Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Wolfe's Tone on Day 2 at the AHA: Part Two

My third-graders played very well this morning. We probably shot about 5% from field, but at the third-grade level any shot from the field is a positive development. I am on my way to Gettysburg for two more girls games--this time my sixth grader is playing. No battlefield stops are scheduled.

Of course I would be remiss if I left for Civil War country without posting the second installment of The Wolfe's Tone's report from Day 2 at the AHA. You can find part one of his Day 2 report here. And you can find his Day 1 report here. Enjoy! --JF

The Opportunity in the Crisis

The major topic of conversation (at least in my circles) is the job crisis. President Obama has said several times that we must find the opportunity in this moment. I wonder if historians are thinking that way right now. Some graduate stuidents are engrossed in the message of Chicken Little, desperately looking around anywhere we can for a safe (employed) spot. Others are thinking through what this moment means for how business will be done 10, 20, and 30 years from now? As investors say, those who panic lose, those who stay calm make money. Here are some insights I've gleaned from chatting with others

1- Too many graduate students and new Ph.Ds are saying "woe is me." But the reaction of a another group is far more positive. More people are attending professional development seminars. Many are really taking the time to "learn" how to network. Some people may be more socially graceful than others, but it seems that some folks have realized that they need to expand their skill set beyond the ability to mine the archives for data.

2-People are attending teacher training, and putting renewed emphasis on proving they can teach. This seems to be a positive effect of the turmoil. If we needed a downturn to suddenly make us aggressive at becoming good teachers, what does that say about the profession circa 2004?

3- Adjusting expectations seems to be a major theme here. I talked today with Ivy League folks who have made the painful transition from expecting research jobs to hoping for a 4/5 load at a teaching school. Personally, I love teaching and would be happy at such a place. Across the board the attitude seems to be that those jobs are increasingly coveted and don't need to be apologized for.

Networking for Next Year

This leads to a practical tip that the astute observer will notice. You should not show up at the AHA to network because you need a job in the next 12 months. You come to meet the people who will hire you 2, 3, 4, or more years down the road. Indeed, you could meet a person who will be your advocate on a hiring committee somewhere in the future. The lesson for graduate students-- network NOW. Keep a list of contacts and follow up with them every few months. Mention via email that something you read might interest them, or that you would love their input on book X. Try to organize or get on a panel with someone. Be proactive and take all this nervous "how will I ever get a job" energy and put it to good use.

An example: a very recent job posting got a lot of people very, very excited. As a true academic, I hold my emotions in check (ok- I nearly screamed with joy). And as luck would have it, I ran into the department head of that school and we started chatting (Thank you God! I will be sure to do that good deed I promised as soon as I get home). Actually, two of us were chatting him up about the job when he said a wonderfully honest thing: "Just so you know, one applicant is a graduate of our college, has a Ph.D. from *******, and the person's parent sits on the board of trustees." Obviously, this department head was fluent in several languages: Greek, Latin, and Subtle. In fact, his Subtle was a little choppy, but I understood enough to translate it into English. The (rough) translation is: this job was filled before it opened and I would not want you to get all hot and bothered about a position you won't land.

Now if that sounds harsh, fine. But I appreciated his honesty. In fact, like any other profession, a lot of this business is who you know. So my point? Network now knowing the payoff will be far, far in the future. That is okay, it is just how the world works and crying about it doesn't help. I am sure this former graduate has kept in contact with his or her former department and made sure to stay on the radar screen for the day the Ph.D. glow wore off and employment beckoned. You don't hire an unimpressive former student. This person probably worked to stay in the mix long before his or her dissertation was approved. So when all else fails----- ask your parents to join the Board of Trustees.

One last thing on this---- do your homework before a conference. Do not show up and expect magic to happen. Look through the speaker list and email 2-5 people you would like to meet personally while there. Buy their beer-- heck, buy their meal if you have to. But meet them and be ready when you walk up to be sociable and impressive. I set up meetings through email with a very accomplished historian I've never met. We had a drink. Before his drink was empty- he had agreed to be on a panel with me for another conference in the future. Why? Two reasons. One, because a few months ago I decided to set this up. I'm not trying to toot my horn, but I scheduled my AHA time such that in between every panel I have a meeting with someone, or am following up with so-and-so, etc. I'm a little rushed, but better rushed and productive than wandering the halls wondering when the hiring committee will call. The second reason--- because I was here. The AHA is annoying and expensive, but for grad students the face time is pretty valuable stuff. You have to be where the action is for things to happen. Like I said yesterday-- get inventive and get to Boston next year. And bring a warm coat--Boston ain't no San Diego.

