Pearls of Wisdom–The Blog

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“You tell the truth, you tell it well. In the crowded and fetid swamp that is the job market, that is oxygen.” – a reader

If you would like your academic career to begin in delusion and end in disillusionment, then by all means, ignore Karen Kelsky. If, however, you want unvarnished straight talk about the academic job market—and how to navigate it—then heed her, and heed her now.” —Rebecca Schuman, education columnist for Slate.

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#Dispatches From the Front: What Candidates Are Doing Wrong, Part I of III: “Do Your Homework, Please. PLEASE.”

In our new Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

Last week we put out the question: “Search committee members–what mistakes do you see candidates make? What do you wish they would understand and do better?”

And wow, did that strike a nerve. Previous weeks have gotten 5 to 7 responses. That question got….. 56 replies.

And they were LONG. And DETAILED. And AGGRAVATED.

So today I present to you Part I of III: “Do Your Homework Please! PLEASE.” The reactions were so intense and so detailed that we actually recorded a special episode of the podcast to address them! It comes out tomorrow (Tuesday, Jan 28); find it here.

Part II comes next week: We’re Human: Interpersonal Connections In the Interview and Campus Visit

Part III will follow: Don’t Forget the Basics: The Low-Hanging Fruit of the Job Search

In the meantime, we will be continuing weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

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This week, a full 21 of the 56 responses focused on job candidates’ failure to tailor their applications and interview performances to the job ad and/or the department. I am sharing all of these here today, and will draw out a few central themes in italicized comments and selected bolding in the responses. Be sure and read all the way to the end! Although the “do your homework” theme is constantly repeated, each respondent adds their own special advice for particular scenarios, and at the end is advice specifically for the job talk as well.

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Please, candidates: do your homework, research the department and the job, and tailor your materials and interview responses to who they are and what they want!

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I. At the Application Stage

Candidates: READ. Read the actual ad! Follow the posted instructions. And make sure you are actually qualified for the job!

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Follow the darned directions in the application process. Half of our candidates don’t attach everything required and don’t streamline the application to our needs.  Ensure that you state clearly what your qualifications are exactly for the position listed. (*Tenured Professor, Arts/Music/Theater; **White, 40, married, lesbian)

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Having just read a stack of applications today, I wish candidates would apply for jobs that they are qualified and trained for. Only 10% of applicants today had the training, degree, or experience relevant and defined in the job post. None of them knew how to create a resume and all of them listed their education last. The documents were skiable and there was so much emotional language to wade through with so few concrete examples. Really, topic sentences to start every paragraph of a cover letter would be great. (*Assistant Professor, Humanities; **Early thirties, female-identifying, single woman of color with a partner)

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This might be an obvious point, but I was consistently surprised by the number of candidates who failed to meet the basic requirements for the job. For example, if we were looking to hire an Asian historian at my previous institution, I’d say that as many as 1/4 of the applicants had no legitimate claim to being an Asian historian at all. In other words, they were American historians who had once taken a graduate class on East Asia, or they were political scientists who worked on International Relations. You have to be in the general ballpark for the job; otherwise, it’s a wasted application. I think that some candidates approach the market as a sheer numbers game – if I apply to 40 places, I have a better chance at getting a job than applying to only 30 places. Yes and No – if those 10 additional openings don’t fit your qualifications, then you are not increasing your odds in any meaningful way. (*Assistant Professor, Humanities; **Married white woman)

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Carrying out a search now. I don’t understand why candidates are not addressing the specifics of the job posting in their cover letter! On some of them, you can tell they wrote the letter with another position in mind. If there’s something that’s absolutely required in the posting, then make it obvious how you meet that requirement. (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences; **30s, married white female, cis-gender)

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I wish people would really READ the job ad before applying! We spend a lot of time on it!  Best example:  When we are listing a job for a particular expertise/path, but in a foreign language department:  we get people applying for that who don’t speak the required language!! This in spite of the fact that we state in the ad that “(near) native English and [required language]” are required.  And in the application itself, we ask them point blank in a required yes/no question, whether they have (near) native English and [required language]! Imagine answering that question with “no”????? And when we say the job is “open until filled” but give a date when we will begin examining applications, it’s a total waste of my time to answer emails like “are you still accepting applications”?(*Administrator, Humanities **female 60 years old, department manager)

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[Taken from a blog post that the respondent linked to] At the institutions where I have taught, candidates from state universities often are the most competitive for job openings because their excellent research nicely supplements their demonstrated teaching ability across a number of fields. Candidates from elite programs have been generally far too specialized in their research and have too little teaching experience. PhD students in specialized programs should be knocking down the doors of nearby community colleges or teaching-focused universities, asking to teach a wide range of survey classes.

At Manhattan College, the hiring and tenure criteria are generally teaching first, then evidence of scholarship (which almost everyone can demonstrate adequately for our purposes) and then meaningful service to the department and the school. But many applications go on and on about scholarship and ignore what I need to see: syllabi for a broad range of courses, including surveys; a teaching philosophy that contains more than just platitudes; evidence of innovative assignments, engaged students, and clear grading feedback; and memorable teaching evaluations from professors and students. 

We have even contemplated asking candidates to submit a recording of themselves teaching a class, as that is often the most important factor in who gets hired. Are they interactive? How do they get beyond lecturing and PowerPoint? Can they handle a class of 20 students instead of a large lecture hall? How do they gauge student understanding? What broad points are they making, and what close reading of evidence are they bringing? (*Tenured Professor, Humanities **White, male, married, Jewish, 40s).

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Do not send form letters or fail to answer specific prompts in the job post-read the whole thing to make sure you’re responding to any particular issues! Be more explicit in general-say how YOU FIT into the posting. If we say “successful candidates will…” you better say those things–we can’t make it any more clear how to succeed in this search! Make sure you describe your scholarship using keywords from the description so committee can easily fit you into the ad! We haven’t gone so far as to have HR staff screeners–yet!–but ask your friends with ‘real world’ jobs how to maximize your matches with the ads so you make it through the rough cuts. There are way too many applicants per job to scrutinize the letter, CV, and supplemental materials trying to contort you into our boxes– you have to use the words and phrases that show you fit. On the other hand, don’t ask non-academic friends/fam to help with cover letter ‘jazzy’ bits–the culture of academia is not such that you want to be like ‘I’m a dynamic go-getter who’s super psyched to join your cast of notables and scholar scholarship in the beautiful setting of your pristine campus’ — that’s very weird. Oh, and get the address right: if you don’t know who you are writing to (committee chair), just put to the faculty search committee, or maybe the department chair. (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences **Gen Z, Black cis-woman, graduated from a “top” R1 program, now at an urban-serving uni)

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II. At the Interview and Campus Visit

This is where our respondents got really intense. They just really, really, really want you, the candidate, to please study who they are (both as a departmental or campus collective AND as individuals) and …. show that you… CARE. Please care!

They get really, really aggravated when you don’t.

