This semester, I had the opportunity to converse with one of our English Department Alumni, who has recently been hired as a tenure track Assistant Professor at San Diego State University. His story tells us about his path of discovery, the challenges of the current academic job market, and offers sage advice to our community.
We would like to know a little about your background, perhaps a past anecdote that has shaped you into the person you have become today.
I guess something that has shaped and continues to shape me today is the fact that I never really limited my intellectual interests. After graduating from high school, I joined the Psychology Department at UPRM, intent on becoming a clinical psychologist. But during my first year of studies, I really enjoyed how the courses offered in the English Department allowed me to explore a wider range of ideas, theories, and methodologies. Four years later, I received my B.A. in English Linguistics at UPRM, but I didn’t end up studying linguistics at the graduate level. I ended up joining UPRM’s graduate program in English Education, where I specialized in literature and wrote a master’s thesis on the Victorian Bildungsroman.
My interests in social ostracism and literary representations of growth and development led me to approach young adult literature (a genre that I’ve always been an avid reader of) with new lenses and insights. After completing my masters, I pursued a doctoral degree in English literature, where I specialized in youth literature, gender studies, and media. After graduating and working for a year as a postdoctoral fellow at Bowdoin College in Maine, I was offered a position as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at San Diego State University (SDSU). And I must say that I’m beyond happy to be working here! I’m always glad that I didn’t necessarily stick to one area of study—and that my openness to change and interdisciplinary thinking helped me get to where I’m currently at.
How did our undergraduate and graduate program prepare you for a PhD at the University of Notre Dame?
The undergraduate program in English at UPRM pushes its students to engage in interdisciplinary thinking, and I think that this type of critical engagement is crucial in our current academic milieu. The linguistics program’s structure encouraged me to take courses in multiple fields, including literature, social sciences, languages, creative writing, media studies, and yes, even courses in biology and geology. I was pleasantly surprised how this breadth of knowledge ultimately helped me to approach literary texts in different ways, and pushed me to be methodologically eclectic in my current work.
The graduate program was a taste of the rigorous and demanding work that is expected at the Ph.D. level. However, the greatest benefit I got from the graduate program was the opportunity to teach my own undergraduate courses. I was one of the handful of Ph.D. students in my cohort to start the program with two years of college-level teaching experience. Thanks to this, I was able to focus more attention on designing cutting-edge courses rather than having to worry about learning how to teach these courses!
Tell us about your new job. Is it what you had in mind when you were a student?
I began my new job as an Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at SDSU in August 2017. My research and teaching focuses on children’s and young adult literature, LGBTQ+ studies, and digital humanities. This semester, I’m teaching a course on “Adolescence in Literature” and another course on “Queer Genres and Narratives.” Future courses that I will teach include “The Queer Young Adult Novel,” “Activism and Social Justice in Youth Literature,” “Wizarding Worlds,” and “Digital Youth Media and Identity.” I’m also developing a series of very exciting projects, which include a book manuscript on queer young adult literature, a co-edited volume on intersectional approaches to film, television, and media, and an exploration of identity and video game spaces.
Becoming a university professor was definitely a goal of mine ever since I first experienced teaching at the college level at UPRM. When I started my Ph.D. program, however, I started to develop a more realistic sense of how the academic job market works, so I also made sure to explore other non-academic options for my future career. Fortunately, my experience in the job market had a positive outcome, but I’m fully aware that this is the exception, not the rule!
What is the job market for young academics like?
The job market is as scary and as uncertain as people generally say it is. There are so few positions available every year, and there are hundreds of people that apply for each position. The expectations of the market have also changed drastically over the years. Based on my experience being in the academic job market for two years, I noticed, for instance, that postdoctoral positions are becoming yet another layer of apprenticeship that is usually expected from job candidates before landing a tenure-track position. Once again, things worked out for me—but the stress and anxiety that comes with being on the market is not anything that I want to experience any time soon (or ever again, to be honest)!
Considering your academic journey so far, is there any advice you would like to share with students interested in academic careers?
Yes, I think that there are three major pieces of advice that I gave give to students who are interested in academic careers, particularly in the humanities:
Do not underestimate the value or importance of interdisciplinary thinking. If you want to succeed in today’s academic market, you must highlight the ways in which you are reinvigorating or changing the ways we approach and examine texts. For instance, I supplemented by Ph.D. in English with a graduate minor in gender studies. Through this minor, I could further develop my knowledge in queer studies, and I was also able to teach courses outside of my main field—such as Introduction to Gender Studies (a course that was more sociological rather than literary). Also make sure to take courses in various fields. Not only will this help you to develop new insights on your own work, but it will also allow you to have conversations with other scholars who specialize in different fields.
Make sure that you have a robust digital presence online, which should ideally include a personal website with an academic blog, an academia.edu page, and an academic Twitter account. Share think pieces online that trace your intellectual development, share syllabi and lesson plans with other people, and try to use social media in academic conferences. When job search committees are seeking potential candidates, they will use search engines to determine your online presence. This is something that you can control, plus it will show job search committees that you are a scholar who is both media savvy and who reaches out to people outside of your immediate academic circles.
Academia is not a meritocracy, and landing in academic position ultimately requires a lot of luck. There is only so much that is in your control when applying for an academic position. Do you best to succeed in the academic market (go to conferences, publish, network with other scholars, develop your online presence, try to get as much teaching experience as possible), but also remember to keep your options open, and think of how you can use your Ph.D. for non-academic jobs and positions.
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