The Golden Rule of the Research Statement

Today’s post is short. It’s about the Research Statement.

There’s undoubtedly a lot to say about Research Statements. But Dr. Karen doesn’t have time today, because she’s submerged in client work with looming deadlines.

So this post is simply going to introduce the Golden Rule of Research Statements. And that is:

Talk About the Research, and Not About Yourself.

What this means in practice is, beware the “I statement.” It is tempting to write a document that goes something like, “I work on transitions in the care of the elderly in Japan. I am particularly focused on the recent growth in government run care facilities. I use ethnographic methods to address the nature of the care given in these facilities, and I explore how the care is received by the patients and their families.  My dissertation explores one such facility in northern Japan.”

This would be bad, because it is entirely about you, and not about the research. Instead, write something like this:

“The rapidly aging society is one of the primary challenges facing Japan in recent decades.  Both the public and private sectors have hastened to respond to emerging needs of the elderly and their families.  Over 200 new government run elderly care centers have been built in recent years.  In my dissertation, I conduct an ethnographic study of one such facility in northern Japan, in order to explore the nature of the care provided there, as well as its reception by the elderly themselves and their family caregivers.”

I statements are not verboten.  They just need to be minimized, and carefully contextualized so that the research is always forefront, and your ego is secondary.

 

The Foolproof Grant Template–Where Did It Come From?

The fellowship season is upon us, and I’m working with clients on all sorts of grants and fellowships.

As part of that process I’m spending a lot of time talking people through the Dr. Karen Foolproof Grant Template. I won’t repeat the template here—I just direct you to this post. And if you want an even more substantial discussion of it, check out the Professor’s Guide- The Grant-Writing Handbook, in the Prof Shop.

Today I want to talk about how I ended up creating this template. Because the story is very revealing of how successful techniques circulate in quiet, backchannel ways.

When I was a brand new assistant professor, I had a senior colleague. This senior colleague had recently moved to Oregon from an elite East Coast institution. He had been successful and well liked there. He very kindly took me under his wing, and I learned a great deal from him.

One of the things that he told me in my first year was: apply for major national fellowships, and don’t stop until you get at least one full year off to write your book. I listened to him, and did as he said. He had received the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship a few years earlier, and he encouraged me to apply for it as well.

When I started work on the application, he passed on to me his own previous successful proposal. And he explained to me that this proposal was based on another proposal that had been written by one of his senior colleagues back at the elite institution. I was at least the third generation to draw from the model.

Now let me hasten to add, that we were not “re-using” a single proposal per se. Our projects were not remotely similar. Rather, we were re-using a consistent proposal STRUCTURE. The first iteration, and then my colleague’s, and then my own, all followed precisely the same organization. And, lo and behold, it worked for me just as it worked for him, and as it had worked for his senior colleague (and who knows how many before him.)

I immediately saw the utility of the proposal structure, and used it again and again. I got virtually every grant and fellowship for which I applied.

When I had graduate students of my own, I passed the model on to them. By this point, I was referring to it as the “grant template.” Each of my students structured their grant and fellowship applications according to the template, and every student got virtually every major fellowship for which they applied—over the years, some $600,000 worth of fellowships, in our modestly funded fields of Asian Studies and Cultural Anthropology.

I freely shared the template, in the form of my own NEH fellowship proposal, with anyone who asked. But not everyone was able to separate out the structure from the model. My proposal, after all, was on Japanese women who traveled abroad in search of Western men and Western careers. Not everyone could see the organization beneath the surface, and apply it to their own project.

When I left my academic career and came to the University of Oregon McNair Program, I began working with advanced undergraduate students, who are very green in the ways of the academic world, but who are ambitious and eager to apply for much-needed fellowships. I quickly saw that my template would once again be useful, but that I was going to have to help. They were much too inexperienced to be able to decipher the organization themselves. So I took the next step, and I did it for them.

I reduced my old NEH proposal into its elemental building blocks, and provided a basic explanation for its parts. I saw that the structure is, at root, a Hero Narrative, and named it as such. I came to understand that constructing this narrative is entirely formulaic, and hinges on the construction of urgency. Those grants that create a sense of legitimate and credible urgency get money. Those that don’t, don’t.

Now the template is in the form of a one-page diagram, with a brief textual accompaniment. You can see it here. I am happy to share it, although I appreciate getting credit.

The point I want you to take away from all this is not just that this template, now called the Dr. Karen Foolproof Grant Template, really works. I also want you to understand that effective grant-writing, like all other professional academic writing, is at its root completely formulaic. Your project can be creative and innovative, but your grant proposal had damned well better follow the formula. Deviation means failure.

Some of the most creative thinkers in the land are the worst grant-writers, because they can’t or won’t write according to formula. I can see that. My analytical and linear mind loves to reduce things to their component parts and find the underlying structure. But not everyone is like that.

The template does some of the work for you. Not all of it. I’m still surprised sometimes at what comes to me from clients who swear that they’ve followed it “exactly.” But it helps.

And on a larger scale, the story of the template demonstrates the ways that hidden codes and understandings operate in academia. They’re not secret, exactly. But they’re hidden, and passed along through personal connections and contacts.

Stay alert to these codes and models when they cross your path. They are the capital of an academic career. And always be ready to pass them on to others. It’s good karma.

 

Stop Acting Like a Girl! A Response to Feminist Critics

Some feminists don’t like the Dr. Karen method. By the Dr. Karen method I mean my practice of telling women to stop acting “like girls” and to start learning to recognize and master the codes of power and authority that operate in academic settings, which are almost entirely derived from male patterns of behavior.

I get it. I mean, what feminist can really get behind telling women to act more like men? And yet, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I look at the modes of behavior that the vast, vast majority of young women unconsciously adopt, and what I see are the ways that they systematically, with extraordinary consistency, undermine their own voices and sabotage their own career prospects.  To the degree that they continue unconsciously adopting these behaviors, they will fail to advance in their academic careers. And I want to see them advance. So I target the ineffective behaviors, and urge on them replacement behaviors that are, quite simply, less stereotypically female, and more stereotypically male.

What is it that women do that is self-sabotaging in academic settings? Minimize their accomplishments, hang back from debates, apologize for their opinions, make excuses for their so-called “failures,” smile too much, laugh too much, dissipate their time and energy in nurturing needy students and peers, compromise their intellectual integrity, shrink into the background, bend over backward to be agreeable, and spend more time soothing professorial egos than standing up for their points of view.

What do I tell women to do in professional settings? Well, here’s a representative list:

  • Cut excessive emotion out of your speaking patterns
  • Speak in short declarative sentences without rambling
  • Smile less
  • Square your shoulders
  • Take up all the space in your chair
  • Master the straight, direct, level gaze
  • Master the firm handshake
  • Stop apologizing
  • Stop making excuses
  • Stop focusing on what you didn’t do and don’t know
  • Be the sole author
  • Collaborate less
  • Teach less
  • Nurture less
  • Promote yourself

With great consistency, audiences with feminist tendencies object. “No!” they insist. “That’s terrible advice! We should be telling young women to reject those behaviors, because they are the very behaviors that make academia cold and isolating. We should be telling young women to be MORE collaborative, more nurturing, more caring! We should encourage a variety of ways of being, because women’s ways of being are equally valid!”

They inevitably conclude, “if we want academia to change, we have to encourage young academic women to behave in nurturing and collaborative and cooperative ways!”

I do hear what they’re saying.

And I reject it.

I reject it because, at The Professor Is In, we’re not about the normative, we’re about the descriptive.

I’m not saying that the academic world “should” be dominated by individual ego competition, aggressive argumentation, jealous isolation, a fear of emotion, a contempt for teaching, and a hostility toward collaborative work. I’m saying that at its highest and most competitive levels, it “is.”

And if a young woman who comes to me for advice wants to have a career in that world, after already investing some 5-10 years in preparation and indebtedness to do it, then my ethical commitment is to arm her with the full set of weapons she needs to succeed. Yes, I am using the military metaphors deliberately. She needs to stop acting like Little Bo Peep when her job is taking her into the Killing Fields.

