The Decision to Leave Academia: A Dialogue with Chris Humphrey of Jobs on Toast

A few weeks ago I discontinued (temporarily, I hope) my skype career consultations, particularly those related to the fraught question of whether or not to leave academia.  I discontinued these because I’ve been dealing with a health issue that, while thankfully not serious, has been a wake-up call to me to  seek a better and more sustainable work-life balance.  Don’t be alarmed!  This will have no impact on any of the document related work I am doing or will do for current and future clients, or webinars, or blog posting.  It’s just the skype consultations that are being reduced at present.

In any case, after I made that announcement on the TPII Facebook page, Chris Humphrey of the website Jobs On Toast, got in touch to inquire about the clients who had been seeking consulting on the decision to leave academia.  That prompted the dialogue that I have reproduced below.  I like the Jobs on Toast website and blog, which is dedicated to providing, in Chris’ words, “Positive and practical support for PhD careers outside academia.”   Chris gives good advice for Ph.D.s contemplating non-academic careers, and also provides a resource list of other websites to visit.  One thing Chris and I have in common is the goal to make the non-academic career less a sign of ‘failure’ than a sign of entrepeneurial spirit.  He did it, I did it, and we’re both vastly happier that we did.

Chris Humphrey <> Tue, Jan 8, 2013 at 12:26 AM
To: Karen Kelskey <>
Hi Karen,
Happy New Year to you! These are certainly interesting times to be involved in careers advice and academia !
I saw your Facebook post yesterday saying that you wouldn’t be accepting any more clients who were looking for advice on quitting an academic career.
I was wondering whether the main bulk of enquiries that you were receiving were from clients who were in the early stages of their career, e.g. Adjuncts or post-docs, or from actual tenured staff who already had many years of experience?
It would be interesting to know, as in my current blog (Jobs on Toast) I explain how PhDs can market themselves for a career outside of academia and get themselves a great job. But it could be worth researching and writing a special series of posts on ‘the decision to quit’, if there was a big enough potential audience for such info and advice.
I could certainly address the early years leaver segment, as I made that decision after 3 years as a post-doc, but before securing an actual lecturing position in the UK.
Your view on what you perceive is wanted/needed by the community in this area would be much appreciated.

Karen Kelsky <> Tue, Jan 8, 2013 at 10:14 AM
To: Chris Humphrey <>
Good to hear from you, Chris!  Happy New Year to you too.These are almost all people who are still looking for the first tenure track job.  Some of them, though, are pretty successful; like I had one who was just offered a tt job, but now is in a crisis about whether to take it.Some are still in mid-Ph.D. program and find that they despise the culture of the academy and the lifestyle they see their profs living.But these are not mid-career people; they are just starting out, and profoundly disillusioned, not just with their challenges in finding work, but truly in asking themselves whether this is the work that they really want.  I think it would be great if you wrote a blog post about it.  I’d promote it.BTW, I’m also seeing a trend of Ph.D.s launching into their own businesses as entrepeneurs, and I am wondering how we can create a website or resource for those kinds of people as well.Karen

[Quoted text hidden]

Karen Kelsky, Ph.D.

aka, The Professor
~I tell you the truth.  About grad school, the job market, and tenure~

