Dr Karen’s Uncensored Bio

I am Karen Kelsky, aka, The Professor. I’ve been a tenured professor at two universities (Oregon and Illinois) and a Department Head. I’ve advised many, many graduate and undergraduate students, and the students I’ve worked with have been very successful in their professional endeavors. I’ve also mentored junior faculty before and during their successful tenure cases.  I can most likely help you if you are trying to navigate the rough seas of the academic world.

Here’s a short current cv-resume hybrid.

My (Uncensored) BIO:

I have 15 years experience as first an assistant professor, then a tenured associate professor, and finally department head in two major research universities, the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I left my tenured position and the role of department head in Illinois because my family and I chose to relocate back to our beloved Oregon, and I had reached the point where I was ready to move on to a second career.  Not because I hated academia–it’s a terrific job, and I want to see others get into it–but because when it came down to it, it was more important for me to live where my heart is (Oregon) than to continue as a professor in the midwest, a place that crushed my very soul.  (For more on that see my Worst Prof Ever guest blog post here).

And the fact is, I was always skeptical of academia, even as I moved successfully up through its ranks.  I’m from Pittsburgh, only a single generation away from steelworkers.  The people among whom I grew up had no interest in intellectual pursuits.  My parents sent me to college, it’s true–but with the goal of my coming home married to a doctor or an engineer.  No one in my circle went to graduate school, let alone aspired to entering the professoriate!  I have the true Pittsburgher’s distrust of bullshit and posturing, and when I got into academia, my ‘bullshit meter’ instantly started ringing off the hook. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I went to college at the University of Michigan, majoring in Japanese Language and Literature, and graduating with  honors. I got a cushy job teaching English in Japan at a college in the glorious Japan Alps, lived in Japan for two years, learned to ski, made a bucket-load of money, and then spent it all backpacking around Asia by myself for a year.

I started and dropped out of two public policy oriented graduate programs at the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins before finally settling on a goal of a Ph.D.  in Cultural Anthropology of Japan.  I had successfully applied for and won the Three-Year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.  My plan was to study the cultural impact of Japanese company culture on Thai workers working at newly opened Japanese multinational plants in Thailand.  I was offered a breathtaking (to me at the time) financial package at Cornell.

Then I went for a visit to meet my soon-to-be Cornell advisor, and he behaved to me like a dismissive toad. Apparently, in 1989, a “transnational” project was not considered legitimate in the hidebound world of Japan area studies.   Welcome to academia.

So I turned on a dime, and went to the University of Hawai’i.  I was enticed there by a generous East-West Center multi-year fellowship that, combined with my NSF, meant I had full and generous funding for my Ph.D.  I had a well known advisor at the UH, a leader in the field.

While working on my Masters degree, I took up surfing, and got to noticing an interesting phenomenon on the Waikiki beaches—young Japanese female tourists picking up local white guys and financially supporting them over the course of short or long affairs.  I wrote a paper that turned into a dissertation (and eventually my book). I went to major conferences every year, and I even got published in a major journal while still in graduate school. I had a great record, grants, and publications, and a high profile dissertation topic.

Then I went on the job market.  And then and there discovered just how badly my advisor and department had failed me.  I had no professional job training whatsoever.

I learned that no cultural anthropology Ph.D. from the University of Hawai’i had landed a tenure track job in living memory.

And that no one in the department cared.

Job training, cover letter and c.v. instruction, interview practice, technical skills, career advice….. these were non-existent in my graduate program.  And I only understood that when I was actually finished and looking for a job.

With the job letter I’d written, I barely made a short list. The few times I did, I made a total fool of myself at the interview.

I had no. idea. what I was doing.

After a disastrous failed year on the job market, I finally said, “fuck you, useless department and useless adviser.  I’m going to train myself to get a job.”

