The Prep School Job-Can You Still Do Research? (Part 3 of 3)

Ric Rader is a classicist and “recovering academic” who taught in non-tenure-track positions at Ohio State, USC, UCLA and UCSB over the course of 7 years. He now teaches in the Foreign Languages Department at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. He writes, “the fortunate thing is that I finally got out of the academy and it has been the best decision of my life.”  Feel free to get in touch with him personally at

This is part III on the Prep School Job.  Part I is here, and Part II is here.


Over the course of your graduate studies you develop scholarly and professional interests; you attend and present papers at conferences; you publish articles (if you follow Karen’s advice); you conceive of a major project for your dissertation and eventually defend it. Let’s say you enjoy this process and want to continue, say by revising your dissertation into a book or chopping it up and publishing a series of articles. But now you’re working in a prep school, teaching 4 or more classes a day, planning and grading, coaching after school and, once you do finally get home, raising children. (I realize that most faculty nowadays, especially those at non-selective SLACS, community colleges or regionals – to say nothing of adjuncts – labor under the same kinds of conditions as this.) Even with your comparatively light teaching load the reality is that you will have less time now for scholarship than you did at the university. Since scholarship is a requirement for most academics teaching at the university level, you simply make time for it. At the secondary level, however, there is no such requirement and so making time for scholarship requires pluck and, more importantly, honesty.

Let me start with honesty. You will need to ask yourself whether you genuinely want to keep researching and writing. Key word here is genuinely. Ask yourself in earnest: Do you really enjoy combing through JSTOR for bibliography? Reading heavily footnoted essays on arcane topics in German, French or Italian? Planning and writing 5000 or more words on a discrete topic over the course of months or even years? Getting revise-and-resubmits from journals – or outright rejections, sometimes nasty – and reworking that essay over the course of more months? Finally seeing it published years later in a journal whose readership you can count on one hand? Does your book project really change or contribute significantly to your field as you claimed so eloquently in all those job letters? Can you really imagine spending years scrubbing your dissertation of everything that made it a dissertation? Submitting yourself to punishing deadlines for revision, copyediting and formatting (which, though last, you will inevitably discover to be the absolute worst part of writing a book)? Really?

If all of those things sound dreadful to you, then you’re in luck! You won’t be required to do them anymore. No one will ever ask about that project on Etruscan eschatology you obsessed over but didn’t finish. You will never have to feel guilty or defensive about leaving it behind, or kid yourself into thinking you will actually finish it just as soon as you get the [insert imaginary panacea here: time/break/fellowship/support/feedback/recognition] you claim to need. The shame spiral and the self-deception will be things of the past! (Sing with me loud and gloriously: LET IT GOOOOO, LET IT GOOOOO!)

But only if you’re honest with yourself.

Of course as any therapist will tell you, self-knowledge is hard-won and provisional at best. So I’m not claiming it’s going to be easy to admit. You have been trained for years to believe that research and writing are essential parts of your scholarly identity. Indeed you wouldn’t have finished a dissertation without at least nominally accepting this professional premise. No one expects you to abandon it with ease. Occasionally you will with some justification be tempted to think, If I keep up with my scholarship, perhaps I’ll eventually be able to land a tenure-track job in the academy. But that’s a fantasy, so don’t overindulge yourself. (Sidebar: DO NOT TREAT A PREP SCHOOL JOB AS A PLACE TO BIDE YOUR TIME WHILE LOOKING FOR A “REAL” JOB AT THE UNIVERSITY. Go ahead and keep tabs on your discipline’s job-placement service or even – god forbid – the job wiki. Just keep your mind clear of their attendant pathologies.) Basically, you should expect to struggle with your decision to abandon research. That’s okay because you will eventually get over it. You will eventually recognize the absurdity of academic publishing.

If, on the other hand, you genuinely do want to continue your research – if the absurdity of academic publishing doesn’t faze you – then you too are in luck! Because now you will be able to pursue your research on your own terms, i.e. not as determined by the strictures of your tenure requirements. Doing research on your own terms, however, doesn’t necessarily make it easier. For many – like me – the pressure of strict deadlines, especially those that may result in your termination from the job, creates motivation (even if it’s anxious motivation). Absent this pressure and structure you might find yourself procrastinating, promising to get to your research later, using what little time you have for writing for other (totally legitimate) things.

This brings me back to pluck. All of the tools you used to get your research done in the past – writing between the classes you teach, creating a writing schedule (daily, nightly, pommodoro, whatever), joining a writing group – will still be useful and they will still be necessary. So pick whichever method you prefer and stick with it.

Maintaining your research at the secondary level creates a paradox: Scholarship is not required and so none of your colleagues will assume you’re doing it; at the same time, precisely because it is not required your colleagues will celebrate your scholarly accomplishments with genuine surprise and pleasure – no matter how small that accomplishment ranks in the academic system (review vs. article vs. book etc.). I gave a copy of a book I recently published to my headmaster and he sent me the kindest note of congratulations I have ever received in my professional life. Genuine validation from colleagues you like is, not to put too fine a point on it, F*CKING AWESOME. Guess what else it is: motivating. So you’ll probably feel the urge to do more. Now you’ve created a new and better relationship with your research – no longer a chore but a choice. And if like me you are at a school with a decent number of faculty holding PhDs, and if they too desire to continue their research, then you’ve got a wonderful small community with whom to share goals, deadlines, professional achievements and the like. From my experience it is a community entirely unlike that of the department at a college or university. And if I – a modestly productive scholar who spent too many years doing research begrudgingly – can thrive in this environment, then imagine what someone like you with real scholarly drive could do.


