Writing Your Book While Juggling Teaching and Kids (A Guest Post)

A reader wrote asking for a post on how to write a book while working at a teaching-intensive university.  I put out a request for a guest post on the subject on Facebook, and Katherine Vukadin responded with this account of writing a book while teaching a heavy schedule and taking care of three young children at home.  (Katherine’s bio is below).  Thank you, Katherine, for this inspiring guest post!

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A book!  We should write a book.”  My colleague stood at my office doorway, her excitement irresistible.  “A book of legal writing exercises–and answers.”  The idea was a good one.  At a previous law school, I had heard professors bemoan the lack of such a book.  But how would we write it?  We were assistant professors with just one or two years on the tenure track, we taught time-consuming legal writing courses, and we held committee assignments that seemed to expand by the day.  

Home was demanding too.  My kids were four, six, and eight at the time.  My spouse worked long hours.  Write a book?  Surely not.  And yet . . .  the idea was a good one.  Would such a window ever open again?  “Yes!  Yes, I’m in,” I heard myself say.  

We spent the month of May grading papers and reading up on book proposals.  Six months later we had a contract in hand, and fourteen months after that, the completed manuscript to Legal Analysis: 100 Exercises for Mastery.  How did it happen?  The process wasn’t perfect.  The book isn’t perfect.  But it’s done, we love it, and we survived.  Our families are still with us.  Your process may be different from ours; it may be better.  Here, though, are a few thoughts on how we got it done.

Be passionate.  Your book idea must excite you.  It’s the book you looked for, but never found.  It’s the thing you need to say.  You will have to sell this idea, champion this idea, and sacrifice for it too, so make sure you believe in it and love it.  Next, get fired up to write.  For encouragement and non-nonsense tips, try Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeksand Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot.      

Ask up front for as much time as you can.  Our proposal gave us a year to write; our publisher sagely added a couple of months.  Many times, I was so grateful for this.  If you can get more time up front, ask for it.

Shrink what can be shrunk.  Say “no” as never before.  If asked to join a time-consuming committee, explain that this year, you can’t.  Because you can’t.  Contain your teaching obligations as much as possible.  This is not the year to revamp your lectures.  If your teaching is spread over five days, see if that can be tweaked before the semester begins.  If higher-ups see that a simple schedule change can help you publish more, they may be receptive.  

Schedule your writing time; be realistic.  The most productive writers at my institution and the writers on writing seemed to hit a common theme: squeeze in writing time and don’t wait for the “perfect” time.  This became my mantra too.  I used Wendy Belcher’s scheduling forms http://wendybelcher.com/pages/WorkbookForms.htmand wrote a big picture goal in on a yearly planner.  Each week had its own goal too, either in words (a goal of 2,000 words for a week for example) or in number of exercises.  If life throws you an unexpected event (a sudden two-hour hunt for a lost blankie or an attack of lice that must be addressed NOW), you can make up your work on another day within that week without blowing your goal.  

What about the children?  It’s tricky, of course, to write with small children.  I tried to make the absolute most of the days in December and May when my own classes were out, but the children were still in school.  During that period, I wrote in the mornings and graded at night.  When the kids were home, their down time or play time was my writing time.  I also wrote most days from 8 p.m. until about 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m.  We allow video games on Saturday afternoons, so Saturdays became good writing days; we also started the popular Sunday Movie Outing with Dad.  During the summer, the kids were in day camps about half the time, although camps can be pricey.  When the children were home and bored or bickering with each other, I bribed, wheedled, and begged–let Mommy work for one hour, and then we’ll go to the park, get ice cream, etc.  

At times, I felt guilty.  But the kids still thrived.  And the book had an unexpected positive side-effect.  When my oldest, who had most noticed the writing process, saw the book, he was elated and so proud.  He takes for granted that he can write a book when he wants to—because that’s just what people do.  He’s seen it done.  I had only considered the down side for the kids, but there is a huge up side too.   

Know your limits and circumstances.  We aimed to make just someprogress during the school year.  We did not schedule any writing during the weeks that we conferenced with each one of our students, for example.  But a summer alone may not be enough time to start and finish a large project.  If you squeeze in some work during the year, you’ll be all set when summer hits.
Do something.  If you can’t face the thought of writing on a given day, do some other task for your project.  Read a source once again.  Re-read what you’ve written.  Or force yourself to write just fifty or a hundred words.  Try one method Daniel Pink used in writing his bestseller Drive: sit down and make yourself write five hundred words before you do anything.  And he means anything!

Bring it.  Frustrated with lost time in car pool lines, doctors’ waiting rooms and the like?  Bring along some small part of your project.  Even a rough draft to read or an article to peruse can inspire you and keep you thinking.  This probably won’t be your most focused work.  But again, something is better than nothing and momentum counts.

Accept help.  Help came in various forms.  Friends and family read book sections; colleagues and former colleagues talked to us about writing and contracts; family and fellow moms offered help with school pickups.  We gave our profound thanks, a grateful mention in our acknowledgements, and a rousing party when the book came out.  

Billy Joel said in a recent interview that he loves having written but hates writing.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/magazine/billy-joel-on-not-working-and-not-giving-up-drinking.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0  Writing is so hard, and so solitary, and so time-consuming.  But when you dig deep, and your book comes out, you will love having written.

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Katherine T. Vukadin is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University.  She was previously an associate at the law firm of Baker Botts L.L.P.  She teaches, researches, and writes in the areas of law school pedagogy, legal writing pedagogy, and health care policy. Professor Vukadin received her J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law and her B.A. from the University of Houston.

The Postdoc App: How It’s Different and Why

 

For the next few months I will be posting the “best of the best” Professor is in blog posts on the job market, for the benefit of all those girding their loins for the 2013-2014 market.  Today’s post was originally published in 2011.

 

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It has come to my attention that many junior people do not have a clear picture in their minds of the requirements of a postdoc application.

Some treat it too much like the job application. And some treat it too differently from the job application. The fact is, it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s quite different from a job application…..and yet many of the same principles apply.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the postdoc application is requiring a cover letter, a 4 page research proposal, a description of a proposed course, and a brief statement articulating how you will participate in the scholarly community of the campus. While not all postdocs will require this exact set of documents, by discussing these here, we can address the major requirements, expectations, and potential pitfalls of the typical postdoc application effort. I will take them in order.

Cover Letter

This cover letter will be very similar to your job cover letter as explained in this post. It will contain the standard set of paragraphs to start: introduction, dissertation, dissertation import, publications.  In all of this first part, the relevance of your work to the stated mission of the postdoc will be emphasized clearly.  This requires carefully tailoring the cover letter materials. It’s difficult but it must be done.  If your topic is Mexican women immigrant workers, then for a gender postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing gender relations at home or abroad; for a globalization postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects changing labor mobility globally; for a Latin American Studies postdoc, you will emphasize how the phenomenon reflects new economic circumstances in Mexico.  This tailoring requires an original recasting or reframing of your work to meet the mission of the postdoc!  Failure to do this reframing means failure to get the postdoc.

After the discussion of research, the postdoc app letter will specifically discuss the plan of work for the postdoc year–ie, month by month, what new research and revisions will be made.

It will then include a very brief discussion of teaching experience (much shorter than for a regular job cover letter), followed by a discussion of the proposed class required by the postdoc, and how the proposed class will also advance the mission of the postdoc.

