A Letter From a Reader (With Thoughts on What Professors Make)

I am interrupting regularly scheduled programming to share this email I received from a reader this week.

I share it for several reasons. The first is as a follow-up to last week’s post, “What’s It Like to Work with the Professor?” In that post I wrote,

Many readers have written to tell me that just reading my blog posts has given them the information they needed to succeed in their grant applications, conference efforts, and job hunt. This is very gratifying to me. Although I charge for services in working with me personally, it pleases me to also provide much-needed information at no cost to all readers.

This email provides an example of exactly how and why simply being a faithful reader of the blog can be an effective and completely free intervention into your job search.

Secondly, I want it to be seen as evidence of the continuing negligence of Ph.D. advisors to support their advisees’ actual employment goals, and an example of a person who still, despite that, prevailed.

Thirdly, it is a delightful object lesson in how “playing hard to get” and making them want you (ie, by asking for more time to think about the initial offer) can yield excellent outcomes.  It is a core tenet of all negotiating.

And then, lastly…..  not to be a total downer (sorry, writer!  I apologize that I’m kind of raining on your parade a little bit here…), but I want to draw attention to the salary level of the VAP position initially offered to this writer, and relate that to yesterday’s column in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “From Graduate School to Welfare.” $35,000 is not a liveable wage for anyone supporting dependents in most parts of the country. That wage is actually below wages that were offered for similar positions when I was on the market in 1996. The salary structure of university labor is, as the Chronicle piece demonstrated, increasingly untenable for all but the super-privileged.

Let me be clear:  I am beyond delighted for this writer (as I told her), and proud of her determination and tenacity and clarity of vision, and her resourcefulness in educating herself about the demands of the market.  She is a success story, and I wish her the very best (and expect that she’ll achieve it, given her determination).

But I am also sorry that anyone has to begin a tenure track career, in 2012, earning $45,000, which is not, I state here, an appropriate wage level for a Ph.D.-level tenure track university professor, particularly anyone confronting 5 or 6 figure student loans (which this writer is not—but most Ph.D.s are). This salary represents in stark terms the devaluating of academic labor even on the tenure track, outside the ranks of the ultra-elite schools,  and that is something that is eating the heart out of the entire university system, for both the undergraduate students, who are taught by increasingly desperate adjunct faculty, and for the faculty, who are increasingly financially stressed and unable to pay back student loans acquired during undergraduate and graduate study. 

Dear writer–I think you’re going to be a kick-ass SLAC teacher, and to use your own words, ‘I can’t properly express’ how pleased I am for you that you pulled this off.  And.  You’re worth more than this, and I encourage you to continue using your skills to agitate for better pay.


Dear Dr. Karen,

I cannot properly express my gratitude for all of the ‘behind the scenes’ mentoring you have provided me over the past few months. I am so thankful for coming across your blog; your honest advice about academia and the job market has been paramount for my career.

I am a 5th year graduate student in (xxxx subfield) Biology.    I knew very early into my graduate career that I wanted to pursue a faculty position at a SLAC.  Whether or not I wanted the option of developing a full-fledged research program was still up in the air.  Very much still up in the air.

The research environment in the hard sciences is brutal and the thought of spending another 3-5 years in it was nearly unbearable.  I knew, of course, that I would still need to pursue at least one postdoc experience to keep that door open.  As such, I went ahead and applied to several labs looking for a traditional research postdoc, spent a lot of time prepping my applications for combined research (75% effort)/teaching (25% effort) postdoc opportunities offered through the NIH, and decided to put myself out there for a few VAP positions (just to try).

I quickly discovered that mentors at R1 institutions haven’t the slightest idea how to advise their graduate students unless they are following in their own footsteps (graduate school, 3 research postdocs, secure faculty position at R1 institution).

Even though my mentor knew from the start that my goal was to have a teaching role at a SLAC, he was unable to understand my desire to pursue this path because I was accomplished as a researcher, secured my own $100k funding through federal grants, etc. Obviously I would want to stay in research.

My sentiments about the R1 environment are likely not relevant for this letter, so I will keep them to myself.

With all of that said, I became determined to make the leap into SLAC academia sooner than later and started to teach myself about the job market.

The first point of embarrassment:  I didn’t know that the mainstream hiring season was in the fall and that I had completely missed most opportunities for a continuing position.  I also realized I was only trained to pursue research positions.  I had no idea what a proper *teaching* CV should contain, how to form a persuasive *teaching* cover letter, how to describe my own *teaching* philosophy, let alone how to handle any job talks that might come my way or even negotiate an offer.

I did seek help from my own mentor and a few other R1 faculty members at my institution.  However, every bit of advice was tailored for a research position and when I pushed more for help on the teaching end, they responded with a big “I have no idea.”

This is where “The Professor Is In” played a critical role.

Thanks to your tutorials, blog posts and facebook discussions, I was able to craft documents that I was proud to send out.    I received many postdoc offers, had on campus visits for some, and even started wrapping my head around the idea of accepting one at [an elite private institution].