Update on My Book: Blurbs, Reviews, and a Promotion

The book inches closer to actually existing in the material world (August 4)!  It has gotten some lovely blurbs by amazing people, like this one by the inimitable Rebecca Schuman:

“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.”

And I’m beyond thrilled that it got a fantastic review on Kirkus Reviews (see below).

Right now, I’m doing a promotion: Pre-purchase my book and send me the proof of purchase at, and I’ll enter your name in a drawing for $300 free TPII services.   Drawings on June 15 and July 15.


Buy it at all these places:


New iBooks Badge - 11 12googlebooks-button-graphic

Remember, it also makes a great gift for the struggling grad student in your life.

If you’re interested in ordering the book for a class, please email me at  Desk copies will be available shortly.

Read on for the blurbs and the full Kirkus Review:



The definitive career guide for grad students, adjuncts, post-docs and anyone else eager to get tenure or turn their Ph.D.  into their ideal job

Each year tens of thousands of students will, after years of hard work and enormous amounts of money, earn their Ph.D. And each year only a small percentage of them will land a job that justifies and rewards their investment. For every comfortably tenured professor or well-paid former academic, there are countless underpaid and overworked adjuncts, and many more who simply give up in frustration.

Those who do make it share an important asset that separates them from the pack: they have a plan. They understand exactly what they need to do to set themselves up for success.  They know what really moves the needle in academic job searches, how to avoid the all-too-common mistakes that sink so many of their peers, and how to decide when to point their Ph.D. toward other, non-academic options.

Karen Kelsky has made it her mission to help readers join the select few who get the most out of their Ph.D. As a former tenured professor and department head who oversaw numerous academic job searches, she knows from experience exactly what gets an academic applicant a job. And as the creator of the popular and widely respected advice site The Professor is In, she has helped countless Ph.D.’s turn themselves into stronger applicants and land their dream careers.

Now, for the first time ever, Karen has poured all her best advice into a single handy guide that addresses the most important issues facing any Ph.D., including:

-When, where, and what to publish
-Writing a foolproof grant application
-Cultivating references and crafting the perfect CV
-Acing the job talk and campus interview
-Avoiding the adjunct trap
-Making the leap to nonacademic work, when the time is right

The Professor Is In addresses all of these issues, and many more.



“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

“Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In offers a compendium of smart, clear, direct advice to anyone seeking to turn a PhD into an academic job. She covers everything from how to build a competitive profile, to writing cover letters and resumes, to negotiating for that final job, postdoc, or grant. She’s not afraid to give examples of ‘don’ts’ and she models the ‘do’s.’ I’m about to meet with a doctoral student on the job market right now—and I’m giving her my copy of The Professor is In.” Cathy Davidson, Distinguished Professor, CUNY Graduate College, Director, The Futures Initiative.

“Every graduate student in academe should read this book. But also: if you teach graduate students, if you mentor graduate students, if you worry about graduate students, and even if you’re thinking about becoming a graduate student, you should read this book too. It’s just that indispensable.”– Michael Bérubé, Director, Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Penn State University

“It’s tough out there, but no one understands how academic jobs are landed better than Karen Kelsky. If you are a graduate student, The Professor Is In offers sound, realistic advice, and it may be the most valuable book you ever read if you intend to have an academic career. – William Pannapacker, Professor of English at Hope College and columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education

“Explains in exquisite detail exactly how to land a tenure track job. In her genial yet unabashedly thorough book, Kelsky coaches readers through the critical topics they need to know. I wouldn’t want to navigate the inhospitable weirdness of the academic job market without it.” – Adam Ruben, author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School

There’s no one way to guarantee that you get a job in academia, but there’s a thousand ways to lose one. In this book, Karen Kelsky levels the playing field, providing practical insider knowledge to demystify the job market and help you improve the odds. – David M. Perry, Journalist, Chronicle of Higher Education, Director of Undergraduate Research, Dominican University

“A realistic account of what it takes to turn a Ph.D. into a job when all the jobs seem to be disappearing, The Professor is In offers sobering, impeccable advice from one of the most honest voices in higher education today.”–Greg M. Colón Semenza, Author, with Garrett Sullivan, of How to Build a Life in the Humanities: Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance

“Karen Kelsky tells the disheartening truth about the difficulties of getting through graduate school and finding a tenure-track job in a funny, irreverent, and ultimately encouraging way. Getting a job is about more than being smart; read this book if you want to be prepared, professional, and on your game. -Elizabeth Reis, Professor and Chair, Women’s and Gender Studies Department, University of Oregon

“This is the book I wish I had when I was a grad student. As The Professor Is In, Karen Kelsky delivers generous, savvy advice for academic job seekers. Unflinching, supportive, and honest, there is no other book like it. All Ph.D. students (and their advisors) should have a copy on their shelf.” – Carole McGranahan, Associate Professor, Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder

Kirkus Review:

In 2010, after 15 years as a tenured anthropology professor and department head, Kelsky (Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams, 2001) left academia to found The Professor Is In, a counseling service and blog aimed at helping graduate students mount a job search. Aware of the current competitive job market, with colleges and universities increasingly trying to save money by staffing departments with part-time adjuncts, Kelsky offers smart, frank, and often witty advice to lead applicants through the complicated process of securing a tenure-track position. She has no illusions about her readers’ ability to do this on their own. Graduate study is infantilizing, she maintains, a process of hazing that leaves students “insecure, defensive, paranoid, beset by feelings of inadequacy, pretentious, self-involved, communicatively challenged, and fixated on minutiae.” Advisers range from moderately helpful to neglectful to downright discouraging. They may not have any idea of the realities of the market into which they are sending students, which Kelsky thinks is “terribly, patently unfair, in that several generations of Ph.D.’s are now victims of an exploitative system that trains them for jobs that no longer exist, and denies that fact.” The author covers in detail every aspect of the job search: building a strong record through carefully chosen publications (prestigious peer-review journals are the gold standard, and in the humanities and social sciences, a book contract is crucial); going after grants; presenting at national conferences; honing a CV; writing a succinct, sophisticated cover letter and teaching statement; presenting oneself in an interview and during a campus visit; and negotiating an offer. “Grad students,” she writes, “remain in an extended juvenile status long after their peers outside of academia have moved on to fully adult lives.” For those students—and anyone who cares about them—this cogent, illuminating book will be indispensable.