The advice here reinforces everything The Professor Is In has ever said about effective interview and campus visit preparation. Doing your homework goes far beyond the “fit question” per se. It permeates ALL of your responses and all of your interpersonal engagement – ie by demonstrating an informed curiosity about how they do what they do.

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We had a truly outstanding (in terms of CV) candidate apply for a VAP at my university. Stellar record, interesting research, good teaching in his area, prestigious fellowships. One Big Problem–which we flagged in his materials and then really saw in the interview–he wanted a different job. How would he teach the survey? No clue, but he had great ideas for seminars! Could he teach umpteen courses that he’s never taught before? Let him tell us about his research! In short–he clearly thought he could talk his way into being a tt candidate for an R1 or SLAC job. Don’t be that guy. (*Assistant Professor, Humanities**37, white woman, femme-presenting)

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Do a lot of research on the mission and vision of the place you’re applying. I work at a small HSI state university in an undergrad-only program. Applications from folks who have unrealistic lofty research agendas that don’t involve undergrad RAs doing real research or who include no discussion of how they’ve committed to URM and first-generation students are a bad fit from the start. (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences **35 year-old white married cisgender woman)

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You’ve heard it before, but we are reading a tremendous number of applications. Make sure your application is organized and that the search committee can easily find the key points that connect your profile to the job ad.  Make sure you look both tenurable (this issue has come up in search committee discussions at the elite SLAC where I work) and that you look interested in our job. Regarding the first point, if you’re just starting out and you don’t have a lot of publications yet, make it clear in your cover letter what your plan for publications is. Regarding the second, although once you get to the phone interview or campus visit stage you are deciding whether you want this job, don’t make us feel like you’re interviewing us. At this point we are tired (and we might be conducting more than one search at a time) so if you appear not 110% interested in the job, we will take your candidacy less seriously and move on to the next person. (*Assistant Professor, Humanities **white cis woman in mid-30s)

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While qualifications and accomplishments matter and are helpful indicators of whether or not a candidate might get tenured down the line (if the position is TT), candidates often forget that search committees are also looking for someone who will be a good fit in terms of research interests and professional priorities, which varies across universities, and not just by university “type” (i.e., R1 vs SLAC). Being able to prove that you’re a good fit requires a good deal of research on the school and department, and showing that you did that homework is also something search committees perk up to. (*NTT, Humanities **I’m in a non-TT position, and served on search committee as a graduate student for a TT position. I’m also on the job market and am basing my advice on the successful and not-so-successful interviews I’ve had.)

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Again and again, I experience candidates coming to campus for interviews without having researched our department or the people who are here. Rather, they come with a laundry list of what makes them special. We want to know how you will fit in with us in addition to what uniquenesses you will offer, so do your homework! Read faculty bios, look at curricula, learn about department projects and programming so that you can make connections and references to how you would enhance and offer support of them.  (*Tenured Professor, Arts/Music/Theater **40, female, white, married, mother)

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People who drop down your list on the interview day do not research the place they intend to work. Take some time to research the university and your prospective colleagues. Some people ignore instructions re a presentation topic and talk about their research. Talk about your research when invited- there will most certainly be space to do that. Sometimes interview candidates are given a tour or lunch by prospective colleagues. Talk to them. Show interest in them even if you are nervous / feel uncomfortable. (*Tenured Professor, Social Sciences **Woman)

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And please remember that not all “fit” preferences are explicitly stated in the job ad! You have to be a good detective. This is where research is essential BUT ALSO keeping your eyes and ears open during the interview itself. It isn’t just a matter of not knowing anything about them, but also sometimes knowing THE WRONG THINGS, based on bias or assumptions.

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Understand that there are criteria for selection that are not written in the advertised post. You will  have to deduce these by researching the dept, its faculty and staff make up and its history. You will also have to be alert in the interview to any unspoken cues coming from individuals at the periphery of the interview process. (*Non-Academic PhD, Social Sciences **56 y.o. Black American, female, straight, divorced. **assistant professor at large urban public institution)

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We are a religiously affiliated school that has a left leaning, progressive expression of Christianity.  Applicants should look at how schools describe themselves and what kinds of clubs/orgs are available on the campus and not make assumptions! We are a queer friendly school, with queer faculty and students and sometimes applicants are painfully unaware of this when they apply. (*Tenured Professor, Religious and Peace Studies  **African American woman, queer, partnered)

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You may not want to hear it, but “fit” also encompasses choices about how you come across, including what you wear. Academics are not particularly fashionable as a rule, and as this respondent points out, there are certainly conventions–which are CERTAINLY UNSPOKEN–of what is considered “generically appropriate” (which is a good bar for the interview/campus visit stage) at each one. Once you have the job, feel free to mix it up.

This is not about you proving your worthiness as a scholar–we know you’re worthy or you wouldn’t be at this interview. It’s about how you fit with the department, because a bad fit makes us all miserable. Do your best to put aside your frenetic worries and obsessiveness and focus on the committee, on the questions. No more dissertation talk. Tell me about your book project–and tell me the version you’d give to your friends, not the one you’d give your Chair. We’re all experts in our own fields, but not yours. That’s why we’re hiring. Pick two things that make you different and focus on those. Don’t give lists of authors you’d use for seminars. Give us examples of what you’d do with them. Most importantly, don’t BS us. You never know which one of us took a seminar on that exact author with an expert and can tell you haven’t read it. We also know if you took more than cursory look at our webpage. Last but not least, it’s petty, yes, but try to dress like the institution you want to join while still being yourself–there are loads of resources on this. If my older colleague asks me if you were wearing pajamas in the interview, you have taken “I’m cool” to a bad place.  (*Assistant Professor, Humanities **Cisgender, lesbian, biracial (although passing for white so it’s easier on me, but does make me aware of others), married.)

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Remember too that “fit” is most definitely not just twisting yourself into a pretzel to parrot back to them whatever they are already doing. They want and need a new colleague who will thoughtfully and collaboratively contribute NEW ideas to the department, always with an eye, however, to their stated mission.

At least one of our interview questions (and potentially all of them ) is designed to see what it would be like to work with that person for the next year (or next 25-30 years, for TT position). Both the answer to that question AND the general behavior of the candidate during the interview are taken as an indicator of what it is like to interact with that person in a professional setting. In other words: candidates should avoid taking a defensive or aggressive tone at any point during the interview, and the answer to the “how do you fit as a member of our team” question should not be “I’m happy to defer to whatever decisions are made” but rather a more thoughtful, balanced answer that shows how the candidate will contribute to the team/department. (*Tenured Professor, Humanities **work at a Liberal Arts College)

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Here are some very specific responses regarding THE JOB TALK, which is a genre of misery all unto itself.

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– My humanities field (Classics) requires people to teach far outside their narrow research interests. Even at the grad level. When we say ‘must be able to teach in both languages at all levels’ and then get candidates who are surprised and can only name their own research for courses…we are alarmed. 