Lastly, in place of the typical tailoring paragraph, the letter will conclude with a brief paragraph explaining how the research and writing time of the postdoc will be used, how the scholarly community on campus will advance the project, and how the candidate will participate in said scholarly community.  The letter will be no more than 2 pages long.

The principle in operation here—and the one that too many applicants don’t seem to grasp—is that the campus is funding this expensive postdoc not so some random academic can come and sit in an office and write for a year, but rather, to “buy” the energy, contributions, and participation of an additional world-class scholar to their campus community for the period of that year. The postdoc, dear readers, is not meant to serve YOU. Rather, you are meant to serve the postdoc. That means, that in every document, you articulate how you will PARTICIPATE in campus/departmental scholarly life. You do this, however, as in all professional documents, without flattering, pandering, or begging. Rather, you identify faculty on campus with whom you would collaborate, and initiatives and programs on campus that are likely to house interdisciplinary conversations and debates to which your project relates, and you articulate clearly your interest in engaging with them in substantive ways.

4-Page Research Proposal

This research proposal looks very much like a grant application, and Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template will serve you well here, at least for the opening paragraphs. As in all research proposals you will want to open by proving the importance and urgency of your topic. Following the standard Dr. Karen template, you will construct the Proposal As Hero Narrative, with yourself in the role of Hero.

You may follow the Foolproof Grant Template all the way through to the point where it breaks off into things like budget and methodology. In place of those sections, you will focus entirely on timeline. The point of a postdoc research proposal is to, first, articulate an important and significant project, and second, articulate a coherent and feasible plan of work. It is this second element that most applicants fail to grasp.

Remember: the postdoc is not there to serve you, you are there to serve the postdoc. What does that mean? It means that the postdoc wants to see publications result from your time there. The postdoc wants to be mentioned in the acknowledgments of your book. The postdoc wants to be in the line, in the footnote, “this research was supported by generous funding from xxxxx.” The postdoc committee is going to judge the applications based on how likely it is that the applicant is going to efficiently and effectively use the time on campus to complete a specified set of publications. You will impress them when you include a month-by-month timeline/plan of work that shows explicitly what new archival/etc. research you will conduct, and when, what book chapters you will complete, and when, and what journal articles you will finish and submit, and when.

You will conclude this document with a strong and expansive conclusion that clearly shows how the postdoc year will play into your larger scholarly and career trajectory as a world-class scholar. Why? Because the postdoc wants to get part of the fame and glory that attaches to you as you move ahead in the world.

Postdocs are in the business of supporting the next generation of leaders in the scholarly world. To the extent that you represent yourself as a leader, you will do well. To the extent that you represent yourself as a little lost sheep desperately looking for a chance to get out of teaching for a year while you try and figure out what your book is about, you will do poorly. Be aware that the vast majority of postdoc applications are written by the latter.

Proposed Class Description

A point of vast confusion among postdoc applicants seems to be how to pitch the required class. Many applicants do not clearly grasp the difference between the postdoc and an adjunct. As such, the class they propose is one that is adjunct-level. Basically, applicants too often envision a course that is generic and basic. This is a mistake.

Postdocs are very expensive. If a campus wanted a generic and basic course, it would hire a cheap adjunct. There are many available. Instead, however, they are advertising for a postdoc. That means, they want a highly specialized course, that reflects the postdoc’s unique and distinctive scholarly program. The class can’t be absurdly specialized, of course. If the applicant’s specialization is the emerging gay male community in Jakarta, the course cannot be “Emerging Gay Male Communities in Jakarta.” Too narrow. Neither should it be “Introduction to Indonesia,” or “Gender and Sexuality.” Too broad. Rather, it should be pitched somewhere around, “Global Sexualities,” or “Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia,” or “Queer Globalizations.” The final choice for how to pitch the course will hinge on the climate of the department and the campus, and the postdoc mission itself—if it’s an Asian area studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize SE Asia, if it’s a gender postdoc, then you’d prioritize Global Sexualities, if it’s a transnational studies postdoc, then you’d prioritize Queer Globalizations. Get it? The tailoring happens here.

Statement of Participation in Campus Community

Here’s what the postdoc committee does not want: someone who arrives, walks into their allotted office, and is never seen again for the rest of the year. Here’s what they do want: someone who arrives and dives into the scholarly work of the department and the campus community. A postdoc is (should be) exempted from all service work on campus. However, the postdoc should make herself visible as an involved and interested departmental member. She should show up for brown bags and talks, symposia and conferences, and coffee and lunch with colleagues. In this statement, you articulate your orientation in that direction. Identify programs and initiatives in the department and on campus, by name, and discuss how you anticipate participating. Mention two or three faculty members by name, and how you look forward to engaging with them.

In all things, however, do NOT fall back into graduate student habits. You are NOT on campus to “learn from” or “study with” the scholars there. Rather, you ARE one of the scholars there. They may well learn from you. The proper stance here is that of a colleague who brings her own dynamic field of expertise to the campus, and who looks forward to energetic and innovative interactions with the colleagues there.

In sum, remember that, no matter how much you need that postdoc to get your book written, the postdoc is not there to serve you. You are there to serve the postdoc, but as a first-rank, world-class scholar and specialist in your field whose work speaks directly—DIRECTLY—to the mission of the postdoc. By virtue of your energy and brilliance, you cause the postdoc committee to pick you, out of all the competitors, to spend the year on their campus, sharing your work, and augmenting their teaching and intellectual profile and advancing their scholarly cause. Remember, make them want you.

The Dutch Academic Job Market for Americans and Other English Speakers (A Guest Post)

One of my blog commenters, Veronica Davidov, who has worked for many years in the Netherlands, remarked that American job seekers would benefit from knowing more about the Dutch job market, which is relatively open to American candidates. I asked her for a guest post, which she has kindly provided.  Thank you, Veronica!

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Veronica Davidov is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Leiden University College.  She previously worked as a Lecturer in Globalization and Development at Maastricht University.  She has lived and worked in the Netherlands for almost five years.  You can find out more about her work on her website, veronicadavidov.com

The Dutch academic market is not very well-known in the US (in my experience).  But it should be:  English is the working language of a large part of Dutch academia, and the market is very open to American scholars and researchers in a way that French, German, or Belgian academic markets are not.  I put this post together drawing on email exchanges I have had with friends who have taken up employment in the Netherlands in the last few years, and contacted me prior to accepting their jobs, to make sense of some of the cultural and institutional differences.

Recruitment and employment: all Dutch academic jobs are published on one central websites, www.academictransfer.com.  This includes PhD positions (as those are “employee” rather than “student” positions here), postdocs, and full and part time faculty jobs.  Dutch universities also recruit through jobs.ac.uk and sometimes through CHE job boards, especially for jobs that are in English-language faculties and programs.

The hiring process is somewhere halfway between the American multi-level videogame-like campus visit experience and the UK minimalist one.  It is standard for the whole thing to last several hours.  For the first job I had in the Netherlands, I flew for an interview from the US.  The visit started at 10 am with an hour-long interview with two faculty members of the program into which I would be appointed and the dean of faculty, followed by lunch with the same two faculty members, and then a 30 minute research talk, open to faculty and students.   By 2 pm I was done. The second job I got in a different Dutch university had a campus visit that consisted of a one-hour sample class, one-hour research talk, and one-hour interview with the search committee (including the dean), back-to-back.  

Negotiations are similar to the UK system, or any US state or city system with clear salary scales and a comprehensive union contract.  All Dutch universities have an identical union contract, as they are all in a sense public/government jobs (there are private universities in the Netherlands but they are unlikely to be the ones hiring foreign staff, with the exception of American-based Webster University, which operates a campus in Leiden, and is indeed outside the Dutch system).  The HR calculates which scale and step your experience corresponds to, and there is not much room for negotiation in most cases.  Universities subsidize “kennismigrant” (skilled worker) permits for foreign employees; foreigners are also eligible for something called “the 30% rule” under which 30% of one’s income is untaxed.  This is an incentive from the Dutch government to recruit foreign talent, and (presumably) to offset some of the financial disadvantages one has living in the Netherlands as a foreigner who is ineligible for certain benefits, for example social housing or housing allowance.  The university is also supposed to buy you a bicycle every 3 years (or otherwise subsidize commute costs), although for some reason this rule seems to be erratically followed, depending on the university and the HR office.  

The types of positions (University Docent I, University Docent II, UHD (Associate Professor, Professor) are described in the Collective Labor Agreement, so I will just refer you to that document (http://www.staff.leiden.edu/h-r/cao/cao-and-regulations.html) and instead here spend a bit of time on things that are crucial but less codified.  As is the case everywhere, the Dutch university system is increasingly neoliberalized.  There are more and more fixed-term appointments.  While some are renewable, there are no infinitely renewable situations here—Dutch law stipulates that after three contract renewals one receives a permanent contract, so the universities will let people go before that condition is met if thy are not on the tenure-track.  Tenure process can vary from university to university.  At some universities the process is increasingly similar to the American system, with the tenure process taking 5 years, and the applicant undergoing a review based on their achievements in research, teaching, and service.  At others, there is still the “soft tenure” system, where permanent contracts are awarded after three years as long as the annual performance reports have been satisfactory.  In either case, the important thing about tenure at a Dutch university is that it is decoupled from promotion.  It is possible and common to be tenured as an assistant professor, and stay in that position until retirement, which is mandatory at the age of 65.  At some faculties it is literally impossible to advance to associate or full professorship for reasons of faculty politics and budget constraints.  At most faculties promotion to Associate or Full is contingent not on an ongoing track record of publications but on winning major grants, either from the NWO (the Dutch equivalent of the NSF and the NEH rolled into one), or through the ERC (the European Research Council).  The European Commission administers a grant program called a “Marie Curie Incoming Fellowship” specifically for non-European researchers coming to European universities.  

Winning such a grant can in some cases mean an instant promotion, but the grants are increasingly hard to get and the granting agencies increasingly favor projects with “applied” or “policy relevance” potential.  The grants are especially hard to get if one does not get in “on the ground floor” of the grant system.  The NWO has a series of individual grants for each stage of a research career—the Veni, a grant for 250,000 EUR, that buys one three years of teaching-free research time, is available for early-career researchers, the Vidi for mid-career researchers, and the Vici, the largest one, for established scholars.  While in principle anyone can apply as long as they fit the official criteria, it is common knowledge that it is much easier to get a Vidi if you had a Veni, and it is virtually impossible to have a Vici without having one or two of the “earlier” grants.  So, the system is good for job stability (if you are on the tenure-track), but erratic for advancement, unless you are one of the people who lucked into a succession of grants.  This is not to say that publications don’t matter—they do, they just don’t have the dramatic impact of such mega-grants.  Also, with publications, generally articles are more important than books—even in fields that might be “book fields” in the US.  Many Dutch faculties have a list of journals in which their faculty should be publishing, with a point system assigned to journals in different tiers, and scholarship criteria primarily focus on peer-reviewed journal publications. The symbolic economy of book publishers differs quite a bit from the US as well.  Outside the big names (Harvard, Yale, Stanford), American university presses are not as well-known, and not necessarily as desirable as, for instance, placing a volume with one of the Dutch academic presses (Amsterdam University Press, Brill) or with Routledge, Palgrave, or Praeger.  

There is a strong sense in Dutch academia that it is “Americanizing” in some ways.  Dutch universities are very open to hiring American scholars (especially ones from elite universities), and in the recent years Dutch universities have been increasingly interested in developing spaces for liberal arts education at the undergraduate level, similar to, and sometimes modeled after, the American SLACs.  These institutions are called “university colleges” and at this point many major universities have one (UvA and VU share one, Leiden and Maastricht have one each, and Utrecht University has two—Utrecht University College and The Roosevelt Academy; Erasmus University is set to open its own UC this fall).  While regular Dutch universities have open admissions, and students choose a specific fixed courses of pre-professional study early on, University Colleges have selective admissions and draw students who are interested in a broad liberal arts, interdisciplinary approach to BA-level education.  As with SLACs, appointments at UCs are likely to be teaching-heavy or teaching-only, and classes are likely to be capped at 15 or 20.  

The working culture in the Netherlands is very stereotypically European in that weekends are sacred, and so are vacations (mostly—on occasion there will be Open Days that different faculties plan for student recruitment on Saturdays).   At work there is generally more teamwork than one might be used to at American universities.  Co-teaching classes in one way or another is common; designing a syllabus literally by committee may also be common, depending on the faculty and the department.  There is a lot of service and there are many meetings.  Sometimes I have three meetings in a day for the various service committees I am on.  Such a normatively collaborative atmosphere may be very appealing for some—I have come to appreciate it a lot–and frustrating for others, especially if you are not used to the amount of bureaucratic work you might be expected to do as faculty, or to making sure your syllabus complies with a template not of your choosing.  

A recent rule in Dutch academia is that every faculty member at every university has to achieve a BKO certificate.  BKO stands for Basiskwalificatie onderwijs, in translation—Basic Qualification in Education.  Every university and faculty has its own procedure for how that assessment is made, but in principle everyone must submit a teaching portfolio to a BKO committee, which will assess it on the basis of certain rubrics.  Because this is a mandated requirement, most job ads for academic jobs in the Netherlands today mention the BKO or the willingness to earn one as a prerequisite.  

One last thing to consider that I think is indicative of the cultural differences between the Netherlands and the US—the expectations around what goes into a letter of reference.  If you ask a Dutch colleague to write you a letter, they are likely to write a very balanced assessment of your character, doing a strengths and weaknesses analysis and explaining why you would be effective in a particular position.  The adjectives that make up a “glowing” letter of reference are likely to be absent from such a letter.   The letter is also likely to be much shorter than what American letters look like.  Conversely, although many Dutch academics are familiar with the American style of reference letters, some find the standard heaps of praise excessive and difficult to “use” in terms of figuring out whether the person would be a good colleague.  This is a helpful thing to remember if one considers applying for a job in the Netherlands; it is even more important to remember if one decides to apply for jobs back in the US after working in the lowlands.   Well-meaning Dutch colleagues may end up damning you with faint praise with American search committees not attuned to this particular intercultural difference.  

