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

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

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

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

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

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 Age matters if the work itself is perceived as being old fashioned or out of date, but advancing age is not in and of itself the cause of old fashioned or out of date work.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

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

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

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

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

I see this truth every day in my work.

It is stark, and painful.

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

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

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

I responded to her:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please share your thoughts.

What American Idol Tells Us About The Job Market

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

Jessica Sanchez, not connecting


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

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

The three mistakes are:

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Concept Tests

— Examinations

— Oral presentations

— Written reports

— Peer review

— Research projects and papers

— In project-based courses, performance assessment


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

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

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

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



How To Talk To A Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Don’t Ask Career Services for Help With Your CV

Of the the 111 posts on The Professor Is In’s blog, which one, do you think, has the most comments?

The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And How That’s Killing You on the Job Market?

Dr. Karen’s Rules of the Campus Visit?

Why Your Job Letter Sucks (And What You Can Do To Fix It)?

If you guessed one of these, as I would have, you’d be wrong. Although these have hefty numbers of comments (15, 30, and 62 respectively), they fall far, far short of the most-commented blog post on the site.

That honor, by a vast margin, goes to: Dr. Karen’s Rules of the Academic CV.


Seriously. Seriously? 121 comments on the post on CVs?   Who woulda thought?

But why?

Well, I don’t know exactly why that post got such a dynamic and substantive response (the comment stream should indeed be read alongside the post itself—it’s that good). But I have suspicions. I suspect that it is because clear, reliable information on Cvs is ridiculously, insupportably hard to come by.

And that brings me to the topic of today’s post. In today’s issue of the Chronicle I found the most wonderful column. Called “The Rhetoric of the CV,” by Joshua E. Eyler, this column clarifies what I would be likely to call the “ethos” of the CV as a document, but which Eyler calls the “rhetoric.”* Whatever you call it, it is the meta-story that the CV tells about you as a candidate. Not just a static and dry list of facts, the CV is a dynamic and living document that tells a story in its taxonomies, orders of value, and silences, and in the style and economy of its wording.  Through these extra-textual elements the CV communicates instantly, at a glance, the basic hireability of you, the candidate. And yet, too often it is completely neglected.

As Eyler writes,

The CV has a reputation for being purely utilitarian in nature and, as such, has less glamour than other application materials. I don’t think I am going too far, though, when I say that the CV may be the most frequently and closely read of all the documents that candidates send. For search-committee members who often must assess 100 applications in a short time, the CV offers the kind of holistic picture that few other documents can match. And it is always among those materials made available to other members of the department or to attendees at a job talk. In some cases, it may be the only part of the application available to those groups.

Because of the frequency with which the CV will be read, then, it is important to note with care not simply the kinds of information that go into it, but also the order of information, the organization of facts, the section headings, and all the other seemingly minor details.

In each section, and in the document as a whole, candidates must make an argument that moves from the most important evidence to the least important. All of that together makes up the rhetoric of the CV.

My real point in today’s post is actually, though, a cautionary one. The fact is, there is no one document about which misinformation is so rife, as the academic CV. And it is the Chronicle that is primarily responsible for this sad state of affairs. As I tweeted today, about the Eyler column, “Finally a good column about Cvs in the Chronicle!”

The culprits here are none other than the Chronicle’s regular columnists, The CV Doctors.

The CV Doctors are advisors in campus Career Services offices, and for many years in the Chronicle, and also in their book, answer questions and give advice about Cvs. And their advice is all too often outdated and painfully inaccurate.

The reason is, they are coming from a Career Services perspective, and not a hard-core academic one.

I don’t doubt that they are sincere. I don’t doubt that they take their job very seriously.

But anyone who has not, themselves, been responsible for the awful, painful task of evaluating 300-600 CVs for a single scholarly position in a department is not qualified to opine on the fine points of the CV. Because it is not the information on the CV that is at issue. It is the ETHOS/rhetoric of the CV—the aura of the CV that communicates that you, the candidate, are the real deal, the genuine article, a serious academic, a true pro, an insider, a member of the tribe— that must be spot-on, perfect, and flawless. And that is what people from Career Services, no matter the campus, no matter how well-intentioned, are not in a position to evaluate.

As I wrote at one point in reply to a query in the comment thread on the CV blog post,

Are you aware of how much damage well-intentioned Career Services people do to poor, hapless Ph.D.s on the academic job market? Perhaps you are not. But I will tell you, because I see the outcome of their advice in my business every day. I don’t doubt that they are sincere, but they are *completely* ignorant of the biases and rigidities and unspoken norms and judgments that dominate Ph,.D. hiring. I know that they work closely with Ph.D.s. But they’re profoundly ‘off.’ Because they aren’t in the thick of it, fighting through 500 applications for one tenure track position. The wide variability that they permit and endorse, the vast wordiness of so many of their models, which in a ‘normal’ hiring context might be perfectly reasonable, are simply deadly in a context when search committees are harassed, overwhelmed, underslept, and forced by circumstances to be utterly unforgiving.”

Let me put this another way. Tenure track hiring is now the equivalent of the Olympics. What was good enough at local, city, state, and national levels is reduced to .001 second differences between winning Gold and not qualifying at all. Mistakes within the .001 realm in your job documents are enough to keep you from even being shortlisted.

I know this is discouraging, because in a context where the actual tenured faculty have almost entirely abdicated responsibility for providing reliable professionalization advice, Career Services is all that many Ph.D.s have left.

But don’t go there. Career Services offices are meant to serve the career needs of the undergraduates, and the MA students heading into professional fields—ie, the real-life job market. For those of you trapped in the purgatory of the tenure-track ACADEMIC job market, steer clear of Career Services offices, and make sure that your advice comes strictly from other members of the tribe, the ones who know the secret handshake.

*I was not aware that I am mentioned repeatedly in the comment stream of this Chronicle column when I wrote this post!  I’m even accused of anonymously spamming the comment thread!  As my 13 year old daughter would say: “Aaawkward….”


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”