Friday, September 26, 2014

The humanities post-doc

In the comments to a previous post, Random Grad Student asked for my thoughts about the humanities post-doc: "its place, how to get one, [and] how search committees at different institutions view them when you're applying to a tenure-track job."

I admit that I have little experience with these. They were starting to proliferate when I was first on the market ten years ago, and I now know a number of people who have held one--but though I recall investigating a few, I never seriously considered applying. It may just have been that none of the topic-based post-docs fit me that first year (and my second year I was in a good renewable lectureship, so I didn't look at anything non-TT). But I think it mostly struck me as pointless work, on the front end, while one was also applying to tenure-track jobs.

(I still think this; I understand why post-doc applications are due early, but since every job placement officer I've ever met considers a post-doc inferior to a tenure-track job, it might be more sensible for them to list in the spring, along with VAP and other non-TT jobs.)

So with that proof that I don't really know what I'm talking about, I'll say what I do know and have seen, and hopefully my readers will pitch in more knowledgeably.

1. How To Get One: no clue. (Readers?)

2. How Search Committees View Them: I don't think that, at my own institution, we particularly distinguish between post-docs and VAP or other full-time non-TT employment. We're looking to hire people who have a couple of solid publications and some directly relevant teaching experience, so if a post-doc gives you whichever of those you need, that's great--but there are other means to that end. Indeed, for our purposes, a fancy post-doc might not help a candidate coming from a fancy institution if his weakness is precisely his lack of bread-and-butter teaching experience.

Research institutions might feel differently, but my sense is that even they aren't specifically excited about a fancy post-doc unless

a) it's the most fancy (by which I basically mean the Harvard Society of Fellows)


b) it gives you something you don't already have on your vita

Again, this is just my impression, but while there are lots of reasons for a candidate himself to value the opportunities provided by a fancy post-doc--research time, new professional connections--I don't think that, simply as a line on the vita, it adds much to a candidate whose degree is from an elite program. But for a candidate whose degree is from a second-tier institution, then that Mellon-funded post-doc likely does act as an important additional accreditation.

None of this is to malign the post-doc; it's a nice line for anyone to have, and preferable to continuing to teach at your grad institution (and certainly better than taking a VAP with a heavy teaching load or adjuncting). And used well, it can help you add other things to your vita and application materials.

But my feeling is that it's a shiny consolation prize for those who weren't able to find (or weren't looking for) a TT job the previous year.

As always, readers, I trust you to tell me how I'm wrong.


Sapience said...

I'm in a post-doc right now, but it's not a research post-doc. It is very much a teaching post-doc (3/3 of comp), and there's enough service required that it's really more like a VAP. It's a decent gig, and I'd definitely rather be doing this than adjuncting, but it's still a consolation prize for not being able to get a TT job.

pronetolaughter said...

I'm in advising now and haven't been paying a ton of attention, but I know at my old university, they basically disallowed the label VAP for policy reasons. But depts who need short-term coverage, but don't want to go the adjunct route, could still create teaching post-docs, like the one Sapience has.

I suspect that this is becoming more common. It's better than adjuncting (benefits, whole year), but I bet it's also an excuse to somewhat underpay by calling it a "postdoc." It also normalizes the journeyman, by likening it to the sciences, where yes, several years of postdocs are standard before applying for tenure-track positions.

Susan said...

So I'm at the hiring end of the post-doc, since I run a center that has two two-year post-doc appointments. We give our post-docs teaching -- one course a year - and then writing time, and they participate in a bi-weekly seminar.

Because our post-docs are subject oriented, it's hard to say how they work on the TT job market -- one of our post-docs got at TT job in the first year of the post-doc, and was able to bargain to start a year late. The second is about to hit the job market.

I also had a post-doc 30 years ago, and I think what it said to hiring committees - as ours does -- is that I was smart, a credible candidate. Because another search has chosen you, you're a little less of a gamble. It ups the credibility, but it doesn't get you the job.

Flavia said...

Sapience and pronetolaughter:

Yes, I should have noted that my correspondence was (I think!) asking about research post-docs. She or he commented:

It looks to me like the kinds of postdocs out there break down very loosely into three types: the (often Mellon-funded) themed or teaching postdoc that's available at a variety of different institutions; the rare "Society of Fellows" bird, usually at an Ivy League, and, even more rarely, the UK JRF, which I used to assume only went to Brits until a friend got one last year.

