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Postdocs, Coordinator Syndrome, and Negotiating: a discussion with Moya Bailey, Sarah Connell, and Alicia Peaker

By Liz Polcha

On Monday April 3rd, Moya Bailey, Sarah Connell, and Alicia Peaker led an informal discussion on the topic of postdoctoral fellowships. As a NULab Fellow, I was active in putting this event together, as postdoc positions are becoming more common in my field of digital humanities, yet I knew very little about what being a postdoc looked like, or how the application process was different than faculty positions. Moya completed postdocs at both Pennsylvania State University and Northeastern University, Sarah held a short-term postdoctoral position in the Literature department at MIT, and Alicia completed a Mellon CLIR/DLF postdoctoral fellowship in the Digital Liberal Arts at Middlebury College. Much of the conversation revolved around the application process and how to find a postdoctoral position that fits best with your research and career goals. I’ve written up below short summaries of their advice and best practices, as well as linked to a few resources.

On the application process:

Moya emphasized that it is extremely important to be attentive to what the postdoc is calling for, as institutions are usually asking you to put your research into something that is already established. A cover letter that details your research without a clear connection to the university’s goals for the postdoctoral fellowship won’t help you; you must appeal to your audience. For example, Moya said the postdoc advertisement at Northeastern was a perfect fit, which made her feel confident when applying.  The keywords in Moya’s CV and cover letter matched the keywords for the position. I especially loved her keyword-focused recommendation: when applying for any position, think about your keywords! Moya also advised that it is important to make sure your network knows you are looking for postdoc positions, as they can point you in the right direction. Often landing the right position isn’t about your individual effort, but about who you know and your legibility to the search committee. She recommended checking academic job wikis and Facebook groups for postings, but also, if there is a particular institution that you would really like to work for, it isn’t out of line to send an email to the department chair asking if there are potential openings.

Sarah suggested that it is useful to have different seed versions of cover letters during the application process that you can adjust for each position. She also stressed that it is important to have a strong folder structure and organized system so that you can keep track of what versions are most recently updated. In line with Moya’s suggestions, Sarah pointed out that it is important to conserve your energy for the positions that line up with your research keywords. Applying for fifty jobs where you sort of match the position will make you depressed—if your keywords aren’t high enough on the search committee’s radar, then it isn’t worth applying.

Alicia, agreeing with this advice, said that part of the reason why she received the Middlebury position is because she fit the skillset. She also emphasized that it is important to let your academic contacts know what you are looking for, as your mentors and professors will be more keyed into the market at large. Having your application looked at from a variety of perspectives can be especially useful. Alicia also suggested a number of resources for digital humanities graduate students who are looking for alt-ac and library positions: the DHSI listservDH+ Lib and Digital Humanities Now, the DH Slack channel, CLIR, and the Digital Library Federation. Additionally, Alicia recommended checking out DH listservs for specific cities, such as DH Boston, DH New York, DH Philadelphia. Both Moya and Alicia emphasized HASTAC as a great resource for networking and finding jobs.

On negotiating and adapting the position to fit your needs:

Moya, Sarah, and Alicia all reiterated that a benefit of postdocs is that they are often more flexible and adjustable than faculty positions. Moya explained that because postdocs are still somewhat new in the humanities, the positions are still being ironed out, unlike in the sciences where postdoctoral fellowships are well-oiled machines. This means humanities postdoctoral fellows have more space to craft the position so it is more tailored to their needs. For example, Moya was able to negotiate not teaching for a semester so that she could focus on her research.

For Sarah’s postdoc, she negotiated to a part-time position, instead of full-time, so that she could continue her role as the Project Manager for the Women Writers Project. In her interview, she was very straightforward about what she was able to do for the position and what she couldn’t do, and she felt that this confidence and honesty helped her secure the job. Her postdoctoral fellowship at MIT also built on relationships she had already established, as Sarah’s supervisor had seen her give a talk at Harvard’s Mahindra center as part of a “Women and Culture in the Early Modern World” seminar prior to the job opening.

Alicia pointed out that often postdocs are grant-funded so the positions have more flexibility. In her case, the post wasn’t dependent on her teaching. Instead, she was supposed to run workshops and consult with faculty, but she was able to make it her own and adapt it.

On using the position to figure out your career goals:

Moya specified that the beauty of the postdoc is that it allows you time to learn and grow in your field before you make a long term commitment—it gives you a chance to learn the politics of the institution, but it also helps you figure out what you want to do in your career. Postdoc positions also give you more time to expand on your research and publish more articles, which makes you much more competitive for a tenure track job. Moya advised that even if you can’t complete a postdoctoral position, it is important to complete fellowships or be a part of projects that give you some credibility outside of the space of the institution.

Alicia used her postdoc position to figure out what she wanted in her career. She realized after her experience at Middlebury that she wanted to build programs and infrastructure, rather than just run events. Her current position as the Digital Scholarship Specialist at Bryn Mawr involves building community, and she spends a lot of time thinking about what intersectional feminist structures might look like at the institutional level. For her, this type of work involves figuring out what the needs are of the community, and figuring out how to meet them and how to build community around those interests.

On precarious positions, “coordinator syndrome,” and job security:

Towards the end of the discussion, we talked briefly about the precarity of postdocs and other short-term positions that digital humanities graduate students often take after finishing their PhDs. All three of our invited speakers cautioned against VAPs, or Visiting Assistant Professor positions. While these appointments might be more supportive than adjunct instructor positions (and can come with health benefits), they rarely turn into tenure track jobs, and if you do complete one, you must stay on the job market during the length of the appointment. We also talked about “coordinator syndrome,” or the tendency for library coordinator positions to stack responsibilities onto coordinators who have little authority or resources. Sarah pointed out that these positions are especially difficult because often so much of the work is learning the ropes of the institution and figuring out its politics, but also because these jobs are treated as service work. Alicia suggested that it is important to set boundaries in any coordinator-type job, and make it clear that you are not just an assistant or an event planner. She also cited Miriam Posner’s blog post on the “make digital humanities happen” postdoc phenomenon, which explains that often these coordinator-type jobs are not postdocs, but temporary staff positions. Posner cautions against the hiring of these types of jobs as “a postdoc, no matter how committed, ingenious, and entrepreneurial, cannot just make digital humanities happen at any institution.”

Overall, it was wonderful to hear Moya, Sarah, and Alicia speak on their experiences across these various institutions and roles. My larger takeaway from the discussion is that while postdoctoral fellowships are excellent opportunities for growing in your research and teaching, and for defining your career, it is also important to treat them as temporary positions and to negotiate for your own needs and interests, such as professional development, more research support, and conference travel.

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