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8. Professional Development

8.1 Graduate Student Activities and Professional Preparation

Graduate students participate in various activities that will help them prepare for academic positions and related professional careers:

Comparative Literature 601.  As part of this required seminar, students will draft a sample conference abstract and practice giving a conference paper in class.  They are also expected to submit a paper for CLIFF to gain experience in presenting papers in public.  

Comparative Literature Intra Faculty-Student Forum (CLIFF). Comparative Literature students in their third year and beyond take the lead in coordinating CLIFF, usually in February or March.  Through CLIFF students gain experience in presenting papers, moderating panels, hosting guest speakers, developing collegial networks, and defining new perspectives on Comparative Literature.

Comparative Literature Brownbags.  The Department of Comparative Literature reserves Fridays at noon for brownbags, coordinated by graduate students on a range of topics.  Students invite faculty and/or graduate students and/or visiting speakers to present work in progress. The DGS may also coordinate brownbags as needed to discuss strategies for preparing articles for publication and other professional activities.  

Interdisciplinary workshops and interest groups on campus.  Students have the opportunity to coordinate and participate in interdepartmental groups on campus that organize regular meetings and special events on a variety of topics. In recent years, Comparative Literature students have been involved in the Atlantic Studies Workshop, the Avant-Garde Interest Group, Contexts for Classics, Deleuze Interest Group, the Eighteenth-Century Studies Group, the Interdisciplinary Marxism Working Group, the Interdisciplinary Music Forum, the Mediterranean Topographies Interdisciplinary Workshop, the Nineteenth Century Forum, the Poetry & Poetics Workshop, Psychoanalysis Interest Group, Museum Studies Workshop and Translation Workshop.

Conference presentations.  Students are encouraged to present papers at national and international conferences, including the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association, the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, and other professional organizations.

CRLT Preparing Future Faculty Workshop. Students can apply to participate in an annual seminar organized by CRLT in May, designed to prepare doctoral candidates for academic careers. 

Rackham Event Calendar.  Events, workshops, and training sessions for professional development are listed on Rackham’s website.


8.2 Preparing for the Academic Job Market

Advising for the job market. Students should work closely with their dissertation committee, and especially their dissertation chair, in preparing for the academic job market. The DGS also provides individual counseling and general support for jobseekers in Comparative Literature and will coordinate meetings for jobseekers (as needed in late spring or early fall), mock interviews before MLA, and trial job talks after MLA. The English Department has a helpful online Jobseeker Booklet from which the following notes have been adapted.

When are you ready to apply for an academic position?  In tight job markets such as those we have experienced in recent years, many graduate students assume they should begin applying for academic positions at a very early date. Experience (both at UM and elsewhere) suggests that this is usually a mistake.  The application process can seriously interfere with continued progress on the dissertation, and even when early applicants do gain MLA interviews, the experience can be a demoralizing one when they are asked to talk at length and in detail about a substantially unwritten dissertation. Applying a year early for “practice” is also unadvisable.

Generally speaking, if you are applying for an academic position, you should have at least one-third to two-thirds of your dissertation (two or more chapters) done by the beginning of the fall term. This means polished chapters that have been approved by your dissertation chair and read by any members of your committee who will be writing letters of recommendation for you.  There are clear and compelling reasons why this is the appropriate stage of progress:

1.       Those writing letters for you need to have read enough of your dissertation to verify that you can realistically complete the dissertation on time, before a prospective job would begin.

2.       Those writing letters for you need to have read and evaluated these chapters early in the fall, in order to have time to compose their letters of recommendation prior to the arrival of the job list in mid-September, so that you can have your placement file (containing such letters) ready to be sent out before November 1 (a deadline for many academic job listings).

3.       If your application letter and sample CV pass the initial screening, you will be asked in most cases to provide a sample chapter, and this work must be of the highest quality—revised, polished, fine-tuned, etc.  But some schools also ask for a second chapter before choosing candidates to interview.  If you do not have two fully finished chapters ready to show the outside world, you will have simply wasted a great deal of your own time.

