How To Make Small Talk on Your Campus Visit

Today’s post is a Special Request post for several clients who are fretting about what to “chat” with faculty about during the informal parts of a campus visit. “What in the world do I talk about??” they inquire.

It’s always hard to know how to make small talk with faculty when you know that they’re evaluating everything you say and do. But make small talk you must, or else sit there mutely as the conversation ranges around you.

There is no one sure-fire rule for small talk, of course, since everyones’ interests are different. But in general, you’ll be on solid ground with any group of academics if you have a passing knowledge of the contents of the previous week’s New York Times, primarily the front page and the Arts section, with a special notice of recent art films.

You’ll also want to have educated opinions about current politics. I recommend you acquire familiarity with Huffington Post coverage. You’ll earn extra points if you can speak knowledgably about recent commentary on blogs such as Talking Points Memo and The Daily Kos.  If there are pressing and relevant local political issues—for example, if you’re interviewing in Wisconsin, which is coping with Governor Scott Walker’s assault on collective bargaining, or in Arizona, where they’re actively eradicating ethnic studies programs, then read up on the basics of that before you arrive.

[I am cutting and pasting this addition from the comment stream:  Talking knowledgably about liberal/progressive politics marks you as a member of the academic tribe. So does reading the New York Times. These are markers of  a certain, dominant, type of academic identity. Of course there are republicans/conservatives around campus, more predominant in some fields than others (the business school perhaps, or econ) but in my liberal arts world, everybody shared a bond over mournful progressive critique of the Democratic Party and the New York Times.]] 

If you follow national sports, that may help in some cases (although academics are of course less likely to follow major US corporate sports than other sectors of the population, but correspondingly more likely to have an opinion on something like women’s volleyball).  But also take a moment to familiarize yourself with the sports teams on the campus you’re visiting, especially if it’s a Big 10/12 School.

Take the time to read an important recent novel or memoir that has been featured in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  Have intelligent thoughts about it.

The point here is, and I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, you must be able to range far and wide conversationally, untethered from your dissertation topic, and your discipline. The fact is, after 5-10 years single-mindedly dedicated to the dissertation topic, you must now be able to speak conversationally and collegially as if you actually have had a life, during all those long years.

Graduate School Is Not Your Job.

For today’s post I direct you to my latest Chronicle column, entitled “Graduate School Is A Means To A Job.” It is an expanded edition of the post I published about two weeks ago, “Dr. Karen’s Rules of Graduate School.”

As I said in that post, too many of my faculty friends and colleagues employ a passive, hopeless resignation about “how awful the job market is” as a replacement for actual professional mentorship of their Ph.D. Students. “There’s nothing we can possibly do to prepare them for this market!” they’ll say.

And graduate students will pick up on this, as well as on the general aura of contempt in many corners of academe for an overt professionalization ethos (commonly dismissed as vulgar “careerism”), and stumble along, hoping and praying that some kind of “job market miracle” will happen to them when they need it.

I’m here to tell you that there are quantities of things that you can do to situate yourself for the academic job market, from day one. These things of course don’t guarantee you a job, and they certainly don’t provide for jobs where no jobs exist. But if you do every single thing that I note in the Chronicle of Higher Ed column, religiously, from your first year in the program, by the end you will have a CV that will place you head and shoulders above the competition. In addition, you will have the confidence and elan that comes from experience presenting your work in public and hobnobbing at the major national conferences of your field. Together, that background will give you an advantage on the market that pays off immediately.

Sure, there are countless horror stories of people spending years seeking their first job, racking up debt, killing themselves with adjuncting, sometimes ending in failure. I’m here to tell you that there are plenty of other job seekers (I work with them) who sail through to multiple job offers in their first year on the market and negotiate starting salaries in a stone’s throw of $100,000 (in the social sciences and humanities!). Those job seekers are the ones who learned these rules and followed them.

How did they learn them? Mostly by attending dynamic, highly professionalized graduate programs, aligning themselves with savvy mentors in their fields, and being grittily entrepeneurial (and ok, working with The Professor helped a lot too!).

If you lack these advantages–as I most certainly did back in the day– all may not be lost. Start today adding lines to your CV, getting out your refereed journal publications, organizing panels for your major conferences, and making yourself known. And print out my column and tape it to the wall above your computer!  Your fate, far more than you believe, is in your own hands.

Don’t Go To Graduate School (An Inadvertent Guest Post)

This post shares an email sent to me last week by a good friend, an NTT English professor  with a secure and well-compensated ongoing position in English at an R1 institution.  This email is a follow-up to an email she had forwarded the week before, from a talented undergraduate English major who had been in her class.  The student had written to tell my friend excitedly about her plans to move across the country to start a terminal Masters degree in English at an elite East Coast institution, as a first step to getting a Ph.D. in English  She had received no funding from the institution, and was explaining that the cost of tuition alone would be $45,000 a year.

“But I’m absolutely committed to getting a Ph.D. in English!!!” her email affirmed. “I’ll do whatever it takes!!!”

My friend wrote to me in consternation, asking: “WWTPIID??” ( What would The Professor Is In Do???)  “I already sent her to your blog,” she wrote, “but should I stage an intervention??”

To my eyes, what was most striking about the email from the student was her apparent belief that her single-minded fixation on obtaining the Ph.D. in English at any cost was a sure path to earning my friend’s approval.   It does make sense:  imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so naturally a naive and starry-eyed student would believe that an overriding life goal to get the Ph.D. in English would be the surest path to the approval of her former English professor.

I responded to my friend that the best intervention might be to communicate clearly that the life plan she APPROVES of is the one that does NOT include a ruinous and self-destructive plan for unfunded graduate school in English.

My friend didn’t tell me if she agreed with this advice or not, but this is the email that she wrote in response.


Dear XXXX,

Grad school is a bad idea under the best of circumstances.  The job market is SO bad, and there is so little that grad study in literature can help you do beyond seeking jobs in the dismal academic job market that pursuing a grad degree in English only makes sense if the following conditions are met:

1.  You are fully funded (or at least have reason to expect to be after the initial year).

2.  You really, genuinely, honestly don’t care if you find yourself at 30 needing to start over again in an entirely new line of work having failed to find an academic job.

I’m frankly surprised that condition #1 doesn’t hold for you.  You strike me as the sort of student who would excel at grad school, based on your performance in my course.  That said, I don’t have much sense of what the pool of grad-school-bound applicants looks like nor do I know first-hand what admissions/fellowship committees look for.  So you should take my affirmation simply for what is it: a profound respect for you and your abilities–NOT a reading of the tea-leaves that hold your future.

The fact that you did not get admitted with funding suggests that this is not the right career path for you.  It’s not the right career path for ANYONE at the moment, even those who do get admitted-with-funding.  The world needs smart people who know how to read and write critically, and you can find fulfilling work without entering the black hole that is academia.   I have no doubt of that.

If you want to continue to pursue graduate study, then the main thing you need to do is figure out what went wrong this year, what parts of your package are not holding up, and what, if anything you can do to improve it. You should also, if you can, find out if you aren’t being damned by faint praise in your recommendation letters, or inadvertently sabotaged by someone who doesn’t understand how competitive graduate admissions have become.  You need to show your statement to everyone who has ever worked with you.  Then you should probably research carefully the grad programs that are particularly strong in your interest area (that is, they have a lot of faculty taking on students) and try and find specific information on how many grad students they admit and how those students get funded, so that you can target your application to the institutions where you have the best chances.

If, while you retool your application, you want to get more coursework under your belt (and make more professional contacts) by getting a terminal MA, then I would encourage you to do it as cheaply as you possibly can, and don’t take out loans unless you absolutely have to–particularly since an MA wouldn’t really fill in gaps in your current record (if, say, you were a business major and wanted to switch to English lit., a terminal MA might be helpful to show that you had the necessary skills–but that’s not your situation.) I repeat: no loans.

$45K is NUTS and suggests to me that [Elite Private University] sees its MA program as a cash cow, nothing more. Seriously, the added prestige of going somewhere particular or working with someone specific is simply not worth it.  (Terminal MA students are the last priority for professors’ time and energy.)  It’s not unusual for people to take a year or three out between college and grad school–and so long as you maintain contact with your recommenders and use the time to grow intellectually, I don’t think it would look bad NOT to be in a terminal MA program (but this is advice you might want to confirm with people who have more first-hand experience with grad admission).

Even if you had been admitted with funding, these are some links I would be sending you to encourage you to reconsider. There are many ways to be happy and make a meaningful contribution without being in academia.  In fact, it might be easier outside academia.  When I referred to academia three paragraphs back as a “black hole,” I was not exaggerating. Please, please read them and take them seriously. (it’s philosophy, not lit.., but the nature of the job market is the same across the humanities)

I realize this is probably NOT the e-mail message you wanted to get from me at this stage.  I wish I could in good conscience urge you to take a leap of faith and move to [East Coast City] to suffer for a year before going on to a brilliant career.  But it just doesn’t work like that and it would be terrible if you found yourself a year from now with huge sunk costs and no better prospects of achieving this particular goal.  Especially when you have so much to offer the world.  I wish that academia was currently in a state to welcome you and make use of your gifts–but it just isn’t.

Feel free to come talk to me after break.

Professor W

The “Be Yourself” Myth: Performing the Academic Self on the Job Market

Today’s post is a reprint of my recent column in Inside Higher Ed, called “The ‘Be Yourself’ Myth.”   As some of you know, I write an occasional column for IHE under the theme “Academic Mythbusters.”  I take a prevailing delusion that afflicts graduate students and young Ph.D.s, and shatter it, so that readers may proceed in their careers armed with accurate knowledge, rather than self-deluding fantasies.  I love this column series (the next one is:  Ivy League Ph.D.s have an easy time on the job market), and I particularly love it when I know I’ve touched a raw nerve.  This particular column did.  The comment stream is filled with outrage.

It is interesting to me that scholars who would have no truck with outdated ideas of the unchanging, authentic self (“get thee behind me, essentialism!”) are the first to respond in outrage that I am advocating a performative concept of the academic self.  But if performativity applies to the objects of our study, does it not apply to us?  To argue otherwise would be the rankest hypocrisy, right?  Right?  Hmm.

In any case, the advice herein is some of the most foundational advice that I can give with regard to job market preparation.  There is no more important thing that you can do to prepare for job market success than bravely confront the failings of “yourself,” as you operate in professional settings, and replace your natural tendencies with the highly professionalized behaviors I describe below.

Read this post in tandem with the #Facepalm Fails of the Academic Interview series (3 parts) and the posts: How To Describe a Course (In an Interview) and Be Professorial.


