From a Postdoc at Smith to the Tenure Track at Vassar

May 25, 2023

Alumna China Sajadian, who studies refugee farmworkers in the Middle East, shares what helped her manage the faculty job search.

China Sajadian
China Sajadian (Ph.D. ’22, Anthropology) (Photo credit: Jackson Allers)

Last October, China Sajadian (Ph.D. ’22, Anthropology) sent out a few applications for faculty roles, and in mid-December two schools offered her jobs, to her delight and surprise. She chose Vassar College and will start as an assistant professor there later this year.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Anthropology

“It took a while for the news to really sink in,” she said about receiving the offers.

For her, preparation was key. She had, for example, already prepared a job talk, which helped her land her current position as the Eveillard Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Smith College. “Otherwise, I am not sure how I could have managed all the travel and preparation alongside my other obligations,” she said.

Sajadian recently spoke to us about her experience on the academic job market and her other goal: turning her dissertation into a book. She shared advice about both.

The Graduate Center: What do you think helped you stand out in applying for faculty positions?

Sajadian: Small liberal arts colleges often seek out scholars who have experience within these institutions. My B.A. is from Smith College, and I am now a postdoc there, so I was able to demonstrate a clear commitment to serving the specific needs of liberal arts college students and faculty. Having taught for three years at Brooklyn College, I also had valuable experience mentoring BIPOC students, low-income and first-generation students, and multilingual students.

Something that came up in many of my interviews was my track record of securing external grants and fellowships, including a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant and a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship. Beyond adding some important lines to my CV, these different grants gave me the time I needed to do long-term, immersive research. I was lucky to have had nearly two years of uninterrupted time for fieldwork followed by two years dedicated exclusively to writing. This led to publications and several paper prizes that undoubtedly strengthened my application. I would not be where I am now without that vital gift of time and financial support.

GC: Why did you choose Vassar?

Sajadian: It was a tough decision involving many considerations, as both places were a great fit for me for different reasons. I was attracted to Vassar’s collaborative and close-knit environment and the freedom to develop courses on topics directly relevant to my interests as an anthropologist. For example, this fall, I will be teaching an advanced seminar on the anthropology of displacement, which builds upon the experimental pilot course I developed as a postdoc at Smith.

I also appreciated that the job was specifically designed for a scholar doing theoretically informed, politically engaged research. This conveyed something important to me about Vassar as an institution and my colleagues in particular, many of whom share my commitments to public-facing scholarship. I am especially looking forward to getting involved with the Vassar Consortium on Forced Migration, which brings together scholars and students from various campuses across the northeast to develop research, pedagogies, and community initiatives in support of refugees.

GC: How are you progressing with turning your dissertation into a book?

Sajadian: My manuscript, Debts of Displacement, focuses on the predicaments of Syrian refugees who have long-standing ties to Lebanon as seasonal migrant farmworkers. I analyze why and how countless numbers of these farmworkers have gone into debt as refugees throughout the ongoing Syrian conflict. By tracing the everyday, systemic, and historical conditions of their indebtedness from an agrarian perspective, the book rethinks the distinction between “involuntary” refugees and “voluntary” labor migrants, as well as the idea of a refugee crisis itself.

The major task of my revisions has been to reformulate the book around a more explicitly feminist understanding of debt, labor, and agrarian life. I have also revised the manuscript to account for many dramatic changes in Lebanon’s economy that unfolded after I completed my fieldwork in December 2019, particularly the devaluation of its currency. Through the lens of Syrian farmworkers’ debts, my goal is ultimately to provide a window onto the many links between mass displacement, mass indebtedness, crises of reproduction, and uneven development, in the Middle East and globally.

I also read a few excellent books on the dissertation-to-book process that helped me understand academic editors’ expectations and develop a solid plan for revisions. I highly recommend Portwood-Stacer’s The Book Proposal Book, Germano’s On Dissertation to Book, and Germano’s On Revision.

Alongside this work, I recently published two articles: “Rethinking Climate Refugees and the Syrian Refugee Crisis: An Agrarian Perspective of Displacement” and “The Drowned and the Displaced: Afterlives of Agrarian Developmentalism Across the Lebanese-Syrian Border.”

GC: What advice do you have for students who are interested in faculty positions?

Sajadian: Make sure to have a solid draft job talk prepared as soon as you start applying, because sometimes you have only a couple of weeks, or even days, to put it together, and you never know what state you’ll be in when you get called for a campus visit. I got sick with a series of awful colds that lingered through much of the application season. I had already drafted a job talk months earlier, which saved me from the duress of writing one from scratch at a difficult moment.

Research the departments and institutions to which you are applying at each stage of the process. Look closely at the job description, the faculty’s research backgrounds, and the department’s course offerings, and give yourself a moment to imagine yourself as a professor there. Your cover letter should ideally not sound like a boilerplate; it should be closely tailored to the position. If you are invited for a campus visit, take the time to read about each person you will meet. Come prepared to ask some thoughtful questions about your colleagues’ research, the school, and the students. Read the school’s strategic plan before you meet with deans and ask about research initiatives or committees that interest you. Putting in this kind of effort conveys a sense of collegiality, care for the institution, and seriousness about the job. And in my experience, it makes for richer, flowing conversations, which definitely helps mitigate nervousness!

And, most importantly, ask for help and offer it to others. The academic job market can be a stressful and uncertain journey, but it need not be lonely. Before you go on the job market, try to attend your colleagues’ mock job talks so you can learn about the genre. Reach out to friends who have been through the job market before and see if they have any tips. And remember to pay it forward and do the same for others whenever possible.

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