Thoughts On Throwing In the Towel

Today’s promised post is another Special Request post, at the behest of a number of readers, about knowing when to “throw in the towel,” or, in the words of one requester, “knowing when to fold ’em,” on an academic career.

I am totally unqualified to answer that question in the way that it’s being asked. Because although I did indeed leave academia, I didn’t leave under duress. I left a good position, that offered good money and status and the relative freedom to pursue the teaching and research interests that originally got me into academia. If those interests had still been important to me, I would not have left.

I have never confronted the painful, heartbreaking decision to give up on a dream that was still unrealized. I have not been in the position of having dedicated so many years and so many dollars to a Ph.D., only to discover at the end that the meager adjuncting opportunities available can’t even begin to pay off the backlog of effort and debt. I can only imagine the fear, grief, and loss that must accompany this excruciatingly slow realization that the hoped-for tenure track job is NOT going to materialize, and that the investment of time and money may well have set you far behind your friends and peers.

I only know two things germane to this experience.

The first is that it is important not to give up until you’re sure that you’ve actually done everything in your power to position yourself for the career that you want. And the second is that even if you do everything in your power, there are still not enough jobs for every qualified applicant, and many will have to make the decision to leave.

I want to discuss each of these points in isolation, as if the other is not true.

Regarding the first, you have to ask, and be ready to confront the true answer— Is my job letter perfect? Have I dedicated 2-3 months to writing and revising it? Have I had it subjected to critical edits by no fewer than 10 faculty members with search committee experience? Is my c.v. impeccable? Has it been checked and rechecked for both content and appearance? Does my teaching statement sparkle with inspiration and clarity?

I know for a fact that in the vast majority of cases, the answer to these questions is no.

All the years that I was a professor, and now that I’m The Professor, grad student after grad student, Ph.D. After Ph.D., client after client, comes through my office showing me job market materials that cannot possibly qualify them for anything but the reject pile. And they ask me why they aren’t getting tenure track jobs.

There are two sets of subquestions here.  The first:  whether or not you have actually done all the academic work to position yourself for a job. Ask yourself, have I published all I can *in* *refereed* *journals*? Have I pushed myself to attend high profile conferences in my field? Have I networked with influential junior and senior scholars? Have I promoted myself in every way possible?

The second: if you have done all of that, whether or not you have actually represented these effectively in your materials. Ask yourself, again, is my job letter impeccable? Have I utilized every professional skills resource at my disposal? Have I read every book? Twisted the arm of every professor and colleague? Checked every blog post?

Because, the sad truth is, most of you on the academic job market are shooting yourselves, systematically and with extraordinary aim and determination, in the foot.

You are spending year after year on the market without holding your materials up to the harsh light of truth and confronting just how bad they really are.

I’m sorry. This isn’t the message you want to hear. But it’s true.

And let me be clear, I am not talking here about hiring me*. There are other ways to skin this cat. But skinned it has to be. And until it is, giving up is premature. Because I know for a fact that I’ve seen many, many Ph.D.s move from unhireable to hireable, not because they published anything new but because they finally learned how to represent what they had already done in their materials. In short, because they FINALLY learned to write a brilliant, effective job cover letter.


The second thing that I know is that, even while you can and must do all of this, some of you will not get tenure track jobs. And then you must indeed quit, and move on to another line of work.

That is a terribly sad decision.  And a terribly hard one, because while Ph.D.s have many skills that can be transferred to other careers, and are smart and disciplined enough to quickly gain others, it is the feeling of failure that, I think, makes it so hard to just pull the trigger, and leap (to mix my metaphors).

I know that I spent one year feeling like an utter failure because I was no longer a faculty member, and I left by choice. I can only imagine how hard it is when you leave because economic conditions force you to.

What I know about that is that academia is a kind of cult. And it does not release its adherents easily. Extracting yourself from the academic mind-set does not happen without fighting powerful messages of failure and powerful demons of self-doubt and shame.

I actually believe that academia is a system based on shame and fear. Fear of being exposed as “not smart enough,” and shame at “being a fraud.” I don’t actually believe that the vast majority of scholars in U.S. academic settings are frauds or inadequately smart. I just think they feel that way, and do everything in their power to suppress and conceal those feelings.

The harshness of the judgments of failure in academia arises directly from these efforts of apparently successful academics to suppress their own inner demons of failure and shame.

Of course there is also love—love for the work itself—which is what draws so many of us to the academic enterprise. But the love gets squelched in the climate of judgment that permeates academic settings–judgments of not being dedicated, or resourceful or brilliant enough.

Giving up on the love that brought you to this world means putting yourself directly in the line of fire of this judgment. And it doesn’t just come from others. Anyone who has lived in academic settings long enough to get a Ph.D. has thoroughly absorbed this judgment into themselves.

In the end, I think, you can’t throw in the towel, and really move on to what life has next, until you face down this judgment, and the fear (of not being smart enough) and shame (that you’re a fraud) that underlie it.  I think that you can not just survive but actually thrive, when you reconnect to the love that brought you into this game to begin with, and realize–that love and passion are part of me, and don’t require an affiliation and letterhead to be “real.”  And then you can look up and ask, “what new thing is out there for me?” and be ready to hear the answer.