I embarked on an intensive self-education process—I found out who got the jobs I’d applied for, where they’d been trained, what their grad programs were like, what kinds of things those departments did for their students.  Using job data in the now defunct journal Lingua Franca, I found the top 5 departments producing successful job candidates in my field, and I studied the graduate curriculum, trendy jargon and department culture of those places.  I sent my cover letter out to every single person whose arm I could twist for a critical edit.  I spent hours upon hours writing out potential interview questions and their answers, and practicing them.

And then I went back out on the market.  And I got a whole bunch of interviews, and a tenure track job offer at a fabulous research institution.  I was on my way.


But I was pissed.
Pissed as hell.  Pissed that I’d had to do it completely on my own.  Pissed that 25 people in my graduate department were getting paid really good salaries to completely neglect their advising responsibilities and abandon their graduate students.  Pissed that I’d spent 6 years in a program that had never once mentioned the need for professional development.

Pissed as hell that the department head said to my incoming class of grad students, in our “welcome and orientation” meeting:

“You’re never going to get an academic job, so don’t even bother trying.”

Seriously.

Seriously?

Before my move to Oregon, I created a Job Market Workshop for my sad little crew of peers in the department at UH, the rest of the neglected graduate students.  I tried to teach them what I had taught myself.  But for many, it was already too late.  Some cried.

And then I went to Oregon.  But I never forgot my experience.  And lo and behold, there I found a second department, filled with good and decent people, to be sure, but where career preparation was non-existent, where technical job skills training was unheard of, where the whole question of “are our Ph.D.s employable” was never asked or answered.  And I was pissed.  Again.

I published, began to work with my own graduate students, taught hundreds of undergraduates, got several major grants, including the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, and got tenure.  I got recruited to a “bigger, better” job shortly after tenure and found myself in two new departments (joint appointment), where, lo and behold…. group after group of Ph.D. students were admitted and advanced without any thought or attention to their professional training and job market preparation.

There were some dedicated faculty advisers there to be sure.  But by and large, the faculty egos were massive.  The battles over getting “your” candidate admitted intense.  And the investment in those same students’ employment after completion?  Minimal to non-existent.  I was pissed.

It was here that I spent five years as Department Head. It was in that position that I finally learned about…money.

I learned with calculator in hand about the downsizing academic industry, and the financial (not intellectual) foundation for virtually every curricular, programmatic, and hiring decision made in a university setting.  As Head I came to grasp at a visceral level that Ph.D.s are admitted to serve university teaching needs.  Without their serf-like labor, the entire system would crumble.

And I learned that job lines are argued for and approved, again, with calculator in hand.  For graduate students to be competitive for those lines, they must be mentored to sell themselves on a job MARKET, to package their ideas in ways that upper administrators can grasp, to be the job candidate who can explicitly demonstrate he or she is going to make or save the university money.

And these are the origins of The Professor Is In. At my first department, and then my second,  and my third, and my fourth, I continued to teach an evolving version of my Job Skills Workshop.  I changed the name over time to Professionalization Workshop.  I intensively trained my own graduate students in what it takes to get ahead, think ahead, and plan for an actual career in academia instead of just a useless Ph.D. and a shit-load of debt. I even got an endowment to create a full-day retreat dedicated to professionalization training.


Comments

Dr Karen’s Uncensored Bio — 18 Comments

  1. Hi Dr. Karen. I am finishing a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology (seriously months away!) and just wanted to say I appreciate the way you have turned your negative experience into meaningful lessons for others. I have stumbled across your site a few times while finishing my dissertation and just read your bio. Thanks for thinking of others and actually helping. Leah

  2. Dr. Karen,

    I echo the person above who thanked you for turning a negative experience into a positive one. I am sure the graduate students you have mentored have in turn set the example elsewhere.

