Working the Conference: A Letter from a Client

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


Dear Karen,

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

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

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

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

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

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


How Do I Address Search Committee Members?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Do I Ask If There Is An Inside Candidate?

You do not ask if there is an inside candidate.

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

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

Why?  Because it’s just Not. Done.

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

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

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

Do Your Homework! A Live Report From a Job Search

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

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

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

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

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

The Value of the Interview Bootcamp

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Phyllis’ official and unofficial biography:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How and Why to Write Collaboratively: A Guest Post

For the next bit of time I will be posting special guest posts early in the week, in addition to my regular Friday post.  These guest posts are kindly submitted by readers in response to requests that arise on the blog or Facebook page.  I appreciate readers’ willingness to provide these, and want to share them on the blog sooner rather than later.

Today’s guest post is by Roger Whitson, Assistant Professor of English at Washington State University, proponent of the digital humanities, and previous contributor to TPII on the subject of creating personal academic websites.

This post is on the value and techniques of successful collaboration with colleagues.  Collaboration can be treacherous, but also, if done right, one of the joys of an academic career.  Roger tells us what works for him.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add that in many humanities and humanistic social science fields, collaboration is dangerous indeed for a young scholar’s tenure case.  In the R1 tenure cases I served on, chaired, or handled as Head, co-authored articles counted for little toward tenure, and their presence on the record raised red flags at every level.  The humanistic sphere (in contrast to the hard sciences) still operates primarily on a solitary-scholar model, so evaluate collaborations very, very carefully and cautiously indeed, and consider postponing some of your collaborative goals until after tenure.


Nothing excites me more than collaborating with smart people. Exchanging ideas about teaching over lunch, skyping with digital humanities librarians about scholarship, writing an entire novel in a day, learning from others: all of these activities form the heart of what I love about higher education. In fact, my own interests in digital technology, teaching, and research stem from technologies that allow me to connect with my colleagues. I hate feeling like I’m locked inside my own academic bubble.

Collaboration is not simply about finding agreement. As William Blake – poet, printer, and Romantic theorist of collaboration – says “[o]pposition is true friendship.” Rebecca Burnett, in fact, “found that student groups that voiced disagreements as they analyzed, planned, and wrote a document produced significantly better documents than those that suppressed disagreement, going along with whatever was first proposed” (qtd in Locker 331). Blake and Burnett’s insights apply equally well to professional and academic collaborations. Collaboration is, as Andriessen et al. argue, a complex process of negotiation. It forces you to more clearly explain your arguments, mesh your arguments with the ideas of other people, and ultimately potentially produce better scholarship.

I say potentially because no process of collaboration is perfect. There are several things you should keep in mind when collaborating with other authors:

  1. Make sure you determine how you are going to collaborate before starting your work. The most important thing to remember about collaboration is that no one works in exactly the same way. Monograph collaborators will often simply assign each other different chapters, then worry about how those chapters fit together after drafting them. But even in this seemingly simple process, you need a detailed plan that helps articulate how you will work and who will get credit for what. You will find it much easier to resolve conflicts earlier in the process, especially if those conflicts involve the basic arguments highlighted in each chapter. Strategies: Consider drafting a project charter. The charter can help you list work expectations, envisioned research roles, how work can be used by each party, and a series of deadlines.
  2. Determine how separate writing voices will be incorporated into your project: If you simply write different chapters, you may quickly discover that you and your coauthor have very different writing voices. One example: when completing my most recent collaborative book, William Blake and the Digital Humanities, I found my voice to be much less tentative but also more uncompromising than my coauthor Jason Whittaker. I was forced to realize just how grating my own writing voice might be to those readers who might not entirely agree with my conclusions and learned to tone down many of my most extravagant rhetorical flourishes. Strategies: Apart from learning small things about your own writerly voice, you need to account for multiple voices in your work. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, for instance, merged their voices but also reveled in their multiplicity. In the prologue to A Thousand Plateaus, they called themselves “quite a crowd. […] Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit. To make ourselves unrecognizable, in turn. To render imperceptible, not ourselves, but what makes us act, feel, and think” (3). You may not want to make yourself imperceptible, so other strategies exist. Burnett, in a Skype interview with me suggested writing chapters constructed as a dialogue, such that while the second chapter might be in a different voice than the first, it is also responding to the first. She also mentioned using marginalia, text boxes, and other graphics to comment on each other’s chapters. If you don’t want to have a single voice, show how your voices differ yet also interact with one another.
  3. Be open to different thoughts, different voices, and unexpected conclusions: Inasmuch as you want to control certain aspects of the collaborative process, you should also be open to new possibilities. Strategies: Patrik Svennson lists several ways to embrace this openness: “open yourself to neighboring fields, map the relevant conceptual territory, be prepared to find unexpected connections, communicate with people unlike yourself, think across boundaries, make sure to introduce interdisciplinary strategies early in the process” (qtd in Ruecker and Radzikowska). No matter how well you plan, something will surprise you during the writing process. The key is to be open to the process and not let your own expectations ruin potentially powerful insights and experiences.
  4. Argue for the importance of collaboration to your department and your discipline. If you work in the humanities, some faculty or administrators may not understand how challenging and fruitful collaborative work can be. Tenure committees, for example, may assume that whoever is listed second on the byline might have done less work. This may especially be the case if names are not listed in alphabetical order. Further, committees may want you to articulate exactly what you wrote and researched. Or they may require you to establish your own individual work before engaging in collaborative work. Strategies: Several scholarly articles and books exist that feature two or more authors. Most recently, the book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO10 featured 10 authors writing about the contexts surrounding a line of code written in BASIC for the Commodore 64. Nick Montfort called it a “new and radically different sort of book […] [written] together using a single voice, using a mailing list, a wiki, and other means.” Judy Paige and Elise Smith mention writing the initial chapter of Women, Literature, and the Domestic Landscape and “eventually [dividing it in two]. It was a 91-page behemoth in its first iteration. Two years later we were still redrafting that chapter and others, sending them back and forth with messages like, ‘Feel free to fiddle around with my own fiddling, of course.’” Know what collaborative work exists in your field, the writing methods developed by their authors, and the impact these books have made on their field.
  5. Use different tools and strategies to experiment with collaborative writing. Obviously the spread of social media is contributing, at least in part, to the growing interest in collaborative writing. Before deciding what method works for you, consider experimenting with multiple modes of engagement. Strategies: Jesse Stommel has a great piece on some ways to make GoogleDocs a useful collaborative writing tool. He is also quite poetic when describing the process of writing with Pete Rorabaugh: “Our collaboration runs so deep,” Stommel argues, “that single sentences are usually co-composed, our cursors occasionally blinking in unison within a single word. While I still recognize the texture of my own language and the idiosyncratic turns of my writerly voice, I don’t take ownership of my own writing the way I once did.” While emails, wikis, Twitter, and GoogleDocs make remote collaboration more possible, it is also important to meet regularly and hash out ideas. Jason and I met at least once a month, and – when deadlines approached – we met once a week. Combining synchronous and asynchronous modalities, sometimes by seeing and hearing your coauthors, helps you to gain different perspectives on the process.

I’m sure other writers experienced with collaborative projects would have different advice. Collaboration, like writing, can be theorized, but it is ultimately an idiosyncratic process. No matter how much you talk to experienced writers, collaborative writing is best learned by doing it. You might find collaboration to be a more difficult process than you initially envision, but I’m convinced that you will learn more about your own writing process by writing with someone else.

Why Are There No Elephants? A Common Grant-Writing Error

In recent work on grant applications this year, I’ve finally identified a problem that has bothered me for a long time.

People who use the Foolproof Grant Template construct an argument for the urgency of their research by deploying what I call the Hero Narrative of grant-writing.  It goes like this:

1) statement of a topic that grabs and intrigues the reader [ie, not a dry statement of scholarly minutiae]

2) brief references to 1 body of lit on the topic; another body of lit on the topic (2 sentences in total)

3) gap in lit:  “however, no one to date has discussed xxxx”

4) urgency of gap:  “failure to adequately account for xxx will lead to yyyy”–dire scholarly consequences

5) Hero narrative:  I am applying to the xxx fellowship to complete a book  project/ dissertation on  xxxxx.

