How To Ask A (Famous) Professor to be Your Dissertation Chair

Today is a Special Request post for Meagan, who wishes to know how to approach a famous and influential scholar in her department to be the chair of her dissertation committee.

Ideally, you will have arranged to work with your famous dissertation advisor prior to arriving in the program. I always recommend to all students planning to attend graduate school, that they devote several months to a year to advance preparation. Taking a GRE prep class, putting your personal essay through months of revisions, and researching graduate programs and potential advisors are all steps that pay off exponentially in terms of the quality of program and quantity of funding you can expect to achieve.

Correspondence with the potential advisor is perhaps the most important element of all; refer to this post for advice on how to initiate the conversation. Ideally you want the advisor to commit to you ahead of time, to advocate for your application when it arrives, and to use her clout to get you the most generous funding packages offered by the program.

Now, this is not always possible. Some programs do not attach admittees to advisors ahead of time (although I would hazard to say that the best programs do). Or it is possible that the advisor with whom you came to work has left for another university, and you must find a replacement. Or perhaps your research interests changed. In any case, sometimes students find themselves needing to approach a professor to serve as their dissertation advisor after they are already underway.

You will do this in the same way that you approach any professor for any type of assistance: concisely, articulately, substantively, specifically, courteously, and professionally. In short, you will have a well-rehearsed “pitch,” which, in concise yet very specific terms, describes your current status, your past achievements, your planned research, your reasons for approaching that scholar in particular, your anticipated timeline, and your expected outcome.

Don’t be especially intimidated just because the professor is famous.  I just heard a story about a graduate student who asked famed physicist Richard Feynman to be his Chair.  Everyone was surprised when Feynman said yes.  But turns out, it was the first time he’d ever been asked.  All the other grad students had been too afraid.

So take heart, and ask away.  What you want to look like is a young rising star, a good bet, and a self-starter. The three critical elements here are: a) that you will not be a clingy burden; and b) that you will finish efficiently and successfully; and c) that your ultimate success will add to the glory and fame of the professor.

The more successful the professor is, the more critical these three elements become.

Successful professors are busy and in-demand. They are always flying off to Copenhagen and South Africa to give keynote addresses. They have no time for hand-holding and cheerleading. You must show that your past record proves you are highly self-directed and finish what you start without prodding and drama.  And you must demonstrate your efficiency right then and there by making an appointment (NEVER JUST DROP IN for such requests!), arriving on time, and presenting your request quickly and concisely, and wrapping up well within the scheduled time slot.

Successful professors are generally interested in important work that pushes boundaries in the field. You must show that your current and future plans are innovative and path-breaking, yet also based on solid research and a grounding in legitimate bodies of literature in your field.

Successful professors want to be associated with students about whom they can brag. You must show that you are aiming for a high-profile career by articulating clear career goals and the confidence to apply for top-tier fellowships to support your research.

Successful professors usually have complex research leave and sabbatical plans several years out.  You must show that you have an anticipated timeline for field, lab, or archival research, analysis, and writing–and beyond that defense, first publications, and job search–that is both efficient and feasible.

Work on your pitch, and be able to show clearly how this professor’s work is critical to it, WITHOUT FLATTERING! Nobody likes an obvious suck-up. You must learn to do it subtly.  Don’t make vast over-generalizations about the professor’s “brilliance.”  Speak about specific areas of scholarship in which she specializes, and how those are critical to your planned research and career.  Don’t drone and don’t monopolize the conversation.  You’re asking for an advisor, remember.  Show that you’re open to being advised.  And, at the same time, don’t be a doormat.  Have the confidence of your convictions and stand up for your passions.

And last, it goes without saying that your overall presentation must be highly professionalized. Read this post on the ways that graduate students sabotage themselves, and spend a weekend eradicating these behaviors to the extent you can. Yes, you’re still a graduate student. But that doesn’t mean you have to act like one.

 

Good luck!

 

 

 

How to Work the Conference (Part Two of Three)

Today we continue with Part Two of the “How to Work the Conference” series (see Part One here).  Today’s post deals with how to behave during the conference–that is to say, how to look like you’re very busy and in-demand.  Because conferences are performance art.  You may know almost nobody and feel like a total fraud, but you’ve got to ACT as if you are the next hot thing.

Now, to preface, if this post seems uncustomarily terse, it is because I am writing from vacation in San Diego, in a few short minutes between chatting with friends on the deck and leaving for kayaking at La Jolla Cove. I am ambivalent about the kayaking because of the Great White sightings at La Jolla this past week (not to mention the Great White sighting at Mission Beach yesterday that actually closed the beach for the first time in living memory, and put paid to our surfing plans).

However, The Professor’s motto is: feel the fear and do it anyway.  So unless the beach is actually closed, kayaking we will go.

Now to the conference. Conferences are also about facing your fears. Few young professionals really enjoy conferences. They are terrifying and intimidating. This is normal. You go anyway. You go and present. You go and organize panels. You go and attend the business meetings of subfield organizations that interest you. You go and participate in the workshops on publishing and the job market. You go and hang out at the open bars (that part may be less difficult). You don’t necessarily go to the Saturday night dance party.

But once there, what do you actually do?

First off, you dress correctly. I am not going to repeat my admonishments about appropriate professional attire here; I simply refer you to this post. Don’t ignore it! What you wear matters. People notice and judge you. Maybe not consciously, but they do. You must look like the young professional that you are.

Second, you must network. But how do you do that? There are a few ways, and the best ones require advance planning. If you are very junior and have little or no social capital, then hoping to grab an influential senior scholar for a conversation or coffee or a meal, on the spot, is virtually impossible. Your only real chance is by inviting them ahead of time.

A month before the conference, compile a list of the scholars whom you’d most like to meet. Be clear in your mind about why you’d like to meet them.

Do you just want to say hello? Then study the program and find out their panel and plan to attend it. You may approach them afterwards to shake their hands, congratulate them on their paper, briefly tell them about yourself—no more than one sentence–and give them your card. And then walk away. Walk. Away. Do not cling or drone.

[A note on business cards for graduate students.  Have business cards.  Make sure they are university business cards, not personal.  They must have the logo on them.  Include your department, status (ABD, Ph.D. student, VAP, etc.), email, website, and cel phone number.  Always carry your business cards in a small case made for this purpose. I saw these at Office Max the other day.  Do NOT put them in your back pocket or knocking around the bottom of your purse.  They should always be clean and pristine.  Practice ahead of time reaching in and quickly and gracefully extracting one.  No fumbling.]

Do you want to ask them to serve as an external member of your committee? Or perhaps ask them to contribute to an edited collection? (Which, as you know from this post, I completely frown upon and urge you to drop immediately.) Then send them an email, in the briefest and most courteous terms explaining who you are, why you’d like to meet them, and asking them if they are free for coffee. Understand that they will likely not have any meal-times available for you. Those are reserved for older, dearer, and higher status friends and colleagues. But you might, if you’re lucky, get a 20-minute coffee slot. But only if you ask ahead of time.

Do you want to get to know very influential famous scholars to cultivate them as potential supporters (and tenure letter writers) in your field? Then do the same as above, but be very, very careful about how you couch the invitation. You don’t invite someone to coffee for such clearly self-serving reasons. Rather, you have a substantive reason for seeking their advice. i.e., you’d like advice on how to proceed with publishing your book—recommendations for editors or presses, perhaps. If your request is flattering enough to their ego and identity as a leader in the field, and they are the kind of senior scholar who enjoys mentoring junior people, AND you promise up front that your requested meeting is no more than 20 minutes, and scheduled ENTIRELY at their convenience, then you might score a coffee or a pre-dinner beer at the hotel bar. Use that 20 minutes wisely. Be brief. Well rehearsed. Do not cling. And at the end, give a firm handshake according to the instructions in this post. And walk away.

You will notice the emphasis I place on not clinging. The status jockeying of conferences is a major element of the conference and is ignored at your peril. You must not look like a hanger-on or a sadsack who has nothing to do and noone to meet, even if you are. You must give the impression of being a busy and dynamic young scholar who has it going on. How do you do this?

First off, read and memorize my post, “The Six Ways You are Acting Like a Grad Student (And how this is killing you on the job market).  Eradicate every one of these six behaviors prior to stepping foot into the conference hotel.

Beyond that, I can do no better on this subject than to quote extensively from The Tenured Radical’s post on this very subject, written about how to behave at the book exhibit of the AHA Conference of 2010, but frankly applicable to any corner of any academic conference, any year.  The emphases are mine.

  • Greet your graduate mentors but do not cling to them. In fact, it is best, when you see them, to look as though you have somewhere very important to be.Practice saying into the mirror:  “Gosh, it’s really great to run into you — I’m off to the Chapel Hill booth to meet up with a friend/an editor/someone on my panel.  Have a great meeting!”  Only break this rule if they happen to be with someone very important in your field, in which case, keep a keen eye out for an introduction.Count slowly to five in your head:  if the introduction is not forthcoming, skate out of there.
  • Leave any and everyone before they leave you. If you see someone’s eyes drifting over your shoulder, even slightly, say warmly:  “I’ve really got to run — so nice to have had a chance to say hello,” then skate.
  • If there is someone you know, but are unsure whether to greet or not, casually pick up a book and leaf through it.  If said person greets you, look very surprised and say: “OmygodIcan’tbelieveIdidn’t see you!
  • If someone important calls you by the wrong name, let them.  If they do it twice, correct them.  If they keep doing it, forget it. There is one historian, who will remain nameless, who has greeted me for twenty five years as if I were Isabel V. Hull of Cornell, and I no longer correct her.
  • If you run into someone you just did a hotel room interview with, you don’t have to act like you are employed by an escort service and pretend you have never met them.  Smile and nod; if you are close enough to speak say hello and say you had a good time in the interview.  Even if you didn’t.
  • Have one sentence to say about your dissertation if a senior scholar asks.  One. (KK: ONE!!!!) “I’m writing about the transgender community in Havana after the Cuban Revolution,” for example. Most people are just asking to be polite, although in the rare instance that the person really is interested in it, be conversational — do not launch into your interview speech.
  • Never, never, never ask a senior scholar what s/he is working on unless you are dinner partners.  Your just-to-be-polite question is:  “Are you having a good meeting?”
  • Check compulsively, but discreetly, to make sure your fly is not open.

The Tenured Radical also mentions workshops, such as one on interviewing. She writes:

I cannot stress enough how important this workshop is, particularly for those of you who are not yet on the job market.  Interviewing is not just about saying, doing and wearing the right things, although it is that.  It is about reading your audience and responding to the questions that are actually asked while delivering the information you want your interviewers to have. Much of the workshop consists of mock interviews held in a large ballroom that is not unlike the gang interviewing room in the basement where you might, one day, actually be interviewed.  The people who pose as interviewers are kind and helpful, and will honestly critique your performance.

Yes, yes, and yes.  The workshops on turning your publication into a book, or interviewing, or teaching at community colleges are some of the greatest services of the conference.  They also require advance registration, so do that.  It is invaluable professional training.

Today we stop here.  Next week we pick up with the question of how to score dinners with senior people, and how to work the book exhibit.  Until then, happy kayaking!

 

 

 

The Perils of Publishing Your Dissertation Online

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Today we are honored to have a guest post by Kathryn Hume, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English at Penn State University and author of Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs (revised edition, 2010).

I got in touch with Kathryn Hume initially to send her a fan email!  I really like her book and will be reviewing it here on the blog soon.  When I invited her to consider writing a guest post, she immediately responded with an idea to write about ProQuest, and the impact that electronic dissertation storage is having on the rules of publishing, and potentially on your tenure case.  Thank you, Professor Hume, for sharing your insights.

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Once upon a time, dissertations were “available” through UMI as microfilm or through Interlibrary Loan as bound copies. In either case, you knew that you were not supposed to quote from the document or use its ideas without permission from the author. In the case of a hardbound copy, the libraries had records of the borrowers, so misappropriation could, in theory, be traced. Since you knew the material was unusable without permission, you felt free to ignore dissertations, except to make sure that a recent one was not too similar to the one that you hoped to write, lest it get published before yours and scoop you. Yes, such documents were technically “available,” but they were definitely not published or easily consultable.

Electronic dissertation storage changes the rules. Universities have enthusiastically assumed that a thesis online is just a faster and handier form of microfilm, and dissertation supervisors have assumed that since they put their theses on microfilm, you should put yours on ProQuest. They are wrong. Once available through any form of open access, be it ProQuest or a university library’s public access materials, that dissertation is functionally published, though this does not constitute refereed publication. Without the quality control implied by refereeing, ProQuest “publication” will not count for tenure.  Furthermore, its being there may interfere with your landing a revised version at a reputable press. You could ruin your chances of getting tenure if your thesis is freely available.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/From-Dissertation-to-Book/127677/), Leonard Cassuto sums up a round table discussion among six academic publishers as follows:

Don’t make your dissertation available online. Book editors seem unanimous on that point for obvious reasons. Many university libraries routinely add dissertations to their electronic holdings. If yours does, then opt out. If your thesis is already online, then have it taken down. Information may want to be free, as the earliest hacker generation first avowed, but if it’s free, then you can’t expect a publisher to pay for it, even in a later version.

At present, this is a disaster waiting to happen rather than a battlefield covered with the bodies of humanists denied tenure because presses would not even look at their manuscripts, but warning signals are going up. I have heard of two commercial-academic presses and one university press that insisted the dissertation be removed from ProQuest before they would consider it. I have also learned of a major journal’s response to the issue. A job hunter at my school took a chapter from his recently defended dissertation and turned it into an article. He sent it off and the journal wrote back to ask whether this was from a chapter in a thesis on ProQuest; if so, they would not look at it because they considered it already published. The same could happen to your article or book manuscript.

Numerous universities have made putting dissertations on ProQuest a requirement. Others will permit you to block that process and renew the block, at least for a while. Whenever that protection runs out, though, ProQuest or the library or both will make the piece available. Your university may argue that a state institution receives public money, so part of its mission is to make its research available to that same public. Fair enough, but you must still try to ensure that your university can and will remove a dissertation from open access if asked. Refusal to create that mechanism could destroy the careers of its humanities PhDs.

This may prove to be an issue that dies without much consequence. Not all fields, even within the humanities, operate on the same assumptions, and some people see dissertations cited as a way of boosting your visibility within your specialty. Presses may eventually decide to ignore ProQuest dissertations and rely on the degree to which you have revised your material. Or they may just settle for your taking the document off line until after your book is in print. Various professional societies have argued that the thesis monograph should not serve as the basis for a tenure decision, and tenure itself may disappear some day. Obviously, such changes would affect the significance of your dissertation’s being available online.

For the present, though, none of these outcomes is assured, and the more radical are not likely to happen soon, so protect yourselves!

  • Read your graduate office requirements now, not the week you hope to hand in your thesis.
  • If your university requires public access, get your department to raise the issue with the university’s lawyers and its Ethics Committee or Ombudsperson.
  • Try to get your graduate school to establish a mechanism for removing your thesis from open access should that prove necessary.
  • If you can block access for a limited time with renewals, tattoo the renewal date on the back of your hand, with room for subsequent dates to be added.

Revising a humanities dissertation into a book can take far more effort than you realize. If you are moving from one temporary job to the next, having to pay for moves with nonexistent savings, and teaching six or more new courses each year, you will need to remember and act on successive deadlines despite many distractions. Ideally, you revise your manuscript during the first two years of your tenure clock. If you are lucky, you land your manuscript at a press within the next four years. Perhaps it will be in print a year after that. Only then should you let your dissertation go on line.

Good Luck!

Finding Work/Life Balance in Academia

(Friday Post Category:  Yes You Can! Women and Academia)

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Our post today is a guest post by Rachel Connelly, Bion R. Cram Professor of Economics, and Chair of the Economics Department at Bowdoin College.  Rachel and her Bowdoin colleague Kristen Ghodsee co-wrote the new book Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Life Balance in Academia (Rowman and Littlefield).  I encountered their work in an Inside Higher Ed column, The Value of Self-Promotion which I loved.  The negative comments the column got prompted me to weigh in on their comment stream, and eventually to write this post about it.  In  the process I got to talking to Rachel about the challenges of having kids while on the tenure track, and she kindly agreed to share her words of wisdom with the readers of The Professor Is In. Thank you, Professor Connelly!

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Karen wrote recently in this blog about the fray that ensued at Inside Higher Ed after they published an excerpt of my new book, Professor Mommy:  Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia, coauthored with my Bowdoin colleague, Kristen Ghodsee, about the importance of self-promotion.

It really was amazing how nasty some of the comments were, as if Kristen and I had revealed a secret the guys had meant to keep for themselves.  In the correspondence that resulted from Karen’s comment, Karen offered me a guest appearance in her blog to address what she says is the number one question she receives from women, “How to achieve work/family balance?”

In the book we offer faculty women at all stages of their career advice for walking the tightrope of work and family without falling off.  Some of our advice comes from things we did right, a lot comes from things we wish we had done else wise, and still more was contributed by friends and colleagues.


For myself, I decided before I took that Bowdoin job in 1985, the same year I finished my graduate studies, that although I very much wanted to succeed in the field of academic economics, I was only willing to do it if it could be done at the same time I had young children.  That is because for me, the children were not negotiable, but the career path was.

Of course, I had the advantage that there are other things that one can do with a PhD in economics but really my ultimate goal was to teach at a small liberal arts college like Bowdoin.  There I was, right out of graduate school at 28 years of age with my dream job and the first thing I did was purposefully get pregnant.  My mother always says I have to do things the hard way and she is undoubtedly right (Moms always are, or at least that is what I tell my kids.)

When I think about those early days on the tenure track it is a lot like the little engine that could, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. New baby. No sleep, no sleep, no sleep. Move to a new city for a fellowship year with a two year old.  Move back to Bowdoin with a three year old. Lots of disappointments.  Finally another new baby.  Tenure time. “Yes.” I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.”

What kept me going was that I really had it all! Everything I wanted, just a bit too much of each piece.  I am convinced that every new mother feels this way, regardless of what else she is doing.  I remember when my first baby was just born and he was nursing for 45 minutes every two hours.  I called up my mom and said, “What am I going to do? I can’t get anything done.”  She told me two things, both incredibly useful.  First off she said, “You are doing something” and second she said, “it gets easier,”

She is right on both counts, of course (a consistent theme).  Feeding the baby is work so don’t think you need to do something else at the same time.  But taking care of a baby does get easier as the sleep patterns get to be more consistent, then as others become good substitutes for your time, then as the child gains independent moments etc. One’s work gets easier as well.  The new preps are less often and less onerous, the research and the writing gets easier, the acceptance rate increases.

My advice is to hang in there.  It is worth it to stay in the game.  Your child does not need you 24 hours a day.  Your students don’t need you 24 hours a day.  Your research is not important enough to be done 24 hours a day.  At different stages on your life, the pie chart that is our time allocation per week changes. (See Chap 2 of my book, The Time Use of Mothers in the United States at the Turn of the 21st Century, with Jean Kimmel, W.E. Upjohn Press if you like pie charts.)  But all the pieces are there and continue to be there as your children grow, and as you grow into your teaching and research.

I recently read an article in the New Yorker about Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook (July 11 and 18, 2011, pp. 55-63).  Sheryl talks about the need for women to “lean in” instead of “opting out.”  I like that image.  Lean in, steel yourself against the wind and hang on for a dear life.

 

 

Job Market PTSD

(Thursday Post Category:  Here’s How You Get Tenure)

Today’s post is another Special Request post, this time coming from Kate, who wrote an eloquent email asking for advice on how to cope with what I will call “Job Market PTSD.”

By Job Market PTSD (hereafter JMPTSD), what I mean is the state of being so traumatized by the academic job search that even when it is successful, and you get the coveted tenure track position, you cannot stop feeling anxious, inadequate, panicked and insecure. JMPTSD includes the survivor’s guilt that you feel toward the comrades-in-arms you left behind as you boarded what seems like the last helicopter out of The Search. It includes classic trauma symptoms in that the sustained terror of potential joblessness/insolvency, combined with the psychological warfare of hope offered and then snatched away (particularly in the new phenomenon of searches and offers canceled at the last minute), steals away your sense of security in the world. It includes a large component of Imposter Syndrome, in that you wonder “Why me? Why did I get this position?” And it includes an element of Stockholm Syndrome, in that your gratitude for the offer is so abject that your normal emotional boundaries evaporate in a frantic attempt to please your new employer.

I believe that JMPTSD is more widespread than commonly acknowledged. And in current market conditions, it is likely to get worse.

There is certainly a variety of JMPTSD that afflicts those who are ultimately unsuccessful on the job market. And that variety may be the more serious.

But for today I want to address the JMPTSD that afflicts those who DID get the tenure track job, but find themselves struggling to leave behind the trauma of the search.

Because what I’m hearing is, search trauma is having an impact on these assistant professors’ performance on the job. Instead of being a triumphant transition into professional security and financial solvency, the move to assistant professorhood provokes renewed fear and anxiety and self-doubt.

While all of us who have been through the assistant professor stage remember the struggle to cope and keep our heads above water, this seems to be qualitatively different.

This is a kind of sustained state of fear that saps your confidence and sense of well-being. Its primary symptom is a profound feeling of unworthiness that arises when the conditions for hiring are so chaotic and opaque and seemingly random, that it is impossible for you, the successful candidate, to feel that you actually deserved the job more than anyone else.

Given that the fundamental logic of assistant professorhood is based entirely on external approval to begin with, this effort can have toxic results. The main one seems to be an extreme susceptibility to exploitation.

Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, assistant professors are so abjectly grateful for the job that they find it impossible to say no.

Teach more? Sure! Take furlough days? Absolutely! Increase your class size? No problem! Give up your TAs? That’s ok—I can TA my own classes!

As one new assistant professor told me, “It made me less willing to negotiate, to speak up for myself, or to assert my wishes as to what I would teach.”

The marketplace has done to assistant professors what the eradication of tenure promises to do to their seniors: remove the possibility of resistance to disintegrating conditions of work.

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What to do?

Well, at the risk of being cliché, I say: first, get therapy. This is legitimate trauma and should be treated as such.

Find other new assistant professors and start a regular lunch group. Don’t make this a writing group. Make it a support group. Share your experiences. Hold each other accountable for doing what it takes to stay mentally healthy.

Get outside and get in your body. Exercise regularly, eat well, and get enough sleep. Find a good doctor in your new town and schedule an appointment for the Fall term.

Find a trusted senior mentor if you can. Don’t expect this person to really “get it,” though. If they’re already tenured, then they won’t really get it. But they can help you navigate your department and set healthy boundaries and avoid over-exploitation from service expectations.

Forgive yourself for needing downtime that seems to be “unproductive.” It is ok to watch TV and play with your kids and hang out with your partner and sit on the sofa and stare at nothing.

Keep creative, right-brain activities in your life.  Draw, journal, write poetry, throw pots, build a fence, plant a garden, restore an old car, make jewelry, sing, knit…. whatever speaks to you.

Remember that you deserve to be there and you are a full-fledged member of the department. You have the same rights as every other faculty member.  You are not a graduate student and not a second class citizen. You do not need to apologize for existing. You are entitled to ask for what you want. If trauma prevented you from negotiating everything you wish you had at the time of the offer, let your department head and your trusted senior mentor know what you need now.

You were hired to be a scholar. Insist on the time you need to produce scholarship, both at the department and in your home life.

You deserve the job you have. You deserve to enjoy it. And you deserve to succeed at it. And you deserve the support to make that happen. Don’t let anyone (including your own insecurities) tell you otherwise.

~~Readers:  Please let me know your experiences of Job Market PTSD.  I’d really like to hear them~~

 

How To Work the Conference, Part One of Three

(Wednesday Post Category:  Landing Your Tenure Track Job)

[This is the first in a two-part series on Working the National Conference. Part One, today, explains the importance of the conference in an academic career. Part Two, next week, focuses on specific strategies to use before, during, and after the conference itself to get the most out of it.]

Conference season is almost upon us. The sociologists are meeting in Las Vegas in just a few days. Anthropologists are gearing up for their November meeting in Montreal, and the Historians and English-types perversely continue to congregate right in the middle of the winter holidays.

Anyone on this year’s job market is already anxiously anticipating and preparing for the hoped-for/dreaded conference interviews.

And yet, few junior scholars, from graduate students and ABDs through new Ph.D.s and young assistant professors, actually know how to “work” a conference. That is, to utilize the 5 days of the conference period to maximize opportunities for networking, self-promotion, professional skills training, and building a public intellectual identity.

There is a great deal to say about how to apply to a conference and how to write a conference abstract; those things, however, are beyond the scope of this post series.

This post and the next are about what you do while you’re at the conference.

This is truly one of the secret skills of the successful academic career. And it is never, ever, explicitly taught. While enlightened departments will offer job market preparation seminars and mock job talks and teaching instruction and guidance on grant-writing, no department has ever, to my knowledge, held a workshop on “effective conferencing.”  [Addendum:  I was just alerted to the excellent post by the Tenured Radical on rocking the AHA.  This is a fantastic guide.  Read it!  I will build on these ideas next week.  http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/tenuredradical/2011/01/its-safe-to-go-back-to-annual-meeting/]

Unless a graduate student enjoys a happy combination of a naturally ebullient personality, tremendous intellectual confidence, a generous mentor who allows her to tag along, a large cohort of conference-going fellow graduate students, and fierce political instincts, chances are she will spend much of the early part of her conference-going career a) wandering forlornly through the hallways of the conference hotel, b) lurking in corners pretending to read the conference program, and c) hiding in her hotel room.

It is perfectly natural to dread the national conference. They are monstrously large. And alienating. And lonely. And embarassing. Certainly the idea of marching up to Herr Dr. Famous Professor in some hotel hallway with outstretched hand and business card at the ready is distasteful to most everyone. And far too many think that this is what conference “networking” involves.

I am here to tell you that it isn’t. And I am here to teach you what to do instead.

Today I wish to speak in general terms about why you are at the conference in the first place. Your status at the conference will be different based on where you are in your career.

If you are a relatively new graduate student, you will plan to attend the conference, and no more.

If you are a Masters student, you will plan to give a poster presentation at the conference.

If you are a Ph.D. student, you will plan to give a paper at the conference.

If you are ABD, or a brand new Ph.D., you will plan to organize a panel at the conference.

If you are a young assistant professor, you will plan to organize a panel at the conference and become involved with a specialized section of your professional organization.

If you are an advanced assistant professor, you will plan to give a paper at the conference and serve as a discussant on another panel, one organized perhaps by graduate students, and take a possible leadership role in a specialized section of your professional organization.

And so on.

Whatever you have planned, make sure that you ATTEND the national conference of your discipline on a yearly basis. Lack of funds is not, in and of itself, a sufficient reason to not attend these meetings. They are important enough to put on the credit card.

Attendance and participation at the national conference of your discipline signals that you are a serious scholar and a legitimate contender. It signals seriousness of purpose and an integrity of intention: “I will be seen and heard.”

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this intention–”I will be seen and heard”–when it is made manifest publicly at your national conference.

I will go out on a limb and say that the willingness to be seen and heard at the national conference is the most important litmus test dividing the soon-to-be major scholar and employed academic, from the ranks of the un- and under-employed.

Of course it goes without saying that some who religiously participate in their national conferences end up, in this job market, underemployed. But I would venture to say that nobody who ends up well and fully employed ever neglects to attend their national conference yearly.

Avoid the national conference at your peril. It is scary, and alienating, and overwhelming. Go anyway.

And having gone, always push yourself the following year go again, and do something new. If you have attended one year, then give a paper the next. If you’ve given a paper one year, then organize a panel the next. If you’ve organized a panel one year, then serve as a discussant the next. In this way you increase your knowledge of your discipline and its inner workings.

A word on posters. It is my strong conviction that nobody who is serious about their academic career prospects, beyond the M.A. level, should ever give a poster at their national conference. If you have something to say, say it in a paper. It is the paper that gives you visibility, and access to a group of panel-mates, and an introduction to a possibly well-known discussant, and the attention of a real audience. It is the paper that gives you a highly valuable line on your c.v., and experience in speaking in front of a group, and handling the terror of an open Q and A period. Posters give you none of these things. They should be avoided.

Once you are accepted into the conference program, then the real work begins. Not the work of writing the paper. That is the intellectual project and between you and your advisor. No, this is the work of “conferencing.” That is, extracting all of the capital that you can out of the investment of time and money that you have made into the conference experience. You have five days in a hotel with between 5,000 and 10,000 scholars in your field. What are you going to do with them?

That is where we will pick up next week.

 

 

 

 

How Not to F**k Up Your Conference Interview

(Monday Post Category:  Getting You Into and Out of Graduate School)

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[Today’s post is an excerpt from “Taming The Academic Job Market: The Professor’s Guide.”  The Guide is on sale in The Prof Shop.  Don’t forget to check out the 30% off discount code on the Facebook page.  Good only through 8/15]

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You have submitted your cover letter, your c.v., and your recommendations. And lo! You’ve been long short-listed, and invited for a conference interview!  Congratulations. Now what?

The conference interview is about speed and first impressions. Generally this interview may be only 20-30 minutes in length. The interviewers are on a tight schedule, with a large number of candidates being hustled in and out of a small, cramped interview space.  It is awkward and exhausting for everyone.

If it is a 20 minute interview, and 2 minutes are taken up in taking your seat and greetings and 2 minutes in closing and walking to the door, that leaves 16 minutes for talking.  If the search committee members talk for half of that, it leaves you a sum total of 8 minutes of speaking time.  Brevity is key.

The elite departments from well funded schools will conduct the interviews in conference hotel suites reserved for the purpose, or at one of the search committee member’s own hotel rooms.  Broke departments will be forced to use the dreaded conference careers center, with its walls of tiny cubicles and humiliating lack of privacy.

Once I went to a conference interview for an Ivy League Anthropology department.  I entered the expensive suite in the conference hotel, to be greeted by a phalanx of Famous Scholars, with one of them, the most famous of all, stretched full length on the sofa, hand dramatically resting over his eyes. The interview commenced, with Famous Anthropologist sighing his questions from his supine position on the sofa.   My desire to be snarky overcame my desire for the job.  My eyes fell on a dirty, half-full glass of water on the table in front of me.  “Are all the candidates meant to share one glass of water?” I inquired.  Hasty scrambling ensued. Even F.A. half-rose in consternation.  I thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.

Needless to say, I was not invited to a campus visit.

I tell this story not as a model but as an example.  Conference interviews are bizarre and awkward.  Your task is to act “at ease,” to project an aura of calm and good humor in a stressful situation.  To succeed you must speak quickly and directly to your strengths, with no—absolutely no—digressions, and to dress and walk and talk and comport yourself as little as possible like a graduate student, and as much as possible like a confident, experienced faculty member and future colleague.

Preparation is key. Prepare by learning who is on the search committee (it is ok to call the department secretary and ask), and checking to see if they will be in attendance at the conference.

Once you know the likely interviewers, spring into action. Research their work, and the profile of the department as a whole. Familiarize yourself with their course catalog, and review their website to see their recent accomplishments. Check on the large classes that young assistant professors are most likely to be asked to teach, and prepare ideas on how to teach them. Suss out the financial footing of the department, and the level of graduate support, and whether the department is in deep financial cutting mode.  If it is, be prepared to talk about how you will teach large classes, develop new popular ones that draw large enrollments, and seek external funding.

Be prepared, in short, to engage with those faculty as much already on their wavelength, as a potential colleague, as you can.

Do not ever forget the #1 critical rule of the job search:  They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

Do. Not. Look. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student.

Be prepared to answer any of the following types of questions, in 1-2 minute responses:

  • How is your dissertation different from other work in your field?
  • What are your publication plans arising from the dissertation?
  • Who are the biggest scholarly influences on your work?
  • How would you teach a large intro class in your/our discipline?
  • Which textbook would you use for that class?
  • Can you name 3 classes that you would be interested to teach for us? Why?
  • How do you see your work fitting into our department?
  • How would you teach a foundational theory/methods graduate seminar?
  • What do you think the most important intellectual debate is in your/our field?
  • Can you envision any collaborations with faculty currently in the department?
  • What inspires your teaching?

Keep in mind the issue of time.   To reiterate, in all of these responses, you must be BRIEF and to the point. Any tendency to rambling must be eradicated.

To achieve this level of focus and brevity, practice is essential. You must write out the answers to questions like these and others, and practice them in front of a mirror and in front of friends, and at mock interviews in your department, over and over and over again, until they become second nature to you. Then and only then are you ready for the conference interview.

And because you have read the work of your interviewers, you will also be prepared to mention it in the interview. They will love you if you can respond, “I would certainly consider assigning YOUR recent article in an upper division class on political economy, because I think it provides an excellent case study from Eastern Europe.” You have to be sincere, but if you can be, that is pure interview gold.

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I cannot leave behind the conference interview without a word on clothing. I have seen unspeakable things, sartorially speaking, in the halls of the conference hotel, amongst the milling throngs of interview candidates.

Let us revisit the #1 critical rule of the job search: They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

Do. Not. Look. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student.

Your task at this short interview is to give the overwhelming first impression of being a dynamic, successful young professional.

What does that mean? For MEN, this means buying a new suit fresh for the interview season, which fits you at your current weight, which buttons across your middle, and which you have tailored so that the sleeves and pants hit you at the proper spots.  And btw, blazer and jeans are not acceptable, men!  Addendum:  This suit does not have to be an ultra high-end suit that costs thousands of dollars!   A good department store suit from JCPenney’s or Macy’s that has been tailored by their in-house tailor to fit you is completely adequate.  We’re talking a cost of hundreds here, not thousands.  Just no $99 suits from Men’s Wearhouse.

In addition, you need a good quality, department store shirt, which you have ironed to remove the package folds! You also need  a classic tie of recent vintage (the last year or two), a new leather belt (no cracked leather), the best quality leather black oxfords you can afford, and socks that match either the shoes or the suit.

Men, you hair should be recently cut.  Facial hair continues to be acceptable in academia; just make sure you’re well-groomed.

For WOMEN (by which I mean, women who present conventionally as women [butch dykes and transgendered candidates will have other requirements]), this means you buy a new, stylish, well-cut, fitted grey or brown suit (not black, which can be too severe) fresh for the interview season.  Skirt or pants, it matters not.  You will need a stylish blouse in a not too bright color, stockings or tights in a neutral shade, good quality, stylish leather (not faux) pumps with a 1-3 inch heel (for the height; less critical if you are 5’7” or above), and conservative jewelry.

Women, your hair should be cut and styled in an actual current style, not dragging or sproinging about in the stringy or unkempt clump so commonly seen in our graduate lounges. Also, no ponytails or barrettes.  You are not 9.

Neither man nor woman shall carry a backpack.

Both men and women will invest in the best quality leather or microfiber (but, emphatically, NOT fake leather) briefcase that they can manage.  Last season models are often on deep discount at office goods chain stores like OfficeMax. TJ Maxx and Ross are also excellent sources.

For both men and women, the cut and fit of the entire ensemble should be rigorously checked and rechecked by a reliable source such as your mother, or a trusted advisor who actually knows how to dress.  Suits are difficult to fit, and a poorly-fitting suit will hurt your chances on the job market!  Invest the time, and make sure your suit fits.

Why do all this?  Because these clothing rules mark you as “one of the tribe.”  In an ideal world how you look doesn’t matter.  But academia is far from an ideal world, as we know all too well.  You want to blend into the faculty “identity” as seamlessly as possible.  Marking yourself as looking like you are already employed and earning a regular income is the quickest way to do that.