What I want to say here is, there is life outside of academia.  A world of potential jobs and paychecks and free time and friends whom you actually see.  It is OK to quit.  It is really, really ok.  Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can even enjoy reading for pleasure again.  And then you’ll know you’ve reclaimed the love.  And you will be fine.

* Although I am, you know, hand’s down the best reader of your job materials you will find anywhere.  I have some weird talent for it.  Don’t know why, but there it is.  It’s my societal contribution.

Negotiating Your Tenure-Track Offer(s)

(Wednesday Post Category:  Getting Your Tenure-Track Job)


[Today’s post is an excerpt from “Taming The Academic Job Market: The Professor’s Guide.”  The Guide is on sale in The Prof Shop


Congratulations! You did it! You got the tenure track job offer!

Take a moment and just bask in the glory.

Do not, under any circumstances, accept the offer the same day they make it. When they call or email, answer pleasantly and politely, “Oh thank you. That is good news. I’m so pleased.” And then say, “I’d like to know more about the offer. When can we discuss the details, and when can I expect a written contract?” If the Department Head tries to push you for a commitment, simply repeat, “I am very happy for the offer, but I will need to discuss the terms and see the contract before I can make a final commitment. I very much look forward to discussing this further. I hope we can begin soon.” {addendum:  this post is based on U.S. academic practices. I have been informed that in the U.K. you must accept the job instantly or lose it.  If others have an international perspective to add, please, by all means, add it to the comments to the post. Thank you. KK}

Now, there are several things you need to know. Once an offer has been made to you, the institution cannot legally offer the job to anyone else for a certain amount of time. While that amount of time may vary by institution, be assured that you have at least one week to contemplate your response, and possibly as much as two or three. During that time you are in the driver’s seat. While unscrupulous or panicky or inexperienced or pushy Department Heads may try to hustle you, do not allow yourself to be hustled. You are now the one in charge. Bask in that.

All offers have room for negotiation. You should first see what the formal offer is in terms of salary, summer salary, teaching load, leave time, research support, expectations for tenure, graduate student funding, service expectations (particularly if it is a joint appointment), support for a spousal hire, and other matters. Until you have these in writing you cannot make an informed response.

Once you receive these, decide what you’re going to come back with in negotiation. Because, you ALWAYS come back asking for more. You are entitled. It is expected. Do not miss this one-time-only opportunity to negotiate greater gain for yourself and your family. What you ask for will depend on you and your goals. A single person with no children might decide to prioritize research support —ie, additional leave time and a larger research budget to pay for overseas research. A person supporting a family might forgo additional research funding to prioritize a higher salary. A person seeking a position for their spouse might forgo both research support and salary in order to prioritize a spousal appointment. The point is, in all cases, this is the one AND ONLY time in your early years in the department that you can attempt to turn circumstances in your favor. So do it.

Always proceed courteously and professionally. Respond quickly to emails and calls, and never leave them hanging, even if just to say, “Dear Margaret, I received your latest email; thank you. I will study it and respond by tomorrow.” Ideally you should have a trusted senior colleague assist you in these negotiations. It is critical that you maintain positive relations with your likely future colleagues. Although they might grumble a bit as the negotiations carry on for a week or two, they will respect you. This is how the game is played.

Now, one aspect to consider is if you have another competing offer or possible offer. If you do, first off, lucky you—you have rocked the system. This is the absolute best position to negotiate from. If you are waiting on an offer from a second school, you may contact that second school and inform them of the offer you received from school one. You will write something to this effect, “Dear Steve, Thank you again for having me out to visit your department at XXX U. I enjoyed the visit immensely. I am writing to let you know that I have received an offer from another institution. My timeline for accepting this offer is approximately one week. I wonder if I could receive a response regarding your search within that time frame. I want to reiterate my interest in your position. I hope to hear from you soon. Sincerely, XXX”

You will also write to school number one and say, “Dear Margaret, I want to let you know that I am a finalist for a position at another institution.  I will shortly learn the results of their decision and I will let you know as soon as I do.”

Do not name the competing institutions in either of these initial emails, unless the name value is so patently exceptional that you feel it will add incalculable allure to your status.  If a bidding war ensues, then at that time the names of the institutions may be revealed.

You can be assured that this email will send a jolt of terror through the spine of both Steve and Margaret.  The greatest fear of departments once an offer is made is that the offerree will reject it and accept an offer elsewhere. The department may have a solid alternate candidate available, but often they do not. Departments often end up voting all but the top candidate as “unacceptable,” so failure to get the top candidate means a failed search, and the risk of losing authorization to hire that year. So all their eggs are in one basket, and that basket is you. If you are their top candidate, and they just haven’t told you yet because they haven’t had a chance to complete their voting and offer process (offers may have to be vetted by the Dean before they can be made to the candidate), this small, courteous email will send the department into a panic. And a panicked department is what you want. Because a panicked department, sensing that they might lose you to another institution, will be more likely to agree to your requests for salary, leave time, research support, and spousal positions.