– Candidates not having done bare research on a dept. Our dept made the NYT three times in the past few years for a massive new archaeological discovery. Made by our dept head. And some candidates have never heard of it. 

-We teach a lot of first gen undergrads or people who work full time. They aren’t going to be able to do what Harvard kids do out of the gate and it sucks when candidates haven’t even thought of how to teacher our (really great!) students. 

Job talks that are either too general to be scholarly OR too specialized for anyone but someone in the subfields to follow. I see so many poor job talks that hit either extreme. (*Tenured Professor, Humanities **White woman 40 straight married associate Professor in a top humanities dept within a less top state school system.)

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1) don’t have famous people write you letters unless you know them really well – they may not write you a strong one, 2) showing you’d make a good colleague really helps – don’t come across braggy or cite yourself too many times in your powerpoints, 3) better to over-prepare your talk than underprepare… I’ve heard talks that sound rehearsed and they are much better than incoherent ones where the speaker gets lost because they didn’t prepare, 4) send an e-mail thank you note to everyone you met with! We talk about this – it signals your interest, 5) sometimes who gets the offer comes down to a collective shoulder shrug where we all go “uhhhh how about so-and-so?” because you’re all so awesome we can’t decide any other way, 6) if the position specifies an area (say, race) and that’s only tangential to your research, try to emphasize it anyway in your talk – we want to know that you at least try to make a case for how your research fits… and if we like you then we can make that “fit” case to the dean more easily even if we recognize that you really study class, with a side of race. (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **White female, mother, 33, bisexual, petite)

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Do your homework before interviews. I’ve seen so many potentially top candidates tank interviews (short-form and long-form alike) because they did not do their homework. Likewise, the top candidates who end up with offers always have done their research and can engage deeply with the people in the department on their interviews. The homework: Read a recent paper by each person you’re interviewing with, and find a connection with your interests. Know the course offerings and program structures for the department. Know who usually teaches what. At least read through all the student websites, and if there are students working directly in your interest areas, make sure you know who they are and bonus points if you’ve read some of their work already. If you’re giving a job talk, think about how you can put pointers or links to relevant work within the department into your talk (e.g., cite people in the department, frame some parts of your talk in a relevant way). You wouldn’t have gone into a test in class without studying, so don’t come into any interview without studying. (*Assistant Professor, Social Sciences **woman of color at R1 institution)

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And there you have it, folks: You wouldn’t have gone into a test in class without studying, so don’t come into any interview without studying. Learn more about how to do this in this week’s special podcast episode.

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Thanks to all our respondents! While we will share more responses from this question next week, we also have a new Dispatches Question for you:

I have a toxic advisor/PI. I feel trapped by circumstance and finances. What have other grad students, postdocs, or new PhDs done to manage or escape?

Go here to share YOUR advice. We can’t wait to hear from you!

Productivity: It Starts in Your Body.

For the next four weeks, I am going to be writing about how to define and implement your Peak Performance Strategy.

If that sounds nauseatingly like classic corporate speak, you are right. The idea comes from an article I read in The Harvard Business Review by executive coaches Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr.

Before you roll your eyes and quit reading, take a minute to ask why you think academic labor is separate from other corporate labor? How is your work productivity different from an attorney’s? An architect’s? A CEO’s? Be wary of the “calling” trope that tricks you into thinking you are separate from capitalism.

And if you’re a faculty member, or even a grad student, you are in what has traditionally been defined as an executive position. You control your time. You set your goals. You’re trying to meet performance indicators that extend beyond showing up, punching a time card and doing what you’re told to do. 

I’ll let you ponder that while I get back to the point of this series: 

How do we manage our energy to be productive?

What key strengths are required to manage said energy?

And, finally,  how can we learn to oscillate between stress and stress release?

To answer those questions, we are going to look at Schwartz and Loehr’s Peak Performance Pyramid through the lens of academic production and explore how we as academics do or don’t have a healthy capacity in each level of the pyramid (spiritual, cognitive, emotional, physical)

Side Note: Most people in executive positions who struggle with productivity and are at risk for burnout are really, really good at the cognitive part and deficient in the other categories.  Sound familiar?

Productivity starts with energy.

To that end, Schwartz and Loehr reject the idea of managing time, arguing instead that it’s our energy —  which fuels the ability to do work — that must be managed. And not just managed. It must be cared for, fed even. 

I see no lies here. 

If we accept our productivity as dependent on energy and our energy as dependent on our well being then we can quickly see that ignoring critical parts of our well being will ultimately negatively affect our productivity.

In the Peak Performance Pyramid, the foundational source of energy is our physical capacity. But a lot of academics — who are so used to finding value primarily (or exclusively) in our brains — skip physical care, saying we “don’t have time.” So, Step Number One in creating your own performance pyramid is to get out of your head and prioritize your physical capacity.

But, you probably know that you need to get enough sleep and eat right and exercise, right? You’re thinking, “Tell me something I don’t know.” 

The question is not whether we should do it, but how do we do it? 

Schwartz and Loehr (and pretty much every other positive change guru out there) identify the starting point as ritual. We start by slowly ritualizing the behaviors we want to incorporate. Ritual allows us to remove the risk and stress of decision making and build momentum.

We create ritual by getting clear on our goals and slowly incorporating things that support those goals. Want to move more? Start with walking. Ritualize it. Maybe on Monday, Wednesday, Friday you park a few blocks further away or even walk to work. Maybe on Tuesday and Thursday you walk during my lunch hour. No matter the activity, you put it on the calendar, this removing “decision fatigue.” Because making decisions is exhausting, right? There are so many decisions you HAVE to make in a day; physical self-care works best when it’s not one of them. It just…IS.

Several years ago, I wrote a note on my phone about what a “perfect” well being morning would like like for me, ultimately landing on my “Five to Thrive.” Five to Thrive means: No screens. Meditate. Morning Pages. Exercise. Healthy breakfast. Slowly, I incorporated the items on the list. After various fits and starts I had a ritual that removed decisions and served my physical well being. 

My wake up light starts getting brighter at 5:00 a.m. Just before 5:30 a.m., my alarm goes off. I get up. (I keep my workout clothes right next to my bed and put them on as soon as I wake up.) I meditate. (Same chair. Same background music. Same timer.) I do Morning Pages. (Same chair. Same tea.) I exercise. (Different thing each day but same thing each week: Mondays, Hike; Tuesdays, Yoga. etc) I eat breakfast. (I eat leftovers from dinner or something from the containers of things I have batch cooked on the weekend. I have a backup of packaged rice and beans with frozen broccoli if the fridge fails me.) I don’t look at a screen until the ritual is complete. I don’t have to decide anything. I just get up and do it.

I want to make something clear. My Five to Thrive doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the whole list gets lost for months and I only manage one or two things, but it is always my GOAL. And it is my goal because I am willing to accept that without a robust physical capacity that’s attached to reduced decision fatigue, my emotional and cognitive capacity decline, my energy wanes and everything else suffers.