Day to Day Work at a Prep School – #Postac Guest Post (Part 2 of 3)

Ric Rader is a classicist and “recovering academic” who taught in non-tenure-track positions at Ohio State, USC, UCLA and UCSB over the course of 7 years. He now teaches in the Foreign Languages Department at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. He writes, “the fortunate thing is that I finally got out of the academy and it has been the best decision of my life.”  Feel free to get in touch with him personally at

Part I of this Prep School series is here.


So what’s it like to work at a school like mine? Rather like a “real-world” job you will be required to be on campus every day all day. While I miss the flexibility and openness of my schedule at my former universities (a privilege, I realize, that many like my wife did not have at her teaching-heavy SLAC), I quite like the responsibility of daily presence. You may also be required to dress up for work, which for men means wearing a tie. Believe it or not, dressing up will make you feel like a professional. Like an adult. As anyone in the business world will tell you, your appearance is an important aspect of your authority at work.

You will likely be required to participate in extracurricular activities after school, which means that when, for example, your sport is in season the days can stretch ever later. I coach junior-school football and baseball, and while these are nowhere near as serious and time-consuming as varsity, during the season I normally get home between 6 and 7pm, sometimes later if an away game is out of town. This irks my wife a bit – she’s with our very energetic toddler all day – but fortunately between the two seasons I have about 4 months during which I’m generally home by 4pm. And with the exception of exams or major tests and quizzes I almost always get my grading and prep done during my free periods. I rarely bring work home!

You will occasionally have to come to school on the weekend for games, service outings, dances, admissions-related events, dinners and the like. Sure, you’ll have to give up a part of your Saturday or Sunday, but in most cases you will be fed (spectacularly well if it’s a dinner-related event), you’ll get to meet with parents who adore you for teaching their children, you’ll get to hang out with your colleagues and basically just have fun. Yes, it’s work but it ain’t really work. You will show yourself to be a good citizen of the school community. And good citizenship is rewarding in both senses of the term: you get fulfillment and you also get professional and financial promotion.

One of the real perks of teaching at a prep school is the continuous personal involvement with students you will have over many years. During your time in the university you may have gotten to know a decent handful of students personally, but rarely are college students able to take more than 3 or 4 classes with the same professor over the course of their studies. At the secondary level, however, in your classes and on your teams you will watch young men and women transition year by year from as young as 10 to 18 years old. And what a change that is! It’s not hard to understand how this kind of multi-year relationship produces the most meaningful connections with students, their parents and their other teachers. When alumni of my school return for visits or events, for example, the love and affection they show for their former teachers is moving. This love in fact was the inspiration for a very famous movie from the late 80s that you, like me, probably watched with one of your high school teachers.

The best part of your job will be your colleagues. They will be the nicest, most well-adjusted people you’ve ever worked with – especially if your school (like mine) rewards them personally, professionally and financially for their hard work and commitment. You’ll have some personalities and idiosyncrasies among your faculty, of course, but there are none of the types I came to know during my years in the university: the intransigent, the bitter, the envious, the unkempt, the antisocial, the unproductive, the defensive, the predatory. You’ll have colleagues who’ve been there 20, 30, 40 years, many of whom either went to that very school or one like it and learned as students that a career in teaching can be a desirable choice and not just a consolation prize or fallback. Why would they leave a fulfilling job that provides a comfortable life? Where on any given weekend they can get together with colleagues outside of school for family gatherings, b’nei mitzvahs, athletic engagements, church and intellectual collaboration?

I suspect the simple reason prep school colleagues are such good people is that at this level you won’t have the pressure to publish. Your mission at any secondary school – but especially those (like mine) that pride themselves on small, intimate learning environments – is first and foremost to be effective as teachers, and that requires a fair amount of gregariousness and geniality. This isn’t to suggest that brilliant researchers, prolific publishers and effective grant-writers can’t be gregarious and genial, only that the aims of research and grant-seeking aren’t necessarily compatible with pedagogical goals. I say that as someone who published a decent amount on what in my field would be considered very canonical (literary) material, the kind of material in other words you’d likely see in an undergraduate survey course. I tried and tried to bring my research into the classroom – and insisted upon the necessity of such an approach to many a search committee – but it never quite fit. (More on research later)

Teaching In The Non-Believer’s Closet (A Guest Post on Christian Colleges)

The writer is an Instructor at a small Christian college.


“God bless you!”

I hadn’t just sneezed. I was holding open the door for a colleague struggling under the weight of a file box. “That looks heavy,” I replied, demonstrating for the zillionth time my ability to master in remarkably quick order that which is supremely obvious. “New Bibles!” she enthused. “Ah,” I said, “that would explain it.” And a wayward shoelace captured my attention.

Welcome to Religious Identity U, where I have taught on an adjunct and VAP basis over the course of a decade – and where I have done so in the closet, because I am a non-believer. I teach here because I need the money, because it’s actually a nice place to work, and because most of the schools where I live are just like RIU. I was asked to share some thoughts about teaching at a religiously affiliated university as a non-believer.