4.       If you gain interviews and do well at them, you will probably be asked to make a campus visit sometime in January or February, during which you will be expected to give a talk (presumably from the dissertation).  This cannot duplicate material you have already sent to the interviewing committee.

5.       If you are invited out for such visits, you will find that a great deal of your time since September has been devoted to various aspects of the application process. Many students find that their rate of progress slows down considerably over this period, which can easily extend from September to March (and beyond: although the September/October job list is the largest, new jobs do appear in subsequent MLA job lists in the late winter and spring, for which you may also be applying).  This can make it very difficult to complete your dissertation and defend it before the end of the summer, unless you already had 2-3 chapters done.  


Please consider your own progress candidly, keeping in mind that the most important thing you can do to maximize your chances of getting a job is to write a compelling, original, and polished dissertation.  Any exception to these guidelines should be discussed with your dissertation chair and the DGS.

Business Cards.  The alumni association offers 30 business cards (free) during fall and winter terms.  Students may submit a request in both terms. Or, graduate students may print, at their own expense, business cards using Comparative Literature information.

8.3 Application Materials

Sample materials for jobseekers.  The Department office has examples on file for cover letters, dissertation abstracts, teaching portfolios, and CVs.  Depending on what kind of positions you are applying for, you may wish to consult materials for jobseekers in related departments where you have taught as a GSI. 

Preparing to apply for academic positions.  The application materials you will assemble in the fall consist of two types of documents: those sent directly to the search committee by you and confidential letters of recommendation that people have written for you and filed with the Career Center at the University of Michigan or (if you prefer) with an online service like Interfolio. These confidential letters will be sent out at your request, and will be referred to as your dossier or placement file or simply as “letters” in a job announcement. You should confer with your dissertation chair and with the DGS about the selection of appropriate recommenders for your dossier.

The materials sent directly by you should consist of:

1.       A letter of application, no more than 2 pages, single-spaced.

2.       A description of your dissertation, no more than 1 page, single-spaced.

3.       A curriculum vitae (CV)

4.       An increasing number of schools also ask for a Teaching Portfolio; although this is sent out with the initial application only if requested in the job announcement, you should have one ready and offer to send it to any committees that may be interviewing you.  This portfolio usually consists of sample syllabi of courses you have taught (or would like to teach) and a brief statement of your teaching philosophy; it sometimes includes other materials such as student evaluations.  Assembling this portfolio is a good way of preparing yourself to talk about teaching in an interview situation.

Since it usually takes several rounds of revision to prepare your cover letter and supporting documents, you should begin drafting these before September 1 and ask your dissertation chair to review and suggest revisions.  You can ask for a second reading from the DGS and other committee members, but please be sure to have your chair read your letter, CV, and dissertation description first.  Composing and assembling materials can be done over the summer (if you are sure you will be applying in the fall) but should not displace work on your dissertation.  Keep in mind that the single most important thing you can do to prepare for the job market is to continue doing the best work possible on your dissertation!

8.4 Interviews

Mock interviews. Held in the early weeks of December, the mock interview will give you a chance to practice describing your dissertation, fielding questions about your research and pedagogy, and asking questions about a hypothetical hiring institution.  The DGS will conduct the interview with at least two other faculty members. The interview should last about half an hour; come dressed as you would to an actual interview, and try to imagine as much as possible that this is “real.”  After the “interview” is over, you and the faculty members will have a debriefing discussion; now is the time to ask all your questions about how your self-presentation is translating to listeners outside your field.  Don’t be too nervous about this process; the faculty is here to help you figure out how best to present yourself and your work. 

