organizing the annual CALS Spring Symposium and running the First Book Institute made a crucial difference in her personal narrative as she went on the job market this year and quickly landed a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. “The inter-university and inter-community work I did with CALS as a research assistant gave me both experience and confidence when it came time to organize conference panels and collaborate with scholars from other institutions.” She also described attending the First Book Institute as the CALS Grad RA as “a total game changer,” explaining that, “it was reassuring to see brilliant and accomplished junior faculty still struggling with the ‘so what?’ question, but what really helped me with drafting my prospectus was watching them work through their thought and writing processes.”

During her time at Penn State, Sarah Salter also had extensive involvement with CALS on multiple registers, in teaching, research, and service. In her work as a teacher, she often included an emphasis on archival research, which she drew on to co-organize with Director Goudie CALS Undergraduate Research in the Archives Scholars (CURIAS), a special program for Honors English students working on archive-related theses. Salter served as Assistant Director of this program for three years. This experience, she explains, helped her to articulate her relationship to professional service in job interviews. “It certainly had a larger impact. It really helped me to think about and talk about my own professional commitments in terms of library liaising.” Salter was also awarded a CALS Dissertation Support Fellowship, which helped her to complete her dissertation focused on literary and cultural exchanges between the United States and Italy in the nineteenth century.

SarahSalter.jpegSalter, too, was an important graduate student contributor to events like the founding of C19: the Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists under the auspices of CALS in 2010.  Later, with fellow CALS Americanist graduate student Erica Stevens, she co-organized G19, the graduate student forum in the organization. Salter stressed that these experiences with CALS aided her professional development in vital, meaningful ways that made a real difference in her job market success. This past year was her third on the market, which is a common timeframe for obtaining an Assistant Professor position. Over the three years, she applied to 170 jobs, a number that may seem shocking to those unfamiliar with the humanities job market. But, like Salter, most Penn State students who remain committed to finding a job do well. Last year she landed a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and next year, she will move into a tenure-track position at the same institution as Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature.

Salter explains that her experiences with CALS and with Penn State’s other extra-disciplinary training, such as the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), her translation work, and work at the Graduate Writing Center (GWC), were invaluable to getting this position. “All of the other kinds of less-discipline-specific experiences I had as a graduate student at Penn State really made that possible to apply for this job, because I can speak across all of those pieces. The work that CALS does to help graduate students have a relationship to other kinds of campus communities and academic-related communities is really important. CALS is one space where research is important, of course, but it has enabled me to do all kinds of things beyond that, which have been very valuable for me.” Her advice for those going on the market soon is to cast a wide net in both your applications and in the ways you frame your own capabilities as a scholar.

All three of these Americanist scholars from Penn State emphasized that the job search is time-consuming and can be demoralizing at times, but that it’s also rewarding to have your work recognized. What’s important as you move onto the market, each emphasized, is being able to pitch a compelling narrative about your project that can appeal to a range of scholars. CALS provides the exposure to a wide scholarly community that helps grad students like Vrana, Salter, and Huang do just that. One thing that remains clear in each of these success stories is that while having a compelling research project is of course important, there are many other important factors in landing a job. The wide range of programs and experiences that CALS makes possible for graduate students and the wider Penn State community facilitates the development of a robust scholarly profile that can give newly minted PhDs an edge on the market.