6)  This project will address xxx from the perspective of zzz and qqqq, in order to demonstrate aaaaaa.

7)  This project will intervene in the fields of rrr and bbb by bringing to light [a new perspective on xxxxx].

This is a powerful (or shall we say, robust) template that can be effectively adapted to virtually any project.  It grabs readers’ interest from the first sentence, and quickly provides evidence that the project is legitimate, original, and significant.

However, it is apparently not easy to apply without assistance.  Clients earnestly study the template, and send me their best efforts, but they rarely hit the mark without undergoing many, many painful drafts of revisions.

One of the main errors occurs in element #3: the gap in literature.

The majority of clients happily introduce a cool topic, refer to their bodies of lit, and then, with no further ado, lay down the claim, “however, no one to date has discussed [the exact micro-topic of my dissertation.]”

This is an error.  Just because people have not yet discussed topic X does not in and of itself persuade us, the readers, that topic X is in fact worthy of being discussed.

As one of my colleagues used to say, mocking those annoying academics who always want to bring every discussion back to their own work, “Why did the job talk [on, for example, postwar American ethnic literature] not discuss elephants?”  In other words, why aren’t you discussing the thing *I’m* interested in?

This is the problem of element #3, except that here it is the grant-writer who has taken on the role of the annoying academic.  “Why has the field failed to address elephants/my particular micro-scholarly preoccupation???  It is an outrage!”

On the contrary, readers are under no obligation to consider your micro-topic of any inherent relevance or interest to the general subject you have raised in sentence one, until you actually use your words to instruct us that it is.  That does not mean adding 5 new sentences into the template of that critical first para to construct an exhaustive rationale.  It means using one sentence effectively to shake the reader into awareness that the literature, while excellent, has overlooked a point that upon further reflection is of great significance.

Let’s take a dissertation on emergent racial minority activism in Japan.  Here is a bad example: “Scholars to date have not adequately addressed the imagery of historical and geographical identity used in websites created by groups such as the Buraku Liberation League.”

Here is a good example:  “Scholars to date have not attended to the increasing mobilization of social media and internet technology in minority activism in Japan; these new technologies, however, have transformed activism by providing new anonymous sites for members to safely debate racial identity and plan real-world mobilizations.”

The first example feels like a passive-aggressive accusation of other scholars for their failure to study one very narrow micro-topic.  The second example educates the reader in an emergent phenomenon, and catalyzes curiosity about what the phenomenon really means.

That curiosity is what keeps committees reading, and grant money flowing.

It is a perennial danger for dissertation writers to be myopically focused on–indeed obsessed by— their narrow dissertation topic.  When you write a grant, however, you need to step back, and be able to tell a wider story of why your topic is necessary and timely for an understanding of your subject writ large.


Art and Achievement: Thoughts Before Black Friday

At 3 o’clock this Friday I’m hosting a party at my house on the theme of “Occupy Black Friday.”  This is an initiative I stumbled upon on a friend’s Facebook page, and immediately loved. The idea is simple:  don’t go to the mall.  Instead, stay home and make a homemade gift.  Or donate your services, or perhaps shop at a locally owned store.  There are a lot of options.

At my house, we’re making homemade gifts—paper winter wreathes, to be exact.  Many of you reading this probably don’t know that I have a whole alternate life as a crafter and artist.  I’ve always been extremely “handy,” being taught by my mother, who was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart was even born.   My first year in Japan, right after college, I lived in a little Japanese mountain town and stumbled upon a washi paper store Kami Yakata Shimayu run by an elderly man and his wife, both accomplished traditional paper artists.  They took pity on the hapless young foreigner constantly haunting their store, and kindly invited me to learn the techniques of Japanese paper arts.  I’ve been hooked ever since.

