Advisors, #dobetter

A reader wrote to share a case of useless department head job market advice.  I pass it on with his/her full permission,* in the hopes that those of you who are advisers will reflect on your own practices, and do better.

The department head response below ignores the very targeted, excellent questions the Ph.D. student poses about phone interviews, teaching demos, and negotiating, and instead proffers nothing but lazy, shallow, anodyne generalizations that frankly insult the student’s intelligence. There is nothing in the response that actually TRAINS the job seeker in how to manage the specific pressures of an academic search.

Advisors, you need to do better. This is no time, no time at all, for complacent, tone-deaf, philosophical musings on the “beauty and challenge of human interactions.”  DO BETTER.  #dobetter.

Dear Dr. Karen,

I have to thank you again for all of the support and advice you have given me via your blogs, book, and website. I am one of those that you write about – one who has been truly left alone to figure out the tenure-track job search with no help from my department (my chair retired and moved right after defense – so that was a double blow). Thanks to you, I have already made the short list twice and am optimistic there are more to come!

But that is not why I am really writing. You rage against the Academy for falling down on the job of preparing grad students for the academic job search (rightly so) and I love your courage for speaking out and bringing this issue out of the closet. I have forwarded many articles written by you to my department head and doctoral coordinator and have gotten absolutely no response. I have enjoyed needling them, however, and calling into the light some things they need to be doing that they are not. It has not won me any friends, needless to say.

So, I decided – despite the history of nothingness – to ask for help once again as I prepare for interviews – just to see what the response would be- because I am following the advice in your book very closely. What follows below is first my email, and then the response of my department chair. I am sending it to you asking that if you use this in a blog (and I hope you will) that I remain anonymous. I just wanted to join you in the raging against the machine of indifference and provide you with a real-life example of just how bad it can be out here. (I will NOT replicate this pattern when I am a professor, I swear to you!)


I am wondering if you all have anything from past or upcoming searches you could share with me to help me prepare for interviews and campus visits. If possible, I would love to see:

1) questions you ask on phone interviews
2) questions asked at committee interviews on site
3) schedule of a campus visit
4) requirements for the teaching demo – how does a stranger just show up in class and teach??

Anything else you can give me? I have a 2 hour skype presentation and interview coming up in January. They will send me info on what they are looking for but the above will help me prepare for  this and others.

I appreciate your help. I really need to not go into this cold. Tips for negotiating salary would also be great!! Thanks.


I’ve been on lots of interviews and every one has been different. That’s the beauty and challenge of human interaction, and one reason social science is so difficult. The best preparation you can do is to really know your own work.  You should be able to articulate what you’ve done at the Ph.D. level and where your research and scholarship is headed. Additionally, you should know something about where you’re interviewed. This means researching the department, college and university in question. The search committee wants to know that you really want to come to university “x” and that it’s not just a job. Even learning something about the community is always a positive. What everyone wants more than anything is someone who will be a good colleague, so think about collaborative opportunities in the department, and how you might contribute to service responsibilities. Sometimes all it takes is being in the right place at the right time. Good luck!

I was like, no sh#% Sherlock!! Now tell me something I don’t know!!!!

By the way, a new junior faculty person hired two years ago forwarded my email to another junior faculty member asking if she had anything that could help me. God bless the young professors.

*Reader says: “Ah jeez. Well. We know he doesn’t read you LOL.”

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Advisors, #dobetter — 4 Comments

  1. If this advice were as obvious as the comment indicates, I would not see so many bad applicant and ineffective interviews.

    I recognize that the questions were not answered. The chair deserves criticism for that.

    However, as someone who has served on nearly a dozen search committees in several departments and programs, I can say: the advice given is not obvious to many.

    • Well if the “advice” not taken that you refer to is anything like the “advice” offered by the chair above, it’s quite clear it won’t be “obvious” to many. It is vague, misleading, and plain wrong in places! Chairs and advisors: spell it out! Give specific advice, not wishy-washy platitudes. You owe it to your students. Anything less is a complete delegation of duty.

  2. The abject laziness of most (if not nearly all) faculty when it comes to giving any sort of useful advice about anything is amazing. I’ve asked for specific information about what kind of output would be considered “good progress” and then told–by more than one professor–that good progress was “undefinable” but “obvious when you see it.” The response of this department head is just more of the same condescending crap.

  3. I don’t think the department head’s message is terrible, per se. It makes some good points that on the surface seem obvious, but that a lot of candidates (especially in first-time interviewing) can easily lose sight of when trying to prepare specific answers to specific, isolated questions. Treating an interview like an oral exam, memorizing all the “right” answers, is never going to work as well as knowing yourself and your field so well that you can use their questions–whatever they may ask–to direct the conversation into a coherent narrative about what you’d bring to the department. The truth is that a lot of interviewers don’t know what they’re doing, don’t ask good questions (sometimes don’t even have questions prepared!), and don’t seem to have a clear idea of what they want, but the burden still falls to the candidate to convey a coherent self-portrait as a scholar and teacher. The student who wrote in with these very specific requests might well have known all of this, but I can see how the department head might’ve misconstrued the original e-mail as asking the wrong questions and missing the big picture, in a “what’s going to be on the exam so I can study?” kind of way. I think the department head does an okay job of boiling it down to what departments want to know no matter what they actually ask.

    That being said, the very broad advice in the e-mail should have been followed up with an offer to meet and discuss the student’s specific questions, go over her materials and/or have a mock interview. “Good luck” doesn’t cut it.

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