It’s Not About You

Today The Professor continues her mobilization of low brow pop culture references in the service of the scholarly career by bringing to your attention the sentiment, “It’s Not About You.”

This is actually another installment in the “Nice Advisor/Worst Advisor” post series.  In its last installment, I told advisors to stop being nice.  In its first installment, I told graduate students to fear and dread (and avoid) the nice advisor.

But the fact is, niceness (however that is defined—caring, altruism, generosity of spirit) is rarely the true motivator behind any advising that revolves around the message, “You’re great! You’re doing fine! Your ideas are brilliant!  You have nothing to worry about!”

I called it nice because it generally comes across as nice to the unsuspecting student. And there are “nice advisors” who have the best advising intentions but struggle to effectively express those in an assertive and clear way.

But more typically, this level of praise is entirely self-serving on the part of the advisor.

The advisors who tell graduate students that they’re great, brilliant, and above reproach are not talking to the students at all.

They’re talking to themselves.

Grad students:  it’s not about you.

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It’s not about you in two distinct ways.

The first way it’s not about you is that it’s about the advisor’s priorities and work ethic.  Sending an advisee on his or her way with a pat on the head and an “’atta boy!” takes 5 minutes.   Sitting down with the chapter for an intensive read and a substantial organizational critique (not copy-editing, mind you, but scholarly engagement with the argument) takes an hour or more.  Add in the follow-through of reading the revised draft, and you have a couple of hours dedicated to just the one chapter.

In short, it is exponentially easier and less work for the advisor to tell you you’re doing well than it is for him or her to tell you that you need help, and then provide that help.

The second way it’s not about you is that some advisors want desperately to believe that they themselves are great, brilliant, and above reproach.  The best evidence of that is that their grad students are great, brilliant, and above reproach.  Surely someone brilliant has brilliant students. Ergo, you (my student) are brilliant.

A floundering graduate student suggests, among other things, an ineffective advisor.  A frightened graduate student suggests, among other things, an advisor of limited sway and influence in the field.

Confronting the floundering and fearful graduate student in an accountable and responsible way requires the advisor to acknowledge his or her own limitations—that perhaps his famous theory seminar wasn’t completely effective; that her advice on the dissertation topic was perhaps ill-considered; that inspiration doesn’t emanate from his every pore; that her judgment about admitting this student at all was perhaps faulty; that his reputation is not so illustrious as to guarantee, in this day and age, jobs for every disciple.

These are things that some advisors would prefer not to admit.  And the quickest shortcut to not admitting them is to believe—even against all evidence—that their graduate students are uniformly brilliant and successful.

Self-interest and self-delusion are powerful forces.  You, grad student, are not anywhere near important or influential enough (well, nobody really is) to make an intervention in them, if they are your advisor’s motivating impulses.

What can you do?  Understand that the words “you’re great; you have nothing to worry about” are not about you.  Take them as a clear sign that you must find other, reliable mentors.  Make the effort to subject your work to intensive and reliable critique wherever you can find it.

You probably, if you’re reading this blog, are already in way too deep to be able to bail on the advisor without causing major political damage to your reputation or standing in the department.  If that’s not the case,  change advisors.  But if it is, then play along, be gracious, appear to accept the compliments, then go away and work like hell to find the dedicated and invested mentors you need to produce a reputable dissertation, significant publications, successful grant applications, and a wide network of readers outside of your advisor.

You can take confidence in the likelihood that your advisor’s letter will probably be glowing.

You will be fine, as long as you are not in turn deluded about your own abilities and chances on the market.  As hard as it is to reject unstinting praise, for your own sake,  student, just remember:  it’s not about you.*

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*Of course this applies equally to unstinting criticism, but there the motivations and outcomes are different, because the advisor in that case becomes an antagonist and obstacle to finishing. That will be the subject of another blog post.

Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post I

Following up on the article From Graduate School to Welfare in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I am featuring stories of Ph.D. poverty here on the blog, contributed by readers.  I believe that one of the most important tasks before us is to publicize the poverty associated with graduate school and adjuncting for so many, to break through the denial of Ph.D. programs, and to expose the conditions of labor in the academy to the public at large and in particular to tuition-paying parents.

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Currently my daughter and I live with my parents. I am trying to finish my dissertation. I taught one class at a private university in the fall but, due to workplace harassment (and the time/profit ratio, earning me about $5 per hour—which would not have covered child care had I needed it), decided to get a part-time hourly job instead—with the hope that I would have more time to write, and the idea that I should make my state’s legal minimum wage!

I have applied to over 40 companies, mostly retail, and have had 3 interviews, but remain unemployed after 5 months. I can only guess that employers are reluctant to hire me because they do not believe I would stay long. (I have to wonder, though, if turnover in retail is high anyway, doesn’t my CV reflect perseverance and dedication? good work ethic?) I even looked into selling my eggs—but I am too old (and, even more offensive, too short).

I have made more progress than ever on my dissertation; however, it has come with the great cost of anxiety due to financial instability. I have a new adjunct position lined up for the fall (albeit one class that will pay $2800 for the semester), but have never been in such dire financial position as I am now.

I am very, very blessed to have a generous and patient father who is providing food and shelter and loaning me money to cover my car payments, medical bills, school tuition, and basic necessities. I am 32 and find it is the most humiliating thing in the world to ask my dad for another loan every time I get a bill I cannot pay. Equally humiliating is seeing younger family members and friends who have been in the workforce for years and have bought their own homes and cars. Though I feel successful when I read my CV, day-to-day living appears the ultimate failure. I have over $180,000 in federal student loans. I had a tuition waiver and assistantship during my 10 years of graduate school, and had no loans from my undergrad years. How did I get to this point?

One of the most significant factors is that in AY 10-11, I was adjuncting and working at a museum—making a living wage but not making dissertation progress, as I was a single mother working essentially full time. My primary advisor took a new position at a different university and told me if my progress (lifestyle/situation) did not change—that if I did not produce chapters—she could no longer advise me. This was presented as a choice between finishing my degree or earning a living wage. I chose the former and moved where I would not have to pay rent. I loved both of my jobs, especially teaching, and am still not sure if I regret my choice.

I was not on the tenure-track market this year because not being done with the dissertation does not make me competitive enough. I did apply to a few one-year sabbatical replacement positions and landed one interview, but was not selected. When I inquired as to how I might have better luck next time, the search committee chairs explained that they had applicants who had already finished postdocs and had books published. At least I was assured that it wasn’t a glaring typo on my CV (which Karen would have caught anyway!)

Another factor leading to my current situation is health problems, requiring occasional hospitalizations for both myself and my daughter. Fortunately she has been eligible for Medicaid her whole life; I have student insurance through my university (without prescription coverage).

