As in many academic fields, anthropologists emerging from a PhD program often pursue both tenure-track teaching and postdoctoral research positions. What follows is a conversation with four recent Washington University PhD’s in sociocultural anthropology who took both postdocs and tenure track jobs, and all of whom also had to navigate simultaneous offers of both types of position. Their experiences and perspectives will be of interest to those in (or entering) a doctoral program.
Alison Heller, PhD 2015 (“Interrogating the Superlative Sufferer: Experiencing Obstetric Fistula and Treatment Seeking in Niger”). Currently Asst Prof., Univ of Maryland (since the publication of this page Alison Heller, PhD has taken a position with Facebook as a User Experience Researcher).
Andrew Flachs, PhD 2016 (“Cultivating Knowledge: The Production and Adaptation of Knowledge on Organic and GM Cotton Farms in Telangana, India”). Currently Asst. Prof., Purdue Univ.
Elyse Singer, PhD 2017 (“Regulating Reproduction: Abortion Reform and Reproductive Governance in Mexico”). Currently Asst. Prof., Univ. of Oklahoma.
Adrienne Strong, PhD 2017 (“The Maternity Ward as Mirror: Maternal Death, Biobureaucracy, and Institutional Care in the Tanzanian Health Sector”). Currently Asst. Prof., Univ. of Florida.
What was your experience entering the job market?
ADRIENNE: I applied for both postdocs and TT jobs while I was ABD. I liked the idea of a postdoc better than jumping straight into a TT job because of the time to write and, in my case, the opportunity to do new fieldwork. That year on the job market, I did not get any interviews but did receive the NSF SBE Postdoc Research Fellowship. The major draw of that particular postdoc was the time and funding to do new research, which, I was thinking, would set me up to be more competitive for the TT job market the next time around. It also allows you to design your own program and collaborate with any institution. I wrote the grant to work with the Averting Maternal Death and Disability group at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
ANDREW: I had finished writing my dissertation and was on the job market before I had defended. I had campus interviews at Univ. of Arizona (Anthropology and Food Studies), Appalachian State (Sustainable Development) and Monmouth (Anthropology). Ultimately these positions were offered to other people or the searches couldn't come to a consensus. Meanwhile, I was offered was offered a postdoc through the Washington University Volkswagen Exchange Fellowship, which provides funding for a one-year fellowship at a university in Germany. I took the postdoc. At the time I was disappointed but I've come to see it as a lucky break. I had an incredible year in Heidelberg and then was fortunate enough to have a choice between postdocs and faculty positions the next year.
ALI: I received my Ph.D. in the fall of 2015. I was not offered an academic position that fall but I took a job with World Learning’s International Honors Program (IHP). As a traveling faculty, I led college students in an experiential, comparative medical anthropology and global health program across four continents. During this year of immersive teaching, I applied for tenure-track jobs as well as fellowships. I was invited for five campus visits, accepted three, and was offered three tenure-track jobs in anthropology, including the one at the University of Maryland. At the same time, I was also offered the year-long Campbell Fellowship for Transformative Research on Women in the Developing World at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe.
ELYSE: I went on the job market ABD in year 6 of the PhD program. I was offered a tenure-track position in anthropology at the University of Oklahoma and also two postdocs: Postdoctoral Research Associate at Brown University’s Population Studies and Training Center, and a Volkswagen Postdoctoral Fellowship in Berlin.
How did you handle the choice between a TT job and a postdoc?
ELYSE: Choosing between the postdoc and the Oklahoma position was difficult and I spent a lot of time talking with my mentors. As good as the tenure-track position would be, a year to focus entirely on my own work at Brown would obviously be invaluable. In the end I did not have to choose because Oklahoma allowed me to accept the position but defer to take to postdoc first.
ANDREW: I had to choose in my second year out of grad school. During my postdoc in Germany I applied for both postdocs and tenure-track positions, coming back to the States for 4 campus interviews. In the end I was offered 2 other postdocs and 3 tenure-track positions, and as much as I had enjoyed the post-doc in Germany, I was very happy to accept my current position at Purdue.
ADRIENNE: I decided to go back on the job market in the first year of my postdoc, thinking that it would at least be useful practice. But I could be selective in my applications because I still had another year of the postdoc. I got four campus interviews and two offers. The first was at a small university that did not have an anthropology department and was also in a very small town, which seemed a poor fit for my goals and personal life. The position offered at the University of Florida was a great fit – a large university with a good graduate program in a desirable location, and an amazing Center for African Studies. I was hoping to negotiate a later start date in order to complete my postdoc but the university administration would not agree to this. However, I did negotiate more research money, to replace my lost NSF grant funds, and a research leave for Fall semester so I could finish the fieldwork I started.
