Managing Your Postdoc Year(s): Avoid These Mistakes (A Guest Post)

A few months ago I wrote a column in Chronicle Vitae about managing your time for a postdoc; the main point being, get your writing done!  A reader wrote to follow up and share her own story about failing to effectively manage her writing time on a prestigious three-year postdoc.  What it shows is that it’s not just essential to get your writing done, but to get it done with a constant eye to job market timelines.  The postdoc is not a glorious space of unbroken writing time; when you factor in slow academic publication processes and searches that commence a year in advance of employment, the postdoc is much shorter than it seems. The time has to be closely managed to ensure you leave the postdoc employed.  As this guest poster writes, “I believe that the multi-year postdoc as it’s referred to in US academia, is a blight upon my CV, as peers and more seniors weigh up my modest publication record against the three golden years I had at Oxford.”  Take care, readers!


In the early spring of 2010, I was awarded one of the coveted, prestigious junior research fellowships (JRFs, as it is known in Oxbridge) in Oxford, United Kingdom. It was my final semester at Duke, where I was wrapping up my dissertation. Needless to say, it was a grand and unique opportunity. It offered 3 years of unstructured research time, came with accommodation and SCR privileges (wining and dining rights in the senior common room, which only Fellows at Oxford and Cambridge have access to at their respective Colleges), and a modest stipend. Most importantly though, this particular JRF did not require any teaching and thus expected junior Fellows to devote their attention solely to research. The professed goal of these Fellowships were to help early career scholars to achieve a tenure track position. A dream come true, for a young aspiring scholar, but yet a double edged sword: if I failed to produce, it would count against me on the job market.

And double edged sword indeed did it prove to be. For various reasons I will explain, the publications were too few, and came too late, for the prestige of the Oxford JRF to help me on the market. I was lucky to secure a tenure track position within my first couple of weeks on the US job market, at a Research 1 university. Nevertheless, I believe that the multi-year postdoc as it’s referred to in US academia, is a blight upon my CV, as peers and more seniors weigh up my modest publication record against the three golden years I had at Oxford. Hindsight is perfect, so they say, and now I know the mistakes I made and the obstacles that proved daunting. Let my experience prove a cautionary tale.

My graduate program was elite, not CHYMPS, but in the top-10 and prior to 2008, did place students in top-30 R1 positions without publications or with just one revise resubmit. As an entering cohort, in 2004, we were told that our placement record was stellar, and that a good dissertation plus promising research agenda would be all we would need. Thus, although the resources were vast and seemingly endless (until 08), faculty well known and uber-productive, and methodological training top-notch, we weren’t taught or encouraged to publish. I myself had tried to launch projects with various colleagues, all of which had gone nowhere.

Thus, I arrived in October, 2010 to Oxford with no publication experience. I knew next to nothing about the publication process; to illustrate my ignorance: I did not know what a cover letter to the Editor would entail. I did not know ScholarOne, or any of the details that go into actual submission. I was *that* clueless. Suddenly I was left on my own, in my lodgings in Oxford, to go forth and publish. A mentorship program supposedly existed, but I never got any mentorship. Most other Fellows were from the UK system and were already safely ensconced within their networks and continued to work with their thesis advisers.

I had heard advice that I should seek ‘informal’ feedback on manuscripts, that is cold email academics working on similar topics and see if they’d provide feedback. This faulty advice meant that I waited 9 months for ‘informal’ feedback. In the interim, I revised a chapter of my dissertation to fit the format of the intended journal, not knowing that that is the last step, mostly done after copyright transfer to a journal. I also mistakenly transposed an artificial theoretical framework to make my piece publishable. All these unnecessary changes stemmed from the mistaken belief I’d acquired as a graduate student that scholars only got published by working diligently and for years on ‘masterpieces’. Maybe, back in the day.

In a nutshell, I spent exactly one calendar year to submit my first piece, which four months later resulted in a rejection that might have been avoided without the artificial theoretical transplant. I later published the piece in a similarly ranked top journal by going back to basics-to my original theoretical framework. I also chanced upon an excellent discussant at our annual conference, who provided on point feedback for another paper. That became my first and quickest publication. Instead of awaiting more feedback, I went just with her feedback, plus some advice regarding journal choice from other postdocs at Oxford.

I also did not calculate that the glorious 3 year post-doc in fact translated to 2 years before I’d be on the US market. My field peaks around October for tenure track jobs. It also goes without saying that I had no idea how journal submissions or timelines functioned. Little did I know that for fast-track journals, if all goes well, the time from submission to acceptance could be the same length of time to create a human being, and more for online first publication, and yet more for in print. A more typical scenario are 2-3 rejections before an acceptance, or approximately 2 years from first submission to an acceptance and possibly 3 or more for in print. Even more depressing cases have been reported by senior faculty of 7 years from submission to publication, with 7 rejections in the interim.

Meanwhile, for personal reasons I’d also decided to go on the UK market. Again, my strategy of sitting on manuscripts to get informal feedback proved suicidal for my chances on the UK. I am among the lucky few who now know the markets on both sides of the pond. Academic year ’12-13 unfortunately also coincided with the pre-REF (research excellence framework) for UK higher education. Early career scholars may be prorated down to 3 or 2 publications but the more is better logic meant that someone with a modest record had a probability of obtaining a job interview statistically indistinguishable from zero.

I also was torn between pursuing a book as opposed to publishing article length work. I knew even less about book publishing than about article submissions. Thus, without making a plan, I left the book question up in the air. Whilst my field is article driven, and more so for quantitative scholars, a book can sometimes be the cherry on top that distinguishes you from the application pile.

Without further ado then, from the things I did wrong here are my tips for the lucky few among you embarking on postdocs.

  • Plan the postdoc, as you would plan an intricate vacation. Have writing and research goals in mind that are not general but as specific as possible. Break them down according to semester or term (at Oxbridge, we had 8 week terms plus 6 week off term time), in the least. Then play your days so that you devote time to daily writing and then work on the other research relevant tasks-transcription, data coding, data compilation, analysis, the reading, you know the fun bits!
  • Submit, submit, and submit. Simply reading, taking notes, and writing are not enough if you ultimately do not have the output to show for it. As a colleague recently put it, academia is ruthless in that good intention and effort count for next to nothing; output is where it’s at. Another angle on this is the threat of being scooped. Talking about your research to colleagues and presenting at conferences places you at a vulnerable spot for these ideas to be harnessed and packaged by better funded, better known, and better placed scavengers to proceed ahead with them. In addition, great minds think alike, and you will never be able to prove the difference, if you do not act quickly and quietly. Remember that your job as a graduate student began as a consumer of ideas and by now you should be a producer.
  • Have goals: Similar to the above but on a slightly different note, decide if you will prioritize articles or book or both. This will depend on how your field works and what it values and on the length and nature of your postdoc. I am writing from the experience of a research-only postdoc. However, having taught a 2-2 load off the bat as an assistant professor, even if you have to teach, limit your hours from the outset. Otherwise, teaching will take up your life. You are warned.
  • Seek advice. If you are still in contact with your committee, their advice is invaluable. The informal reviewers, the journal reviewers, and colloquia attendees will not have the patience or time to read your material as closely as your advisor and committee members have. Also leverage the mentorship and networking opportunities provided by your postdoc. At Oxford, the College system has pros and cons in this regard. It provided no mentorship, and we’d be housed in Colleges where there might be one or two scholars in the same discipline and no one in your subfield. (Nuffield was an exception for the social sciences). Take initiative in emailing the departmental members, attending events, and introducing yourself, much as you would at a conference.
  • Know the market and know which market(s) you will be on: I also mistakenly thought I’d be able to get another cushy, if not three year, postdoctoral position. That was my fall back, maybe borne out of the graduate school environment where we were coddled and told all would be swell, given our elite pedigrees. I never thought VAPs or worse, adjuncts would be on the horizon. Thus, when I did eventually go on the market, R1 TTs plus few SLACs with research focus were all I applied to. Again, to reiterate the obvious, I was extremely lucky. There are institutions that still will look to fit and reward potential and there are cases in which the first or second choice candidates will fly off to greener pastures. I was up against that year’s market superstar, who eventually landed a CHYMPS postdoc and is now at Harvard but regardless, the first offer was made to me.
  • Coauthor cautiously, if at all:  Your solo work, especially as a recent graduate, comes first and foremost. I began 2+1 papers with someone in 2009; they are still not published. They will be some time, hopefully before I attain tenure, but had I depended on these pieces to be the career making articles, I’d most likely have zero on the CV right now. That is not to say do not coauthor but when you do, choose your projects and coauthors wisely. I was led astray on 7 (!) projects, some submission ready, others data work, others conference papers, that failed for various reasons that can be summed up by lack of commitment on their part for that project. Do not waste time on projects that are unpublishable, or relinquish those that could be, and do not overcommit to prospective coauthors who will not commit to you. Much like dating and relationships!
  • Do not volunteer for optional teaching. My postdoc was one of those with no requirements for teaching. Those who wanted to, taught tutorials within College. Unlike traditional classroom lecturing or seminars, these are akin to one to one or at most small group private tutorials, as the name specifies, where one goes over students’ papers and assignments for a course in your field. Make no mistake, while not requiring Powerpoint prep, lecture notes, or any of the usual tasks and minutiae inherent on ‘teaching prep’ in the US, these can be a time suck. One golden piece of advice I received was to avoid such commitments as pure research freedom would not come again. Teaching experience does look good on the CV but if you are aiming for the R1 world, it will only count at the margins.
  • And last but not least, have hobbies, or something else outside of academia that helps structure your time. In saying this, I go back to square 1 as in point 1. During what I now look back upon as the best three years of my adult life fitness became my passion. It will keep you sane, and also serve to divide up your days.


I would end with a congratulations to those of you fortunate enough to have postdocs in hand. Please remember that this is a golden opportunity that can come back to bite you. In fact, I’d venture to say that the more prestigious and cushier the postdoc, the more you will be penalized for failing to produce. That, was also a naïve assumption on my part –that the Oxford name would count for something. First off, foreign postdocs, be they Oxford, or Cambridge, or any other fancy name, are not well known in the US and their multi-year nature immediately raises a few well-placed questions (as happened to me on a phone interview with an elite private R1). Second, your postdoc is not your pedigree. It only counts insofar as you leverage it, by publishing first and foremost, and by networking, and making use of the resources provided (Data, libraries, gym). You are not permanent; even cases that are renewable are few and far between, much less cases of postdoc to permanent position (again there is an inverse relationship between the probability of such an occurrence and the prestige of the postdoc). To echo the above, again last but not least, enjoy the year(s) but do not enjoy them too much, as I did, to the extent that you turn a blind eye upon the looming job market.

Four (Somewhat) Easy Ways to Network – Gover

by Maggie Gover

Maggie Gover

Maggie Gover

For some, networking is the most pleasurable part of their professional lives.  For others, the very word produces fear and anxiety.  If you are a natural networker, you are lucky!  When asked how people got their jobs, the number one answer involves some sort of networking.  Many of my graduate students and clients know that they should be networking, but they are puzzled by exactly what this means.  Here are the four easiest and most effective ways that I have found to network.

  1. The Informational Interview

The informational interview can give you a lot of bang for your buck.  Not only can you learn a great deal about a profession you are considering, but you can also start building your professional network.  In an informational interview, you will be asking questions about a specific job at a particular company.  You will also be finding out about other opportunities. You can ask if this person knows anything about current or upcoming job openings at his/her company or others.

The person you are interviewing can also point you toward two of the other networking opportunities.  Find out if they know of volunteering or internship positions that might give you both professional experience and the opportunity to meet others in the field.  Also find out if there are professional associations or groups that you could join.  Make sure that the conversation is not dominated by asking whom the person you are interviewing can connect you to.  Instead, primarily ask information-gathering questions and ask about ways that you can connect yourself to others in the field.  Most importantly, do not lose touch with the person you have interviewed as soon as the interview is over.  Instead, connect to them on LinkedIn!

  1. is the latest rage in professional networking, and enthusiasm for it is only growing.  This is also a rather easy platform for networking.  If you don’t have an account, you should definitely set one up, update it often and, even when you have a job, keep it updated.  Just like a resume, it is hard to update your LinkedIn page if you have not been steadily refreshing it.

Connect with whomever you know who already has a LinkedIn account.  At first, it may look like only those in your current profession, academia, are linked to you.  However, soon you will find that your friends and acquaintances will start connecting with you as well.  As you connect with more people, endorse their skills as appropriate.  You can also request that they endorse your skills.  As you do so, you are building not only a resume but an online presence with people who are vouching for your effectiveness as a worker.  As you complete informational interviews, connect on LinkedIn.  If you have volunteer or interning experiences, connect on LinkedIn.  As you make professional connections, connect on LinkedIn.  When you meet people in bars, connect on LinkedIn.  Okay, maybe not bars all the time, but here is a guide for when you should connect on LinkedIn.  If a business card was exchanged, if you talked about how your work intersects with the other person’s work, or if a business card exchange would have been appropriate in the Mad Men days, you should connect on LinkedIn.


  1. Volunteering or Interning

You are a graduate student or an already incredibly busy working academic.  You have a family, or a significant other, or a cat that requires more attention than you can give.  You don’t have time to volunteer or intern.  I get it.  But I also know that this is one of the best ways to show off your skills to potential employers and to get references who, when called, can talk about practical skills you can bring to the work place.

Interning and volunteering can give clout to your application when you are applying for a position.  Instead of saying, “I have always been interested in working for a theater non-profit” with little proof that this is the case, you can show that you have always been interested in a theater non-profits by talking about your volunteer work during the local elementary school spring play.  Instead of saying, “after my PhD, I am excited to translate my passion for environmental science research to the environmental science industry,” you can show that you have experience writing and editing an air quality blog on the county’s website.  Additionally, people you work with can do things like endorse your skills on LinkedIn, point you to jobs openings, be listed as references, suggest additional trainings you might need to advance to higher paying jobs, and generally become part of your professional network.

  1. Joining and Attending Professional Association Meetings or Group Events

Look for professional groups or associations that meet your interests.  Those you have interviewed may have given you a few leads as will those with whom you have interned.  However, you may want to do some exploring on your own as well.  Think about professional organizations that fit the types of employment in which you are interested.  Are you interested in the non-academic side of university life?  Try the National Academic Advising Association.  They offer discounted memberships to those who are still students and allow those who are not currently working at an institute of higher education to join and attend conferences and regional meetings. Do you want to use all of your conference-planning prowess to move into professional event planning?  Try the Event Planners Association.  They too offer a student or entry-level membership.  Or you can seek professional networks that connect a special interest group that may or may not be confined to one industry.  The Association for Women in Communications  or the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources might be for you, and both offer student or recent graduate membership options.  In general, look for professional associations that have student or entry-level memberships that are under $100 annually and have regional meetings in your area.

Don’t be afraid to seek more informal opportunities as well.  These will often be cheaper and easier to fit into your schedule.  Are you an environmental researcher or have you always been interested in environmentally friendly products and lifestyle choices?  Why not start attending Green Drinks meetings?   You can even find meet-up groups in your area that might help you connect. Just type in your zip code and select how far you are willing to travel to explore the opportunities in your area.  My favorites are the young professionals and the entrepreneurs groups in various cities, but try others that are interesting to you!  The point to all of these is that you will be meeting other people with like interests and professional networks.

Whichever methods or combinations of methods you choose for networking with others, remember that networking is not a one-time thing.  You must periodically touch base with your group, just as you do with your friends.  So find an option that works well for you, and make sure it becomes a regular event in your agenda.


Those 12 Sentences: Evaluating Cover Letter Advice

Many of you have undoubtedly seen the blog post by Philip N. Howard that has been circulating around the internet for the past couple of weeks, called A Dozen Sentences That Should Appear in Your Academic Cover Letter.  It was originally published on the University of Washington Graduate College Mentor Memo site, and was later reprinted in Inside Higher Ed.

Many readers sent me the link to ask for my reaction.  This post is my response.

First off, I’m pleased that anyone is providing hands-on advice of this kind.  This information is so desperately needed, and I’ve been operating in such a vacuum for so long, that I’m very glad to see that somebody, anybody, is actually trying to provide concrete and specific job market advice.

That is not to say that I agree with everything Philip Howard writes.  I will comment on each of the twelve sentences in turn.

1. I would like to be considered for the position of [title copied from job ad] in [exact department name from job ad] at the [exact institution name from job ad]. I am an advanced doctoral candidate in [your department].

Yes, indeed, except that this sentence contains feeling-talk (I would like) that job candidates routinely overuse. I would recommend, “I am writing in application to the position…”  While “I would like” is not a problem in isolation, added to the rest of the feeling-talk that Howard recommends in later sentences, it becomes a bit excessive.  The bottom line about feelings in job letters is that candidates always think that their strong feelings are the key to getting jobs, and if they just communicate their “passion” and “excitement,” and “eagerness,” that will surely get them hired. Remember that you and 250/500/750 other people are all trying to pitch the same passion, eagerness and excitement, and it’s old before you even start.  Actually, what gets you hired is SHOWING, rather than telling, that you have pursued an energetic course of research, publication and teaching, without recourse to cheap emotion words.

2. My doctoral project is a study of [cocktail party description]. Much of the research on this topic suggests that [characterize the literature as woefully inadequate]. But I [demonstrate, reveal, discover] that contrary to received wisdom, [your punch line].

Yes indeed.

3. To complete this research I have spent [X years] doing [fieldwork/lab work/archival work/statistical analysis]. I have traveled to [these cities or libraries], interviewed [X number of experts], created [original datasets/original compositions/original artwork].

Howard elaborates:  “This sentence should be followed by a paragraph with the story of your research process. Overwhelm the committee with the volume of artifacts you’ve studied, people you’ve talked to, time you have dedicated or places you’ve been.”

The sentence itself is indeed essential. Search committees need to know what you examined.  However, never, ever, EVER “overwhelm” a search committee with information, and good god don’t write a “story” of your research “process”!!  9 out of 10 job candidates believes that their dissertation is SO fascinating, SO compelling, SO urgent, SO earth-shattering that they would gladly overwhelm every person they meet with endless quantities of minutiae about it, AND the endless tale of how they discovered this, and then turned to that, and then developed an interest in this (see below), and then were “fortunate enough to have the opportunity to” do that…etc. etc. ad nauseum.  Ain’t nobody got time for that. Deliver this information crisply, factually, in no more than 2 sentences.

4. I have completed [X] of [Y] chapters of my dissertation, and I have included two substantive chapters as part of my writing sample.

This is ok, although telling them what chapters you have finished in the dissertation is less important than telling them a concrete defense date in the first sentence, in my view.  Talk is cheap, but a defense date doesn’t lie.

5. I have well-developed drafts of several other chapters, and expect to defend in [month, year]. OR Having defended in [month, year], I plan to [turn it into a book-length manuscript for a major scholarly press/select key chapters for publication in disciplinary journals].

Howard elaborates: “If any of your committee members are unwilling to commit to even a season of the year for your defense date, or you don’t have two substantive chapters to submit to the hiring committee, it’s too early for you to be on the academic job market.”

He is absolutely right about plans for publication. He is mostly right about the too early to go on the market, except that sometimes it is good to go on the market early to get your worst mistakes out of the way while your still have a cushion of time, affiliation, and, we presume, support.

6. Although my primary area of research is [disciplinary keyword here], I have additional expertise in [another disciplinary keyword here] and am eager to teach in both areas. I have [taught/served as a teaching assistant] in courses about [A, B and C]. In the next few years, I hope to develop courses in [X and Y].

Of course you must describe teaching competencies, but don’t do it with vague claims and emotion-talk.  Eager?  Hope?  How does that help us?  Again, 250 other people will resting their cases on exactly the same feelings. Give us facts and specifics instead.

7. For the most part, my approach to research is through [social science or humanistic method keyword here], and I would be interested in developing a methods class on this approach to research.

All candidates need to be prepared to teach both specialized classes related to their research, and bread-and-butter classes such as Intro, Methods, and Theory.  Thus, he is correct that you should be able to discuss a methods class. However, again, he reverts to feeling-talk (“I would be interested”).  Candidates overuse the word interest almost as much as they overuse the words passion and excited, and are often already so self-involved that their letters devolve into an endless vortex of “I am interested in xxxx, and I have an additional interest in yyy, and I would be interested in teaching zzzz, and I have a great interest in the work of pppp and my interests in qqqq coincide…..”  It’s an addiction. I have a whole post on it called, “Nobody Cares What You Are Interested In.” By which I mean, don’t TELL search committees that you’re interested in this or that. SHOW them you’re interested with specifics.

8. Although I have been focused on my graduate research for several years, I have been actively involved in conversations with [scholars in the department you are applying to, or scholars at other universities/professional associations/conferences/other disciplines].

What?  How do conversations help anything?  Talk is cheap, and anybody can converse, particularly a grad student, about his dissertation. That does not distinguish you.

Howard elaborates, “This can be the one paragraph about service, highlighting conferences you’ve attended, workshops you’ve organized, and other ways you’ve supported your discipline.”

The key here is conferences. Those are peer-reviewed and your attendance at them will set your record apart.  Never hang your hat on service.

9. In the next few years, I hope to be able to investigate [reasonably related problems or questions].

Everybody needs a second project.  However, please don’t articulate it in vague aspirational feeling language like “hope.”  Are you really that unsure?  That doesn’t inspire confidence.  And while we’re on the subject, don’t try, attempt, endeavor, or seek, either.  Read my post: Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Try.

10. I am interested in this post for a variety of reasons: [something about the character of the department/university/community/city].

This is tailoring, and it’s essential.

11. Because of my graduate training, my doctoral research, and my teaching [experience/interests], I am uniquely qualified for this job.

Oh good god.  Really?  Uniquely qualified?  Did your mom tell you that?

When a search committee reads 250 letters that each say the applicant is “uniquely qualified” (which, by the way, they do already as it is, even without his post telling them to), those words are emptied of meaning. They constitute pitiful, desperate rhetoric. Connect your achievements and record with the position without recourse to wheedling claims.

12. In the next few months, I will be attending [conference A] and [conference B]. If you or your colleagues are also planning to attend, I would be happy to meet for an informal conversation.

To my eye this also reads as desperate.  The academic job search is a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” situation. If they want you, they’ll ask.

Howard finishes:

Shoot for two and a half pages of content: less than that and you might not seem like an advanced doctoral candidate well -immersed in a project; more than that and committee members may stop reading.

No, two pages is plenty.  He is opening many doors here, through the constant emotion and interest talk, for excessive and self-involved verbiage.  Good editing and a focus on the facts rather than feelings easily keep letters within two pages.

As you write, drop in the names of granting agencies that have supported you, or the journals that are publishing or reviewing your work.


Ideally several faculty members will write letters on your behalf. If possible, at least one letter-writer can come from a university other than yours. Hiring committees love reference letters on different university letterheads; it shows that you have social capital beyond your home department.

100% agreed. I have a blog post on this subject–“Why You Need a Recommender From Outside Your Department.”

Address your letter to the person heading the search or the department head. A greeting such as “Dear Committee Members” shows you haven’t done enough research. Ask a friend to proofread your document for grammar and spelling.

For sure.

Finally, follow up with the department. Hiring committees do not always tell candidates whether they are on the shortlist. If you finish another dissertation chapter, or get an article published, a few weeks after submitting your letter, submit an update by email and ask that this example be added to your file and where the committee is in the hiring process.

Follow up with additional information like this, yes. However, don’t follow up to querulously ask if you’ve been short-listed, etc. Candidates are always asking me when they should do that.  Don’t do that.  Again: “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

How To Tailor a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging)

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  23 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including the template for a job cover letter, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.


Today’s post is going to address the difficult matter of tailoring a job letter. In the work my clients do on their job market materials, it seems that nothing gives them as much trouble as the one small paragraph, in their job letters, tailored to the job. (Well, nothing, maybe, except the dreaded teaching statement).

I am always startled at how often the tailoring that I tell them to do comes back in the form of pandering, flattering, or begging.

Proper tailoring is none of these things.

Now, before I get to what good tailoring looks like, let me take a step back and consider the letter as a whole. My working principle, when I was on the job market myself, when I trained my own Ph.D. students, and now as a coach and consultant, is that a candidate has one basic job letter template, which is then adjusted into 4-8 subsidiary templates, depending on the type of institution, department, and specialization of the specific job being applied for.

The basic templates vary only a little. Your dissertation, your teaching, your publications, your second book project: these remain mostly constant across platforms. And so, there is only one part of the templates that changes substantially, in the Dr. Karen cover letter model, and that is the “tailoring paragraph” which comes at the end of the letter.

The basic goal of the tailoring paragraph is to identify programs, initiatives, centers, emphases, and specializations on the campus to which you are applying, in which you, the candidate, could productively participate.

I do not approve of “fit” sentences in academic job letters. I know that, in this, I depart from some other advice circulating in academic circles. To my eyes, however, a sentence in a job letter that claims, “My expertise in xxx and xxx makes me an excellent fit for your position,” will only rile up the academic temperment that will inevitably respond, “I will be the judge of THAT!” No amount of telling your reader about your fit can replace a paragraph effectively showing it. 

In addition, of course, such language is painfully overused and thus trite.  Particularly the line, “I am uniquely qualified…”  Uniquely?  Really?  Did your mom say so?  And qualified?  You and 50 other people are all “qualified” for the position. You better be  setting your bar a hell of a lot higher than “qualified.”

For more, refer to my post on the subject:  “I’m the Ideal Candidate!

In a previous post on job letters I advocated mentioning specific faculty by name, as people with whom you might collaborate or co-teach. However, after working with many clients since publishing that post, I’ve come to understand that this advice does not yield the results I had hoped for.

Simply listing some faculty members in the department—ie, “I would look forward to working with faculty such as Nelson and Smith on transnational history”–is not terrible, but it is not, I now feel, the sole demonstration of familiarity with or enthusiasm for the campus and its strengths. In other words, yes, you should list a few people by name and how you anticipate collaborating with them. But that should be augmented with other content.

The other content is all too often abject eagerness, undignified flattery, or desperate pandering.  Here are examples:

Abject eagerness to fill adjunct-level teaching needs: ie, “I would be happy to teach any of your introductory courses, including Anth 103, 105, 112, or 121.”

Undignified flattery: ie, “I would be thrilled to be a part of a department like yours with such a long and illustrious history in the field of Asian Studies.”

Desperate pandering: ie, “it would be a great honor to join the dynamic faculty of the English department at the University of XXX and I would strive to be a productive member.”

Tailoring, done correctly, is demonstrating your familiarity with real, substantive ongoing initiatives that already exist in the department and on campus, and signalling your enthusiasm for participating in them.

A good tailoring paragraph might read something like this…


In neither of these examples is the department or the campus explicitly flattered or pandered to. In both of them, the already existing strengths and priorities of the department/campus are acknowledged, and the potential of the candidate to be an active participant highlighted.To conclude, in your tailoring paragraph, above all else, do not flatter. Sentences like :

Your department is an exciting and dynamic intellectual community,” or

As one of the top ranked programs in the country, your program is very exciting to me,” or

Being home to one of finest student bodies in the country, your campus would be an ideal location for me to start my teaching career”

will not get you the job. They will just make you look desperate.

Even in this job market—no, ESPECIALLY in this job market— the basic rule of all job searches in all times and all places still holds true: you have to make them want you.

You make them want you by retaining your dignity and your sense of self (and definitely your sense of humor), and comporting yourself like a scholar and colleague worthy of pursuing.


Grad Student Grandiosity

Grad students tend to veer between two extremes: I know nothing and I know everything.  The latter position is an over-compensatory response to fear of the former.

As you gain experience you find a middle ground of calm confidence. However, at the point of applying for your first tenure track job, these two extremes predominate.

Most of my writing attacks the former, ie, the grad student default to “I’m not worthy.”  However, this Fall I’m inundated with cases of the latter: “I am a genius, I tell you, a GENIUS.”

This position is of course communicated not directly, but indirectly through what I’ve come to call “grad student grandiosity.”  Grandiosity can be seen in purple prose, pretentious verbs and adjectives, pedantic or tendentious claims for the originality of the work, bragging and judging.  In this post I give examples, adapted from actual client documents, of how grandiosity appears in job application documents.

Grandiosity is most often found in excessive claims for the work’s import:

My work transforms understandings of civil society

My book will serve a milestone function in the academic panorama and all major academic libraries will be interested in this work.

My work represents a case study of balance between the academic mission of uncovering understudied phenomena and the intellectual duty to spur global debates on the current world.

This is an essential topic in our own time

I call this framework XXX/XXX, much like Michel Foucault’s knowledge/power paradigm

As Western academia’s first comprehensive work concerning…

My research not only contributes to XXXX history and politics, but pushes the boundaries in understanding the implications and contributions of

My dissertation, then, not only offers a novel interpretation of a central figure, texts, and topics in the history of Western thought; it enlarges disciplines and discourses of crucial interest to academic and wider public audiences.


And self-important fancy words:

The abiding concerns of my research pertain to the relationship of…

My next work recalibrates the concluding arguments of my dissertation

The dissertation draws together nascent theories of

The significance of my research is captured in two interdependent points of contribution.

Understanding this past complexity prepares us for the challenge of working to improve


Pretentious modifiers are always a sure sign of grandiosity:

The relationship between xxx and xxx has been a troubled and, at times, tragic one in both the distant and recent past. Untangling its intricacies requires a perspective hearkening back to a point at which the traditions were indistinct.


As is the impulse to judge and condemn other scholars’ failings:

“The ill-considered tendency, here, to rationalize the xxx as merely illustrative of narrative xxx exploits or symbols of elite status limit the interpretative potential of these objects. This narrowed perspective undermines the dense materiality of the xxxx themselves, from which a broad field of valuable insight is lost.”

Postures that correctly see in the xxx century “the first century of xxxx” (e.g. cite and cite) risk presenting those traditions as spoken into being by xxxx , thus relying on xxx for the very definition of their objects of inquiry.

The very act of making the term xxx plural is enough to bring the ire of several scholars in the field.

To date, even the most thoughtful proponents of a model of continued interfusion between xxx and xxx  in the middle ages (e.g., cite and cite) leave unanswered questions of…


There is pedantic lecturing:

The 21st century can be characterized by change and transaction.  In this environment it is important that undergraduate education teaches students how to learn. It is more important that students know how and where to find information than to know all of the answers.  Be able to challenge core assumptions rather than share the standard one.  Recognize a variety of viewpoints rather than molding experience to a single viewpoint.


Besides classroom and labgroup responsibilities, community science outreach is an increasingly important and relevant aspect of science education. Whether it be through demonstrations and conversations in high schools, malls, and community organizations or media and public lecture discussions, scientists, and especially xxxx, should reach out and describe what we are doing to the general public and how the field of xxx  improves and affects lives in a positive way.


And there is pretentious posturing about teaching:

These methods play to my strengths as a pedagogue

Both my dissertation and classroom work evince a strong interest in

Because skills acquired in the classroom can perdure for a lifetime

My emphasis on rhetorically-situated teaching reticulates well with service-learning courses

My classes are also praxis spaces, which require my teaching to be iterative

A meaningful problem within which the student is invested and the resolution of which will stimulate the student’s creative and analytical abilities.

Experiential learning dovetails with ethnographic training and complements in-class instruction.

My teaching is motivated by a deep commitment to probing the ways that

This approach brings balance to considerations, piquing the thought of the student, while pointing to their potential to develop new insight.

One of my primary teaching goals is to “de-fetishize” both the triumphal globalization of the modern and the obstinate parochialism of the past, and show why both are true but partially


It also arises in the tailoring sections, when a candidate “presumes to judge” the department and its faculty:

I find XXX’s work on xxx particularly intriguing, as it is consistent with my own approach…

I am impressed by the department’s commitment to xxx 

I find the program’s position on xxx correct and would support



Sometimes candidates claim a broader view than they are really entitled to:

“Over the course of my academic career, I have always…”  [candidate is ABD]


And sometimes candidates combine the grandiose and the over-humble:

My thesis hopes to be part of this crucial conversation…


It is easy to see why job candidates fall prey to grandiosity.  Their position could not be more insecure; it’s natural to overcompensate. However, effective documents will eschew grandiose claims, and will present the record calmly, without excessive rhetorical flourishes, and with a focus on just the facts. As Julie Beck notes in this month’s Atlantic: “Counterintuitively, grandiose vocabulary diminishes participants’ impressions of authors’ cerebral capacity. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.”*

*Julie Beck, How to Look Smart. Atlantic, August 13, 2014; citing Oppenheimer, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity” (Applied Cognitive Psychology, March 2006).



Break The Cycle of List-Addiction (Or, Just Say No To Flabby Logic)

[This is a repost]

Too many of you are addicted to lists in your writing. What does this look like? Well, something like this:

In sum, my dissertation uses interviews, surveys, textual analysis, and internet research in order to explore the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace on the social networks, family connections, and romantic relationships among a range of undergraduate students at large universities as well as small colleges, in order to analyze the differences in usage patterns by variables such as race, gender, sexuality, and age.”


The list is the flabbiest form of a scholarly argument. It is basically additive instead of analytical, and it simply piles on new variables instead of doing the work of winnowing and ordering them to make a clear, focused argument.

List-addiction is epidemic among young scholars who are trying to please everyone instead of fighting the good fight of declaring an argument and seeing it through to its singular conclusion.  Or who are trying to prove that they can do everything and have no gaps in the project.  Or who are just imprecise writers.

Here is a typical example, adapted from a client document:

My research focuses on transnational Latin American history and culture, comparative race and ethnicity, and critical geography. At its core, my work is interested in how cultural and economic processes produce social inequality and how ordinary people interpret, inhabit, and influence these processes. I employ critical theories of race and space to investigate how national and transnational histories of war, empire, labor, and migration articulate through Latin American social and cultural practices. My research explores how these histories shape the formation of LatinAmerican identities and communities in relation to the production of racialized landscapes.

Count the dyads (8), and the lists (3).

The outcome is a dizzying and tedious jumble of words that skims over a giant set of variables instead of clarifying a project.

If you find lists in your job documents, and this would include lists of methods, fields, variables, and in particular courses that you propose to teach, remove them immediately.

This one in common: “I am prepared to teach any of the following courses on your course listing: ANTH 101, ANTH 102, ANTH 124, ANTH 125, ANTH 303, ANTH 364, ANTH 401, ANTH 402, and ANTH 499, as well as other courses as appropriate.”

Who wants to read a list of course numbers?

Some lists are necessary—sometimes you must list the texts you study, the methods you utilized, or the topics you cover.  The litmus test is not the appearance of a single list, but of a series of lists. If you have lists in every sentence, and dyads as far as the eye can see then that is list addiction.  Want a quick diagnosis?  Do a universal search for “and” in your document–if you have a case of list addiction, it’ll light up.

A mature job candidate will articulate a singular position, take a stand, and be prepared to defend it. And that courage of conviction—manifested in the choice of one thing as the best thing—is what makes a scholarly reputation, and gets tenure track jobs.


