So you got a job with your prof: advice for undergrads

Ah, undergraduates.  We college profs love to snark in your general direction.  The cute Ugg boots and Vera Bradley bags, or maybe the skater hair and torn backpack. Whatever.  You just landed a job working for a prof!  Congrats.  Now what?

Show the f*** up.  If you are never there, you are not doing the job.  Many undergrads prioritize everything over their job — homework, exam studying, social time.  After all, it’s not a full time job and you probably aren’t that well paid.  Professors certainly understand that there may be weeks (midterms, finals) when your job is going on the back burner.  But if the job is never a priority, you are going to look like a flake who promises and then doesn’t produce.  No one expects you to walk in knowing the job, but if you are never there, you can’t learn the job either.

Take notes.  If you are being trained to do something — even if it looks simple — take notes.  Your prof may be happy to answer questions but will not want to explain everything to you again because you forgot “how to do that” over the weekend.

Be humble.  You are probably going to be given the drudge work of the discipline.  Do it.  It’s something profs have done and usually continue to do, and they will be unsympathetic to the complaint that it’s boring.  Besides, you are building a relationship – not just photocopying.  If you show you are dedicated to doing a good job at the repetitive tasks, you are more likely to be moved to more interesting projects.  It’s a test. Don’t flunk it.

Be a problem-solver. No prof wants to be bugged with questions that you could have answered yourself.   Figure out who on campus can help you.  Computer problem? Call IT.  Photocopier? Ask the secretary.  Instruction manual? Check the internet.  Check all reasonable avenues to solve the problem before approaching the prof — and then say what you did to try to solve this on your own.

Be a good departmental colleague.  Your behavior reflects on your prof, and will get back to him or her.  Don’t leave your backpack and books scattered on the lounge sofa, or food rotting in the department refrigerator.  And DO NOT bother other profs in the department unless your prof tells you to approach them specifically about their particular expertise.  That young female professor?  She’s not there to change the printer cartridge for you.

Do not get your parents involved.  You are an adult. Act like it. If you have a parent who is the crazy type who might intervene without your permission, this is a good time to practice not telling them everything – like who you are working for.

Quit, don’t just disappear.  If you have to leave the job, don’t just stop showing up.  Quit.  If possible, try not to leave your prof in the lurch with unfinished projects, and offer to train your replacement.  Even if your prof doesn’t take you up on this, he or she will appreciate the thought.

Remember that your prof sees something in you.  Seriously, we don’t hire the kids sitting at the back of the room scratching themselves while checking their MySpace accounts on the rare occasions they bother to come to class.  If you’ve been offered a job, it’s because the prof thinks you have potential.  Probably long term potential, because no prof wants to spend time training someone who’s only going to work for a semester.  Don’t disappoint.  If your prof is worth anything, he or she will return the favor.

The academic job market sucks

Dear Snark: How long were you on the job market and how grueling was it?

The thing with the academic job market is that no matter what your experience, it just sucks. I was on the market for more than a year, had my share of rejections (including from what I thought at the time was a dream job – certainly my colleagues thought it was), and eventually wound up in the perfect position.  Despite the snark, I’m actually a very lucky academic.

That said, I’ve watched people I think are far smarter than I, with more interesting projects and better people skills, bounce between visiting positions and/or eventually leave academia altogether. There’s no easy formula for getting an academic job, given that there are far more PhDs than positions.  But here are some pitfalls I’ve seen that you might be able to do something about.

1)  Don’t rule out too many jobs.  So you don’t want to live in a small town? The South? Be at a liberal arts college? Seriously, suck it up and go back on the job market the next year if you have to. Apply to (almost) everything.

2)  Pitch to the center.  Many of us have intellectual projects that are on the edges of multiple disciplinary areas — it’s what makes our work exciting.  As PhDs writing dissertations, we are rewarded for that.  But on the job market, remember you need to show you are also master of a field that already exists.  Present yourself as a disciplinary expert in your field, with the benefit of an exciting project that also takes you to the edge.  You need to be able to teach those intro, area studies, writing, language or whatever courses.  Don’t ever say you aren’t “really” part of your field.  That doesn’t make you an exciting avaunt-guarde academic, it makes you someone who is going to teach unfilled classes.

3)  Stand your ground.  Following on #2, people may challenge your mastery.  Don’t back down by saying, “Well, that’s not really my area.”  Instead, argue that what you do know is central to your field — or should be.  No one knows everything, but you do have to know something.

And finally, remember that lots of PhDs are smart, awesome people who get jobs outside of the academy.  There is no shame in that.  Stay in touch with your graduate school friends who take this route — you may be glad you know them later on. And besides, it may be you one day.