The teaching post-doc is, I think, properly totally indistinguishable from a lectureship or VAP in terms of what it does for one's vita.


Thanks very much for this. I agree that search committees value external accreditation of whatever sort--the proof that someone has vetted you for something, be it scholarship or teaching, at some point since your graduate admission. (This is one of the things signaled by letters of reference, invited talks, honors and awards, and the prestigious-or-less-so nature of one's publication venues.)

Holding a post-doc does reflect more considered thought and more engagement with your work, on the part of the awarding institution, than is required for most VAPs and lectureships. (I think I was hired for my lectureship based on my job letter, vita, and the chair calling to offer me the job, and some VAP sabbatical replacement gigs fill similarly--and in many cases, without ever even advertising; a final vestige of the Old Boys Network.)

S.J. Pearce said...

I haven't been on search committees yet, so I only have insight from the perspective of the applicant/post-doc, so just to add my two cents for Random's question #1, I was told that the most important thing in the application to the post-doc that I applied for was to make sure that my letters came from people whose work the director of the program respected. It was a pretty field-specific post-doc, so it might not hold for broader humanities things, plus the usual FWIW/YMML, but that (at least in part) seems to have worked for me.

Flavia said...

S. J.:

Thanks for this!

Tony Grafton said...

We have a Society of Fellows at Princeton, and I’ve been involved with it since it was founded. Fellows have three-year terms, which they spend half on research and half on teaching (they teach five courses in six semesters). In addition, several of my graduate students have held humanities post-docs. I have observed the following, which certainly reflect my own disciplinary location as a historian:

Post-docs give space for improving or adding skills—languages, for example—before the tenure clock starts.

On the same lines: students from elite doctoral programs, who have relatively little experience teaching their own courses, can and do use post-docs like ours to compile competitive teaching dossiers.

A number of our post-docs have used their time in an interdisciplinary community to rethink and reconfigure their research programs, sometimes very successfully: I’ve seen people who got no bites on the job market in their first year of a post-doc end up in demand two years later.

Many of our post-docs, and a number of my students, have used their post-docs to finish, or almost to finish, their book MS before starting an assistant professorship. This has certainly eased their transition to full-time teaching, and in no case has a department demanded that one of them produce a second book in order to be considered for tenure.

When I was on our university’s tenure and promotion committee, I read many letters about early career scientists that gave more weight to their post-doc mentor than to their PhD supervisor.
Obviously this doesn't happen all, or most, of the time—but at the best labs it seems to. I wonder how far humanities post-docs offer anything similar (ours fellows do receive some mentoring, and some seem to find it useful, but I have yet to read a recommendation for a humanist that says: she did her PhD with X at Y, and held her post-doc with Z at A, in the matter-of-fact way that the letters for scientists did).

Stray thoughts, I hope they’re helpful.

Flavia said...


Thanks very much for this. I absolutely agree that the 3-year post-doc is a lovely and luxurious thing, and can benefit candidates in a number of ways--not least by providing real security and stability, the chance to build serious relationships, and the choice of whether to go back out on the market immediately or not.

The shorter-term ones, though, I'm more ambivalent about. Under those circumstances, it's hard to settle in before the next job cycle hits, and (as I noted) the limited teaching isn't as great a boon as a candidate might presume--both because they've barely moved to town before they have to go on the market again, limiting their time to research, and because teaching a single specialized course isn't what candidates most need to be competitive at a school like mine (where we already assume they can do that, but want to know whether they can teach Brit Lit I, or a genre-based intro to the major). Over three years a candidate plausibly can develop a good teaching portfolio; over two semesters, perhaps not so much.

I don't know, off-hand, anyone who had a three-year post-doc like the one you're describing who failed to get a TT job, and usually a very good one. They seem to be purely a boon. But I do, unfortunately, know several people who had Mellon-funded 1-year research post-docs (sometimes renewed for a second year) who are still searching five or more years later.