You are absolutely entitled to play the two offers against each other. If school one is offering a higher salary, then go to school two and see if they will match the salary. If school two is offering a lighter teaching load, go to school one and see if that can be matched for a year or two (usually teaching load is more on the non-negotiable end of things, but temporary accomodations, say for year three, or the semester before tenure, etc., can sometimes be made in writing at the time of hire). The ideal situation for any tenure track job candidate is to be the object of a bidding war between two well-funded institutions. In the end, the choice you make will depend, as mentioned above, upon your own personal priorities. Things to ask about and consider negotiating for include:

  • higher salary
  • summer salary
  • research support
  • graduate student funding
  • guaranteed scheduled research leave
  • potential for early tenure
  • conference and travel support
  • spousal hire
  • lab support

Things that are non-negotiable but definitely worth asking about include:

  • service expectations, especially in joint appointments
  • level of health benefits
  • retirement contribution
  • overall retirement plan
  • on-campus day care
  • questions of maternity/paternity leave
  • housing/mortgage subsidies (in inflated real estate markets)
  • raise schedule

Now all departments have financial and logistical limitations. You cannot negotiate above those. If you try, you will quickly alienate them. They will not withdraw the offer, but they will resent you, and those feelings of resentment are dangerous for a soon-to-be junior faculty member. The key to negotiating is to always maintain good faith and honesty, and always have a highly delicate sense for when you are hitting a true wall of “we can’t do that.” Because when you hit that, that’s when you stop.

Be aware that many public institutions suffer from salary compression problems. That means that associate and full professors’ salaries have not kept pace with the national market, and consequently new assistant professors are offered salaries nearly as high as those of the tenured faculty who have been on campus for years. Salary compression creates terrible feelings of resentment and low morale in departments suffering from it. The Head will be all too well aware of these feelings. When the Head tells you, “we cannot go higher than $58,000 for your starting salary, or we will offend some faculty,” take that as a hard no, and turn your efforts elsewhere—summer salary for one to three years, one-time research support, a guaranteed graduate research assistant, and other shorter-term forms of compensation that don’t put pressure on an already strained salary structure.

Once you make your decision, call or email both departments immediately, and courteously and professionally express your gratitude for their offers, and accept one with warmth and enthusiasm, and turn down the other with kindness and respect. Remember that the colleagues in the rejected department will continue to play a role in your professional life for many years to come. You will see them at conferences, they might be external reviewers for your journal article or book mss., and who knows, one of them might end up one of your external reviewers for tenure one day. So preserve your good relations with these people at all costs. They will not be angry that you rejected their offer. They will just be disappointed. Be very friendly when you next run into them at a conference.

You, meanwhile, have tamed the beast. You have secured for yourself a job WITH benefits and WITH a retirement plan! You get to teach and pontificate and attend faculty meetings to your heart’s content. You are now on the tenure track, and can now start obsessing about tenure! Rest assured, there will be a Professor’s Guide about that too.

[This post is also a Special Request Post for Tiffany and Roger, who ask how to deal with more than one tenure track offer.  Here you go, you two!  I hope you have this problem!]

Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy

You’re probably looking at the title, and then at my photo, and thinking, “Isn’t she white?” Yes. Yes, I am white. I was never a graduate student of color in the academy.

So, my insights are limited, and I don’t present myself as an expert on this subject.

But I did have a career that spanned no fewer than three racially-charged departmental environments. And during my time in these three departments, I tried my best to stay open and alert to the challenges posed to the white dominant system in those departments by the graduate students (and faculty) of color. I came to understand some of the ways that my own subject position and mode of operation were products of white privilege, and the many unthinking ways that I reinforced that through my work. I watched graduate students and faculty of color brutalized by the unacknowledged racism of the institution, and I did my best to serve as an ally. I don’t think I was always as successful as I wanted to be. But I did learn a thing or two. And it’s those things I share today.

First, my background. I went to graduate school at the University of Hawai’i. I got my first job at the University of Oregon. I got my second job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Hawai’i the Anthropology department was deeply implicated in the conflicts on campus about the relationship of the University and the Native Hawaiian community. One cultural anthropologist on the faculty, not long before I arrived, had just been forced to abandon her research focus on Native Hawaiians after her informants revealed they had systematically and intentionally lied to her in her most recent published fieldwork project.

At the University of Oregon, the archaeology program, which was highly Pacific Northwest focused, had begun intensively recruiting Native American graduate students shortly before I arrived. When I was there, there were approximately five Native American students enrolled in the department, some in the Cultural Resource Management MA program, with the goal of getting training to manage their tribes’ museums, and some in archaeology and cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on their tribal cultures, languages, and histories.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, two Latina/o faculty members in cultural anthropology hired before I arrived had, over time, successfully recruited a group of approximately seven Latina/o graduate students, who were primarily enrolled in cultural anthropology Ph.D.s focused on a range of Latino, Mexicano, and Latin American cultural topics.

