A Recent PhD Graduate Reflects on the Academic Job Search

Hawreliak_blog_photoYou may recognize Jason Hawreliak, UWaterloo English PhD graduate, from previous WIP posts about his post-doc, or his work as a co-founder and editor at First Person Scholar. Jason is now an Assistant Professor of Game Studies at Brock University’s Centre for Digital Humanities. Jason was kind enough to agree to an interview with Words in Place about his experience preparing for and entering the academic job market.–JLH

JLH: Firstly, congratulations on the tenure-track job. Were you wedded to the idea of academia, or were you also considering industry?
JH: Thanks! An academic job was certainly my first choice, but I was also seriously considering a job outside of academia. With the way that the job market is right now, I think that’s important. After finishing my Ph.D. last summer I got a Mitacs postdoc through Neil Randall and the Games Institute which had me working with a startup firm. That was a great experience and opened my eyes to startup culture. Not everyone will be interested in startups, but I think it’s a very good idea for Ph.D. candidates to try to get some experience outside of academia.

We all know that many university departments—especially in the humanities—are not hiring many tenure track positions, and certainly not enough for the amount of people looking for work. Contract or adjunct work is becoming the norm for new grads and it’s difficult not knowing if you’ll have a job come next term. I was very fortunate that I only worked in the “gig economy” for about a year, but it was a very stressful period. If you’re able to get some industry experience then you’ll be much better off when looking for a job. A broad skillset is really important I think.

JLH: At what point did you go on the academic market, and what were your thoughts as you eyed the job ads?
JH: I started applying quite early, while I was still trying to nail down a defense date. My initial thoughts when looking at ads were, “oh this position looks perfect for what I do – how could they not hire me?” But of course it doesn’t work that way. I received many rejection letters, and it was certainly discouraging at times. That said, I just kept plugging away and applying, even if I didn’t think I had a chance. For this job at Brock, I revamped my CV and application package thanks to some invaluable help from faculty, and got the interview.

What I learned more than anything through the application process is that you have to be able to accept rejection, and that you have to be in the right place at the right time. I really do believe it’s a lot about luck as there are plenty of hard-working, qualified people who aren’t getting jobs. You can obviously increase your chances by doing interesting research, publishing, getting grants, serving on committees, showing a passion for teaching, etc., but I don’t think there’s any denying that a lot of it is about fit and timing. The stars really do have to align.

JLH: You began the program before the professionalization course was in place; how do you think UWaterloo prepared you for post-PhD employment?
JH: I think very well. I never took any professionalization courses but there were workshops available. Also, UW English has some great connections with local tech companies and places like Communitech, so I always felt I had a decent sense of that world if academia didn’t work out. More than that though, my supervisor, Marcel O’Gorman, was a huge help. Marcel dragged me along to my first conferences, gave me interesting RA work, and throughout my Ph.D. guided me on how to better position myself as a job candidate. I really lucked out in that regard. Generally speaking, UW English is also great because it offers teaching opportunities throughout, and that doesn’t happen everywhere. I have friends at other schools who never taught independently until after their Ph.D. Having that teaching experience really helped.

JLH: When it came time for job applications and interviews, did anything surprise you?
JH: Not really, but again, I think that can be attributed to the guidance I received. Maybe just the rate of rejection. You know intellectually that the odds aren’t in your favour, but after a certain number of “We regret to inform you” letters it takes a bit of a toll on you. For people about to go on the job market I’d say to just be prepared for that and know that it doesn’t have anything to do with your worth as a scholar, teacher, or person because it can feel that way sometimes. Once I realized that rejection is just a part of the process it became easier to take.

As for interviewing, I did some mock interviews and job talks in front of faculty and other grad students and I can’t stress how much that helped. Those should be mandatory. I can almost guarantee I would not have gotten this job without the mock job talk. It was awful and I probably would have walked out on myself if I had been in the audience. But that’s exactly the place where you want to have that bad experience, and it gave me the skills and confidence I needed for the real thing. For the actual interview, I guess just that it was a very long day. You always have to be on and that can be tough for some people.

JLH: In hindsight, is there anything you wish you’d known when you first started the PhD? Or anything you might have done differently?
JH: It’s hard to say because I ended up in what’s essentially my dream job at Brock. I’m researching what interests me, the courses I’m teaching and developing are the courses I’ve always wanted to teach, and the people I work with are wonderful. If I did anything differently, who knows, I might not be here.

One thing I did learn about the dissertation though is that at some point I had to stop reading; I had to stop worrying about making the dissertation perfect. I was really worried that my dissertation would have some glaring blind spot, that I would miss something obvious and important and I would be laughed out of my defense. So I just kept reading everything I could get my hands on, accumulating mountains of notes. There’s a benefit to that, obviously, but at some point it becomes an impediment. You can never know everything, even about your very specific topic, and I had to learn that that’s ok. If you try to know everything, you’ll just keep spinning your wheels. Of course, you can’t go too far on the other side of things and get complacent, but in my experience that’s almost never an issue. The problem for me was that I wanted it to be perfect and so ended up taking much longer to finish than was probably necessary. But everyone is different and that’s certainly not the only reason why dissertations take as long as they do.

Actually, one other thing is to seriously consider whether or not to make your dissertation open-access once it’s done. If anyone can just view your dissertation online at any time then publishers may be more hesitant to publish it as a book. I allowed mine to be open-access because I strongly believe that information should be as accessible as possible, but there are material considerations to keep in mind too. Mind you, I have colleagues who were able to get their re-worked dissertations published by very good firms, so it’s hard to say. It’s complicated and I don’t know what the right answer is, but it was just an issue I hadn’t anticipated.

JLH: Finally, what has been the biggest shift for you as you moved into a tenure-track position?
JH: Job security, for one. That’s the biggest thing no question. But in terms of the actual work, it’s more meetings! That’s honestly the biggest difference I’ve seen so far. The workload for teaching and research is certainly heavier, but I had expected that. I hadn’t expected that meetings would take up so much time and energy. Luckily I enjoy the committees I’m on and really like the people I’m working with. We’re setting up a new game design and development program slated to start next fall, and it’s exciting to be a part of that process. I guess just generally you feel like you’re more of a part of things in the department and the university and that’s nice. Otherwise you teach, you read and you write. Everyone coming out of UW English is more than prepared for that.


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