How to land an #altac job at a university

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This past Saturday, I was a panelist at the “Beyond the Professoriate” web conference hosted by Jennifer Polk and Maren Wood. I participated in their higher education panel, where four of us talked about our experiences working in #altac positions still within the university. (Other panels focused on corporate jobs, non-profit or government jobs, and more for PhDs.) My fellow panelists offered some great advice, and there was an active Twitter backchannel throughout the day. If you’re interested in the conversation, you can search for the conference hashtag, #beyondprof, or check out the Storify feed that Jennifer put together after Saturday’s discussion.

I promised to blog about my talk. We only spoke briefly, about 10 minutes total, describing both our current positions and then offering advice from experience. I narrowed my time down to three main points for PhDs or EdDs who are interested in applying to alt-ac jobs within universities or colleges:

1. Work Your Network

Searches for these professional positions work quite differently than tenure track jobs. So, work your network just like you might have to for an industry position — both in order to hear about new postings and in applying and interviewing for them. Search job boards at schools all year round, not just during hiring season. Contact people you know within units to ask them about positions potentially opening up, or to find out more about the job once it has been posted. Ask them to put in a good word for you if you’ve applied, or ask faculty or others you might know at the university to put in a good word for you with the person in charge of the search. The hiring also works on a much shorter timeline than tenure track positions, so do your research early in the process and keep yourself fresh on the job and unit if you are called for an interview.

2. Show Them Your Vision

So, what kind of research should you be doing for these jobs? This is where the leg work for the position comes in. You may know that many alt-ac jobs are relatively new within universities, at least in the long history of higher education. This means that for many of the institutions you would be applying to, a particular position could be brand new, like mine was, or at least have a short history. You want to understand where the position fits into the structure of the unit (a specific college, the Graduate School, extension education, and so on). Who is the supervisor? What are the goals of the job, and how does that fit with the mission of the unit? Who has been in the job previously (f you can find out)? Search that person to find their expertise.

When you know the basics of the unit and the position, you are primed to do the most critical work in applying: show them your vision. In my case, the position of Director and Thesis and Dissertation Support Services was a brand new role. The Deans in the Graduate School knew they wanted to hire an expert in writing across the disciplines and genre theory who could offer writing instruction and support to graduate students across the university. They wrote the position and had it approved by the Provost, touting their vision for improving graduate degree completion for NC State.

However, they had very little insight into exactly how this mission could be executed. This is where I swung for the fences in my application and interview. In my cover letters, I wrote briefly about a vision for this brand new office and how I would use my research from my PhD to develop genre-based services for graduate students. This got my application noticed. For my interviews (I had three total), I assembled a complete package of my vision for Thesis and Dissertation Support Services: I mocked up a one year plan, complete with a list of seminars and workshops, each with their own learning outcomes; I included strategic planning such as meeting with Directors of Graduate Programs and college deans to learn about graduate student needs across the university; I developed a plan for a week-long Dissertation Institute for doctoral candidates (which I will actually be running next week!).

It was risky to spend so much time mocking up what the office would look like, but in the end, this showed the hiring committee that they could have confidence in hiring me because I had a vision for the building an office of graduate student support from scratch — something they didn’t know how to do but knew they needed to hire. I also demonstrated that I would need very little supervision to get the office off of the ground. This is key for many alt-ac positions at universities, as they tend to have very little day-to-day supervision (of course, depending on the unit). But overall you are expected to work independently, make sound decisions, and do work that overall contributes to the success of the unit without relying on approval from others.

The key with showing them your vision is that you make yourself valuable to the institution. Many deans or faculty in charge of hiring alt-ac positions have a hard time visualizing the jobs because they are much more familiar with the tenure track and adjunct faculty models. So, show them you can do the job by showing up with a plan.