I want to end with the caveat that although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands for 5 years, at two different universities, and I think I have some insight into how Dutch academia works, the aspects I wrote about are representative in some ways, but of course the Dutch academia is not monolithic, and different universities and departments function in different ways.  So this is not meant to offer definitive generalizations about the Dutch university system, but rather to provide an overview of an academic market that many American job-seekers are not familiar with, and give the readers a sense of the possibilities and limitations in this academic context.  

 

The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)

For the next few months I will be posting the “best of the best” Professor is in blog posts on the job market, for the benefit of all those girding their loins for the 2013-2014 market.

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Today we have another Special Request post, this one coming from Liz, who asks, “You’re always telling us ‘not to act like graduate students.’ But how do I know when I’m doing it??” Thanks for asking this, Liz. It is an excellent question, especially at the start of the conference and job season.

O, you graduate students! What am I going to do with you?

How am I going to explain to you all of the ways that you sabotage and undermine yourselves, with the best of intentions, and with complete lack of self-awareness?

I wish I could grab each and every one of you, get up in your grill, and say “stop it!”

But alas, I have only the means of this blog. So I will do what I can. I will list the ways that grad students act like grad students. I will name the behavior, describe it, and then explain how and why that behavior sabotages you in a job market situation.

1. You drone on and on about your dissertation.

Oh. My. God. People. Stop talking about your dissertation!!!!! Nobody wants to hear about your dissertation!!!!! We do not care about your dissertation!!!!!

Job market: one of the primary “instant reject” cover letter types is the one that spends more than one paragraph on the dissertation. Remember from this post: search committees don’t want to know about your dissertation beyond proof that you wrote one and it’s (soon to be) finished and defended. What they want to know is how that dissertation accomplishes specific goals that serve the hiring department: ie, produces refereed publications, intervenes in a major scholarly debate, wins grants and awards, translates into dynamic teaching, transforms quickly into a book, inspires a viable second project.

In interview situations, learn to talk about your dissertation in short, punchy bursts, no more than a sentence or two long.  This gives your interlocutor the chance to say, “How interesting! Tell us more about that.”  To which you respond in another short, punchy burst.

Please recall that interviews are dialogues.  They are not monologues.  Think of a tennis match.  They lob the ball, you lob the ball back.  Rinse and repeat.

2. You think people are out to get you in your department.

Enough with the paranoia, people! Finis! Stop now.

With very rare exceptions, faculty barely even think about the graduate students in their departments. Except to ask, once a year, whether they’re on track to defend so that the Dean can stop hassling the department for its low completion rate.

The people in the department want you to finish. Period. Whatever that takes, that’s what they want you to do. So just do that, ok?

Job market: paranoia is extremely unattractive and a major red flag signalling an immature candidate not ready for prime time. You may think that your dark insinuations of how “my project really offended some people in my department” make you look mysterious and desirable, but actually they make you look tiresome. Regardless of how you were treated in your department, you say nothing but collegial things about it on the market. Period. Because how you talk about your Ph.D. department signals how you will talk about your future department. And your future department wants a colleague who has a positive attitude.

3. You think people are out to get you in your discipline.

You’re sure that your “radical” perspective/argument/position/stance has earned you powerful enemies in the field. It very likely has not. Very likely few people are even thinking about you. If you’re getting negative responses to your work, it’s very likely not because your argument single-handedly overturns the foundational orthdoxy of your field and has inspired widespread jealousy and resentment. No, it’s because the work is not yet good enough. As irritating as most professors are, they generally do respect sound argumentation backed up with intensive evidence. Provide those, and chances are your “radical” perspective will get a balanced hearing. I’m not saying you won’t have to fight for your perspective. But it will be a fair fight, not a case of your total persecution by the “powers that be” in your field.

Job market:  Dark tales of victimization at the last conference and mutterings about how “my argument has really pissed off some people in the field” will not make you look mysterious and desirable. They will make you look like a drama queen. And one thing no search committee wants? A drama queen.

4. You constantly repeat your main point.

Graduate students are insecure. This is understandable, because their status is insecure. One outcome of the insecurity is that you tend to “pile on” examples that “prove” that your topic is a legitimate one. It’s the classic dissertation disease of seeing your topic in every single thing in the universe. Everyone suffers this to some degree while writing the dissertation.

Job market: The “piling on” of examples is a hallmark of immature writing and an insecure identity. Search committees will reject anyone who appears immature and insecure. Search committees are looking for someone who already speaks and writes like an employed colleague. What that means is someone who is confident that their topic is sound, who gives a reasonable amount of evidence for the topic, but then quickly moves on to why the topic is important and path-breaking, and how the topic intervenes in major, top-tier debates in the scholarly field.

5. You make excuses for yourself.

This is the one that if I had superpowers, I would reach through your computer screen, grab you by your collar, and shake out of you. Right now.

Graduate students are so conditioned to dealing with intimidating advisors and committees that they’re like the Pavlov’s dogs of excuses.

Professor: Hi, how are you?

Grad student: I’m sorry I didn’t get that chapter in to you! I got sick over the weekend, but I’ll have it done this week, I promise!

Professor: You were sick? How are you feeling now?

Grad student: I have a 102 fever but it’s ok—I spent the morning in the library and as soon as I get through teaching my 3 sections I plan to skip dinner and make up for the writing I didn’t get done over the weekend!

Professor: Wow, take care of yourself.

Grad student: It’s ok! I can write through the delirium!

Stop that! Stop it now!

Job market: When someone on the search committee asks, “how would you teach our Intro course?” You do NOT answer in any of the following ways:

  • I haven’t really had a chance to teach a big course but I’m a quick study and think I can learn fast!!!”
  • I’m not sure how your department likes it to be done so I’d definitely follow your lead on that.”
  • I taught it last year but it didn’t really go all that well so I’d want to make a lot of changes.”

No, those are excuses. Instead, you answer in one of these ways:

 

  • I love the chance to teach large courses because I get to reach a new set of undergraduates and turn them on to how fascinating our field is!”
  • I will use XXX textbook because I find that to be the best one, and I will augment it with some interesting and unconventional materials like xxx and xxx.”
  • I will take a balanced approach that introduces the xx perspective and the yy perspective. Obviously my own work falls more in the xx perspective, but it’s important in an Intro class that the full scope of the field is well represented.”

Get it? You are the expert. You are the authority. You are in command.

The cover letter version of this advice:  Don’t discuss what your dissertation doesn’t do or still needs to address.  Focus exclusively on what it does achieve.  Embrace the positive.  Banish the negative.

No. Excuses.

6.  You’re submissive.

Graduate students tend to display the classic signs of submission—tilted head (ref: your puppy), bowed shoulders, tightly crossed legs, weak and vague hand gestures, a querulous, questioning tone. They have a wimpy, cold fish handshake.  They avoid direct eye contact.  They mumble and mutter and talk too fast, and above all, they ramble in an unfocused and evasive way. They will often either smile and laugh too much, or conversely be grimly humorless (a sense of humor being one of the first casualties of the graduate school experience).  They also display their lack of capital through old, worn clothes and ungroomed hair.

Few people have ALL of these traits, to be sure.  But most grad students have some of them.

Job market: Search committees are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student. You must appear at your interviews as if you are a person who is already successfully employed as an assistant professor. Your clothes must be new and must fit you at your current weight, and be hemmed (sleeves, pants, skirt) to the appropriate length. Your clothes must be more formal than is customary in your department, because interviews require formal clothes. Your hair must be cut and styled. You must wear decent shoes that are appropriate for professional settings.