Preparing for interviews.  It’s always a good idea to check out the college catalogue for the school to see what the course offerings are like and see who the faculty are.  Don’t spend a lot of time trying to bone up on the published work of listed faculty, however.  You cannot second-guess the interviewing committee and could use your preparation time more profitably. You should be prepared to talk at greater length about your dissertation when asked about it; you can practice ways of describing your dissertation beforehand.  What works best here is to try to find new terms and ways of talking about it.  Don’t regard your summary or the prose of your dissertation itself as sacred text that you should memorize and not deviate from; instead, think of yourself as a third party, say, someone writing a positive review of your work, who has to describe it in his or her own language.  You should also take time to develop sample descriptions for courses you could teach at different levels of the curriculum.  Be prepared to lay out the basic readings and logic of courses that sound interesting and well-defined. These should include everything from writing courses (literary or not), basic survey courses, inventive and exciting upper division courses, and (if relevant) graduate courses.  You can consult course syllabi on file in the Comparative Literature Department and in other units to get ideas for courses.  

When you are called for MLA interviews.  Be prepared to schedule the time and day according to the needs of the committee.  If you have another interview scheduled at the time they propose, tell them so, and they will have to adjust their schedule—but don’t let any other commitments to interfere, such as MLA sessions you want to attend (unless of course you are presenting a paper). 

It is perfectly appropriate to ask if you can know who will be on the interviewing team, and you should definitely ask how long the interview will be.  Be sure you find out what hotel the interview will take place in and how you should find out the room number (the committee won’t know this until they check in).  You may be told to call the Job Information Center at MLA or the hotel and ask for Professor So-and-So (the hotel will connect you to the room, not give you the number). But don’t call the room unless told to do so, or unless the information is not at the Job Center as planned.                             

Tips for interviewing.  Be at the interviewing room early, but don’t knock until the precise time of the interview.  Be sure to make eye contact with all members of the interviewing committee when you are introduced. Usually the interview will begin with a question about your dissertation, but be prepared to launch immediately into a discussion about teaching as well. Time will pass very quickly, and you need to be aware of how long you have been talking. Always take your cues from the interviewers: neither you nor they want a monologue, and you should let the committee set the pace. Stop after you’ve delivered what is essentially one paragraph on your dissertation, to give the committee an opportunity to ask follow-up questions. What will work especially well is if you can find ways to open what you say about your dissertation to dialogue and further questions—perhaps by talking about what you feel you have discovered or learned about the issues you address and what you’ve realized you want to think or write about as a result (but never introduce a topic that you are not prepared to talk about).  Know when to stop talking about the dissertation.  There is usually a clear shift in questions, and you will need to read this cue properly.  Sometimes it’s when you’re asked about teaching, after you’ve answered questions about the dissertation.  It’s time to shift gears here, to talk about something new, whether teaching (don’t describe a course on your dissertation) or other research projects.  Have a range of relevant course syllabi plotted out in your head.  Having sample syllabi to hand out is a good idea but not an absolute necessity.  Sometimes job candidates are asked a series of directed questions about specific courses regularly offered at the school and then invited to describe the ideal course they would like to teach.  Have such a course in mind—and DON’T make it on the dissertation.  Be prepared to talk intelligently about incorporating the teaching of writing or foreign languages into the teaching of literature.  (For students interviewing in foreign language departments, the committee may switch from English to another language so that you can demonstrate your language proficiency.)  If you can draw on your own concrete experiences and general awareness of institutional practices and discussions about pedagogy at your home institution, this will go over well as a sign that you have moved from novice to professional, and have reflected on such issues beyond their immediate relation to your own teaching assignments.  Most important: draw on the skills you have learned as a teacher. Have in your mind a brief list of things about yourself that you want to communicate, much as you go into a classroom intending to communicate key concepts during a discussion; work these into your remarks during the interview.  Be sure to answer the question asked and give yourself time to collect your thoughts, just as you give your students the time to collect theirs when you ask them a question.  Don’t rush into an answer if you’re not clear about the question asked—ask for clarification. Be sure to address your answers to all committee members and make eye contact.

