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September 6, 2013 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Conceptualizing the Second Project

One of the challenges that academic job seekers confront is conceptualizing a second project to engage in after the completion of their dissertations. Some brief description of a second project is always part of job letters, but it’s even more important in conversation with potential colleagues during interviews. Broadly, it seems like they can be reduced to pragmatic and ideal projects. But, in either case, they need to convince your potential colleagues of your intellectual (and work) trajectory.

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Pragmatic projects directly stem from dissertation projects, and consist of work that develops a dissertation project into a marketable book project. Basically, this kind of project is described in terms that convince readers that you have a sense of what it will take for you to get tenure at their institution; it might mean returning to your original fieldsite, some comparative fieldsite (either locally or abroad), or some other kind of research (archival, textual, etc.). I don’t think it’s an admission of inadequacy to suggest that your dissertation project needs more work to be publishable as a book — everyone’s dissertation needs work to be a book. Instead, it makes it apparent to your reader that you know that there’s still work to be done, and that you know what needs to be attended to.

Ideal projects, on the other hand, are the sequels to dissertation projects. Whatever you feel about your dissertation, your ideal second project should build upon it in some fashion and convince your reader that you have some kind of intellectual commitment. At the time I was sending out my first job applications, I was pretty convinced that my second project was going to be about the idea of ‘public health’ as it touched down in postcolonial India and China, especially around ideas about breathing. Because my dissertation was so rooted in the U.S., I really felt the need to work internationally; I also wanted to work on the transmission of particular ideas about the body outside of the U.S. And, most importantly, I wanted to continue working on everyday biology. I abandoned this project as a second project (traipsing to India and China, and developing research partnerships in both places, was too much to ask of myself pre-tenure), but I’ll get around to it eventually… But what it indexed to my readers was my interest in everyday biology and how it gets caught up in medical and scientific thought and practice — it showed my readers that I had a ‘research agenda.’ And that seems to be key in thinking through a second project: what are you planning on working on — in your research, in your teaching — for the next decade, if not your entire career? If you can index it by pairing your current and future projects, it will give your readers and interviewers a clear sense that you have a plan and know what you’re about. Even if there are some bumps in the road.

There are a couple other things to consider as you think about second projects. None of this needs to be covered in a job letter or during an interview, but it is worth keeping in mind as your career develops.

It’s not a contract between you and your potential employer. That is, if you’re hired by an academic institution, you don’t have to produce the second project you said you would. Things come up, both in life and through writing and teaching, and what seemed like a good second project when you were finishing your dissertation may not be quite so compelling a few years later. And, realistically, if you spend time applying for funding for your second project, and no one is coming through with funding, it might be worth abandoning for something more fundable.

Be realistic. Starting a new academic job (tenure track or not) comes with a lot of work commitments — faculty meetings, meetings with students, service, publishing, new course preps, etc. — and having the time to develop and carry out a robust second project can be slight. This can be seen with a lot of more senior academics, who often develop local or historical projects. It can be worth looking around a potential employer to see what, if any, resources or sites might exist that could provide fertile ground for developing a new project.

Other thoughts, experiences or questions? Post them in the comments.

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