Trailer Park Professor: On R1 Success and Learning to Value Yourself (A Guest Post)

I got the chance to meet a client-turned-R1 assistant professor at the AAA meetings, and I asked her what she found most helpful about the work with me.  She took the time to write it out. This is what she wrote.

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I finished my PhD in Anthropology in 2012, and after a year as a postdoc, got my dream tenure-track job at a private R1, in a city that I have always loved, with colleagues that I adore. About 80% of the people I went to school with have not been so lucky and lack permanent employment.  I haven’t quite gotten over how ‘lucky’ I am to be’ let’ into the small and selective club of decently paid tenure-track professors, especially given the trailer park in which I started.

What I’ve come to realize is that my success was not just because of luck—there was a lot of hard work and strategy along the way. I grew up a mile away from a prestigious private R1, but we lived very much on the other side of the tracks. When I was in third grade, I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist, and tried to dress in field clothes for career day. My dad—then working a third shift factory job—told me to dress up as a nuclear physicist instead, because there was no such thing as getting a job as an anthropologist (I probably should have listened!).

While in high school I worked 20-30 hours a week in fast food, actively cultivating the reference letters from one fast food place to the next, in order to climb the ranks and get a better job (which generally involved less grease!). Thanks to those letters, I landed a volunteer and then paid position on an anthropologically focused project in the summers. I loved it. After that there was no turning back.

I chose a public university that excelled in my subject and was far away from my friends and family (on purpose—I was also in the process of coming out—but that is another story). Like a lot of first generation college students, I did not understand the ins-and-outs of university scholarships, grants, and loans, so I chose the school with the lowest sticker price. Despite financial hardship (5 maxed out credit cards, cash advancing rent when my loans paid out late, etc.), I really bloomed when I was there. I loved my subject, my professors, and my life.

One of my favorite memories is sitting in the office of one professor, who had just informed me that I had the top mark in his class and would I be interested in coming with him to the field? Another professor popped her head in and said, oh, she got the top mark in my class too! This was the first moment I ever really felt special.  It was then that I started thriving on the dangerous drug of external validation, a slippery and addictive slope that Karen has described in many posts.

My excitement to go on to graduate school was tempered by my poor performance on the GREs. I didn’t have money to take a prep class, or to retake the test, which cost about as much as my rent for a month. This probably prevented me from getting into my top choices for graduate school.

After a Master’s at a second rate institution with one of the top people in my field, I got into all of the PhD programs that I applied for (I saved all of the acceptance letters and looked at them later, in moments of self-doubt). I chose a full funding, top-ranked program, but unfortunately my new advisor was not what I expected. We did not get along, I found many of his methods unethical, and after spending my first summer at his field site, I knew that I could not work in the same region.

Fortunately, around this time, a famous professor at one of the PhD programs I had applied to contacted me. Working with her proved to be a breath of fresh air—air so fresh that my conservative department didn’t want me breathing it. But she and I got along well, she challenged me, and my gut told me to continue working with her. I ended up with a much sexier PhD topic as a result of her savviness. Granting agencies loved it, and I was able to secure major awards (a critical thing to show to R1 jobs), despite a lack of intellectual support from most of my department.

I finished my PhD program quickly (this pace proved important to prospective employers, as it shows tenurability). I wrote the dissertation in nine terrible months in which my health suffered and my long-term relationship ended. The dissertation was more important. It was all consuming. I gave it more value than I gave myself. Professionally, I was well-rewarded for this psychosis–I got a major dissertation award and even a postdoc at the last minute.

The first thing I did with my new paycheck was to hire Karen to look over my documents. I had just discovered her blog. My cover letter was embarrassingly bad. I might as well have been fois gras packaged as generic cat food. Why?

Because I completely undervalued myself and my record, and undersold them in my letter.

Many of Karen’s posts helped me see that I had been doing the ‘right’ things all along. I had NOT gotten my CV at Costco (http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/05/29/dont-get-your-career-at-costco/); I had focused on peer reviewed publications and on doing activities that would expose me to top people in my field. In short, I had actively built my CV with high value items (http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/07/19/howtobuildyourcv/). This started very early, with my first fast food job. It was the part of my path that was not due to luck but due to strategy, drive, and several strong mentors.

Karen’s posts gave me the tools to package and sell myself in a confident manner. My record had what it takes—but I didn’t know that—and I certainly didn’t know how to sell it. I have always felt like a faker, as if one day, someone was going to figure out that I was just a skinny, scab-kneed kid from the trailer park and banish me from the ivory tower. This leads to a certain undervaluing of your skills and the tremendous effort that the transformation from trailer park to professor takes. Working with Karen helped me develop my professional voice and composure that both owned and sold my abilities.

As a result, I was short-listed at several institutions in my first real year on the market. I was offered the job at the first and second places I interviewed. Building on advice from Karen’s posts on negotiating, I used these competing offers to obtain what I wanted, which included a salary that will enable me to someday pay off the debt I generated during my undergraduate degree.

Very few people get the kind of job that I just got, and I was certainly lucky that my dream job opened up at the right time. In the last year I have went through some major transformations, the most important of which has been learning to value myself. This is very much a work in progress, despite my fancy job. And this is the second major thing that I have learned from Karen’s advice—success is a kind of psychosis that thrives on external validation. Being on the other side of the looking glass, it is terrifying to look back through it.

My advice: learn how to own, package, and practice your value. Show that value and your most awesome self in your cover letter.* Read that letter when you are feeling down and remind yourself that you are deserving, whatever your state of employment. Invest in your professional development and yourself by reading everything you can on the topic. Don’t sacrifice your happiness or personal life. You will regret it, no matter what kind of job you get. Don’t continue to sell your labor for pennies in the hope that you will someday be let into the club. You deserve basic human rights and dignity, and need to seek them in order to not end up like Mary Vojtko. The first step is learning to value yourself.

*Karen:  but without any hint of bragging or cheap, grandiose adjectives, or begging.


Comments

Trailer Park Professor: On R1 Success and Learning to Value Yourself (A Guest Post) — 3 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story! I can relate to many aspects of your story. I love your advice: “learn how to own, package and practice your value.” EXCELLENT Advice. Again, thanks so much for sharing your story 🙂

  2. This post leaves me wondering whether there is a deep, lifelong connection between childhood poverty and impostor syndrome. When will we ever really admit to ourselves that we are good enough and deserve the fruits of our labors? In my grad program it’s sadly easy to pick out those of us who are first-gen, and not just because of age. If this author still struggles with cognitive dissonance between her R1 position and whether she deserves to be there or not, gods help the rest of us.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this story! I can really relate to the imposter syndrome. This story is so encouraging! 🙂

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