Of course, if the job has previously existed, your research and visioning will look a little different. You may want to be a bit more conservative in your planning, as you’ll have an existing structure to work into. Learn as much as you can about the program or office; if you can’t answer basic questions about it in the interview, you’ve blown your changes. Know what you like about the job or programming, and know what might be some things you could advocate to do differently or add as new. Overall, your goal is to show you understand the role, fit into it, and can help them grow and be successful. Which brings me to my third point:

3. Understand the University

If you land an interview, and as well if you are offered the job, you have to understand what role your position plays in the larger university picture. You also have to understand how to manage the daily operations of your job. This requires research and a good bit of knowledge with certain processes within the university (some that you won’t discover until you start). For your interview, you should absolutely know the strategic plan and mission of the university, as this guides the work the units do on campus. How does your work contribute to that? Be able to speak to this in your interview. Don’t brag about your knowledge, but know for instance that your university is focusing on internationalization, so part of your job as Career Center Director might be increasing the university’s international internships (and put that in your visioning documents!).

You’ll also need to know things like where funding comes from and how it can be spend. For example, in North Carolina, state-funded institutions like NC State cannot spend state monies on food or beverages. In my case, the likelihood of my office getting a budget AT ALL was slim to none (and indeed, my budget this year was $0), so I talked about how I could build services that could help graduate more students while using no funds at all.

Don’t fret though: This is where your time spent doing a doctorate comes in. You’ve probably served on committees, attended functions across campus, and had other experiences where you’ve gleaned insight into the university. Especially if you are applying where you got your degree, put this information to good use! And if you’re still early in the process, know that taking on some of the opportunities that come your way are an important element of professional development if you are interested in pursuing alt-ac jobs.

Of course, these are just the three key points I focused on this past Saturday. There are plenty of great sites with alt-ac advice out there — perhaps that’s a good idea for a future aggregated links post! What other advice do you have for folks pursuing alt-ac opportunities in higher education? Please feel free to share in the comments.

MacPhail’s “No-fail secret” to finishing your dissertation

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Yesterday, Chronicle Vitae published a quite good article on dissertation writing by Theresa MacPhail, titled, “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation.” The secret:

Just sit down and write.

Now, to a certain point, she is entirely correct. I see many students who run analyses upon analyses of their data, read articles upon articles, and overall do many different tasks on their dissertation BUT write it. So yes, there comes a point (and it’s sooner rather than later) where you just have to sit down and write.

More specifically, she advocates writing every day, and for very good reason. MacPhail asserts,

“Writing is thinking. It takes time and it’s supposed to be challenging. The biggest mistake I’ve seen most graduate students make is to mythologize what I call ‘the moment of genius.’ Because writing is thinking, brilliant thoughts do not just appear on the page after long hours of arduous musing on a subject. In my experience, the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself.”

Her article is very good, and I’d recommend that graduate students read it in its entirety for an important perspective on the hard work of writing and the importance of keeping your dissertation work “in your head” everyday, as I say it, because the ideas will come more easily when you make a daily date with your writing.

The only caveat I want to add to this is that there are very real obstacles for students undertaking a dissertation. A dissertation is an occluded genre for doctoral students–there is rarely any formal instruction for writing it, and they only take part in it once they are required to do so to graduate–which makes the idea of “sitting down and writing” difficult for those who do not know what they are sitting down to write. Much of this is disciplinary, as different fields tend toward different types of dissertations, and much of this is more local–doctoral advisors’ requirements for their students can widely differ, even within the same program at an institution.

This is a key reason why my office, Thesis and Dissertation Support Services, exists. There can be scholarly writing instruction for a dissertation, and this type of writing instruction can empower graduate students beyond the completion of a dissertation. If they can learn to recognize the patterns of argument and key features of work in their fields, they are also equipped to do the writing required of them in their research careers after they finish their doctoral degrees. A great example of this is John Swales’ “Create a Research Space” model for writing scientific research article introductions. At NC State, many of the dissertations in the sciences, and increasingly in other disciplines, are comprised of three or more stand alone research articles. While students can intuit some of the elements of a research article introduction from years of reading and perhaps a bit of writing, there is a lot of value in having a workshop and discussion about the CARS model, why the three moves exist, and how students can do them to fit into their own disciplinary conventions.