One of the saddest sights in the hotel conference hall is not so much the sloppily dressed interview candidate, as the ineptly dressed interview candidate—the one in the brand new, too-cheap, shiny, ill-fitting suit with too-short sleeves and too-long pants, rushing through the halls clutching a fake-leather briefcase.

That person smells of desperation. Don’t let it be you.

 

Thoughts On Throwing In the Towel

Today’s promised post is another Special Request post, at the behest of a number of readers, about knowing when to “throw in the towel,” or, in the words of one requester, “knowing when to fold ’em,” on an academic career.

I am totally unqualified to answer that question in the way that it’s being asked. Because although I did indeed leave academia, I didn’t leave under duress. I left a good position, that offered good money and status and the relative freedom to pursue the teaching and research interests that originally got me into academia. If those interests had still been important to me, I would not have left.

I have never confronted the painful, heartbreaking decision to give up on a dream that was still unrealized. I have not been in the position of having dedicated so many years and so many dollars to a Ph.D., only to discover at the end that the meager adjuncting opportunities available can’t even begin to pay off the backlog of effort and debt. I can only imagine the fear, grief, and loss that must accompany this excruciatingly slow realization that the hoped-for tenure track job is NOT going to materialize, and that the investment of time and money may well have set you far behind your friends and peers.

I only know two things germane to this experience.

The first is that it is important not to give up until you’re sure that you’ve actually done everything in your power to position yourself for the career that you want. And the second is that even if you do everything in your power, there are still not enough jobs for every qualified applicant, and many will have to make the decision to leave.

I want to discuss each of these points in isolation, as if the other is not true.

Regarding the first, you have to ask, and be ready to confront the true answer— Is my job letter perfect? Have I dedicated 2-3 months to writing and revising it? Have I had it subjected to critical edits by no fewer than 10 faculty members with search committee experience? Is my c.v. impeccable? Has it been checked and rechecked for both content and appearance? Does my teaching statement sparkle with inspiration and clarity?

I know for a fact that in the vast majority of cases, the answer to these questions is no.

All the years that I was a professor, and now that I’m The Professor, grad student after grad student, Ph.D. After Ph.D., client after client, comes through my office showing me job market materials that cannot possibly qualify them for anything but the reject pile. And they ask me why they aren’t getting tenure track jobs.

There are two sets of subquestions here.  The first:  whether or not you have actually done all the academic work to position yourself for a job. Ask yourself, have I published all I can *in* *refereed* *journals*? Have I pushed myself to attend high profile conferences in my field? Have I networked with influential junior and senior scholars? Have I promoted myself in every way possible?

The second: if you have done all of that, whether or not you have actually represented these effectively in your materials. Ask yourself, again, is my job letter impeccable? Have I utilized every professional skills resource at my disposal? Have I read every book? Twisted the arm of every professor and colleague? Checked every blog post?

Because, the sad truth is, most of you on the academic job market are shooting yourselves, systematically and with extraordinary aim and determination, in the foot.

You are spending year after year on the market without holding your materials up to the harsh light of truth and confronting just how bad they really are.

I’m sorry. This isn’t the message you want to hear. But it’s true.

And let me be clear, I am not talking here about hiring me*. There are other ways to skin this cat. But skinned it has to be. And until it is, giving up is premature. Because I know for a fact that I’ve seen many, many Ph.D.s move from unhireable to hireable, not because they published anything new but because they finally learned how to represent what they had already done in their materials. In short, because they FINALLY learned to write a brilliant, effective job cover letter.

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The second thing that I know is that, even while you can and must do all of this, some of you will not get tenure track jobs. And then you must indeed quit, and move on to another line of work.

That is a terribly sad decision.  And a terribly hard one, because while Ph.D.s have many skills that can be transferred to other careers, and are smart and disciplined enough to quickly gain others, it is the feeling of failure that, I think, makes it so hard to just pull the trigger, and leap (to mix my metaphors).

I know that I spent one year feeling like an utter failure because I was no longer a faculty member, and I left by choice. I can only imagine how hard it is when you leave because economic conditions force you to.

What I know about that is that academia is a kind of cult. And it does not release its adherents easily. Extracting yourself from the academic mind-set does not happen without fighting powerful messages of failure and powerful demons of self-doubt and shame.

I actually believe that academia is a system based on shame and fear. Fear of being exposed as “not smart enough,” and shame at “being a fraud.” I don’t actually believe that the vast majority of scholars in U.S. academic settings are frauds or inadequately smart. I just think they feel that way, and do everything in their power to suppress and conceal those feelings.

The harshness of the judgments of failure in academia arises directly from these efforts of apparently successful academics to suppress their own inner demons of failure and shame.

Of course there is also love—love for the work itself—which is what draws so many of us to the academic enterprise. But the love gets squelched in the climate of judgment that permeates academic settings–judgments of not being dedicated, or resourceful or brilliant enough.

Giving up on the love that brought you to this world means putting yourself directly in the line of fire of this judgment. And it doesn’t just come from others. Anyone who has lived in academic settings long enough to get a Ph.D. has thoroughly absorbed this judgment into themselves.

In the end, I think, you can’t throw in the towel, and really move on to what life has next, until you face down this judgment, and the fear (of not being smart enough) and shame (that you’re a fraud) that underlie it.  I think that you can not just survive but actually thrive, when you reconnect to the love that brought you into this game to begin with, and realize–that love and passion are part of me, and don’t require an affiliation and letterhead to be “real.”  And then you can look up and ask, “what new thing is out there for me?” and be ready to hear the answer.

What I want to say here is, there is life outside of academia.  A world of potential jobs and paychecks and free time and friends whom you actually see.  It is OK to quit.  It is really, really ok.  Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can even enjoy reading for pleasure again.  And then you’ll know you’ve reclaimed the love.  And you will be fine.

* Although I am, you know, hand’s down the best reader of your job materials you will find anywhere.  I have some weird talent for it.  Don’t know why, but there it is.  It’s my societal contribution.

Negotiating Your Tenure-Track Offer(s)

(Wednesday Post Category:  Getting Your Tenure-Track Job)

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[Today’s post is an excerpt from “Taming The Academic Job Market: The Professor’s Guide.”  The Guide is on sale in The Prof Shop

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Congratulations! You did it! You got the tenure track job offer!

Take a moment and just bask in the glory.

Do not, under any circumstances, accept the offer the same day they make it. When they call or email, answer pleasantly and politely, “Oh thank you. That is good news. I’m so pleased.” And then say, “I’d like to know more about the offer. When can we discuss the details, and when can I expect a written contract?” If the Department Head tries to push you for a commitment, simply repeat, “I am very happy for the offer, but I will need to discuss the terms and see the contract before I can make a final commitment. I very much look forward to discussing this further. I hope we can begin soon.” {addendum:  this post is based on U.S. academic practices. I have been informed that in the U.K. you must accept the job instantly or lose it.  If others have an international perspective to add, please, by all means, add it to the comments to the post. Thank you. KK}

Now, there are several things you need to know. Once an offer has been made to you, the institution cannot legally offer the job to anyone else for a certain amount of time. While that amount of time may vary by institution, be assured that you have at least one week to contemplate your response, and possibly as much as two or three. During that time you are in the driver’s seat. While unscrupulous or panicky or inexperienced or pushy Department Heads may try to hustle you, do not allow yourself to be hustled. You are now the one in charge. Bask in that.

