Notes concerning a backwards calendar of graduate school
January 27, 2000
Year T: Take a job in the fall of year T. If you are not done with your PhD at this point, life will be extremely difficult. You will have to finish your dissertation while moving into a new town, being out of contact with your committee, teaching a bunch of new courses, buying furniture for your new house/apartment (you will have a salary, presumably), meeting your new colleagues, and trying to send out articles (remember: you just shifted your focus from trying to get a job to trying to keep it. The dissertation will suddenly seem like the last thing you want to do.) So if at all possible, do not arrive on campus without a completed dissertation.
T minus 6-10 months: Do job interviews sometime from October to April. Note at this point that you must have something to present. You may be only beginning your writing at this point, but you should have a good idea of where the dissertation will be. Be prepared for questions about your findings, and what they mean more broadly than you have probably ever considered. You have not written your concluding chapter, but thatís the one people will ask about. People will also ask many questions about teaching, about what you are going to do after your dissertation project is milked for all the articles it is worth, and about many other topics you probably havenít thought of yet. Also, if you think taking prelims was stressful, wait until you are sitting around State College waiting for phone calls asking you for interviews. Prepare to stress out; everyone does.
T minus one year: Send out job applications. As youíve noticed by coming to job talks in this department (something you should have done at least 10 times before going on one yourself), interviews occur throughout the fall and spring terms. Generally speaking, applications are due in October or so, for jobs beginning the following September. So your file must be complete by then. That means a vita, a description of your dissertation, maybe writing samples, and letters. The letters should be informative, which means your committee should know what you are doing, and should be convinced that you will be done by the next summer. Great progress on your thesis in March will have no job impact. It has to come before the letters get written and before the committees meet to invite people to campus. If you are to have publications to help you on the market, they should be accepted by now, but it is ok if they are not yet published. Reviews can take 6 months.
T minus one or two years: The year before going on the market can be spent in two ways, depending on your dissertation. If it is a short dissertation, you may still be taking prelims during this time. So you would get through prelims, then begin right away on your dissertation research. This would be impossible without forethought: so you should have a topic, potentially based on some research papers youíve previously written as term papers, some good idea of the relevant literature, and a knowledge of how much original research will be called for. In the case of a quick dissertation, you could take prelims in the fall, then spend the year writing a prospectus and beginning the research, then be in good shape to finish during the following year, when you are on the job market. If prelims are in the spring, that is more difficult, but still possible.
If your dissertation requires fieldwork overseas or in Washington or some other lengthy data collection process, this period is stretched out. You will need to apply for grants (generally around December or even before, for grants that begin in the summer or the following fall!), and you will need a well-designed prospectus/plan for research before you go gather the data. This way of doing a dissertation is more costly in terms of time and money, but it has its benefits. However it is impossible to do it quickly. Mine took three years, not including grant writing, which added an additional 9 months.
T minus 2 or 3 years: If you have the long dissertation route, you may be taking prelims; if you have the short dissertation route, you should still be in classes.
T minus 3 or 4 years: If you have the long route, youíre still in class; if in the short route, youíre just off the boat, beginning classes.)
A forwards calendar would look like this: first two years: take classes like crazy. Read until your eyes go bad. 3rd year, finish classes, take prelims; prepare either for grants for fieldwork or for going on job market. 4th year, be on job market or else be doing dissertation fieldwork. 5th year: you should no longer be here unless you are back from fieldwork, finishing up and on the job market.
Note: delays in taking (or completing) classes or in taking prelims come back quickly to haunt you. You cannot take prelims until you have almost completed classes. Qualifying for prelims in the fall of your 3rd year (the optimal solution) is very difficult, unless you take just the right courses each semester. Delaying until the spring is not the end of your life, but it makes things hard: you end up with only a few months to prepare to be on the job market, rather than almost a full year. You cannot really focus on your proposal/dissertation project until after you finish your prelims. You cannot reasonably expect to get a decent job until you can describe what your dissertation will look like, and until your committee can write letters saying what it will be. So four years sounds like a lot, but it is not. It is a bare minimum, and any delays are costly.
A quick start on the dissertation is important. Your topic should not come out of the blue on the day you pass your prelims; rather you should have tried out a number of potential topics in your term papers. In the best case, you would have written a literature review term paper and a research term paper that would give you a head start on the topic. However, remember as well that you cannot ONLY do the same topic over and over again in your classes: in order to pass prelims you will need a breadth of knowledge. So use your courses wisely ó cover a range of topics in your term papers, but keep an eye open for potential dissertation topics right from the start.
Note as well that universities work on a very strict academic year calendar. While there are some positions that start in January, these are rare, and are usually only temporary fill-in positions. Virtually all hiring is to begin for the fall term. That means that if you miss the cycle, youíve missed a full twelve months.
One last thought: Do not over-estimate the importance of finishing in the minimum possible time. It is clearly preferable to be in and out of graduate school in a shorter time rather than a longer time. However, there may be other goals. Sometimes, staying in graduate school for a little longer may make your first year as an assistant professor a little easier, for example. Spending a longer time doing the research for a substantial dissertation may lead to more publications and a more satisfying project. The goal is not simply to finish as quickly as possible, but to realize that the series of things you have to do in graduate school requires a lot of advance planning. Donít just drift through.