There is nothing like a real, old-fashioned washi shop. The mind-blowing colors, the feel–smooth, rough, knobby, fibrous, silk-like, tissuey–of the different kinds of washi, and above all, the indescribable smell… these fascinated me then and fascinate me still.

A section of the washi shop interior

I first learned to make traditional three-dimensional paper dolls, with their layers upon layers of washi kimono, their flamboyant obi, and their exotic hairstyles.


One of my early washi dolls


One of my teacher’s washi dolls.

I have made my own paper using traditional Japanese techniques, and I’ve made cards, postcards, chigiri-e art (where you gently tear gossamer thin unryu tissue paper into pieces and combine to make flowers images), origami, three dimensional doll-making, and many other Japanese crafts.

Seasonal washi paper art

Eventually I started making jewelry out of paper and selling it under the name Paper Demon Jewelry. I sold it locally, and online in my own Etsy shop.  It sold very well!

Washi pendants

A brooch of washi paper and found materials

A necklace using washi-backed charms I designed to raise money for victims of the 2012 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan–it raised $2000!

I did that right up until about a year ago, when The Professor Is In got so big that I no longer had the time to keep a jewelry business running.

But I still love the washi, and have a huge collection.  I actually love all artisanal paper and have a collection of handmade paper from Nepal, India, and Italy as well.  I have a secret love for Japanese fabric too, actually, and have another collection of vintage kimono, obi, and chirimen fabric gathered in the Nippori neighborhood of Tokyo.  Last year I made homemade Christmas ornaments for everyone!

Chirimen Christmas ornaments for my kids’ teachers

I believe that art is something a person needs to do to stay sane and balanced.

For Occupy Black Friday we’re making a simple project, but it’s a high impact one.  It is based on this wreath idea from Red Thread.  We’ll cut paper of all kinds into leaf shapes and staple or glue them to a cardboard back, and then embellish as we see fit!

Paper wreath project


You might wonder why I’m telling you all this about my life as a paper-crafter.  Well, two reasons.  The first is, I think Occupy Black Friday is one of the coolest ideas I’ve heard in a long time, and I want to share it with all of you! Get your friends or family together and just STAY HOME and make something!  Art is good for the soul.

The second is, that when I was selling my jewelry, I would always talk about the jewelry exactly the way  grad students talk about their work.  “Well…I, um, you know, make jewelry out of paper, and you know, it’s not like it’s fine metalsmithing or anything, I mean, it’s just paper and it isn’t even 100% waterproof so you have to be careful not to wear it in the shower, but you know, the paper is from Japan and it’s really cool–I’ve been collecting it for 30 years and I taught myself all these techniques of using it for jewelry….so, um, yeah….”

Sometimes I’d want to strangle myself the way I’d hear myself undermining and underselling my own achievements.  Why did I do it?  Because I was insecure!  I didn’t have what I felt to be impressive credentials as an artist or jewelry-maker; I compared myself to the fine artists who worked with gold and gemstones, and felt inadequate; I had no prepared narrative that told the story of my achievements in a forthright and positive way.  I used to tell my partner Kellee, “Oh my god, I’m the graduate student of jewelry-making!”

I taught myself Japanese washi paper artistry, and you have completed/will soon complete a Ph.D..  Both of these things are fine achievements.  Banish any temptation to make excuses for what you think you haven’t done, don’t know, can’t do, and focus your energies on the truly impressive achievements of your work.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Can I Call the Department? (And Introducing New Members of the Team)

Today’s post is a two-parter; in part one, I  tell you about all the ways that The Professor Is In is growing and expanding in Fall 2012.  In part two, I answer a burning reader question.

Part I:  The Professor Is In is Growing!

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve added two new members to the Professor Is In team. The first is Kellee Weinhold, former university professor in the fields of journalism, communication, and literary non-fiction, professional writing coach and consultant, and owner of the Eugene, Oregon writing studio Stir (and incidentally, my partner).

This is Kellee.

In addition to having twelve years of experience in the university setting, and enormous savvy about the ways of university hiring and politics, Kellee is a fierce proponent of self-expression in all forms and the sworn enemy of wimpy speech.  Kellee will be taking over Interview Bootcamps from this month. With the addition of Kellee to the team we are going to be able to increase the available private Interview Bootcamp slots through the interview season.

The second new member to join the team is Petra Schenk.   Petra is Dr. Karen’s office assistant, and has been doing yeoman’s work to handle the huge influx of new clients who came to us in Fall 2012.  She responds to emails, schedules, and also shares the editing of client documents with Dr. Karen.  Petra also works as the writing specialist for TRIO Student Support Services at the University of Oregon.  Petra was a nontraditional student, coming from a low-income and first-generation household. After transferring to UO from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, she completed her BA in linguistics in 2001. With an interest in documenting endangered languages and with the assistance of the UO TRiO McNair Scholar’s Program, she went on to complete an MA and PhD in Linguistics from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2008.

This is Petra.

During her time as a graduate student, Petra cultivated a parallel career track as a student advisor and mentor, focusing on nontraditional college students. When not in the office, Petra enjoys reading, running, cooking, and especially hiking with her amazing daughter.

Both Kellee and Petra are fierce proponents of the message and the methods of The Professor Is In, and allies in the effort to get you ready for the market.  With their addition, we can expand our work and help more people get the assistance they need to confront the challenges of an academic career.

Part II:  Can I Call the Department?

Today I answer a question that I’ve received from readers with some frequency over the past several weeks.

“Can I call the department to check on the status of my application?”

You can, but there is little point in doing so.  It’s truly a “don’t call us, we’ll call you situation,” with the caveat that in today’s uncivil times, they rarely bother to call (or write) to tell you when you have not made the cut.  It’s all too common these days to hear nothing but deafening silence….all the way up to and beyond the completion of the search.

But to return to the question of “can I call?”  My strong advice to all readers is, do not call.  Please remember that all jobs in this day and age routinely get between 200 and 900 applications.   Consider the welfare of the poor secretary who would have to field those calls.

And again, to return to my main point—if they want you, they will call.   For most of you, for the vast, vast majority of jobs to which you applied, the call will not come. Sorry.

I remember the first year I was on the market (all the way back in 1995—supposedly halcyon days but actually an already brutal time in the anthropology job market), I literally thought that my local post office (this was the era of mailed paper applications) was experiencing some sort of malfunction because I had received not a single response from the 25 or so jobs to which I applied that first Fall.  Surely, there had to be some mistake??!!

There was no mistake.  I was sending out painfully bad application materials (having received no training whatsoever for the job market as I describe on this page of the website), I had a second-tier Ph.D. from the University of Hawai’i, and I was confronting competition from graduates of the top programs of the land.

The memory of that deafening silence, my painful confusion, my growing humiliation, my desperate calls to departments, my slowly dawning comprehension of my true chances on the market, my panic about money, my realization of the scandalous neglect of my professors….all these things are as fresh in my mind today as they were that Fall of 1995.  They are the things that catalyzed me to start this business, and that keep me working to find new ways to tell job seekers the truth about just how hard it is, and what you need to know to improve your chances.

But that’s me.  You’re just wondering about the status of your applications.

Approximately one month after you submit the application, if your conference is imminent and you are wondering if you’ll be invited to an interview, ok, sure, you can, if you must, write a single email to the department secretary (not the search chair) to inquire.  It won’t harm your chances.  That’s the extent of it, and frankly, I say again: don’t bother.  There is no mystery here.  There is no confusion or delay or problem with the search.  What there is, is the fact that you probably have not been short-listed. It’s painful and shocking and devastating, and no amount of reading my blog or others’ warnings will prepare you for the dismay, humiliation, and panic.

As those of you who have attended my webinars know, I urge readers and clients to do what they can to retain their dignity in an inhuman system that doles out humiliation by the bucketloads.  It is my opinion that calling departments to ask about the status of your application is an exercise in humiliation.  I recommend that you stand on the dignity that you have, do the best work you can to improve your record and your application materials, and be ready for the call when and if it comes.