Spoiler alert: They talk about God a lot. You’d better, too.

The term, “religiously affiliated institution,” covers a lot of ground. At one end there’s places like Boston College and Georgetown – Catholic institutions, but not usually thought of as being especially “churchy.” At the other end are places like Biola University (an acronym for “Bible Institute of Los Angeles”) and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, where promoting the denomination and faith are explicit parts of the mission statement. In between are hundreds of small colleges and universities associated with one or another Christian — and usually Evangelical — denomination, where unsuspecting ABDs and newly minted Ph.D.’s often apply to job ads without really understanding what it means to be inside them. Places like RIU.

Bottom line: like RIU, many these schools sincerely want to educate and not indoctrinate, but not at the cost of the faith – so the faith comes first. Sometimes this is made explicit: at one school in my area, faculty must affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman in order to teach, while at another non-married faculty must affirm in writing they will not engage in sexual behavior. At RIU, faculty must incorporate content into every syllabus that – to the institution’s credit – can either affirm or challenge students’ faith. But at a minimum, this means that to teach successfully here as a non-believer one needs to be conversant in Christianity generally and the denomination specifically.

That the faith comes first will often be reflected in the professional achievements of your colleagues. At RIU, publishing is much less important than being a “good Christian” and getting good teaching evaluations (and RIU takes evaluations very seriously – department chairs review every one, every semester, with every faculty member). As an outsider, then, you’d do well to spend less time in research and writing and more in going to lunch – and be sure to be heard during the prayer.

RIU is an equal-opportunity employer, but with very few exceptions non-Christians need not apply. Co-denominationalists will know the “secret handshake” and will receive a preference in hiring, tenure, and promotion. There is a caste system at RIU. Faculty who are Christians, but not of the denomination, are less-than-first-class citizens, and the more liberal the flavor of Christianity (Episcopalians are especially suspect), the closer one gets to second-class. Indeed, even those from the wrong side of the Great Intra-Denominational Schism of the 1970s will struggle (resentment still festers over the introduction of guitar-accompaniment to the hymnal). There are no Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, or Muslims, and there are no non-believers (not even me, because I lie about it – adjunct job security, you see).

And of course there are no LGBT faculty. Because Jesus.

Except for life in the closet, RIU is a lovely place to work, even as an adjunct. Other than the relatively low pay (typical of Evangelical schools) and extortionate teaching load, it’s pretty much a dream adjunct gig: office and computer and phone and mailbox and helpful support staff; ladder faculty who invite you to join them for lunch or dinner at their homes; invitations to meet the deans and even the president; supervisors who appreciate and acknowledge your teaching skills; and your colleagues who seem genuinely happy to be there. They even dress for work, especially compared to the stereotypically shabby faculty of the R-1 where I received my training (and yes, it’s ties for the gents and skirts for the ladies).

But make no mistake: because RIU is small, gossip and not scholarship is stock-in-trade. Who you are as a person – as a Christian – is infinitely more important than who you are as a scholar. Take a job at RIU, and your secrets won’t stay secret long. Administrators talk, faculty talk, and students talk, and the “real” members of the community – those of the school’s specific denomination – will see each other many times a week at chapel. And that talk matters – tenure isn’t necessarily a protection against apostasy.

None of this will be in the job ad, of course. RIU is an equal-opportunity employer. But understand this: if you want tenure, you’d do well to burnish your classroom skills, you’d do well to go to chapel, you’d do well to say, “God bless you!” an awful lot.

Because at RIU, there’s never a wrong time to invoke the Almighty.

Teaching at a Prep School – A #Postac Guest Post (Part 1 of 3)

Ric Rader is a classicist and “recovering academic” who taught in non-tenure-track positions at Ohio State, USC, UCLA and UCSB over the course of 7 years. He now teaches in the Foreign Languages Department at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. He writes, “the fortunate thing is that I finally got out of the academy and it has been the best decision of my life.”  Feel free to get in touch with him personally at


About a year ago I saw two articles on the TPII website by Jason Tebbe describing his move from academia to prep-school teaching. I read with delight that he found far more satisfaction in the environment of secondary education than in his academic job, even though it entailed more time and more (if different kinds of) work. I’d also known a rather large number of folks who had PhDs and were working at the secondary level, most of whom spoke glowingly of their jobs, their cities, their homes (they owned homes!) and, best of all, their financial security. Over the course of 7 post-PhD years – during my many months of anticipation, delight, frustration and ultimately failure in the academic market – I had flirted with the idea of giving the prep-school market a go. It wasn’t even much of a flirtation at first: as Karen has noted and as so many others have voiced, teaching at a prep school was never discussed as a career option during my days in graduate school. Certainly no one at my second-tier Midwestern public looked down on it or explicitly judged such a job as inferior, but the fact that it was never proffered as an academic opportunity shows that it ranked low in my advisors’ opinion.

If you decide you want to give prep schools serious consideration, there are a number of things you need to know. I’ll do my best in the space below to address them based on my experience of failure over the course of three years and, ultimately, landing my first (and hopefully last) job.

First things first: Beware that the prep school market is rather like the academic market. There won’t be a plethora of jobs. The competition, especially from folks who have actually taught at the secondary level, will be high. The prep schools themselves will often show the same elitism you have come to expect in the academy: preference will be given to candidates from the Ivies in particular and the Northeast in general. Your PhD, the one thing that absolutely sets you apart from the rest, may have some effect but not as much as you think.