Then, one day, I received a call from out of state.  It was the department chair who had received my application for a one year VAP position at a SLAC and wanted to set up a phone interview the following week.  Two days after that interview, I had another phone interview with the Dean.  A few days after that, I was asked to come down for a campus visit.  I gave a research talk to an upper level biology class, was the (surprise!) guest lecturer for the first year molecular biology course (where I had to give a chalk talk on photosynthesis – a topic that I haven’t revisited since my own freshman bio course) and made rounds through the administration.

Because of your blog, I was confident throughout my visit and knew I made the best impression possible.

The day after I flew back in, the Dean called to offer me the job.  The specifics:  1 Year VAP position, $35k, hopeful that they would get approval to put out a tenure track line in the fall, to which I would be encouraged to apply.  We had a very nice discussion and I expressed my gratitude for the offer, but told him I needed some time to consider my other opportunities including doing a postdoc.

He called back the next day, and said that he, the VP and department chair met with the President and were authorized to offer me a tenure track position at $45k.  I was very pleased by this opportunity, cancelled my visits to other campuses for postdoc interviews, and accepted the job at this great SLAC.

Whether or not you know it, you became my pseudo mentor and I am grateful for that.  Right before I flew down for the interview, I put a quick post on your facebook wall asking how appropriate it would be to discuss the possibility of establishing a tenure track line after the VAP position ends.  You replied with “completely appropriate.”  I can’t help but think that your comment set the tone for the interview which ultimately took me from a VAP offer to a permanent position at a “wish list” SLAC.

PhD Candidate
Department of Biology xx
R1 Institution

What’s It Like to Work With The Professor? Information for the Curious

I thought I’d take a moment and write a brief post on what working with me actually entails, for the benefit of anyone who has been contemplating it. I know that reaching out for help in your career can feel awkward and kind of scary, and so I want you to understand what will happen once you make the call (ie, send the email).

Typically what happens is that a client sends an email briefly introducing themselves, and describing their experiences on the job market to date, and indicating what they feel they need help with, and their timeline.

I respond with information about different kinds of services that would seem to meet their needs, and their costs, and then the client decides what he or she wants to do, and I send an invoice on Paypal, and we get started. To date I have worked with clients in all major institutions in the United States, as well as in Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Turkey, South Africa, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Singapore, China, and Qatar. I am alert to issues related to the job market and academic expectations in different regions, and work to make sure my advice is adjusted to local conditions.

I have worked with clients in all of the Ivy League institutions in the U.S., as well so-called Public Ivies, the major research institutions, regional teaching institutions, small liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. As a general observation, my clientele tends to most often come from higher ranking institutions, but I do not privilege any rank of institution. I work with all clients with equal commitment, and tailor our work to the rank and profile of school to which the client is seeking to apply.

Most clients wish to work on their job documents. One document is one hour of work. When working together we will go back and forth through four edits. I have found that four edits is enough to get nearly everyone’s documents to their optimal state.

Most people ask me to work on 3 documents–job letter, cv, and teaching statement–and so that will come to 3 hours of work; please check the rates page for the current rates that apply. I always offer a 10% discount for 3-4 hours and a 15% discount for 5+ hours on a single invoice.

A good pace for completing work on one document is 8-10 business days.  I require a min of 24-48 hours for my edits, and you usually take 24-48 hours or more for your edits, so moving through up to four drafts takes 8-10 business days. I always work sequentially and prefer to start on the cover letter, to get a good sense of your overall profile.

If you want to work on postdoc applications as well, that will typically be about 2-3 additional hours, depending on what is being demanded by the postdoc application. Postdoc editing rates are posted elsewhere, but a 1-2 page research proposal is 2 hours of work, 3-5 page research proposal is 3 hours of work, and so on.  The postdoc cover letter will be an additional hour, as it is substantially different from a job cover letter.

To manage the intense demand for my services and large client load, I have several policies about document work that are firm and non-negotiable:  1) I work on one document at a time, sequentially through 4 drafts, to completion before moving to the next document; 2) each draft # (# 1-4) must be marked in the file name of each draft that you return; 3) because I make many small unmarked edits for style and clarity, clients must download and edit from the exact document that I return to them so as to retain all edits moving forward; 4) work on any new document must be pre-arranged on the schedule and cannot be launched into on the fly; 5) clients need to demonstrate what I consider to be a reasonable level of improvement in each draft–I need to see real and consistent effort to understand and execute the editing principles that I recommend; 6) Quick Review clients must submit a document that has been completely overhauled to follow the principles explained in the blog posts, models, or accompanying PDF, and be correctly labeled as QUICK REVIEW in the subject line (as explained in the instructions upon purchase).  If I find that a client consistently ignores my policies, I cancel our work together and refund 50% of paid fees; rush fees are non-refundable.