I have a deep desire to work not only for the pay but for my own dignity and mental health; being unemployed has stripped me of self-worth and made me severely depressed (leading to more bills from necessary therapy and medications…and frequent suicidal ideation). I don’t regret pursuing a PhD, even in the humanities, because I find research and teaching in my field to be deeply fulfilling, and a career that all my life experiences feed into. To their credit, my grad school profs always emphasized how difficult it is to land a TT job in our field—but also assured me that my overzealousness reflected strongly on my CV, so I shouldn’t worry. Graduates from my program have fared relatively well in the past decade, but the market in the past year has never been so bleak.

I am not sure how to change the situation, but know that federal budget cuts to education typically affect the arts and humanities first. For this reason my ire is usually directed at the current toxic political atmosphere that recognizes no value in the arts and humanities, cuts public assistance programs, and promotes the idea that everything would be wonderful if everyone was an engineer.

 

Don’t Be Nice

I can’t believe I’m going to write this, but I was watching Tony Robbins on Oprah a couple weeks ago.

I know.  Stay with me here.

And although I think that Tony Robbins is really gross, and especially when he starts going on about what women “need” to do I want to throw up in my mouth a little, nevertheless, dammit if the damned episode didn’t just stick with me and niggle at me ever since.

What he talked about was how women are trained and expected to be “nice.”  Especially with their friends.  If a friend says, “I think I blew that audition because I didn’t have time to prepare,” the “proper” female friend response will be “oh, no, I’m sure you did fine…”  We are Nice.  Reassuring.  This we call, “being supportive.”

But, Tony Robbins asked,  what are you doing when you’re being quote-unquote nice and quote-unquote supportive?  Are you really being a friend?  Are you telling the truth?  To continue my made-up example above, if your friend says “I think I blew that audition because I didn’t have time to prepare,” should you really say, if you  want to support your friend’s dreams, “Oh I’m sure you did fine”?  Or, should you say, “Yeah, it’s hard to audition when you don’t prepare. That may not have been your best performance.  Do you have a plan for the next one?”

I naturally completely bristled at Tony Robbins presuming to tell women how to act.

But the fact is, this is EXACTLY why I list the “nice” advisor as the top worst advisor in my list of worst advisors.  The last thing you want is a nice advisor, if by nice they’re all, “hey, that idea’s great,” and “wow your chapter’s terrific” and “you’re brilliant, you’ll get a job” and “you have nothing to worry about.”

‘Cause that’s bullshit, pure and simple.

That’s not friendship or support or adequate advising.  That’s abnegating responsibility.  That’s laziness.  And it’s falsehood.

Everyone should be worried.

Here at the Professor Is In I do get clients who are struggling with abusive and outrageous advisors.  But far, far more often I get clients who are slowly, gradually, painfully confronting the devastation  wrought by the nice advisor.  At least with an abusive advisor you know there’s a problem. The harm of the nice advisor lies in letting you believe there is no problem, that everything is fine.  So you cruise on, turning in your chapters and defending your diss, and sending out letters….. until one day, you realize, at the hands of the brutality of a completely cold and unyielding job market:   Everything is not fine.  You are not brilliant.  You should have been worried.

I was working with a client a few days after watching the Tony Robbins episode.  She told me, “I had an interview scheduled with a great college in my town about a year ago, but when I drove out on the freeway to get there, I got mixed up and turned the wrong way.  I couldn’t get turned around in time to make the interview.  By the time I got there, I was a half hour late, and I’d missed the interview.”  She said, “they’re advertising again right now.  I want to apply, but I wonder if I blew it with them last time.”

I felt myself start to say, “oh, I’m sure you still have a chance…”  But then I stopped myself.  Did I believe that?  No, I did not.  Truthfully, I think she blew it.  So was I helping her by saying otherwise?  No, I was not.   Had she come to me to make her feel good about herself?  No, she had not.  She came to me to hear the truth.  So, I paused a moment and said instead, “Yeah, I think you blew it.  I don’t think a search committee will be likely to give you consideration when you flaked on an interview with them a year before.”

And I realized that, in Ph.D. advising at least, nice is evil.

I got this comment on the blog last week, from someone who signed herself “Nice Lady Advisor”:

I wish you would write a follow-up post on the “nice advisor” problem, addressed to us nice advisors. I aspire to your level of effective bluntness, but I often find myself choking up and couching my criticisms in such “constructive” terms that my advisees can miss the underlying hard truths.


Many times I long to say, “This writing sample is boring and shallow, and nobody is going to give you a job/fellowship based on it.” But don’t want to be toxic or undermining, so instead I say, “Use active verbs to make your writing more vivid! Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence and evidence to support a claim! Frame your argument and claims as a response to arguments and claims in the current literature – refer to scholars X and Y!” And my advisees think their work is basically okay, when it’s not.

All advisors, but particularly nice lady advisors,  beware this impulse to water down your critique.  The truth, if it is really the truth, and not some passive-aggressive expression of your own private twisted agenda, is never toxic or undermining.  It is empowering.

I say it again:  The Truth Is Empowering.

You empower your students when you tell them the truth.  Even when the truth is kind of bad and disappointing.

No, you can’t just criticize (“this writing sample is boring and shallow”).  You must criticize and then TEACH:  “this writing sample is boring and shallow because it repeats an empty assertion multiple times without developing it with additional evidence and argumentation.  To make it work for you you’ll need to revise it to move crisply through an organization that lays out a question, then describes bodies of scholarship on the question, then advances an argument, then proves the argument with evidence, and then offers a conclusion.  I can help you sketch the outline for that now.  Then go away and do it, and send me back the revision.”

Yes, they may resent you.  No, they may not do what you say.  It is not comfortable.  It may involve strife.  But that is your job, as an advisor.  To show them what they’re doing poorly and TEACH them how to do it better.

If you want to go home and be nice to your cat or your friends, that’s fine.  But don’t be nice to your advisees.

 

Academics, External Validation, and Entrepeneurialism: Some Autobiographical Reflections

Last weekend I went skiing with my kids at Mt. Bachelor. It was a glorious crystal clear spring weekend, and there was even fresh snow! You can ski late in Oregon. Bachelor will stay open until May 28, and Timberline stays open all summer.

Let me be perfectly clear. When I was a professor I did not ski. I didn’t have (make) the time. And more importantly, I didn’t have (make) the money. This new business, The Professor Is In, has completely transformed the financial status of my household. In its first year it will likely bring in an income equivalent to the salary of a Full Professor at Notre Dame or University of Michigan, according to the salary table in the Chronicle’s article, “What Professors Make.”

I share this, at the risk of appearing to brag, because I want readers to understand that by leaving academia and launching my own business—even as a former humanities professor (not from business or engineering or the like)–i have drastically improved not simply my earning potential, but also my mental health and work-life balance. I make excellent money doing something I believe in fiercely, and I spend that money on actual weekend activities, like skiing with my children. Sometimes, as a former academic, I look up and think, “I had no idea life could be this good.”

