When I Left the Academy I Felt Like I Had Died (A Guest Post)

An email-turned-guest post from a former client.


This year, as a postdoc, both the NIH fellowship and the NSF grant I wrote were funded, and one of my papers was shortlisted for the Outstanding Paper of the Year Prize at a top journal in my field. Things were going well, on paper.

However, I was absolutely miserable in my day-to-day life. I was completely isolated and did not feel like I belonged or included in the lab group; I cannot say if being the woman among a group of men was *the problem*, but it certainly did not help. The lack of intellectual exchange and lack of logistical support for lab experiments led me to feel completely overwhelmed trying to do everything myself. I was terribly lonely both personally and professionally (having moved across the country for this job, and knowing absolutely no one in the state). It was an intellectual desert, and a social one too.

Two years of that kind of isolation did me in. I became extremely depressed to the point of hospitalization. Soon after the hospitalization I had a car accident where the car was totaled. Fortunately I was not injured. It did seem to me a warning sign that I had to leave.

So, I started applying for jobs back east. Through a friend I found out about an opportunity at a consulting company in DC, and applied. I was offered the position, and in September I accepted the job and moved to DC.

I have some friends and family in the area, so that is good. I am thankful for the friends and family who supported me in this decision, because it was not easy.

After leaving, I spent several weeks feeling like I had died – more specifically, that I was dead to the people I had left behind at the university. When your very sense of being is tied to your professional identity, and then you leave, you will feel dead. I hadn’t realized how much my sense of self was tied to my work until this happened. This phenomenon is something that Rebecca Schuman (author of the Slate article Thesis Hatement) and others have written about, but hard to imagine until you really go through it yourself.

One of the main benefits of leaving was to gain a broader perspective about how science is funded and managed, and to get a peek into the world of science policy. The company I work for supports NIH and EPA in organizing conferences and writing meeting summaries and teleconference minutes. In my role as a science writer, I get to be a fly on the wall at meetings and teleconferences. The work gives me a better understanding of the organizational structures and processes in place to execute “big science” projects.

This is a completely new and different perspective on science from that of the lone scientist working away in the lab at all hours of the day and night. Also, because I work on various different projects simultaneously, I get a much broader view of science than I did in the lab (academic lab science can give you tunnel vision…).

I am still disoriented and wonder if leaving this academic trajectory (which was on paper going so well!) was the right decision. The new job is not perfect (no job is), but it at least provides the opportunity to gain some perspective and see what life is like outside the ivory tower (and proves to me that leaving is not the end of the world).


The Top 5 Mistakes Women Make in Academic Settings

[Repost from the TPII archives]

I frequently offer the workshop:  “Yes You Can!  Women and Graduate School.”

It’s a workshop I led quite a few times in different forms, formally and informally, over the course of my years in academia. Sometimes it just informed the way I advised individual female graduate students.

I created it because I just can’t bear to watch all the ways that women shoot themselves in their collective feet in academia (and other professional settings too).

Starting with myself.  I made a lot of mistakes on my path through graduate school, my first job, tenure, move to a new institution, and departmental headship.  And I watched my female colleagues make them too.  And then I watched my students make them–most especially the graduate students I mentored personally through their Ph.D.s.

The mistakes arise from a single source: Women’s lifelong training, in our culture, toward various forms of self-effacement, both obvious and subtle, that undermine their authority in the institution, handicap their effectiveness in speaking and acting in the institution, and block their feelings of entitlement to claim the rewards of the institution.

Women demand and receive too little space

I work with some powerful and fierce women.  Heck, I am a powerful and fierce woman.  But even so, one after another of us falls prey to patterns of speech and thought that position us as “less than,” “secondary to,” “less deserving than,” “less intelligent than,” “in service to” the professors, administrators, and colleagues we encounter in the university.

Let me be clear:  At this point in feminist time, it’s not likely that any woman in the American academy would consider herself less intelligent or capable or deserving than an equivalent man, simply by virtue of her gender.

And for sure I’m not claiming that women are to blame for sexism and institutional gender discrimination, which persists in large and small ways! (the topic of other posts).

What happens is subtler.  What I am claiming is that women are frequently far from their own best advocates.  Women tend to speak and behave in patterns, usually unconsciously and derived from their socialization from childhood, that through their repetition, “perform” a “role” of being less intelligent and capable and deserving than some imagined peer or competitor.  These same patterns are ones that men, by and large,  because of their socialization from childhood (and of course with some exceptions), avoid.

Confident vs. submissive body language

Here are the top five ways that women undermine their own authority:

1)  Ending their declarative sentences and statements on a verbal upswing or “lilt” that communicates self-doubt and deference. “My work is on Japan?”  I focus on gender and transnationalism?”

2) Waiting their turn to interject contributions instead of diving in assertively, and seeking a collective experience rather than firmly expressing an individual viewpoint.  {raises hand and waits…}

3) Leading with, and defaulting to, what they “don’t know” and “can’t do” and what “won’t work.” ie, “I’m not sure if this is always the case, but I think xxxx.  I haven’t read everything in the field, though, so I might be off-base there.”

4) Having a weak handshake and deferential body language, including smiling too much, laughing too often, trailing off, taking up too little space, and defaulting to questions rather than statements.

5) Expressing themselves in a disorganized and emotional manner that muddies their main point and obscures their actual achievements and goals. ie, “I think it’s just really, really important to consider the impact of xxx, which, you know, a lot of folks haven’t really done, even though of course Nelson has done some important work on xxx, but still in my own work I try and extend that…” (in this example also note the default to “I try” and to making her work derivative and dependent through the use of “extend.”  See the post, Why You Don’t Need Extenze.”)

The end result of years of such repetitions of these patterns is that women students and faculty accrue less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.

While women together have to combat institutional sexism and the glass ceiling, women individually can vastly improve their scholarly achievements and career prospects by being alert to self-defeating patterns of thought, speech, and behavior from their earliest days in the field.


My First Year Anniversary Off the Tenure Track (A Guest Post)

It’s been a little over a year since I left academia.  It has been one heck of a ride!


The past year has been both frightening and exhilarating as I thought about the future.  Did I want to apply for a new academic position elsewhere after the nasty experience of being bullied to the point of having been diagnosed depression and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  Surely, not everyplace could be as bad as that, I thought.


With time, I was able to seriously reflect on why I had gotten into academia in the first place – To make a difference.  I had always felt that I was making a difference to the students.  They told me so.  Even the ones that seemed to be bored and indifferent in class would contact me later to tell me how what they had learned had benefitted them on the job once they graduated.  Some even apologized for having been such pains in class.  That was gratifying.


However, I decided that the cost was just too high.  The horror stories that I was hearing from friends and former classmates were enough to convince me that academia had changed, and not for the better.  The book, The Bully in the Ivory Tower, affirmed that observation.


I listened to the stories of those who had become “academic nomads,” moving from institution to institution every so many years.  These are bright and talented people.  They aren’t bottom-of-the-barrel PhD’s.  But, story after story about the bullying department chair and psychotic deans and back-stabbing colleagues came though.  It made me wonder if there were any “happy” people left in this field in academia.  The only ones who seemed to be content were those brave souls who had gone into industry!


After much thought, I decided that what I did want was to make a difference.   But how?


I had been working with a coach since my dissertation days, so I knew what coaching was all about and how much it could help.  I think that she secretly wanted me to go into coaching, but that she was being tactful enough not to bring it up.


So,  I enrolled in a coaching certification program.  What a difference to be among caring classmates and to be a member of a professional community in which “making a difference” matters!  It feels as though I had found my tribe.  I had.


One year later, I am having an absolute blast.  Absolutely loving what I do, running my  own business (www.i-thrive.biz) and making a difference in the lives of others.  My clients are a mix of individuals and organizations seeking out coaching services in life and wellness coaching, transition coaching, academic life coaching, executive and business coaching, leadership and team coaching, and even dissertation coaching.  It is possibly the most gratifying and fulfilling work out there.  I know that I am making a difference to these people and to these organizations, and it energizes me to greet each day as another opportunity to make a difference.


Financially… well…. this was an added bonus.  I will net (after taxes, savings, and other expenses) more than I grossed while in academia without the frustration and the aggravation.  The sum is not insignificant.  Roughly a net of $10,000 more in this first year than the salary that I ever could have grossed in an academic setting.


I can report that life is good.  I am happy and energized.  I feel as though I am living a dream – doing meaningful work that is authentic to my values as a human being.  The tensions are gone.  Physically, I no longer suffer from mysterious back pains or other ailments.  I work a reasonable workweek that gives me time to pursue other interests and passions, and that leaves my weekends free for me to enjoy.  I am privileged to be part of a caring community of coaches who sincerely care and  who want  to make a difference in this world.


One year (or so) out, and I can honestly say that leaving academia was the best decision that I have  ever made.  It was frightening and stressful at the time, however, I am living a dream right now.  One that I would not trade for any other life.

When I Say ‘Be Specific,’ What Do I Mean?

As I explained in last week’s post, I won’t be blogging for the next few months while I get the Professor Is In book written.  However, I had this post in draft form, so I’m putting it up.  After this I hope to solicit guest posts on a range of subjects. If you have any interest, please do email me at gettenure@gmail.com.  It can be anonymous or not, and be on advice for the job market or tenure track, or your own personal adjunct/job search story, etc. etc.  I welcome your inquiries and contributions!


One of the most common issues my clients have with the teaching portions of their cover letters, or with their teaching statements, is the lack of concrete, specific examples from the syllabus and the classrooms.  Show, don’t tell, is my general response in such cases.  Give specific examples that show something about who you are as a teacher.

But what is specific enough?  Over time, I have noticed that clients think they are being specific, even when they are not.  What happens is this: when someone moves away for the first time from the completely vague mish-mash of abstractions and says something, anything, concrete about classroom techniques, it seems like such a giant leap that I imagine clients going “ah!  THIS is what it means to show, not tell.”

And that is how clients fall into the trap of what I like to call “meso-level specificity.”  It is characterized by writing about teaching experience through cataloguing or listing specific kinds of things one does, but not giving any examples of how such techniques work out in a particular class, or with a specific student population.

For example, a typical client may start with a bad habit of telling, rather than showing.  Their teaching paragraph or teaching statement is likely to feature something like this:

“I am committed to the mission of liberal arts, and I ensure that my classroom is a space for creative expression and critical thinking alike.”

When I tell them, as I always do, that this is “vague blah blah,”  they move to meso-level specificity.  That looks something like this:

“I stress creative and critical thinking in all my classes.  For example, to develop creative writing skills, I give students regular writing prompts.  To train them in critical analysis, I design a sequence of in-class debates on topics relevant to the course topics; subsequently, students have to produce a position paper, drawing on those debates.”

Of course, if you start with fluffy musings on “the mission of liberal arts,” mentioning specific kinds of assignments seems like clarity and specificity.  But it is not.  It is still telling, not showing.

How does one make a leap from meso-level specificity to showing?  Through tethering any discussion of techniques to concrete classroom examples:

“I stress creative and critical thinking in all my classes.  For example, to cultivate creative writing skills in my Critical Theory students, I give them writing prompts—in five minutes, they have to improvise a conversation Foucault and Derrida might have had at a cocktail party, or write an ad for a missing pet from the perspective of Wittgenstein.  To train them in critical analysis, I design in-class debates and other collaborative assignments on topics relevant to the subject of the course.  In my Deviance and Control class, students debated whether gossip is a form of bullying, while in my Literature and Psychology seminar, students had to do a clinical intake of Hamlet to evaluate him as a potential patient.”

Don’t stop with meso-level specificity.  Make sure you discuss not only the kinds of teaching strategies you employ, but also specific examples of what they look like.

Karen Writes a Book

Attentive followers of the blog may have noticed I did not post last week–one of the very few times since the blog has started that this has happened.

I didn’t post because I had to announce a change to the blog, but I wasn’t clear in my mind what exactly the change would be.

To cut to the chase: I’m actively writing a book proposal for the first Professor Is In book, and in working with agents and editors in a preliminary fashion (I haven’t yet settled on a final agent yet), I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that the book has to include at least 50% new material, material not previously published on the blog.

That means that I have to sit down and do some writing! All my usual bursts of inspiration that hit me each week and inspire the week’s blog post have to be saved up and set aside to go into the book manuscript instead.

Last week I was about to write that I’d be ceasing all new blog posts entirely, but I’ve changed my mind.

I’m going to use the blog to announce and promote upcoming webinars and events, re-post old posts that are pertinent to the cycles of the job market, and perhaps occasionally provide some new advice if anything seems particularly urgent.

But by and large I’ll be holding my new material for the book. (This also has the advantage of freeing my weekly blog-writing time to devote to the book project.)

This is very painful to me because I’m the kind of person that, if I have something I want to tell you, I want to tell you NOW! I don’t want to hold my latest brainstorm about your job documents or interviews to have to sit in writerly limbo for a year… But alas, sacrifices must be made. I know that this book will be valuable and helpful–a far better reference and source for many than navigating a cumbersome blog. And I’m very excited to finally get it done.

And when that happens, I’ll be back here in my favorite writing spot just as soon as I can. And in the meantime, I am still writing on a bi-weekly basis for the Chronicle Vitae site.

Two Pet Peeves From the World of Grants

Two pet peeves from the world of grants:

A grant proposal must not contain the phrase “I need to,” as in “for my revisions of the manuscript I need to pay closer attention to feminist critiques and read more deeply in the women’s studies literature.”  This type of language is the ultimate in grad student-insecurity-speak (You can just hear the conversation in some advisor’s office), and has no place in an effective proposal.  Any plan of work in a grant proposal will simply describe in factual and general terms the work itself, without insecure justifications or references to real or imagined gaps and/or failures and/or weaknesses that “need to be” (according to some unspecified authority) addressed.

Do NOT end a grant proposal with “thank you for your consideration.”  A proposal requires formal, descriptive language throughout that covers the project and its significance, the proposed research and timeline (and budget if required), and a conclusion,  following principles that are described in the post, The Foolproof Grant Template.  It does not, ever, end with an interjection.  It’s not a letter, for heaven’s sake.





A Discount on the Interview Intervention! (and some upcoming webinars)

Every so often I use a blog post to tell you about things coming up at the Professor Is In.  Since we are officially at what feels like the peak-deadline-stress-moment of the 2013 job search, I’m going to do that today.  Below, I tell you about a discount on the live Interview Intervention  for the month of October, and I tell you about webinars coming up in October, with links to register!  Meanwhile, everyone:  DON’T PANIC!

Discount on Live Interview Intervention Mock Interviews by Skype!

Interview Intervention slots tend to fill completely for the whole Fall by about mid-October.  Get a jump on your interview prep by signing up early.  For the month of October only we are offering $50 off of the regular rate of $250 for the Interview Intervention. What is the Interview Intervention, you ask?  Interview Intervention is a 50-minute intensive mock-interview, on Skype with either me or Kellee Weinhold.  We put you through a mock interview, stopping after each question to evaluate every answer for its strengths and weaknesses in terms of brevity, spin, word choice, tone, body language, etc., and refining it for effectiveness. For some basic questions, you may repeat your response 2-3 times until perfect. It’s grueling, but very effective. We ask you to provide 5 questions that are distinct to your work/the job/the campus you’re interviewing with and/or that reflect issues you’re particularly worried about addressing effectively. We add those to the basic arsenal of interview questions (several of these are described in my blog post, The Facepalm Fails of the Academic Interview). The job-conversion rate of II clients has been nothing short of remarkable (check out testimonials about it on the Testimonials page of the website). Use this link to schedule, and be sure and click on the “Interview Intervention”, even though the price is listed here as $250. After registering, you will be billed at the October rate of $200.

Check out these testimonials!

“Today’s Interview Intervention Session with Kellee was fun! I bet you don’t hear that often, but Kellee is a national treasure. While I had memorized answers to the questions and could anticipate answers  to the standards (and even provided an answer for a question about teaching trend, ask Kellee about that one), she was able to pick out what my problem is. It is my delivery of the answers NOT that I don’t know what my answers are or that I’m clueless about things and teaching and stuff. But it is in HOW one presents their whole persona. I’m working on that even with friends. My speech patterns are throwing people off and I’m over-compensating. But Kellee was kind to me and made me step back to present the information differently…and it was vastly improved. Instead of this session being about “the right answers” or “getting it perfect for a unknown search committee” the session turned out to be a conversation about how to take the interview to the next level. And it is not about getting all the information into that one answer polished, it’s about presenting yourself effectively. And if need be, fake it to make it.”