Finding Inner Conviction – Part 2 of 3 (Cardozo)

This is a continuation of Karen Cardozo’s 3 part series on developing new ways to “track” unexpected opportunities as you pursue your post-ac transition.   In last week’s post she told us about recent writing by Martha Beck on the philosophical transformations needed to reinvent yourself away from outdated linear academic career tracks.  She introduces the other ways of knowing that Beck argues are now required:  Wordlessness (non-verbal awareness), Oneness (connection with your environment), Imagination (the capacity to perceive what doesn’t yet exist) and Forming (the ability to manifest what you’ve imagined).  I’ll say it again–some of your are going to positively hate this new agey stuff.  But if you’re ready for this kind of transformation, it will inspire you.

Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

Unsurprisingly, the four modes that Beck emphasizes are the orientations least valued in academe, which is ruled in contrast by verbal rationality (not Wordlessness), division or specialization (not Oneness), and adherence to traditional structures (not Imagining or Forming new ones).

The subtitle of Finding Your Way is: “Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want.”  Beck argues that amidst such rapid flux, the safest, truest, course is not to seek security in (crumbling) institutions but to adopt the habits of trackers in the wild – wordlessly taking in every scent, every clue, that suggests where to go and what to do next.

Doing what comes naturally means paying close attention to all of the internal and environmental evidence that you’ve been schooled to ignore, and following what Beck calls “the hot track.”  If the trail goes cold, go back to the last place you saw a signpost and recalibrate.  Doing this in the wild new world will eventually yield success—emotional, financial, and professional.  Why?  Because you’re responding to what’s ACTUALLY happening, not what you or others thought was “supposed to” happen.

Case in point: me.  I left adjunct faculty life to become a career counselor, and only THEN landed the tenure-track job that had previously eluded me.  Weirder still, although I am now “on the track,” I am also an active singer-songwriter and an Alt/Post-Ac consultant helping others step off the track!  In ways I could never have predicted, everything I’m doing is the outcome of many different moments in which I followed my “true nature” and not a social prescription.  Of course, I didn’t always realize this, and so there were some miserable moments along the way.  But things have finally started to click for me and—if you trust yourself enough—they eventually will for you too.

If the arc of history is long but bends toward justice, the arc of wayfinding is likewise long and bends toward contentment.  What if stepping off the track or pursuing a new work-life course means you’re not a failure but an innovative wayfinder?  What if, instead of being late to your academic career, you’re actually ahead of the curve in terms of finding your place in this new world order?

Here’s what Finding Your Way is NOT about:  Thinking of your career as a track.  Seeing yourself as a failure.  Identifying as a victim.  Clinging to bitterness.  Trafficking in cynicism.

Here’s what being a wayfinder IS about:  Curiosity.  Discovery.  Healing.  Hope.  Innovation.  Opportunity.  Satisfaction.

Reading Finding Your Way is a great litmus test of what you may (or may not) be ready for.  The person who thrills to Beck’s message is ready to leap into uncharted waters.  The person who is repelled by it is not.  I say this entirely without judgment, only to point out that effective decision-making depends on cultivating self-awareness, and aligning your choices accordingly.



An effective job document will employ varied sentence structures that do not revolve continuously around the words I, me, and my.

If you are reading this and on the market, pull up your job documents and do a universal search for each of these terms.  If they show up more than a handful of times, revise.

A lot of job documents boil down to this:

“I examine…I explore….I consider….I intervene….I develop…I argue….I conclude….I contribute….I have published…I am writing…I teach….I show….I prioritize….I would look forward to….”

Or this:

“My research….my dissertation….my first chapter….my second chapter….my methods… theoretical orientation….my argument….my conclusion….my publications….my next book project….my teaching….my pedagogical commitments….my classes….my students….my interests…”

Or a combination of the two.

When you submit job documents that use a monotonous series of I-me-my sentences, you come across as self-absorbed.  And your material is more boring than it needs to be.

The fixes are easy, and the payoff is big.


Finding Inner Conviction – Part I of 3 (Cardozo)

Karen Cardozo offers a 3-part series on developing new ways to “track” unexpected opportunities as you pursue your post-ac transition.  She draws from the work of Martha Beck, which I also love. I know this kind of wooey Oprah-talk will alienate some of our academic readers.   Nevertheless, I have found everything she writes about here to be 100% true in my own life.  It’s what led directly to the creation of The Professor Is In–an absolute conviction that this work had to be done, and I was the one who had to do it.  I have also found that the cynicism and skepticism that pervades the academic ethos stunts our ability to imagine other ways of being and thinking.  If you are contemplating a move out of academia, I urge you to look for your own inner convictions and intuitions about what you need to do.   

Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

As interest in our services grows, The Professor has urged the Alt/Post-Ac consulting team to get practical and offer concrete, tactical, advice on job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, etc.  This we have done and will continue to do (check out the bevy of recent and very useful posts)!

However, who can say what’s truly most practical or productive when it comes to changing careers?  Today I want to turn to a few other “Ps” that are crucial to any job hunting or life-changing process:  the psychological and philosophical.

Psychology:  It’s intangible and hard to explain, but I see it time and time again: when you’re filled with ambivalence, anxiety, or self-doubt, it is hard to sell yourself in an application process.  True conviction operates at a sub-molecular level invisible to the naked eye, but when it’s there it changes everything:  the tone of your cover letter, the clarity of your resume design, the firmness of your handshake, and the warmth of your eye contact – all of the things that say: “I’m on the right path and I’m really into this!”

Can people get job offers by faking it?  Sure, it happens all the time.  But such “success” is short-lived:  the proof is in the pudding and the pudding usually comes out in the wash (if I may mix my metaphors).  I’m more interested—as I think YOU should be—in the inverse:  the organic way in which things work out when people take action out of genuine affinity towards something, unclouded (or at least not incapacitated) by fear and worry.

This kind of positive momentum requires a dedicated practice of both self-awareness and detachment.  You need to believe, REALLY BELIEVE, that you are doing what’s best for yourself, and that everything will be okay.  You have to know, REALLY KNOW in your bones, that the world isn’t going to end if you don’t get the job, if you leave academe, if you leave the relationship, if you never finish your dissertation, if you… (fill in your own terrifying blanks here).