In all three of these departments, the presence of a “critical mass” of graduate students of color—that is to say, graduate students of “one” color, ie, from one particular racial and cultural background—fundamentally altered the department climate and profoundly challenged the graduate seminar environment.

At Oregon, because of a separate critical mass of white faculty members who were (within limits) willing and able to look directly at questions of race and their own privileged subject position, the department, at least during the years I was there, was able to adjust and grow as a result of these challenges.

At Hawai’i and Illinois, the departments proved unable to do this.

At Hawai’i, the cultural anthropologist who had previously worked with Native Hawaiians changed her research focus and left for a position on the East Coast. The department, during the years that I was there as a Ph.D. Student, indeed operated as if it was located on the East Coast. There was no indication whatsoever that we were a department at the very center of a profound social upheaval resulting from the newly powerful Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and the work of scholars and activists like Haunani-Kay Trask, right on our campus. The department stayed entirely mute. It was a department in total denial.

This despite the fact that at just the same time, the discipline of anthropology was itself reeling from a new interrogation from scholars of color (Edward Said foremost among them) of the profound involvement of the discipline in histories and mechanisms of colonialism and imperialism.  These scholars also queried the continuing racism embedded in a discipline that is based on the ideal of a white scholar writing about and making a career from studies of communities of color.

It was a curious fact that this critique was taken seriously at the most intensely white anthropology programs, while at the programs where the faculty felt directly threatened by actual people of color in the community, it was entirely ignored.

At Illinois, because the Latina/o graduate students had the support of two respected (albeit untenured) faculty members, and also the support of no less than the brand-new then-Chancellor of the University, Nancy Cantor (a long-time proponent of diversity in graduate education), they were able to break through the wall of silence and denial in the department, and force the issue of the racism of anthropology into the open.

The fascinating thing at Illinois was that the critique of anthropological racism was never explicitly denied. On the contrary, most of the white faculty members by that point were well-versed in “talking the talk” of self-reflexive anthropology and the imperialist origins of the discipline.

But when it came to taking the next step, that of interrogating their own privilege, and in particular, the readings assigned, and the discussions encouraged, in their own graduate seminars, then….well, things were entirely different. Far from being mute, the faculty became aggressive and hostile.

The department fractured in the end over a truly heartbreaking and appalling incident centering around a plaque that the university, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to erect honoring long-deceased UI anthropologist Oscar Lewis and his “Culture of Poverty” thesis (which, for those of you unfamiliar, basically blames poor Mexican people for being poor). I will not rehash the dreadful events that ensued here, but you may read about them in this account by a former Ph.D. student who was at the center of it: Brian Montes, “No Longer Silent: A Historical Moment of Latino Student Activism” Latino Studies (2005) 3, 280–287.

I’ve written too much without even getting to any thoughts on the purported topic of this post: “Challenges for Graduate Students of Color in the Academy.”

Here’s what I want to say. I learned through these interactions that the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.

One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, in the midst of the Oscar Lewis debacle, “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable. Kind of like the Republicans blaming Obama for the debt-ceiling crisis. If a problem emerges under your purview—you must be the cause of the problem.

Anyway, it goes without saying that graduate students of color so often feel heartbreakingly isolated in their departments and completely without a friend or ally. That when they try to talk to white faculty about race—not so much as an analytical concept, as a systematic source of blindness about how syllabi are written (ie, with exclusively white scholarship) or how classroom discussions are conducted (ie, when the tentative critiques of students of color are instantly and angrily shot down by defensive white students and faculty), they are met with on one end, bewilderment, in the middle defensiveness, and on the other end, hostility. That when they try to engage their white graduate classmates in a collective intervention, the white graduate students are often MORE defensive, angry, and hostile than the faculty members themselves, probably because of their own status insecurity.

I am not the first to say these things, and I won’t be the last.

What I do want to say is this: the starting point and the ending point for so many graduate students of color in the humanities and social sciences is frequently (although not always) fundamentally different from that of white students. While some graduate students of color most certainly do turn their scholarly interests to subjects unconnected to their own racial or cultural background, and that is entirely to be supported, for the majority, I believe, scholarship starts and ends with the question, “does this help or hurt my people?”

And that is a question that white people don’t get. Because white people don’t have “a people.” Of course the most ethical among us will ask this question about the people we study. We might care deeply about those people and spend a professional life intimately involved with them. But they’re not “our” people. Even when we marry one of them, they are not our mothers, our fathers, our grandmothers, our cousins. We have not seen our closest family members ravaged by the widespread, all-encompassing systematic poverty and alcoholism and disease that has ravaged the Native Hawaiian community, the Native American community. White people have not seen our families torn apart by oppressive immigration policies that victimize so many in the Latina/o community and force so many into hiding.

Sure, white people can feel a sense of belonging to an ethnic group, or to a class. Working class white people in the academy do indeed feel systematically excluded from the in-groups and from classroom debates. I am not denying that. But it is different, because the stakes are different. When your people are dying, literally dying, from forms of cultural genocide, your approach to academia is going to be different. It’s going to be urgent. It’s going to be impatient. It’s going to be angry. You’re going to ask questions about why their stories are not being told, and why scholars aren’t asking how the discipline helps or hurts a group of people, your people, who are already suffering from so many histories of neglect and disregard.

I have no solution to offer for white blindness and cluelessness. I don’t present myself as a hero of enlightenment in this regard. I am still blind to my own privilege much of the time, despite my best efforts. I would still be even more pathetically blind if not shaken out of my complacency by living in Hawa’i during a powerful moment in the Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, and if not directly confronted by a group of Native American graduate students in my Foundations of Social Theory Core Graduate Seminar at Oregon. If they had not asked me why all of my readings were by old, dead white guys, and insisted on an answer that wasn’t stupid, and if those students had not already been empowered by an archaeology program that was dedicated to supporting them, and if they had not been defended by a white cultural anthropologist Department Head who stood up for those students and our tumultuous class when they were attacked by the white students enrolled in it…..well, if all those things had not been in place, at that one moment in time, I would most likely still be totally comfortable with the idea of a Core Seminar in Anthropology imposing an all-white world view onto graduate students, and those Native American students would have been silenced once more.

Perhaps it takes a lightning in the bottle kind of moment to shake white people out of their race-blindness. That is depressing, and not good news. What I know is that graduate students of color bear far more than a fair share of the burden in pushing departments to confront race. And they all too often pay a terrible price for it.

How To Fire a Professor

Today’s post is a Special Request post. This one is for Jenn, who asks, “how do you replace one professor with another on your committee?”

This is a delicate matter, as I’m sure Jenn is aware. There are all kinds of reasons that committee members end up needing to be replaced, not all of them bad. But it is always delicate because there are professorial egos involved. And where professorial egos are involved, nothing is easy or painless.

In my own case, I decided to “switch out” a committee member between my MA committee and my doctoral committee at the same institution. I actually really liked committee member #1, we had a good relationship, and he’d been helpful. But I was moving in new directions, and I realized that for my external member I needed someone versed in postcolonial studies and post-marxist theory far more than I needed a second Japan-focused social scientist.

So I left him a jaunty little message on his answering machine, basically “firing” him from my committee. Of course I didn’t intend it that way. I explained my reasons, which were entirely scholarly, and indeed sound, and assumed that he’d understand them.

Well, he didn’t. He was furious. He was offended. His feelings were hurt. And he refused to  engage with me any further in my academic career.

Now, this was a juvenile and unprofessional response on his part. But for my part, I had totally failed to anticipate his feelings.

Indeed, until that moment it had actually never occurred to me that professors have feelings. Feelings, that is, about graduate students. I thought they mostly viewed us as burdens, and would welcome the opportunity to jettison one. I had absolutely no idea that in fact they might feel intellectually invested in one of us, and feel intellectually insulted if dropped.

Chalk that up to youthful ignorance.

In any case, I did learn my lesson. I was very sorry to have hurt the feelings of this man, who had only done right by me. And I made sure that in the future, I took far better care to try and anticipate the feelings of the committee members who had invested their time and energy in me, and later, in my students.

I have advised quite a few students in ways to negotiate this mine field.

While there is no one method of doing this that fits every personality and set of circumstances, the best way to proceed is probably a combination of email and personal meeting, for both the departing (fired) member #1, and the new (recruited) member #2.

To remove Professor #1, your initial email should read something like this:

Dear Professor #1,

First off, I want to thank you for serving on my thesis/dissertation committee. I have appreciated your efforts to improve my writing/scholarship/etc., your good advice, and your generosity with your time.

I am writing today because I’ve been making plans for the next stage in my work on the thesis/dissertation project, and I’ve been rethinking some of the intellectual directions I hope to take. In that context, I have realized I may need to reorganize my committee.

I am hoping that we can meet sometime in the next few days to discuss this in person. Would you have any time to meet with me? I’d appreciate it.

Thank you,


Once you meet in person, it is probably best to conduct the conversation something like this:

I want to thank you again for everything you’ve done for me. You’ve been a great mentor and supporter, and I really appreciate how generous you have been in introducing me to new scholarship on xxx/editing my writing/discussing my ideas/etc.

The thing is… I’ve actually had a pretty big change of heart/direction in my research in the last few weeks/months. Instead of focusing on XXX, I am more and more interested in YYYYY. But I don’t know a whole lot about YYYY, so I’ve been working closely with Professor Q. It’s going really well, but I realized that I need to reconstitute my committee, to include Professor Q.

So… I’m really sorry, but that means I am going to have to replace you on the committee, and put Professor Q in that slot.  This is no reflection at all on my respect for your work—it’s just a reflection of the new directions that my work is moving in.  I hope you can understand.

Really? Thanks for understanding. I really appreciate that. I just want you to know that you’ve made a big difference in my studies. If it’s ok with you, I’d still like to stop by now and again and let you know what I’m up to.

Great. Thanks.”

All of this is pretty effusive in expressing appreciation and gratitude. I recommend that you operate along these lines even in the cases where you feel few of such feelings, such as when Professor #1 was a total asshole. You want to at all times preserve an aura of professionalism and probity in your dealings with faculty. As long as you couch this decision in entirely academic terms, it is difficult for Professor #1, or your other committee members, or the Department Head to take issue with it.

OK, now on to Professor #2.

The most important thing here, when communicating with Professor #2, is never, ever to criticize Professor #1. You do not want to give the impression of being a malcontent, or difficult to deal with. You must restrict your initial exchanges with Professor #2 entirely to intellectual and academic justifications. Much later, when you know Professor #2 better, and have established a relationship of trust, you might be able to express some other factors that came into play. But for now, at the beginning, again, stick closely to the academic script.

Your initial email will read something like this:

Dear Professor Q,

I hope your semester is off to a good start. I have been enjoying your class, xxx, and learning a lot.

I’m actually writing to ask if I might be able to meet with you in the next few days. As you know, I’ve been working with my committee on my thesis/dissertation project on XXXX. Since working with you, I’ve become more and more interested in moving this project in the direction of YYYY. You have opened my eyes to some fascinating scholarship that I didn’t know about, and now that I know it, I’ve really reconceptualized my entire project. It’s very exciting.

Because of that, though, I will be reconstituting my committee a bit to reflect this new direction. I would like to meet with you in person, as I said, to talk about my new committee.



Once you meet, you can simply express your excitement for the new direction of your project, and your eagerness to work more closely with Professor Q.

Because of all of this, I was really hoping that you would be willing to serve on my thesis/dissertation committee. My timeline is to take my preliminary exams next spring, and I hope that one of them could be with you on the subject of YYY. After that, I plan to get out my funding proposals in the Fall, do coursework and finish up my dissertation proposal in Spring, and leave for fieldwork the following Fall. I’m hoping that schedule is compatible with your plans for being on campus.

You’re going to be on leave in Spring? Well, would you be open to doing my proposal defense by Skype or conference call? I know that other students have done that with no problem.

Really? Great. I’m so glad. Thank you so much. I’m really looking forward to getting into this area in more detail with you. For now, if you have any readings you want me to start on right away, let me know.”

The power of this approach to Professor Q is that it expresses genuine enthusiasm for his area of specialization. It is also highly respectful of his time. And it shows consideration for his schedule. Few, very few, professors will be able to say no to a request like this.

I realize that not all communications with faculty will go this smoothly, and that sometimes professors are just plain difficult and unreasonable. But in general, if you can refrain from personalizing conflict, and stay at the level of academic pursuits, your efforts to navigate the minefield of reconstituting your committee has a fighting chance of ending well, with your reputation intact.

Good luck!



Humanities Graduate School: Go? Don’t Go? What’s a Would-Be Ph.D. To Do?

William Pannapacker has published, over the last several years, a number of widely influential pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education and, this past week, in Slate, criticizing the ethics and economics of graduate programs in the humanities. His most widely quoted take-away point, for would-be Ph.D. students, is: if you don’t have private funds to support you both during and after graduate school, just don’t go.

Why? Because the university economy, always precarious, has imploded.  Tenure track lines are being replaced at all levels with poorly compensated adjunct positions.  The hopes of Ph.D. students to live “the life of the mind” as a university professor–to have a life something like that of their advisor’s– have become vastly unrealistic.

And yet, Pannapacker argues, graduate programs each year take in cohort after cohort of new Ph.D. students to boost faculty egos, to maintain the prestige of the department as a “Ph.D.-granting program,” and to staff classes that faculty no longer teach. They admit these students with full knowledge that the vast majority of them will have no chance for regular academic employment (ie, with a liveable wage and benefits) after completion, but conceal this knowledge through a highly circumscribed advising ethos that focuses entirely on each student’s dissertation project, and what Pannapacker calls “The Big Lie of the Life of the Mind.”

So year after year, cohort after cohort of Ph.D. students dedicate hour after hour to the research and writing of scholarly dissertation projects, struggling over minutiae of citations and shades of meaning, attempting to please their dissertation chair and committee, without being told the truth by anyone in the department: that for the vast majority of them, the hoped-for tangible gains from this exercise are unlikely to materialize. For many, the result of 10 years of time and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars of expense is crushing debt and the systematic underemployment of adjuncting at $2000 or so a class. Some Ph.D.s marginally employed on the fringes of the academic system have ended up living on food stamps.

Meanwhile, the privileged tenured faculty ignore the wholesale disintegration of the academic economy, and their increasingly ethically untenable place within it, and label any less than optimally employed Ph.D. (ie, any not in tenure track positions), as a shameful “failure” who “never had what it takes.”

Pannapacker’s essays elicit a simply extraordinary amount of response from all sides.  He has clearly touched a nerve.  His Chronicle essays have prompted an outpouring of anguished stories from unemployed and underemployed Ph.D.s who thank him for telling the truth about their dismal experiences during and after their Ph.D.s, and leveling accusations at the departments that, they believe, systematically misled them. Writes one:  “We are supposed to love our intellectual labor enough to give it away whether we are paid to or not. The love is often there but it does not pay the bills. That tends to sour the relationship.” (mjelly33, Big Lie of the Life of the Mind, comment #5)

His pieces have also drawn outraged rebuttals from many who insist that all is well in the academy, or at least not as bad as he suggests.

The fiercest rebuttals seem to rest on one or more of the following arguments:

  • I got a Ph.D. and I am currently employed so there is no problem with the system.
  • I am getting a Ph.D. and I love it, so there is no problem with the system.
  • I got a Ph.D. and am currently unemployed but I did not get the Ph.D. to be trained for a job, so there is no problem with the system.
  • I got a Ph.D. and am currently unemployed but the opportunity to think great thoughts about the humanities is priceless, so there is no problem with the system.
  • The point of the humanities is to think great thoughts and any association with things as vulgar as jobs and salaries is unseemly.
  • I am a working class person, grad school is a better option than most others I had, and how dare Pannapacker or anybody tell me what I can and cannot do.

The only position among these with which I have sympathy is the last.  Personally, I appreciate Pannapacker’s use of overstatement to force his point.  But I also appreciate that it is not an optimal position, irony aside, to tell working class young people to abandon their goals, and to leave the world of humanistic inquiry to the elite (even acknowledging that Pannapacker comes from a working class background himself).  As a number of commentators have argued, graduate school with funding can be a responsible and considered financial choice, regardless of its future outcome, for those who may not enjoy a wide range of other options, or who are comfortable with financial risk.  I make the point elsewhere on this site, on the page “It’s OK to Quit,” that I don’t believe in telling someone to abandon their dreams just because their dreams are difficult or next to impossible to accomplish.

My position is, rather:  go in not just with “your eyes open” (as so many Ph.D. program apologists insist) but with a strategy and a game plan.  Calculate your chances from start to finish, and maximize them with strategic choices about *which* program, *how much* funding, *what* topic, *which* advisor, *how much* TA-ing, *how* to cut corners, *when* to be selfish, *where* to network, *how* to schmooze, *where* and *when* and *how often* to publish.  And so on.  Find the job ad for the type of position you want and make every decision based on reaching that goal.  Get out quickly.  Don’t count on your advisor.  Don’t fixate on the dissertation.  Protect yourself. Collect your own set of transferrable professional skills.

With this set of calculations, it may be possible to optimize the humanities graduate school experience to, at least, minimize risk of debt and maximize potential for employment.  I make no apology for this language. No one can change the world if they can’t afford food and health care.  That is the point of The Professor Is In.

But to return to Pannapacker: it is unfortunate that “just don’t go”–Pannapacker’s most incendiary claim–has become a red herring drawing attention away from the courageousness and power of his larger critique.  He is the first to speak the truth, in the baldest terms, without neo-marxist theoretical trappings or jargon, about the great hidden economy of the academy, and the studied silence–or in cases, sanctioned ignorance–of the professoriate that maintains it.

It is a dishonest and unethical system.  Not all faculty who operate within it are personally, individually, dishonest or unethical.  Many are sincere, and doing their best to advise their Ph.D.s.  Their best simply isn’t good enough.  No amount of advising about an intellectual project is good enough in the current economic conditions of the academy, in which Ph.D. students have become the serf labor of a stratified neo-feudal system that is maintained by an administrative elite, in which the professors themselves have little real power, except over their own students.

The solution is not for working class students to turn away.  The solution is for the professoriate to tell the goddamn truth.

The solution is for Ph.D. advisors to speak directly to the inequities and exploitations built directly into the reliance on teaching assistant and adjunct labor in their departments, and to the silences around the real potential for tenure track work for their graduates.  The solution is for the professoriate to admit that they too are increasingly disempowered “workers” who draw a wage, and to acknowledge and train their Ph.D. students as wage-earning workers as well.  The solution is for “employment skills training” to be made a central element of every responsible humanities graduate program in the country, by which I mean: training for both academic and non-academic employment.

Without Pannapacker, the shameful ethics of humanities graduate training would still be hidden behind a veil of bullshit.  The masturbatory bullshit of those professors who get off on the miniature stageshows of intellectual prowess that is Ph.D. advising.  The bullshit of departments and administrators who mouth the benefits of the life of the mind while running the university like a corporation.


How to Tell Your Department About a Family Crisis–A Special Request Post

Today’s post is requested by Shane.  Shane wishes to know about the etiquette for academic workers in vulnerable positions–particularly adjuncts–to inform their departments about family crises that might impact their work.  For example, if a parent is dying, how do you ask for time away from your class without adversely affecting your standing in the department.

Now, The Professor is all about telling the truth.  And that means I tell the truth when I’m not an expert on a subject.  I’m not an expert on this subject.  I was never in this particular vulnerable position.  So I welcome perspectives from anyone about this subject, and ask you to post freely in the comments.  I’d like to learn more.