Chris Humphrey <> Thu, Jan 10, 2013 at 12:28 AM
To: Karen Kelsky <>
Hi Karen,
That’s very interesting to hear. This group is what I consider to be the direct target audience for my blog, although my starting point has been that my reader has already decided to search for a job outside of academia, and I’m explaining to them what they need to do next to get started on a great career.
I haven’t written so much about making the actual decision to keep with academia, or whether to take a new path (I don’t like the word ‘quit’). Mainly because to me it is very difficult to write generically about the pros and cons of leaving academia – everyone’s circumstances are so different.
(That’s where consulting is so much easier because it’s possible to understand each individual’s circumstances and tailor one’s advice accordingly).
Also I am always quite conscious of not wanting to put down or denigrate the academic route and say that outside academia, it’s an easier life or better paid or there are more jobs. I don’t want to get into petty comparisons as I have many friends in academia and the greatest respect for those who endure what it is turning into!
To me, at the heart of it is the fact that ABDs/PhDs only have one strategy for finding a job, and what I’m trying to do is teach them a second strategy. In my opinion much of the turmoil people feel is that they are heavily invested in one work route (academia), but the end result isn’t a fairy tale, either in terms of job availability or working conditions. This mismatch makes people feel bad.
However if people can learn that there is another perfectly valid work route. and start to see themselves from the perspective of a non-academic employer – a PhD/ABD is well-educated, motivated, has great communication skills, is good with IT, ethical, a quick learner etc – they can realise that they have so much to offer, and then all they need to do is learn how to market themselves for a post-academic job (the easy bit!). The Versatile PhD website has lots of examples of people who have taken this route. But blogging about it can help to bring a personal perspective to the subject.
So if the demand is there, I will write a post! I have in mind something with a title along the lines of ‘Why you feel the way you do’ but let’s see how it turns out.
Thanks for the conversation, much appreciated!
Best regards
[Quoted text hidden]

Karen Kelsky <> Fri, Jan 11, 2013 at 8:55 AM
To: Chris Humphrey <>
I just think the more people who start talking in an open and POSITIVE/PROACTIVE way about the permeable border out of academia, the more we can disperse some of the bitterness and empower people to make other choices….    that’s just a big dream at present, but i think it’s important.  So many ex-academic blogs are very bitter and angry about the failure to succeed in academia, rather than the delight of forging success outside of academia.

[Quoted text hidden]

Chris Humphrey <> Thu, Jan 10, 2013 at 12:28 AM
To: Karen Kelsky <>
Hi Karen,
Just to say that I completely agree with you!It is certainly one of the aspirations of my own blogging project to shift the language around PhD careers towards passion, practicality and positivity – the more upbeat writing that’s out there, the better!

[Quoted text hidden]

The Weepy Teaching Statement: Just Say No

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  25 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including examples of major pitfalls in the teaching statement, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.

A while back I wrote a post called “The Worst Job Letter Ever Written (Not Really).”  Today I want to share with you a similarly awful teaching statement (with kind permission of the writer, discipline obscured.)  I don’t call it “the worst teaching statement,” however, because nearly all first drafts of teaching statements are so uniformly awful that it is difficult to employ the superlative in this context.  But this one is very bad indeed, and bad in a way that reflects the single most common error of the genre, especially when written by women—hyper-emotionalism.

I have italicized all the words that invoke emotion and the kind of yearning and striving that is endemic to this genre, and I have bolded adjectives (there is quite a bit of overlap between the categories however). The combination of emotionalism, striving, and adjectives make this TS a maelstrom of redundant feeling-talk in place of crisp, specific, and memorable substance.

The same principles apply to the TS that apply to all other professional documents:  facts over emotions, showing over telling, substance over claims, nouns (and effective verbs) over adjectives.

I am happy to say that the client’s new TS bears absolutely no resemblance to this draft.  Thank you, client, for being willing to share.


Teaching [my discipline] provides many opportunities to stimulate students’ thinking about xx and xx. Students are more likely to learn when they are comfortable in the classroom, and when they are engaged with the material. To this end, I strive to give students individualized attention and to foster an understanding of the world around them through interactive learning.

[First para mostly pointless verbiage that states the obvious, and provides little substantive content, none of it memorable]

When students know their teachers care about them, they are more attentive to and more enthusiastic about their studies. Each quarter, I invest time and effort into building long-lasting relationships with students. I learn their names, interests, and motivations for taking the course. I also design activities that encourage students to attend office hours, and I invite students to visit with me at cafes and restaurants during extended “office hours.” In addition, I make myself available through email, instant messaging, and social networking sites. Like my colleagues, I have boundaries for office hours and availability online, but I make sure that students never feel hesitant to contact me. I appreciate that students have other needs and concerns, and I recognize that personal problems and learning disabilities can impede their studies. It is also my experience that many students do not ask for help. Therefore, I take the initiative to contact students who seem uninterested or unresponsive, and I take note when I notice a sudden change in a student’s behavior. Showing a little concern can go a long way.