Out on the job market, too many young women mistakenly believe that they will be judged and hired on the basis of their niceness, their nurturingness, their brilliant teaching, their selfless service, or their willingness to “go the extra mile.”

No, you are judged—on the job market, and at tenure—by your individual production of scholarly work and your ability to make claims for this work that are bold, assertive, and supremely confident.

How do women’s diffidence and self-effacement ruin their chances of professional success?  To answer this i’d like to quote extensively (bold added) from Clay Shirky’s post “A Rant About Women”

“When I was 19 and three days into my freshman year, I went to see Bill Warfel, the head of grad theater design (my chosen profession, back in the day), to ask if I could enroll in a design course. He asked me two questions. The first was ‘How’s your drawing?’ Not so good, I replied. (I could barely draw in those days.) ‘OK, how’s your drafting?’ I realized this was it. I could either go for a set design or lighting design course, and since I couldn’t draw or draft well, I couldn’t take either.

‘My drafting’s fine’, I said.

That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face. We talked some more and then he said ‘Ok, you can take my class.’ And I ran to the local art supply place and bought a drafting board, since I had to start practicing.

That got me in the door. I learned to draft, Bill became my teacher and mentor, and four years later I moved to New York and started doing my own design work. I can’t say my ability to earn a living in that fickle profession was because of my behavior in Bill’s office, but I can say it was because I was willing to do that kind of thing. The difference between me and David Hampton isn’t that he’s a con artist and I’m not; the difference is that I only told lies I could live up to, and I knew when to stop. That’s not a different type of behavior, it’s just a different amount.

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Now this is asking women to behave more like men, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We’re in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage men to be better listeners and more sensitive partners, to take more account of others’ feelings and to let out our own feelings more. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching women strategies for self-defense, including direct physical aggression. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching women self-advancement as self-defense.”

Academia is not a particularly nurturing or kind place. There are kind and supportive people in it, to be sure. And there is much good that is done in the classroom, and among colleagues, and in scholarly collaboration. But ultimately, academia is based on judgment and evaluation of individual productivity. And the agent of that productivity is you, and you alone.* You are judged by your work. The person who stands up for your work, is you.

Guess what, women?  Nobody’s going to help you gain this confidence, this ego, this ballsiness, and few are going to praise you for displaying them.  On the contrary—these have been beaten out of you since the day you were born–through shaming, and rejection, and criticism, and undermining.  But that doesn’t change the facts, which are, without them, in professional and academic settings, you will always play second fiddle to some man, and you will always be and do less than you are capable of.

It is the starting principle of The Professor Is In, that if you want an academic career in this disintegrating market, you cannot be distracted by time investments that do not pay off. You have to be both selfish and self-promoting. You have to advocate for yourself. Oftentimes you have to fight for yourself. At the bare minimum you have to be prepared to “toot your own horn” (in my Depression-era parents’ favorite phrase), insist on your place at the faculty conference table, form a strong opinion, express it audibly and firmly, and defend it, and not back down.

I want to see women get into the academy and succeed there. Women in the academy change the academy. I saw it countless times in my own university surroundings. Women sitting at the table changed the nature of the dialogue that took place at the table. But the women who were sitting there got there did not get there by acting “like girls,” but by being tough, and fierce, and talking and acting quite a bit like the guys.

Again, Clay Shirky:

The institutions that offer these opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who don’t raise their hands don’t get called on, and people who raise their hands timidly get called on less. Some of this is because assertive people get noticed more easily, but some of it is because raising your hand is itself a high-cost signal that you are willing to risk public failure in order to try something.

I may personally wish the academic world was other than it is. But as Dr. Karen, I will not make individual young women Ph.D.s on the job market, or in the probationary pre-tenure period, the martyrs to an imagined feminist fantasy of what the academy “should” be. The academy is what it is. I take my job to be to prevent young women from misreading it so profoundly and wandering out onto the market (and sometimes all the way to tenure) like Little Bo Peep, or like so many sheep to the slaughter.