    John P. Williams

  3. Dr. Karen,
    Echo’s to all before me. I am finishing one of two graduate degrees (MS in 2015, MBA in 2016) and going through the stupid human tricks required to be accepted into the PhD program. I am 48 and got the graduate ambition bug late in life. I stumbled across your site while searching for examples of a PhD Statement of Purpose Doc I have to create for an application to an internationally recognized engineering / technical university in the Midwest. I am refreshed to find someone else who prefers to “stab people in the forehead instead of stabbing them in the back” type of approach. I look forward to reading your blog, I ordered your book, and hope to pay for your advice as I continue my academic pursuit. My goal, with many years of engineering experience and future PhD in Technology, is beginning a second career in the electric utility consulting world at 55 in addition to the part time professor stuff with graduate students. Very refreshing to read someone with your background tell the truth about the “blindfolded” bridge walkers in the world of academia. I have met some great people, but wow they do not have a clue about the outside world.

    Casey Shull

  4. Hi Karen –

    I have been recommending your website and your services left and right to other scholars here in the Asia/Pacific region where I live. I think that your honest and realistic approach is desperately needed, and I wish I had found you before I graduated just for a more realistic perspective of what I was getting into on the job market. We did our doctoral work same department, and I suspect had the same committee chair. Nothing at all has changed in the UH Anthropology department in terms of preparing students for the job market, unfortunately, although they have a few more students finding t-t positions (although not nearly enough!). Keep up the good work!

  5. Dear Karen,
    Love reading your blog.
    Now imagine looking the other way, that is looking back over all I have completed at age 70, having decided five years ago to go back to school. In other words, I am not looking for a new career. I have finished 3/4 of a doctoral program but fell at odds with the institution because their push was for social science while mine is philosophical / critical,a track they had originally approved but have now declined. So,being in the Dissertation phase and having finished a major draft, I have chosen to re-format the dissertation into book form.
    Do you know of any university that would accept me into an online completion of my Phd and accept the Dissertation in book form (from a marketing point of view, a much better outcome of my research). Should you ask, why a doctoral degree at age 70? The answer is just for the joy of accomplishment and to remain motivated in my creative journey.
    If you check my website you’ll see why I value my “motivation through creative freedom,” which is also the subject of my research, phenomenologically speaking.
    Thanks.

  6. Your website was recommended by a friend of mine and this is Fantastic! Something that completely resonates with me as I came out with a BA in Anthropology and had no job skills nor prospects. I had no idea what to do or where to look! I had to train myself and ended up waiting 15 years before going back for my Master’s as I was afraid of the lack of job prospects after getting *another* loan from the US Government. I am now in my 2nd year of my 4 year PhD program in Scotland and there is still little to no help in attaining job prospects afterwards. I am fortunate that I have been out in the “real” world for almost 20 years and have developed marketable skills not only from my degree but also from my corporate life, which opens up a lot of opportunities for me. But what of the others in my office? Or building? What will they do? There are not being trained into anything nor is the University doing anything to help them. It is more than Interdisciplinary learning, but it is the need to create a foundation of skills to allow them to work outside of the uni (academia or not).

    Thank you again for your great blog and website! Looking forward to reading more.

    Cheers!

    Nicolle

  7. Hi Karen

    Thank you for your generosity and candor.

    I wish I had your advice 10 years ago. I’m now a tenured associate prof. at a quality public liberal arts college. Like you, my folks were working class and I have struggled finding my way in the academy with little to no useful advice or assistance. I’m so glad you are here. Your work will make a huge difference to so many. I plan to order many copies of your book and I’ll tell all of the bright, dreamy-eyed, future PhDs I shepherd through undergrad about your site.

  8. Hi Karen,

    I just wanted to say that even though I am at a wealthy private research institution which does provide resources/workshops in the academic job search (at least at the university level), the departmental situation you describe is something that persists even here. Outside of one or two faculty members who deliberately try to run workshops/classes to professionalize graduate students (grant writing, CVs, etc), the department as an entity really doesn’t care about us once we graduate. They think we should just be grateful that we have fellowships while we’re here (which we are, but realistically as one professor put it in a departmental meeting, none of them would expect to be paid less than min wage/hour for 5-7 years, which is what is essentially happening in the PhD). We once raised the issue of having the department provide us job success statistics and they didn’t even want to do that, probably because they have NO idea what people are doing post-grad. It’s all rather demoralizing, to say the least. But I have found your blog to be such a great resource in just boiling everything down and telling us what institutions want when you’re on the job market. Because no one is telling us WHAT THEY WANT which results in a lot of flopping around like a dead fish. It really is refreshing reading about your experiences, uncensored. The clear examples you provide on how to deal with and succeed at the whole job application process really add to the more basic templates I already have. Thank you so much for caring and not forgetting about graduate students and I have already ordered a copy of your book in anticipation of how much easier it will make my life!