[This paragraph is totally enmeshed in “chick-talk”*–all emotion, caring, striving, nurturing and poor boundaries (despite the weird disavowal).  It overuses I-sentences, and is repetitive, taking nine sentences to make a single substantive point (I make myself available to students) that could be encapsulated in one. It sends a massive red flag to the committee that the candidate’s priorities are skewed and she will not get her writing done for tenure.  In sum it presents the candidate as a perennial adjunct rather than tenure-track material. ].

Students are also more enthusiastic about their studies when they are engaged with the material. In the classroom, I make every effort to create a supportive and collegial environment, in which students feel comfortable to share their ideas and to approach me for help. I begin each class with a fun and engaging



In sum, through all of these techniques, this candidate renders herself, with the best of intentions, as an adjunct with poor boundaries and questionable emotional distance from her students, who is fundamentally not tenure-track material.

*I am of course aware that this is a sexist term.  However, as I’ve said before, the Professor Is In blog is not devoted to what I, a lifelong feminist, want to be true in the world, but to what I believe IS true in the world, which in this case is that women are perceived as excessively emotional and that women are socialized in America to do the lion’s share of emotion-talk and emotion-work.  Any professional document by a woman that deploys emotion in conspicuous ways is going to associate the writer with those biases and sabotage her professional chances.  There are men who write weepy teaching statements, although less often, and when I encounter these I make the same critiques and edits, and tell them that their writing sounds feminized.

What You’ll Learn in the Campus Visit Webinar

I’m sending out this extra blog post this week to let you know about the new Campus Visit Webinar tomorrow, Wednesday 1/16 at 2 PM Pacific/5 PM EST/22:00 GMT.

I’m really excited about this new webinar, which I’ve been contemplating for many months.  I created it to make a real intervention into the pain and suffering attendant upon the dreaded campus visit–a thing of exquisite mystery and peril–especially for those heading out for the first time.

We will cover all of the core elements, including:

The three key criteria at play in a campus visit
The single biggest pitfall for candidates
The basic organization of a campus visit
The initial arrangements and scheduling
Preparing for the visit
Meetings with faculty, Head, Dean, and graduate students
The formal interview with the Search Committee
The job talk and Q and A
The teaching demo
Handling meals gracefully
Maintaining your stamina
Evaluating campus climate
What to wear, especially in cold weather

As always there will be time for Q and A at the end.

Campus visits are hard!  A little advance knowledge will save a world of hurt.  For example, one client wrote to ask how she might arrange to have her partner come with her on her upcoming visit so that he could check out work and housing opportunities in the area.  She wanted to know how to ask the hosting department to allow her to extend her stay at the hotel, and push back the return flight.

Well, turns out there is an unspoken rule of the campus visit that this kind of thing Must Never Happen.   You cannot piggy-back any private agendas onto a campus visit, or even broach the subject of doing so, without doing serious harm to your candidacy.  Did you know that?  Well, now you do.  That’s an example of the kind of MAJOR ERROR this webinar was created to prevent.

Here’s another:  did you know you rarely get enough to eat on a campus visit?  Not because they don’t take you out to eat, but because in the heat of the interview meals, you rarely have time to ingest sufficient food.  You need a plan to handle that.

This 90-minute Webinar is scheduled for Wednesday, January 16 at 2 PM Pacific/5 PM EST/22:00 GMT.

Cost:   $100.  You can sign up directly from this blog post by clicking on this button:

Add to Cart


The next date for the Campus Visit Webinar has already been scheduled for next week, on Thursday 1/24 at 2 PM Pacific/5 PM EST/22:00 GMT.  Click on THIS (not the above!)  ‘Add to Cart’ button right here —> Add to Cartfor the 1/24 date.