More to the point, you must square your shoulders, straighten your back, lift your chin, and loosen your elbows. Take up ALL the space in the chair (you can do this even if you are a small woman—it’s in the body language). Make direct eye contact. Do not, under any circumstances, fuss with your hair, clothes, or jewelry. Speak in a firm, level tone. Women, work on any tendency to a high pitched nasal tone. Speak in a lower register if you can—lower tones are the tones of authority, for better or worse. Smile in a friendly way at the beginning and end, but not too much while you’re talking about your work. Your work is important and deserves a serious delivery.   If a joke arises naturally in the conversation, though–run with it.  Search committees love a sense of humor, when it’s displayed in the course of smart collegial repartee.

Do. Not. Ramble.

Have short and pithy responses rehearsed so that they trip off your tongue easily and fluently. Always give the search committee the chance to say, “Oh, how interesting, tell us more!” And then follow up with another short and pithy elaboration.

To repeat: Do. Not. Ramble.

And lastly, the handshake. Oh my god, the handshake. If you do nothing else from this post, please, I beg you, do this. Get up from your computer, go find a human, and shake their hand. Shake it firmly. Really squeeze! Outstretch your arm, grip their hand with all your fingers and thumb, look them firmly in the eye, smile in a friendly, open way, and give that hand a nice, firm shake. Repeat. Do this until it’s second nature. If it doesn’t feel right or you aren’t sure if you’re doing it right, find an alpha male in your department, and ask him to teach you.

Banish the wet noodle handshake.

Seriously, grad students, butch it up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How To Identify Yourself as a Diversity Hire

One of the most important things a job document can do is communicate an applicant’s status with regard to diversity hiring. If you qualify as a diversity hire, you must make sure the committee knows it. But how does one do that? In my work with clients, I find that they tend to either not mention it all because they don’t know how, or else devote an entire paragraph of the job letter to a long, involved, sometimes overwrought story about all the painful trials and tribulations they had to overcome to get the Ph.D. and how passionate they are about mentoring students in similar circumstances.

Both of these are mistakes. The first, obviously, because diversity hiring is a door that you want to make sure is open to you, if you qualify. The second, because even when speaking of your identity, you still have to remember the basic rules of job documents: show, don’t tell, eschew adjectives and emotion, focus on professional outcomes not personal process, remain factual and evidence-based.

Here’s one method that works. In the basic template of the job letter described in the Why Your Job Letter Sucks blog post, open the paragraph on teaching with this phrase: “As a Native American/African American/Latina/queer/disabled scholar, I am sensitive to issues of diversity in the classroom/I prioritize a diversity of perspectives in my classroom/I make a point to include a range of diverse voices in my classroom. In all of my courses I assign readings by xxx and yyy, and incorporate projects that include ppp and qqq….” You can then add a line such as, “because of my background I am familiar with challenges faced by students of color/queer students/students with disabilities, and am committed to mentoring them for success in the university setting.”

Why does this work? Because it makes your identity an asset in your work for the department. You are showing in concrete and evidence-based ways how your identity informs and enriches your pedagogy, and by extension the pedagogical offerings of the department as a whole.

You can of course write similarly with regard to your research, but the advantages here, in terms of the job search, are not as clear. Departments are going to be less moved by invoking diversity in research than they are by invoking it in teaching, because departments are under the gun to demonstrate to higher administration, accrediting agencies, state legislatures, and the community at large that they are not elitist bastions that train only the white and the wealthy. Indeed, as my niece said recently, about her experience collecting recruitment brochures from colleges across the country, “you’d think that no white kids go to college at all…” so intent are the brochures to proclaim (usually not very truthfully) the supposed diversity of their student body.

In any case, the larger point here is this. A flat statement of identity, or a story of struggle based on identity, is valuable in many contexts but not in job documents, because these do not do the work that your job documents need to do. To be effective, your identity has to be shown to inform your contributions to the department, and that is achieved by showing in factual and unemotional ways how it is mobilized in your classroom teaching and student mentoring.

A little goes a long way in this. Just the line, “As a xxxx scholar…” immediately identifies you as a candidate who can be considered a diversity hire. Search committee members are alert to this and will not miss it.

By the way, in my examples I included queer and disabled as examples of diversity identities, but in terms of university hiring in the United States, these may or may not “qualify” as diversity hires. The criteria will vary by campus and department, and in some cases by the priorities of the particular hire. In STEM fields just being a woman is often “diverse.” I’m not making any statements here in this post about what does or should constitute a diversity hire. I’m making the point that if your identity plays a role in your status on the job market in your field, there are better and worse ways to signal that in your job documents.

Of Cover Letters and Magic (A Follow-up Post)

There is some advice I give that I believe in fiercely and will defend to the death (ref: Should I Do an Edited Collection?).

And then there is some advice I give that I am very willing to concede may be wrong or at least, less than completely (or universally) right. It seems my advice of last Friday, “How to Write a Journal Article Submission Cover Letter” might fall in the latter category. It’s drawn enough friendly critical commentary on the blog and on an FB thread to suggest that the instructions I give for the letter may be inappropriate for many journal contexts.

There seem to be two critiques: the first is that in many cases no cover letter—or no substantive cover letter—is required at all, and this is an outdated and obsolete practice. The second is that a cover letter may be required, but it should not contain the elements that I suggest, particularly the self-introduction in paragraph one, and the suggested reviewers in paragraph three.

Unless you know for sure that the practices I suggest are the convention for your field, please take the time to investigate their appropriateness for your particular journal article submission. Take particular care with the issue of listing suggested reviewers, which could be very wrong indeed!

The first thing I’d suggest to anyone wondering how to go about submitting a manuscript to a journal is to carefully read the instructions for submission; you may find the clarification you need there on these matters.

The second thing I’d suggest is that you inquire carefully of senior people in your field, and follow field-specific conventions.

The third thing I’d suggest, if you are still anxious, is to send an email to the specific journal editor inquiring as to the need for a cover letter, and clarifying what it should contain.

It is very possible that you need nothing more than a few lines like, “here is a submission; it hasn’t been submitted elsewhere; here is my contact info.”

The responses to the post didn’t come as a huge surprise to me, actually.  I was not entirely comfortable with the idea of this post to begin with. I now wish I’d paid more attention to my own instincts.

Over the past couple of years I have been frequently asked for advice on the journal submission cover letter, just as I am constantly asked for advice on the proper form of the post-campus visit thank you note. I have always considered both of these requests to be of a kind—a somewhat strange preoccupation of my readership with an overly nice (as in fastidious or exacting) concern for protocol in minor contexts. I have often wondered about this.

I probably should have prefaced my original post with that observation, that the journal submission cover letter, like the post-campus visit thank you note, is a genre of writing that really ought not to merit the level of anxiety so often directed to it.

Indeed, in response to the email request from my rock-star former client that finally prompted me to write this post, I wrote, “The cover letter? But, it’s such a piddling little thing. Why are you getting hung up on THAT?”

This rock-star client is hung up enough about the cover letter that it is becoming a small obstacle to getting manuscripts submitted.

