Making Plan B Your Plan A | Stacy Hartman Interview

“I don’t want to be a faculty member.” This realization dawned during the first two years of Stacy Hartman’s PhD program. Forthrightly, she told one of her faculty advisors, who encouraged her to explore other options. Today, after finishing her PhD in German Studies in five years, she is leading the Connected Academics program for the Modern Language Association. Located in New York City, the MLA is the professional association for scholars in English studies and modern languages. But bear in mind that the advice Stacy offers is her own, not the MLA’s.

Stacy offers three pieces of advice for graduate students:

  1. Manage your time. Your day-to-day time, but also your time in graduate school.
  2. Talk to people. Lots of people. Lots of different kinds of people.
  3. Do what you need to do to feel positively about yourself. A positive attitude toward your job search is not only helpful but necessary.

More about Stacy’s story follows at the end. Let’s get to the advice.

Manage Your Time

Once you stop taking classes, and focus primarily on your dissertation and your research, you face unlimited stretches of unstructured time. It becomes hard to use the time effectively, and it is easy to imagine that there is plenty of time to sort out your career—later.

Day-to-day time

Stacy Hartman

Stacy Hartman

Manage your day-to-day time, so that you have enough hours to do what you need to do.

“I don’t have time for that.” Unlikely. Stacy is skeptical when she hears students say that they can’t find time for informational interviews, or to attend a workshop, or volunteer to coordinate a seminar series. People claim that they spend ten hours a day on their research and writing, but she doesn’t believe them.

Keeping a log for a week of what you do every hour is a way to honestly assess how you are spending your time. How much time do you spend on FaceBook and Twitter? Does an internet search for a citation lead down rabbit holes?

“When I had unlimited time, I got less done” Stacy observed. Appointments and deadlines (try incremental self-imposed ones) provide structure to a day.

Set a plan for your entire time in grad school

Five years (on top of her earlier master’s) was enough time to spend on her PhD, Stacy decided. All of her strategic decisions helped her achieve that goal. She shaped her dissertation project to meet that internal deadline.

Work backwards to figure out what you need to do each year.

Your final year should be devoted to your job search in addition to completing your dissertation. “I can’t think about my future until I am done writing.” Stacy hears that often and retorts: “That is a huge mistake.” Why? Your funding runs out! It is easier to job hunt when funded. It takes a while to find a job.

Allocate 5-10 hours a week during your final year on the job search. Treat it as the important project that it is.

Your penultimate year (and the year before that, too) is the time to get experience. You can’t simply replace experience with education. You need both. Experience requires time.

What do you want to learn? Project management? Teaching experience? Working in a museum? Writing analytic reports on a deadline? Side projects and internships bolster your resume. Build the skills you need.

Three and four years before you graduate is time to explore the kinds of jobs you might want. Are you passionate about a faculty career? With what mix of teaching and research? Do you want to work in a startup? Doing research? As a college staff member? What are your geographical desires? This is the time to start talking to people; which is Stacy’s second piece of advice.

Talk to People

Stacy Hartman graduation

Stacy and her parents at Stanford’s commencement, June 2015

Lots of people. Lots of different kinds of people. Your education does not substitute for connections with a broad network.

Informational Interviews are crucial. Networking has a negative connotation in academia. It is seen as parasitic and predatory. You need something from someone, and you feel that you have nothing to offer in return. Not true! (Stacy got vehement at this point.)

  • Grad students should to see themselves as professionals with something to offer. The connection won’t immediately bear fruit. But down the line, you may have something to offer your contact.
  • Connecting with you (a student) is a way for the professional to reconnect with their original profession and identity as a member of the guild (historian, English Studies).

Think of it as mastering the Art of Asking. The metric of success for an informational interview is whether or not you get information. It is really a success if it results in a relationship. Getting a job is NOT the goal.

(ScienceCareers published an introduction to informational interviews for PhDs and Postdocs. My post Why You Should Network explains why networking is useful for grad students.)

Put your quest out there. Stacy pointed out that you are always meeting people. In the US, the first question that people ask when they meet you is, “What do you do?” Have a response that opens up the conversation and invites them to help you. Try, “I am getting my PhD in German Studies and I am interested in working outside of the University. I am currently exploring options for interesting work in the non-profit sector.” This invites a conversation. Does that person know someone who made such a transition?

Seek mentors outside of your department and field. They will be there for you when your department isn’t. Someone more experienced who is willing to share that experience. Someone who cares about your well-being and actively helps you to success. These are long-term relationships that grow over time. Informational interviews are a starting point. Working with people is even better, since the work setting provides sustained contact. Mentorship isn’t something that you ask for at the start; it develop organically.

If you do things outside of your department, you will find opportunities for mentorship. Be open, curious, and out in the world. Don’t keep your head down all the time. Venture away from your department. (This is a form of the 80-10-10 rule; the fifth take-away described in my post on the PhD Pathways conference.)

Do What You Need to Feel Positively About Yourself

This is Stacy’s toughest piece of advice.

A positive attitude toward your job search – which is, after all, an exciting opportunity for growth and change – is not only helpful but necessary. Neither defeatism nor desperation will help you. You have to think positively of yourself and your ability to contribute before you can expect anyone else to. But this can be difficult.

Grad school can mess with your mental well-being. Stacy knows a lot of grad students who ended up feeling down on themselves. Talking to a counselor—start with the campus health center—can help ameliorate the negative feelings that grad school can engender. It is a worthwhile investment in yourself.

Cultivate daily practices that help you to feel good about yourself. Exercise regularly, get enough sleep, take Vitamin B, sit in the sun.

If you go into job search with a negative sense of yourself, it is hard to imagine yourself as a positive contributor to a team. People can sense when you don’t feel good about yourself.

Maintaining your confidence through the entire job search is also challenging.

Stacy’s Story

The linear version of Stacy Hartman’s story takes her from a BA at UC Santa Cruz in Modern Literature and Feminist Studies through a peripatetic five years around the world, including a master’s degree at the University of Manchester, and finally to a PhD in German Studies at Stanford. Her LinkedIn profile will tell you that she doesn’t believe in linear.

As mentioned earlier, Stacy decided early on that she didn’t want to be a faculty member, and was candid about that. She advises others to do that too, in her blog post, When Plan B Has Always Been Plan A. During her PhD years – self-limited to five years – she was involved with 5 different projects related to humanities pedagogy, graduate education reform, the public humanities, and alternative academic careers.

Related to her advice, she proposed coordinating a lunch-time speaker series of university staff members with PhDs who were working in non-faculty jobs. She began with a list of four people; one led to another and she interviewed over 30 people working in offices as varied as the libraries, the humanities center, undergraduate academic advising, and the development (fund raising) office. The year running the Alt-Ac speaker series provided experience creating, implementing, publicizing, and evaluating a program.

Stacy Hartman cat cafe

At a cat cafe in New York

In her fifth and final year, she decided not to apply for sixth year Fellowships so that she would have to graduate. The idea of post-graduation unemployment was distasteful; she commenced her job search. Seven months later she was offered the Project Coordinator position for Connected Academics at the MLA. She writes for the blog and tweets @catsonatardis.

To motivate herself to meet her “Finish in Five” goal, Stacy bought a bottle of wine during her first year in grad school. The wine was expected to reach its peak five years later. She wrote her proposed graduation date on the label and drank it with a friend sitting on the floor of her packed-up apartment. Right on schedule.

Moving from California to New York was scary. But now, 6 months later, she and her cats are becoming New Yorkers.


Published March 1, 2016.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *