Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Try. (Academic Writing and The Force)

The best piece of advice about writing that I got as a graduate student came from my external Ph.D. committee member, a full professor in the English department.  A poet and a romantic and undoubtedly a former or current pot smoker, he was much more up on his spiritual musings and pop culture references than were my anthro committee members, a rather dreary lot. His advice was always entertaining (when it wasn’t ill-informed and infuriating, but that’s a topic for another post).

I was in his office one day to show show him my latest conference paper. My professor began to read the first page, then paused, looked up with a bemused smile, and said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Do or do not. There is no try.” The immortal words of Yoda to the young Skywalker.


But why Yoda?  Why then?

Because I’d done that thing that young academics all too often do. I’d hedged my bets.  The paper, a pretty standard effort, contained on its first page the sentence, “This paper will attempt to show that Japanese women are traveling abroad in increasing numbers in order to effect a quasi-feminist critique of unequal gender relations at home.”

How many of you reading this would even have thought twice about that sentence?

What is it about young academics (and not only young ones, I’d hasten to add) that compels them to frame their scholarly efforts as “attempts”? Are they really so insecure?  Is the outcome really that much in doubt?

Think about how much academic writing depends on formulations like:

  • In this research I hope to prove that…
  • Through such an analysis I will try to show that….
  • I believe that in making this argument I may be able to demonstrate that…

Hope? Try? Believe? Why are scholars embarking on their studies with so much doubt? And so little confidence?

Perhaps you will say that these turns of phrase are simply writing conventions, and have no literal meaning. But why use them at all? If you did the research, and reached your conclusions, then you stand by them, do you not? Efforts to modulate or soften them with hedging phrases merely cast doubt on the legitimacy of your research itself. If you couldn’t actually prove the thing, then really, you have no business saying that you did.

Release your mind to go all the way. Own your findings. Claim your ground. Take every sentence where you find these power-sucking words, and remove them. In their place, write:

  • In this research I will prove that…
  • Through such an analysis I will show that….
  • In making this argument I will be able to demonstrate that…

If you are one of the multitudes of graduate students and young academics who have come to unconsciously depend on such phrases, and I’ll bet you are, stop. They do nothing for you. They are simply one more way that junior people, and women in particular, bend over backward to express deference and submission in their writing practices.

And if you’re aiming for a career in academia, those habits of deference and submission that you absorbed in graduate school need to go. Stat.  In their place:  Your power, expressed.

Listen to the words of Yoda:

You must unlearn what you have learned…

Try not!

Do! Or do not!

There is no try.”

And may The Force be with you.




Interviewing and Confidence

This past week I did a handful of “Interview Bootcamp” sessions with clients, and will soon have many more.  People are starting to look ahead hopefully to the pain and the glory of conference interviews and campus visits.

And it got me thinking about interviewing. What’s a good interview, and what’s a bad one?

There are many places on the web that you can find lists of potential academic interview questions. Here’s one to start. I may well post my own such list some time in the coming weeks.

But for today, I don’t want to talk about lists of questions, and how to prepare for them. I want to talk about attitude.

Because, in the end, it’s attitude that makes or breaks the interview.

Basically, in a nutshell, confidence sells. And desperation smells. Before any interview, no matter how brief, you must put yourself into the mindset that you ARE worthy of the job.

What does that mean? It means believing, at a core level, that you:

are a first class intellectual

have something important to say

are a major player in your field

are poised to challenge orthodoxies in the discipline

are excited to get your ideas into the public realm

love to share your ideas with students

are equal to any classroom situation

find inspiration in others’ work

believe that you can contribute to a department

believe your discipline brings critical insight to the human enterprise

Yes, the job market is awful. No, there aren’t enough jobs for the candidates who need them. Desperation would be a natural outcome. But desperation will cost you your chance for the job you want. The fact is, self-confidence gets jobs.  And self-confidence is displayed by a calm and friendly but firm assertiveness of manner.

You do not apologize, you do not make excuses, you do not pander or flatter or laugh too much or twist your hands.  You simply remember that you ARE the expert in your field.  You DO know how to teach.  Your discipline IS important and fascinating, you ARE qualified to go toe to toe with the very leaders of your scholarly world.   Don’t cave, and for God’s sake, call your interviewers by their FIRST NAMES!  You belong!  You’re one of them!

The most important thing?  That you retain your sense of dignity and self-worth.  Yes, the job market is awful. But no, you do not therefore have to grovel.  You will survive with or without this job.  Maybe poorer, maybe sadder.  But you’ll survive.

So hold your head up, straighten your shoulders, turn your sense of humor back on,  and remember:  you ARE good enough, whether you have a tenure track job, or not.







Memo to Professors: How Useless Are You? Really?

Regular readers of this blog know that I use this space for focused advice for young academics on overcoming specific pitfalls and challenges in the academic career—how to write an abstract, apply for a grant, deal with a difficult advisor, etc.

I don’t use this space to vent about the injustices of the academy or the cluelessness of its members.

However. There is a first time for everything.

Yesterday I published a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The column, titled “To: Professors; Re: Your Advisees” was fashioned as a “memo” to professors about their graduate students who come to me for help here at The Professor Is In, and an indictment of those same professors for their failure to properly advise their Ph.D.s on the full range of skills required to find tenure-track work in this day and age. Those skills include: writing a proper CV, crafting a brilliant job letter, calculating letter writers, publishing in top-tier journals, effectively working a conference, doing the elevator talk, and so on.

When I was a tenured faculty member on searches I always suspected, and now that I am an academic careers coach I know, that the vast majority of faculty have not only utterly abdicated their responsibility to train their Ph.D.s for actual careers, but heap contempt upon those who speak directly about the need for such skills. “You’re gaming the system,” they cry. “The Ph.D. is not a professional degree.” they intone. “It’s not my job” is the message.

This has enraged me for years—since my own graduate schools days, actually, as you can read here, and I am absolutely thrilled to have written and published that column and gotten my rage at this professorial lack of accountability off my chest at long last.

Being a regular reader of the Chronicle, I expected that the comment stream would be ugly and filled with trolls.

The most startling thing to me about the comment stream that did follow the column is how negative it ISN’T. I mean, yes, it has the usual column:troll ratio of anything published in the Chronicle. But the fury level seems muted, and the insults, frankly, pretty weak.

I’m mystified. Why am I not being villified in hundreds of flaming ad hominem attacks at the same level as Bill Pannapacker, in his pathbreaking columns?

There’s still time, of course.  It may come.

But in any case, there are certainly idiotic comments, and it’s those I wish to talk about it today’s post. I expected fury; I didn’t expect idiocy.

And the pouting….I didn’t expect the pouting.

Like all online writers, I of course was tempted to dive into the fray right there on the comment stream itself, but I was dissuaded by friends and supporters who said, in the words of one delightful Facebook fan, “do not give fools more crumbs than they already scavenged.”

So, here are a few of the critical comments from the column, and what I’d like to say in response:

How could I do all the other aspects of my own job (including but not limited to advising) if I spent my entire day only advising?  Students should get an advisor from their academic institution, but they won’t get a personal career manager, stylist, and coach–not because we don’t value the futures of our students, but because we don’t have the time (and often the expertise) to provide all these individualized services.

You know someone has lost the argument when the best they can come up with is, “I don’t have time.” That’s the answer that you just raise an eyebrow at when it applies to exercising, cooking, or spending time with your children. Call it what it is: evidence you don’t care enough to make it a priority.

How many Ph.D.s do most advisors have? 3? 5? Maybe 10? Not an impossible number when in fact, all you need to do is call one advisee meeting per semester to keep them on track and light fires under their butts about publishing, grants, conferences, and networking.

Laziness. Pure laziness.

Unless they are passionate about their subject (and would almost want to do the research on their own time even if they weren’t paid to do so) they may not have the independent attitude to succeed in their field.  So, I think that the lack of “support” is part of a natural weeding out process. I think that most of the skills that the article states that advising is supposed to teach can be learned independently and their masterly (sic) will not slow down the best students.

A natural weeding out process? Really?  This is not med school, people.

I do get frustrated with graduate students who don’t take responsibility for their own career prospects, and ask, constantly, “What’s coming at the end of this? What do I need to do to prepare? What is the capital that has value on this market? How do I accrue it?”

But to justify a refusal by advisors to promote their Ph.D.s’ best interests by every means possible, the Ph.D.s who have taught their classes and invested in their department for 5-10 years, as a natural weeding out process? Are you kidding me?   It goes without saying that this is just another iteration of the truly evil “love” cop-out: that you do it because you “love” it and true love can’t be measured by money.  That is the biggest lie of them all.

Take 5% of the time that you devote to your tiresome blah blah about the juxtaposition of structure and agency in the last third of chapter four of the dissertation…and spend it going over your student’s CV! And having them deliver the elevator talk—it IS only 2 minutes long, remember—that’s why it’s called an ELEVATOR TALK. Tell your students that they won’t get effing shortlisted unless they have at least one refereed journal article, and then tell them how to convert that chapter four into one of those.

All that? That takes about 15 minutes. Yeah. Not gonna kill ya.

What do most faculty members know about the job market? What do most faculty members know about writing cover letters or following up on interviews? Most of them have been on the job market once or twice, and they have only their own experience – often decades old – to go on. They are almost never given any training by their institutions in career advising. They don’t have a treasure trove of helpful connections or proven strategies. All they can really draw on is their experience on search committees, which really only helps in finding a job at their own institutions.

You don’t know how? You don’t know how? Are you effing kidding me? NOBODY TAUGHT ME HOW TO DO THIS. My advisor and my department were utterly, completely, shamelessly indifferent to the job prospects of their Ph.D.s. I failed embarassingly on the job market my first year, and put myself through an intensive bootcamp, using every research skill I had gained as a cultural anthropologist, to uncover the real requirements of the academic job market, and learn to master them myself.

How many searches do faculty members serve on, anyway? Once I was on the other side of the table, I had an unending stream of learning materials at my fingertips, every year, on how to get, and how to not get, a tenure track job. From the cover letter to the conference interview to the campus visit and the job talk…. every year I had a new set of evidence on what works and what doesn’t. All of that, instantly, was turned around into knowledge that I shared with my own Ph.D. Advisees. We would deconstruct every job talk afterward, often by email. “Good God, what was that???” Followed by, “Did you see what he did? Did you? Did you see how he flubbed that question? Now how would you have answered it?”

Again, not hard, not onerous, and not time-consuming. In fact, it was actually fun. Imagine that.

Given her demonizing of faculty, I wonder if Dr. Kelsky has always shown such diligence in advising students throughout her career? If so, I would love to hear more about how she managed her duties and provided this level of career counseling for students as a faculty member.

I was a tenured professor with a joint appointment in two departments and a department head (with two children to boot and a life disintegrating in a horrific multi-year custody case), and I managed to make sure all my advisees published before finishing, attended national conferences yearly, organized high profile panels, applied for and won the most prestigious grants in their fields, learned how to wear a suit, could shake hands firmly, and could talk intelligently, engagingly, and briefly, about their research. This is not rocket science.

Remember, too, faculty do not get compensated to do career counseling–if they do the stuff you do, they would be doing if “for free.” Why should they? It’s not a matter of arrogance or elitism (necessarily), but good old-fashioned rationality.

Professors do a whole bunch of shit for free. They publish articles for free. They write books for free. They serve on committees for free. They attend departmental potlucks for free. And…they already advise students. So why is this one thing—this “tacking on” of a little bit of additional advising to an already existing advising relationship—too onerous to be done for free? Why indeed.

We have a lot of unemployed PhDs right now, especially in the humanities, but I think it’s important to consider that a lot of schools that really have no business offering the PhD are giving it.  How many unemployed PhDs went to mediocre graduate programs?  If you’re thinking of going to graduate school and you’re not applying to, say, the BEST English departments in the United States, yes, you will be unemployed.

LOL. This one unleashed such hounds as there were on the comment stream. It’s so over-the-top clueless that it was mostly just funny.  And many commenters rebutted its exuberant elitism just fine.

But for the sake of thoroughness I want to state clearly: it’s the Ivy Leagues that far and away do the worst job of career training of Ph.D.s.

I saw it as a grad student, I saw it as a faculty member on search committees, and I see it now as Dr. Karen. The Ivy Leagues are simply appalling in their utter abdication of responsibility for the career prospects of their Ph.D.s. And the high second tier schools, large state R1s and R2s—they’re not much better, but they are better. Why? Because there’s no monumental sense of entitlement getting in the way. In the old days, undoubtedly the Ivy League pedigree was a total advantage on the job market, and its holders probably did not have to scramble and professionalize. But right now, the abysmal job market has had an interesting democratizing effect: Ivy Leaguers are as screwed as everybody else. And it’s the candidates who publish, and network, and self-promote, and organize, and scramble, and so on and so on, who get the jobs. And by and large, those candidates are not from the Ivy Leagues.

Their [Professors’] job is to toe the company line and that line is very often far afield of contemporary realities or even the student’s best interests. Everyone that gets all of the help they need from their faculty should continue to do so.  For all of those who are being ignored, fed lies, or subjected to academic malpractice – there are folks out here happy to take some money for what the university can’t seem to, or won’t, provide.

This one said it best. It’s academic malpractice. Nobody would accept these excuses from their doctors, and doctors would be sued for such negligence.

I’m sorry that there is such a devastating need for my services.  I’m happy to have created a successful business providing them.  I like seeing people succeed.  It gratifies me.  And I’m glad that the column prompted so many commenters to show their true stripes, and admit to the truth: they are too lazy, too entitled, and too selfish to lift a finger from their tiny, myopic intellectual fiefdom to be bothered learning the skills to help their Ph.D.s find real work.


Finding Mentors

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Lauri, who is a new assistant professor, and wishes to know how to cultivate mentors on campus.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I frequently mention the importance of cultivating mentors on campus when you are a new assistant professor. Many campuses already recognize the importance of mentorship, and have programs set up to link new faculty members with potential mentors. Even when the campus as a whole does not, often-times smaller, more specialized networks on campus—such as women faculty, or faculty of color—will run their own official or unofficial mentoring initiatives.

If your campus has any of these resources, be sure and avail yourself of them. While the mentor you are paired with may seem far afield at first (for example, when I arrived at U Oregon, I was paired with a senior woman faculty member in Chemistry), the fact is, that mentor can help you. Even when they are in a different field, even a different college, mentors can provide the savvy and hands-on suggestions that you need to manage things like:

  • evaluating service obligations
  • mastering the art of time management
  • creating a writing schedule
  • dealing with difficult colleagues
  • solving classroom dilemmas
  • finding pots of money on campus
  • building a network

Sometimes the out-of-department mentor is the best possible support, because he or she is not implicated in your review and tenure decisions, and can really proceed in a strictly supportive (rather than evaluative) role.

If your campus does not provide these mentoring resources, then you must proceed on your own.

You should seek out a mentor in your own department if possible, and you should seek out at least one mentor from outside your department.

Your in-department mentor will look out for you in a host of ways—by advising you on dealing with the department head and other senior colleagues; by helping you to decide which courses to offer and when; by protecting you from destructive situations; by filling you in on the backstory of departmental animosities; by assisting you in understanding the politics of voting in the faculty meetings.

You should get in the habit of stopping in that mentor’s office after getting the faculty meeting agenda in your email, and before the meeting is held. “So, what’s this thing here, this agenda item #4?” you ask, “The department strategic plan? What is that?” And the mentor explains that it’s a matter that goes back 7 years, and has supporters, and has detractors, and is the pet project of the Dean, and has finally reached the point where it has to be voted on. Your mentor will tell you who’s likely to vote how, and what the stakes are. You walk in informed and fore-armed.

Your in-department mentor will continue to play an invaluable role in your departmental life all the way through tenure. Indeed, the best mentors will mobilize at tenure-time to make sure they’re on your committee, and to intervene in all the small and large ways there are to promote a successful tenure outcome. Quiet casual conversations about who, exactly, must never, ever be asked to write your tenure letters lay the groundwork for external reviewer lists that work to your advantage. And so on.

Your out of department mentor is someone whom you can cultivate over the course of your first one or two years, as you get to know the campus and the faculty. In my own case, I cultivated a senior woman faculty member in History, vastly respected by all, and well known for being a generous and yet highly productive teacher and scholar. I knew that she was incredibly busy, and made sure not to abuse the relationship. But about once a term I’d invite her to coffee, and would share my latest dilemma. I’d email with questions about once every two weeks or so. An active and internationally known scholar, she helped me to navigate the politics of applying for a major research grant that released me from teaching for over a year. More than just a source of information, she was a model for how to comport oneself as a member of a scholarly community—at once generous, but with excellent boundaries; a first rate scholar, who also prioritized the mentoring of graduate students and junior faculty.

Many of you may be wondering, “how do I approach somebody to be a mentor to me?” and that is a good question.

In your department, allow a few months to go by. Attend a number of ffaculty meetings, and observe your colleagues’ behavior. Who knows how to listen well? Who, when she speaks, speaks rationally and at a reasonable length? Who seems well informed? Who laughs and retains a sense of humor? Who interrupts a discussion to fill “the new guy” in on the essential backstory? The person who does those things is the person you want to be your mentor.

When you’ve chosen someone, find ways to open up a channel of communication. Drop by his office occasionally (not intrusively!!) when his door is open. Chat by the water cooler. Send the occasional email asking for clarification of a departmental memo. Little by little, determine whether he seems available and willing to be your go-to person in the department. At some point, you could say something like, “I really appreciate all the help you’ve given me as I get adjusted in the department. You’ve been so generous, thank you. Would it be ok if I considered you a kind of senior mentor in the department? I know I’ll have a lot of questions as time goes by, and it would be great if I could run some of those by you.” Generally, as long as you’ve proven that you’re not a pest or a drama queen your mentor-candidate will feel flattered to have been asked and respond kindly.

Outside of your department, the same principle applies, but you must be more circumspect and cautious. Many senior faculty are already over-taxed, and may have demands from junior faculty in their own departments. They won’t necessarily fall all over themselves rushing to serve as a mentor to you. This effort may emerge gradually, over your first year or two on campus. As you attend various interdisciplinary events, you’ll begin to see the same people. Just as you observed your departmental colleagues in faculty meetings, you’ll observe campus colleagues in larger events. Again, ask: who has a sense of humor? Who says smart and rational things? Who is open-minded in talking to colleagues? Who seems to be kind? You will quickly learn.

And again, start out slowly, with the occasional email. Don’t just make yourself a burden—rather, contribute to campus wide events that the colleague is involved in. Prove yourself to be a valuable community member. That buys the kind of goodwill that wins friends, and mentors.

In sum, the first year or two as an assistant professor is fraught with confusion and inadvertant political and social missteps. The senior mentor can help prevent the worst errors, and guide you as you make a name for yourself, and go after money, leave time, reputation, and tenure.


What is Evidence of Teaching Excellence?

Today’s post is a Special Request post for quite a few clients, who wanted to know what is meant when a job ad asks for “Evidence of Teaching Excellence.”

I want to state at the outset that I have only a few thoughts to offer on this subject, and that I hope that readers will weigh in on the comments. It is entirely possible that I will not list every possible document that can be included as part of this “Evidence,” and I would appreciate readers sharing their own experiences, both as job seekers and as search committee members.

I believe that the basic evidence of teaching excellence to be submitted with a general job application includes the following:

  • A teaching statement
  • A sample syllabus
  • A list of courses taught (this does not have to be 100% exhaustive but gives a sense of overall breadth and scope)
  • Brief summary of evaluations

I will take each of these in turn.

The teaching statement is very easy to write badly, and very difficult to write well.

The overwhelming majority of teaching statements are simply awful.

I will not go into the reasons why here. I simply refer you to a recent post, The Dreaded Teaching Statement: 8 Pitfalls, that goes deeply into the subject. Please read this post closely and subject your teaching statement to a very close critical read for the errors and pitfalls I mention.

The sample syllabus should be a syllabus that reflects a course that you taught that is in some way similar to the courses you’ll be asked to teach at the job for which you’re applying. You do NOT need to write a new syllabus for one of the courses currently on their books (unless, of course, that were to be asked for explicitly in the ad). Your purpose here is simply to give evidence that you know how to put together a class, with appropriate organization, subject coverage, assigned readings, and course assignments and exams. The syllabus you submit should be a substantive one, with a good “course description” at the top that really demonstrates your original approach to and your pedagogical commitments in the class. Resist the temptation to create a “mega-class” to impress the search committee. Remember, they want evidence that your courses are successful, and that means, actually do-able by students. Keep the readings and assignments reasonable for actual students, and don’t use the syllabus as an opportunity to create an exhaustive bibliography for a scholarly topic.

Your list of courses taught should include the names, the level, and the enrollment. In my opinion descriptions are unnecessary. You can divide this list into undergraduate and graduate subheadings if you wish.

Lastly, you’ll want a brief summary of your evaluations. I say brief, because I do not believe it to be appropriate to send a complete teaching portfolio that includes exhaustive archives of your numerical and narrative teaching evaluations from all of your classes. These will most likely not be read, and may well offend the search committee.

Rather, find a way to summarize your numerical evaluations in a table, and then give a sample of the written comments.

It might be appropriate to, instead of the above, send the complete evaluation set, both numerical and narrative, from a single class. That would allow for an objective view, rather than the edited view that arises from your choosing which narrative comments to include. However, a single class probably does not give a sense of your overall teaching profile.

Two clients have been kind enough to send examples of their teaching evaluation summary tables. I share them here.




In all of your documents it is critical to be vigilant about the difference between your teaching as a TA and as Instructor of Record.  Be aware that for the vast majority of search committees, TA work does not count as full-fledged teaching experience.  If your department uses TAs as Instructors of Record for courses, then be absolutely sure that the title you use for the position includes an explanation that you were Instructor of Record.

In your selection of materials to include in this set of materials, always prioritize the classes for which you were primary instructor.  Only use TA materials if you don’t have any Instructor of Record teaching experience.  In general, even if the narrative evaluations from TA discussion sections were excellent, you should avoid using them if you have equally excellent alternatives from your sole-taught courses.

To conclude, readers, please feel free to add to comments below other documents you have seen included in the Evidence of Teaching Excellence.  It would be helpful for this comment thread to serve as part of the archive on this subject.


Be Careful What You Wish For

Amanda Krauss left a position at Vanderbilt to become a web developer in Austin. She now blogs as Worst Professor Ever.

I got to know Amanda when I approached her about writing a Guest Post on her blog, the post that ended up as “Death of a Soul (on Campus).”  I loved her spirit from the first moment.  I definitely don’t always agree with her, but I always enjoy hearing what she has to say.

And on the post that follows?  I agree with her on this, her ultimate point: “know exactly why you’re doing it” (and for whom).


I feel a little awkward writing for this audience, because I tend to think of academic “success” as an oxymoron, at least for those who weren’t hired way back in the Era of Achievable, Frequent, and Leisured Tenure.

I’ve already told Dr. Karen that most tenure-trackers I know are medicated, lonely/estranged, and barely holding their overworked lives together. My tenured acquaintances aren’t much better off; a recently-tenured friend suggested that there should be a tenure PSA playing off the “It Gets Better” campaign — except that the point of these ads would be that it doesn’t get better after tenure. Their words, not mine.

My guess is, you don’t want to hear that. If you’re reading this blog, you want to control your destiny and win the game. Well, okay, you can do that.* I’m not denying that persistence and savvy improve your odds.

So, to be very clear, I think Dr. Karen gives excellent advice here. I think she’s cutting through a lot of the BS you’ll get from idealistic (and unrealistic) advisors. Follow her advice, devote yourself single-mindedly to your task, and maybe you’ll get what you want. Only one question: then what?

While I was still a professor, I was doing all the right things. I was authoring articles, networking at conferences, working on the book. And the working was…working. I was “going places,” I guess. But I also had no life whatsoever; nor did any other academics I knew, anywhere — even those with tenure. There one always one more thing to do, one “last” obstacle before everything got super awesome (please see above re: why this is an illusion). I started to wonder how this lifestyle would look from a deathbed. Really not good, I decided, no matter how impressed anyone acted when I dropped the “professor at Vanderbilt” line. Surveying what I saw, I determined that academia systemically didn’t allow, let alone reward, any sort of work/life balance. Quite the opposite: narcissistic assholes thrived because they were most willing to do whatever it took to win.

Even if you’re a perfectly lovely person, it’s no fun to be in an environment that fetishizes external validation. I’ve seen folks so wrapped up in other people’s visions of success, they literally can’t articulate what they, as an individual, want. I’ve seen people get tenure, only to discover that it’s the only thing they have — and that, instead of providing any joy, it continues to interfere with finding meaningful relationships.

I’ve fought the urge to argue with academics who told me they were happy when all evidence pointed to the contrary; in reality, I think they felt they had to be happy at having nabbed a “dream” job. But by whose standards? And I don’t care what your individual situation is, academia is built on letting other people tell you when your career counts as successful – in writing, down to the year or semester or millisecond.

So, all I’d say is, brutal self-honesty is not a bad thing. If you’re going to kill yourself trying because success means just that much to you, great. As long as you know exactly why you’re doing it — in your own words, I mean, and not the ones that come from your Chair, Dean, mom, or neighbor. Or even from me.

* Sort of. I’m with Machiavelli, I think free will gets you slightly less than 50% of the way there.



Should I Use Interfolio?

Today’s Post is a Special Request post for XXX, who asked the $64,000 question: should I use a dossier service like Interfolio?

If I had my druthers, this post would run like my previous one on edited collections—ie, variations on “no.”

Fundamentally speaking, nobody who is on the scholarly, tenure track job market should be using a dossier service for their letters.

However, it has come to my attention that quite a few Ph.D.s on the market ARE using such services, for a range of reasons. The reasons that I’ve heard include the following:

  1. My professors insisted I use a service
  2. My professors have proven themselves to be totally unreliable and my only hope of being sure of letters arriving by the deadline is if they come from a service
  3. My professors seem really busy and I already bothered them last year, so this year I think I should use a service.
  4. I am a control freak and want to control how and when my letters are sent out.

There are only two reasons among these four that have a modicum (and it’s only a modicum) of validity.

These are #1 and #2 . If your professors have proven, through their past behavior, that they cannot and must not be counted on to provide letters on time for your job and postdoc and grant deadlines, then, and only then, are you justified in considering (not immediately turning to, but considering) a dossier service.

Similarly, if your professors have told you point blank that they refuse to write fresh letters for students in general/you in particular and that they will only consider providing one for a service, then, again, you may consider using a dossier service.

However, in principle, nobody who is on the scholarly, tenure track job market should be in a position in which their supporters are not writing them fresh letters.

The fact is, in all the searches I conducted (11) over the course of my career, I never once—not even one time—saw a candidate short short listed, ie, invited to a campus visit, who had a letter that came from a dossier service.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the personalized letter. The custom of personal letter writing reflects one of the most fundamental values of the academic community. Ph.D. level training is slow, painstaking, and highly individualized. It is not a mass market process, and it never can be. Its extreme personalization, based on a relationship built over years between a graduate student and his/her advisor, means that every Ph.D. student finishes with the personal imprimatur—and de facto sponsorship—of that advisor, as well as a committee of other deeply invested faculty members. These relationships at the heart of the graduate enterprise are reflected in the lengthy, detailed, and personal letters of reference that the advisor and committee member write for the student.

There is no clearer sign of the neoliberalization of higher ed than that this relationship has broken down to such a degree that there are advisors all across the country, including extremely well known and influential ones, who will do no more for their Ph.D. advisees than write a single generic letter to be put into a dossier file.

It is a core duty of faculty to write letters of recommendation. This is not an optional part of the job; it is a required part of the job. A faculty member certainly is not obliged to write for every student who asks. But a faculty member is obliged to write for those students whom he or she genuinely supports, and for whom he or she is a major element of their educational experience.

[Addendum: Faculty have computers.  Computers have files.  Letter files can be easily customized by simply adding a new heading/address, first paragraph, and closing paragraph. Each individual letter is not completely different.  Rather, each letter is sent out with a tailored address, a few sentences appropriate to the job, and a  live signature.

There may be field variation, with some fields more likely to accept such letters.

At the same time, it’s important to understand that the quantity of letters that a professor has to write is not in and of itself justification for turning to a service.  Many professors have lots of grad students applying for lots of jobs (my Ph.D.s applied for 25- 50 jobs in any given year, as did my colleagues’, and yet we all wrote personalized letters). It is typical in the Fall job season to hear faculty groaning about the “25 letters I have to write today,” etc. etc. ]

What does this mean for you, the applicant? It means that you need to start out with the expectation of having individualized, personalized, and tailored letters written for you for every single application you submit. It doesn’t matter how many applications you submit, or over how many years. You are justified in expecting that from your main group of recommenders. Just because they “seem” busy, or you “think” that you’re annoying them, doesn’t mean you should not ask them in a courteous but determined way.

If a letter writer is proving unreliable or obdurate, then the solution is not to then give up and beg for a dossier letter, but to find a different, and better, letter writer.

You are not tied to your committee members for your letters. In fact, the most successful candidates will have letters from leading scholars around the country, and not just from their Ph.D. granting institution. You cultivate these relationships over a period of years, by getting to know senior scholars in the field at conferences, during their visits to your campus, or through polite email correspondence. While asking external scholars to write for you can be delicate, as those scholars might have their own Ph.D. students on the market as your competition, nevertheless, it can often work very well indeed. And be aware that having a letter writer from outside your Ph.D. institution adds greatly to your reputation, in that when that letter writer indicates that you are among “the top 2% of students with whom he’s worked,” the total includes his university, in addition to your own.

It goes without saying that reason #4 has no place in the decision making process about letters for your applications. It should be evident by now why. The relationship of trust between the applicant and his or her letter writers is a reflection of the quality of the applicant’s graduate training itself. An applicant who is demonstrating that he or she does not have sufficient trust in faculty mentors to submit letters on their own is communicating a profound message about the quality of his or her graduate education and the attitude that he or she might bring to the new department.

Having said all of this, there are good and bad ways to request letters. A frantic email at midnight, 2 days before the due date, with no email address or mailing address or even full description of the thing being applied for is the bad way.

The good way is an excel spread sheet that has columns clearly listing:

the job/grant

the deadline

the contact email/website

the snail mail address (still essential for the heading of the letter, even when it is sent electronically)

the contact person’s name

the description of the job or grant

notes about the applicant’s ideas for tailoring and the strengths and weaknesses of his candidacy.

This spreadsheet should be created at least a month in advance of the deadlines, and 2 months in advance if possible.

If a candidate provides this exhaustive information in a timely fashion, then the occasional last minute lapse for a sudden, unexpected opportunity will be forgiven.

So to conclude, the dossier service is a poor, poor substitute for individual tailored letters. It is becoming more and more common in recent years, and is even being demanded by an increasing number of advisors. Nevertheless, candidates should be aware that they are entitled to expect individual letters from their dissertation advisors and committee members, and should be aware that the refusal to provide these represents a dereliction of duty. To the extent possible, candidates should seek to replace unreliable and irresponsible letter writers who will not provide individual letters with better ones who will. Where that is not possible, then, and only then, can a dossier service be entertained as a substitute, with a full understanding of the risks.



How to Work the Conference (Part Three of Three)

This is Part Three of our three-part series, “How to Work the Conference.”

Today’s column discusses mealtimes and the book exhibit.

In last week’s post I quoted extensively from The Tenured Radical’s column on conferences.  One of her best lines in that post reads

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?”

You will notice the reference here to “dinner partners.” Your ultimate score as a junior person is to be invited to dinner with important people in your field. There are two ways to do this.

The first way is to organize the dinner yourself. You can accomplish this ONLY IF you have organized a panel. Keep in mind that this is one of the primary reasons TO organize a panel—the panel dinner. Not all panels (and perhaps not all disciplines—I’m not sure on this point) will have a panel dinner, but many will. Or failing that, a panel lunch or a panel breakfast. It is a wonderful custom. Prior to your time slot, you meet to get to know one another and talk over your papers. Assuming you’ve stacked your panel with some cool people you really want to meet, voila, you are suddenly sharing a meal with Professor So-and-So. And that is where you want to be. Never fear, you as organizer do not pick up the tab for this.

Be aware: the timing of this meal is always arranged around the convenience of the most famous and busy person on the panel.

Now, secondarily, you may put yourself into the circumstances to be invited. You must never cling or hint or insinuate or invite yourself or tag along uninvited. Do you hear me? These are KODs professionally.

What you CAN do is be at the right place at the right time. Business meetings or membership meetings, etc. of subfield units, which are often held from 4-6 PM on the low status days (Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday) are an excellent opportunity. If you find ways to participate effectively in that meeting (most obviously by volunteering to take on one of the leadership roles, such as secretary or treasurer or award committee member), chances are, the established people in the unit may well invite you to dinner. These meetings are listed clearly in the conference program. Unless they are clearly listed as “private” or “board only,” you are allowed to attend.

You can also, if you have the right kind of well connected and cooperative and savvy graduate mentor (and few do, but you might be one of the lucky ones), arrange to meet him or her for a beer at the hotel bar at a pre-dinner time slot such as 5:30 PM.  At 6 PM, when his or her friends arrive for their dinner, you may well be invited to come along.

If you happen to be lucky enough to inspire dynamic discussion at your panel among a group of enthusiastic audience members, and they mob you after your panel, you can sometimes spontaneously plan to meet later for a meal as well.

OK, Aside from the scheduled meetings and planned or impromptu meals, which are the real bread and butter of conference networking for junior people, you will also work the conference by utilizing the book exhibit.

The book exhibit is a little-understood element of the academic conference. It is one of the best places to see your academic heros not “on stage.” This does NOT mean that you can accost them at will. It means you can watch them and see what they do, what books they look at, and who they talk to.  And I certainly struck up a number of pleasant conversations with people in my field while browsing side by side at the California or Duke booths.

You also get to attend the wine and cheese receptions at the major presses, usually on Friday night, launching their major books of the season. The authors will also be there, and you might get to shake their hands (beware, it’ll be a mob scene).

You also get to see something very important to your career, which is, how senior people talk to editors. Because one of the major kinds of politicking that go on at conferences is the book deal negotiation. Editors are there to cruise the panels and find good materials for future books. Heck, if your paper was really outstanding, they may even come talk to you! If the press is a top, top press, that’s a score. If they’re a non-top press, it is not a score, and do not, under any circumstances, commit to a book with them just because they asked.

What you want to see, though, is how savvy senior people broach the subject of a book with the senior editors. They often do this right there at the book exhibit, and if you’re standing there, you get to surreptitiously listen in.

This is how I learned to sell a book, in fact. I used to haunt the book exhibits as a young MA and Ph.D. student, and by the time I was advanced and had a book mss. to peddle, I was pretty damn good at it. And as I mention elsewhere, I had competing offers from Duke and California, and extracted an actual monetary advance out of it.

The last thing that I will say about conferences is this:  they are often depressing and alienating places.  Everyone, it seems, is jockeying for status.  Sometimes the overt politicking can be a shameful thing to observe, let alone participate in.

Although I did all of the methods that I advocate here, with a great deal of success, I never really enjoyed them, and never really enjoyed my national conferences, until one critical change occurred.  That was when I reached out to, and joined, the Society for Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists.  That small but dynamic society, within the umbrella of the American Anthropological Association, was a godsend to me personally.  The members were warm, welcoming, funny, irreverent, passionate, opinionated, and above all–completely down to earth.  I had never imagined it was possible to find a “home” in the national organization that felt as much like a home as its business meetings and open bar receptions.  The dinners and drinks that flowed naturally from these events were actually fun, and yielded plenty of opportunities for potential publications and professional activities.

I’m not recommending, Dear Readers, that you all join the Lesbian and Gay units of your national organizations!  What I am recommending is that you seek the sub-units that feel most like “home” to you.  Certainly I don’t advocating hiding away in them, and never going out to the bigger, scarier business meetings and book exhibit events, and workshops.  But in addition to all of that, find (or create) the professional organization that is filled with the most like-minded souls you can find, the ones who really care about what they’re working on, more than they care about jockeying for power.

As you know, I have absolutely no objection to jockeying for power.  But for your own mental and emotional health, try to find some real friends and “family” at your conference as well.



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!