[[In this occasional column I will address commonplace myths that are widespread in academia, particularly among its not-yet-completely-enculturated junior members. Using my training as a cultural anthropologist, as well as my experiences as a former R1 tenured faculty member and department head, I will take up one myth, briefly explore its origins, consider its impact on believers, and then evaluate its value. It is my hope that in doing so, I will pull away the veil of mystification that seems to obscure so many aspects of the academic career, and assist graduate students and junior faculty in distinguishing  the realities of life in the rapidly downsizing academic industry from the myths and half-truths often inculcated, oftentimes with the best of intentions, by their usually well-meaning dissertation advisors.]]

Today’s myth is: “When interviewing for a tenure-track academic position, it’s best to just be yourself.”

A number of months ago, I was working with a client whom I’ll call Margaret, a full professor and department head in the social sciences in an East Coast R1, who had contacted me for assistance in refining the letters of recommendation she was writing for the increasingly desperate job-seeking Ph.D.s and adjuncts under her care.  I was impressed with this client. She was sincere, earnest, and generous of spirit. She was committed to the welfare of these candidates, some her own Ph.D. students and some the adjuncts who had been contributing their labor to her department for years. She had no idea how unusual she is.

Toward the end of our work together she asked if I had any final thoughts on how to advise people to prepare for interviews and campus visits. She said, “Of course I always tell them to just be themselves. I mean, that’s always the best advice, isn’t it?”

“Oh good god, Margaret!”  I replied. “Are you kidding me? THAT’S what you tell them?”

A started silence, followed by a sheepish laugh. “Really? That’s not good advice? Why?”

O, Margaret….  O, job candidates…. Where do I begin?

The exchange took me back to the day oh so many years ago, when my very own adviser had also told me, when I asked her for some advice for an upcoming campus visit, to just be myself.

And not knowing any better, I heeded that advice.  And went out and made a complete ass of myself.

The fact is, Dear Readers, “yourself”  is the very last person you want to be.


Because no matter where you are in your career, but most especially if you are just starting out, or (god forbid) a grad student, you are, as an academic, insecure, verbose, defensive, paranoid, beset by feelings of inadequacy,  pretentious, self-involved, communicatively challenged, and fixated on minutiae.

Consequently, here’s how you act in interviews:  rambling, obscure, petrified, subservient, cringing, disorganized, braggy, tedious, emotionally over-amped, off-point, self-absorbed, defensive, and fixated on minutiae.

I’m sure the comment stream will erupt with objections, but …  I’ve worked with enough interviewees — as a search committee member, Ph.D. adviser, and coach and consultant — to know whereof I speak.

Sorry, academics. You/we suck at interviewing.

Here’s what actually needs to happen.

You have to jettison “yourself.”

In its stead, you have to create a professional persona. That persona is a full-fledged adult who demonstrates a tightly organized research program, a calm confidence in a research contribution to a field or discipline, a clear and specific trajectory of publications, innovative but concise, non-emotional ideas about teaching at all levels of the curriculum, a non-defensive openness to the exchange of ideas, and most importantly, a steely-eyed grasp of the real (as opposed to fantasy) needs of actual hiring departments, which revolve ultimately, in the current market, around money.

Let me take each of these characteristics of the non-yourself professional persona in turn.

1. A tightly organized research program. You will articulate your dissertation project/current project in approximately five sentences that sketch the topic, its sources, its methods, and its core argument.  Five sentences in all.

2. A calm confidence in a research contribution to a field or discipline. You will be able to articulate the orthodoxy-challenging intervention of your dissertation in a field or fields. This will not be simply “additive” (“People have looked at x and y, but nobody has yet applied the method to z”; “I am building on the work of xx and yy … “), but will articulate your work as distinctive, individual and unafraid to challenge previous understandings. (“In contrast to common views in the field of xxx, my research shows that in fact the core variable is yyy. This shifts how we view ppp and qqq.”)  If you cannot articulate this, you are not ready for the job market.

3. A clear and specific trajectory of publications. You will map an “arc” of publications that links past, present and future. You will say something like: “As you saw from my C.V., I have two refereed journal articles published on this body of work in the Journal of X and Journal of Y.  I have another in revise-and-resubmit stage at the Journal of Z.  Beyond that, I am finalizing my book proposal, and am speaking with editors at Duke and Chicago about a contract.  I expect that to be complete in two years time, and after that I am planning two more articles based on material that didn’t make it into the book. Those publications will complete the publishing arc of this work, and I will then move on to my second major project.” You will have this answer prepared for all interviews regardless of rank of the institution.

4. Innovative but concise, non-emotional, ideas about teaching at all levels of the curriculum. You will speak to specific courses, both intro-level and more advanced, both those those already on the department’s books and new ones you anticipate developing, in a brief and organized manner that gives the course title, the take-away point, the primary thematics, the texts or readings, and one innovative assignment that ideally incorporates digital techniques or social media. And then you will stop. You do not endlessly list course names, numbers, ideas, readings, or lecture topics. You also do not wax emotional about the “thrill” of teaching and the selfless efforts you dedicate to it. That says: adjunct.

5. A non-defensive openness to the exchange of ideas. When an interviewer says something like, “I notice you don’t really address gender in much detail in the dissertation. Do you have plans to develop that?” you do not respond, “Oh my gosh, yes, it’s true, I didn’t really get to include gender. I really WANTED to, but, uh, you know, I just ran out of time, and that’s a total lack in the dissertation, I KNOW, and I’m totally going to focus on correcting that….” You do respond:  “Yes, thanks for raising that point. In fact, as I worked deeper into my analysis I discovered that gender was not the primary variable in operation, and that a focus on xxxx allowed me to keep my emphasis on yyyy.” This is the non-defensive part.  You can then, if appropriate, follow with, “I am increasingly intrigued by the role of gender, and am working up a manuscript that addresses it from the perspective of zzzz to submit to the Journal of QQQ.  I’d look forward to talking to you more about that.” That is the openness part.

6. A steely-eyed grasp of the real (as opposed to fantasy) needs of actual hiring departments. Departments do not care about what makes you tick. They do not care about how you came to be who you are, or how you “feel” about the “privilege” of teaching and the “honor” of research. They are investing time and money into the addition of a new research and teaching resource (alternatively, new capital investment) to their department, and they need to know if you will be that resource/bring that capital. They are under the gun, from the dean’s if not the chancellor’s office,  to increase enrollments, grow class sizes, bring in grant money, increase faculty productivity (i.e., publications and grants), improve student retention, consolidate departments, eradicate  “underperforming” small courses/programs, and reduce lines.  Here’s what is not prioritized:  the scholarly minutiae of your research. Here is what is prioritized:  your ability to demonstrate, with evidence, quickly, that you publish a lot in high-ranking journals, bring in grant money, thrive in large classes, harness digital resources to do more with less money, work interdisciplinarily, and teach well enough to avoid lawsuits.

Developing these six elements of the professional persona is exceedingly difficult, and requires enormous levels of practice. For many candidates, writing out versions of these responses and practicing them — in the shower, in front of the mirror, with your significant other, and in mock interviews with peers and professors in your department — is the only way that they become second nature. Over time, practicing these responses allows some of this persona to feel more natural, and indeed, legitimate.  But to a degree, it may never feel that way. And that is fine. In the privacy of your own mind, you can continue to be beset by insecurities, anxieties and self-doubt, and the victim of rambling, disorganized thinking and an obsession with minutiae. But when you go out for an interview?  This self needs to stay firmly out of sight, while your persona takes center stage.


Academic Capitalism and the Shame of It All

The Professor and Family are skiing this week in the Cascades (Hoodoo for anyone interested). In place of my usual Thursday post I am posting a link to one of the best pieces I’ve read in a long time about the crisis and the shame of the academic job market. It is by Ann Larson. I don’t know Ann Larson, although I’m profoundly impressed by her blog. But apparently she has a Ph.D. in Composition and Rhetoric.

And she’s pissed. Pissed as hell at the hypocrisy and indifference of the tenured (de facto 1%) vis-a-vis the gruesome conditions of adjunct labor and the fate of their Ph.D.s students.

“Let’s face it, many of our field’s eminent scholars ignore the shameful low-wage teaching trap that ensnares many bright and deserving graduates because Comp and Rhet needs those teachers to sustain itself and to reproduce the game for the next round of players. Established faculty who have the power to get their words in the field’s top journals and win places on popular conference panels can no longer be let off the hook for declining to advocate for workers in the academic basement.

I highly recommend this post, and her blog. Please read and share widely.

Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers”

Many Joys of the Videoconference Interview (A Guest Post)

This guest post is by a client who is a 2012 Ph.D. in  Romance Languages and Literature.   She wrote last week to tell me of her success in scoring a top-ranked multi-year fellowship.  In the email she alluded to a catastrophic skype interview.  Intrigued, I naturally asked for details, and she sent this guest post.  It is painfully, dreadfully, hilarious.  Read it and weep.  (And those of you who actually run these skype interviews, here’s how NOT to do it.)  Let’s file this under #moreivyleaguejobmarketbungles


This year, I was fortunate to have made it far enough in the job market lottery to be invited for three videoconference interviews, two for junior research fellowships in the United Kingdom and one for a postdoctoral fellowship at an Ivy in the United States.

In many ways, a videoconference interview is preferable to a phone interview. There is visual feedback and you have less of an impression of talking into a total void. On the other hand, there are significant drawbacks, most especially the unpredictability of Internet connections. I also have the sense that, on average, videoconference interviews involve higher numbers of committee members. Paying for all six (or ten, or twelve) permanent faculty members to fly to a national conference is just not feasible for most institutions, whereas cramming them into a room in front of a camera is no problem at all. Why not invite the whole department? The more committee members in the room, the more you have the impression you are speaking to a framed photograph taken at a distance. Sometimes all you can see are disjoined body parts, and it becomes very difficult to read body language.  

For both of my UK interviews, administrative staff called me ahead of time on Skype to test the connection and to give me a sense of what the committee configuration/space would look like. This also meant that my Skype name was in their account and vice versa, which allowed us to start the interview immediately at the appointed time. This was extremely helpful: in both interviews I could see and hear everyone in the room. Unfortunately, this meant that I had an up-close view of one committee member reading my file (clearly for the first time) while I delivered my dissertation spiel. She seemed to tune in post spiel, since she grimaced visibly and rolled her eyes during some of my responses. Maybe she does this in person, but I gather from her blog (she is Very Famous and has a Very Famous Blog) that she has friends, which leads me to believe that she is capable of toning it down. I suspect that, to a certain extent, she had forgotten that I could see her.

The second UK interview was a technological disaster, despite the best efforts of the administrative staff. The connection kept failing, and we had to keep calling each other back. “So, what was that again? What were you saying about the reception of classical literature in Italy? Something about Virgil?” I thought I had done a horrible job but, at the end of it all, they congratulated me on my poise, and I was offered the position a week later

M.y videoconference interview with the Ivy was truly dreadful. On very short notice, I was invited to interview using the institution’s own videoconferencing software (“more stable than Skype!,” their IT website proclaimed). I was told the night before the interview that this Special Software required the pre-installation of several doodads. Having successfully installed said doodads, I was still unable to test the software ahead of time because it was specific to this campus. The morning of the interview, I could barely hear them, they could barely hear me, and it took up the first seven minutes of the interview just to figure out how to both see and hear each other.

Mid-interview, just when we had switched into the language of my field, I asked if I could call back because I was hearing a distracting echo of my own voice. At this point, I pushed what I thought was the “disconnect” button. All the button did was turn off the video feed on my end. I could still hear and see the search committee. “Her responses were completely unclear,” one of them declared. “It’s pretty obvious that we’ll reject her, but I guess we’ll just go on with the interview. And did you notice how her ‘technology problem’ occurred right when we switched languages? I bet she was trying to buy herself time.”

Completely stunned (nobody had asked for clarification up to this point, and I was certainly not faking the technology problem), I attempted to power through the rest of the interview as if I hadn’t heard anything. This was probably a mistake, because I was so upset I could barely string a sentence together. I wrote to the chair of the search committee several hours later to tell him, very neutrally, that the video and audio feeds of the software were separate and that I had been able to hear their comments. I’m still waiting for that rejection letter, but hopefully they won’t do the same thing to future candidates.

Finally, a warning about using videoconferencing during a job talk. During the job talk portion of my campus visit, the search committee invited a faculty member who was directing the junior year abroad program to connect via Skype. They did everything they could on their end, setting up a laptop ahead of time and testing the connection. I emailed him my Powerpoint so he could follow along. Unfortunately, during the actual job talk, the connection kept failing, which meant that my talk was punctuated by regular Skype ringing sounds each time we attempted to reestablish the connection. This was not the SC’s fault (they had tested the connection), but we probably should have declared defeat sooner rather than inserting regular musical interludes into my talk (doo DEE doo — –, dee doo dee…).

I’m sure that many people have encountered similar (and more unpleasant) obstacles in the New Age of Videoconferencing (please comment!). In light of my own experiences, I wanted to offer some suggestions both to interviewees and interviewers. 

What you should do as an interviewee:

– Create a separate Skype account for professional purposes. You don’t want your grandmother calling during the interview.

– Do a test run beforehand. Make sure to look at the camera rather than screen. Speak clearly, test the strength of your microphone, check for embarrassing items in the background, etc. Confine dogs and other household pets to another room. Consider buying a headset if you find it unpleasant to scream into your computer microphone. Do not just go through the motions. Practice having high-octane intellectual exchanges with someone over the computer. It’s one thing to exchange pleasantries about your grandmother’s cat. It’s another to try to concoct a coherent defense of the humanities on the spot.

– Consider conducting the interview on campus with an IT person on hand. It’s always helpful to blame your connection on the campus network, and you might feel more professionally poised if you’re not sitting in your living room. 

– Tenured Radical suggests putting a bulletin board behind your computer screen with some brief notes to prompt yourself. I’m not sure how many people can furtively glance at their cheat sheet, but I certainly couldn’t (if you can, more power to you, but you should probably ask a friend whether you’re doing a convincing job).

Although the interview is always more a performance than a conversation, the Skype interview falls on the extreme end of the spectrum. You need to be able to deliver your responses with the utmost clarity, even in bad conditions. Although you might be lucky, be prepared to have very little visual feedback from the committee members. You may have no idea of what kind of impression you are making, but you need to keep going. (I know I will be accused of sexism here, but I would guess that, for this reason, men have a slight advantage in the videoconference interview, since they may on the whole be less anxious to receive cues in the form of body language.)

What you should do as an interviewer:

– Do not use your own in-house videoconferencing software unless the candidate can fully test it beforehand (this is likely not possible if it is unique to your campus). The candidate should not be attempting to navigate new software at the same time as he or she is trying to knock your intellectual socks off.

– Do not attempt to cram your entire department into the room. You might consider capping your interview committee at four. While making sure you can all be seen and heard easily (this may involve sitting awkwardly clumped together), position the camera as close to you as possible. You should not have to pass the computer off to each person. 

– Please, for the love of God, keep in mind that the candidate can see you, even if he or she can only see you poorly. This is not the time to check your voicemail, read the candidate’s file, respond to email, etc. Do not do anything you would not do if the candidate was in the room with you.

– A videoconference interview is not an excuse to give the candidate no notice at all (more than twenty-four hours, please!). Remember that we have to work just as hard to prepare as we would for a conference interview. 

– Similarly, the same courtesies you would (hopefully) extend to conference interviewees apply here. Please tell the candidate who will be on the committee (or, at the very least, their departments and subfields). This allows us to prepare our responses accordingly.


How Not To Invite The Professor To Your Campus

This past week a group of graduate students in one department at the University of Oregon approached their Chair and requested that I be invited by the department to give an intensive workshop on professionalization and the job market. The Chair, a guy I know from my old days at the UO, got in touch with me, collected some information about my workshops and their fees, and put the graduate student request on the next faculty meeting agenda.

That evening, I got an email from him. “That was about as much fun as shoving my head in a Cuisinart,” he said. The faculty, it turns out, were irate, IRATE, I tell you, at the implication that they were in any way deficient at preparing their students for the job market. “Outrageous!”

When the Chair remarked that the students told him they felt awkward asking their advisors potentially “dumb” questions about the job market, one faculty member responded, “then the graduate students are just being childish.”

The Chair wrote, plaintively, “I tried…I struck out…. I am really not paid enough for this.”