On the chair lift, I ended up sitting next to, believe it or not, another former professor turned entrepeneur. The lift was long, and I got to hear his story. His Ph.D. was in finance, and while he worked as a professor he also began to invest in some local real estate in his college town. After some years, he sold a couple of buildings, he said, for 20 million dollars. “Now I spend my time skiing, hunting, fishing, and traveling around the world with my wife. We’ve been to 70 countries.”

I bring up this story to raise, in a preliminary fashion, the idea of leaving the academy. Here are two examples, at least, of people who took their academic experiences and expertise, and turned them into successful businesses, one on a massive scale, and one far more modestly.

While I can’t speak for my Finance friend, I know that for myself, I made the leap because I needed to do work that was meaningful to me, and being a university professor no longer was.

I write above that as The Professor I’m doing something I believe in fiercely. All the years that I was a professor, I was profoundly interested in and dedicated to the question of professionalizing graduate students, my own and all the rest. I agitated to create professionalization seminars for my departments, and eventually, when I became Head, got the opportunity to use a donor gift to create a day-long professionalization retreat for all new graduate students in the department. I felt then, as I feel now, that this is a fundamental ethical obligation to graduate students in all graduate programs.

It was gratifying. But it was also necessarily a very minor side-project. Dedication to grad students gets you a sum total of nothing in terms of professional advancement. It didn’t count on my CV, didn’t bring me any merit points for raises, and didn’t play at all on the mid-career academic job market. As a former colleague of mine—a truly genius Ph.D. advisor back when I worked with him— told me a few months ago, “I don’t even accept new graduate students now. What’s the point? I am a damned good advisor. But it’s a LOT of work, with nothing to show for it in the end.”

The things that count, of course, the things that you have to “show” in the end, are evidence of competitive scholarly productivity— publications, major grants, high profile conferences, etc.

One of the most important impetuses for me leaving academia is that I no longer believed in the value of the work, when that work was exclusively defined as this kind of competitive scholarly output.

There were other reasons I left of course, all explained in my column, Death of a Soul on Campus. And I had two terrific long-term research projects prepared and ready to act on—on the postwar Japanese back to the land counterculture, and on Japanese lesbian and transgendered communities in Tokyo—that had already generated wide interest and would yield the competitive scholarly output I needed to stay, well, competitive.

I did believe those were valuable projects. But not valuable enough, in the end, to justify the single-minded focus, and sacrifice of other interests and commitments, required to bring them to fruition.

I just no longer believed that producing academic publications about Japan was work that made sufficient difference to the world at large. I could not get behind it as a significant societal contribution. I also was no longer motivated by the value/reward structure of the academy itself, in which we are required to “prove” our value by producing quantities of work within a microscopically narrow scholarly niche that is then evaluated by our “superiors” in an intense status hierarchy, with the ultimate reward being acceptance into the top rank of the hierarchy (ie, full professor) ourselves.

Lo and behold, I was no longer a company woman.

Nobody was more startled to discover this than me. I had been a thoroughly assimilated zealot for the cause for a lot of years. When I was an assistant professor my friends used to refer to me as “Dean Kelsky,” because I was so dedicated to my work and to the whole academic enterprise writ large. [That period I describe a bit in this blog post,  “Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide.”]

And then suddenly, I wasn’t. Suddenly, I could not care less what the full profs in the department thought of my “productivity,” and whether or not the college level merit committee thought I was doing “enough” for a raise. At some point, and I don’t know when it happened, I stopped being willing to accept the basic premise of academic worth and value. And I stopped being willing to put my financial “valuation” in the hands of someone else.

And then I knew I had to leave.

And here’s what I began to see vaguely then, and have come more clearly to see in the year since opening The Professor Is In. I went into academia because I believed that it was a land of free-spirits and risk takers. People who were willing to buck the norms of American life in terms of money-grubbing and materialism. A place where people would follow ideas to their conclusions, even if those conclusions were unpalatable to the powers that be. Yes, I was naive.

What I learned in my years in the academy, particularly as an administrator, though, is that the academy is actually far more commonly a land of rule-followers and risk-avoiders.   It is the ultimate hierarchical organization. I mean—grad student->asst prof->assoc prof->full prof->endowed chair->dean-> provost->chancellor-> president—this is a hierarchy as intense as any military or corporate system. Yes, plenty of critical work happens in the university, even some radical work.  But mostly pointed outward, at others, and rarely applied to the academic self.  The critical work is then folded into academic reputation that again, yields primary results not in the world at large, but in increasing status and compensation within the university.

People do follow their ideas and share them with others through their work. And that’s a good thing. But I’ve come to understand that that’s more of an unintended consequence, or perhaps, a side product. Far more energy is dedicated to the imposition of rigid expectations and norms of value and behavior, and imposing them on those lower in the hierarchy, in order to continually reproduce the organization, without challenge, in its current form.

The goal here is not money, it is true.

It is status. Or, as Marc Bousquet says in the recent Chronicle article, From Grad School to Welfare, it is ego, identity status, and prestige.

“We socialize people into accepting the coin of reputation as status capital. Some people are so deeply socialized into the regime of payment by way of status that they are essentially trapped in it for life.”

My efforts in The Professor Is In are devoted to making sure that anyone seeking a career in the academy understands the workings of status and reputation with the greatest clarity possible. One of the ways that privilege is reproduced (and hierarchies remain intact) is that information is withheld in a system of secrecy, in which junior people are never clear or confident about their adequacy in meeting these unspoken expectations.

It is ironic of course, as my detractors often point out, that someone who left the academy is advising people how to succeed in the academy.

Why do I do that?

Well, first off, as I said, it’s not a terrible job if you’re successful. I had a lot of pretty good years in the academy before I began to hit up against its limits. It was a compelling job, with good pay, excellent benefits, the gratification of teaching and doing research (both of which I genuinely loved), social status, and relative freedom of scheduling my time (a huge thing for me then and now). Plenty of people have satisfying careers in the academy, and with a combination of grit, privilege, and luck, you can still do that.

More fundamentally, though, I am aware of the intense “sunk costs” of new Ph.D.s. People with years invested in the Ph.D. really have nowhere to go, for a certain period of time, but forward.  They can’t simply quit en masse to pursue alt-ac jobs. And they shouldn’t. There are still academic jobs available, just far fewer, and characterized by declining conditions of work. But they exist, and someone will get them, and I can help to explain “which someone” that is most likely to be.

But what my own path and my work with clients has revealed to me very starkly is the psychic risk of staying in. Because, to stay in is to acquiesce in an absolute dependency on a system of external validation. You are successful if your committee validates your dissertation, if a grant committee validates your proposal, if journal reviewers validate your mss., if external reviewers validate your tenure case, if the department head validates your activity report…. the cycle of external validation never, ever stops.

And that is problematic for those who do end up needing to leave the academy to find  work. Because to find or create work outside that hierarchical organization, after years of inculcation into dependence on external validation, is extraordinarily difficult.  You have to suddenly begin evaluating your own worth and potential contribution.

I have a friend at the UO, a linguistics Ph.D. who after some years of seeking tenure track work, ultimately gave up and found a position as an academic advisor. She told me last week about how at one point during that process she and another friend from her Ph.D. program thought about creating a consulting firm doing market analysis based on linguistic trends. They were so excited and filled with ideas, she told me, until they came to the point of needing to set prices. “We had no idea how to put a value on our services!” she said. “What were we worth? We couldn’t even begin to imagine.  It just fell apart after that.”

The greatest challenge for academics leaving what I call the academic cult, is to extract their sense of self from the cycle of external validation. I know this. After leaving I spent a whole year on the sofa, devastated, depressed, and filled with self-loathing. To have left the academy I was obviously a failure. What is your worth if you don’t have formal affiliation and status, and reputation, and evidence of competitive success?

Well, eventually I figured it out. That’s a story for another blog post. But for now I close with this: there is hope outside the academy. There is financial and professional and emotional success possible. But you have to learn  your own worth to find it—the worth that comes from following your own values, and not those imposed by an organization.

 

 

A Letter From a Reader (With Thoughts on What Professors Make)

I am interrupting regularly scheduled programming to share this email I received from a reader this week.

I share it for several reasons. The first is as a follow-up to last week’s post, “What’s It Like to Work with the Professor?” In that post I wrote,

Many readers have written to tell me that just reading my blog posts has given them the information they needed to succeed in their grant applications, conference efforts, and job hunt. This is very gratifying to me. Although I charge for services in working with me personally, it pleases me to also provide much-needed information at no cost to all readers.

This email provides an example of exactly how and why simply being a faithful reader of the blog can be an effective and completely free intervention into your job search.

Secondly, I want it to be seen as evidence of the continuing negligence of Ph.D. advisors to support their advisees’ actual employment goals, and an example of a person who still, despite that, prevailed.

Thirdly, it is a delightful object lesson in how “playing hard to get” and making them want you (ie, by asking for more time to think about the initial offer) can yield excellent outcomes.  It is a core tenet of all negotiating.

And then, lastly…..  not to be a total downer (sorry, writer!  I apologize that I’m kind of raining on your parade a little bit here…), but I want to draw attention to the salary level of the VAP position initially offered to this writer, and relate that to yesterday’s column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “From Graduate School to Welfare.” $35,000 is not a liveable wage for anyone supporting dependents in most parts of the country. That wage is actually below wages that were offered for similar positions when I was on the market in 1996. The salary structure of university labor is, as the Chronicle piece demonstrated, increasingly untenable for all but the super-privileged.

Let me be clear:  I am beyond delighted for this writer (as I told her), and proud of her determination and tenacity and clarity of vision, and her resourcefulness in educating herself about the demands of the market.  She is a success story, and I wish her the very best (and expect that she’ll achieve it, given her determination).

But I am also sorry that anyone has to begin a tenure track career, in 2012, earning $45,000, which is not, I state here, an appropriate wage level for a Ph.D.-level tenure track university professor, particularly anyone confronting 5 or 6 figure student loans (which this writer is not—but most Ph.D.s are). This salary represents in stark terms the devaluating of academic labor even on the tenure track, outside the ranks of the ultra-elite schools,  and that is something that is eating the heart out of the entire university system, for both the undergraduate students, who are taught by increasingly desperate adjunct faculty, and for the faculty, who are increasingly financially stressed and unable to pay back student loans acquired during undergraduate and graduate study. 

Dear writer–I think you’re going to be a kick-ass SLAC teacher, and to use your own words, ‘I can’t properly express’ how pleased I am for you that you pulled this off.  And.  You’re worth more than this, and I encourage you to continue using your skills to agitate for better pay.

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Dear Dr. Karen,

I cannot properly express my gratitude for all of the ‘behind the scenes’ mentoring you have provided me over the past few months. I am so thankful for coming across your blog; your honest advice about academia and the job market has been paramount for my career.

I am a 5th year graduate student in (xxxx subfield) Biology.    I knew very early into my graduate career that I wanted to pursue a faculty position at a SLAC.  Whether or not I wanted the option of developing a full-fledged research program was still up in the air.  Very much still up in the air.

The research environment in the hard sciences is brutal and the thought of spending another 3-5 years in it was nearly unbearable.  I knew, of course, that I would still need to pursue at least one postdoc experience to keep that door open.  As such, I went ahead and applied to several labs looking for a traditional research postdoc, spent a lot of time prepping my applications for combined research (75% effort)/teaching (25% effort) postdoc opportunities offered through the NIH, and decided to put myself out there for a few VAP positions (just to try).

I quickly discovered that mentors at R1 institutions haven’t the slightest idea how to advise their graduate students unless they are following in their own footsteps (graduate school, 3 research postdocs, secure faculty position at R1 institution).

Even though my mentor knew from the start that my goal was to have a teaching role at a SLAC, he was unable to understand my desire to pursue this path because I was accomplished as a researcher, secured my own $100k funding through federal grants, etc. Obviously I would want to stay in research.

My sentiments about the R1 environment are likely not relevant for this letter, so I will keep them to myself.

With all of that said, I became determined to make the leap into SLAC academia sooner than later and started to teach myself about the job market.

The first point of embarrassment:  I didn’t know that the mainstream hiring season was in the fall and that I had completely missed most opportunities for a continuing position.  I also realized I was only trained to pursue research positions.  I had no idea what a proper *teaching* CV should contain, how to form a persuasive *teaching* cover letter, how to describe my own *teaching* philosophy, let alone how to handle any job talks that might come my way or even negotiate an offer.

I did seek help from my own mentor and a few other R1 faculty members at my institution.  However, every bit of advice was tailored for a research position and when I pushed more for help on the teaching end, they responded with a big “I have no idea.”

This is where “The Professor Is In” played a critical role.

Thanks to your tutorials, blog posts and facebook discussions, I was able to craft documents that I was proud to send out.    I received many postdoc offers, had on campus visits for some, and even started wrapping my head around the idea of accepting one at [an elite private institution].

Then, one day, I received a call from out of state.  It was the department chair who had received my application for a one year VAP position at a SLAC and wanted to set up a phone interview the following week.  Two days after that interview, I had another phone interview with the Dean.  A few days after that, I was asked to come down for a campus visit.  I gave a research talk to an upper level biology class, was the (surprise!) guest lecturer for the first year molecular biology course (where I had to give a chalk talk on photosynthesis – a topic that I haven’t revisited since my own freshman bio course) and made rounds through the administration.

Because of your blog, I was confident throughout my visit and knew I made the best impression possible.

