The Practical Side: Equipping Graduate Students for Jobs

The Department of Literatures, Cultures and Languages welcomes a mix of Masters and Ph.D. students in German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Comparative Literature (which includes a Chinese Studies Program). Graduate students in programs in the humanities are well aware that the employment landscape has shifted decisively in the past twenty to thirty years. This said, MA and PhD students have very different goals and needs. MA students tend to come to the program to explore an interest in advanced studies and to take time to chart a career path while studying, working, and upgrading their credentials. As a result, they tend to be fairly comfortable using their degrees as steppingstones for a broad array of non-academic careers. Although some still come with the intention of using their degrees as springboards for language teaching careers (a well-compensated sector which has recently seen an upsurge in demand) our MAs graduate and work in fields as diverse as politics, university administration, translation, publishing, artifact conservation, and business.


The level of specialization that is the hallmark of the Ph.D. poses more challenges, but also potentially more rewards, when entering the job market. Most students enter doctoral programs with the idea of pursuing a career in education, academia, government, or in a wide range of fields that require an advanced understanding of the intersections between culture, language, media, and the arts. To this end, LCL offers doctoral students hands-on preparation for teaching, doing research, and also for identifying and communicating with researchers who are the lifeblood of any field and which, in many cases, form a global community. The good news is that the proficiencies students will need for the academic market involves an impressive range of skills. The practical flexibility and the excellent communication skills that PhDs must hone for their teaching and writing make them extremely valuable contributors in a wide array of professional environments.


In 2016 LCL developed a specialized course to prepare doctoral students for the different arenas that PhD candidates have to navigate—conferences, grant writing, publishing, teaching—if they plan to prepare for academic jobs. This course, Scholarship and the Profession, was taught for a second time last fall. It was designed by LCL’s Director of Graduate Studies, Professor Jacqueline Loss. The course is recommended for all starting PhD candidates. Students are given the full picture of the steps students must take to build an academic career. One of the strategies Professor Loss uses to help students manage this challenge is to ask them to develop a five-year plan for their graduate studies, charting the benchmarks they would like to hit for each year.


The first step for incoming Ph.D.’s is to develop a compelling topic for their project. In a structured series of collaborative workshops, Professor Loss teaches students how to recognize good research topics, how to perform in-depth literature reviews, and how to devise methods for conducting research that are appropriate to the topic. The rest of the course is devoted to preparing students with the hands-on experience that is necessary for actually getting that research done, i.e. by writing abstracts and grant applications, learning how to identify venues (and thus by extensions audiences) for publishing their work, and, towards the end of the course, gaining some hands-on practice in the unwritten rules for the preparation of academic CVs, job letters, interviews, and job talks.


Loss also adopts a practical approach to prepare students for the job market. For instance, she shows that writing job documents (whether a cover letters or a teaching statement) requires a familiarity with the conventions of technical writing: ideas need to be articulated with precision and clarity. By working through multiple drafts, doing peer-review sessions, and getting constructive feedback at each step, students learn how to create their own job documents. This exercise is also lesson in genre writing since the conventions of professional writing are distinct from other genres of academic writing in which there is more space to develop ideas. The course also helps students in a number of other practical ways, training them to navigate standard academic job databases, use reliable online sources for academic job support like ChronicleVitae and Higheredjobs, and provides them with a first-hand taste of what it means to interview for academic jobs.


Senior graduate students in different phrases of their projects are frequent guests in Loss’s course. They coach younger Ph.D. students on how to present their work in conferences, to write prospectuses and to share their strategies to manage time and the pressures of graduate school as productively as possible. International students in the program help provide perspective on the nuances of the style and structure of the American academic system. While this process can appear daunting for new PhD candidates, it is helpful to gain a realistic picture of the pressures on the horizon. Gaining confidence in the various skills that will eventually make for a well-rounded professional help PhD students feel that they equipped to apply for talks, grants, and jobs.


Overall, graduate students see this course as a much-needed opportunity to not just think about how to make the most of their degrees, but also how to strengthen their overall academic profiles. Michael Pfremmer, a second year Ph.D. student in German confessed that taking the class was an eye-opening experience. While he will only be entering the job market in a few years, he found the course invaluable in making him think about the next steps in preparing his profile. Xiaoqiao Xu, a second year PhD student in CLCS found it useful in making her aware of the many opportunities that graduate students have in strengthening their academic portfolios. “Before the class, I was not aware of the importance of conferences for graduate students.” Taking the course helped her polish practical skills like writing an abstract or identifying conferences for which she should apply and reinforced the importance of such extra-curricular activities at the graduate level. She has now applied for two major conferences. Although it brings up certain fears students have in confronting the job market, it also prepares them to address them systematically in productive and fruitful ways.