And yes, the recording of the Campus Visit Webinar will be available for download from this Thursday as well.

Hope to see you all there, and best of luck on your upcoming visits.

The Baggage We Bring: An Email From A Bootcamp Client

This email from a client, following on an Interview Bootcamp with Kellee, is an insightful articulation of the ways that anxieties, resentments, and insecurities about your work and the profession can seep into your ability to prepare for and perform well in interview settings.    This client took a pretty horrendous Bootcamp experience, and extracted valuable insight from it.   I applaud the client’s willingness to “go deep,” and hope others will do the same when confronted with unexpected obstacles or disappointments in their process.


Good morning Kellee and Karen,

I just wanted to follow up after the boot camp with a bit of feedback. In sum, the Interview Bootcamp was equally excruciating and helpful to me, and I am indeed appreciative.

To give a bit more detail, the experience called my attention to the fact that I have a lot of emotional baggage tied to my relationship with my profession and the job search process, which I now am able to identify, name, and discard bit by bit. I learned that I have been angry, angry about all of this. Just being conscious of my disappointment and my resentment at this prolonged uncertainty about the future was necessary. Somehow I have been able to operate under these conditions thus far, but this can’t continue. It’s time to accept or release. I am kind of doing both right now. My core goal is to serve a greater social good, specifically with regards to race relations and ending discrimination in this century, and I can do that from within academia or from without. That goal will guide the rest of my academic job search and I trust the process to place me where I am most useful.

As boot camp flops go, I know I flopped it. You are a patient soul, Kellee. However – we get what we need when we need it and I needed to flop it in order to be able to commit to the process when it does count. That alone is immensely valuable to me. After the session I cried for an hour and took a 3 hour nap. I was demoralized for about half a day and then got back into the saddle for another go.

I learned that I ramble, that my answers are circuitous and wind-baggish. That is not too tough to be conscious of and remediate. But I learned that my own insecurities about the field and my place in it weaken my answers and that I had better believe in myself or no one else will. I learned that my voice gets high when I’m nervous or defensive but that my content off the cuff is not terrible. The intensity of having to answer for what I have and have not prepared catalyzed my recognition of the emotional obstacles I have allowed to interfere with my interview prep, so for me, the flopped boot camp was invaluable.

I also got really good notes to guide my formal preparations this week.

To both of you – I observe you as having plugged into right livelihood and I applaud your work. All the best.

Working the Conference: A Letter from a Client

I have a series of blog posts called How To Work the Conference Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.  Here is a story from last week that shows why you should do what they say.


Dear Karen,

I just attended the annual meeting for XXXX Association. I followed the advice I have read on your blogs, as well as your advice during the interview bootcamp webinar, and it was my most successful conference yet in terms of networking and promoting myself.

Before the meeting, I scrolled through the list of presenters and emailed the people with whom I wanted to meet for coffee. I also prepared an elevator speech, as well as answers to questions I might receive during an interview.

I also did something other graduate students did not– I did not cling to other graduate students, even if it meant walking around by myself from time to time. (And I must say I felt confident standing by myself because I was wearing brand new clothes I purchased for the conference.)

The payoff was huge. I met the biggest names at the conference, some of whom quickly became my biggest advocates. Two senior scholars took me to the business meeting, where they introduced me to everyone, told them I was on the job market, and asked them if they were doing any hiring. After that meeting, I decided to go to the business luncheon. Instead of sitting in the back with graduate students, I marched up to the front of the room. When I noticed there was an open seat at the table reserved for the most prestigious scholars, I asked if the seat was taken–it was not–and sat down. I tend to be shy, but I knew that I had to act like an equal, not as a submissive grad student.

One of my coffee dates led to a dinner with the current chair of the xxx  department of my alma matter. I received the following email [inquiring about her availability for a possible temporary position] the next day, and when I did it made A LOT more sense why he was asking me questions about publication trajectory and teaching pedagogy.