As a writing across the disciplines scholar whose research focuses on those in the sciences and engineering, I know that our work has value to graduate students and faculty across the institution. For example, I find that advisors intuitively know what makes for a good introduction, but they generally cannot articulate why. They tend to show students an article they feel does a good job and suggest that they emulate this, a strategy that is limited in its success because students are not learning why introductions are structured as they are (and they can get highly frustrated writing as novices trying to emulate seasoned experts). By just trying to emulate writers, students are not learning how to situate their work within a field and articulate its significance. But by providing instruction in this model, students in our workshops learn the how and the why–and now they can export this knowledge to their dissertations and research genres beyond, like grant proposals, conference presentations, and more.

We are making the implicit explicit for our doctoral students. And why not? It might be the only scholarly writing instructions students ever receive in graduate school.

So yes, to finish your dissertation, you must sit down and write. But when you have a stronger understanding of the genre expectations, history, and context, then you are more likely to be successful when you do. Seek out resources as you are developing your dissertation proposals to better understand the genre and the expectations. If you’re at NC State, come to our Thesis and Dissertation Support Services events. If you’re at another institution, follow me on Twitter: @makautry, and ask your faculty where you might find resources like this on your own campus.

Dissertation spreadsheet

Using a dissertation progress tracking spreadsheet

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In my last post, in which I talked about the different methods I am using to keep myself accountable in my dissertation writing, I briefly touched on the progress tracking spreadsheet that Ashley and I are collectively using.

What it is

Our tracking spreadsheet is a Google Docs spreadsheet that we created to share our progress and to help keep each other on track. Each of us has our own sheet to keep track of our individual efforts toward our dissertations. My spreadsheet is divided up into weeks and days. The rows represent all of the weeks between January 1 and August 31, and the first seven columns are one for each day of the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc.). At the end of each day, in the cell that corresponds with that day, I input the number of words I wrote toward my dissertation. I count only words that make it into the dissertation document and no brainstorming, outlining, or references. While these items all count toward dissertation progress — and indeed are important steps toward completing! — I want to keep honest track of much writing toward the final product I am doing. I can read, browse, and crunch data all week, but when it comes down to it, I also need to be putting words on paper (well, on the screen) if I am going to finish in a year. In the columns after the days of the week, I total the number of words I have written for that week in one column and have another that has the total number of words I set for my goal to write that week.

Dissertation spreadsheet
The first portion of my dissertation spreadsheet with rows for each week and columns for each day of the week. See the “Chapter 2 done” date? I’ve actually beat that deadline!

Thoughts so far

Overall: I love the spreadsheet. People who know me know that I am by nature highly-organized and goal-oriented. This spreadsheet allows me to be both in dissertation writing: it forces a daily attention to the spreadsheet, constant tracking of my progress, and allows me to celebrate little victories when I meet the weekly goal that I set. I am eternally grateful to my colleague Ashley for introducing this to me and for coming up with the idea for us to use this to track our progress and keep each other motivated.

I realize this might not be a good idea for everyone. This spreadsheet works particularly well for me and my working personality: I look forward to the end of the day (or my writing session) when I can eagerly input my total word count for the day and watch the numbers add up for the week. It’s like a little shot of confidence that I can do this big, HUGE project because I’m doing so one small chunk at a time.

Trouble spots: The spreadsheet has highlighted for me the days and/or times that I struggle to write. You’ll notice that I have a big fat “0” for three of the four Thursdays in January. Well, that’s because those days I teach and have meetings about the conference that are hosting this spring. These two things end up taking up most of my day, and by the end, I don’t have the brain energy to tackle my dissertation in any meaningful way. I’ve identified that. But I have an entire semester’s worth of Thursdays, and I can’t afford to not write at all on those days if I’m going to finish this year. So I have decided now to make Thursday my “clean up” days: Any new references that I need to put into my bibliography, I note them all week, and on Thursdays, I format them properly into that document. Bam – I can APA format articles in my sleep, so that’s perfect for Thursday. Most importantly, I’m not losing an entire day: I’m making it work for my schedule.