The day after I flew back in, the Dean called to offer me the job.  The specifics:  1 Year VAP position, $35k, hopeful that they would get approval to put out a tenure track line in the fall, to which I would be encouraged to apply.  We had a very nice discussion and I expressed my gratitude for the offer, but told him I needed some time to consider my other opportunities including doing a postdoc.

He called back the next day, and said that he, the VP and department chair met with the President and were authorized to offer me a tenure track position at $45k.  I was very pleased by this opportunity, cancelled my visits to other campuses for postdoc interviews, and accepted the job at this great SLAC.

Whether or not you know it, you became my pseudo mentor and I am grateful for that.  Right before I flew down for the interview, I put a quick post on your facebook wall asking how appropriate it would be to discuss the possibility of establishing a tenure track line after the VAP position ends.  You replied with “completely appropriate.”  I can’t help but think that your comment set the tone for the interview which ultimately took me from a VAP offer to a permanent position at a “wish list” SLAC.

Sincerely,
PhD Candidate
Department of Biology xx
R1 Institution

What’s It Like to Work With The Professor? Information for the Curious

I thought I’d take a moment and write a brief post on what working with me actually entails, for the benefit of anyone who has been contemplating it. I know that reaching out for help in your career can feel awkward and kind of scary, and so I want you to understand what will happen once you make the call (ie, send the email).

Typically what happens is that a client sends an email briefly introducing themselves, and describing their experiences on the job market to date, and indicating what they feel they need help with, and their timeline.

I respond with information about different kinds of services that would seem to meet their needs, and their costs, and then the client decides what he or she wants to do, and I send an invoice on Paypal, and we get started. To date I have worked with clients in all major institutions in the United States, as well as in Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Turkey, South Africa, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Singapore, China, and Qatar. I am alert to issues related to the job market and academic expectations in different regions, and work to make sure my advice is adjusted to local conditions.

I have worked with clients in all of the Ivy League institutions in the U.S., as well so-called Public Ivies, the major research institutions, regional teaching institutions, small liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. As a general observation, my clientele tends to most often come from higher ranking institutions, but I do not privilege any rank of institution. I work with all clients with equal commitment, and tailor our work to the rank and profile of school to which the client is seeking to apply.

Most clients wish to work on their job documents. One document is one hour of work. When working together we will go back and forth through four edits. I have found that four edits is enough to get nearly everyone’s documents to their optimal state.

Most people ask me to work on 3 documents–job letter, cv, and teaching statement–and so that will come to 3 hours of work; please check the rates page for the current rates that apply. I always offer a 10% discount for 3-4 hours and a 15% discount for 5+ hours on a single invoice.

A good pace for completing work on one document is one week. I always work sequentially and prefer to start on the cover letter, to get a good sense of your overall profile.

If you want to work on postdoc applications as well, that will typically be about 2-3 additional hours, depending on what is being demanded by the postdoc application. A 4-5 page research proposal will typically take about 2 hours, and the postdoc cover letter will be an additional hour, as it is substantially different from a job cover letter.

To manage the intense demand for my services and large client load, I have several policies about document work that are firm and non-negotiable:  1) I work on one document at a time, sequentially through 4 drafts, to completion before moving to the next document; 2) each draft # (# 1-4) must be marked in the file name of each draft that you return; 3) because I make many small unmarked edits for style and clarity, clients must download and edit from the exact document that I return to them so as to retain all edits moving forward; 4) work on any new document must be pre-arranged on the schedule and cannot be launched into on the fly; 5) clients need to demonstrate what I consider to be a reasonable level of improvement in each draft–I need to see real and consistent effort to understand and execute the editing principles that I recommend; 6) Quick Review clients must submit a document that has been completely overhauled to follow the principles explained in the blog posts, models, or accompanying PDF, and be correctly labeled as QUICK REVIEW in the subject line (as explained in the instructions upon purchase).  If I find that a client consistently ignores my policies, I cancel our work together and refund 50% of paid fees; rush fees are non-refundable.

Now assuming you are successful in all of this, and get an interview, I offer an Interview Intervention. The Interventions have been nothing short of amazing. Some of the testimonials on the Testimonials page talk about how they work. Basically, you provide me with a few questions that you expect to be asked, distinctive to the job, or that you’re particularly worried about answering effectively. I add those to the set of questions I know are typically asked in academic job interviews (covered in my Facepalm Fails posts), and then we role play the interview, with me playing a rather severe and skeptical search committee member not entirely convinced of the appropriateness of your candidacy.

After each answer we break, and deconstruct the answer for effectiveness, clarity, tone, length, and any sort of self-sabotaging “graduate student-speak.” I explain what standard interview questions are really asking for, and identify any ways that you are failing to provide the needed information concisely and assertively. We go deep into your specific research and teaching profile, and the questions you provide ahead of time as well as my own research on the department help me to frame questions targeted to the actual interview itself. We repeat your major responses until you have made them second nature, and learned to resist rambling and digressions, undue self-deprecation, and excessively informal or inappropriate speech patterns.

The conversion rate of Interview Interventions into tenure-track job offers has been impressive. Obviously, there’s no magic guarantee. But it’s effective. Sometimes clients discover that one Intervention isn’t enough to thoroughly banish all their bad habits of professional self-presentation, and then, when possible, we squeeze in another before the actual interview.

Now, if after all of this, you are offered a job, I also offer Negotiating Assistance.  This is invoiced on a weekly basis, and a week is all that is necessary in nearly all cases. Most of my N.A. clients have substantially increased their offers in annual salary, research support, moving, conference support, and summer salary, as well as the other perks such as first year teaching release, guaranteed junior sabbatical/leave, and even spousal and partner hires.

I also help with  third year review and tenure cases, particularly the writing of tenure statements.

To repeat, all clients get a 10% discount for 3 or 4 hours of work paid at once, and a 15% discount for 5 or more hours.

A word about rates: Many readers have written to tell me that just reading my blog posts has given them the information they needed to succeed in their grant applications, conference efforts, and job hunt. This is very gratifying to me. Although I charge for services in working with me personally, it pleases me to also provide much-needed information at no cost to all readers.

If you do wish to work with me, my rates reflect the value of the services as a long-term investment in your professional future. I’m not cheap. And I am also not as expensive as I could be—because I am determined to stay in range of financially precarious graduate students and Ph.D.s from all kinds of institutional settings, not just the well-funded and privileged ones.

The work pays off in both immediate and longer-term ways. As one client said, “The change in my application fed into a change in how I carried/understood myself at conferences and in the workplace – for the better I would think. It’s like I clued into a form of cultural capital I was blind to previously – so obvious in hindsight.”

We also have a post-academic wing at The Professor Is In, with a team of post-ac coaches ready to help you envision and execute your transition out of the academy.