“Karen’s “Interview Intervention” was a tremendous help.  I didn’t know many people who had had conference interviews and didn’t know what to think about them.  The mock interview with Karen was crucial to building my confidence.  She called me out on being “manic” and overly excited in my answers.  She helped me calm down, prepare responses, and be ready for what was, for me, the most nerve-racking part of the process.”

” The Interview Intervention with Kellee was eye-opening.  I thought that after doing the Interview Intervention Webinar the Skype would be a piece of cake, but Kellee noted my responses were coming across as long-winded and unclear and she helped me hone my responses so they came out clear and focused.   I walked into my interviews confident having prepped for questions; I was surprised that the vast majority of the questions I received were covered by Karen and Kellee.  In the end, I ended up getting two offers and used Karen’s negotiation assistance to negotiate a $4K higher salary than I was initially offered.”

New Webinars For October

(All webinars at 2 PM Pacific/5 PM EST/22:00 GMT.  $100)

“How To Write Your Academic Job Application, Part I–Cover Letter and CV”- next Thursday 10/3

In this 90-minute webinar we examine two of the four primary documents in an academic job application–the cover letter and cv. I explain the role of each of these in presenting your profile, and the relative importance of each in the deliberations of the search committee. I then give recommendations for the most effective content, organization, and tone of each of these documents, with examples. I also show the most common mistakes made by job applicants, and the errors of thinking that lie behind these mistakes, and the ways to correct them. The focus here is both on specific techniques of writing and self-presentation, but also on the unspoken principles and biases that govern tenure-track hiring.

There will be 30 minutes of Q and A at the end.

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“How to Write Your Academic Job Application, Part II–Teaching Statement and Research Statement”- Thursday 10/10

In this 90-minute webinar we examine two of the four primary documents in an academic job application–the teaching statement and research statement. I explain the role of each of these in presenting your profile, and the relative importance of each in the deliberations of the search committee. I then give recommendations for the most effective content, organization, and tone of each of these documents, with examples. I also show the most common mistakes made by job applicants, and the errors of thinking that lie behind these mistakes, and the ways to correct them. The focus here is both on specific techniques of writing and self-presentation, but also on the unspoken principles and biases that govern tenure-track hiring.

There will be 30 minutes of Q and A at the end.

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“Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track” – Wednesday 10/16

In this 90-minute webinar I walk you through the biggest challenges of the first year on the tenure track. Topics we cover include

Dealing with new colleagues
Handling department politics
Finding mentors
Establishing a classroom persona
Learning to say no to service
Establishing a conference schedule
Protecting your writing time (and mental health!)

Most importantly, I walk you through the planning that you need to do, from year one, to situate yourself for your eventual tenure case.

This webinar is based on the advising meetings I used to have as Department Head with my first year assistant professors. They all got tenure. It’s fun, but hard core!

This webinar complements the blog post, Advice For Your First Year on the Tenure Track, but focuses more directly on hands-on recommendations for learning when and how to say no, making choices about time-management, laying the groundwork for your tenure case, and staying sane.

Includes abundant time for Q and A with Dr. Karen.

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“Interview Intervention Webinar” – Thursday 10/24

In this 90-minute Webinar I teach you how to interview effectively for an academic job. We cover the most important elements of the interview, the most common errors made by candidates, and the most effective modes of organizing your responses to the major questions. As always, I provide templates for you to use in planning your responses, and abundant examples of both bad and good answers.

I also cover how best to prepare for interviews, whether they are by skype or phone, at the conference, or at a campus visit.

Special tips for the dreaded Skype interview included.

Naturally we’ll touch on how to dress for the interview, and the all important issue of body language as well.

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

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Job Market Prep as Therapy

For many, many clients, working with The Professor Is In on their job documents and interviews ends up having an intense, and totally unexpected, therapeutic effect.  People have described the work as “transformative,” and “life-changing.”  This email that Kellee and I received this week is the most thorough description of how this therapeutic effect works.

I share this today not just because it’s a terrific, poignant, funny, and well-written story of how one woman overcame the psychic damage of Ivy League graduate training to reclaim her sense of self, but also to urge anyone who is hesitant about doing the work of job market preparation to just get over yourself and do it.  It is a critical investment not just in your job market performance, but in your mental health.  I have come to understand, from the testimonials of so many clients like this one, that it is one of the most efficient and direct means imaginable of confronting, head on, your lingering fears and feelings of failure, and setting them behind you in a newly formed identity directed away from the past and toward the future. You don’t have to do this job market preparation with Kellee and me, but do it with somebody.  Not because you’re “careerist” and “instrumentalizing,” but because you care about yourself and your future.