I think that this may be the crux of the matter. Everyone is anxious about their publishing, just as everyone is anxious about their campus visit stage performances. Where uncertainty in high stakes situations is rife, the anthropologist Malinowski observed, the practice of magic will be found.

We find magic wherever the elements of chance and accident, and the emotional play between hope and fear, have a wide and extensive range. We do not find magic wherever the pursuit is certain, reliable,and well under the control of rational methods (Malinowski, 1954)

I think it’s not far fetched to consider the DEGREE of concern about the journal article cover letter and the post campus visit thank you note that I have observed to be an instance of magical thinking, and a very natural human response to the obscenely high stakes, at the present moment, of publishing and the job search. (My client, it’s worth noting, is at an institution that requires two books and a handful of articles for tenure.  Short of magic, how is anyone to accomplish that?)

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that it’s irrational to wonder about the proper form of this writing. I’m saying that the degree of intensity that I observe focused on these two relatively minor genres of writing is out of proportion to their importance.

Some might say that my focus on the minutiae of all job documents has a magical quality to it, but I of course disagree. These documents are cases where good and effective writing has a clear capacity to achieve or advance a desired outcome. But the thank you note and the article cover letter have no impact on outcome—they play no role in the review process that will inevitably ensue.

In any case, I wish I’d heeded my instincts and responded to my client, “Dude, get over yourself and submit the damned manuscripts.” And I wish I’d written a post that raised this meta-question first, before descending into “rules” that could well enable magical thinking.  In any case, it’s very likely you need something different than what I wrote in the blog post to accompany your journal article manuscript; I urge you to find out yourself what that is, for your particular field and journal context, and then move on and devote no further attention to this subject.

How To Write a Journal Article Submission Cover Letter

Today’s post is a special request post for several clients who have written to inquire how to write a cover letter for the submission of an article manuscript to a journal.

****Addendum (4/29/13):  Please read the follow up to this post, “Of Cover Letters and Magic,”  as it retracts some of the advice given in  this post!****

This is pretty straightforward. 

First, by all means follow any instructions given to you for the cover letter on the journal submission website!  Those will override anything I say here.

Assuming there are no instructions, the following is common:

The letter should be on letterhead if it is available for your use. The letter will typically be just one page long.

It will have proper letter heading material, ie, the date and the address of the recipient at the top left, under the letterhead.

It will address the editor by name, if the name is known.

It will then have four short paragraphs. The first introduces the writer, and follows the basic format of the intro para of the job cover letter described in this post (ie, field, Ph.D. institution and year, current institutional affiliation and status, and general focus of work). It then states that the writer is submitting a manuscript for review.

The second paragraph covers the topic of the manuscript. This will be a crisp 4-5 sentences that will give a title and describe the topic, the specific material/data covered, the theoretical orientation or approach, any special issues of methodology if important, and, most importantly, the core argument.

The third paragraph will be shorter, and will take about 2-3 sentences to describe the manuscript’s contribution to the field and the suitability of the manuscript to this particular journal based on topic, theme, or methodological or theoretical approach, with reference to other work recently published in the journal.

The final paragraph will list 2-3 possible reviewers for the manuscript, and will thank the editor for considering the manuscript for publication. Contact info can be added here.

Sign off, “Sincerely, XXX.”

And that is about it.

 

 

 

Chronic Illness, Disability and Heternormativity on the Tenure Track (A Follow-Up Guest Post)

This post is a follow-up to the guest post earlier this week, “The Real Life of a Tenure Track Faculty Person.”  That post generated an enormous amount of reaction and comment that is still going on.  One of the commenters asked to know a bit more about the chronic illness that the writer had referred to in her original post.  The writer saw the request and responded with this follow-up.  I put it in the comment stream of the earlier post, but I’m also putting it here as a new post in its own right, because I think that it raises extremely important but rarely addressed issues of disability and ablism, as well as heteronormativity (and the ways that these get intertwined through the train wreck that is American health insurance) in the academic community.

KK 4/2105 update:  please read this excellent recent blog post on chronic illness and the academic career.

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I have a chronic illness that can causes debilitating pain (and by debilitating, I mean a flare up can land me in the ER). In my experience, working in the corporate sector (for-profit and non-profit alike) came with much lower hours and deliverable demands than academia, but I really did not do well with a 9-5 schedule. I would rapidly exceed the standard 2 weeks of sick leave in such a job, because I would be unable to work around the times I was in pain. In my academic job, I work more hours and have more stress (more deadlines, more deliverables, more challenges) but I also only have to be on campus for my classes, meetings, and office hours. This means that many of my hours can be moved around according to my health. I rarely miss anything, because even if I am in a good deal of pain, I can usually suffer through a 3-hour class or meeting and then go home and rest. The biggest advantage, for me, was that I was less stressed simply by having more flexibility to respond to my pain level, and this caused my condition to flare up less frequently (since flare-ups happen more frequently under chronic stress).

In terms of scheduling, I don’t know how most departments work, but in my department we have an excellent team-oriented approach. We are required to be on campus three days a week, but not necessarily all day long. Each of us have a top priority when we negotiate for our schedule each semester. This might be having certain days off, times off, etc. We all must work an occasional class in the times/days no one wants, but you can opt for all early mornings or all late nights, if you want (since these are both undesirable times). Even our senior faculty take their turns. It is a very equitable and friendly situation, which I am aware is not always the case in all departments.

One of the problems I have with how we often approach graduate school and academia is the ableism that runs rampant, and the assumptions about what others’ living costs “ought to be.” This is, in fact, a problem in many working environments, but perhaps I expect more out of academics in terms of humaneness and mindfulness of diversity. In my case, I not only live in an expensive city, but I also have my own chronic illness and a partner who has a (for now) chronic disabling injury. I don’t have the perfect scenario of a partner who brings in an equal income to mine and because I am in a gay relationship, we are penalized by both not receiving a marriage tax benefit (i.e., I am taxed at a single rate) and a very high tax on my partner’s health benefits (yes, we’re still grateful to have them, but it means I pay a bonus rate tax of around 30% on her benefits). This equates to about $6,000 of lost net income per year from my salary. In addition, we must pay for alternative medical treatments that keep each of our health conditions and pain manageable. I suppose that if we were both completely healthy and not gay, and therefore I made $500 more per month and we had a dual income household, that we could do all the wonderful things that everyone is talking about — owning a home (which comes with additional tax benefits we can’t get due to our situation), having a child, and being in a better situation all around.

It is easy to say that my situation is unique and others would be better off. Except it isn’t unique. I’d say about half my colleagues and friends have health needs not covered by insurance. Other colleagues have failing parents who they struggle to care for as they fly back and forth; they can’t just relocate as you can in other sectors and taking time off during the push for tenure can be deadly to your career. And all of my gay colleagues face the same problems because of DOMA, which means they basically pay a higher federal tax to be in a gay relationship. Many colleagues are in departments with few resources, who increasingly use their homes (for events and meetings), computers and phones, and personal funds to keep their department’s services and their own research afloat.

I think perhaps it did not come across clear enough in the original post. I love my life. I love my job. I love my students. I love my colleagues. I chose this over the corporate life I used to lead. Saying there are some serious work-life balance and salary:cost-of-living issues (at least in large metro areas), as well as rampant ableism, ageism, and in some disciplines sexism (which reduce your capacity to be picky about where you end up), is pointing out trade-offs and concerns about the humaneness of academia. As I said, I won the job lottery. I’m grateful. But I was trained as a social scientist to be critical of institutions and their cultures, and we do have problems in academia — problems that aren’t fixed just by procuring the TT job.