  9. Hi Dr. Karen- your mission is a great one and yes the Ivory Tower needs a big light cast on it and needs to be demystified so unsuspecting, bright-eyed new grad students down head down a road to disaster. A few questions: do you wish that you had stuck your original Ivy League grad program (Ivies have money, power, and journal editing)? Did you give much thought about your grad program major? Japanese studies sounds like a very esoteric area. My own observations: many grad students get out of undergrad with no idea how to fulfill their dream in the real world. So they blindly go from the undergrad bubble straight into the grad school bubble. I attended a Big 10 univ. for grad school in math, and knew that one’s advisor and his past success in placing students into jobs (let’s face it, this is the Oz behind the curtain- without networking power you’re really out at sea) and his specialty’s hotness on the job market are some key factors in landing that tenure track. The Big 10 program I attended is one of the largest programs in the nation, and YET it is only successful in landing 1-2 graduates into an R1 type tenure track once every decade or so. The rest many times go away and get a job in industry, and many of these students would not have envisioned this as their dream job. I transferred into a math education PhD program where the job openings are relatively speaking quite plentiful. But I also know that I want to treat my time in grad school almost as a tenure track in itself- I want to get snapped up before I finish my PhD. How? By firing on the cylinders that a big state univ. is looking for: teacher training in licensure programs. Landing a large grant to fund my practice and research. Being seen as someone who is pretty much doing some of the key things a new hire prof is doing. So far it is going well. But I still am wary of the job market- it can change overnight. In math, for example, data science is quite hot. ‘Pure’ math, well, that is starving artist time. So many graduates end up as a ‘limited term lecturer’ or merely drop out of the academic scene to go live a 9-5. Yes it’s true that math ed is far different from pure math- but tell me: can working as a taxi cab driver after earning a PhD in pure math leave a lot of time for one’s own research? Or would having a fancy academic job in a related area allow one to work on whatever one wants in spare time?

  10. Hi Karen,

    it seems that your graduate advisors failed in one important respect: teaching you independence and self-responsibility and initiative for your own life. Are you really complaining that they did not give you a receipe that you can follow step-by-step and that guarantees you an academic job?

    I expect from my students/employees that they take the initiative. I am there for any remaining questions that are not covered in books out simply googling.

    By complaining, you seem to convey that your career was the responsibility of your advisors, while in fact it is yours. The advisor should, of course, support you in this process… But you learned an important lesson, which was handy throughout your later career: independence and being the one responsible for what you do and not do.

    • Sounds to me like a justification for abandoning your students’ professionalization advising, which is, sadly, the norm in academia. Which is why my business now has a staff of 10 people.

  11. Gosh I love your straight talking !!!….You are an absolute breath of fresh air. I just started reading your book last night, and I am loving it.

  12. I’m a little baffled here. Sure, job training and such are specific to each field, but CV writing, interviewing, those advising services are available to undergraduates applying for jobs. They don’t differ too much whether you’re applying for financial job or academia, at least in my experience. There are books out there that can guide you.

    And isn’t PHD mostly doing everything yourself? After writing a book (or what can be a book) on some aspect that not even your adviser can teach, I’d think figuring out how to shake hands, how to write your CV, and all that wouldn’t take that long to figure out.

    Maybe it’s just anthro students? As a physics PhD I never got any “job market” training but my labmates and I did just fine. I don’t recall anyone coaching me on graduate school applications or college applications either. Maybe I’m just the oddball.

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