In short, please keep doing what you’re doing. I wouldn’t have had such a successful conference had I not read your blog, participated in the bootcamp webinar, and put your advice into practice.


How Do I Address Search Committee Members?

I am hereby answering the question of the hour/day/year:  how should you address search committee members in an interview?

You know of course that I am continually railing against job candidates acting like grad students.  And addressing search committee members as “Dr.” or “Professor” XXX runs the clear risk of making you sound like a graduate student.

However, at the same time, at a preliminary conference interview, launching directly into a first name basis is a bit awkward, and may feel presumptuous.

I have given this issue a lot of thought, and revised my thinking over time.  Initially, I believed that all job candidates should refer to search committee members by their first names exclusively, to avoid the ‘stink of grad student.’

However, upon further reflection, I am concerned that this could backfire by appearing, as I say above, presumptuous and premature.

My current thinking is this (and I’d appreciate hearing other viewpoints, particularly from current search committee members):  If you have been in touch by email with any of the search committee members, and they have signed their emails with first name only, that is an invitation to use the first name.  Use it.

For search committee members you’re meeting for the first time, when directly addressing someone on a search committee, at the stage of a preliminary conference or skype or phone interview, use “Dr. XXX.”  When REFERRING to another faculty member in such an interview, refer to them by their first and last names only (“I would look forward to collaborating with Margaret Allan on a course on globalization”).

[UPDATE 1/13/13:  Pursuant to the exchange below with “Stephanie” in the comment stream, I am revising this advice.  New advice is: In general, use first names.  “Dr.” is generally despised by humanities scholars, and “Professor” makes you sound too much like a graduate student.  However, BE SMART!  Be alert and attentive to social cues.  Read the landscape.  There are always regional and institutional distinctions that should be attended to, that make any blanket rule problematic.  Use your social skills to intuit the best course of action, but when in doubt, use first names.  You’re a colleague; act like it.]

Then, when and if you arrive for a campus visit, directly address faculty members you meet as well as search committee members by their first names.  Continue to refer to other faculty members not present by their first and last names.

Deans should be referred to and addressed as “Dean XXX,” until you are invited to do otherwise.

When you use the “Dr. XXX” mode I describe above, it is also important HOW you say it.  Academics routinely use “Dr.” or “Prof.” for one another as a term of professional courtesy, and it communicates courtesy without signifying any status subordination on the part of the speaker.  It is important that you grasp that, and internalize it, as well.  You can say “Dr. XXX” and sound like a graduate student supplicant, and you can say “Dr. XXXX” and sound like a legitimate future colleague…it depends on how you say it.  Attend to the other issues of tone and body language that I address in many blog posts here, particularly the Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student post, and channel your dignified and professorial inner professor when speaking.

How Do I Ask If There Is An Inside Candidate?

You do not ask if there is an inside candidate.

I don’t care if you strongly suspect that there is, and have good reason to believe the whole damned search is a completely pointless charade because they obviously already have somebody chosen….it doesn’t matter.

You cannot, and you must not, ask if there is an inside candidate.

Why?  Because it’s just Not. Done.

More pragmatically, if there is an inside candidate they will NEVER disclose that (not least because of legality issues).  And if there isn’t one, you just look like an ill-informed, paranoid ass who put a search committee member in an unbearably awkward position.

A smart job seeker does not, under any circumstances, ask if there is an inside candidate.

And, incidentally, inside candidates don’t have the superpowers that many of you think.  Inside candidates frequently don’t get the job.  Read this post, “What Inside Candidates Persist In Doing Wrong,” on why.

Do Your Homework! A Live Report From a Job Search

Sometimes readers send me “reports from the front” of the job searches in their departments.  Last week I got this report from a former client who wanted to tell me about how a young ABD candidate prevailed over a much more experienced Rising Superstar candidate by, among other things, doing her homework and showing real knowledge of the department, particularly, the graduate students.  The reader kindly gave me permission to share her story on the blog.  Read and learn!
We had a wonderful job candidate- an ABD from a top notch humanities program on campus this past week.  She was competing with a Rising Superstar close to getting a tenure.  Some of the more savvy students (like myself) saw right through the Rising Superstar- she was in it for fame and honestly did not mind having the graduate student discussion revolve around her and her research when she was supposed to try to focus on us.  So she ultimately did not learn a thing about us and our program.  The ABD, on the contrary, wanted to know EVERYTHING about our program from the exams to advising system to course offerings to language requirements.  She was so humble- she made comparisons only on the basis of understanding the differences and liabilities of our programs, not suggesting in any way that her program was superior to ours.

The most impressive part was that she DID her homework!  In the morning session with graduate students, when I introduced myself and specialized field, the ABD asked if my adviser was X.  I was amazed (and so were others).  Then I described my project to her briefly.  Later, at the job talk, I asked a question about attracting students from fields outside of her own for her courses.  In front of about 30 or so faculty members and students, including my adviser, she used my research project- and got the place and subject correct- as an example in her response.  She looked so comfortable and confident in her answer.  You could hear the audience gasp and I saw one of my committee members turning to my adviser to whisper excitedly, as if the candidate just won the lottery.   My adviser later wrote how the candidate was so sensitive to her environment and impressive.

I wrote her a very strong recommendation because she wanted to be here and work with us and I could see her as my ally among other reasons.

The SC is nominating her for the position and I have been asked to contribute my further thoughts.  

I’m sure there are other factors but this is just one of the smallest ways a job candidate can stand out from the rest.  Listen to the graduate students!
Addendum:  After reading the SC’s report last night, the candidate’s preparation and attention to details won over the department. 

The Value of the Interview Bootcamp, by Kellee

Today’s post is by Kellee Weinhold, who shares her insights after taking over the Interview Bootcamps in November.


After a few weeks of interview bootcamps, I must admit to a bit of academic PTSD. More times than I care to admit, I have flashed back to my first comm theory class: Although I was elated to be acquiring all sorts of new knowledge and feeling damn smart doing it, I couldn’t stop fixating on how I could best apply the theory to my own work. (A fixation that earned me no props with my hail-to-theory-for-theory’s-sake professor.)

In preparing for the first few bootcamps, I found myself once again agitating for an effective application of information: Sure the traffic on the Professor is In blog and Facebook clearly indicates just how desperate you all are for advice on how to succeed, but how successful you would be at applying that information to your own experience?

It didn’t take long for me remember how hard it is to move knowledge from acquired to applied.

Here is one of the first follow-ups I got:

“Before the boot camp, I was focused on formal responses (and these were a little elaborate).  Afterward, I realized that having someone honest who knows academia — but who is encountering a candidate’s style for the first time — listen to and comment on how responses are delivered is invaluable! Coaching helps to convey a message that is clear, lively and concise. And you won’t get the right kind of feedback by prepping your own responses at home or from friends who are at your same stage.”

To put it in blunt TPII terms: It is not enough to just read the blog (graduate student). You have to actually put it into practice (professor).

Again, the point is perhaps better illustrated by a bootcamp survivor:

“I’ve been thinking about our bootcamp session all evening. It was a fantastic experience: thank you for your smart and no bullshit approach. It’s a stark contrast to my mock interviews last year. I have a lot to do now to improve but I am feeling more confident about how to handle interview situations. Thanks again! It was great meeting you.”

Ultimately, it might help to think of the blog posts and Facebook discussions as your theory course. They offer a great foundation for your efforts to move from Ph.D. to professor. (there are subtle variations depending on discipline and job description – but the core values are right there.) But to move from preparing to actually positioning yourself for success, you have to put your application of the theory out there for critique.

“It’s true that most of the info is available on the TPII website, but it doesn’t stick unless you have someone telling you that you’re not prepared in the right way, even if it seems to you that you are! I had descriptions of classes ready for our interview bootcamp, made in the way it is suggested on the website, I thought, but not really! After our talk, I re-did everything, and it came out streamlined, in a way that showed that, yes, I can do this.”

It is for that reason we offer the option of one-on-one feedback. We know that sometimes it is not enough to have access to knowledge. Some of you need an impartial examination of how you have decided to apply that knowledge in order to traverse the treacherous distance between being a person who knows stuff to being a person who knows how to apply that stuff.

One last note. For most of you, the bootcamp experience becomes not so much about whether you get the answers “right” per se, but grappling with and honing how best to present who you are as a scholar and a colleague:

“I found the bootcamp most helpful especially in actually crafting and carving out well-intentioned answers to anticipated questions that arose from Karen’s posts. Or, put another way, I saw the BC as an exercise in making the posts a reality, making them come alive. Creating from them and their wisdom, so they are not just advice but actually doing something for me.”

It is that outcome — crafting a showcase for all that you have to offer — that is truly gratifying about the bootcamp experience (for both Karen and me).

The Imposter Syndrome, or, as my Mother told me: “Just Because Everyone Else is an Asshole, it Doesn’t Make you a Fraud.” (A Guest Post)

Today’s post is a Guest Post submitted by a reader of the blog named Phyllis Rippeyoung.  Phyllis is an Associate Professor with tenure, and wrote in with a comment about “Imposter Syndrome.”  I responded by asking her if she’d be willing to write a guest post about this scourge that afflicts so many.  I felt strongly that hearing that someone with a job and tenure still experiences these feelings of inadequacy might be a powerful intervention for all of those who are secretly struggling with similar feelings.  Phyllis kindly agreed, and this is her marvelous post.

Here is Phyllis’ official and unofficial biography:

Phyllis L. F. Rippeyoung, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Ottawa, having previously taught courses in research methods, statistics, social stratification, work, and gender, as an assistant professor at Acadia University. Her research has examined inequality in early childhood and gender inequality in pay, the workplace and in families. Her current research examines how infant feeding practices shape and are shaped by inequities of gender, class, and sexual orientation.

Other things about me are that I am married to a brilliant and unbelievably supportive, registered psychologist husband who left his private practice in Nova Scotia because he knew that this job would be a better fit for me (shameless plug for his new practice!  I also have two amazing feminist sons (ages 8 and 10), two annoying but cute dogs, and two stinky turtles. Aside from the pets, I would not be where I am if it weren’t for these people (and my parents and my sister), like not even a little bit.


Last week, in the midst of one of many multi-day soul-searching internet benders, I anonymously posted to Dr. Karen’s contact us page, asking if she might be willing to do a blog with tips for how to deal with crushing imposter syndrome. In other words, how do I, an associate professor at a major research institution, stop feeling like I don’t belong in academia sometimes and why was I feeling like, at the core, I’m a fraud, ready to be found out at any moment. She offered to comply, since it is her view that the problem is epidemic among women and very common among men, but wondered if I might be interested in writing something myself.

Deep down I know that I’m not an actual fraud or an imposter. I have a Ph.D. from a Research I university that provided me with outstanding training in quantitative research. I also finished my degree quicker than anyone in my entering cohort, while having two babies, and earned a national grant for my dissertation from the American Educational Research Association, the work from which then won a distinguished dissertation award. On the market in the roaring mid-2000 academic boom years, I landed 5 job interviews and 3 job offers. I got tenure and promotion at my first position at a prestigious small liberal arts college in Canada and went on to land a second academic job at a major research university. I have a respectable publication record including an article in one of the most prestigious journals of my field, which even got me interviewed on NPR and in a number of national newspapers.

But before this makes anyone anxious, let me explain to you why I may still be a fraud. First of all, my dissertation is a total sham. Well, I wrote every word of it and spent painstaking hours ensuring that my claims were based on evidence and that my data were properly coded and analyzed. But, my theory section is too weak. I have one sentence on Bourdieu even though it was all about economic, social and cultural capital. WTF? How could I not have made Bourdieu central to it? Why did I focus so singularly on Coleman? And my structural equation models don’t really look THAT much better than a run of the mill regression analysis. So it does involve confirmatory factor analysis, but I still don’t REALLY know how to explain what the hell model fit is.

