By Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk
When I introduce myself to my undergraduate students or to prospective employers I say, “Hi my name is Tamala Malerk, and I am Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of South Florida. What that means is that the only thing standing between me and that fancy title is the completion of my dissertation.” I am officially ABD (all but dissertation). It has been just over a year since I have completed my coursework, passed my language tests and comprehensive exams, and here are some insights about making that transition from “student” to “candidate.” Keep in mind that I am just one Ph.D. Candidate at one school with my own biases, so while I’ll try to keep it as broad as possible, your Candidacy experience may vary.
Shifting from “TA” to just “T”
One of the most glaring transitions is that once you are a candidate, you are now considered an expert in your major and minor fields and are now qualified to teach. My own fields of expertise are British Imperial, Modern Europe, Women and Gender, and Public History. This has “qualified” me to instruct Global History Since 1750. However, I am also aware of the fact that I am also one of the few Candidates in my department that doesn’t solely focus on US History. So in reality, they all just get assigned the more popular lower-level US History courses and that leaves me as one of the few available for Global History. I have had my own course since Fall 2020 and that has come with some major changes. One option when I was a teaching assistant was to say “This is above my paygrade.” When I was assisting with courses, I could hand over the more difficult to grade assignments or miss a class here and there. Now it’s all me and very little is “above my paygrade.” But it also means I have autonomy over my class. While my class follows the USF guidelines for the course, it is ultimately MY class. I choose what is included, what gets graded, how it’s graded, how to communicate with students…etc. And, if I taught an upper-level course, rather than a Gen-Ed course, I would have even more autonomy and power, as I have seen with other Candidates in my department who have even gotten to help create and build specialized upper-level courses.
Shifting from TA to T(he) Everything
You wear a lot of “hats” as a candidate. You have to research, write, teach, “publish or perish,” present at conferences, and most importantly, network. I am in a four-year program for my Ph.D. and currently at the tail-end of year three. The humanities are a competitive field as far as jobs go and this is the time to make connections. This has been especially difficult in the last year when many conferences have been cancelled or gone virtual. However, not all is lost. I’ve connected with people virtually not only through conferences but also through my network of mentors and committee members. With that said…
You’re Not Alone
A lot of people think that candidacy means you slip into this empty void of research and writing only to emerge for department-sponsored pizza parties (which in the last year haven’t existed due to Covid). I’ve actually found that since becoming a candidate, I am closer to my committee members and that they view me as more of a peer rather than a student. And I still come to them with questions and concerns, but it has become more of an exchange of ideas when I talk to my committee and mentors rather than a student/teacher thing.
Okay… You’re Alone
I mean the “void” theory didn’t come out of nowhere (pun intended). Candidacy is a lot of time spent with books, archives, journal articles, and your computer and not much else. There is no “due date” to keep you on track and the key phrase here is “intrinsic motivation.” You have to find it in you to write. Your advisor can request draft dates, but it is ultimately up to you to get it all done. I’ve found that sending my dissertation committee three emails a semester (beginning, middle, and end) with a projected timetable and short explanation of what got done and what is getting done helps to keep me in check.
And Finally…The Perks
Let’s end on a high note. The perks are AWESOME. Since I became a candidate, so many opportunities have opened up for me. Last summer, I was paid to participate in a professional development hosted by University of Pittsburgh because I teach world history. Companies have sent me free textbooks because of my position because now I say what is used for my class. I have been solicited for book reviews. I have chaired panels for conferences with my newly gained “expertise.” I have more job opportunities open to me now. Local community colleges have reached out to me to offer me adjunct positions. Many professor positions are open to graduates but will also accept ABDs. I have looked at plenty of jobs on the H-Net Job Board, Inside Higher-Ed, and Indeed, that will accept ABDs assuming that the degree is completed in a certain time frame or other stipulations.
Transitioning from Ph.D. student to candidate came with a lot of changes. Yet, change isn’t necessarily bad. If you are about to make that transition yourself, remember, the only thing between you and that fancy title will be completing your dissertation.
Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of South Florida. Her focuses include British Imperialism, Modern Europe, Public History, and Women and Gender. Her dissertation is about a British Gandhian disciple and still does not have a catchy title. In her spare time, she does freelance content writing for websites and, now, humanities blogs. Find her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tamala-malerk-m-a-5749b999/