Monday, January 13, 2014

Blog CLVIII (158): Success Stories (3)

In 2012 Matthew Casey became an assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi.  Before that he earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pittsburgh where he specialized in Latin American history.  He earned a BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He teaches courses on Latin American and Caribbean History. 

His research interests focus on the analysis of race, labor, and migration in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the larger Atlantic region.  He has had articles and chapter length essays appear in the following journals and anthologies: New West Indian Guide, Haiti and the Americas: Histories, Cultures, Imaginations, Labour: Journal of Canadian Labour Studies and Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State.  His article in New West Indian Guide was won the Andrés Ramos Mattei-Neville Hall Prize awarded by the Association of Caribbean Historians for the best article on Caribbean history in the previous two years.
His reviews have appeared in the Hispanic American Historical Review, Caribbean Studies, and Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal.  He has presented papers at the Haitian Studies Association, the Conference of the Canadian Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and at university organized conferences at the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Universidad de Costa Rica.

He is currently working on a book manuscript that traces the experiences of Haitians who circulated between their home country and eastern Cuba during the first four decades of the twentieth century.  Below is his contribution to the Success Stories series:

By the early and middle of the Spring 2011, it was clear that I would not be starting a tenure-track job for the following academic year. A phone interview, two planned American Historical Association (AHA) interviews and one conversation from an ad-hoc CV drop did not yield a campus visit. Meanwhile, applications for the late-posted 4-4 tenure track jobs and visiting positions were taking just enough time to throw off my dissertation-writing rhythm. Writing was even more difficult coming out of the stress of the job market and the anxieties surrounding the real possibility that I might have to find non-academic work. It bothered me so much to think about my research never seeing the light of day or my academic library becoming an albatross around my neck. My excitement about the publication of one of my dissertation chapters in a good journal was even muted. Two pieces of advice sustained me. First, a relative reminded me that “you will do something” after graduate school; just because it was difficult to imagine leaving the academy at the time, did not mean that I would cease to exist if I did. Later in the Spring, a close friend who was also writing a dissertation suggested that I take some time off in the summer. I used my sister’s out of town wedding as an opportunity to take two weeks entirely off even though I did not want to. The fact that these were the most important nuggets of wisdom should indicate how obsessive I had become. At some point in the late Spring, I received an offer from my graduate department to stay in the program for another year, teach a standalone course for a graduate student who received a research fellowship, and add one of the chapters to my dissertation that I had planned to delay in the event of an early defense.
I started the new school year more refreshed than I had ended the previous one. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that extra year of graduate school was more like a productive post-doc than anything else (though I still did not have the degree or even the slightly higher pay of a post-doctoral fellow). I wrote the additional chapter within a month and it required few revisions. I spent the rest of the year finishing up the dissertation introduction and cleaning up the overall document. That fall, perhaps as a result of the article, I was asked by a prominent journal to write an article-length, multi-book, review essay; I also had the opportunity to submit a book chapter for publication in an edited volume based on research that did not go into the thesis. By the time of the next year’s AHA, I had submitted a full version of the dissertation to my advisor and had added two lines to my CV. All of this helped me get interviews but not necessarily a job.
Only in hindsight did I realize that the last year of graduate school was not limited to improving the first impression that is a curriculum vitae. I was also working on an equally important “second impression”: professional development and scholarly maturity. At the most basic level, this came from teaching an additional semester and the bundle of knowledge, professionalism, expertise and confidence that comes from creating a new course. The act of sustained revision of the dissertation forced me to reflect on the broad implications of my work—not just on the historiography but for what it said about the larger history. At conferences, I asked veteran academics to provide feedback on my presentation style. It all sharpened my skills and improved my confidence. 
The following year, I had a stronger CV and was demonstrably closer to my Ph.D. defense but received fewer initial interviews. Such is the job market. But this time, I interviewed stronger and secured two invitations for campus visits. By the middle of the Spring 2012, I had accepted a tenure-track job at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I currently teach. I am proud of my accomplishment but I know that there is always an element of luck and the unpredictable in the job market. One thing that I have learned from the experience is how many highly intelligent Ph.D. holders are underemployed in the academy or have left it entirely to find work in a different field. At the risk of sounding maudlin, I hope to offer some solidarity and sympathy to job seekers from someone who knows what it is like to leave the market empty-handed. Perhaps, my story will also provide a bit of optimism from someone who did manage to secure a good position. My advice: work on your professional development as much as your CV and do not let your position dictate your self-worth.

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