And lastly, with regard to rates, I also provide the Job Seeker Support Fund to clients who are in particularly dire financial straits, such as living on food stamps or unemployment, or enduring an insecure housing situation, or a health crisis. I contribute my services at half-cost, and then generous donors among all of you, my readers and clients, provide funds to help cover the rest. Job Seeker Support Fund clients pay for 2 hours of work with me at 25% of the normal rate, and then can have two more hours at 50% of the normal rate, for a total of four hours (limit four hours per client).

Some clients pay me through their institutional research support funds. I’m happy to work with your budget manager to make that possible.

I’ll end by reiterating my point at the top about scheduling. Because I am often booked out by one or two weeks or months, it’s important you get in touch early enough to get a date that meets your deadline.  My team and I have worked with over 5000 clients and demand continues to increase. I do offer rush services on an availability basis, but  I cannot accommodate all prospective clients who get in touch with short deadlines, at the last minute. I don’t want anyone to be disappointed, so I hope that this post will give you the information you need to plan ahead, and get on the schedule in time.

Ageism and the Academy: My Thoughts and a Request for Yours

Regular followers of my Facebook page know that for a number of months now I’ve been soliciting a post on aging and age discrimination in academia.

I’ve been seeking such a post because of the constant stream of requests I receive from readers to deal with this topic.

I have not felt qualified to write about it directly, because although I am 47 now, my formal academic career path took place when I was much younger, and in terms of age, I followed a very standard “approved” trajectory: Ph.D. in early 30s, first tenure track job immediately following, tenure before 40, second, “better” job immediately following, foray into administration in early 40s.

When you begin your scholarly career in your 20s or 30s, and pursue an active research and publishing trajectory with tenure, age discrimination, in many important ways, does not come into play for a very long time. In this, academia is different from other areas of the economy. That is not to say that older people, and older women in particular, are not judged, dismissed, or excluded in the academy as well, even when they have tenure. They absolutely are. Particularly in local, institutional politics, and the ranks of the administration, where men still predominate, and the upper ranks are absolutely filled with white-haired males, women are marginalized. Older female professors may well be relegated to the less-desirable teaching assignments, and ignored or dismissed in faculty meetings. No doubt.

But, in our scholarly “fields,” we are defined as “productive” to the extent that we research and publish, and research and publishing are generally judged on merit of the work, without a great deal of attention to the age of the person publishing. Age matters if the work itself is perceived as being old fashioned or out of date, but advancing age is not in and of itself the cause of old fashioned or out of date work. An aging professor who maintains a lively and dynamic research trajectory is likely to enjoy a relatively stable reputation in his or her field for many decades. Because of this, the tenured professor is to some degree protected from the virulent age discrimination that affects workers in other industries.

This is indeed a nice thing about the academy *for those who occupy privileged positions of tenure within it.*

But for those who are just finishing their Ph.D.s or who are struggling on the job market, or enduring year after year of adjuncting, at an age beyond the “approved” trajectory, ageism and the pressures of age are real and urgent indeed.

While I am very interested in the stories from the tenure track and tenured about the role of age and agism in their careers, I am more concerned about the fate of the untenured and non-tenure-track. My work as The Professor has revealed to me the exponentially higher stakes for them of the failures of Ph.D. programs to adequately and responsibly advise Ph.D. students to understand the job market and lay the groundwork for actual paying work.

The fact is, finishing a Ph.D. and realizing that your graduate program has completely failed you in terms of job preparation is one thing when you are 30, and something entirely different when you are 50.

I see this truth every day in my work.

It is stark, and painful.

Far, far too many older students, women in particular, make their way into Ph.D. programs later in life, finish in their late 40s and 50s, and are now, because of the disintegration of the academic job market, staring down the barrel of unemployment, massive lost wages, sunk costs, and devastating debt, all against the backdrop of looming old age.

When I made my latest call on Facebook for a guest post on being an older woman in academia, a former student wrote an email to respond. Here is what she said:

“I just wanted to follow-up on a post you had about older women in the academy. It really didn’t sit well with me–probably because I am in my mid-40s and not yet secured a full-time position. At the same time, I have been super successful and confident–but must admit recently seeing a dermatologist over an age spot!“So, I am worried. But, also something I couldn’t place bothered me about your post–and that you positioned yourself as an older woman (which, you are not!).“I read Ashley Judd’s recent post about all this speculation about her aging–and it hit home. It really is about patriarchy and all the other BS that infuses our culture.“Are we not perpetuating this by locating ourselves as older? Or even playing into this as if it really mattered?! I have more to say now than in my 30s, and I should absolutely not be worrying about my age– though I do. But isn’t it up to us to dismantle these forms of oppression?”

I responded to her:

“Thanks for these thoughtful reactions, XXXX. The thing is, in my work I deal with a population of self-defined, quote-unquote “older women” (generally in their late 40s and 50s) who have ended up in painfully dead end adjuncting situations, or unemployed, without a f-ing clue about how to get out… And they ask, over and over, what kind of age discrimination can I expect? How much is my age going to count against me?“And the fact is, it will count against them. Maybe not as much as the corporate world, but if you’re a brand new Ph.D who is 50, you’re going to have to go an extra mile to prove that you’re worth hiring over the 30 year old. And because my own arc was the classic “approved” arc of starting in my 20s, finishing quickly, getting a tt job right away, and progressing smoothly through tenure….I never encountered any age-related obstacles in my career path. But others who deviate from this approved path absolutely do.Adjuncting is the destroyer of so many peoples’ dreams…or not adjuncting per se, but the PhD process, the sunk costs, the debt, and then not having secure employment at the end of it, and being 55 instead of 35…. I want the blog to be a clearinghouse of honest info about that—from people who have been there!”

My former student is absolutely correct—discrimination against older women is all about patriarchy. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As faithful readers know, The Professor Is In is dedicated to exposing the brutal truths of the academy to empower its most vulnerable inhabitants, and does not engage in wishful thinking about what could or should be better.

And I want to know just how this works. What happens to older people, particularly older women (however you define older), in graduate school, off the tenure track, on the job market? We need to know.

Here is the one thing I do know, with a great deal of certainty: academia is a kind of cult, or cult-like environment. It is a closed and insular system with massive barriers to entry. The Ph.D. process is the indoctrination process that over many years inculcates practitioners into the correct values and norms of the closed group. The end product is successful to the extent that they have thoroughly accepted these values and norms, and made them into their own operating principles.

What I have observed in my work with clients is that older students are more resistant to the indoctrination process than younger students. Their identities are more fully formed, and they have more years of previous values and habits that have to be displaced to make room for the new ones. The process of indoctrination of older students is more likely to be incomplete and tentative. And that has serious consequences for the older Ph.D. as end product of the system.