And anyone reading this who is a graduate advisor…  think about what you might want to do differently to help your advisees feel supported instead of crushed.


Dear Karen and Kellee —

I’ve been thinking a lot about Interview Intervention over the past few weeks.  It was such a meaningful, empowering experience for me.

First of all, I want to say thank you to Kellee for fitting me in at 6 a.m. — I can’t imagine being not only awake, but alert, interested, and ready for business so early.  Thank you for being all of those things.

I was really nervous about the boot camp.  I didn’t sleep the night before, I was so nervous.  I’d read, of course, that it was rough for people, that they cried, that you were honest and direct, and it was a painful experience.  Obviously, I was expecting the worst.  Because I’d had plenty of (demoralizing) experience with that kind of criticism and I was worried I was setting myself up for another crushing interaction with The Academy.  This time without access to affordable grad student therapy.

As for the why and wherefore, I’m just going to jump in.  It’s probably going to be really long.

I finished my PhD in May 2013.  I’d been in grad school for 10 years, the first six of which were absolutely the worst years of my life.  No question.  I started out at [Ivy League], in the [Humanities] Department.  When I mention this to other people in the field, they groan.  Universally.

It was not the right place for me.  In fact, I knew it was a mistake the first day I stepped onto campus in 2003, a very intimidated, anxious, and almost pathologically shy 23 year old with absolutely no idea about anything, let alone how to survive in a combative, critical, absolutist Department.  But they had lobbied hard to get me, I was their first choice, and I felt like I should be able to make it work.  I should be able to do it.  It was all my fault, if it didn’t work.  Of course, it didn’t work.

But I hung on for six long, defeating years.  I was a terrible grad student: I had chronic incompletes (I turned in one paper 5 years late), I avoided the Department at all costs, I had panic attacks any time I came to campus.  My one goal in life was to avoid anyone and everyone in [my department].  Because it would only remind me of how shit I was at being the kind of grad student they wanted and how I was disappointing so many people, wasting so much time and money.  I was angry, too.  At myself, at the Department, at the University, at everything … I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t figure out how to make the situation better.  I felt like shit.  I was a failure at the one thing that I’d ever been good at: being a student, the thing that had gotten me out of my hometown in Washington, where the high school told us college was a waste of time and money.

With the benefit of hindsight (and many years of therapy), I can finally see that I was doing the best I could.  But between the fog of anxiety, a chronic (and long undiagnosed) hormone imbalance, and at least two major depressive episodes … I just couldn’t do much better than hang on, however miserably.

My evaluation at the end of that first year was one sentence: Needs to participate more in seminar.  Now, I’ve never been good in large-group discussions.  Never.  Not in high school, not in college.  I get nervous, my mind goes blank, and I just can’t do it.  It was something I didn’t know how to fix, I didn’t know how to improve or what to do or why I couldn’t just talk.  I felt helpless.  It became just another failure in a long list of Things I Could Not Do Right.

There were other problems, too, of course.  My advisor and I didn’t communicate effectively; I didn’t know I’d been in bad academic standing for a while … and I lost my funding in 2008.  My advisor dropped me without telling me, despite assurances that I could still defend a dissertation in the Department (I hadn’t lost degree candidacy).  For years, this was my defining failure: that I had to leave [Ivy League] with only an MA (and a sympathy MA, at that) after six years.

Thanks to some very good friends, I didn’t give up entirely.  I got in touch with a professor who’d left [Ivy League] for [Elite East Coast University] after my first year.  She listened, she sympathized, she told me to apply to [her department].  So I started there in 2009, with her as my advisor.  And I started over: I took three semesters of coursework and did the PhD qualifying exams again.  I turned in every paper on time.  I thrived: I won awards, was invited to work on interesting projects with interesting people, I even started talking in seminar a bit.  And I wrote a dissertation, the one I’d started in 2007.

