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.



Adjuncts, Assistant Professors, and a Broken Faculty Life Cycle

As many of you know, I went to Santa Fe last week as the invited speaker of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities Council of Academic Affairs national conference.*  Translated, this is a conference of provosts (and a few vice chancellors and the like) from public R1 and R2 institutions.

I was very anxious about this talk, because I have no experience with provosts.  I don’t entirely understand their role in the new, corporatized university, and I had no idea–to tell the truth–why I’d been invited to speak on this panel on the “Faculty Life Cycle,”  on mentoring and support for new tenure track hires.

But, never one to turn down a challenge, I wrote a talk, and I went.  And I prefaced the talk with a disclaimer: “I am flying completely blind here. I have no idea what provosts talk about, and if what I’m about to say totally common sense and preaching to the choir, or anathema that’s going to outrage you all.  I’m just going to say my piece, and I’ll be interested to hear your response.”

And then I spoke about what I call Job Market PTSD (yes I know many of you object to this term; the arguments for and against are played out in the comment thread to this post).  I called my talk, “Job Market PTSD: Adjuncts, Assistant Professors and A Broken Faculty Life Cycle.” My point was, tenure track hires today are often harmed by the destructive conditions of the job market, even when they have been successful in it.  They are harmed by the years of anxiety, the pervasive sense of panic and uncertainty, the indignities of years of adjuncting at poverty wages, by 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars of debt, and by a kind of ‘survivor’s guilt’ vis-a-vis all their friends and comrades still laboring in the adjunct trenches.

I spoke of a pervasive “loss of faith” in the ideals of the university, specifically:

  • The university is fundamentally good and worthy
  • The university is a realm devoted to something other than money and profit
  • An academic career is possible
  • An academic career is morally defensible
  • The Ph.D. was a financially responsible choice
  • My sense of self (as a scholar/academic) is secure

Then I proposed four interventions:

1) Stop growing the traumatized population—cut Ph.D. programs

2) Institute mandatory career training in all Ph.D. programs

3) Stop hiring adjuncts and improve conditions for the ones hired

4) Mentor new tenure track hires in new ways

To me it was essential to intervene in the idea that there continues to be a “faculty life cycle” that is organic, unchanging, and predictable in a time of 76% adjunctification.

I also wanted to point to the new needs of assistant professors –always at risk of feeling isolated and overwhelmed — when they are coming in in drastically reduced cohorts, and dependent on mentoring from increasingly overburdened and disaffected tenured faculty.

I did provide some specific recommendations for mentoring assistant professors, around perennial questions like supporting writing, protecting from excessive service, and illuminating the mystery of the external tenure reviewer (who are they, where to find them, how to cultivate them).

But, while my primary request was to stop hiring adjuncts, I ended with the exhortation to create a larger campus community that included both adjuncts (who will continue to be hired) and new assistant professors.  I said that a caste system in which one group was viewed as the “untouchable” was damaging and traumatizing for everyone, including those occupying the privileged tenure track position.

That was my talk. Now here’s the surprise:  the provosts seemed mostly pretty open to this message.  Those who spoke in the Q and A and privately to me afterward did not dispute my argument at all.  Mostly, they wanted to share initiatives on their campuses to replace adjuncts with longer-term instructors with benefits.  While in an audience of 60 or so I’m sure there was a range of opinion, not always expressed, by and large the reception was amazingly non-defensive, open, and interested in change.

“We’re chief academic officers!” one said.  “We are constantly fighting a battle inside ourselves.  On the one hand we must be the leading proponents of the corporatized model.  On the other hand, we come from faculty, and support faculty, and support the academic mission of the university.  Every day is a battle between the halves of our brains.” The audience ruefully laughed.

I must say, it never occurred to me that upper administrators would be struggling (or would admit to struggling) with the corporate model in quite this way.  It was heartening.

While I know that one panel talk won’t change the world, I’m glad I went, and I did see some glimmers of possibility, at least from one corner of administration. The one thing I learned is that it isn’t quite right to tar all “administrators” with the same brush.  Yes, they’re all complicit, and all earning large salaries as part of the escalation of administration at the expense of the educational mission.  But they don’t seem to all feel exactly the same, or totally positive, about it.


*If you’re curious, here is the program of panels:

Efficiency Studies, Administrative Costs, and the University Narrative

Data Analytics for Student Success, Advising and Alerts

Relationship with Community Colleges

Metrics and Indicators of Institutional Quality

Human Resources and Reform and Shared Services**

Faculty Career Life-Cycles

Whither Competency-Based Education

**I sat in on the end of this one, and the upshot was—provosts and others on the side of academic affairs, trying to support the educational mission of the university, find themselves in constant state of disconnect with HR, which is imposing generic legal policies from the world of government and business that simply do not work. One provost told the story of her new faculty orientation, run by HR on her campus. “It was four days on parking and benefits!  I have no idea how they filled four days on parking and benefits!  It covered NOTHING that new faculty actually need, like tenure policies, how to use Blackboard… I eventually had my office take it over.”  Another remarked, dryly,  “These offices need to understand they are in SUPPORT of a larger mission.”

Provosts have some pretty familiar struggles–who knew?

How to Plan Your Research and Writing Trajectory on the Tenure Track

This is a re-post.  Various readers and clients are looking ahead to the new jobs they are starting in the fall, and I want you all to have a very firm handle on the nature of a tenure track research trajectory.  This post is written from the perspective of an R1 book field, so please get your own tenure expectations in writing from your department head as soon as you can.  And then, as this post explains, work BACKWARDS from Spring of your 5th year to plot out a writing and research schedule.

**This is my last post until I return from summer vacation in early August.


Today’s post is a Special Request Post for Ana and Lauri, who both wrote in requesting advice on how they, as new assistant professors, could best plan out a research trajectory.

I was actually a little startled to encounter this particular query. For myself, my research trajectory as an assistant professor was relatively clear. But by the same token, I landed in a good and supportive department for my first position, a department in which senior colleagues took pains to make sure that the expectations for tenure were clear.  This might not be the case for everyone.  And actually, as Department Head, when I had my annual meetings with the assistant professors to go over their research trajectories, they got so. stressed. out.  But they thanked me later–yes, they ALL got tenure.

So, I want to share here some general advice for thinking about a pre-tenure research trajectory. I am going to limit my comments to book-based fields in the humanities and social sciences at R1 institutions.

Now, before I begin:  any discussion of your research trajectory must begin with a discussion of your tenure expectations. These will vary according to field, department, and university setting,. You must schedule an appointment with your department head, and get, in writing, a clear picture of your tenure expectations. In addition, attend any and all workshops held on your campus about the tenure process, especially anything organized by specialized groups such as the Center for Women and Gender Studies, etc. You want to see this thing from as many angles as possible, as early as possible.

Now, once you have a clear sense of the expectations, sit down with your dissertation and other research, and map out a plan.

For the sake of this blog post, I am going to assume that you need a book and five articles for tenure, with your case starting in Spring of the 5th year. This is a relatively rigorous set of expectations, most likely seen at an R1 institution, but not the most rigorous imaginable. However, if you do confront more rigorous expectations than these, chances are you’re at a super-elite institution that has relieved you from quite a bit of teaching and service, and awarded leave liberally.

Of the five articles, three will most likely be based on the dissertation research or closely related work. Two will then be on a major second, post-book project. Be aware that a second major project is a critical element to a successful tenure case at a research institution.

Lay out a timeline, working backward from Spring of your 5th year, which is when the tenure file will be sent out to your external reviewers. At that time, you need your book and all of your articles to be published or in press. The reviews will come back in Fall of your 6th year, your department will vote on your tenure in or around September, your file will be submitted to the College in or around October, and then wend its way through upper committees, with your final decision coming to you in about May.

It takes approximately one year from first submission to a press to having a book reach the stage of being “in press.” Therefore, the book mss. must be finished and ready for submission, at the very latest, by Spring of your 4th year.

Working backward yet again, we know that you will undergo a Third Year Review in Spring of your third year. At that time, it will be quite apparent whether or not the book is shaping up to be submitted to a press within one year’s time.  Your third year review committee will judge the state of your manuscript very severely indeed.  Your article production will also be examined at this time.

As you can see, there is very little room for missteps in this timeline. What there most definitely is not room for is switching topics in mid-stream. If you have a dissertation, then that dissertation needs to be the foundation of your book. I understand that some assistant professors find themselves bored with their dissertation topic and involved with fresh new research early on the job. Rarely, very rarely, does that work out well for the individual’s tenure case. The new research must be kept aside as the major second, post-book project.

Basically, an ideal research and writing trajectory will look something like this:

Year One: Start work on the book mss.; Apply for research leave

Year One Summer: Article #1;

Year Two: Book mss.; Apply for research leave (if you didn’t get it yet)

Year Two Summer: Article #2

Year Three: Book mss.; Apply for research leave (if you didn’t get it yet)

Year Three Summer: Article #3 and book mss.

Year Four (ideally on post-third year review automatic research leave): book manuscript completely finished and submitted.

Year Four Summer: Article #4 (on new project); Possible research and fieldwork on new project.

Year Five: Book revisions and copyediting, and Article #5 (on new project)

As you can see, the key to maintaining a succcessful research and writing program is research leave.  It is not possible to reach the standards of productivity expected of young assistant professors in this day and age without leave.  You must prioritize applying for internal and external leave over all other writing in your first and second Fall semesters.  If you are unsuccessful in obtaining external leave within the first two years, speak to your department chair about the possibility of an automatic post-third-year-review leave, or negotiating, minimally, one semester of teaching release.  Do not consider applications for leave time as in any way secondary to the other writing that you do.

As you develop the articles for publication, one of the best and most efficient methods for getting them written and out, is to commit yourself to presenting them at major national conferences in your field. You don’t have to have a 35-page mss. with full citations and bibliography for the conference itself (unless, I’ve learned, you’re in philosophy, in which case you need those just to apply!). The 12-ish page double-spaced “paper” for presentation can suffice. But those 12 pages should be the core of an actual journal submission.  In good time, get that article expanded and submitted.

The early set of articles is tricky because they must build excitement about the coming book, but not reveal its contents.  It’s critical that they be in the highest status journals you can get into, as they establish your voice and authority, and lay the groundwork for the reception of your book.  They also help build credibility for you to get the contract for the book at the best presses.  Note publishers will likely not accept your book for publication if more than 50% of the manuscript has been previously published as articles.  Thus if it’s a 5 chapter book, then two chapters can have been published, but if that number rises to three, then it will be difficult to sell the book project.

The second major project does not have to be in book form for most tenure cases (we do hear of some Ivy Leagues expecting two books for tenure), although it does need to exist in article, conference paper, and grant form.

The second major project needs to show a natural development of the research trajectory that you began with the dissertation/first book, a kind of organic move forward, while still being quite new and original. In other words, deep thematics remain consistent while the topic is clearly distinct.

As you can imagine, a major squeeze happens in Year Four Summer and Year Five, when you must produce refereed journal articles on this new original second project, without any real time to conduct new research. Sometimes the second major project is a product of a certain amount of smoke and mirrors, and some creative thinking about how to conjure up a major project without doing lengthy fieldwork or research, or going overseas.

Thinking ahead about this squeeze, it is good to begin thinking about the second major project while still in your first year on the job. Begin a file for it, start reading some of the literature, and eventually, in year three or so, start presenting papers at panels on the new project. You want to have the core of an idea that is feasible and plausible by Year Four, so that AS SOON AS the book manuscript leaves your desk, you are ready to hit the ground running on two new publishable pieces on the second topic.

In general, plan to submit all of your best work to refereed journals. Chapters in edited collections are significantly lower status in a tenure case (particularly at an R1), and can sink a weak case.

It goes without saying that your tenure case cannot rest, if you are at a research-oriented institution, on an edited collection.

I understand that edited collections can serve for tenure at teaching or lower ranking institutions. However, if you have aspirations to move to a higher ranking institution, then the edited collection will do you little good. And beware—the edited collection takes at least as much time as a monograph, and often more. These are the reasons, as you know from this post, that I advocate just saying no to edited collections until after tenure.

There are countless other considerations in planning a research trajectory, but many of them are too individualized to be discussed in a general post. Readers, if you have some tips, however, please do contribute them in the comments!