This month we’ve been looking at opportunities that our grad students at Queen’s can access to help improve their skills to get them ready for their careers. We’re going to finish this month by talking to a Queen’s alumna –and former chief editor of Gradifying – Dr. Sharday Mosurinjohn. Dr. Mosurinjohn has been focused on a career in academia from the start, and she has crossed the desk in a couple very swift bounds to the leather chair and is now hot on the tenure trail as an Assistant Professor in the School of Religious Studies at Queen’s. I say ‘swift’ because she completed her PhD and immediately started a post-doctoral fellowship, and then got her appointment as Assistant Professor one year later. I figure, if there’s anyone who might have ideas for current grad students interested in a career in academia, she might. Let’s find out…
Dustin Washburn: Hi Dr. Mosurinjohn. May I call you Dr. M?
Dr. Mosurinjohn: That’s my bond villain name, and I prefer it. It was given to me by Jeremy Walsh, former Gradifying writer and all around great guy.
DW: Excellent. And I couldn’t agree more about Jeremy. Dr. M, you were successful not only in getting the coveted tenure track position, but you did it in very short order. I’m certain there were a variety of factors that conspired to make this happen for you, both things in your control and others out of your control. What do you think helped you to be a strong candidate?
SM: One of the major things was continually asking myself that question of “What will make me a strong candidate”, and posing it as well to everyone who would listen. I really took advantage of getting to know a lot of people. Through being involved in a number of different activities, committees, and associations across campus over the years, I got to know a number of people in various positions. And I always asked the question, “When you are on a hiring committee, what matters the most to you? What sets a strong applicant apart from the rest? There are so many parts to an application and an interview, what really matters to you when it comes to discussing the candidates with your colleagues around the table?”
DW: So, you were very proactive about gathering information, and you did that by going directly to colleagues who had been actually in the position of evaluating candidates.
SM: Yes. And it was their tremendous generosity that allowed me to do so.
DW: I can imagine that some grad students might worry that it is an imposition to ask faculty members for their advice on how to successfully follow the path into an academic career. Did you find this, and what are your views on this now that you are a faculty member yourself?
SM: Great question.
DW: Thank you. Please, continue.
SM: As one wise friend and mentor put it, we’ve been the beneficiaries of other people’s time and expertise, and now we have the best job in the world. It’s the least we can do. I don’t think that they were suggesting that they have endless time to give, because faculty time is increasingly under tremendous pressure. But when there are people sincerely interested in taking the path that you have taken it behooves you to give back, and for me I want to endeavour to never forget what it feels like to be on the brink of graduation and not know if I’ll take to do the thing that I love the most and that I trained for all these years.
DW: What are some of the most valuable pieces of advice they gave you? I guess more specifically, what are some of the practical experiences that you sought out?
SM: It was a matter of taking and making opportunities in the 3 areas that hiring committees are evaluating you on:
(3) Service, in that order.
In terms of research, I wanted to demonstrate that I was collaborative and I engaged with colleagues in my field, so I hosted a conference. Additionally, I joined an international network and volunteered to perform some editorial activities for them. Another I routinely did was, when I got interested in a scholars work, I’d often email them directly to ask them questions about it, strike up a conversation. In terms of finishing my degree promptly, I availed myself of Dissertation Bootcamp.
Some practical experiences that were teaching related include SGS 901, Teaching and Learning in Higher Education; the Certificate in Teaching and Learning offered by the SGS – so that I could demonstrate that I take a scholarly approach to the classroom component. Also, I wanted to convince a hiring committee that I could supervise graduate students, so I took a workshop through the Centre of Teaching and Learning (CTL) ‘Getting the Most of Your Grad Students’. I agreed to supervise a fourth-year student in a Directed Readings type course, so I had actual experience supervising.
One other experience that was useful was doing a mock interview. It was offered through the SGS, and one of the things I got to learn about was the level of specificity and novelty that other candidates would include in their answers. Basically, I wanted to get a sense of ‘what is enough’ to make a compelling case as a candidate. It was a good cautionary experience; because one of the comments I received afterward was that I didn’t answer their question. So, it was a good opportunity to learn how to listen carefully under stress.
DW: What do you wish you had done in terms of practical experience that would have prepared you better?
SM: If I had gotten more involved in professional association activities to learn more about how they worked, that would have filled a gap in my development. But I think the most important thing that I wish I had then was a perspective change. It’s the Goldfish Principle – our tasks grow to the size of their tank. For me, my biggest concern was research and I thought that because it’s the biggest thing, then every article, or my dissertation needed more time than I had. As a result, I had the perspective that if I could write something quickly then it wasn’t good enough. But I now see that after a certain point the quality of a research project is not necessarily proportional to the amount of time spent on it.
DW: Last question Dr. M. Is there anything you miss about being a student or a postdoc?
SM: Mentorship. Look at campus – and not just campus, but maybe your professional associations and all kinds of other sites – as a smorgasbord of opportunities. When you’re a student and in a training role, the responsibility of all of the services available at the university is to develop your skills, talent, and potential. It’s incredible. It’s like a spa for your mind. There are so many resources waiting to be tapped. It doesn’t stop when you’re on the other side, but you can’t take for granted that there will be someone dedicated to your development.
I think it’s a special opportunity speak with anyone who has been successful along the path we wish to take, and there are different advantages to speaking to someone who has been in the field for a long time and to someone who is at the beginning. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Mosurinjohn for her time. She is now in her career and sailing, but still so close to shore that she remembers what it’s like to be landlocked, and the steps she took to get her sea legs. If you have any questions for Dr. Mosurinjohn, please feel free to write it in the comments below and I will be sure to bounce a response back.