What I have found in my work with older Ph.D.s is that, despite their equal length of time in their programs, they frequently miss the core elements of indoctrination that are absorbed by their younger colleagues. With a depressing regularity, my older clients seem to leave their Ph.D.s with a significant deficit of knowledge about the unspoken norms, judgments, practices, and status operations of the academic environment. Older clients, at a much greater rate than younger ones, miss the messages about attending the highest status program possible, networking intensively at conferences, publishing while still in graduate school, and competing for jobs at the highest, ‘Olympic” level of intensity.

Some of this is undoubtedly logistical—older students with children, for example, will not be as free to attend the after hour talks, the happy hours at the bar, the conferences, and so on, where much of the socialization of Ph.D.s takes place. Some of this is, for lack of a better word, attitudinal—older students may be coming from successful previous careers, and are perhaps more skeptical of the status hierarchy embedded and manifested in all Ph.D. training environments. Some of it may be longitudinal–many of my older clients tell me that they viewed academia as a step AWAY from the “rat race” of a stressful career, not realizing that its requirements are just as intense and stressful.  Many mid-life Ph.D.s imagine the arts or humanities Ph.D. as a grand Oprah-esque adventure in self-actualization and liberation, not understanding that it is actually an exercise in conformity as rigid as any corporate environment. And some of it may be physiological. I know, as a 47-year-old starting a new business, that I had nothing like the ferocious, unstoppable energy that I had in my 20s starting out in the academic profession. Back then I could live on no sleep, and no expenditure of energy was too great. Not so now. I have to ration my energy now, and use it carefully.  But the productivity level required of the tenure-track job search is not compatible with any kind of slowing down.

I realize that these observations may appear to be a case of ‘blaming the victim,’ as if I’m saying that older Ph.D.s are somehow less deserving of positions because of their different path through graduate school experience. That is not what I’m saying. What I see are a constellation of circumstances whose end result is that the distintegrating job market and indifferent and inadequate Ph.D. training apparatus, which are destructive for all, are particularly destructive for older Ph.D.s. Because, the fact is, the margin for deviation from the norm, and for ‘variation’ of any kind, is evaporating. Just as the college degree is increasingly returning to the exclusive privilege of the wealthy, so the academic career is increasingly becoming the exclusive province of the young and strong. And that is to its ultimate detriment.

Please share your thoughts.

What American Idol Tells Us About The Job Market

We watch a lot of American Idol here at The Professor’s house.  We have strong opinions.  Personally, I’m a fan of Joshua.  I know that Jessica has the best voice.   But she just doesn’t “connect” with the audience, as Randy Jackson constantly reminds us.

Jessica Sanchez, not connecting

 

I always watch the process by which the American Idol contestants get groomed for the big time, and arrange themselves into marketable commodities, with a gritty interest.  It always feels familiar to me, but in ways that I haven’t been able to put my finger on.  Until now.

My partner Kellee found this interesting piece from Forbes about Jessica Sanchez, and why she, the front-runner and without question the most brilliant singer, is not garnering the votes she needs to actually win.  Written by Filipina-American executive/entrepeneur career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine, the piece identifies three key mistakes that Jessica is making.  Ceniza-Levine’s point is that these three mistakes are ones that many if not most front-runners tend to make on the job market:

The three mistakes are:

  • Picking the Wrong Things to Highlight
  • Forgetting Who the Decision Makers Are
  • Underestimating the Importance of Likeability

I am going to let you read the article on the second and the third mistakes, but I want to quote the author on the first, Picking The Wrong Things to Highlight:

“Of the thousands of available songs out there, Jessica selected a lesser-known one. Instead of having an immediately relatable connection to start with (yes, we both know this song!), she started with a gap between her and her audience. Candidates do this all the time when they pick projects or accomplishments to highlight that bear little relevance to the prospective employer. You have years of experience and multiple projects to choose from, so what you choose to highlight must represent you well (Jessica did this) AND must resonate with the prospective employer (“Stuttering” did not). A real-life example: I recently coached a manager-level supply chain candidate interviewing for a chemical company. When asked for a quantitative example, he talked about a statistics project. Bad choice because his role didn’t require statistics, but rather more finance and accounting. Not all songs are equal. Not all quantitative examples are equal. You want to pick based on who you’re singing to or interviewing with.”

How many times have I worked with a job candidate during an Interview Bootcamp who offered a response that was totally reasonable, and totally ill-considered?  In other words, the answer was perfectly valid and true of her record, it just was COMPLETELY OFF POINT for the job at hand.  If the job is seeking a Victorianist, and strictly a Victorianist, then nobody is going to be compelled by your side project on Milton.  Lead with Milton, and regardless of how brilliant and original the project, you will lose the job.  Your answers need to be all-Victorianist, all the time.

Ceniza-Levine concludes: “You might be a great candidate, but your background will not speak for itself. You still need to highlight the right things that your prospective employer cares about. You still need to frame your message to the specific decision-makers of your hire, not just anyone in the company. You still need to develop rapport and be likeable.”

Jessica Sanchez needs to learn this, and so do you.

 

 

 

 

What the Heck is “Assessment”? (A Guest Post)

Today’s post is a Guest Post from a faithful reader and client on the tenure track, and also on the job market, who discovered some interesting points about “assessment” while she was at some interviews this year.  More and more often, candidates find themselves being asked about assessment, and indeed, just today I was assisting with a postdoc app that also required the applicant to discuss assessment strategies in their teaching.  I recommend that all job candidates familiarize themselves with some of the ideas and terminology surrounding this increasingly common term, reflecting as they do the pressure the academy is under to “rationalize” its practices and “prove” its legitimacy and effectiveness.  Readers, please add your own experiences with this interview theme in the comment thread below.

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I recently had two phone interviews with major universities, and one campus visit.  Questions about assessment came up in both phone interviews, and in the campus visit.  My guess is that assessment is  on the minds of search committee members as more accrediting agencies emphasize assessment in the review process.   

The first question in the phone interviews asked how I would assess a course.  The second asked how I would incorporate assessment in curriculum development.  I’m reproducing my responses below because I think that it would be helpful to blog readers to have a response ready should similar questions be asked of them.

In response to the first question, I answered that I use several assessment strategies in my courses:

— Scoring and instructional rubrics to help students to focus on content and to guide them in developing presentations and written and oral reports

— Concept maps in order to help students to understand the big picture

— Cooperative learning assessment to encourage peer-to-peer learning

I also use multiple assessment tools. Assessment tools that are common to my courses include:

— Concept Tests

— Examinations

— Oral presentations

— Written reports

— Peer review

— Research projects and papers

— In project-based courses, performance assessment

 

In response to the second question, about incorporating assessment into curriculum development,  I would argue that curriculum development initiatives should incorporate a combination of formative and summative assessment within the curriculum development process.

  • Formative assessment activities are used to provide feedback, evaluating learning progress in order to motivate students to higher levels.
  • Summative assessment activities are used to judge final products for completion, competency and/or demonstrated improvement.