All offers have room for negotiation. You should first see what the formal offer is in terms of salary, summer salary, teaching load, leave time, research support, expectations for tenure, graduate student funding, service expectations (particularly if it is a joint appointment), support for a spousal hire, and other matters. Until you have these in writing you cannot make an informed response.

Once you receive these, decide what you’re going to come back with in negotiation. Because, you ALWAYS come back asking for more. You are entitled. It is expected. Do not miss this one-time-only opportunity to negotiate greater gain for yourself and your family. What you ask for will depend on you and your goals. A single person with no children might decide to prioritize research support —ie, additional leave time and a larger research budget to pay for overseas research. A person supporting a family might forgo additional research funding to prioritize a higher salary. A person seeking a position for their spouse might forgo both research support and salary in order to prioritize a spousal appointment. The point is, in all cases, this is the one AND ONLY time in your early years in the department that you can attempt to turn circumstances in your favor. So do it.

Always proceed courteously and professionally. Respond quickly to emails and calls, and never leave them hanging, even if just to say, “Dear Margaret, I received your latest email; thank you. I will study it and respond by tomorrow.” Ideally you should have a trusted senior colleague assist you in these negotiations. It is critical that you maintain positive relations with your likely future colleagues. Although they might grumble a bit as the negotiations carry on for a week or two, they will respect you. This is how the game is played.

Now, one aspect to consider is if you have another competing offer or possible offer. If you do, first off, lucky you—you have rocked the system. This is the absolute best position to negotiate from. If you are waiting on an offer from a second school, you may contact that second school and inform them of the offer you received from school one. You will write something to this effect, “Dear Steve, Thank you again for having me out to visit your department at XXX U. I enjoyed the visit immensely. I am writing to let you know that I have received an offer from another institution. My timeline for accepting this offer is approximately one week. I wonder if I could receive a response regarding your search within that time frame. I want to reiterate my interest in your position. I hope to hear from you soon. Sincerely, XXX”

You will also write to school number one and say, “Dear Margaret, I want to let you know that I am a finalist for a position at another institution.  I will shortly learn the results of their decision and I will let you know as soon as I do.”

Do not name the competing institutions in either of these initial emails, unless the name value is so patently exceptional that you feel it will add incalculable allure to your status.  If a bidding war ensues, then at that time the names of the institutions may be revealed.

You can be assured that this email will send a jolt of terror through the spine of both Steve and Margaret.  The greatest fear of departments once an offer is made is that the offerree will reject it and accept an offer elsewhere. The department may have a solid alternate candidate available, but often they do not. Departments often end up voting all but the top candidate as “unacceptable,” so failure to get the top candidate means a failed search, and the risk of losing authorization to hire that year. So all their eggs are in one basket, and that basket is you. If you are their top candidate, and they just haven’t told you yet because they haven’t had a chance to complete their voting and offer process (offers may have to be vetted by the Dean before they can be made to the candidate), this small, courteous email will send the department into a panic. And a panicked department is what you want. Because a panicked department, sensing that they might lose you to another institution, will be more likely to agree to your requests for salary, leave time, research support, and spousal positions.

You are absolutely entitled to play the two offers against each other. If school one is offering a higher salary, then go to school two and see if they will match the salary. If school two is offering a lighter teaching load, go to school one and see if that can be matched for a year or two (usually teaching load is more on the non-negotiable end of things, but temporary accomodations, say for year three, or the semester before tenure, etc., can sometimes be made in writing at the time of hire). The ideal situation for any tenure track job candidate is to be the object of a bidding war between two well-funded institutions. In the end, the choice you make will depend, as mentioned above, upon your own personal priorities. Things to ask about and consider negotiating for include:

  • higher salary
  • summer salary
  • research support
  • graduate student funding
  • guaranteed scheduled research leave
  • potential for early tenure
  • conference and travel support
  • spousal hire
  • lab support

Things that are non-negotiable but definitely worth asking about include:

  • service expectations, especially in joint appointments
  • level of health benefits
  • retirement contribution
  • overall retirement plan
  • on-campus day care
  • questions of maternity/paternity leave
  • housing/mortgage subsidies (in inflated real estate markets)
  • raise schedule

Now all departments have financial and logistical limitations. You cannot negotiate above those. If you try, you will quickly alienate them. They will not withdraw the offer, but they will resent you, and those feelings of resentment are dangerous for a soon-to-be junior faculty member. The key to negotiating is to always maintain good faith and honesty, and always have a highly delicate sense for when you are hitting a true wall of “we can’t do that.” Because when you hit that, that’s when you stop.

Be aware that many public institutions suffer from salary compression problems. That means that associate and full professors’ salaries have not kept pace with the national market, and consequently new assistant professors are offered salaries nearly as high as those of the tenured faculty who have been on campus for years. Salary compression creates terrible feelings of resentment and low morale in departments suffering from it. The Head will be all too well aware of these feelings. When the Head tells you, “we cannot go higher than $58,000 for your starting salary, or we will offend some faculty,” take that as a hard no, and turn your efforts elsewhere—summer salary for one to three years, one-time research support, a guaranteed graduate research assistant, and other shorter-term forms of compensation that don’t put pressure on an already strained salary structure.

Once you make your decision, call or email both departments immediately, and courteously and professionally express your gratitude for their offers, and accept one with warmth and enthusiasm, and turn down the other with kindness and respect. Remember that the colleagues in the rejected department will continue to play a role in your professional life for many years to come. You will see them at conferences, they might be external reviewers for your journal article or book mss., and who knows, one of them might end up one of your external reviewers for tenure one day. So preserve your good relations with these people at all costs. They will not be angry that you rejected their offer. They will just be disappointed. Be very friendly when you next run into them at a conference.

You, meanwhile, have tamed the beast. You have secured for yourself a job WITH benefits and WITH a retirement plan! You get to teach and pontificate and attend faculty meetings to your heart’s content. You are now on the tenure track, and can now start obsessing about tenure! Rest assured, there will be a Professor’s Guide about that too.

[This post is also a Special Request Post for Tiffany and Roger, who ask how to deal with more than one tenure track offer.  Here you go, you two!  I hope you have this problem!]

Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy

You’re probably looking at the title, and then at my photo, and thinking, “Isn’t she white?” Yes. Yes, I am white. I was never a graduate student of color in the academy.

So, my insights are limited, and I don’t present myself as an expert on this subject.

But I did have a career that spanned no fewer than three racially-charged departmental environments. And during my time in these three departments, I tried my best to stay open and alert to the challenges posed to the white dominant system in those departments by the graduate students (and faculty) of color. I came to understand some of the ways that my own subject position and mode of operation were products of white privilege, and the many unthinking ways that I reinforced that through my work. I watched graduate students and faculty of color brutalized by the unacknowledged racism of the institution, and I did my best to serve as an ally. I don’t think I was always as successful as I wanted to be. But I did learn a thing or two. And it’s those things I share today.