I also made an effort to insert comments into the spreadsheet when I had particular thoughts about the day that I wanted to remember, such as a day with a low total word count in my document but during which I had completed the entire IRB application for my dissertation — a big, important step. Perhaps by the end of the diss I’ll have enough data to write an article on dissertation writing, or to give a workshop to other grad students at this stage of their degree … who knows!

Timeline: After using this spreadsheet for the first month of the year, I have done a little thinking about the timeline that I am on for writing and how well I’ve been able to meet my daily and weekly writing goals. It has even given me the confidence to up my daily writing goal by 82 words, taking my weekly word count goal from 1946 to 2450. This will result in an entirely complete first draft of my dissertation by August and will give me the entire fall semester for revisions, which I think is a reasonable and achievable goal. I’ll write another update post (maybe end of next month?) to report back on how my new elevated word count goal is going.

Do other folks use a system for keeping track of progress on big projects, like a dissertation? If so, what do you use? How does that work for you?

Writing a dissertation prospectus

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Now that I’ve moved through the written exam portion of my doctoral candidacy exams, I’m working on the second step of the process: writing my prospectus to present at my oral exams. In CRDM, oral exams generally have two main parts. The first is the oral defense of the answers to the written exams, where the student has an opportunity to elaborate on statements made in the written exams, and where the advisory committee has a chance to ask follow-up questions and make the student really think about what s/he wrote. The second portion is dedicated to the presentation of the dissertation prospectus, where the committee has a chance to come together and vet the project the student is proposing before s/he is sent off to write it over the next year or so.

I’m currently wrapping up my dissertation prospectus. I’ve got to get it in to my committee by this Monday, which would give them one week to review it before my oral exam on November 12. This has been a difficult genre for me to write: it’s not a document I’ve ever written before, nor was I exposed to it at all as a graduate student. I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the process that might help others in the future. They’re not necessarily organized, but — since I’m in the middle of this crazy other document, a bulleted list will have to do:

  • It’s OK to ask your chair/advisor to supply a couple of samples from previous students they have advised. I’ll emphasize the “previous students they have advised” because that will give you a sense of what’s acceptable as a prospectus to your particular chair, which can vary greatly depending on the faculty member. I got a couple of examples, and they were very helpful in showing me the kinds of moves I would have to make to write an acceptable prospectus.
  • Make your dissertation project speak to the field at large. This is so crucial: often in our seminar papers, we are speaking to a more local audience that’s situated in the particular seminar we’re taking. But just like articles we submit for publication, it’s critical to show how your dissertation will contribute something new/original or will further develop an important idea in the field at large. This is “bigger picture thinking” that is sometimes hard to do in the prospectus. The way that I got here in my own document was to …
  • Identify the case study you are interested in doing and consider what contribution you can legitimately make with such a study. Often a dissertation idea starts with a particular object/phenomenon people want to study (in my case, open access). I focused so intently on my particular case study in the first version of my prospectus — justifying it, proving why it was a timely topic, etc. — that I didn’t realize what conducting such a case study would actually allow me to say to the field at large (in my case, rhetorical genre studies and rhetoric of science). Once I realized the ways in which my case study could speak to the fields I was writing into, my prospectus turned the corner from a local document (one written in my program) to one that spoke to an international community of researchers.
  • Be very specific about the methods that you will use to do your research. The idea here isn’t to have laid out your specific process from start to finish and to have your codes developed (or whatever your method might be), but to demonstrate to the committee that you have a clear plan for accomplishing the work and that they can be confident you have the tools you need to go out and get the job done.
  • Ask your committee about your methods (in advance). Each committee member has a purpose on your committee, and for me, I specifically have one individual whose strength is empirical study design. We had a great meeting a couple of weeks ago, tossing around possibly study designs and discussing the merits and demerits of each. I might have thought I knew the best way to study the topic at hand — after all, I’m the one focusing on it! — but through my discussions with this committee member and my chair, I quickly realized that their experience in directing these projects meant they had important contributions to my methodological approach.
  • Read some dissertations in your field (or at the very least, parts of some). This will give you an idea of the end goal as well as a practical sense of how the larger project should be conceived. One of the most difficult things for me to figure out in writing my prospectus was the larger organization of the dissertation and exactly what constituted a “chapter.” This is also something to discuss with your chair/advisor, but a lot can be learned from an initial browsing of other dissertations from your program. Do faculty prefer to see a methods chapter that stands on its own? Or do dissertators incorporate those into a chapter reviewing the literature? Or up front in the introduction? In the humanities, the chapters and orders aren’t a given, and it can be difficult to see the best way to organize and work through the project that you’re doing.
  • If possible, do peer review with other students working on their prospectus. I am a part of a small writing group with other students at a similar point in the program as myself, and we have traded prospectus outlines and drafts for the last few weeks. Seeing how others envision their project and write into their fields has been incredibly helpful for articulating the contributions of my own project. It’s also ensured that I continued to work on my prospectus — I wouldn’t dare show up to writing meeting without any new materials for peer review!