So the PhD came to mean a lot more than just the professional qualification.  Finishing is the hardest fucking thing I’ve ever done, but I did it.  I can’t tell you how proud I am of that.  I told my first advisor, in my very worst year, that I would finish.  And I did.

I even got a first job, a VAP position in [my field] at an R1 institution.  It’s a teaching job, but it’s a job.

Problem is, this history made me even more anxious about the job market.  Because I was carrying around this failure, which I was convinced I had to keep a deep dark secret if I was ever going to get hired.

So when Kellee took my anxiety in stride, and told me that sure, it was an issue but one I could deal with and practice and improve … it blew my mind.  Just to be listened to and not judged and not be told that I would never get a job because I struggle with interviewing: I couldn’t believe it.  She was so matter of fact about this Thing that I’d told myself was bad and impossible and unfixable.  Actually, it wasn’t any of those things.

What I didn’t expect was how kind Kellee would be.  I’d been terrorizing myself thinking Intervention would be [Ivy League] all over again.  It wasn’t.  She listened, she gave me some strategies to deal with the anxiety, she helped me to formulate responses and organize ideas.  She was patient.  Most importantly, she let me be nervous.  She told me it would be okay, even if I was nervous in interviews.  She reminded me that I can say, “I know my dissertation sounds weird” — in short, that I can be myself, nerves and all, and still have an okay interview.  Maybe not an effortless, easy breezy beautiful Covergirl kind of interview, but nonetheless an interview that just might get me hired.

Turns out, I don’t have to keep repeating this exhausting Wagnerian [Ivy League] drama each and every interview.  I can shut up the voice of XX XXXX — head and Superego of the [Ivy League] Department, figure of so many anxiety dreams — and speak with authority about what I do and how I do it.

I wasn’t that person any more.  Cheesy as it may sound, the Intervention let me confront that [Ivy League] version of myself — the failed, sick, sad, and lost kid — and finally put her away.  Not just because I’m ten years older.  Somehow, Interview Intervention was the end station in a long, long, so long process of moving on.  And coming a bit closer to accepting myself as the person and scholar I am, not the one I feel I should be or could have been.  Even if I do still curse at [Ivy League] stickers on cars and donation requests from the Alumni Association.

My heartfelt thanks for the experience.  Working with you both has been challenging, but so rewarding in ways I didn’t expect.

All the best,


The Big Issue In Your Grant Proposal

In the Foolproof Grant Template I ask for an opening sentence or two that quickly engages the reader on the “big topic” of the research.

My clients have a terrible time grasping what that opening should look like.  They’ve been so disciplined through grad training to think in terms of research and citation, that they cannot easily step back to remember that there is an ISSUE that precedes scholarly argumentation about the issue.

This issue exists in the world at large–the world OUT HERE, the one not in your or your advisor’s head.

I absolutely forbid clients from opening a grant with the dreaded line “My/this research/dissertation is about… ” because in my view that is the most myopic of all openings, the most insular and self-absorbed, and indifferent to the wants and needs of the reading public.

Consider these four opening sentences:

“My dissertation is about declining polar bear populations.”

“I am applying to the XXX fellowship to support my dissertation, which is on declining polar bear populations.”

“Many scientists in the field of environmental studies have been debating the causes of polar bear population decline.”

“Polar bear populations are plummeting due to recent changes in the climate.”

Only the last actually rises up to state the ISSUE–the topic at hand that precedes any and all debates or arguments or minutiae, and inspires the reader to take notice.

Yes, if you continued in that vein, it could move into a kind of journalistic sensationalism, but you don’t. You’re a scholar, and in sentence #2 and #3 of the template, you immediately introduce the scholarly works in the two most important fields that have addressed this issue. And then move on to describe a gap and the scholarly project that addresses that gap.

Grant-writing is, let it not be forgotten, PR. You are selling a project, and the reader needs to buy it.

You do that by remembering that we live in a world of big issues.  This is true even when your work is on a relatively obscure topic—e.g. 14th century Japanese Buddhist iconography, compositional structure in early modern opera—  when it is one meaningful in your particular field. Big is a relative term.  But however big is defined in your field, it is the big issue that inspires us to keep reading.

Desperate Cramming

Let’s imagine that I am doing some sort of cover letter “blind taste test” and I have to guess, by content only, which cover letter has been written by a graduate student.  

