Entrepreneurship, or Selling Yourself to Academia

In an interesting article published on the Chronicle of Higher Education web site, Sarah Ruth Jacobs writes that graduate students who aim for an academic career need to sell themselves. And the way to do it, according to the article, is to reach outside of the traditional box – and be entrepreneurial. Jacobs refers to anecdotal evidence showing how her peers secured tenure track positions because of their skills outside of their discipline. Such skills as “experience in instructional technology” or having developed an online tool.

The point made in the article is that graduate students need to sell themselves better – and the way to do it is to engage in unorthodox (or at least non-traditional) activities to gain experience. Successes in traditional academic job candidate preparing work – to “present at conferences, network with others in your field, be active in your department, work with someone of great renown, submit papers for publication, apply for fellowships” – simply doesn’t cut it. Jacobs terms stepping out of this box “entrepreneurship.”

As someone who is currently on the job market – indeed, with such qualities (technology expertise, multilingual, non-academic work experience) that should distinguish me from the crowd – I think the article goes a little too far. The point that appears implicitly in the article is well taken – of course one has to sell oneself, especially securing additional qualities/skills, in order to get a tenure track position. But an alternative interpretation, which to me seems equally plausible judging from how the article is written, could be that what matters are those non-traditional qualities.

Even for graduate students (who, I believe, could often do much more than they actually end up doing), time is costly – there are trade-offs. So if the choice is to try to secure a journal publication or to develop a Facebook or iPhone app, then Jacobs seems to go the wrong way. I don’t see any search committee picking a candidate without the required academic credentials and qualities.

However, as the academic job market becomes increasingly competitive (and boy is it tough!) it is important to have those additional qualities. But only if one is already level with the competition. For instance, my skills in computer programming, web development, and international experience could very well come in handy – or even get me a job. But only if I have already presented at many conferences, taught university level courses, and have several publications! Had I not published, presented, and taught – then my non-academic skills would get me nowhere. In fact, I am sure search committees would pick any candidate with traditional academic experience before my mastery of computers.

But this does not mean graduate students should avoid being entrepreneurial. Jacobs’s point is well taken, but needs elaboration. In my experience, graduate students often spend too much time on stuff that don’t count; and they tend to often complain that “there is no time” (but don’t graduate students have as much time as everybody else?). This is where and why innovative graduate students excel: they produce what everybody else produces, yet find ways to produce that extra paper - and find time to develop additional qualities. This is not only a matter of time management, but rather: it is better judgment, better priorities, better choices – entrepreneurship.

So yes, graduate students need to be entrepreneurs to become great candidates on the job market and secure those beautiful tenure track positions. But it is not about wasting valuable time on developing strange online tools in hope that someone will notice it (them?) – even though it may work for some. It is about acting wisely under everyday and long-term uncertainty, and exercising superior judgment about what ought to be done – and when and how. (Whether I have been sufficiently entrepreneurial remains to be seen…)

Graduate school doesn’t have to be this way:

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