The Real Life of a Tenure Track Faculty Person (A Guest Post)

This guest post came out of a conversation that’s been percolating among readers on the blog, facebook page, and over email, about the actual financial risks and repercussions of doing a Ph.D..  Indeed, last week’s blog post, Should You Go To Graduate School?, catalyzed an intense debate in the comment stream about just how little a graduate student should be willing to live on to “live the dream” of the academic career.

Far less understood, however, is that even those who get the coveted tenure track position often still do not make enough to cover their actual day to day expenses, which may include unavoidably high rent or mortgage payments (depending on the locale), medical expenses when dealing with a health challenge, day care that is easily $1000 a month, as well as the payments on 5- or 6-figure undergraduate and graduate student loans.

I’ve helped hundreds of clients negotiate tenure track jobs, and the fact is that it’s a binarized (feudalized) economy, in which the ivy league and elite schools offer wonderful, generous packages to new hires, while “all the rest” offer salaries that are scarcely above 1996 levels, when I was on the market, and are often inadequate to cover the reasonable living expenses of my clients.

Salary stagnation in the face of escalating costs of living has undermined the middle class and the whole idea of the American Dream.  This is true in all spheres of the economy, not just academia.  Academia is just less honest about the real financial suffering attendant on the career choice.

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I’m currently “living the dream” as an academic.  I got a TT job after four years of searching during the recession.  Needless to say, I was thrilled, and I still feel like I won the job lottery.  But I have noticed that many of my graduate students as well as those who have not yet gotten a TT job have a rather unrealistic idea about what “living the dream” entails.  I’m going to try to provide a little window of insight into the real life of a TT faculty person in the first two years – the stuff that no one told me.  This is from my own experience as well as colleagues in a variety of disciplines who all entered TT in the last five years.

 

When you are offered the TT job, it usually includes a relocation package.  This is awesome, except that it may take several months for the university to reimburse your relocation expenses.  It also doesn’t pay for a whole host of major expenses, such as deposits.  When you relocate to a major urban center with a very high cost of living, as I did, this means you will need several thousand dollars you will not see again to give to your landlord and the utility companies.  You also want to be very careful about how you use your relocation funds, because the limited guidance the university often provides before you relocate is not necessarily what matches the very detailed requirements that higher level fiscal auditors have.  This may mean more delays in processing your reimbursement or some expenses not being reimbursable at all.

 

Additionally, at my position, our contract did not start until a couple days before the semester began.  Our contract, therefore, did not cover any of our time preparing fall classes during the summer, nor did it cover the summer pre-semester faculty meetings.  Be prepared to pay for 1-2 months of living expenses in your new location while working for free.  Health insurance did not kick in for an additional month after my contract began, so you will also need to plan for paying out of pocket for several months for insurance.  It is a real possibility you will get sick, which is normal when you combine limited sleep (more on this later) with relocating to a new place and exposing yourself to several hundred new people in the first month of work – your new students, who are a breeding ground for germs.  So be prepared to pay for insurance on your own (because you can’t go to a low-cost county program, because technically you are making a middle class salary, even though you have not seen a paycheck yet).  If you can’t afford all this, as many of us can’t, what you end up doing is spending all of your limited savings to relocate with no ability to pay for luxuries such as internet or phone, no health coverage, and no furnishings.  Basically, you go “all in” hoping that you’ll recover somehow in the following semester.

 

After surviving the first semester, which entails the financial stress of living like a middle class person without yet having a middle class income and working virtually every second, you enter the marathon of the first 2 years toward tenure.  During this time, be prepared to work approximately 60-70 hours per week.  Your contract will cover 9 months per year, and theoretically you have the summer off.  But you don’t actually have the summer off.  During this time, you must prepare your fall classes and do the bulk of your research and writing, because during the academic year you are too busy teaching and performing administrative service.  But it is a break, in the sense that you can work 40 hours per week.  During these first years, you must simultaneously develop a stable of classes (preparing lectures, activities, assessments, and content for 2-3 new courses each semester for a while), teach a couple hundred students in about three classes per semester (whose evaluations also count toward tenure, quite a lot at a teaching university like mine), prove that you are conducting new research (i.e., go after grants and conduct research that is not repeating your dissertation), write one or more publications per year, attempt to transform your dissertation into a book (which is a bit like doing the dissertation all over again, but with a lot more criticism and stress), attend endless meetings to be in service to your university, and waste a lot more time than you’d think answering emails and filling out paperwork.  In your few spare moments, you will attempt adjust to a new city where you know nothing and no one, and must find everything from a dry cleaner to a neighborhood you can both afford and not hate.  You have to love university life enough that you don’t mind working 50%+ more hours for the same pay (or less) that you’d get in the corporate sector and having virtually no work-life balance.

 

Before attaining the coveted promotion and tenure, you will likely make a very substandard income if you live in a high cost of living area – the very areas where most of the jobs are.  Be prepared for “middle class” to cost more money than you make, and to accept that on a professor’s salary, you are unlikely to be able to afford to buy a home in a decent neighborhood until you have received at least the first promotion.  For example, you may make around $60,000 per year and a two-bedroom home in a good neighborhood may cost $500,000 or more (compared to $1500 in rent on a one bedroom for the same area).  This means that many of my colleagues have delayed having children or opted to not have them, because they couldn’t afford a second bedroom or child-related expenses until they were in their mid-40s to early 50s.  If you have a spouse with a high income, it helps, but considering they may have to relocate and start over for you to take your TT job, it may actually pose a financial liability to be married.  Be prepared also to use a substantial chunk of your salary (in the realm of thousands of dollars per year) toward work-related expenses, including parking fees, union dues, building your library, attending conferences, paying professional association dues, equipment, and augmenting research funds while you wait for a large grant to come in.  Your university is likely to have some funds toward some of these things, but given budget cuts, will be unlikely to cover enough expenses to allow you to be free from having to substantially augment.

 

My strategy to deal with having expenses that were beyond my salary (such as alternative medical costs for my chronic illness that are not covered by insurance), aside from cutting corners elsewhere, was to continue doing limited consulting (which I had done prior to the TT job) in order to afford it all.  Given the reality of how many hours I work each year, on my salary I am paid $21 per hour (before taxes, mandatory pension, etc.) as an Assistant Professor (this is given 60 hours per week, 50 weeks a year – which really is about how much I work).  As a consultant, I make approximately $100-150/hour (pre-tax).  It is no wonder that I am willing to take on an additional few hours per week in consulting in order to pay for the “extras” of home furnishings, clothes, having pets, and my medical expenses.