Formative assessment  can be used during planning and implementation of courses,through the use of tools like surveys and student focus groups in order to ensure that individual course and curricular objectives are being met.

Upon completion of individual courses and/or a program of study, a combination of formative and summative assessment can be used to evaluate competency and solicit feedback in order to ascertain whether goals and objectives are being met.

 

 

How To Talk To A Dean

Over the course of the 2011-2012 job market cycle, several clients wrote to me inquiring about how they should talk to the Dean they were scheduled to meet during their campus visit. Indeed, many, if not most, campus visits still include a visit with the Dean, and this is often the least understood element of the entire experience. What in the world do Deans want to talk about?

Well, I have never been a Dean, so I don’t as thorough a grasp of this question as I do of job interview matters at the departmental level. Because of that, this is one of those topics that will benefit greatly from the collected wisdom of the group. Please share your own experiences of meeting with the Dean in the comment stream below.

For now, I am reliant on the experiences that I had myself on the job market, many years ago, added on to the more intimate knowledge of Deans I gained as a department head. Based on this set of experiences, I would say that Deans tend to fall into three general patterns in terms of interactions with job candidates—the explanatory pattern, the budgetary pattern, and the intellectual pattern.  These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In the first pattern, they take their job to be a primarily explanatory one, and focus on the “compensation package” aspects of the job, which include not just salary range but also the benefits and retirement plans, as well as general policies about 3rd year review and tenure, and the raises associated with promotion. In cases like this, the meeting with the Dean is actually very easy for the candidate, who mainly occupies a listening role.

In the second pattern, the Dean takes his or her job to be primarily a budgetary one, and asks questions that relate, directly or indirectly, to money. The forms these can take are varied, but include inquiring about a candidate’s past success with major grants; plans for future grants; budgetary requirements for research and plans for fulfilling them; comfort in teaching extremely large classes; commitment to interdisciplinarity and cross listing of classes (ie, filling multiple teaching needs with this single line); and willingness to be the “sole” representative of a field in the department or on campus.

This last one is particularly treacherous for candidates. In the course of the conversation you might inquire, very reasonably, “are there plans to build the program in xxx and hire other xxx specialists in departments such as xx in the next few years?” The Dean responds, “of course we’d always like to build in every worthy direction, but in the current financial situation, hard choices have to be made, and there’s a good possibility you will be the only xxx specialist for the foreseeable future.” And then she looks at you expectantly.

Here is how you probably will want to respond: “I hope that there will be hires at LEAST in the xxx department because I can’t be expected to carry the weight of an entire program on my own…” And that would lose you the job (at least from the Dean’s perspective—and some Deans play a large stealth role in hiring decisions).

The correct answer is, instead: “I see plenty of opportunity for growth with even a single faculty member. With strategic collaborations with yy and zzz scholars in departments such as yy and zzzz, and leveraging the resources already on campus in the form of qqqqq, I can imagine creating opportunities for students in the areas of bb and cc even without the addition of another dedicated line.”

That, my friends, is how you deal with a Dean who is taking the budgetary line.

In the third pattern, the Dean takes his or her job to be primarily an intellectual one. This means that the Dean takes the interview with you as an opportunity to quiz you on the state of your field and its most important directions of future growth. This tactic kills two Deanly birds with one stone. On the one hand, obviously the Dean is quizzing you on your intellectual breadth and confidence, determining the degree to which you can look up from your narrow dissertation project to speak to the broad trends in your field as a whole. On the other hand, the Dean is getting an excellent candid perspective on the emergent trends in your field, against which he or she can judge and evaluate what the current members of the department are talking about and doing. If three candidates come through the Dean’s door all telling her that the most important new trend in the field is xxxx, and nobody in the department is currently doing xxxx, the Dean has a very useful insight into that department’s likely lack of status and competitiveness, nationally, over the next several years and thus diminishing worthiness for increased budget allocations and raise funds.

If you encounter a Dean who is taking the intellectual tack, you need to be prepared to speak broadly about the most important current debates in your field. An “intellectual Dean question” will sound something like the following:

“What do you think are the most important current debates in your field?”

“How do you think your field will change the most in the next ten years and why?”

“What is the single biggest challenge facing your field right now?”

“What is the most important text published in the last five years in your field, and why?”

Sadly, most job candidates are ill-prepared indeed to deal with the intellectual Dean’s line of questioning.

Many years ago a senior colleague of mine in Anthropology told me a story about going on a campus visit to an Ivy League anthropology department, and meeting with the graduate students. “What are you reading right now??” he told me he had asked them eagerly, “What is the book that everyone is reading and talking about??”

The graduate students paused, and looked at each other and thought for awhile. “The Nuer!“ they finally responded. “Yeah, everybody is reading The Nuer!

For those of you who are not anthropologists, let me pause to explain that The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and  Political Institutions of a Nilotic People is a classic ethnography, a foundational text of old school British social anthropology, written by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, and published in 1940. A core element of a “History of Anthropology” seminar reading list, The Nuer is a book that “everyone” reads only if “everyone” is conceived of as 1st and 2nd year anthropology graduate students in a very old-fashioned department indeed.

What my friend was asking, but what the graduate students entirely failed to grasp, was not “what is everyone reading in their classes,” but instead “what is the thing that everyone is reading that is exciting, new, dynamic, controversial, and that has the department riled up, challenged, inspired, thinking, and talking?” Ie, what is the book that is changing our field?

Although it’s a different set of circumstances entirely, this story encapsulates at a thematic level the problem of green job candidates confronting an intellectual Dean’s question. The green job candidate is very likely to be, still, myopically focused on the grad student experience. That is, the experience of taking classes, suffering through comprehensive exams, and enduring the dissertation defense. This narrow, terribly narrow, set of experiences is entirely based on the graduate student “proving” that he or she has read enough, knows enough, is legit enough, to be “passed” to the next stage as a credible practitioner in the field.

However, the Dean demands something else, something more. The Dean, who is mostly likely not in your discipline, is prepared to accept that you are indeed perfectly qualified as a practitioner of your field. What the Dean is testing is whether you are, or are poised to be, a LEADER in your field. A leader is someone who doesn’t just accept others’ judgments about the traditional, foundational core thinkers and writers (The Nuer), but who thinks and judges independently, in an organic and evolving and up to date way about what is important now, what is becoming important, what needs to happen next, and why.

The best job candidates will be thoroughly prepared to answer the kinds of “intellectual Dean questions” I listed above. Now, it goes without saying that the Dean you encounter on your visit may never ask them.  But the fact is, you really never know who will.  These questions have a pesky habit of popping up from the search chair, the department head, the graduate students….  all sorts of people.  And to be prepared to transition to the next step, and assume your rightful position as a important scholar in your field, someone who is listened to, respected, and cited, you actually need to have an answer.  You must leave behind your graduate student blinders, and learn to think and speak like an intellectual leader.