 

*Of course for those of you who work in lab settings, collaboration is built into your process, and this advice does not apply in exactly the same way to you.  Yet the sciences are in many ways even harder on women, and it’s easy for women to end up as the “service workers” of the lab, in service to the male leaders. This is not an area of expertise for me, and I would appreciate hearing from readers as to how women sabotage themselves in a lab setting, and what they must do to claim a space “at the bench.”

 

Women Fail, But Men Bomb: A Special Request Post for Guys on the Market

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Jon, who wrote very good-naturedly to ask, “You have much advice for women. Got any male-specific advice for the ABD, on-the-market sort of guy?”

Jon went on to ask, “did you ever meet a promising job or postdoc candidates only to watch him screw up…and think, ‘wow, that is a very guy-type of mistake?!’”

I have to confess, this one brought me up short. In the first moments of reading the email, I drew a complete blank. I even momentarily thought that perhaps I had no “guy-type” mistakes to discuss. Then, of course, I immediately admonished myself. Of COURSE there are guy-type mistakes. We just don’t see them as such because “guys” are the unmarked normal. So their mistakes are catalogued as “mistakes,” not “guy mistakes.”

Annoyed with myself for even momentarily participating in the discourses of male normativity, I set myself to the task of contemplating guy-type mistakes. And I came up with three.

The first is: a tendency to miss social cues and barrel through the interpersonal elements of the interview process in a state of cluelessness.

The second, and this is related to the first: a tendency to profoundly mis-read the reception of the research by the audience and to proceed in a state of blissful ignorance of any possible negative response.

And the third, and this one is kind of basic: a tendency to dress wrong.

It goes without saying (for astute readers of this blog) that the first two of these tendencies (which of course are not shared by all male Ph.D.s any more than the women’s patterns of behavior I discuss are shared equally by all female Ph.D.s) are reverse images of the problems that women generally face. That is, where women routinely over-censor and over-efface themselves from feelings of intense inadequacy, men routinely under-censor and over-inflate themselves from feelings of intense entitlement. And these feelings of entitlement are just as unconscious and unintentional as are women’s feelings of inadequacy. But they have real impacts.

The third problem, of dress, is merely an extension of gendered expectations of proper attire in American society—women are scrutinized, men are not. Therefore, men have little to no experience in strategizing their clothing choices, and have little awareness of the microscopic rules of fashion, and in particular, of proper fit, that they are breaking.

How do these play out in interviews?

The first problem, of missing social cues, manifests in a tendency to pontificate. Particularly in the awkward social settings of the campus visit—the poorly defined spaces of the candidate dinners, lunches, and receptions—male candidates have a tendency to mis-read the expectations, and treat the social interactions as extensions of the “job talk,” (ie, requiring more monologue), rather than what they really are, which is more like “water cooler chats” (ie, dialogic and informal).

This can also happen in formal interview settings as well. Male candidates are far, far more likely than female candidates to give in to the temptation to “hold forth” at excruciating length, entranced by the eloquence of their own words, eyes glazed over or fixed on a spot over the committee members’ heads, profoundly oblivious to the cleared throats and shuffled papers that signal the NEED to MOVE ON.

Interestingly, a closely related problem, less often seen, is a tendency to talk too little.  This stems equally from a mis-reading of social cues. A remark such as “I can see how this line of research would raise interesting questions in the classroom….” must be understood as a QUESTION:  “How does your research find expression in your teaching?”  But not being asked directly, in the form of a question, led this type of question to be missed by male candidates with some regularity.   I recall candidates who would sit quietly looking at us, moments ticking by, silence dragging on, until someone finally realized that a question had been indirectly asked but not recognized as such.

My guess–and this is just speculation–is that this problem is most common where a male candidate is interviewed by women, who may equally unconsiously be relying on indirection and suggestion, and body language and facial cues that don’t always translate well across genders.

 

Now, the second problem—the excessive confidence in one’s brilliance and unawareness of the audience reception— is one that afflicts the job talk in particular.

As I counted back through the many, many job talks of my faculty career, I realized that men and women candidates gave good and bad talks in equal numbers, and no gender predominated, in my relatively gender-balanced fields of anthropology and Asian Studies, in ultimate hireability (or offers).  Nevertheless, one rule of gender and the job talk prevailed.

That rule was: women fail, but men bomb.

In other words, the good job talk was the good job talk. Gender played little role indeed.

But the BAD job talk? THAT was gendered. The bad job talks by women candidates were run-of-the-mill bad—They were dull, or poorly organized, or unoriginal, or unconvincing, or sadly presented.

But the bad job talks by male candidates? Well, those talks could be spectacularly bad. Flamboyantly bad. Memorably bad.

These were the job talks that lived on in departmental legend. “Remember ‘dog-boy’–the one who talked about dogs for an hour?” “Remember the one who talked about how the nuclear bomb wasn’t so bad for the plants and bugs?” “Remember the one who said ‘gosh I didn’t study any women’ when someone asked him to think about gender?” “Remember the one we had to cut off at an hour and 15 minutes?”

These male candidates had somehow managed to completely and totally fail to grasp the spectacular inappropriateness of their topics, their preparedness, and/or presentation styles. They had, apparently, blithely ignored any of the cautions or admonitions that they undoubtedly received from advisors, peers, and general well-wishers, and they proceeded with blissful abandon past the looks of shock, dismay, and outrage gathering on the faces of their job talk audiences.

I never saw a woman candidate bomb a job talk in this way.

Obviously, this is the flip side of male privilege. Women are not given the license to fail big because they aren’t given the license to try big. Women are disciplined (and punished) and circumscribed and admonished and chastised at so many levels, in so many ways, that men are not….that in the end it is by and large only males who have the opportunity to burst out onto the job market with wildly inappropriate egos and presentation habits intact.

This is not to say that all men do. I know well how many male candidates are filled with anxiety and insecurity, and a desperate desire to do well and be agreeable, and read the cues correctly. To be sure.

But the chances are higher, far higher, that a man may slip through the cracks of the graduate school socializing apparatus, meant to beat graduate students into a state of deference and submission and hyper-self-criticism, and emerge entirely unaware of the impression that he is making on his audience.

And that, readers, is the ultimate “guy-type” mistake.

Oh, and then there are the clothes. Guys, go out to Macy’s or Men’s Wearhouse and buy a suit in the $250-350 range. If you can spring for $500 do that, but it’s not crucial. Have the in-house tailor fit you, and DO NOT LEAVE with the suit until it has been tailored for you. This will cost around $40 more. Buy at least one new Oxford cloth shirt and one new tie. Buy a pair of decent quality leather dress shoes, and buy socks that match the shoes or the pants. Buy a good quality leather belt if you don’t have one—make sure it’s fresh and not cracked!

[Addendum:  As noted in the comment stream below, for many contexts and disciplines, the suit is unnecessary and a sports jacket with pants and tie is more appropriate.  Variables that will affect this decision include: is your discipline formal or informal (poli sci and econ tend to be formal, while comp lit and anthropology tend to be informal…), and is the campus formal or informal (the south and the northeast are more formal than the midwest and the west coast).  Ask all the reliable sources you can, particularly successful young male faculty members.  When in doubt lean toward formality.]

Practice wearing the suit or at least jacket around the house, and wear it out to work for a full day and to dinner at least once before you go on a campus visit, to get it broken in. Iron the package creases out of your shirts. Try the suit and the pants and shirts on in different combinations, and plan out day one and day two outfits for the campus visit, with day one (job talk day) being the full suit, and day two being just the pants and shirt and a tie. You can consider wearing a nice Ralph Lauren-style half zipper jersey sweater pullover, with the Oxford shirt and the tie, for day two, if it’s cold, or if it’s a casual, West Coast sort of place. 

Invest in a quality dress coat!  It is conceivable that this you can find second-hand.  Second-hand is a good budget option for everything but the suit itself, and the shoes, which need to be fresh and fitted.

A cool looking watch can be a nice addition. The ties don’t have to be boring. Men’s attire expresses individuality in these small details.

DO NOT CARRY A BACKPACK! Get a quality leather or microfiber briefcase. These can be found cheaply at places like OfficeMax.

Have your girlfriend or boyfriend or mother study your options and give you a stamp of approval before you pack.

And then, put on all these clothes, and commandeer a classroom in your department, and for god’s sake, give a mock job talk to a bunch of people who will tell you the truth. Because, while not all job talks will succeed, there is no reason at all to bomb.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is That Your Final Answer? Or, Why Graduate Students Ramble

Graduate students ramble. The question is not, do you ramble. The question is, why.

I was on the phone with a client last week, working on interview responses for an upcoming fellowship interview, and for the first time, I understood the answer to this question.

Graduate students ramble because you are afraid to stop talking. Because if you stop talking, then your answer is finished. And if your answer is finished, then you have to commit to it. And it has to sit there, and either be right, or wrong. One way or another, you sink or swim on that answer.

And nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to be pinned down as having answered a question in one particular way, because what if that way is the wrong way? What if that isn’t what they “want to hear”? So, you say to yourself, somewhere—probably unconsciously– “if I just keep talking, maybe I’ll suss out what they really want to hear, and then I can say that! Because, whatever they want to hear, I’ll say! If I just knew what it was!”

(This is the close cousin to the related problem that graduate students jump in before the questioner has finished talking. Why? Because you want to look like you “already thought about that,” and “didn’t really need to be asked,” and “really, should and would have said it already if you’d had a chance, but in any case will definitely tell you everything you could possibly want to know about it right now.” Because you’re afraid to look stupid. And if for some reason you left something OUT of your answer, then you have failed to tell them what they “want to hear.” So the slightest peep from the interviewer has to be met with an avalanche of new talking, talking which will surely cover everything they could possibly “want to hear” on the subject.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Guess what? If you want to get hired for a tenure track position, you have to commit to your final answer. You actually have to speak in declarative sentences with a strong falling tone at the end that signals, aurally, the period.

You have to stop, and then wait. Wait while your interlocutor processes what you said, reflects on it, and then responds with thoughts of her own.

And guess what? She might disagree with you. Yeah, she might. And you still have to respond in declarative sentences.

Here’s how this looks:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would use Martindale.

Interviewer: Oh….? Why?

You: Because I think Martindale does the best job of bridging social and political economic viewpoints. He’s not the strongest on contemporary developments, of course, but that can be augmented with other readings. For the basic textbook, I think he gives the best and most thorough overview.

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Really? That’s interesting. What happened, do you think? What did the students dislike?

Interviewer: They found his writing too hard to follow, and the format was confusing.

You: Interesting. When I’ve used that textbook students have given it positive feedback. But that may be because I make them study guides of each chapter, and walk them through the chapter the first day we cover it in class, alerting them to the parts to focus on for the lectures and exams.

Interviewer: Ohhhh, what a good idea! I’ll bet that would help. We should talk more! I’m ordering my books for the next term this week, and I’d like to talk with you more about the options.

You: Perhaps over dinner after my talk today? I’ll look forward to it.

OK, what happened here? What happened here is that the interviewee stuck to his guns. He had a position, he stated it clearly, and he defended it. He did not panic and fall down when the interviewer took an opposing viewpoint. And what happened as a result? He had a meaty, substantive exchange with the interviewer that resulted in him coming across as a credible, authoritative and effective teacher. It resulted in a deeply satisfying dialogue. It also ended with the interviewer wanting to know more.

And that, dear readers, is where you want your interviewers to be. You want them eager to know more, and ready to ask for it.

Now, here’s how that usually goes, for the ramblers among you:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would probably use Martindale, although, you know, there are a lot of good options out there and I’ve heard good things about Nelson, and Richardson, and you know of course, NO textbook really covers everything so you always have to augment, but I’m sure you already know that….!

Interviewer: Ok, ok!  So, anyway, why would you use Martindale?

You: Because I think Martindale is pretty good on social and political economic viewpoints, although, you know, a lot of people say that he’s not that great on contemporary developments, but that isn’t always the main thing, because sometimes I assign other readings for that, like the Patrick piece from the Annual Review, and this great article I found on current theory that was in this one reader out of Routledge, and even though sometimes those are too hard for undergraduates it’s pretty important that they get a sense of the field….so, um, yeah, what was the question?

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Oh, wow, really? Oh gosh, I never even thought of that. I wonder if my students thought that? You know, a few of them DID say to me that it was kind of hard to follow and I noticed that their quiz scores were really low in the beginning, so I was trying to figure out what to do, and I thought of maybe making study guides that would help them, so I made some and it seemed to help, but you know, it’s hard to say, and I should really look at some other textbooks, like maybe Nelson, which is what my advisor used when he taught that class and I was his TA, so yeah, I hope maybe I can ask you what has worked for you because you know I’d definitely do whatever was expected for the way the department teaches that class……. you know?

Interviewer: Ummmm, ok. So moving on to the next question….

Here’s what happened in this case. In this case, in the candidate’s abject eagerness to “please” the interviewer and say whatever it is that he thinks she “wants to hear,” he ended up doing several things:

  • overwhelming his interviewer in several panicked, inarticulate monologues.
  • squelching all opportunity for collegial dialogue.
  • undermining his own authority and credibility as a teacher.
  • reinforcing an outdated subordinate identity as a graduate student TA.
  • burying the effective teaching method that he devised to deal with the text, which was creating chapter study guides.
  • boring and alienating the interviewer, who drops the subject and irritatedly moves on to another question.

In short, the panicked, rambly effort to just keep talking until some kind of magic “right answer” will present itself…… that effort is precisely the behavior that bombs the interview and disqualifies the candidate as an effective teacher, a confident professional, and most of all, an appealing colleague.

The fact is, there are not that many “right answers” in a job interview. Sure, there are sometimes strong ideological, methodological, and pedagogical orthodoxies that some departments adhere to, and it’s important to keep all of your antennae alert to those. But you can discover many of those by thorough research ahead of time.

The fact is, there are fewer orthodoxies per se, then there are opinions. Because academics specialize in having opinions. And in order for you to make an impression as a credible academic, you too must have opinions, strong opinions, that you’re prepared to state clearly, and defend.

That doesn’t mean being a jerk. The best interviewee is the one who is open-minded and pleasant. But not one who is a doormat, and who is so afraid of offending someone that he literally won’t stop talking because his“final answer” might be wrong.

No, ramblers, that has to stop. Ask yourself, “is this my final answer?” And be ready to say, “yes.”

 

 

 

 

Wanted: The Academic Equivalent of the “Pretty Girl Rock”

Today’s post is a Guest Post by Kristen Ghodsee,  John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, and Director of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program, at Bowdoin College.

I originally got in touch with Kristen to congratulate her on her excellent IHE column on strategies of self-promotion, and to commiserate over the handful of sour comments that followed it.  We got to talking about her new book, co-authored with Rachel Connelly, another Bowdoin professor and TPII guest blogger, Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia. I asked Kristen if she’d be willing to contribute a post to the blog, and she very kindly has.

Thank you and welcome, Professor Ghodsee!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A little over a year ago, my colleague, Rachel Connelly, and I were telling a friend about our new book project, Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia.  We were all driving to a bowling alley for a girl’s night out and the conversation was light and bantering.  We were explaining that the idea behind the book was to help younger women scholars achieve professional success while also raising families.  Our friend said something like, “So you guys think you have achieved professional success?” in a slightly sarcastic tone. Rachel and I immediately made some joke about her comment and changed the subject.  But the implicit meaning haunted us long afterward.  Who are you guys to be telling other women what to do?  Do you really think you are both that good?

I was suddenly filled with doubt.  Perhaps it was inappropriate for me to be offering advice to anyone.  Isn’t offering advice a form of bragging and isn’t bragging something that is unbecoming in a woman? As a professor of gender and women’s studies, I am intimately familiar with the scholarship on the social constructedness of what we consider appropriate feminine and masculine behaviors.  In American culture, self-assured men are considered to be confident; self-assured women are arrogant.  Driven men are called ambitious.  Similarly driven women are called selfish.

