The academic job market is an ever evolving and enigmatic beast to tame. It is increasingly common for new graduates to take up a postdoctoral fellowship before finding full time employment. I want to share some of what I know about bridging the gap between graduation, a postdoc position, and a full time job.
In what follows, I’ll write up something of an annotated weblog of some of the best articles and resources that I know about. I want to wish all you happy wanderers the best of luck, but I also want to equip you with the collective wisdom of some of the digital humanists who’ve bravely gone before you. If you are graduate student nearing completion of your PhD, you are facing the harsh realities of the academic job market. Those words, “Job Market,” cast bone chilling fear over your whole body, but I want to share some optimism with you. It is still relatively good out there for upstart DHers. DH is needed for more than just DH jobs. There is an increasing sense that DH is just part of the default skill set for new faculty. Even job ads without explicit mention of DH in the title will often make mention of a “digital” something or other. Universities are under increasing pressure to mobilize research and increase public awareness to drive philanthropy and recruitment. DHers can do this and do great research. A lot will be expected of you in the future. A postdoc is a good time to prepare for everything that will be expected of you. It is a difficult mission if you choose to accept it. Might I suggest a sound track as you read on?
What is a postdoc anyway?
A good definition is a pre-requisite for making knowledge. Wikipedia offers a good definition of a “Postdoctoral Researcher”:
A postdoctoral researcher is a person professionally conducting research after the completion of their doctoral studies. The ultimate goal of a postdoctoral research position is to pursue additional research, training, or teaching in order to have better skills to pursue a career in academia, research, or any other fields.
This definition seems quite happy and amicable. No fear here. It sounds like a very humane and natural extension of higher education. Postdocs are, in general, a great opportunity to seek mentorship and professionalization. This is a great opportunity to ease new graduates into faculty positions. That’s what we all want, right? What could be better? My experience, which is detailed by the TRaCE project, is an example of just such a positive outcome. I was graciously hosted by the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria. Ray Siemens, the lab’s director and distinguished professor of English, was a generous mentor during my two year SSHRC funded postdoc. If you want read more about this, you can read more on my profile on the TRaCE site.
Not all postdocs are created equally though. The history of the postdoc, regardless of field, has been marked by exploitation and abuse. In the sciences, many early career researchers took postdocs out of desperation and a desire to expand their research experience. Sydni Dunn’s “A Brief History of the Humanities Postdoc” in the Chronicle’s Vitae magazine describes the early history of these position in the sciences: “The positions had been created to give newly-minted Ph.D.’s in STEM fields a few additional years of training before they entered the job market by ushering them into laboratories to assist established scientists in their research. Science postdocs were far from perfect—they offered low pay and often-frustrating work conditions—but graduates flocked to the programs.” In the 90s, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation sought to support faculty research and alleviate faculty fears about the tightening job market for their graduate students. With Mellon in the lead, the humanities sought to remake the postdoc system and shift the emphasis away from a paid or service oriented “working” postdoc. Dunn describes the new humanities postdoc as “a type of off-ladder research position, but a prestigious one.” This humanities postdoc was to be a prestigious rocket booster for your career. Freedom to research and publish right after you get your degree. The victory lap that is also a sprint! Adrianne Wadewitz’s “A Day in the Life of a Digital Humanities Postdoc” will hopefully give you a sense of how blending research, teaching, and service at this early stage is a wonderful mentorship model. Freedom to research without the burden of a heavy teaching load. Great!
As with most things, these positions became twisted into an extension of the abuses of all contingent faculty and researchers in the university. Mellon continues to be one of the primary sources of funding for high quality postdoc positions that prize research and mentorship. Where once there was a uniform sense of prestige in the postdoc, it is now increasingly common to find so-called “postdoc” positions with a 4/4 teaching load and no mention of research. In the words of Rosemary Feal, the MLA’s executive director, “I’ve seen a lot of postdocs that are sometimes no different than the kind of work an adjunct is asked to do off the tenure track. A fellowship is supposed to be an award of sorts, not an exploited labor opportunity.” These positions are traps. They are to be called out and mocked. There is, however, a kind of neo-liberal rationale for them to appear.
In digital humanities, these positions are often created by skeptical institutions unwilling to fully invest in DH. They want some of this digital pixie dust, and they expect this pixie dust to work instantly. These positions are of the DH “guru” ilk. These new hires face mounting pressures of teaching, research, service, outreach, and capacity building. Gavia Libraria (the library loon)’s blog post describes this under a specific term: “The C-Word“:
Beware of it, especially in combination with a new or non-traditional job niche. Research-data coordinator. Scholarly-communication coordinator. Assessment coordinator. Information-literacy coordinator. Digital initiatives coordinator. Run screaming from institutional repository coordinator.
The primary problem with this “coordinator” position is the lack of anything to coordinate. These positions are expected spin together existing resources, but they so often lack any real oversight over faculty or library staff. They often become idle resource people or unintentional evangelicals for all things digital. In the end, we need to define the digital humanities postdoc and honor the tradition we inherit from many of the best labs, centers, and funders. This is a tall order and maybe the subject of another blog post. Without defining all the fine work done by so many in DH, let’s just continue on.
Negotiating the #alt-ac
Miriam Posner’s “The Digital Humanities Postdoc” is an excellent blog post about the function, scope, and purpose of a humanities based postdoc. One of Posner’s central questions related to the definition of the postdoc itself. “Who gets to say what a postdoc is?” asks Posner. She put it to us to define these positions. It is up to us to make these positions as fair and equitable as possible. It’s up to administrators and faculty to help protect this important professionalization mechanism.
It is also critical for new graduates to protect themselves, but you are not alone! As with most things in DH, someone wonderful has written something wonderful to help. Bethany Nowviskie’s “The #alt-ac Track: Negotiating Your ‘Alternative Academic’ Appointment” is a great guide to this world and goes into more detail about seeking and negotiating a postdoc. There are huge number of considerations for these new graduates. With your head still spinning after graduation, you’ll need advocate for yourself without being rude and crossing so many of those unmarked lines in hiring. Salary and evaluation need to be negotiated alongside ongoing training and professionalization. Teaching needs to be balanced with research commitments. Finally, you need to get a job. In a university system becoming increasingly addicted to contingent labor, new postdocs need to find a way to transition, again, to full time work. My goodness. Seems daunting.
Finding all the Jobs
So, will you still decide to do a postdoc? There are plenty of places to find these job ads.
If you choose to follow the #alt-ac/postdoc route, I wish you luck. I also want to give you a sense of optimism. My postdoc at UVic in the ETCL was among the very best experiences I’ve had as an academic. Work hard. Put in the time. Know that this is a rare experience. It is a time to experiment with teaching and be part of an established research culture. It is a chance to build a community of collaborators and friends that will be your bedrock through the tenure-track/life. Be the happy wanderer.
This post was written for the DHSI@MLA session “Digital Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowships” on January 5th, 2017. The links offered throughout this post are referenced directly in the slides and this post is meant to be a reference for our workshop sessions.
Here is a link to my slides.
Here is a series of postdoc job ads we can discuss if we have time.