I was not actually surprised. I had told the Chair in our initial exchange that invitations at the department level, particularly when initiated by the graduate students, always carry an element of awkwardness for the faculty, since they do imply a gap in the program. I told him, “my life on the speaker circuit, if and when it materializes, will almost certainly be at the behest of graduate colleges, not departments!”

Still, I was disappointed in the faculty. It really is too bad that faculty defensiveness stands in the way of graduate students getting all of the assistance available for this job market. There is no point in rationing information about the job market. And there is no such thing as too much information about the job market. The fact is, it is BECAUSE I’m not peoples’ advisor that I can tell them, with a total value-neutral bluntness, that their cv sucks, their letter is pandering and embarassing, their hair looks like a birds nest, they have waaay too much cleavage showing, and their interview response is a giant snooze-fest.

Any graduate faculty member reading this: Do better! I expect more of you. Your students need more from you.  You don’t have to call me.  But set your ego aside and do what it takes to make sure your Ph.D.s get the training they need, whatever the source.

What Should Graduate Students Ask Candidates? A Special Request Post

Continuing on my theme of speaking directly to current graduate students, today’s post is a Special Request post for a graduate student reader who contacted me to ask what kinds of questions she and her peers should be asking the job candidates visiting their department.

She hastened to assure me that she and they are “nothing like” the grad students I have described in some posts (ie, potentially jealous, reactive, or even sabotaging), but rather genuinely excited to meet the candidates, and eager to do everything possible to make sure that graduate student interests are represented in the search.

“But what should we be asking??” she wondered.

This is a good question.  Many search committees attend closely indeed to the opinions of the graduate students.  You need to make sure that your opinion is an educated one.  Here is a partial list of some valuable questions that graduate students should consider asking job candidates who make campus visits to your department.

*How would you mentor graduate students?

*What graduate seminars would you like to teach?

*I work on xxxx. Are you familiar with that area of work? Do you have any brief recommendations for directions I might pursue?

*What kinds of graduate student committees do you see yourself being able to sit on/participate in?

*We are trying to get the department to develop a new certificate/program/focus in XXX. What is your experience in that area? How do you see yourself participating in it?

*Looking at the current department, what new directions do you think you’d like to see it move in in the next 5-10 years? Why?

*What is your next major project, after you finish your work on your current one?

*What do you think are the most important new developments/directions in our field?

*What is the best recent book/article in our field that you have read? Why?

*What was your graduate program like, and do you feel it was effective in training Ph.D.s for research and for jobs? Why?

*When you teach with TAs, what are the major issues and problems that you find, and how do you resolve them?

*What do you think ABDs should do to prepare for the job market? How did you prepare for the job market?

*What do you do for fun?

The point of these questions is to get the candidate to reveal how responsive he or she is to graduate student concerns, how attentive he or she is to different areas of research being pursued by the graduate students, and how much of an ally he or she will be in graduate student initiatives and goals.

Another point is to test how current the candidate is with regard to new and emergent debates in the field, and how savvy he or she is with regard to job market and professionalization, the disintegrating conditions of academic labor, and the welfare of TAs.  

And the point of the last question is to check if the prospective faculty member is a balanced human being, or some kind of academic automaton.  Steer clear of those whenever possible.

Many, many times we heard from our graduate student representatives that candidates looked “bored” or “uninterested” when dealing with these queries from graduate students. It goes without saying that a bored or non-responsive candidate is a candidate that you, as a graduate student, do not want joining your department. Young and dynamic faculty are some of the best allies graduate students can have in staying current with new and emergent trends in the field, and prevailing against the dreadful conditions of the job market. Be courteous and friendly and good humored, but grill those candidates, and don’t hold back from pressing for answers. The very best candidates will come away from such encounters deeply impressed with the quality of the graduate program, and more compelled to accept the job if offered

What To Do Now in Grad School (Special Request Post)

Apologies for missing Tuesday’s post and then delaying on Thursday’s post. I had a family health crisis (thankfully, fully resolved) that kept me away from the computer this week.

Today’s post is a Special Request post for K, who asks, what can a grad student do right now (even from the first year) to prepare for the job market?

This is an excellent question and one that I have wanted to write about for some time. I have no patience, no patience whatsoever, with the “love” narrative (“we do what we do because we love it and money/jobs play no role”) that prevails among many advisors and departments and profoundly mystified graduate students (see the most recent example, in the Chronicle this week, here).

It is my view that graduate school is meant to prepare one for a job and career. And it is from that belief that all of my work as The Professor derives.

For those of you who feel otherwise, that is your right.

But my remarks are always addressed to those who wish to prioritize being competitive for permanent, tenure track employment, with salary, benefits, and retirement, at the end of their Ph.D. 

So, Dear Graduate Students, here are things that you can do now:

1. Never forget Dr. Karen’s primary rule of graduate school: Graduate School Is Not Your Job; Graduate School Is a Means To A Job. Do not settle in to your graduate department like a little hamster burrowing in the pine shavings. Stay alert with your eye always on a national stage, poised for the next opportunity, whatever it is, to present a paper, attend a conference, meet a scholar in your field, forge a connection, gain a professional skill. 

2. Year one and every year thereafter, read the job ads in your field in the Chronicle and your disciplinary professional organization website, and track the predominant and emerging emphases of the listed jobs. You don’t have to slavishly follow trends, but you have to be familiar with them and be prepared to relate your own work to them in some way.