First, my background. I went to graduate school at the University of Hawai’i. I got my first job at the University of Oregon. I got my second job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Hawai’i the Anthropology department was deeply implicated in the conflicts on campus about the relationship of the University and the Native Hawaiian community. One cultural anthropologist on the faculty, not long before I arrived, had just been forced to abandon her research focus on Native Hawaiians after her informants revealed they had systematically and intentionally lied to her in her most recent published fieldwork project.

At the University of Oregon, the archaeology program, which was highly Pacific Northwest focused, had begun intensively recruiting Native American graduate students shortly before I arrived. When I was there, there were approximately five Native American students enrolled in the department, some in the Cultural Resource Management MA program, with the goal of getting training to manage their tribes’ museums, and some in archaeology and cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on their tribal cultures, languages, and histories.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, two Latina/o faculty members in cultural anthropology hired before I arrived had, over time, successfully recruited a group of approximately seven Latina/o graduate students, who were primarily enrolled in cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on a range of Latino, Mexicano, and Latin American cultural topics.

In all three of these departments, the presence of a “critical mass” of graduate students of color—that is to say, graduate students of “one” color, ie, from one particular racial and cultural background—fundamentally altered the department climate and profoundly challenged the graduate seminar environment.

At Oregon, because of a separate critical mass of white faculty members who were (within limits) willing and able to look directly at questions of race and their own privileged subject position, the department, at least during the years I was there, was able to adjust and grow as a result of these challenges.

At Hawai’i and Illinois, the departments proved unable to do this.

At Hawai’i, the cultural anthropologist who had previously worked with Native Hawaiians changed her research focus and left for a position on the East Coast. The department, during the years that I was there as a Ph.D. Student, indeed operated as if it was located on the East Coast. There was no indication whatsoever that we were a department at the very center of a profound social upheaval resulting from the newly powerful Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and the work of scholars and activists like Haunani-Kay Trask, right on our campus. The department stayed entirely mute. It was a department in total denial.

This despite the fact that at just the same time, the discipline of anthropology was itself reeling from a new interrogation from scholars of color (Edward Said foremost among them) of the profound involvement of the discipline in histories and mechanisms of colonialism and imperialism.  These scholars also queried the continuing racism embedded in a discipline that is based on the ideal of a white scholar writing about and making a career from studies of communities of color.

It was a curious fact that this critique was taken seriously at the most intensely white anthropology programs, while at the programs where the faculty felt directly threatened by actual people of color in the community, it was entirely ignored.

At Illinois, because the Latina/o graduate students had the support of two respected (albeit untenured) faculty members, and also the support of no less than the brand-new then-Chancellor of the University, Nancy Cantor (a long-time proponent of diversity in graduate education), they were able to break through the wall of silence and denial in the department, and force the issue of the racism of anthropology into the open.

The fascinating thing at Illinois was that the critique of anthropological racism was never explicitly denied. On the contrary, most of the white faculty members by that point were well-versed in “talking the talk” of self-reflexive anthropology and the imperialist origins of the discipline.

But when it came to taking the next step, that of interrogating their own privilege, and in particular, the readings assigned, and the discussions encouraged, in their own graduate seminars, then….well, things were entirely different. Far from being mute, the faculty became aggressive and hostile.

The department fractured in the end over a truly heartbreaking and appalling incident centering around a plaque that the university, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to erect honoring long-deceased UI anthropologist Oscar Lewis and his “Culture of Poverty” thesis (which, for those of you unfamiliar, basically blames poor Mexican people for being poor). I will not rehash the dreadful events that ensued here, but you may read about them in this account by a former Ph.D. student who was at the center of it: Brian Montes, “No Longer Silent: A Historical Moment of Latino Student Activism” Latino Studies (2005) 3, 280–287.

I’ve written too much without even getting to any thoughts on the purported topic of this post: “Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy.”

Here’s what I want to say. I learned through these interactions that the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.

One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, in the midst of the Oscar Lewis debacle, “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable. Kind of like the Republicans blaming Obama for the debt-ceiling crisis. If a problem emerges under your purview—you must be the cause of the problem.

Anyway, it goes without saying that graduate students of color so often feel heartbreakingly isolated in their departments and completely without a friend or ally. That when they try to talk to white faculty about race—not so much as an analytical concept, as a systematic source of blindness about how syllabi are written (ie, with exclusively white scholarship) or how classroom discussions are conducted (ie, when the tentative critiques of students of color are instantly and angrily shot down by defensive white students and faculty), they are met with on one end, bewilderment, in the middle defensiveness, and on the other end, hostility. That when they try to engage their white graduate classmates in a collective intervention, the white graduate students are often MORE defensive, angry, and hostile than the faculty members themselves, probably because of their own status insecurity.

I am not the first to say these things, and I won’t be the last.

What I do want to say is this: the starting point and the ending point for so many graduate students of color in the humanities and social sciences is frequently (although not always) fundamentally different from that of white students. While some graduate students of color most certainly do turn their scholarly interests to subjects unconnected to their own racial or cultural background, and that is entirely to be supported, for the majority, I believe, scholarship starts and ends with the question, “does this help or hurt my people?”

And that is a question that white people don’t get. Because white people don’t have “a people.” Of course the most ethical among us will ask this question about the people we study. We might care deeply about those people and spend a professional life intimately involved with them. But they’re not “our” people. Even when we marry one of them, they are not our mothers, our fathers, our grandmothers, our cousins. We have not seen our closest family members ravaged by the widespread, all-encompassing systematic poverty and alcoholism and disease that has ravaged the Native Hawaiian community, the Native American community. White people have not seen our families torn apart by oppressive immigration policies that victimize so many in the Latina/o community and force so many into hiding.

Sure, white people can feel a sense of belonging to an ethnic group, or to a class. Working class white people in the academy do indeed feel systematically excluded from the in-groups and from classroom debates. I am not denying that. But it is different, because the stakes are different. When your people are dying, literally dying, from forms of cultural genocide, your approach to academia is going to be different. It’s going to be urgent. It’s going to be impatient. It’s going to be angry. You’re going to ask questions about why their stories are not being told, and why scholars aren’t asking how the discipline helps or hurts a group of people, your people, who are already suffering from so many histories of neglect and disregard.

I have no solution to offer for white blindness and cluelessness. I don’t present myself as a hero of enlightenment in this regard. I am still blind to my own privilege much of the time, despite my best efforts. I would still be even more pathetically blind if not shaken out of my complacency by living in Hawa’i during a powerful moment in the Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and if not directly confronted by a group of Native American graduate students in my Foundations of Social Theory Core Graduate Seminar at Oregon. If they had not asked me why all of my readings were by old, dead white guys, and insisted on an answer that wasn’t stupid, and if those students had not already been empowered by an archaeology program that was dedicated to supporting them, and if they had not been defended by a white cultural anthropologist Department Head who stood up for those students and our tumultuous class when they were attacked by the white students enrolled in it…..well, if all those things had not been in place, at that one moment in time, I would most likely still be totally comfortable with the idea of a Core Seminar in Anthropology imposing an all-white world view onto graduate students, and those Native American students would have been silenced once more.

Perhaps it takes a lightning in the bottle kind of moment to shake white people out of their race-blindness. That is depressing, and not good news. What I know is that graduate students of color bear far more than a fair share of the burden in pushing departments to confront race. And they all too often pay a terrible price for it.