In fact don’t be surprised at first when you get passed over. What little cache is provided by having a PhD and teaching courses at the university level cannot cover your glaring lack of experience teaching at the secondary level. You might well be more intelligent or knowledgeable in your subject area than a typical highschool teacher, but intellectual ambition is less important than effective teaching and mentoring. (What academic hasn’t had a brilliant and prolific professor who was terrible in the classroom?) If you land an interview, prepare for the first question to always be: “Why do you want to move from the university to secondary-level teaching?” You should already have addressed this very concern in your thoughtfully tailored letter in fact. (In my first year alone I’ve witnessed candidates for positions at my school imprudently focus on the upper-level, college-style courses they’d like to teach.) Intellectual and/or emotional talk about the future of higher education, whether positive or negative, won’t win you over to deans and department heads looking for you to explain practically how teaching 12-18-year-olds will be different from college-age students. You must not under any circumstance predicate your desire to teach at the prep-school level on a failure in or disappointment with the academy. Rather like me, you’ve probably experienced a fair share of failure and disappointment; you could probably talk a blue streak about the wrongs you’ve suffered at the hands of others. Eat it. Write a nasty FOAD to your enemies and don’t send it. Revisit it in your low moments and revel in the injustice of the world. Just don’t mention it during your interview. Because if you’re the kind of person to bitch about students, colleagues and administrators at the university – or, worse, the kind to bitch on social media – you’re probably the kind of person to bitch about students, colleagues and administrators at the prep-school level. And no one wants to hire a bitchy victim.

You will have to present yourself not as a failed or bitter academic looking for a way out of the system but rather as a teacher looking to contribute to a community of students, teachers and advisors. The community aspect in fact is what matters most. Unlike the university, at the secondary level you are required to be involved in your students’ lives outside the classroom: as athletic or academic coaches, as formal and informal advisors, as liaisons between students and parents and as good citizens of the school (attending their sporting events, driving them to their mock trial competitions, supervising their service obligations, chaperoning their homecomings and proms). If you cannot articulate a desire to do these things or a vision for where you might fit in them, you stand no chance of making the cut.

“I’m Sorry I Wasn’t More Clear”: Gendered Pitfalls in Presentations–A Guest Post

The writer is a regular reader of TPII.


I’m a young, female, non-tenure-track faculty member and longtime reader of this blog. A few of its posts, specifically “The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings,” “Stop Negotiating Like a Girl” and “The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)” have had a lasting effect on my perception of women’s behavior in academia. These posts have made me painfully aware of how female academics continue to reproduce gender norms in professional settings through words and gestures. I now can’t help but regularly catch myself and my fellow female colleagues of all ages “acting like girls.”

Recently I was at a conference where I actually became distracted by the gendered conduct of the participants. This was a topic-based conference attended by a select group scholars of different institutional ranks, from postdocs to endowed chairs. 90% of the attendees identified as women and feminists and used gender as a critical lens in their research. I knew a handful of them as charismatic teachers and strong mentors who boldly challenged my arguments, at times, dismantling them on the spot. However, during their presentations, almost all of the participants made the kinds of mistakes that Karen identifies in her blog posts:

  1. Beginning a talk by undervaluing their work or apologizing – “I’m sorry that I can’t do justice to this material,” “I hope to make just a tiny contribution to this complex topic,” “When I was first approached to speak about this topic, I didn’t want to do it,” or “I’m now embarrassed by how under-theorized my talk is”
  2. Using “um” and “uh” too much
  3. Rushing through the talk and not making eye contact
  4. Doing the verbal upswing and the head tilt, sometimes at the same time
  5. Smiling or laughing while discussing serious topics
  6. Beginning a response to a question by apologizing – “I’m sorry, I probably wasn’t clear enough” or “I’m so sorry, it looks like I completely misinterpreted your article in my talk.”

I share these observations not to shame my unnamed colleagues but to continue to address these problems of public speaking and assertiveness as they manifest among female and otherwise marginalized scholars.

I’m still striving to unlearn my particular tendencies to undermine my work through language and demeanor. When complimented on a good presentation, I’ll sometimes say “Oh you really thought so?” or much worse, “No, it wasn’t! You’re just saying that.” Beyond the conference setting, I’ll deny that I’m a good teacher or won’t take credit for my part in organizing an event by saying “No, colleague X did all the real work!” This struggle to “toot my own horn” and to present myself professionally has especially high stakes for me as someone who lacks job security. I depend on department chairs to advocate for me in renewing my position and to write strong recommendation letters that portray me as a colleague instead of a subordinate.

As difficult as it is to unlearn habits, I find that awareness and behavioral intervention go a long way. Just identifying my personal gendered tics helps me to minimize them. Conferences, invited talks and campus visits are performative affairs that require preparation. As a result, they give us opportunities to rewrite scripts. I used to prefer giving “off the cuff” talks but discovered that when the material was relatively fresh my speech became peppered with a lot of “uhs” and “ums.” These days, I write out my presentations, but as talks, not papers. This way, I know exactly how I’m going to open, specifically reminding myself not to begin with an apology, excuse or compliment for the preceding presenter, such “Wow, that was such a great talk! I don’t know how I can possibly follow that!” I make sure that I leave myself time to take pauses and make eye-contact with the audience. When practicing my talk at home (or in my hotel room), I make a conscious effort to lift my eyes from the paper. Though I lose out on some of the spontaneity of an “off the cuff” presentation, I make up for this by giving a confident talk that, with enough rehearsal, sounds natural and engaging. I also mentally prepare for the Q&A, reminding myself to answer directly and, again, avoid apologizing.

The worst is when scholars respond to a question with “I’m sorry, I haven’t thought of that” or “Yes, I still need to do research on that.” I often begin my responses by thanking the person who posed a particularly relevant or challenging question. I don’t thank every single questioner, but thanking the people who ask hard questions shows confidence, as Karen describes in her post How Women Can Speak Better in Public: Stop Apologizing and Get a Career.  I can see way that it demonstrates that I am still in control, evaluating the quality of the questions before answering them.

In other words, I avoid some of the gendered pitfalls of communication by scripting my conference performances. By de-naturalizing women’s mistakes in an academic setting through observation and intervention, I manage to actually relax and have meaningful exchanges at academic conferences.


So You Have an Idea for an App? (#Postac Guest Post)

by Dr. Sean Miller
Co-founder, Ivy League Edge


In a recent post  on the The Professor Is In, Margy Horton described a conversation she had with a group of humanities PhDs about entrepreneurship. One participant asked whether Margy, Karen, and their ilk hadn’t already grabbed all the low hanging fruit. In other words, she wondered how many businesses where academics help fellow academics the market could bear. It’s a fair question, and Margy had an astute answer, in which she likened academic entrepreneurship to space colonization. She also provided a list of business ideas that extended beyond academics serving academics—brand consultancies, marketing firms, and writing consultation businesses, to name a few.

As we academics contemplate the post-ac landscape, we’re faced with the question that all freelancers face: will people want what I have to offer? And as educators, when brainstorming viable business ideas, we tend to gravitate towards services—like the ones Margy listed—as opposed to products. This post is for those of you who feel the entrepreneurial itch, but are considering how to make and sell products, rather than or addition to services. To get more specific, this is for those of you who consider yourselves fairly tech-savvy, but not necessarily hackers by nature.

A bit of background: Academia was my third career. After college, I worked for a number of years as a network engineer. Then I tried my hand at teaching English overseas. I graduated from the University of London in 2010 with a PhD in English. Shortly afterwards, I landed a two-year research postdoc at Nanyang Technological University. While there, I published an adaptation of my doctoral thesis, on the cultural currency of string theory as a scientific imaginary, with the University of Michigan Press. But like most newly minted PhDs, I didn’t find a permanent academic post. So I got a job back home in Portland, Oregon as a software trainer. It was while toiling away at that relatively unfulfilling job that I worked up the nerve to strike out on my own as an entrepreneur. I had an idea for an app that would teach high school students how to read with critical acumen. Inspired by a passage from Roland Barthes, I called it Readerly.

In light of this new venture, I’m struck by the naiveté of the question posed to Margy. As I’m sure Karen and her post-ac consultants can attest, when it comes to starting a business, there is no low hanging fruit! It takes creativity, dogged persistence, and most importantly, courage. Many of us think we have a great idea for a product or service—a ton of great ideas. But the fact of the matter is that ideas are cheap. It’s the execution that counts. The appeal of making products, though, is that they, unlike labor billed hourly, can scale. Make a product once, sell it a hundred thousand times. And we happen to be living in a Golden Age of opportunity for a particular kind of product, namely, software.

To make software, though, you have to know how to code. Oddly enough, during all those years in IT, I managed to avoid learning how to code. I was blocked, perhaps akin to writer’s block. This app idea was the impetus to finally stick my neck out and learn to do it. I found a great tool for reluctant hackers called LiveCode. It’s an application development platform that features an easy-to-understand natural language script—and ports to all the major operating systems. With one code base, you can build apps for the iPhone, Android, Mac, Windows, and soon, HTML5. After a couple false starts, I quit my job and threw myself full-time into coding. Four months later, I’m happy to say I have 2 apps just about ready for the market, Readerly, and Foyl, an app that helps high school students prepare for their college interviews.

The patron saint of Silicon Valley, Paul Graham, is fond of saying, “A startup is a company designed to grow fast.” To grow fast, a company needs to sell something that scales—that serves a critical mass of people simultaneously, even when its creators have gone to bed. Software can do just that, whether it’s an app or SaaS, software as a service, delivered via a web browser and purchased by subscription.

Unfortunately, what we as entrepreneurs think potential customers want and what they’re actually willing to pay for, more often than not, don’t align. This is where the wisdom of Silicon Valley’s other patron saint, Eric Ries comes in. Ries is the most prominent advocate of the lean startup method, which he defines as “a scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers’ hands faster.” It’s essence is a tight cycle of product development. You get what’s called a minimum viable product (or MVP) out on the market as quickly and cheaply as possible. Then you seek out what he calls “validated learning—a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty.” Startups use the results from experiments based on small product variations to tweak the product in order to fuel the engine of growth. Ries calls this the “lean startup process,” a virtuous circle of “learn, build, measure.”

What I’m learning in my ongoing adventure in software development is that, if we academics have the gumption, we’re well positioned to succeed. Software development requires three overlapping skills: you need to know how to code, to design, and to write. These skills can be learned. We’re all excellent learners. And coding, unlike writing, holds a certain satisfaction in that it either works or it doesn’t. There’s really no wrangling over hermeneutics. Learn, build, measure. Rinse and repeat.

So, you have a great idea for an app? What I suggest is that you spend a few days shopping around for a development platform. Then take a deep breath and dive right in. Start making your own apps—simple ones as first, then work towards making your great idea a reality. I recommend LiveCode. Or you can try your hand at the internet standard, JavaScript, through a learning website like Codecademy. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, with a little effort, you could be building basic apps with LiveCode in a matter of hours.

I’ll talk more in future posts about the ins-and-outs of software development and internet marketing. Take a moment to answer the following questions in Comments section below. What’s your idea for an app? If you haven’t started building it, what’s holding you back?

My Graduate School Debt and Post-Ac Life (A Guest Post)

This post is by Honey Smith (pseudonym), a staff writer for the personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly.


By the time I finished my PhD program in rhetoric and composition, I was geographically bound by my partner’s job — as an attorney, he made much more than an English professor ever would. None of the institutions of higher ed in the area where he was working happened to be hiring a tenure-track position in my subspecialty the first year I looked. I compromised by getting an alt-ac position managing graduate programs at a large state university in the town where my partner was working, and taking a year to revise my already-defended dissertation.

The thinking was that I wouldn’t have to deal with the uncertainty of life as an adjunct while attempting the job market again. Not only would I be guaranteed a steady paycheck, I’d have the same retirement benefits and health insurance as faculty at the university where I was working. I’d be underpaid of course (but aren’t many faculty, also?), but I’d be going on the market not just ABD, but having already successfully defended. Unfortunately, I was hired to manage those graduate programs in July 2008. Can you guess what happened next?

If you guessed the Great Recession, you guessed right. Mere weeks after I was hired, the university where I worked implemented a hiring freeze. Tenure-track searches around the country dried up, turning my academic job search into an exercise in futility. Next came furlough (read: a 10% pay cut). I had over $15,000 in credit card debt and just over $100,000 in student loan debt, and I was making less than $40,000 per year. Sometimes I cried at the grocery store because I didn’t know how I’d pay for food, and once I didn’t wash my hair for a month because I couldn’t afford shampoo. In desperation, I turned to personal finance blogs to help me gain some traction over my situation.

As a result of what I learned on those blogs, my partner and I moved from a three-bedroom house in the suburbs to a two-bedroom condo less than five miles from my job. I became a whiz with the slow-cooker and brought my lunch to work every day. I started couponing (though I never quite became an extreme couponer!) and buying generics. I put my student loans in forbearance for a year to focus on my credit card debt.

Four years later, my partner and I were married and my credit card debt was gone, though the needle on my student loan debt hadn’t really budged. There was that year of forbearance, and in addition I am on an extended graduated payment plan (I believe they stopped offering these around the time IBR plans became popular). This meant that while my payments would rise every two years over the course of a 25-year repayment, in the early years I was paying about $350 per month. This was not even enough to cover interest.

Just before my wedding, a favorite PF blog of mine called Get Rich Slowly announced that one of its writers was leaving the site. I emailed the blogger who ran it and asked if they were looking for a replacement. He allowed me to audition, and I was eventually offered the gig: two blog posts a month with an in-the-trenches, newbie-learning-the-ropes perspective. He told me I’d need to have a thick skin, and boy howdy was he right.

My post on how I accumulated my student loan debt got over 300 comments. Some comments from other student loan debtors commiserated with my situation or lauded my bravery in blogging about such a topic. However, the vast majority of The Interwebs seemed to agree that I was stupid, irresponsible, and selfish. While the blogging didn’t allow me to close the door on my debt, it did open a window into the world of side gigs. I started hustling, and between my day job and my expanding nights-and-weekends work writing web content, soon I was earning enough to give myself some breathing room.

By that time, however, I’d gone stale on the tenure-track job market. I’d let my research slide while focusing on writing that paid, and I hadn’t taught a class in years. That was fine with me, though. I had an alt-ac career I loved in a city that I no longer wanted to leave. Furlough was a thing of the past, and eventually I even got a modest raise.

Slowly, however, I realized that alt-ac life wasn’t a bed of roses. Despite a more than 30% increase in responsibilities, I only received two raises in seven years (and honestly one of them could barely be called a raise at just over $800/year!). The graduate students I worked with found my help invaluable, but I felt like the faculty in my department didn’t respect my expertise even though I was just as credentialed as they were. I applied for other positions on campus and used my performance evaluation to advocate for a promotion, but was getting nowhere.

So I started applying for jobs in the “real world” (not MTV). I was eventually offered a position editing search-engine optimized (SEO) content for professionals and small businesses. It paid almost 30% more than I had been making and I’d always thought of myself as a writer at heart, so I leapt at the chance. I’m still in the early stages of my new post-ac life, but not only is my compensation more aligned with my abilities, I’m part of a team and no longer ruled by the academic year. This means there are people who can cover for me if I go on vacation, and I’m no longer bound by things like application season, recruitment season, or fall welcome.

Now that I’m in the non-academic world, I find it interesting that I was intimidated by it for so long. Having spent years cultivating an inferiority complex, I’m now surrounded by people who find my academic credential rare and impressive. My skill set is considered unique and valuable — and when I say valuable, I mean there’s an appropriate dollar amount associated with it! I’m finally starting to make rapid headway on my debt and I couldn’t be more excited for life as a post-ac.

VAPS and Why They Suck – A Guest Post

This guest post is co-written by two veterans of the VAP-front who know whereof they speak.  All too painfully.

A followup from one of them:  “One of these co-authors is taking another VAP because she hates herself.”

This piece was originally published on Academic Happy Hour.


Recently, a well-meaning senior colleague told me that I should be excited to apply to one-year positions. “They can lead to a tenure track, and moreover, it gives you the chance to get an overview of the different institutions out there, before you settle somewhere.

Bless his out-of-touch and away-from-reality heart. Here are the reasons the Visiting Appointment sucks:

1) It doesn’t lead to tenure track positions: As Nate Silber of “Das Zugunglueck” writes about his field of German Studies, the chances that you get a Tenure Track job after several Visiting Assistant Professorships is small. Heck, the chance that you get a tenure track job is small, since they are vanishing.