Studies suggest that one factor underlying the wage gap is the differential propensity for men and women to negotiate about their remuneration.  But further research suggests that if a woman does try to negotiate for a raise based on her performance, both male and female bosses will negatively perceive her as self-promoting and greedy.  Good girls don’t talk about their achievements.  Good girls certainly don’t ask to be rewarded for them. In academia, so much of scholarly success is linked to our ability to promote the originality of our ideas.  No one ever got tenure by writing a demure self-evaluation statement.

Today more than ever before, social media demands that we be the primary advocates for our research and writing, and university presses are now sending out lists of things you can do to electronically promote your work.  Women are told that they need to be confident and self-assured, but just not too confident or too self-assured lest we rub people the wrong way.  The balancing act can be exhausting.  Sometimes it is just easier to keep quiet.

I have a nine-year-old daughter who is in the process of learning all of these implicit gender roles even as I try desperately to fight against them.  Last summer, the pop singer Keri Hilson had a hit single called the “Pretty Girl Rock,” which my daughter loved to put on auto repeat in our car.  The song was transgressive because Hilson spends the better part of five minutes singing about how pretty she is compared to other women.  Although I wish the song had been about how smart or successful Hilson was, my daughter loved it because it was a woman being openly confident, something girls are taught from an early age not to do.

Recently, I had the great fortune of winning a third major prize for a book I published in 2009.  My college has a policy of announcing faculty honors and awards on its website.  When I think about emailing the publicity folks at Bowdoin about this last prize, I find myself hesitating.  They have already run two stories about the previous awards; it might be unseemly for me to ask them to run yet another one.  It’s not that I am not proud of this award.  I worked incredibly hard on that book, and it is wonderful to have that work recognized by my scholarly peers.  But I am still afraid that my colleagues at Bowdoin will think that I am conceited.  Despite all of the good feminist reasons to click that send button, I still find myself paralyzed by the thought that I will be hated because I have the audacity to win book awards and to want the world to know about them.

We live in a meritocratic society where personal effort and ability are supposed to be rewarded.  But in our hyper individualized work lives, the only way our peers and superiors find out about our achievements is if we occasionally tout them.  Nowhere is this truer than in academia where we often toil in obscurity on our projects for years before they see the light of day.

If it is more socially acceptable for men to brag than it is for women, then it is no surprise that men continue to reap a disproportionate amount of the financial rewards and scholarly accolades in our respective fields.  It is hard to fight against these deeply held cultural assumptions, but women (including me) have to do so if we are ever going to reach true equality with men.  Perhaps what we need is the academic equivalent of the “Pretty Girl Rock.”

Kristen Ghodsee is the John S. Osterweis Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin College, the author of three books on gender and economic transition after communism: The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism and Postsocialism on the Black Sea (Duke University Press, 2005), Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe: Gender, Ethnicity and the Transformation of Islam in Postsocialist Bulgaria (Princeton University Press 2009) and Lost In Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism (Duke University Press 2011).   She is also the co-author of Professor Mommy: Finding Work/Family Balance in Academia (Rowman & Littlefield 2011).

Links:

Professor Mommy (http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com/Catalog/SingleBook.shtml?command=Search&db=^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=1442208589

My faculty web page, http://www.bowdoin.edu/faculty/k/kghodsee/

Keri Hilson’s video for “Pretty Girl Rock” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtXOVKNazYU

 

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

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

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

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

 

But why Yoda?  Why then?

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

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

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

Think about how much academic writing depends on formulations like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the words of Yoda:

You must unlearn what you have learned…

Try not!

Do! Or do not!

There is no try.”

And may The Force be with you.

 

 

 

Interviewing and Confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

are a first class intellectual

have something important to say

are a major player in your field

are poised to challenge orthodoxies in the discipline

are excited to get your ideas into the public realm

love to share your ideas with students

are equal to any classroom situation

find inspiration in others’ work

believe that you can contribute to a department

believe your discipline brings critical insight to the human enterprise

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memo to Professors: How Useless Are You? Really?

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

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

However. There is a first time for everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laziness. Pure laziness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Finding Mentors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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