So where are you ignoring caring for your physical capacity in the name of your intellectual or cognitive capacity? How would your morning change if the first question you asked was: “What am I going to do today to prioritize the foundation that supports everything I want to do?”  Share your thoughts and efforts in the comments!

Next week we’ll talk emotional capacity. You know … feelings.

Six Ways To Create Sister Circles In Academe – WOC Guest Post

Roxanne A. Donovan, PhD, is co-founder of WellAcademic, an organization that provides scholars, particularly women of color, with resources that enhance health, productivity, and connection. She is also Professor of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University and a licensed psychologist in Georgia. Roxanne has over 20 years of experience practicing, mentoring, researching, and teaching in the areas of health and wellness and is committed to using her expertise to help women of color combat the systemic, institutional, and individual stressors that hurt health and impede growth. She has published numerous articles and chapters on how socio-structural factors impact the well-being of Black women and other people of color. She is currently completing a two-book project on social justice teaching and learning. Integrated with her professional identity are her rich and multilayered roles as spouse, mother, auntie, othermother, sister, daughter, friend.

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Contrary to the view from outside the Ivory Tower, academic life is stressful (as if you needed me to tell you). One study even found faculty burnout and stress levels are comparable to those of K-12 teachers and medical professionals

Why? Because our work is NEVER done. There is always another manuscript to write, paper to grade, meeting to attend, email to send. The expectations are endless.
 
On top of this general academic stress, women of color must contend with numerous structural and interpersonal stressors that negatively impact our health and create a sense of isolation and otherness, such as:

  • student resistance/hostility;
  • excessive service and caretaking expectations;
  • scholarship that is devalued or undervalued; and
  • experiences of gendered racism and racialized sexism.

 
A rational response to these stressors is to seek safety by turning inward and disconnecting from those around you – why risk opening up to people if that might bring more hurt and pain? 

Compelling as this response is, there are considerable physical and mental health drawbacks, making it a definite don’t.

Turning toward empathic others, alternatively, has been shown to have tremendous stress-reducing benefits. There is nothing more validating and cathartic than telling your story and being seen, heard, valued, and believed. Moreover, knowing others have similar challenges helps with healthy perspective development.

Recap. Don’t go it alone; do develop supportive networks—a.k.a. sister circles.

Okay, let’s be clear—implementing the advice to develop sister circles is not easy, especially for those of us who find making new connections challenging (like me), are in spaces where there are few other women of color, or have little in common with the women of color who are available. If this is you, even just a little, don’t despair. There are strategies that can make circle-building easier. I outline six below to help bring you one step closer to getting the support you need.

Caveat. The strategies require a level of interpersonal risk, so intentionality and commitment are necessary to ensure success.

1. Attend local, regional, and national events where women of color academics gather. 
The National Women’s Studies Association’s Women of Color Leadership Project, the Faculty Women of Color in the Academy Conference, and WellAcademic’s Women of Color Faculty Retreat (facilitated by yours truly) are just some examples. These gatherings can be an oasis for those struggling to find connection, but they can also be rather intimidating if you don’t know many people. To make connecting easier, identify beforehand a few individuals you would like to meet. If you have colleagues in common, request an e-introduction prior to the event. If not, show up to their talk and be sure to ask a question. Then go up and request their card so you can follow-up. If that is difficult, find a role that will facilitate interaction, such as helping to register conference participants or offering to chair a session where someone you want to meet is presenting. ?

2. Invite women of color to present at your institution. 
Depending on your position and institutional resources, this might require advocacy and fund-raising. Good places to start are the diversity office or teaching and learning center. If you pull this off, consider seeking help from other women of color to organize the visit and be sure to volunteer to drive the speaker to and from the airport to get extra facetime. 

3. Ask faculty or grad students you already know to connect you with other women of color academics. 
This snowball strategy is most helpful if the referring person is willing to facilitate a casual meeting or e-introduction.

4. Don’t let distance limit who’s in your circle. 
Face-to-face connections with other women of color academics are wonderful but not always possible, so use technology as a connection-building tool. I have several wonderful sister circles with women who live great distances from me and each other. These circles work because we commit to regularly scheduled Zoom/Skype calls throughout the year.

5. Seek advice from those women of color academics you want to get to know. 
?Asking someone to be your friend is a sure-fire way to creep them out. Seeking advice, however, is a great way to show your respect and desire to know more about what she thinks.

6. Implement structures that facilitate connections among women of color academics. 
This might require more energy and commitment than the other strategies but could yield sustainable results. Possibilities include organizing a women of color faculty or graduate student support network, writing accountability group, mutual-mentoring community, or workshop.

Is it worth the risk? Yes, yes, and…wait for it…yes.

There is much about the stress of the Ivory Tower women of color can’t control. But we can choose to buffer the impact of this stress by seeking support from and sharing support with our sisters. As a wonderful bonus, these efforts model good sisterhood for the next generation of women of color scholars. I invite you to take the risk and start building your sister circle today.

A version of this post was previously published on the WellAcademic website 


#Dispatches From the Front: Interview Advice for and by International Scholars

Dispatches From the Frontlines is our weekly advice post based on the crowdsourced wisdom of our wonderful readers. Each Monday, we crowdsource a question we get from a reader on Facebook and Twitter with a link to a google form. You share YOUR experience, insight or advice from your own career using the google form. We collect the responses and share them in a post. We explain more here about confidentiality (guaranteed of course), etc. Find us on Twitter with the hashtag: #AcademicDispatches.

Read to the bottom for our new question for this coming week.

Today, responses to the question: I am an international scholar as are many of the people in my department, so it is challenging to prepare for job market interviews. I know you recommend not memorizing answers to avoid sounding like a robot. I would love to know how other non-native English speakers prepare to not sound too rehearsed for standard questions or to handle unexpected questions, which can be quite challenging.

There are some great tips here from 5 respondents.

First off, the question of memorization. Basically don’t memorize blocks of text, but rather responses to specific questions, which you then must PRACTICE, over and over, until they are second nature:

I didn’t memorize my answers, but I did type them out so I at least knew what my ideal answer would be. From there I would practice my answers—out loud—in the shower, around the house, in the car. That helped me get used to the sound of my own voice, practice the physical formation of the words with my mouth, tongue. Of course, during the interview I was nervous and didn’t get it perfect, but more of my Skype interviews turned into campus interviews than not. (Assistant Prof, Social Sciences; single cisgender white female, age 51; went on the job market in my 40s)

This respondent says the same: Memorize themes, not specific answers. And, use FLASH CARDS!