2) Moving expenses: Fewer and fewer universities offer help with moving expenses, and if they do, they barely cover a minimum of the actual costs. Those fresh out of grad school will put it all on a credit card, thinking they can then pay it off once the first paycheck comes in. Then, you need to add the cost of traveling back and forth to see your significant other/spouse/family, who live away from you. So, if you live frugally, don’t have any family or medical expenses, you may even be able to save something of their pay for- drumroll please- the next move.

3) Productivity (or lack thereof): Most of the time, all these positions require is a warm body who can teach while so and so is on sabbatical or enjoying other privileges of the tenure track life. This means that you will get a 3/3 or more teaching load, and it won’t be courses you necessarily enjoy teaching. You’ll be teaching intro classes until the cows come home.  Then add office hours, meetings to which you are obliged to go, talks (to show how invested you are in the place) etc. If you do your job, we’re talking about a good 50-60 hour week. Unless you prefer to live like a medieval monk (and hey, nothing’s wrong with that), your research will slow down. You thought one year should be enough to crank out an article and that book manuscript, if you write a dedicated hour every day? It can be done, but mostly isn’t. Which then in turn looks bad when you apply for tenure track somewhere else.

4) Campus Community I: The Pariah: Most of your new colleagues will be… nice. And that’s pretty much it. While there are exceptions (see the next point), most people will be friendly, but they will keep you at a distance. They know you won’t stay, and during the job season they will show sympathy, but at the end of the day, you are not in the same boat. Yes, you do the same work, you are in the same field, but still, they have no idea what it is like to apply for jobs every damn year. And most of them don’t want to know. So, you engage as much as you can, you attend all the talks, you promise to keep in touch, and finally, you leave.

5) Campus Community II: Leaving the Party when it’s in full swing: I made wonderful friends in my last two VAP’s, personal and academic. We worked well together and the numbers of majors enrolled skyrocketed (ok, they rose). They all wanted me to stay, but couldn’t really do anything about it. This led to awkward silences in departmental meetings, personal conversations, and in the end, a lot of heartache.

6) You live in places in which you don’t want to be buried:  Admittedly, I am torn on the issue. Having an open mind is not a bad thing, and experiencing different lifestyles and different opinions hasn’t hurt anybody. But then, try to be black/jewish/gay/liberal/atheist in central Oklahoma, and you’ll ask yourself whether you really have to experience EVERYTHING or whether it’s ok to have read about a few things and only possess second hand knowledge. In these places, the university campus is usually your safe island, and that says it all.

7) Your social life sucks: Granted, living the “life of the mind”, you shouldn’t care about things as shallow and trite as friendships or even relationships. But if you do, be prepared for a lot of heartache. You will slowly start  to get to know people, and then you’ll leave. If you start dating someone, and that’s a big if (see #4), because you will see this expression on their face when you tell them you’re here for a year, and no, you have no idea where you’ll be next year. And then you’ll never hear from them again.

8) Bureaucracy: Breaking leases, extending leases, paying double rent, getting your driver’s license changed, switching insurances, switching whatever benefits your previous employer gave you to the current employer, getting your mail forwarded, telling your bank you’re moving- it all may seem trivial until you have spent two days running around and on the phone taking care of stuff. Most junior academics I know could easily write an ethnography of the DMV’s of the United States  from having spent so much time there.

9) The mental drain of constantly being in limbo: Three months after you arrive on your new campus, you start applying to jobs again. You update your materials, you frantically check the job wiki, you don’t sleep, and you don’t eat.  And at some point, you stop having dreams- whether you’re ever going to have a family or settle somewhere you like seems to be out of your hands.


The “I Believe” Statement, Post-Ac Edition – Langer #Postac Post

By Jessica Langer
Jessica Langer

Jessica Langer

You wouldn’t believe the number of cover letters I see – both in my work here at TPII and as a hiring manager who hires employees and freelancers for my agency – that include some variation of the statement “I believe I am an ideal candidate for the position.” Sometimes it’s phrased “I believe that my experience and expertise make me a good candidate for the position.” Sometimes it’s even more aggressive: “My experience combined with my knowledge and education make me the ideal candidate for the position.”
Don’t do this. (And please recall Dr. Karen insists that on the *academic* side, one must never employ this trite, overused, desperate-sounding phrase).  But, unlike in academia, you can – if you’d like – include an “I believe” statement as part of your cover letter. The key is to word it properly so that you’re pointing out a piece of information about yourself, not telling the hiring manager what she or he wants in a candidate.
My ideal “I believe” statement? “I understand from the job description posted on [wherever] that you are seeking a candidate with skills in [X, Y, Z] and expertise in [A, B, C]. I believe that my skills in [X, Y, Z, though rephrased slightly] and experience [A,B,C though rephrased slightly], as well as [other allied skills and expertise], fit this description well.
The detail of my “I believe” statement is the key here. It’s a suggestion rather than aggression. You’re not telling the hiring manager that you are the ideal candidate, because you can’t know what they’re looking for, and it’s rude and aggressive to presume that you do, and comes off badly; You’re not telling them what to think, how to feel, or anything else like that. You’re pointing out that, in your opinion, your skills and experience match well with what they say they are looking for. It’s not an assumption about what they are looking for. It’s a submission that, based on what they say they are looking for, you fit the job description.
This kind of statement is also key in getting through some non-academic keyword gateways; that is, a lot of major companies and organizations, particularly government organizations, will literally run a keyword data search on resumes and cover letters automatically, and automatically reject anything that doesn’t come close enough. So an “I believe” statement of this type is a way to get keywords from the job description into the cover letter. And it’s also a way to demonstrate that the candidate has read the description carefully and taken the time to determine that her or his skills and experience are a match for what’s stated there.
So: it’s a matter of wording, yes. But these statements are a lot more common and accepted outside of academia than in academia.