ALI: During my year with SIT I applied for tenure track jobs as well as fellowships. I was invited for five campus visits, accepted three, and was offered three tenure-track jobs including Univ. of Maryland. At the same time, I was also offered the year-long Campbell Fellowship for Transformative Research on Women in the Developing World at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. I accepted the job as an Assistant Professor in anthropology at Maryland but was able to negotiate with my new Chair to defer my start date by a year, so I could spend the year in Santa Fe.
How did your postdoc work out for you?
ANDREW: In the postdoc I partnered with anthropologist Daniel Münster at Heidelberg University, whom I had met at a conference while conducting dissertation fieldwork. The postdoc year allowed me to finish articles that I was working on and to start new projects, make major progress on a book, become part of a new academic community in Europe, and organize a conference (papers from which are appearing now in Journal of Political Ecology), pursue new leads from my projects in India, and start a new project Eastern Europe.
ALI: Having a year to write before beginning my tenure-track position was invaluable. In the year I spent at SAR, I had the time and space to read, think, and write—time that I was hard pressed to carve out once I began my tenure-track job. This time without teaching, service, or departmental responsibilities allowed me to line up manuscripts and begin strategizing about publication timelines for my eventual tenure review. By the time I began at UMD, I already had a full book manuscript and a contract along with a few articles out for review, which significantly reduced the stress of the tenure clock that might otherwise have felt oppressive. My book, Fistula Politics: Birthing Injuries and the Quest for Continence in Niger, was published in October 2018.
ADRIENNE: The NSF postdoc gave me time to get some writing done but, in particular, this postdoc also gave me a chance to collaborate with public health people who were also working in Tanzania on maternal health. This was a great opportunity for some interdisciplinary collaboration and potentially an avenue for some of my research to feed into public health program planning in Tanzania. This was also an NSF grant on which I was the PI, which may make me more competitive for future NSF funding. Overall, I think, even if I had been offered a TT position the first year on the market, I probably would have still opted for this postdoc in order to have the chance to conduct another full 11 months of fieldwork on a new project without the tenure clock ticking or other responsibilities.
ELYSE: My postdoc worked out great. I joined a project directed by Matthew Gutmann and am now a paid consultant on the project here at University of Oklahoma. I had ample time to write, think, and rest. It was truly a luxury.
Any other thoughts about post-docs?
ELYSE: I would recommend that current PhD students apply for all postdocs that match their qualifications and don't entail an unreasonable amount of work for money (I chose not to apply for the postdocs that require a themed essay on topics not directly related to my research, or that charged for the application). I’d also say that while a postdoc year is a very privileged position, it can also be oddly disruptive to bounce around from position to position without a sense of stability.
ANDREW: My postdoc not only allowed me to catch my breath at the end of my PhD, but made me much better prepared for the job market. There's no chance that I would have been as successful in going after my current job without this year to rethink and plan. All of this ultimately set up for my first year as a faculty member at Purdue University, because I was already moving along with publications and grants and I had time to begin prepping classes at the end of my postdoc. There was a big adjustment from this very flexible schedule where I was focusing completely on my own work to the more rigid schedule of an academic department, but at least I could hit the ground running with research and teaching as I learned how to navigate a new university, advise students, and contribute to departmental committees. Academia has turned out to be a great job for me, but it can be an all-consuming profession. One benefit of the postdoc, especially one based in Europe, was learning to treat academic life as a job (when possible), and learning how to leave work at the office so that I could come home. Obviously, postdocs don't offer the same job security as a tenure-track position and I enjoyed my opportunity much more after I accepted my job offer in the spring. Still, I'd recommend the opportunity unequivocally. Now that I've been on the other side of a job search, it makes a huge difference when someone can articulate how and where their career is going.
ADRIENNE: In addition to being able to do the fieldwork, I think the extra time from the postdoc allowed me to get some perspective on my projects, research trajectory, and theoretical contributions. I’ve submitted some articles, as well as my book prospectus. The experience working with public health people offered by the postdoc was informative, but definitively convinced me I would rather have a TT job in an anthropology department than try to work with public health people, which had been an option I'd been considering while still in grad school. Being able to test out this type of collaboration before jumping into as a longer-term job was extremely valuable.
ALI: In some ways, I did not fully appreciate my post-doc year until it was over. I was anxious that year about starting my TT job, and also craving the stability that moving to a place and setting down roots would afford me. But after a few months in my TT job, it was clear how useful my post-doc had been, how lucky I was to have been given the space and time to write without pressure. I was in a much better position to succeed because of that year of relative unconstraint.