3. Do not forget the rule of increasing returns (in grants). A $500 book scholarship situates you for a $1000 conference grant, which situates you for a $3000 summer research fellowship, which puts you in the running for a $10,000 fieldwork grant, which then makes you competitive for a $30,000 dissertation writing grant, and later a $100,000 postdoc.

4. Make strong connections to your advisor and also to other faculty members in your department and in affiliated departments outside your department. Interact with these faculty members as a young professional, without forgetting the letters of recommendation that you will one day need.

5. Minimize your work as a TA. Your first year will be grueling, but learn the techniques of efficiency in teaching as fast as you can, and make absolutely, categorically, sure that you do not volunteer labor beyond the hours paid. Believe me, this will take vigilance. Do it. You are not a volunteer and the university is not a charity.

6. Attend every job talk in your department and affiliated departments religiously. It matters not if these are in your field or subfield. Go to all.

7. Attend national (not just local or regional) conferences annually.

8. Take every opportunity available to you to present your work publicly.

9.  Remember that the best dissertation is a finished dissertation.

10.  Write your thesis and dissertation with an eye to publication. In many if not most fields it is now necessary to have at least one refereed journal article while still ABD.  Strategize your Masters thesis or one chapter of your dissertation to be your first publication, and send it out at least one year prior to the Fall you will first go on the market.  Do not be seduced by expressions of interest or invitations from editors of edited collections. These are where good publications go to die.  Your first piece needs to be in the highest ranked refereed journal you can reasonably manage.

Bonus Advice: Put the amount of work into your job letter and teaching statement and research statement that you would put into a dissertation chapter or refereed journal article. Far, far more hinges on these documents than any other piece of writing that you do.

There is more to write.  I am preparing a longer piece on this subject for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  If the Chronicle does not publish the longer piece, I will post it here on the blog.  For now I stop here.

In the meantime, I think I can hear about a third of my readers saying “Oh yeah! I can do this!” And a third saying, “Aaaaaarrrggghhhh…..I can never do all this!” And another third saying, “I refuse to do all this! What a distasteful exercise in tactical drudgery.” The choice is entirely yours. But be aware that the best and most competitive candidates, the ones whom I have watched and assisted as they sailed through a first year on the market with  something like 10-15 conference interviews and 5 campus visits, and 2 competing offers, had every one of these elements of their record locked and loaded.

Good luck.



Dr. Karen’s (Partial) Rules of the Job Talk

I’ve been asked by many readers to write about the Job Talk. I’ve resisted doing this because I believe that by the time you are writing your job talk, any meaningful advice has to be completely personalized. In other words, general rules about job talks would have to be so general as to be of minimal value. And valuable rules about your job talk can only be delivered personally.

I read job talks as part of my work here at TPII, and I’m convinced that on one occasion at least, my intervention saved a candidate from certain failure. She went on, with a new job talk revamped to showcase her authority and expertise, and proceeded to get the offer.

This morning, when asked again for a post on job talks, I began to think about what I corrected in that particular case, and a few others. I realized that I did correct for some errors that are relatively common, and that these corrections might serve as rules that could be of value to others. These rules will never replace personalized critique, but they may help you to avoid the worst and most embarrassing mistakes.

So, in no particular order, I present a preliminary list of Rules of the Academic Job Talk.

1.  Banish the following words:

  • seek
  • hope
  • try
  • wish
  • believe

Refer to my post: “Do or Do Not. There Is No Try.”

2.  Banish the following phrases:

  • is worthy of study”
  • “deserves study”
  • merits study”

The fact that you are studying it proves that it is worthy of study. Saying these words makes you sound like a junior grad student trying to convince a skeptical advisor of the value of a dissertation topic.

3.  Be thoroughly formal and professorial

This is not a chat. This is a formal presentation of research. It is meant to showcase your expertise and authority, not demonstrate that you are “nice.” Do not write the job talk as if you are “talking.” An example would be:

So then I’m going to ask the question, ‘what would happen if we look at x instead of y?’ And when I do that, a very interesting thing comes up, which I’m sure that you can anticipate, which is that focusing on x puts the whole topic of z in a new perspective….”

Instead, you will write:

Focusing on x instead of y reveals a different perspective on z, and it is on that perspective that I focus in this talk today.”

In addition, use formal words exclusively. This is not the place for slang and casual language.

4.  Minimize your use of “us” and “we.”

I’m not saying you have to jettison them entirely, but based on my experiences with job talks, they are vastly overused, and are a central element of the excessive chattiness that I describe in rule #3.

5.  Use humor sparingly

Search committees and audiences always appreciate knowing that you have a sense of humor, but the job talk is not the place to demonstrate it. One small witticism, if it arises naturally from your materials, or some mishap in your presentation, is certainly appropriate. But beyond that, let your sense of humor emerge in your conversations throughout the day; in the job talk, give your research the serious delivery that it deserves.

6.  Use visuals, but don’t over-rely on them.

Academic audiences are generally ambivalent about PowerPoint. They appreciate visuals as much as anyone, but they also resent the “dumbing down” that often happens in a PowerPoint-centric presentation. Be sure that the text stands alone as academic written text, and is not subordinate to slides. In other words, don’t stand in front of the screen and say “and next, in this slide, we see that….”

7.  Leave visuals that you do use on the screen for long enough that the audience can thoroughly assimilate and respond to them.

One of the most common errors that nervous speakers commit is snapping through visuals too quickly. You may have seen these slides 127 times, but your audience is seeing them for the first time. They need abundant time—several minutes most likely—to thoroughly study and assimilate the information on the slide.