How Not To Lose the Job

The moral of the story? It is preparation and research. Today an AHA panel focused on interviewing for jobs. What was supposed to be a "mock interview" process devolved (thankfully) into table discussions with knowledgeable (read hiring committee veterans) faculty from all kinds of institutions from 2-year to four-year to research to public history. A lot of great information was shared. I attended the 4-year state teaching college and the private liberal arts college tables. Some highlights:

1- Be prepared for softball questions. For instance, how do you approach teaching introductory courses? Sounds simple, right? The flubbing of that question took up an inordinate amount of time as people rambled out long strands of incoherent thoughts. If you whiff on those kinds of questions, you're likely behind the 8 ball from there forward.

2- Prepare, prepare, prepare. Go over questions, and have fellow historians interview you.

3- Be honest, but be more honest on the on-campus interview. Ok- by that it means you don't ask about spousal hires, fellowship leaves, etc. until you know they want you and have invested $ in your hiring process. Still, be honest throughout. If this is a Baptist or Catholic school intent on a strongly religious faculty and you are not-- save them and yourself the emotional turmoil when the truth inevitably comes out that you are Bill Maher's biggest fan. However some religious schools are more concerned with character formation and citizenship. At those institutions make sure to highlight the ways you see historical study doing that for students.

4- At smaller institutions, realize that specialization, while important, is less important than personal "fit". If you are going to be one of 3-7 faculty, they are not just hiring a teacher, they are hiring a day-in day-out colleague. If there is an early US position but your research leans a little past the magic 1865 date- that might be less important if your skill sets are diverse and you play well with others.

5- On that note: small faculties work heavily as a team. When there are only 4 people strong, guess who is on the committees- that is right, all of you. So you better be able to work together. Be flexible. Don't know anything about Roman civilization? Be honest, but also be willing to teach Western Civ since you know about as much as anyone else in the department does. Just honestly say that it may take you a few years to get really, really good at this particular intro course.

6- For teaching schools, emphasize your teaching experience. In your letter, consider using a personal story of a student in your class and how you worked with him or her personally. Did this student go on to grad school? Even better! One good story like that adds a lot when applying to a place where teaching is what they are all about.

Finally- you can lose a job by getting too personal with the committee. When asked about his personal interests/hobbies, one person droned on and on and on and on and on (you get the picture) about motorcycle riding and his many accidents, physical therapy, etc.... That was an extreme example, but I was shocked how many times that kind of thing happened. As one faculty interviewer explained: "be personable, but remember you are a professional and all phases of the interview are a professional event." Common sense, it seems, is not so common. Put another way, stupidity, like hell, is not easily conquered. Thomas Paine said that, or something close... So PREPARE ---

Panel of the Day: I was entirely involved in panels for early career people today, so I cannot speak much to the wider array. The interview tables were a good idea, and very helpful, especially for sizing up the competition (did I say that out loud?).


Here is a good link to interview questions.

Duke university has a portal to non-academic jobs for history/humanities Ph.D. folks-- or google "work4us."

The AHA has a booklet coming out on the process of getting a job. I seem to have misplaced the title, but you can probably find it on the website.

Rant of the Day: if it takes you more than 30-60 seconds to ask your question to a panelist, you are not asking a question. You felt the need to be heard after not speaking for an hour and wanted to make sure we all knew how indispensable your knowledge really is. I am not saying panelists should not be challenged with questions or facts that undercut their thesis. I am saying that everyone in the room knows that you're showing off. If you want to take that much time sharing your opinion in the form of a question, please have the courtesy to buy me a beer while I listen.

If you are back home on the east coast you probably don't care that Pete Carroll is about to leave the USC Trojans to coach the Seattle Seahawks. Out here, USC fans are livid. However a noticeable cheer seems to be emanating from a small group of historians huddled at the same table. I think their ID Tags all say, "John/Jane Doe: University of Notre Dame".

Day 2 in the books:

The Wolfe's Tone