Campus Interviews. Generally, if you are invited for an on-campus visit, you have already been interviewed by the school at MLA or remotely via phone/skype and are now one of only a few people who are still being considered for the position. Congratulations! Campus visits will probably take place in mid-January through the end of February, but sometimes still later into the spring as positions open up.  You will usually spend one to two days at an institution, give a job talk, perhaps teach a class, meet the faculty and key administrators in the department (heads of undergraduate and graduate studies, the Chair, Associate Chair, and so on), have meals with faculty and graduate students, and take a tour of the campus and town. 

You will have a chance to give a mock job talk at Michigan to prepare for your campus visit.  Use this as an opportunity to get advice from the audience about what is working and what still needs clarification.  In your talk, try to give a global picture of the dissertation and place your talk within that picture—this will give you a chance to show the larger scope and critical relevance of the dissertation and will open up avenues for questions later.  Moreover as many people in the room will not be specialists in your field, defining the larger issues will give them purchase on the specifics you will then introduce.  Along with dealing with critical or theoretical issues in the field, you want to show yourself as an interpreter at work: let your audience see how you take a text, artifact, or cultural phenomenon and transform it into a reading or an argument.  This will let auditors into your interpretive process.

Your job talk should be based on material that you have not already sent to the institution. Make sure that you present material you feel quite comfortable with, and that you stay within the time limit of presentation; if you are worried that your talk is too long, you will rush and make yourself difficult to understand.  As in the MLA interview, approach the Q&A period after your talk as an opportunity to show how you think on your feet, how you would respond to students’ questions, how well you listen, and how much you’ve thought about the implications of your work. 

8.5 Exploring career options

We encourage graduate students to keep in mind a range of career options beyond the traditional tenure-track position at research universities or four-year colleges, including positions in academic administration, language instruction, and writing programs in community colleges, secondary education, and international schools abroad. PhDs in Comparative Literature have gone on to pursue productive careers outside academia as well (e.g. in professional translation, editing, publishing, and grant-writing; positions in libraries, museums, and archives; working for non-profits, government organizations, and NGO’s; consulting in digital humanities and new media). Earning a Graduate Certificate may enhance your professional opportunities, and you can consult Rackham’s calendar to learn more about workshops and other events that provide information about professional development. 

8.6 Timeline for Jobseekers


·         By September 1, notify all faculty who will be writing letters of recommendation for you and be sure they have adequate time to read your materials.  Ask them to submit letters to Office of Career Planning and Placement (or Interfolio) by October 1 if at all possible.

·         Open your dossier at the Career Center or Interfolio.

·         Attend meetings for prospective jobseekers organized by the DGS, either individually or in a group.

·         Compose and assemble application materials; turn in to dissertation chair for comments; revise, then turn into DGS (and other committee members, if you wish) for comments. Revise again.

·         Have your writing sample ready to send out, if requested, to accompany your initial application.

·         Consult with the SSvC in Comp Lit if you need assistance with access to the MLA job list.  The DGS, faculty and the SSvC will share any job announcements they receive via email. You may also inquire about job lists or list-serves in related departments/disciplines where you might be applying for positions.


·         Check with Career Services or Interfolio to make sure your dossier is complete; contact faculty who have not filed their letters yet and remind them to do so.

·         When your dossier is complete, order it sent to all jobs for which you will be applying that request it.  Do this as soon as all your letters are in.

·         Send out your application materials as soon as they are complete and you have selected the jobs for which you will apply.  Deadlines will range from late October to early December.


·         Have a second writing sample ready to send upon request.

·         Check the November job list carefully for new listings and cancellations.

·         Make plans to attend MLA in early January.

·         Contact DGS to schedule a mock interview in early December.



·         Mock interviews will be conducted in the first two weeks for all job applicants.

·         Most universities will contact candidates between Thanksgiving and Christmas to schedule interviews.

·         Be sure to have regular access to email and telephone so that you can follow up on scheduling interviews.


·         Attend MLA for interviews.

·         Schedule a brownbag to present a practice job talk.

·         Be prepared to schedule on-campus visits from mid-January onward.