PFF Fellows Series: Samanthis Smalls

 April 30, 2014

As a graduate student, it is rather difficult to ignore the issues that trouble my colleagues, particularly the dreaded job market. I found that as I got closer to the glorious PhD, the anxious whispers of others became the deafening roars of my own inner voice and I wondered, “Will I get a job?” Then my mind hit me with a shockingly basic query: “What does the life of a professor actually look like?” Certainly I had some notions but my general ignorance of the overall picture made me nervous. I barely even knew what kind of institution I wanted to teach in. So, ascribing to the old adage, “knowledge is power,” I decided to apply to Duke’s Preparing Future Faculty Program. My initial attempt was thwarted by limited space and high demand among Duke graduate students; the second time, however, proved the charm.

The goal of the program is to introduce graduate students to faculty life as it unfolds in different types of institutions. The primary means of accomplishing this is through mentorship with area faculty and site visits. While I appreciated many things about the PFF program, I valued most the license given fellows to broach their most pressing questions with mentors, program directors, graduate students, and faculty panelists. At most events our questions sparked discussions which lasted well beyond schedule.

One panel I found particularly impactful featured Duke Professors Adriane Lentz-Smith, David Sherwood, and Makeba Wilbourn. They engaged in a rather candid conversation that addressed some of our critical questions: How do you know which institution is a good fit for you?; What is the nature of the negotiation process and what does one ask for? (there is salary and then there are “the perks”); How does tenure really work? (if you don’t know about third year review, etc, you had better start learning); and much, much more. That conversation started me on a quest for more information, a journey that has been felt by everyone in my inner circle.

Perhaps my greatest takeaway from this program has been the relationship I have formed with my mentor. It has been an incredible, informative, rewarding, and eye-opening experience (yes, all of that). Dr. Baiyina Muhammad (NCCU) juggles life as a professor, activist, mentor, wife, and mother and she generously carved out time to allow me a bird’s eye view into some of those experiences.  She made time for individual meetings, invited me to social activist events in which she was personally invested, and turned over one of her classes to me as a guest lecturer. And as I watched her wear multiple hats, we discussed that ubiquitous idiom “work-life balance” and wondered if it was, indeed, a misnomer…I’m not exactly sure that we resolved the issue. There’s time to figure it out though since this new relationship, like so many others, will continue well beyond my official time as a PFF fellow.

There is more to learn and more to do but that cacophonous inner voice is muted a bit. I suppose I have found this experience to be something of an equalizer; in the present climate, that speaks volumes.

Samanthis Smalls is a fifth-year PhD candidate in the Department of History. In addition to being a PFF Fellow, she is a Duke Graduate and Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow.