Introducing Webinar: “What You Need To Know Now About the Tenure Track Job Market”

This month I’m launching into a new platform–the webinar. June 26 and 27 I will be offering an inaugural 90 minute webinar, titled “What You Need to Know Now About the Tenure Track Job Market.”

In this webinar, I walk you through the conditions of the current American job market, the most common mistakes made by job-seekers, and the ways you can maximize your chances of success while looking for a tenure-track job.

As many of you may know, I had to discontinue initial skype consultations with new clients this past month, due to overwhelming demand. I took this step to balance my business and my home life, so that my kids no longer have to come in to my home office at 7 PM and ask, “Mommy, are you STILL working?”

It is my hope that webinar technology allows me to offer a service that can still offer some immediate and personal interactive elements, even while not individualized.

I hope to expand these in an ongoing monthly schedule, offering targeted support for the evolving stages and deadlines of the standard American academic job market calendar. This inaugural webinar this month will gauge the interest among all of you, Dear Readers, out there in the cybersphere!

We’ll cover:

*The big-picture conditions of the U.S. tenure track job market
*How to think like a search committee
*The four core qualities of a successful tenure track job candidate
*The Cover Letter: why yours probably sucks, and how to fix it
*The CV and Teaching Statement: common mistakes
*The three keys to academic interviewing
*Negotiating basics

Includes limited time for Q and A with Dr. Karen.


The 2 time options (you have to choose one):

Tuesday June 26 4 PM Pacific/7 PM EST/23:00 GMT

Wednesday June 27 8 AM Pacific/11 AM EST/15:00 GMT

The cost is: $100

Here’s how you sign up: Click –> The Prof Shop page of The Professor Is In website. The Webinar is listed first; simply click on “Add to Cart.” Finish checkout through Paypal. Once finished, you’ll be automatically directed to a dedicated registration form, that gives you more info, and an access code for the day of the event.

Any questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask me at This is new technology for me, and we’ll figure it out together.

Desperation, Addiction, and Your CV

It’s not often that I’m rocked back on my heels by any piece of writing that I see in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but this piece, “Not Quite Bulletproof” is one of those times.

It starts out as a meditation on academic credentialism, and then, ever so deftly, takes us to the author’s battle with alcoholism, and recovery.

I made a comment on the piece, to the effect that academic credentials can’t save you from your inner demons, and indeed can be another kind of socially sanctioned addiction (which is just restating the author’s point in stupidly pedestrian prose, but…).

I knew full professors at my R1 programs who were absolutely credential/competition addicts.  Their CVs were spectacular.  And they were fueled by desperation.  It was painful to watch.

Actually, when I look back at my own earlier days, I think my competitiveness arose out of the same kind of self-loathing, and desperate, doomed effort to be, in the author’s words, “bulletproof.”

On this blog I promote a steely-eyed attentiveness to the length and quality of your CV.   I see that as a mode of professional self-care.   But it’s a fine line indeed between that and an addiction to productivity.   Take care.


How Do You Make a “Short” CV?

Today’s post is a simple one, responding to many queries:  How do you make a “short CV”?

A short, or two-page, CV is often required for grant applications and the like.  The point here is to sketch the main highlights of your record without excessive or repetitious detail.

You must make a number of adjustments to your full-length CV in terms of content and formatting.  Do NOT try to game the system by going to a 10 point font and .5” margins.  The margins must remain 1 inch (OK, maybe .75″), and the font  11 at minimum (and whether or not you can get away with 11 depends on which font you use, since 11 in Garamond is one thing, and 11 in Bookman Old Style is something entirely different).

Your name and address at the top will of course remain.  For those of you who use the words “curriculum vitae” above or below your name:  this is a time when you can consider removing them.  The date, for those who include it, can also be removed.

Remove most extra white space on the page.  Leave a single blank line above each new heading and subheading, but otherwise, remove most blank lines.

Next, be sure that each heading contains only major highlights.  Under Education, you’ll list just your 3 major degrees (BA, MA, PH.D.) with no extra training or schooling thrown in.  Under Academic Appointments, list only the major appointments, and only for the last decade.  Under Publications, if you have many, limit to high status publications (books, refereed journal articles, book chapters), and remove things like book reviews or (except for particular fields) conference proceedings.   Under Grants, list the large and important ones only.  Conferences need not extend back further than about 5-8 years.  Follow each heading in which you have done such editing with the word “(selected).”

Keep publication subheadings to the extent that you can, at least to distinguish books vs. articles and chapters.

Focus on hard outcomes, not ongoing projects.  “Research” should be included only if it is specific grant-funded lab or field research; otherwise, research must be represented on the CV entirely by your lists of publications and grants.

The headings that are critical for the short CV are:

  • Education
  • Professional Appointments
  • Publications
  • Grants
  • Awards and Honors
  • Conferences
  • Invited Talks
  • Languages (if these are relevant to your scholarly identity; if not, skip)

Headings to almost certainly jettison include:

  • Research Interests
  • Teaching Interests
  • Dissertation summary
  • Service
  • Outreach
  • Non-Academic Work
  • Related Professional Skills
  • References

Headings that should be considered carefully depending on the grant:

  • Teaching Experience
  • Professional Affiliations

Short CVs typically are requested as part of research-oriented fellowship applications, and the role of teaching in these fellowships varies.  Some fellowships include a major teaching element; some include very little.  The specific fellowship requirements will dictate whether or not to include any mention of teaching on the short CV.  As with all other headings, it will likely be truncated—a brief list of courses by title, rather than a term-by-term record of specific teaching assignments.

You will have to fiddle with your formatting and spacing to achieve a good outcome in the short CV.  Again, it must always be in visible/legible font, with reasonable margins. Abundant white space, however, that you would want to keep in the full-length CV, can be removed.   It is understood that all or most headings will be “selected.”  Prioritize your highest status achievements, and the more recent ones.  Beware of any excess verbiage, and any elements that deviate from the strictly academic/scholarly.

If I’ve missed anything, please ask in the comments.






Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post III

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.


I have a Ph.D. in musicology (“music history & culture”), taught 31 sections of 22 different courses at seven institutions, co-edited and contributed three chapters to a book related to the subject of my dissertation, published an additional book chapter and journal articles/reviews, presented 27 conference papers and invited talks, and so on. However, I am presently unemployed and living on welfare.

As an undergraduate, I incurred about $18,000 in student-loan debt. As a graduate student at a major research university, I did not want to get into much additional debt or to put financial strain on my rural, single-income, lower-middle-class parents. (I am the first person in my family to attend university.) During my early grad school period (M.A., plus preliminary Ph.D. work), I only incurred a little additional debt (around $3000), because I lived modestly, worked as a TA, did several part-time RA and similar jobs, did “external” part-time work (choral singing), and even did a utility-company office temp job for a few months—for only slightly more than minimum wage.

My field of musicology eventually hit a crossroads, with some people getting into such areas as critical theory, cultural studies, gender issues, and popular culture. It seemed like the best place to be, so I started over at another major research institution, in one the most significant programs for what was then being called “new musicology.” Over the five-year period of my “residency,” I had quite good financial support, but almost all of it involved doing something other than my own work. At one point, too, I had to arrange to borrow $8000 from one of my grandparents just to cover an unexpected fee. I also needed an additional student loan (about $6000) and additionally incurred about $10,000 in loan and credit-card debt (for moves, computers, transportation, books, conferences, and so on).

In my immediate ABD period, I borrowed $30,000 from another of my grandparents in order to move back to my place of origin and get settled, pay off certain costs related to the move (including my vehicle), and have enough to live on for perhaps a year or so. While also working on my dissertation, I taught part-time at one or another of two universities, worked part-time at a music festival, and did more choral singing. I also moved most of the way across the country for a temporary, full-time teaching job at another large university. After that, I moved all the way back again. (Since starting university, I have moved an average of four times every three years!) Around the time that I defended and filed my dissertation, I began teaching part-time closer to home at a community college (which I did for two years), added more choral singing, switched to a different one-off course at another university, then moved temporarily the other direction halfway across the country for a five-month teaching position at yet another university. In the meantime, I had phone interviews for tenure-track academic jobs (and the occasional fly-out), presented, and published. Over seven years, though, my credit card and loan debt piled up by about another $20,000.

Then, I had a one-year full-time gig back at my Ph.D. school, but I had no money to get there (or back) or to live there for the first ten weeks, so I took out an $8,000 loan. During that academic year, I had several more phone interviews (plus two fly-outs), plus more papers, talks, and publications. Then, I moved back to yet more places, including several months in my parents’ camper-trailer. I initially had enough money to live on from the previous year’s job, but eventually did part-time reference writing again (for roughly minimum wage) and also went approximately another $3000 into credit card debt. By early 2008, my accumulated, “short-term” debt of about $114,000 started to catch up with me, including the nasty surprise of the government claiming I owed back-taxes of more than $8,000. (I should clarify that in my field, there are very few post-doctoral fellowships.)

I have always used computers quite a lot, so an old friend convinced me to apply for a government-funded program for “second careers.” However, after starting an 12-month program in software development (in September of 2009), I found out that I was not eligible for the funding. I thus had to borrow $16,000 more from my family in order to stay in the program, cover my tuition and living expenses, and so on. I did very well in the program (GPA of 3.97) and had a successful paid internship in the summer of 2010 that counted as part of my studies and which actually brought together aspects of musicology and information technology. However, because of my extreme level of education and experience in musicology, I have not been able to get much additional experience in IT or to find further, paid, full-time work in it (or in anything else). I’ve been independently developing a project in an area I call “Digital Public Music History & Culture,” but I have no idea if I’ll ever make any money from it.