Im on the job market as well and a non native speaker of English and my department isn’t the most helpful when it comes to advice for campus interviews. Considering that more than half of the department is foreign national you’d think we all support each other and faculty would support their grad students but no. My advice as a non-native English speaker is memorize themes rather than questions per se. Like : questions to ask everybody, specific questions for the dean/ questions for you: what do YOU want to know etc. And I have a couple flash cards you can look at during breaks. I crucially lacked this kind of info last year and I am learning from it. (Grad Student, Humanities; Early 30s white cis female on the job market Humanities)

Don’t forget that it’s not just a matter of words, but of your STORY: who are you? Construct a consistent and linear identity. As I say in my job market workshops, you want to make yourself into a “package”–so that your research, teaching and service emphases and outcomes all feed into a single consistent narrative that is easily and consistently recalled by all interviewers when they debrief after the fact.

First figure out what your storyline is. Who are you as a scholar? That will help you in creating consistency in your answers. Instead of sounding like a robot, you will have a few common themes to tap into (your research ,your teaching, your visions).

Another tip: when you PRACTICE (again!), film yourself to see what you can do better.

Start practicing early. You can film yourself answering typical job interview questions. Watch the films and see where you could do better. This is even more fun if you do it with a friend. Interview each other, film the answers, and give each other feedback. (Grad Student, Social Sciences; I am a PhD Candidate in Anthropology. I’m white, so I got that going for me. But people still notice my accent and usually ask me where I’m from, and I’m not always as quick in thinking on my feet when I have to do it in my non-native language.)

Nobody is saying it’s easy to have to watch yourself on video! It isn’t! (I, Karen, took about a year of Facebook Lives and Webinars before I got used to it). But it’s worth it.

I definitely don’t want to sound over rehearsed – I use bullet points like I would in a powerpoint presentation in index card kind of format to make it easy to flip through. I also make a video which I then listen to (I hate this as I am not fond of hearing my voice in this way. But, I have found it to be quite useful) (Grad Student, Humanities, 30, Indian).

And, to wrap up…. PRACTICE. But not just with your one good friend, but with a range of people so that you can get used to different approaches.

Practice! Have your colleagues (native- and non-native speakers of English) act as the interviewers. Do lots of practice interviews with different people until you feel more comfortable answering on the fly.

Shout-out to this respondent, who decided to set up their own job market workshop! Well played!

Motivated by my own frustration with the lack of mentoring I received as a grad student and junior faculty member, I have developed and run “survival skills workshops” for 20 years for doctoral students on (among other topics) getting a job, and for the last 7 years have run a 3-day workshop for incoming faculty in my college to de-mystify and facilitate the first years of a being a faculty member. (Tenured Prof, STEM; Former department head, former associate dean)

~~~

Question for this coming week: People who have served on search committees! What do you wish candidates knew, that they continually don’t know? What do you wish candidates would do differently? What core pieces of advice would you give?

Productivity Thursday: Please Step Away From The Edge

By Kel Weinhold

After falling into the kind of writing “hiatus” I have coached thousands of people out of, I am taking my own advice and getting back on track with my once-upon-a-time weekly productivity column.

The way to get back to writing is to do just that: Start writing.

But for coaching purposes, I want to explore why I stopped writing and how my reasons offer only as much value as excuses ever do: To learn how not to do it again.

So, why did I stop writing my column?

Partly, I stopped writing because I didn’t adjust my expectations to my changing reality.  At the time I started it, a weekly column was totally doable. And it clearly was for the length of time that I managed it. But when travel and life… and life …and life…  made it no longer realistic, I didn’t adjust. The first time I missed a week I wrote two to catch up, back filling the dates I missed (which technology allows you to do) so it looked like a weekly column. But backdating only covers the past. It doesn’t deal with the present. And the present reality (at that time) was that I did not have the bandwidth to write every week. 

In response, all I had to do was to shift to every couple of weeks or once a month, and let that be enough. 

What I did instead was keep trying to meet an unrealistic goal, miss it and fall further “behind” my imagined reality.

The lesson here, children: Face reality. Set goals based on reality. If your reality changes, change your damn goals!

This leads to the next reason I stopped writing: I succumbed to all or nothing thinking. I wasn’t writing every week so clearly the whole thing was a bust. The only choice:  quit the column altogether. Yes, I see how ridiculous that sounds. Believe me, as a productivity coach, I know! I can see now that every couple of weeks, every month or even once per quarter over the past couple of years would have resulted in more columns than what my all or nothing thinking eventually produced.

The lesson here, children: Some is better than none. I could have published once a month and had 23% more published than the 0% I have now. Every number between 1% and 100% is a positive number. So take the 1% “W” (that’s “Win” for those of you who aren’t into sports).

Also, I stopped because I got too concerned about people’s responses to what I wrote. It’s actually kind of funny. Blogging seems so easy, compared to peer reviewed publication. But when you control the medium of publication, the bar for what is “publishable” is set by you. (I would add that I ask Karen to edit everything I write, and if you have worked with her you know that is no small ego test, so it’s not exactly a slam dunk. But even so, ultimately, I decide.) 

Which means, Karen or no Karen, I don’t really have that extra comfort that you get from having your work vetted and “accepted” by others before publication. My assessment comes only after the work is in the public eye. And, let’s face it, in a world of hot takes, my gentle reminders to “be realistic” and “make small consistent changes” are not necessarily the stuff of viral posts. Combine that with my tendency to second guess every third idea and whether it is valuable, and it’s easy to find reasons not to put myself out there.

Don’t get me wrong. I know my coaching is valuable. I hear from people in Unstuck all of the time about the life-altering changes they make because of the program. What I am saying is that when you operate in social media frenzy of likes and dislikes, it is easy to lose sight of your goals. So, I let comparison (the thief of joy) dampen my enthusiasm, and my motivation waned.

The lesson here, children: Approval is a dangerous drug and external motivation will ultimately fail you. If you count on them, at some point, they will disappear and you will slowly empty of enthusiasm like a leaking balloon.

But these three lessons are just lead ups to the actual learning outcome for this post: No matter where you go, there you are. No matter how much you look outside yourself for reasons for not writing, in the end, the reason is you.  

Take a deep breath. 

This is not your chance to take the easy way out. So often when we make a mistake, we fall into a trance of shame, and dive face-first down the self-loathing luge, wailing, “I am terrible!” all the while refusing to do the hard work of looking at why it happened.

 It’s like when you try to tell somebody that something they did was a problem and they immediately go to “I’m a terrible person. I never do anything right!” There’s no engagement with the actual issue in that, and you are left with the very frustrating realization that there was no real accountability offered.

So crawl up off that sled, step away from the shame luge and ask: “Where was I complicit in the breaking of my promise to myself?” 

Take your time. Make a list.

Look for the moment that you chose to act against your intentions. Explore why you allowed it. And start making plans how to avoid the same response in the future. 

I’ll be right there with you.

The Secret Life of an Academic Spoonie–WOC Guest Post

By Anonymous.

This is the latest in my ongoing series of volunteered guest posts by Black women and other WOC. These posts will be going up on Wednesdays in 2020.

I saw an article online once that called people with a chronic illness “spoonies.” It said that people with one or more chronic illnesses have a limited amount of energy, or “spoons,” to spend each day. Whether you spend your spoons on taking a shower, grocery shopping, or completing some other vital function, once they’re gone, they’re gone.

I’m a spoonie. I have aggressive endometriosis, a condition that produces varying symptoms in each person. With endo, uterine-like cells live all around the body instead of just in the uterus. My appendix, liver, diaphragm, ovaries, and intestines are covered in these cells. Endo causes a myriad of problems, not least among them, pain. For me though, the most challenging thing about having endometriosis isn’t managing pain. It isn’t that I’m constantly running out of spoons (although that certainly is true). It’s that every single day, as my spoons rapidly deplete, I’m constantly trying to hide the fact that I don’t have more.

For a person who spends most of her time rationing spoons, working in academia is tricky.  Don’t get me wrong, I love being a professor. It’s my dream job. I’ve always thought of academia as a place that revolves around the exchange of ideas and the pursuit of knowledge. However, once I got on the tenure track, I realized it isn’t my job to pursue knowledge. It’s my job to produce it. And if, as a tenure track professor, you can’t produce knowledge quickly and consistently, you have very little value.

 That task seems easy on good days, when I feel I can conquer anything.  I teach, advise students, maybe run a committee meeting, and still get loads of writing done when I get home.

But.

Some days are nothing like that.  Some days I wake up… and I can’t move.  I take medicine. Sometimes it kicks in, sometimes it does nothing. Sometimes I cry for hours. Sometimes as I lay there, I use Instagram or Spotify to distract me from the pain. And I hope to God it doesn’t last long, because pain flares are so intense that I can barely think. Which means I don’t write or revise anything. I don’t grade. I don’t review journal articles. I don’t lesson plan or rework my classes so that they’ll be better next semester.  I am not productive.

In addition to managing the physical challenges of endometriosis, I have to navigate systematic obstacles.  Like all disadvantaged groups in higher ed, those with a chronic illness must prove their competence despite institutionalized prejudice and bias.  I knew revealing my invisible illness would have consequences.

As my illness progressed from an inconvenience to an encumbrance, I faced a dilemma. Do I tell my colleagues and superiors about it?

I didn’t know if I wanted to deal with the drawbacks. My mind went through a series of what ifs:

·         What if my superior (chair, dean, provost) withholds opportunities because they think I can’t handle them?

·         What if they give me opportunities, but I can’t handle them? I’d feel ashamed that I let them down.

·         Since I’m Superwoman some days and a blob of jelly on others, what if people think I’m faking? It wouldn’t be the first time people didn’t understand why my capacity changes from one day to the next.

·         Many people don’t understand the chronic nature of chronic illness.  What if, after years of seeing me struggle, they lose faith in my ability to complete long-term projects? What if their misgivings affect my tenure case?

I couldn’t stand the idea of people dismissing my capabilities based on my illness.

So I told no one. Still, my choice had its own consequences. Among the things I dealt with:

·         People wondered, aloud, why I didn’t take on the same load as everyone else.

·         People said I was flaky when I took a longer time to finish projects.

·         I sometimes overestimated my ability and took on more than I could handle, then later had to retract my commitment.

·         I was always hiding signs of my illness. I buried a stack of heading pads under my desk, I excused myself when I needed to take medications, and I snuck breaks just to sit down and relieve pressure from my body. Sometimes, on painful days, I closed my office door and curled up on the floor instead of going home (I didn’t want to create a record of leaving frequently- nor did I want people to see what I looked like when I was in pain. I am lucky I was never caught).

Most importantly (to me):

·         I used all my spoons to keep up the appearance of healthiness and productivity at work, but then I had none left for my spouse and child.

Eventually, I couldn’t hide my chronic illness anymore. My flares became too frequent and too intense. Plus, I needed procedures that would render me unavailable for weeks at a time (and we all know unavailability in academia is a no-no).

I finally told my chair and a few key people. I had been terrified to speak up, but some good things happened:

·         I found out I wasn’t the only one. Others had been hiding health issues, too.

·         I was able to extend a few deadlines because people understood why tasks might take me longer.

·         My chair was, or at least seemed, really understanding.  

I’m happy about my decision to reveal my invisible illness, if only to a few people. No, things aren’t perfect. The “what ifs” I listed above, along with other obstacles, do sometimes occur. Moreover, I know any drop in my productivity level could change my colleagues’ tone from a warm, “tell us if you need anything,” to a fed up, “listen, I know you’re sick but-” Consequently, I don’t always reveal the extent of my pain or the sparseness of my energy.  Nevertheless, it feels good to be done with the extreme maneuvering it sometimes required to hide my health issues. I refuse to waste any more spoons convincing people that I’m capable. I’ll let my work do that. Overall, I think I made the right choice. 

Dispatches From the Front: Dealing with a Difficult Dean/Chair

Welcome to our inaugural Dispatches From the Frontlines – our new weekly advice post based on the crowdsourced wisdom of our wonderful readers! Each Monday, we crowdsource a question we get from a reader on Facebook and Twitter with a link to a google form. You can then share YOUR experience, insight or advice from your own career using the google form. We collect the responses and share them in a post. We explain more here about confidentiality (guaranteed!) etc. Find us on Twitter with the hashtag: #AcademicDispatches

Today, responses to our first Question: How have you managed a difficult Dean or chair, especially around issues of hiring or tenure? Subquestion: What if you started your job under one Dean/chair, and then got a new one, and the new one is problematic?


We got seven responses, and they’re really great.

First off, advice on managing the Big Picture: ie, how to position yourself proactively as a “busy, productive faculty member” who should not be messed with:

“Be visible but be less available. The difficulties from deans come in many forms. Here, I’m thinking about my early career especially, when I was anxious about how visible I was in the department, but at the same time concerned that if I was to available I wouldn’t get enough research done. I tested this out myself and I’ve used it throughout my career. I started doing it when a couple of colleagues commented that I wasn’t in the department as much as they thought I should be. I didn’t go in more frequently, but every time I was in the building I walked down the so-called corridor of power and nodded or waved to a few important people, especially people like the chief of staff, the Dean, and some full professors. Interestingly, people later commented on how much more time I was putting in at the office! So, my advice to all assistant professors, especially those who identify as women, is to make sure that they’re very visible when they’re on site. Nod or say hi to some of the senior professors or administrators in the department. But, equally, don’t be too available. Get used to saying, “I’m sorry I have a prior commitment and I am unable to take part in X activity.” These twin pieces of advice are about protecting research time, but making sure when you are on site people know you’re there.” [bolding added] (Tenured, Atts/Music/Theter: Cis hetero white woman, age 55)

Second, if you see a problem developing, quickly understand the chain of command, and learn where to find accurate information, allies and support.

“The new Dean doesn’t seem to like me or understand me and I’m about to go up for Tenure or promotion. If this is the difficulty, then it’s important to remember that Tenure and promotion decisions are usually made by more than the Dean. If a promotion and Tenure committee are unanimous in support of the case, it becomes much harder for Dean to override that. So, produce very high quality documents. Get advice from people outside your school or department in order to check the quality of those documents. And talk to other people on the promotion and Tenure committee that are below the level of Dean. You do not necessarily, and maybe shouldn’t, need to mention any fear that the Dean doesn’t like you, after all, you may be wrong! But take the time to explain your research to those of the members. Try to find an advocate that will be able to speak fully and intelligently about your research on your behalf without being too overbearing.”(Tenured, Arts etc. Cis, white, female, tenured R1)

Create a paper trail of offenses and document every single thing. You will need this later.

In addition, as the previous person noted, it’s much much harder for any Dean or Chair to make trouble for you if you’re productive. So, challenging as it is, remember that revenge is a dish best served cold, put up your literal and figurative walls, and get your writing done.

“I was hired by one chair, who was replaced by another excellent and fair chair, who was replaced by a problematic chair with guidelines for promotion and tenure that do not align with the official guidelines agreed upon by the department. My advice is to go above the problematic person to the dean or provost (if they are not at the top of the pecking order). As a junior faculty person, I did not realize right away that that’s what all the other faculty at my institution did. Go to HR. Go to other senior faculty. Document everything in email, including what you agreed upon in meetings. Do this with everybody, as they are busy and will forget what you discussed. Be amicable with the problematic person and write them thank you letters. Research and write as much as you can (you want a slam dunk tenure case so that it is clear that any issues are personal and not professional) and then focus on how to tell craft a story about your research trajectory that is airtight.” (Asst prof, Humanities, white woman, hired straight out of grad school.)

It’s hard for an out of control Dean to mess with a clear university asset, as echoed by this respondent as well. (This has the added advantage of putting you in a good position to seek a new job.)

“Number one: I work hard, get everything done I possibly can, go for grants and other awards to demonstrate that I am an asset. I want this dean to have absolutely no ground to stand on in terms of getting in the way of my tenure/promotion/negotiation. Number two: I try to stay out of the politics between the rest of the faculty/department and the dean. This is a lot easier said than done, but I do try to stay out of it if I can. Number three: I go straight to the dean when there is an issue or a question. The other day, in a meeting with the provost, he raised a new issue about the quality of the work of the faculty in my department. It was a new critique that I had never heard before. So I went directly to him to ask about it. I have also made appointments to ask questions when I hear other things that make me uncertain or unsure. Number four: I’ve applied for a jobs elsewhere, including in another college at my same institution.” (Asst Prof, Social Sciences, 42, Caucasian, first-generation college student, female cis-gender heterosexual, married, two elementary-aged children)

Remember: avoidance is a very legitimate tactic in this situation. You CAN decide to postpone confrontation until after tenure, as is, to reiterate, seeking another job.

“I have been bullied for years by my Chair, a woman different from the Chair who hired me. I have ultimately decided to leave my job for another one. I believe that there should be structures of accountability in place. Junior faculty shouldn’t be left alone to fend against someone who has so much power against them. Retrospectively, I wish I had engaged with my Chair less than I have, avoiding contact with her whenever possible—but that is hard on the tenure track.” ( Asst prof, Hum, Female, mid 30s, white, foreign national)

If you have a faculty union, use it!

“If you are lucky enough to be at an institution with a union, go to your union representatives for advice. I had a department chair who tried to undermine my promotion to full professor by writing a letter saying all the reasons I should not be promoted. Those reasons fell outside of the tenure guidelines (and in some cases, were completely untrue statements). I involved the union and a union rep came with me to meet with my chair and was able to explain why his letter was outside of the guidelines. He removed all of the material designed to undermine me and I was ultimately promoted.” (Tenured, Social Sciences; at the time of this experience, white woman in my late 30’s)

Remember that nothing lasts forever! Bad Deans come and go–and in this day and age, Deans actually shuffle in an out on a very short cycle.

“I’ve been in the academia for nearly two decades. I know that there are good times, whenever the Dean likes me, and there are bad times, when I’m on the wrong side of the Dean in turn. During the good times, I get as much publishing done and negotiate all my teaching and salary package. During the bad times, it is survival mode. That is when I keep a low profile, work mostly from home, strictly mind my lane, and avoid the office gossip and backstabbers which helps a lot.” (respondent info not provided)

Lastly, communicate and share with a group of people you trust, including not just like-minded colleagues and friends, but also outside advisors like attorneys or conflict resolution specialists. Finding out whom to trust may take some time, but it’s possible, and it’s essential, as is self-care. Our final respondent puts it all together.

“I am in the midst of dealing with a disorganized overwhelmed and “victim” chair. The amount of stress it has created for my whole department is tremendous but as young faculty on the tenure track it is especially burdening. Trying to manage the tenure track expectations with the abysmal request and the total disregard for mental space or research has been taxing. It became so difficult and stressful than most of my department does not sleep the moral is extremely low and the general response has been hide and don’t interact unless you absolutely need it. What has worked for me has been to speak with mentors outside of my department. People that know me enough to trust me and for me to trust them. It gave me the space to acknowledge it was an abnormal and difficult situation. They help me prioritize what I actually needed to make sure I accomplish for my tenure. Self care became essential, I still have a bit to do but that’s what created the best buffer so far. My first move was to make sure to have one day a week completely out of contact with email, department, colleagues. Now, I am getting to the point where I am not checking emails in some of the evenings. It makes a big difference. What was hard was that I thought I was the only one suffering from the situation. I guess it got so bad for everybody that people started to open up. I stay clear of the gossip and mal-intended people but talking with positive likeminded colleagues has been the best. We can get out of the frantic state by just stating facts to remove the emotions from the situation. We vent out to each other so we can make decisions for our own work. We acknowledge the situation but try to minimize the blame game to focus on what is necessary or possible. I am in the middle of it so that would be what I am able to contribute here. Beside the two mentors I spoke with professional outside of academia with conflict resolution experience.( lawyer, HR, Team manager); it was interesting to see they mostly all said the same. Try to find out why it is difficult. Is the chair having systemic issues or is it just a compatibility issue and go from there. Hope this helps. I had great boss before so fortunately I know some my characteristics and strength so I could rebuild my self-confidence. This experience really got in my head.” [bolding added] (Asst prof, Arts. etc. white, women, cis-gender, immigrant)

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Here’s our question for this week; go here to share your advice!:

I am an international scholar as are many of the people in my department so it is challenging to prepare for job market interviews. I know you recommend not memorizing answers to avoid sounding like a robot. I would love to know how other non-native English speakers prepare to not sound too rehearsed for standard questions or to handle unexpected questions, which can be quite challenging.

How did you like our first Dispatches post? If you have a question you’d like to submit for crowdsourced responses, please share it in an email or in comments to this post.

Sexual Harassment in the Academy: What I Tell Reporters

In today’s post I talk about sexual harassment in the academy, the #MeTooPhD hashtag I created, and the Sexual Harassment in the Academy Crowdsource Survey that I launched two years ago that has 2500 entries. This post is prompted by my conversation with a Washington Post reporter yesterday, who asked for an interview for a new breaking case that he’s covering. He’s the same reporter I spoke to when the survey was going viral and getting lots of media coverage, and I decided it might be a good time to share with you all just what it is I tell reporters when they ask me why sexual harassment is so endemic to academic settings.

I apologize that the video is in two parts. The learning curve to switching to video format is steep, and unfortunately today I learned that my iphone storage was totally full, and so my videos kept quitting midway. I did delete a ton of stuff, and now things seem fine. Thanks for bearing with me while I master the technology!

Here is the link to the Sexual Harassment in the Academy Crowdsource Survey page on the blog.

Check this page (scroll down midway) for the many many interviews I have done on this subject.

Here is information on Prof. Kate Clancy’s work on sexual harassment in the academy, that I mention.

Here is information on Dr. Julie Libarkin’s database of sexual harassers, which I mention, although not by name.

Part I:

Part II:

Surviving Your First Conference: Tips for Anxious Newbies

I get a lot of questions about the Academic Conference from junior academics. Conferences are daunting! Even for more senior people. But they are an essential part of your academic career, so the sooner you get comfortable, the better – and honestly the only way to do so is just to jump in and go. And the thing is, the task here is to do the conference without acting like a grad student! This post gives you tips on how. And, check this medium post for a few more tips (not from the academic world, but useful nonetheless, inc.: don’t stare at your phone!)

Just to be clear: conference participation is one of the core elements of the competitive academic record – both giving papers and organizing panels. Later in your career serving as discussant also shows seniority and stature. On the other hand, posters are, for most disciplines, the “kids’ table” of the academic conference, and count far less on the CV (although please note that this does not hold for a lot of STEM fields where posters are highly regarded, so please confirm with your field advisors). 

Giving a paper doesn’t just get your research out to the scholarly community, it also gives you experience with handling live Q and A, which has a major learning curve. Meanwhile, organizing a panel (assuming your association allows students or junior folks to do this) is one of the very best networking strategies there is –  by inviting people slightly senior to you to serve on the panel, you guarantee a larger audience (who will come to see them rather than you) and better time slot than you’d likely merit on your own; you also get the chance to engage with the senior person you invite as discussant, and further, you can probably organize a panel lunch or dinner that allows for deeper conversation, more lasting connections, and maybe even future collaborations. 

Lastly, conferences give you the chance for participating in the life of your discipline, by going to business meetings, or open bars, or other subgroup events, where you might even take on an administrative role (within limits, and never if it interferes with your writing!) that gives you access to a wide network of like minded scholars.

In short, conferences show that you are a serious scholar and are an ideal time to maximize opportunities for networking, self-promotion, professional skills training, and building a public intellectual identity. 

This is all in addition to the basic function of presenting your work, and maybe interviewing for jobs – stressful!

To avoid the wallflower experience, plan ahead. Like, way ahead–by a month or more, but even a couple days will do in a pinch.

Check the program and schedule out the panels you want to attend. Give yourself a couple hour block at the book exhibit. Then, with that done, plot out your breakfasts, lunches and dinners, as well as coffees and cocktails, and consider whom to invite to share those with you. Rather than standing listlessly about in the lobby at 5:30 while everyone around you rushes off to their evening plans looking fabulous, make sure you have planned stuff for yourself to do. If you invite people ahead of time, especially senior people, you have a much greater chance of getting time with them than if you tried to spring something on them at the last minute.

Once there, be sure and follow conference Twitter using the main conference hashtag, as well as other thematic conference hashtags relevant to your interests. Don’t forget that panels often have their own hashtags, especially when they are around higher profile or controversial topics. As you follow the live-tweeting of the event from various attendees, you’ll not only enrich your own understanding of it, but you’ll get an instant insight into the communities of scholars active in the discussion. You now know who to follow, based on what they say. And not only that, you can tweet your own thoughts! Some of the very best real-time commentary and critique happens on hashtagged conference twitter, and these convos are so dynamic and in the moment, that they often catalyze spontaneous face to face meetups.

Also check if there are field-specific events to attend. Back in the day when I was just getting started, I learned that the Japan anthropologists would always meet up for a dinner at the Asian Studies meetings; once I figured this out (just by keeping my ear to the ground at Japan-related panels and by lurking near Japan-related books at the major press booths (U of California Press for example, at the book exhibit) I knew to expect and plan for that event every year. 

Another tactic, check in with your advisor and other faculty members from your department. If you know they’ll be attending, and they’re generous sorts, and open to the idea, ask to tag along to a meal or drinks that they have planned. Not all advisors are willing, but some are. 

Some departments or campuses host events or open bars, so be sure to ask grad students and faculty if there is plan for a meet-up. On the subject of which: free food and wine can often be found at some of the high profile book launch receptions at the book exhibit! Be sure to look for signs on the first day, so you can plan ahead!

Lastly, show up for interest groups. If you’re queer, you can likely find a “LBTQIA Reception” happening at some point or another, and usually this will actually be on the formal program. Same for events for scholars of color, and so on.

Some might advise you to get a Conference Buddy, so that you don’t end up staring forlornly at your online program while eating lunch alone in the hotel restaurant. However, as tempting as this is, I don’t recommend it. You need to use the conference to meet NEW people. That’s the point of networking. So, it’s ok to have your buddy on call for an evening if you both find yourselves at loose ends, or for a breakfast perhaps, but the bulk of your days really should be used to push yourself out of your comfort zone, meet new people, make new connections. And remember, nobody is likely to approach YOU if you are deeply ensconced in conversation with a good friend. So as hard as it is, keep yourself open to fresh encounters.

    And this brings up the issue of the Elevator Pitch. You really do need this, and not just for elevators. The bread and butter of academic conference conversation is, “oh and what do you work on?” You absolutely need a 2-3 minute version of your research.

Sentence 1: Broadly speaking, my work examines…  

Sentence 2: Specifically, my dissertation looks at…. 

Sentence 3: So, I study this specific STUFF (these novels, these chemicals, these populations, these historical documents, etc.) and I study it in this specific WAY (theory, method). 

This is the basic Elevator Pitch. THEN, assuming the person’s eyes have not glazed over, and/or they have made polite “Oh, really?” noises, you then continue with:

Sentence 4: I am finding that… and I basically argue XXX. 

Sentence 5: this actually changes the way we view XX; the field tends to see it as X, whereas my work shows that it’s really Y.

And that’s it.  These sentences are all very short!

 And one last sure fire conference technique. If you find yourself standing next to someone, and your mind freezes from panic, remember: the default politesse of the academic conference is this: “Are you having a good conference?”  The level of enthusiasm in the response signals whether you have the go ahead to keep chatting, or if you’re about to be ghosted. Take both with as good a grace as you can muster, and move on. Remember, you have places to be! (because you already planned them!)

Good luck, conferencers!