Advice from the Least Likely to Succeed

photo of Philip Nel, taken during his first year of graduate school (1992-1993)When I was a graduate student, I would have voted myself Least Likely to Succeed in Academe. I published nothing while in graduate school. I worked hard on my seminar papers, but none would work as an article – so, I didn’t send them out. I didn’t figure out how to write publishable literary criticism until I was working on the dissertation. For these (and other) reasons, I spent my first three post-Ph.D. years as an adjunct professor.1

So, 19 years after beginning graduate school here, it’s both gratifying and astonishing to be back at Vanderbilt as an invited speaker.  I’m both flattered and a little flustered.  I’m honored to be here and secretly surprised to be here.

In addition to talking a bit about our research (Karin on Harry Potter, me on Seuss), we’re also offering some reflections on our success in academe – professional advice, of a sort – to the current graduate students.  For the record, as a graduate student, I would also have voted myself Least Likely to Be in a Position to Offer Professional Advice.  When I look back on it, I’m mildly surprised that I made it to the Ph.D.

The title of our talk – “Accidental Experts: Strategy, Serendipity, and the Places You’ll Go!” – expresses quite succinctly the combination of chance and forethought, luck and pluck, accident and planning that has made my career possible. A failed book proposal ended up yielding two successful (different) books. Writing a chapter on Dr. Seuss in a dissertation that was not about children’s literature led to a career as a scholar of children’s literature.  Creating a website devoted to an author whose work I admired led to me to write a biography (due next fall!).2

If I could offer one piece of advice to current graduate students (in addition to the advice I’ve already offered), it would be this. If you’re serious about academe, if you really want to pursue this, then give it your best shot. It won’t be easy, it will at times be frustrating, and spare time will be hard to find.  But all careers are challenging. (That’s why they’re called careers, and not merely jobs.) To be able to do work from which you derive meaning, and to get paid for doing that work… is a real gift.  You’re unlikely ever to join the 1%, but you’ll be doing something worthwhile.  And that’s a good feeling.

Thanks to Vanderbilt’s Department of English for my doctoral education, and for inviting us both back here.  If you’ll be in Nashville, the talk is tomorrow (Friday) at 2:10 pm in Vanderbilt’s Buttrick Hall, room 309.

  1. Footnote for any non-academic reading this.  Adjunct professors receive low pay, and (usually) no benefits, no health insurance.  They’re not on the tenure-track and are unlikely to get on the tenure-track at the institution where they work.  Indeed, they typically are not guaranteed employment from semester to semester: if there are classes that lack instructors, they’re hired; otherwise, they’re out of luck.  Given that, each year, the academy produces five times as many Ph.D.s in English as there are jobs in English, adjuncts are all too abundant a resource.
  2. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, due in Fall 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi.

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