8. This goes without saying, don’t read from the paper.

While this may seem to contradict Rule #3 and possibly Rule #6, it does not. You can remain strictly professorial and formal, and still make abundant eye contact, gesture broadly, and in some cases move about the stage or podium area. It is imperative that you draw your audience in and also closely monitor their reactions to what you are saying. For both of those to happen, you must watch them. Know your talk well enough that you don’t have to read it. Also, anticipating nerves, print the talk out in large font and doublespace, so that it’s easy to read, and also don’t be afraid to put stage directions into the text (“point to screen here”; “offer ‘spontaneous’ remark about xxx here”, etc.)

9.  Make sure the talk speaks to the job being advertised.

Candidates can be so obsessed with their own narrow project, on the one hand, or so over-amped about trying to be all things to all people, on the other, that they often miss the mark in pitching the talk to exactly the position being filled. If it’s a 19th century literature job, then should your talk be about postcolonial literature? No. Should it be about Fielding? No. Should it be about 20th century adaptations of Dickens? No. It should be about some aspect of actual literature written in the actual 19th century. Do interesting things, but don’t forget that they have curricular needs that they are filling.

10.  Get to the point. And stay on point (Brits, I’m talking to you).

Don’t spend 7 pages in prefatory remarks and caveats. You should be into the main topic of your talk by the end of the first page. Make sure that the evidence mobilized and arguments advanced actually speak directly to the topic, and make your core central point.

11.  Articulate an argument.

One of the most startling things about working as The Professor has been discovering just how many young scholars, across the university, cannot articulate a central argument of their research. You should be able to give the core argument of your project in a single sentence. That sentence should be prominently placed in the beginning of your job talk. You will then use evidence and logic to prove the legitimacy of your argument. And then you will conclude by reminding the audience what you argued, and then briefly gesturing to the wider implications and ramifications of that argument.

12.  Be aware of your body language.

I worked with a stellar client who was the real deal, the whole package—brilliant project, fabulous teaching, terrific intellectual pedigree. And then we did a run-through of her job talk on skype. Who was this person? Her typical self-assurance was nowhere to be seen. Her hands fluttered like little fish. She bobbed and swayed. Her eyes darted side to side. “No, start over, try it again!” I said. “No, you’re still doing it!” Three times we went through it. I hung up feeling anxious indeed. Turns out, of course, she totally killed it, when it counted. Thank god. But she told me afterward, without that skype practice she never would have realized just how much she let her nerves show through her body language. You need a level gaze, head high, a firm stance, strongly planted feet (no winding or twisting your feet below the podium), squared shoulders, hands calmly on the podium or gesturing.

13.  Have a strong and inspiring finish.

Do not dribble away with “so, yeah, uh, I guess that’s it…. uh, so, yeah, does anybody have any questions…?” leaving the audience to squirm in their seats and wonder when to clap. Finish strong. Asssertively. With a clear falling tone in the final words, then a pause, and then a confident gaze with half-smile taking in the whole audience, and a strong and gracious “Thank You.” Then another pause for applause, and then, “I’d be happy to take questions” (or acknowledge your introducer rising out of his or her seat to mediate questions for you).

14.  Finish on time.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the fastest way to lose a job is to go over-schedule. Searches are grueling and exhausting and inconvenient for departments. The faculty are dragged out of their already over-taxed schedules to sit in your talk. They have things right up to the start, and more things immediately after the finish. They need your talk to start on time and end on time, period. Zero tolerance for mistakes here. Practice 10 times at home until you can say with total certainty that the talk will never, under any circumstances, go over your allotted time.

15.  Don’t forget your conclusion.

All academic writing needs a strong conclusion, and it is the element most often forgotten. Academics often forget that academic speaking is a form of performance. And as with all performances, the build up to the conclusion, and the conclusion itself, are in some ways the most important elements. The finish sits in the air, vibrating, and stays with the listeners for some time. It’s true that in an academic talk, questioners often jump in aggressively; nevertheless, a strong finish, more than almost anything else, demonstrates the speaker’s confidence and elan.

16.  Be prepared for the Q and A.

In my years on searches, it was the Q and A that most often destroyed candidates. Given enough time and help, most people could pull together a decent talk, but it was the Q and A that separated the wheat from the chaff. Remember that by the time you give the job talk, you’ve already proven that your work, on paper, is good. What the job talk proves is that you’re intellectually vibrant and dynamic, that you can defend your work against challenges, while remaining open to intriguing new scholarly possibilities and conversations. Remain friendly, good humored, and affable, but not cringing, obsequious, or pandering. Remember to thank the questioner with words such as “that’s an excellent question,” or “thanks for bringing that up,” or “that’s actually an interesting point.” Call on the most senior people first; they will expect it. Try to avoid calling on graduate students, who often ask questions that are off-point or self-aggrandizing. Master the art of academic jiu jitsu; when directly challenged, acknowledge the value of the questioner’s point, but then turn the focus away from their agenda and back to your own. In other words, never, ever respond “oh, wow, I really wish I’d had time to talk about that and it’s a total oversight that I didn’t include it, I’m really sorry about that…” Instead respond, “you raise a valuable point and it’s certainly one that I considered. However, my findings showed that the primary issue her is in fact xxxx, and so it was to that that I turned my greatest attention.”  

Having reached the Q and A, I will stop here.  I may add to this post as time goes by, and I remember elements of the job talk that need discussion and dissection.  Readers, feel free to add your own comments and suggestions.