Now assuming you are successful in all of this, and get an interview, I offer an Interview Intervention. The Interventions have been nothing short of amazing. Some of the testimonials on the Testimonials page talk about how they work. Basically, you provide me with a few questions that you expect to be asked, distinctive to the job, or that you’re particularly worried about answering effectively. I add those to the set of questions I know are typically asked in academic job interviews (covered in my Facepalm Fails posts), and then we role play the interview, with me playing a rather severe and skeptical search committee member not entirely convinced of the appropriateness of your candidacy.

After each answer we break, and deconstruct the answer for effectiveness, clarity, tone, length, and any sort of self-sabotaging “graduate student-speak.” I explain what standard interview questions are really asking for, and identify any ways that you are failing to provide the needed information concisely and assertively. We go deep into your specific research and teaching profile, and the questions you provide ahead of time as well as my own research on the department help me to frame questions targeted to the actual interview itself. We repeat your major responses until you have made them second nature, and learned to resist rambling and digressions, undue self-deprecation, and excessively informal or inappropriate speech patterns.

The conversion rate of Interview Interventions into tenure-track job offers has been impressive. Obviously, there’s no magic guarantee. But it’s effective. Sometimes clients discover that one Intervention isn’t enough to thoroughly banish all their bad habits of professional self-presentation, and then, when possible, we squeeze in another before the actual interview.

Now, if after all of this, you are offered a job, I also offer Negotiating Assistance.  This is invoiced on a weekly basis, and a week is all that is necessary in nearly all cases. Most of my N.A. clients have substantially increased their offers in annual salary, research support, moving, conference support, and summer salary, as well as the other perks such as first year teaching release, guaranteed junior sabbatical/leave, and even spousal and partner hires.

I also help with  third year review and tenure cases, particularly the writing of tenure statements.

To repeat, all clients get a 10% discount for 3 or 4 hours of work paid at once, and a 15% discount for 5 or more hours.

A word about rates: Many readers have written to tell me that just reading my blog posts has given them the information they needed to succeed in their grant applications, conference efforts, and job hunt. This is very gratifying to me. Although I charge for services in working with me personally, it pleases me to also provide much-needed information at no cost to all readers.

If you do wish to work with me, my rates reflect the value of the services as a long-term investment in your professional future. I’m not cheap. And I am also not as expensive as I could be—because I am determined to stay in range of financially precarious graduate students and Ph.D.s from all kinds of institutional settings, not just the well-funded and privileged ones.

The work pays off in both immediate and longer-term ways. As one client said, “The change in my application fed into a change in how I carried/understood myself at conferences and in the workplace – for the better I would think. It’s like I clued into a form of cultural capital I was blind to previously – so obvious in hindsight.”

We also have a post-academic wing at The Professor Is In, with a team of post-ac coaches ready to help you envision and execute your transition out of the academy.

And lastly, with regard to rates, I also provide the Job Seeker Support Fund to clients who are in particularly dire financial straits, such as living on food stamps or unemployment, or enduring an insecure housing situation, or a health crisis. I contribute my services at half-cost, and then generous donors among all of you, my readers and clients, provide funds to help cover the rest. Job Seeker Support Fund clients pay for 2 hours of work with me at 25% of the normal rate, and then can have two more hours at 50% of the normal rate, for a total of four hours (limit four hours per client).

Some clients pay me through their institutional research support funds. I’m happy to work with your budget manager to make that possible.

I’ll end by reiterating my point at the top about scheduling. Because I am often booked out by one or two weeks or months, it’s important you get in touch early enough to get a date that meets your deadline.  My team and I have worked with over 5000 clients and demand continues to increase. I do offer rush services on an availability basis, but  I cannot accommodate all prospective clients who get in touch with short deadlines, at the last minute. I don’t want anyone to be disappointed, so I hope that this post will give you the information you need to plan ahead, and get on the schedule in time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see this truth every day in my work.

It is stark, and painful.

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

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

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

I responded to her:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please share your thoughts.

What American Idol Tells Us About The Job Market

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

Jessica Sanchez, not connecting


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

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

The three mistakes are:

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Concept Tests

— Examinations

— Oral presentations

— Written reports

— Peer review

— Research projects and papers

— In project-based courses, performance assessment


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

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

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

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



How To Talk To A Dean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Don’t Ask Career Services for Help With Your CV

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

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

Dr. Karen’s Rules of the Campus Visit?

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

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

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


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

But why?

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

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

As Eyler writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How To Make Small Talk on Your Campus Visit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graduate School Is Not Your Job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear XXXX,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if you had been admitted with funding, these are some links I would be sending you to encourage you to reconsider. There are many ways to be happy and make a meaningful contribution without being in academia.  In fact, it might be easier outside academia.  When I referred to academia three paragraphs back as a “black hole,” I was not exaggerating. Please, please read them and take them seriously.

http://philosophysmoker.blogspot.com/2012/03/out-of-hunt.html (it’s philosophy, not lit.., but the nature of the job market is the same across the humanities)




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

Feel free to come talk to me after break.

Professor W