If we are honest, we often discover that our deepest fears aren’t about literal survival, but more about the loss of deeply cherished identities and the stories that go along with them—the death of a particular sense of Self.  That’s the hardest part about abandoning faculty life (or being abandoned by it):  who are you without the institutional affiliation you’ve held most of your life, without your degree(s), and accompanying narratives?  What we tend to forget (or never knew) is that there are other ways of being that we might enjoy, I mean REALLY ENJOY!

Philosophy:  Most of you have had to write a Teaching Philosophy to showcase your best thinking and evidence of who you are in the classroom—a clear description of your pedagogical beliefs and how you operationalize them.  But have you put the same effort into crafting a Life Philosophy?  Have you considered with equal rigor the kind of person you want to be and how you want to live?

Academic training has a way of shutting off these larger existential questions:  the means are supposed to justify the ends, and the value of those ends goes without saying.  But common sense can be a dangerous thing.  The implosion of the academic job market and the crisis in higher education that it signals is a perverse gift:  you are now free to question both means and ends.  And you should.

Whether you’re engaged in a job-hunt narrowly conceived or career exploration writ large, a successful outcome depends on cultivating a robust dialectic between the philosophical and the practical, reflection and action, trial and error.   This is what moves us towards real knowledge and enables us to act in informed ways –not only at the concrete level of mounting a job application, but also at the metaphysical level that ensures what we seek is aligned with who we are or want to be.  All the practical advice in the world can’t help you if your other P’s aren’t in order:  you need to get your head and heart right (which tends to have a salutary effect on your body as well).

In recent months of Alt/Post-Ac consulting, I have been struck yet again by how often academics are unhappy, unhealthy, and wounded beings—some prior to academic training and some because of it.  We’re easy with critique, but short on compassion (including for ourselves).  Expert in some areas, but out of tune with self and others.  Brilliant at solving theoretical conundrums, but unable to find solutions to problems in our own lives.  This is learned helplessness.

The pursuit of academic expertise entails many erasures in which a privileged way of knowing colonizes your indigenous methods and inherent authority—the capacity to write your own life.  What I love most about Alt/Post-Ac coaching is watching you good folks remember your immense potential, reawaken dormant dreams, and reclaim forgotten experiences.  To a person, the clients I’ve worked with are multifaceted, multi-talented and most important – brave enough to explore something new.  That courage, that curiosity, that risk, will help you find your right life.

It all begins with  Freeing the Academic Elephant, breaking away from the “river reed thinking” —academe’s version of discipline and punish—that makes us feel smaller and less capable than we really are.  When I wrote that post I had just read Finding Your North Star by Martha Beck, a recovered academic who has found her true calling as a life coach.  Funny, irreverent and extremely well-informed, she balances emotional and other intelligences in impressive ways.  Here, for example, she debunks myths of valuing self and others, an essential step for any Alt/Post-Ac seeker.

More recently, I’ve been blown away by her subsequent book,Finding Your Way in Wild New World, which provides additional context for my argument in Beyond Tenurecentrism that we need new ways of thinking about the Alt/Post-Ac situation.  In this book, Beck makes a much larger claim about the current era of rapid social and technological change – of which the crumbling academic market is but one example.  The problem with “train-track careers” and other old-school navigation metaphors, says Beck, is that they presume stable terrain but that landscape no longer exists.

This wild new world demands other ways of knowing, of which Beck highlights four:  Wordlessness (non-verbal awareness), Oneness (connection with your environment), Imagination (the capacity to perceive what doesn’t yet exist) and Forming (the ability to manifest what you’ve imagined).  These are the deeply intuitive technologies of those that anthropologist Wade Davis has called wayfinders and that Beck (drawing on Jungian archetypes) calls menders—people with a yearning to heal themselves and the planet.  These folks are finding new ways of moving through the world.  Are you one of them?

Finding Inner Conviction – Part 3 of 3 (Cardozo)

Karen Cardozo concludes her 3 part series on developing new ways to “track” unexpected opportunities as you pursue your post-ac transition, based on Martha Beck’s new book Finding Your Way.    See Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

Karen Cardozo

Karen Cardozo

It’s not easy: imagining a new life is a creative endeavor at odds with staid academic culture.  As Julia Cameron wrote in The Artist’s Way, “the art of creative construction meets with scanty support, understanding or approval” in institutional contexts wherein “most academics know how to take something apart, but not how to assemble it.”  Of course, deconstruction has its place – but that mode (as many an anguished dissertator knows) is incompatible with nurturing seedling dreams.  This is what the Alt/Post-Ac transition is really about if you’re willing to go all in:  relying on the full range of your experiences and intuition to Imagine your way to a new reality.

Interestingly enough, the more one begins to explore the wild new world, the less significant the categories “academic” or “nonacademic” appear to be.  Wayfinders are not a job sector; we are everywhere.  There are ethical and kind academics claiming their true nature by living the life they want in higher education, while some of their peers – although tenured and secure – are miserable, and take that misery out on their students and colleagues.

Then there are those who have left academe but can’t shake a feeling of failure and loss, while other recovered academics are living full and joyful lives. Of the happy latter category, some may feel that academic life was a temporary mistake that they have since corrected, but most see it as a necessary part of the journey that led them to where they are now.  As a guru I know is fond of saying: “on the path to self-realization, there’s no right or wrong way, only a short or long way!”  Wherever you go, there you are.  And right on time, too.

Despite the worst of academic life with its committee meetings, deadlines, grading and April, the cruelest month, many academics hang in there for the seasonal cycles that allow us some precious time to pause.  But even those who don’t hold faculty positions tend to take time off in the summer to engage in another important P:  play.  Beck insists that experimental play is the true “work” of the wayfinder and the surest method of finding solutions.

So get to it. Whether you are Ac, Alt, or Post, now is the perfect time to get your Ps on while also dabbling in some Rs—reading, reflection and rest.  Explore the links I’ve provided and use any other means necessary to improve your psychological condition and clarify your life philosophy.  But, remember, reading alone won’t do it.

Ultimately, you will need to drop into Wordlessness and experience Oneness to begin to Imagine who you really are and where you might be going.  Right now, that might be the most practical and productive thing you can do.