"Consider Your Colleagues Your Mentors, Not Your Competition": Allison Guess on Completing Her Dissertation During the Pandemic and Landing a Tenure-Track Position at Williams

May 19, 2021

I hope to inspire more inquiry on the early Black Atlantic through my teaching, mentoring, and research, says Class of 2021 graduate Allison Guess.

Allison Guess (Photo courtesy of Guess)
Allison Guess (Photo courtesy of Guess)

In just a few months, Allison Guess (Ph.D. '21, Earth and Environmental Sciences) will start a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. Guess, who is also a research fellow at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute, faced entering the academic job market during a singularly challenging time, yet wound up with several offers related to her interdisciplinary research on Black life and land in the Caribbean. 

Guess recently spoke to The Graduate Center about the importance of building strong connections with her fellow students and what she hopes to accomplish in the next stage of her career.

The Graduate Center: What do you plan to work on as you start your new role at Williams?

Guess: I was hired as an assistant professor in Africana Studies at Williams College, specifically because of my focus on the Caribbean. I study Black land, life, and liberation on the island of Hispaniola (currently the Dominican Republic and Haiti) during the earliest years of European settlement and extraction of the island. I look at Black-led responses to attempts of European conquest and in particular, I center my investigations on the 1521 Christmas Rebellion ―what led up to the rebellion, the history of other acts of resistance that predate it, and also the effect that it had and continues to have.

At Williams I hope to further amplify this early history of resistance led by people of African descent in the Americas. The quincentennial of the 1521 Christmas Rebellion will be here in a several months, so I am preparing to play a role in its commemorations, much of which is being spearheaded by my colleagues at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute and our larger community and network.

In the future, I hope to inspire more inquiry on the early Black Atlantic through my teaching, mentoring, and research. I plan to revise my dissertation and develop it into a book. Someday soon, I'd also like to take some playwright classes so that I can write a two-woman play based on some of the insights that I have gained through the study of Black resistance in this early era. Ultimately, I hope to help develop a K-12 curriculum that would be grounded in Black stories of liberation in the early Atlantic. I'm looking forward to some of the work that is being done in critical Black and Indigenous-led land justice and food sovereignty organizations around the world.

What was your experience on the job market like? Did you consider other tenure-track positions, or other types of positions?

Guess: Well, I should say that I did not anticipate going on the job market last year. When the 2020 pandemic hit and we were advised to shelter in place, many of us considered what would become of the economy (which was already in crisis). I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. So, when the pandemic took center stage, I realized that this would be the second time in my academic life that I would be graduating from a degree program in the midst of a crippling economic crisis and/or its grueling aftermath.

That said, a lot of us could already see how so many more crises would be exacerbated by the onset, and eventually the ongoing implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. As someone focused on writing and completing my dissertation, I could not imagine what this compounded crisis would do to an already underfunded higher education system. Neither could I imagine what the accompanying cutthroat academic job market (which was a pre-existing condition within the larger U.S. higher education system) would be like.

At that time, in March 2020, I think I only had one chapter of my dissertation written. I had also recently found out that I had earned a CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Mellon-funded, Inter-University Program for Latino Research [IUPLR-CUNY DSI Program] Dissertation Fellowship a month or so prior. I did not know what I was going to do, as it related to the future of any employment, but in the short-term, I knew that for me, either way, 2020 was going to be a year that I would be blessed enough to sit down and focus on my writing. In other words, I was prepared to shelter myself in place — regardless of the pandemic — because I had already earned a prestigious dissertation completion fellowship. 

In the summer of 2020 ― amidst all of the fierce Black, Indigenous, and working-class, led rebellions stemming from the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and tensions surrounding the larger pandemic ― I had to ask myself if there was really a possibility of not only getting a job, but even living and completing my dissertation. Announcements for academic jobs that I could apply to were far and few between. I considered other jobs outside of the academy ― for example, I thought about teaching high school students, writing a novel, and starting my own communications training organization ― but all sectors of the economy were in crisis. I kept my options open and I applied to academic jobs when they eventually did come out in related fields and disciplines.

I worked with a trusted group of mentors and my close sister-colleagues. We shared job postings that were relevant to one another, we shared the knowledge that we were gaining, we helped each other practice and prepare by conducting mock job interviews amongst ourselves, and we gave each other critical and honest feedback and advice. I applied a lot of academic jobs  ― over 30  ― in and outside of the U.S. Anything that was related to what I was doing (my research is very interdisciplinary), I applied to. I ended up getting several interviews and quite a few job offers.

GC: What advice do you have for students who are about to start or who are in the early years of a Ph.D. program?

Guess: There are a lot of things that I wish I had known about obtaining a Ph.D. as a working-class Black woman community scholar. My advice would be to find fierce mentors and a supportive community, whether it's inside or outside of the formal academy. It is only in community that we are able to do this kind of work. Find many mentors ― of all kinds ― who are committed to centering your journey, process, and experience. Find mentors who demystify all of the new and never-before-seen challenges that you will be confronted with.

Realize that sometimes your most ardent mentors will sometimes be people that maybe you did not expect. Consider your colleagues your mentors, not your competition. Lift up those around you and share information that can help people. Be invested in other peoples' success just as much as you are invested in your own. Be strategic, wise, and discerning at all times. Sometimes you will have to do things differently than what you anticipated. You will need to be both open to change, and also, steadfast. I would say that you need to genuinely know who you are, where you come from, and how you come to this place before doing a Ph.D.

GC: What did you find most valuable about your experience at The Graduate Center?

Guess: I have been very blessed by working with various people, programs, institutes, and centers in the CUNY system, including Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Earth and Environmental Sciences), my primary dissertation adviser for five years, and Professor Monica Varsanyi (GC/John Jay, Earth and Environmental Sciences/Criminal Justice), who guided me through my second and third exam and also chaired my dissertation. The CUNY Dominican Studies Institute and its director, Professor Ramona Hernandez (GC/City College, Sociology), ardently supported me and my research, as did my IUPLR-CUNY DSI mentor Professor Lissette Acosta Corniel (BMCC, Race and Ethnic Studies), The Futures Initiative, and IRADAC. I am grateful to the many faculty and staff members in my program and throughout The Graduate Center and CUNY who supported me with smiling faces and words of encouragement over the years.