That's not the fault of the post-doc, of course; it's the fault of the lousy job market, and anything that allows a candidate to hold on for an extra year or two and build a better profile is surely to the good. But I think sometimes the shorter-term post-doc is imagined as, if not a guarantee, at least a portent of great things to come. (E.g., you got into Columbia, then Penn, and now you have a post-doc at Hopkins--so surely that R1 job is waiting right around the corner!) What I've seen hasn't borne that out.

Tony Grafton said...

Flavia, I agree on the one-years for sure. Having to move to a random place for a year, develop courses and produce work, all knowing that you can't stay, is a lot better than being an adjunct for the same year but still a very problematic deal (though I have had students emerge from them with a new network and a job--there's no ill wind--as well as seen others who didn't find any place to go).

In the end, there are no guarantees, and even the shiniest post-doc can lead nowhere. I've known former Harvard junior fellows who never found academic jobs after their terms ended.

The thing that irks me most is a practical problem: that the societies of fellows don't get together and create some kind of uniformity in application procedure. As it is, one wants a 3-page teaching statement, one wants a 1 1/2 pager, and one wants you to recite "Carmelita, Marmelita" while you submit your application. It all makes life that much harder for applicants, most of whom will not succeed, without, so far as I can see, making the process itself fairer or better.

random grad student said...

Thanks, everyone.

Now if only there were a couple hundred well-supported 3-year postdocs like the Princeton one, instead of the dozen or so like that that are out there.

Withywindle said...

I was just listening today to a speech Professor Grafton gave a few years ago, on YouTube, on defending the humanities, which also mentioned the need to standardize forms, I think in that context for tenure track jobs. Even getting form-standardization done seems to be taking a long while! Clearly what needs to be done is to predicate financial aid to higher education on standardizing their $^@! forms!

Which would be a big hammer for a small nut, I suppose; but I wonder if anything else would work to overcome the local inertia?

Susan said...

Just to add to Tony Grafton's comments: the problem with assessing postdocs in the humanities is that we mean many different things. The best, I think, give extensive time for research, writing, thinking, and talking with others -- thus helping new Ph.Ds expand their thinking beyond the diss. I think it's helpful to do *some* teaching, but not too much: you can easily make work expand to fill the time allotted.

The post-docs that are really VAP positions with a heavy teaching load I think are particularly exploitative.

Flavia said...

Tony & Withy:

YES. This would be tremendous.

When it comes to job applications, I'm told that some search committee members really want to see signs of personalization--but I've always thought that to be a) inhumane, and b) inessential. If an applicant has bothered to get our name and address right and to make minor adjustments (e.g., it makes sense to have a couple of different kinds of teaching paragraphs for different kinds of schools, or lines you can swap in about the region or the school's mission if you have some personal investment in either), I can derive everything I need to know, at least for the first round or two of review, from a standard letter and CV.

Flavia said...

Oh, and Susan:

Yes--just as "being a grad student" or "being tenure-line faculty" can describe wildly different experiences, so can "holding a post-doc."

Anonymous said...

Hi Flavia,
You wrote, "When it comes to job applications, I'm told that some search committee members really want to see signs of personalization--but I've always thought that to be a) inhumane, and b) inessential."

Since you asked for post requests could you talk more about your experiences on search committees and the kinds of tailoring that seems to be effective? I just went to a job market program at my university and we were told to tailor. I know everyone on the search committee is different so I was wondering if you could share your thoughts. Thanks!

Flavia said...


Absolutely! I'm thrilled to have other people do the work of thinking up post topics for me.

Coming soon...

Megan said...

Not on post-docs, but a post request: could you talk a bit about your experience as jr. faculty and the trade-off between saying yes to everything vs. protecting your time? I know this is probably somewhat specific to institutional culture, but I'd still love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

Flavia said...


I hate to say this, since I know that what you're describing is a widespread dilemma. . . but this is just not a problem I had. My department is very good at protecting junior faculty from undue amounts of service. So though I definitely have colleagues who have done too much, as junior folk, most often it's things they were eager to do (at least initially) or that they felt were important--and that they more or less volunteered themselves to do, rather than that they were pressured or expected or even explicitly asked to do, by anyone in any position of power.

So, regrets! No good advice on that score except what I've seen in the usual places.

Megan said...

Oh well. Thanks, anyway! I'm a long-time reader and rare commenter, but I appreciate your posts, especially the ones about your experiences in academic publishing.