 

Given all this, you may well say (as do all of my non-academic professional friends) that I am crazy to do what I do.  But I can’t help it.  I drank the academic kool-aid and I am addicted.  I get enormous fulfillment from seeing patterns in my data I never saw before and from seeing my students “get it” for the first time.  I love having the ability to work many of those 60 hours from my home office in my pajamas, and to work with my bio-rhythm (I get my best ideas and writing 4 pm to 1 am, so that 9-5 schedule really doesn’t work for me).  When I did much easier corporate work, I missed having the intellectual community of a university and the independence to lead my own research teams on whatever topics I fancied.  And I am stubborn.  I worked my entire childhood and adult life to get the perfect scores that would get me to this dream, and I’m not giving it up.  I am four weeks from the “finish line” of the end of my second academic year – the end of the period I’m told is the hardest of my career.  I now have a stable of classes, a book under review by a publisher, and a few large grants under review.  I’ll forgive the exhaustion and my biological clock telling me I am getting too old (with not enough resources) to have a child.  But my advice to my graduate students and colleagues – make sure you want to “live the dream” the way the dream really exists.  Be realistic – you will work long and stressful hours for very little pay… but if you love research and teaching as much as I do, you just might be crazy enough to love it and let go of what you miss.

Should You Go To Graduate School?

The “don’t go to graduate school” debate has flared up again this past week with the publication of this piece in Slate, “Thesis Hatement: Getting a Literature Ph.D. Will Turn You Into an Emotional Train Wreck, Not a Professor.  The author, Rebecca Schuman, is a terrific writer.

“Who wouldn’t want a job where you only have to work five hours a week, you get summers off, your whole job is reading and talking about books, and you can never be fired? Such is the enviable life of the tenured college literature professor, and all you have to do to get it is earn a Ph.D. So perhaps you, literature lover, are considering pursuing this path.

Well, what if I told you that by “five hours” I mean “80 hours,” and by “summers off” I mean “two months of unpaid research sequestration and curriculum planning”? What if you’ll never have time to read books, and when you talk about them, you’ll mostly be using made-up words like “deterritorialization” and “Othering”—And I can’t even tell you what kind of ass you have to kiss these days to get tenure—largely because, like most professors, I’m not on the tenure track, so I don’t know.

Don’t do it. Just don’t. I deeply regret going to graduate school… I now realize graduate school was a terrible idea because the full-time, tenure-track literature professorship is extinct. After four years of trying, I’ve finally gotten it through my thick head that I will not get a job—and if you go to graduate school, neither will you.

Schuman goes on to apply Kafka’s “A Little Fable,” of a mouse unable to run away from the cat, as her central framing device for the graduate school experience:

“The mouse wasn’t going in the wrong direction so much as it was walking cat food the entire time. A graduate career is just like this, only worse, because ‘A Little Fable’ lasts three sentences and is made up, while graduate school lasts at least six years and will ruin your life in a very real way. But, as in the fable, this ruin is predestined, and completely unrelated to how ‘right’ you do things.”

I really like this piece, as I like most exposes of the breathtaking bullshit surrounding the Ph.D. granting apparatus/ponzi scheme.  However, when I put the link up on the Professor Is In Facebook page, I also wrote, “And yet, some good people do, even now, get jobs, and nobody is actually a mouse–you can mobilize for the job market in a host of different ways-by publishing, by networking, and mostly, by making sure your application materials and interview skills don’t suck.”

Just don’t go” is really not adequate as advice regarding the decision to do a Ph.D., even in the humanities.

This point was made very quickly and well by Tressiemc,  who wrote an essay on her blog in response, claiming that blanket advice to not go to graduate school is its own form of elitism. 

“That advice is not wrong.

It is, however, a bit disingenuous about the implied comparison always being made. Namely, that one can do better.

But, what if one can’t do better? Like me, five years ago?

This is the case for many black students and I will try to unpack the Pandora’s box of structural and social processes that make it different.”

Writers of “just don’t go” pieces are typically white, privileged, and have, or can imagine, an alternative career as backup plan; they do not recognize that for some students from marginalized communities even the limited, circumscribed, or compromised outcomes of the Ph.D. may be far better ones than might otherwise be within their immediate purview.  I totally agree. The Ph.D. can still be an empowering step for some. 

I have also said before that too many privileged academics use the absysmal job market as an alibi to simply abandon their obligations to provide decent career advising to the Ph.D. students already enrolled.

However, be that as it may, some kind of advice is needed.  I am asked with some regularity by readers whether they “should do the Ph.D.”  This is what I say:

Understand that doing the Ph.D., especially in the humanities, is a terribly risky proposition financially. During the years in the program, even if you are “fully funded,” the quote-unquote full funding is inadequate to support most people’s actual expenses, particularly if they have a partner, children, a health challenge, or any other responsibilities.

Understand that if you do it, you almost certainly will not get a full time permanent tenure track academic job at the end that will even begin to make back the money you invested into the program. Even if you get a permanent job, the pay scale of faculty is low enough in most colleges and universities outside the elite schools, that you will be unable to pay off your undergraduate student debt or readily meet basic expenses like child care or medical expenses.

There is also opportunity cost. While in graduate school you will lose many years in the workforce. You will lose any trajectory toward seniority in any other field you might currently be in. You will experience perhaps a decade of lost wages and lost payment into social security; these losses will follow you through to retirement.

Understand that you will not be told the truth about this by anyone in any graduate program to which you apply.

If you still feel determined to consider this step, I would advise it be only under the following conditions:

  •  You do not have substantial debt from your undergraduate degree, that is to say, debt above $15,000-$20,000.
  • You are offered a full funding package that includes tuition waiver, all fees, and a stipend.
  • You take out absolutely no new debt to undertake the degree. This means that you must either be prepared to live on a stipend of approximately $15,000-$20,000 a year, have a partner/spouse/family member who can augment that stipend, or work a second job to augment the stipend yourself.
  • You go to one of the very best programs in the country, judged by funding available, prestige, and job placement rate. This is not because of elitism, but because only these programs deliver the financial support and connections that give you a fighting chance of a debt-free degree and permanent employment at the end.
  • You avoid any second or third tier Ph.D. program like the plague, regardless of what they appear to offer by way of programs in your area of interest. Your Ph.D. will not be competitive for a wide enough range of jobs at the end. Online Ph.D.s are beneath consideration.
  • You align yourself, before signing on, with an advisor who is well known, who is at the peak of his/her career (no asst profs, no emeritii), who has recently placed other Ph.D.s in tenure track jobs before you, and who is genuinely and personally invested in your arrival to the program. 
  • You understand that the system is entirely hierarchical and productivity-based, and you will be judged by your high-status output (publications in major journals, national grants, high profile conferences, famous recommenders) more than by the inherent “brilliance” of your ideas.
  • You approach academic pursuits as a job, not a calling.
  • You approach graduate school as vocational training for a job.
  • You do everything I say in the column, Graduate School Is a Means to a Job, religiously and without excuses.
  • You are under 35, and ideally, under 30. If you fail to find permanent employment within 3-4 years after completion of the Ph.D., this outcome will be far less disastrous if you are still in your thirties and can reinvent yourself for a different career track. The financial stakes for middle-aged people are exponentially higher, the risks exponentially greater, than for younger people.

With all of these conditions met, the choice to go to graduate school in the humanities may not be a completely ill-conceived one.  If however, you are thinking of graduate school primarily because you are “in love with” your topic, and “passionate about research,” and “can’t imagine your life doing anything else,” and all of these financial considerations “just don’t matter,” then you are in a state of profound mystification about the nature of the Ph.D., and should probably approach it only with the most profound caution. But you won’t.  Because nobody believes the things Schuman describes will happen to them until they do.