I will know by one element above all others—what I call “desperate cramming.”  

Desperate cramming is when you cram everysinglelittlething into your letter.  You not only have an article under review, but you were also invited to contribute a chapter for a project that may or may not be happening, and you also wrote two encyclopedia entries, and you were chair and presenter last year and the year before at your regional conference and the editor from X Press said your work sounded neat at your disciplinary conference but then also the editor from Press Y said over email that when you are done with your book proposal to send it for a look, and you were invited to give a guest-lecture in the undergraduate survey course on the satellite campus of your university, and you also applied for and made it through the first round of this grant, and even though you did not get it, you will build on your grant application for the grant you are going to write and submit this August, and you are also the webmaster for your interest group in your big national association, and you also pet-sat your department chair’s cat when they were doing archival research.  

Okay, maybe not the cat.  But everything else is crammed into your letter, which, by the end, will appear to the totally overwhelmed search committee members like one of those visual tricks, where a chaos of dots and swirls can theoretically coalesce into an actual image, but only with an extreme effort of focus.  Guess what—the search committee members aren’t going to make that effort. They are tired. They are distracted. They aren’t going to sift through the laundry list of every single little thing you have done to figure out if there is any substance to you as a candidate.  They are going to see you as a graduate student who is lacking a key professional skill–the ability to understand what are the elements of a competitive academic record.  When you engage in desperate cramming, you broadcast yourself as a desperate wannabe who is terrified of leaving anything out. 

You might think: “but I don’t know whether something is desperate cramming.”   First off, please read the blog post, Don’t Get Your Career at Costco, and get clear on the difference between high-status, impressive accomplishments, and small, quick and cheap endeavors that do not distinguish you in any way against your competition.

Beyond that, here is a quick check-list:


Brief factual presentation of dissertation framework and methodology

Description of major, high status peer-reviewed publications (books and journal articles)

Brief mention of presentations at the major, national conferences in your field

A few examples of named classes you taught and are prepared to teach (but not the institution at which you taught them—see the post, How To Describe Teaching: Not When and Where but What and How) and one or two short and sweet examples of concrete classroom strategies.

A long discussion of where you learned the methodologies you used (“As I was trained in ethnographic methods during a graduate seminar led by Professor Malinowski and subsequently participated in the NSF ethnography summer course, I was successfully able to use participant-observation and life history interviews in my study of workers migrating to Rapa Nui from Chile”)

Discussion of every single edited volume chapter you have in preparation, as well as book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and other publications that are not commonly recognized as first-tier scholarship.  (“In addition to the two articles, I also have a chapter under review for consideration for publication in an edited volume on post-crisis migrant flows.  The editors are currently in discussions with several publishers who have expressed interests.  I have also been invited to write encyclopedia entries on Eastern Polynesian languages in general and Pascuan in particular, and this summer I will prepare a book review of an edited volume on sweet potato cultures, for Third-Tier Journal”).

Discussions of every single conference you attended, going back to your first year in graduate school, as well as exhaustive discussion of the various roles you have performed there.  (“In addition to presentations at the AAA and the session I am organizing this year at theAES, I have also presented papers at the conference XYZ in 2005, Regional Association Conference ABC in 2007, and in 2009, despite still being a graduate student, I was invited to chair the session on yams, organized by Scholar 1 and Scholar 2, at the Mid-Atlantic Biannual Conference in 2006”)

An over-detailed discussion “proving” that you are a qualified teacher. (“In addition to teaching two classes as a lecturer at University Down the Street, and serving as a Teaching Assistant in My Department, in the summer of 2009 I participated in a selective two-week pedagogical training workshop at My University, which focused on syllabus design strategies and effective rubrics in assessment.  I also enrolled in a voluntary peer classroom observation program available at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at My University, with consistently excellent feedback from my peers.”  
I’ll finish by remarking that you don’t have to be an actual graduate student to fall into desperate cramming.  I see it with recent PhDs—lecturers, postdocs, brand new assistant professors.  The degree may be in hand, but the graduate student mindset is still there, and that is even worse.  So check your letter.  if you are insecure about how to present yourself, then chances are you do engage in it.  Do yourself a favor and honestly assess the achievements you include in your cover letter.  Do they all communicate that you are a tenurable colleague?  If not—delete, delete, delete.