Two-thirds of my things are now in a storage locker (paid for by my father), and I also no longer have a vehicle. I went through bankruptcy in 2009-10, but I still owe around $72,000, of which I owe $54,000 to my family. I have been on welfare since April of 2011. Since completing my Ph.D. almost nine years ago, I have only lived above the poverty line for 22 months, and I currently live well below it.

Don’t Get Your Career at Costco

From a reader, on Facebook:

“Thank you for the post on The Five Year Plan.

“After reading it, I realized that during my years as a tenure-track assistant professor, I went about publishing and doing research, the way I do the grocery shopping: concentrating on the sale items (conferences, book reviews, on-line collaborations), ie, all things that seemed ‘affordable.’

“As a result I stock up on unnecessary items and find myself too tired to focus on the important things, those items that do not go on sale, but that are the building block of a good kitchen: articles and books.

“Luckily, it’s never too late to understand one’s mistakes and amend them. I wish I had realized the importance of planning about 4 years ago. Although I have managed to publish quite a bit, I have squandered a lot of time and energy, because I did not have a clearly elaborated research plan.

“I am getting there, thanks to your suggestions, for which I am deeply thankful.”


I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a brilliant and elegant sketch of the seductive allure of the “easy.”  Everybody has done it–accepted an offer to publish or present a paper because it was handed to you, possibly by a friend or ally, without any particular effort on your part.  “It’ll be quick!” you say to yourself.  “I’ll get an easy line on the CV out of it!”

Who knows, you might even congratulate yourself on your career savvy.

The quick and easy sale items of the academic career leave you with a CV that looks like the stockpile of an extreme couponer—a collection of stuff that you’ll never use and that doesn’t sustain you.  Put in academic terms, the CV becomes a stockpile of low-rent quasi-achievements that don’t actually bring you visibility and job offers.

An extreme couponer at home


One high-risk, high-cost item—a book proposal successfully written and pitched to the leading press in your field, a journal mss. dragged through the excruciating, endless review process of the top journal in your area–is worth ten of the cheap alternatives like book reviews.

If you are an extreme couponer of the academic marketplace, don’t be misled by the rapidly growing length of your CV.  If the content is not rich and meaty and meaningful, the quantity counts for little.



Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post II

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 will post them on Thursdays over the next month or so. 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.


Although not on welfare, I empathize and have said on more than one occasion, “I would rather be unemployed than work here.” I am contemplating quitting my job in the middle of nowhere, moving somewhere I want to live and looking for work when I get there. But the “always prepare” part of me prevents me from taking such drastic measures.

I got my PhD Renaissance Literature in 2006 from a “red brick” research university in the U.K.  I received no job market training or advice throughout my studies. When I finished I was awarded a part-time post doctoral fellowship (9,000 pounds per year) and taught classes at two universities to make enough to live on. Every few months I had to ask my generous grandfather to lend me some money – that I promised to pay back when I got a full time job. This was embarrassing – I knew he would always say yes but I hated asking and always waited until the back account was in the overdraft allowance. I was lucky to have his support. I also received 35 British pounds per week from the government to supplement my income (called income support). He passed away shortly after I received my tt job offer after 2  ½ years on the job market. During those years the university where I worked hired a young academic eager to help people in my position. She helped me to edit my cover letter, and my C.V. and when I landed interviews she and her partner gave me mock interviews. I had seven interviews offered and I went to five of them. Two I cancelled because I was offered a tt job that I accepted (those two were for 2 year non-renewable positions).

My cohort has done terribly – I would say. One person has a great job at University-we-all-want-to-work-at; one went into community college teaching English as a second language; one works at a less-than-desirable-University; one went into university admin; one opted out and went into a fun art career; one became a stay-at-home mother; I work somewhere I hate with every fiber of my being; one married me and as a result is an adjunct in the middle of nowhere without any colleges nearby.

I always said I would get the PhD and I doubt that I would not do it if I was given the chance to go back in time. What I wish was in place – and should be in place – for every single PhD program is some career workshops that show us what we should be doing for that academic job AND what we can do for non-academic jobs. Whenever I decide “this is it, I am leaving academia,” I look at job adverts and begin to write cover letters for jobs I have no idea how to apply for. Universities should not have PhD programs to attract more students or to bring in more revenue. They should not be profitable in the way they are – there should be a component to the degree that is aimed at employability. There should be a Dr. Karen on every PhD program – or at least at every university that offers a PhD program.  Candidates should be required to attend a workshop and meet with such a person to fulfill the requirements of the degree. Universities that aren’t willing to offer such support should not grant the degree.

My hope is that as a new generation of academics begins employment as full-time faculty, we will bring with us the wisdom learned from our experiences on the job market. I always hoped that one day I could give back to a graduate student in the way the young academic who helped me had but I have not been given that opportunity yet and I am not sure I will stick it out long enough to have that chance.


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.


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.*


*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.


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.