Not only this but I’m also a failure for never going to a school or getting a teaching job in the Ivy League. I did go to McGill University for my BA and as all Canadians know Harvard is the McGill of the United States. But who counts Canada? I also waver between feeling like I’m less of a sociologist for teaching so much quantitative research methods rather than theory and feeling like a loser for not knowing my stats even better. I also never read enough, watch too much TV, and really enjoy spending my bus ride commute playing Bubble Shooter on my IPod. Even the fancy article fills me with shame. Well, actually it doesn’t. I am really proud of that article, it’s quite good, you should read it. HOWEVER, now I am overcome with feeling like that was the ONE. The only. I’m convinced that that paper is destined to become the Macarena of the academic world. It was fun while it lasted, but now we’re all just so, so embarrassed.

I know. I’m whiny. You are probably thinking “what is she complaining about when thousands of people can’t escape the drudgery of the part-time teaching track. When there are people who can’t get out of graduate school.” I did almost drop out of grad school repeatedly. I endured part-time teaching while a student and it was all I could get in my first year out of graduate school. But the feelings of fraudiness have not changed hugely since I began. In fact, in some ways, I had more confidence in my first semester of my master’s program, when it felt okay not knowing anything. In other words, accolades, job offers, and awards, are not a golden ticket out of Imposter City.

In talking to a wise colleague, similarly afflicted with this syndrome, she had the most amazing insight that these feelings are a result of our loving what we do. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t be afraid to lose it. I also think that suffering from the syndrome speaks to the respect that we hold for the enterprise. Ethically, I don’t want to publish something that might be wrong. What if I forgot to carry the one and now a sociological bomb was dropped on North Korea?

But then again, there are times when I hate it. IHATEHATEHATEIT! I hate dealing with plagiarizing grade grubbers. I hate getting service work dumped on my desk that no one else will do. I really hate getting mansplained to. I hate, really, really, hate spending months and months on a grant application, working 7 days a week until midnight for a final three week push, inducing anxiety disorders in my children and exhausting my husband , all to get a review by a person with an axe to grind, explaining why everything I have written is wrong (note: it wasn’t).

As academics, it is our job to be critical and to be criticized. We judge the calibre of our students and of our colleagues in grades and article reviews, and they return the favor with teaching evaluations and reviews of our own work. There is no shortage of possibilities for where someone might tell us that, in fact, we don’t belong. It is very easy to let the sting of the one nasty student evaluation or review burn most brightly in our minds. However, as my brilliant therapist husband writes about in his own blog, when we spend a lot of time regretting what we haven’t done or focusing on being not good enough, we lose sight of all that we have learned over time.

After posting my query to this website, I pulled out of my slump a bit. I started exercising and eating well again, and am finding that I don’t really feel like a fraud at all this week. But aside from individual acts to help us feel better, there also needs to be a cultural shift within the academy. There is too much bullying. I was so impressed by Dr. Karen here, when she noted on her Facebook page that she likes to leave up comments from nasty trolls that attack her because they show just how ugly academics can be to each other. We also need to be more honest about these feelings and recognize that they are a reflection of how the system operates and not just our own inadequacies.

My mother, an academic herself, has often told me that I have an obligation as a woman not to succumb to the imposter complex. I often find that advice overwhelming.

But she is right. Who would be left if everyone who struggles with these feelings quit? (PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME HERE WITH JUST THE ARROGANT BORES!) But even the arrogant among us are quite possibly just trying to prove that they too belong here, despite their own inner fears. I really am extremely privileged to get to do what I do. And, in reality, no greater good comes from my obsessing over whether a hiring committee (or an acceptance committee) made the wrong choice. Neither I nor my job is ever going to be perfect, but we’re most certainly good enough. And frankly, at the end of the day, tough cookies if I’m not good enough; I got this job and until I get kicked out, I am going to try to enjoy it.