I’m about halfway through my MA/PhD program in English, and as a more senior graduate student, I’ve seen several of my fellow English PhD students find rewarding work outside of the academy. I recently participated in a “Try-It-Out” experience through the Grad College Career Development Office and the University of Illinois Press to learn more about academic publishing. This one-day program for graduate students was a way to explore a new career option through participating in the work and meeting with professionals.
My Try-It-Out Experience involved a brief orientation at the Graduate College’s Career Development Office and then a day at the University of Illinois Press that included three informational interviews, a short task, and a professional development lunch. During the orientation, we were asked to begin thinking about our goals and what questions we might ask during the interviews. My goals were pretty specific: I wanted to find out how my current editorial tasks (I work as the managing editor of a literary journal) fit into a university press, and I wanted to learn enough about the workings of the press to discover jobs I might not yet be aware of. Given the changing tenure-track job market for PhDs in the humanities, I have been keen to explore all of my options, and this experience seemed like the perfect opportunity.
The day of the Try-It-Out Experience was cold and drizzly, but the people I met at the press were anything but that. Julie Laut, Outreach & Development Acquisitions Assistant, greeted us warmly and gave us a quick tour of the quirky building—a converted warehouse just west of the soccer fields. Throughout the day, I learned about the editorial, acquisitions, and journals departments. The informational interviews were enjoyable and gave me a better idea of how the different departments work together to usher book and journal projects through the press.
The short task gave me tangible insight into acquisitions, the department I was least familiar with but also most interested in. I tried my hand at writing up a cover sheet (a short summary of a book project the press might acquire), which involved skimming through a manuscript and its accompanying reader reports to determine the project’s readiness for acceptance for publication. The task was interesting and intellectually rigorous, and aligned with work I have loved as a graduate student: I was exposed to new ideas and had to evaluate their importance by piecing together arguments and weighing those contributions against existing scholarship.
The University of Illinois Press in 1920, photo from the University of Illinois Archives.
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During my day at the press, my goals were met quite easily—everyone was happy to share their experiences and answer my many questions—but I also gained a sense of the work culture. The Illinois Press is infused with teamwork and collaboration, and a healthy work-life balance is encouraged (and possible!): employees aren’t expected to take work home, and generous vacation time allows them to travel.
Significant diversity issues currently characterize the academic publishing world, but it seems like that might be beginning to change. What is also changing, at least at Illinois, is the press’s relationship with the surrounding academic community: a new outreach program has already resulted in a symposium on publishing and internship collaborations like that of the Try-It-Out Experience.
As I walked home after my day at the press, I was buoyed by the discovery that careers in publishing seem to involve much of what I love about academia but in a more collaborative setting than I am used to: creative and critical thinking, and the transformation of ideas from individual thoughts to more public platforms. Going forward, I am more confident that I would find work at a university press enjoying and fulfilling, and for the short term, I’ll be following the Illinois Press’s exciting outreach work.
Sabrina Lee is a PhD student in English. Her research focuses on religion and magic in global modernist literature. Currently, she is the managing editor of American Literary History. She highly recommends pairing wine (any kind, no need to be picky!) with salt & vinegar chips.