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Alumni Interviews Winter 2021

MAPH and Ph.D. Alum Pao-chen Tang on Networking and the Job Market during COVID-19

By Amy Skjerseth / CMS PhD Candidate

Pao-chen Tang, a film scholar with a focus in East Asia and media environmental studies, can attest to what it’s like to start an academic job during a pandemic. This fall, he began a position as Lecturer (equiv. Assistant Professor) in Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. Having completed a semester of advising and teaching the program’s 60-70 incoming majors, Tang reflects on his time in CMS as both a MAPH and a Ph.D. student. First and foremost, he encourages incoming MAPH students to ask to meet with potential advisors even before classes begin. “Check online to see if professors have offered courses relevant to your interests and ask to meet to discuss them,” Tang says, and suggests that MA students get to know Ph.D. students too. “It’s intimidating, but still it’s an effort one should make. And when reaching out to both faculty and Ph.D. students, you should start with your work.” 

Tang’s advice to “network with your work” applies just as readily to current Ph.D. students and faculty job applicants. Beyond networking at conferences, Tang says to prioritize submitting work to workshops outside of UChicago and to “attend UChicago workshops and dissertation defenses religiously and rigorously—where else do you start networking than with your own senior students and the faculty who attend those workshops?” At UChicago, Tang also worked with two writing groups, one devoted to animal studies and one to Chinese studies. “All of us were from different departments but came together on shared issues, or as friends who wanted to read each other’s work. We’d write 5-10 pages every week and meet to discuss them. With readers from different disciplines, you learn what you take for granted in your field and how to write for a general humanities audience.” 

Outside of UChicago, Tang attended workshops at Domitor and UC Davis, where he was able to workshop an entire dissertation chapter. He encourages Ph.D. students to check CFPs weekly for such events. “Also check for student essay awards, which often lead to publications. Sometimes if I knew a deadline was coming and I was writing a seminar paper, I’d cater it very specifically into an award submission.” Another way to network is to send an article to a managing editor who is a scholar you want to know, even if the journal isn’t top in your field. “It’s tough to reach out to renowned scholars at conferences; what better way to introduce them to your work than sending in a paper to their journal?” After doing so, the next year at SCMS he sat next to one of the journal’s editors, who was thrilled to finally meet him in person. Tang’s advice is vital during a time without in-person conferences; networking with your research and publications can be done virtually, and this gives you something to talk about once you meet in person.   

On the job market, Tang suggests that applicants cast a wide net beyond major North American universities: other cities in the world may have opportunities even during COVID-19. Tang encourages applicants to submit to every single position you’re willing to accept if given the job, even if the start date doesn’t align with your timeline. Tang experienced this firsthand when he got the job at Manchester in November; the post was supposed to start in January, but the department was willing to be flexible while he completed his dissertation. And this all happened quickly: the morning after his interview, he was emailed about his offer—while still at the airport waiting to return to Chicago! 

Tang talked about the details of his interview day, when he was invited to join the other finalists on campus to give a 15-minute research presentation (in lieu of a job talk) and a 15-minute teaching demo. After lunch with department personnel, he had a 1.5-hour interview, which began with why he wanted to move to the UK and teach at a British university. Tang provided a firsthand account: “Last summer, I did a fellowship at the University of East Anglia, and we toured around London and Cambridge and visited quite a few institutions. I had a chance to talk to British Ph.D. students and faculty members about what the UK Ph.D. system is like, such as teaching loads, promotions, and the Research Excellence Framework.” When asked how his research fit into the evaluative system for faculty to publish certain numbers of articles in a given time, he mentioned a forthcoming article that would come out within this cycle. “You need to show that you know the system and are ready to jump in, and ready to publish according to their timeline.” His writing sample also gave the committee a good grasp of his research, since it was a published journal article that came from his dissertation. “It’s one standalone piece, even though it’s from a large project, and people understand what you’re doing immediately.” The rest of the interview focused on teaching, where Tang discussed his UChicago courses and his Chicago Center for Teaching College Teaching Certificate, which he recommends that all doctoral students earn. Tang also advises CMS Ph.D. students to aim to be course assistants for each survey and required course in order to prepare one’s own syllabi, clips, and PowerPoints. “And I realized retrospectively that it was quite useful to CA for the same professor multiple times. While he wasn’t on my committee, Takuya Tsunoda wrote an open letter about my teaching in multiple courses that I put in my teaching portfolio.” 

This fall semester, Tang taught “Visual Cultures in China and East Asia,” a survey course with a broad framework that he turned into a class on mainly Chinese post-1980s cinema. This semester, he’s teaching “Modern Chinese Literature and Cinema,” a 1900-1960 survey. He is also team-teaching “Introduction to Chinese Studies” with two colleagues who will cover history, religion, sociology, and anthropology from the beginning of the year up to the first half of the second semester. “I’m covering the media component in the second semester, but all three of us were at a remote session in Week 1 to introduce ourselves and host office hours to meet students who seek senior thesis supervisors,” he explains. When asked in his interview if he’d had team-taught before, he related his experience of standing on the Logan Center stage in front of Film and the Moving Image students with Tsunoda, who would lecture before Tang facilitated discussion. He suggests that CMS Ph.D. students who teach Intro and FMI sections could prepare for future experiences of team teaching by inviting each other to guest lecture. 

During the fall lockdown in the UK, Tang and some colleagues from UChicago and elsewhere formed a discussion group devoted to ‘70s Chinese Cultural Revolution films. Every other week, the group watched a designated film on their own and then met to talk about it. “It’s been enlightening to be able to think about these complex and highly politicized films with a group of scholars of Chinese cinema and culture,” Tang says. “And it’s also just lovely to see and stay in touch with so many friends.” He also recently purchased a holiday gift for himself—his first VR set. “I’ve used it primarily for exercising: playing virtual ping pong; hitting (and more often getting hit by) the AI in the boxing ring. Virtual ping pong feels surprisingly ‘authentic,’ but there seems to be a ceiling as to how spinny the ball can be. I guess it’s because the VR controllers aren’t as sensitive as hands, after all.” Apart from the virtual world, Tang also offered the pandemic entertainment suggestion of reading the written work of Lee Chang-dong, the director of Burning. “I don’t read Korean, so I didn’t know his literary work, but I found a simplified Chinese version of his short story collection—incidentally published by Wuhan University Press.” 

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