So, this obviously isn’t a comprehensive guide, but these ideas have helped me get through the process of writing into such an occluded (out of sight) genre. I think the main takeaway here is that this is a document that absolutely needs the contributions of others: committee members, previous examples of the genre, examples of the ultimate genre, and feedback from peers. A dissertation certainly isn’t written alone, and the dissertation prospectus is the start to a writing process of incorporating the assistance of others to getting done successfully.

For those who have been through this process, or maybe faculty who advise doctoral students — what advice do you have about writing a prospectus?

#DayofHigherEd

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I’m adding my voice to today’s Day of Higher Ed by detailing my work schedule for today. Add your voice too to let people know that the work of academics is rigorous, valuable, and just as time consuming as any other profession. Tweet it using the hashtag, #DayofHigherEd, and see what others have written, too.

7:30am: Coffee, take the dog out, Facebook time and news-checking time.
8:00am: Check and respond to work emails, read higher ed blogs in my Google Reader.
8:30am: Workout, breakfast, shower.
9:30am: Work on Campus Writing and Speaking Program handbook for future graduate assistants.
10:30am: Blog 🙂
11:00am: Read one article for tomorrow’s class and take notes.
12:00pm: Commute to school.
12:30pm: First admin meeting for First Year Writing Program. One on one with director; discussion of our ongoing assessment of the hybrid classes and final tasks for the school year.
1:30pm: Second admin meeting for First Year Writing Program, with the entire set of program administrators.
3:00pm: Admin meeting for the Campus Writing and Speaking Program. Focus on our ongoing research project on audio-visual feedback for writers, developing plan for workshop we’re giving next month and article we are co-authoring.
4:00pm: Read a second article for class tomorrow and take notes.
5:00pm: Read an article from my oral exam reading list on rhetorical genre studies, taking meticulous notes.  
6:00pm: Family time – dinner, walking the dog, drinks on the back deck, catching a show or two.
9:30pm: Create to-do list for the rest of the week.
9:45pm: Make revisions to poster for presentation that I’m giving with Ashley R. Kelly next week at the NCSU Global Engagement Expo. Send an email to arrange printing time.
10:15pm: Read second article from my oral exam reading list, taking meticulous notes.
11:15pm: Bedtime!

While my working time for the day isn’t perfectly linear, it’s easy to see that the work goes beyond a typical 8 hour work day – and my day doesn’t even include teaching or other responsibilities that faculty members have that graduate students don’t, like reviewing journal submissions, reading student applications, serving on university committees, etc. etc.

What does your #DayofHigherEd look like?

Fall semester happenings

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I’ve gotten pretty behind on updating the blog this month, so I thought I’d do a post with “quick hits” on the the things I’ve been up to and what’s on my radar in the coming weeks. I need to focus on writing more – both scholarly and non (including the blog!) – so here goes!

I’ll start with some good news: I’ve finalized my dissertation committee! My chair will be Carolyn R. Miller, SAS Institute Distinguished Professor here at NCSU. The other three members of my committee are Bill Kinsella (Communication), Nancy Penrose (English) and David Rieder (English). They are all members of the CRDM program here at NCSU, and I’m so excited to have a great team behind me. The next step now is finalizing my exam reading lists, which I’ll do between now and the new year, so that I can begin reading for exams in January. My exam areas are (approximately; subject to more specific language as I construct the lists): rhetorical genre theory, rhetoric of science and environment, and digital media theory.

I think I’ve settled in to my administrative jobs with both the Campus Writing and Speaking Program and the First Year Writing Program. I’ve hosted a few successful workshops thus far and have a few more planned for the year with the CWSP team. One of my major projects for the FYWP will be coordinating assessment of our recently-implemented hybrid writing classes in conjunction with our large program-wide assessment in the spring. These admin roles are a welcome change of pace from teaching, and I think the jobs really agree with me – but, to get used to all the meetings!

Next week I’m traveling with Susan Miller-Cochran to give an invited talk on hybrid writing classrooms for a group of instructors in the mid-West. I’ve written before about teaching hybrid classrooms both on this blog and my WPA Hybrid Guide site, and I’m really looking forward to working with instructors at other institutions. I definitely plan to write more after the trip and will hopefully share some Tweets as we travel, too.

In two weeks I’m heading to Cleveland for the annual conference for the Society for the Social Studies of Science. I’ll be presenting my research (done with Ashley R. Kelly) on discourse about nuclear energy in the Carolinas post-Fukushima. CRDM students just heard this week that we’ll receive some funding for conference travel this year – that great news arrives just in time for this conference! I’m so glad to be in a program that can support our professional development activities and has administrators that will go to bat for us to get us the much-needed funding.

 I’ve taken on a few service-oriented tasks this fall as well – conference proposal reviewing, textbook reviewing for a publisher, throwing my name in the ring for a professional organization’s board – and am glad to start (net)working with professionals in the field beyond NCSU. I know it’s important for my development as a scholar, but I’m also keenly tuned to the discourse I hear for/from graduating CRDMers and the job market. My biggest struggle as I do my PhD is not the work itself, but what kind of work I take on. There is so much work associated with being a scholar, educator, and administrator that the real issue seems to be what work is most beneficial for my professional growth and – let’s be honest here – getting a job. Balance is a word that I hear frequently. Too much service and committees might think a candidate can’t get research done. Too much research (if there is such a thing) and committees won’t think a candidate is a team player who will make a good departmental colleague. Or is it just that when you’re a PhD student, you just need to make your CV as long as possible? As the accomplishments of newly-minted PhDs get better and better every year, the idea behind getting a tenure-track job seems to be doing as much as humanly possible.

Back to reading!

Back the grind

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And so it begins – year two of my PhD, year eight of my post-secondary career. What’s slated for this fall? Here’s what I’m up to:

I’m taking four classes this semester: one core CRDM course, Technology and Pedagogy in Communication Arts; two electives, Rhetoric of Science & Technology and Environmental Communication; and one professional development class, CRDM Colloquium.

For the first time in my graduate career, I’m not teaching this semester. Instead, I’m serving two administrative roles, with my time split between them each semester. This fall, I’m the primary Graduate Assistant Director of NCSU’s Campus Writing and Speaking Program, directed by Chris Anson and Deanna Dannels, and in the spring, I’ll be the primary Graduate Assistant Director of the First Year Writing Program, directed by Susan Miller-Cochran. I’ll be assisting each program during both semesters, but taking on a larger role for one each semester (with another graduate student filling in for each).

I’ve got to tackle several important milestones toward earning my PhD, including deciding on my doctoral exam areas, beginning to form (or completely forming) a dissertation committee, starting to create reading lists for my doctoral exams, and figuring out my Plan of Work for the Graduate School. It would be great if I could finalize a dissertation topic, too.

I’ll also be presenting some research on discussions of nuclear technology post-Fukushiima at the 4S (Society for the Social Studies of Science) conference in Cleveland, November 2-5.

What are your plans for the semester? Will I be seeing you at 4S? Or missing out on your presentation at NCA? Let me know!