As a department head, I did have to manage, on occasion, graduate teaching assistants who had to leave their positions in mid-semester because of family crises.  What I expected in that situation was an email followed by a personal meeting–both of them as far in advance as possible, to give me time to handle the staffing adjustments that had to take place.

The email should read something like this:

Dear Professor XXX,

I am teaching XXX this semester, and the class is going well.  I appreciate the opportunity to teach in the department.

Unfortunately, I am writing today because of an urgent issue that has arisen, that may impact the class.  It is a family issue, and I would appreciate meeting with you in person to discuss this at the earliest opportunity.

Thank you,


Prior to the meeting with the Head, it would be wise for the adjunct to make her best efforts to find a replacement herself for the class periods she is going to need to miss.  Anything she can accomplish to lessen the hassle for the Department Head to scramble around looking for a replacement mid-semester is going to endear her enormously to said Department Head.   It will build the good-will upon which you depend.  Be aware that the Head cannot, most likely, legally accept a kind offer of “volunteer labor” by the adjuncts’ friends in the department, beyond one or two class meetings.  Chances are, new contracts will have to be drawn up to account for the shifting assignments.  But the true hassle for the Head is in finding a warm body to put in front of the class.  If the adjunct can handle that part, she’s going to enjoy far better standing with the Head.

In the meeting with the Head, explain the circumstances as calmly and unemotionally and BRIEFLY as possible, and explain what exactly you need.  Apologize ONE TIME only –“I’m so sorry to cause this inconvenience to the department mid-semester” and do not apologize again.  Thank the Head for any accomodation possible.  And then leave.   Follow up with an email thanking the Head again, and communicating your exact departure date, etc.

I cannot anticipate how humane and flexible your particular Head or Chair will be.  I know that I always worked with my TAs to accomodate their personal family needs.

The point I want to emphasize in this post is this:  do not grovel!  do not be a supplicant!  do not walk in apologize up and down and sideways for how “unprofessional” and “inconvenient” your request is, and “what an imposition” you are causing for the department, and to “please forgive” this hassle.  You are a human being and you and your needs are entitled to respect!

Women—hear me now!  The more you demand this respect, the more you will get it.  EVEN when you’re in a marginal status.  The fact is, if you act like a supplicant, you’ll be treated like a supplicant, and disrespected.  Walk in with healthy self-respect, and the Head will likely “stand down” and stop with (or at least modulate) the attitude.

At the risk of totally unacceptable over-generalizaton, WOMEN DON’T SEEM TO GET THIS.   Women graduate students and young faculty, in my experience, seem to think that if they just apologize enough, they’ll play on their superior’s emotions to be given special dispensation to slip by unnoticed.  NO!  It’s the opposite!  The more you apologize, the more you irritate the person in charge.  You are wasting their precious time. Stop apologizing and stand up for yourself and your needs.

In summary:  Be quick to anticipate the problem.  Do not wait until the last minute, if it’s a crisis that can anticipated (understanding that not all can), schedule the meeting early, take the steps in your power to solve the Head’s problem yourself, be courteous and brief, do not apologize more than once, and follow up with a clear statement of your plans.

With these steps, you maximize your chances for a humane and positive interaction with the department.
Now, readers—let me know about your experiences.  I’d like to hear them.

What Not to Wear, Assistant Professor Edition: Fashion for the Academic Set

(Thursday Post Category–Here’s How You Get Tenure)

Egged on by the redoubtable Martina of TheLifeAcademic, I have agreed to do a series of posts on What Not To Wear (Campus Edition).  She is on a mission to de-depress academic fashion, and this is a mission that I completely endorse.  Just because we’re smart doesn’t mean we have to be dreary.

Readers, dress better!  “Trust me, you’re gonna like the way you look.”

Seriously, you’ll be amazed at the boost this gives to your confidence. And the impact it has on the way you’re treated by students and colleagues.

There will be five posts in the series.

  • Grad school
  • Job market
  • Assistant professor
  • Conference
  • For the guys

And yes, these posts, except for the last, are directed toward women who present conventionally as women.  I am not offering a post for butch dykes, although being a loyal femme fan of butch dykes, I’d be happy to (please email at to request).  And men just have less scope for error than women, and so they only get one post.  Sad but true, women need more advising on this subject.

Today, Assistant Professor Edition.

Now to be perfectly honest, most assistant professors I have known have not dressed badly.  That doesn’t mean they’ve dressed well.  But they haven’t done anything sartorially that might actually destroy their chances for continued employment.   The same cannot be said for job candidates.

So for today, I’m not going to make the sweeping critical judgments reserved for job candidates in my forthcoming “Job Market Edition.”  I’m simply going to move top to bottom, from hair to shoes.  I am channeling Stacy, and I make no apology about that.  You may disagree, but you will not change my mind.

HairIt is not illegal for an assistant professor to have a trendy haircut.  Ditch the ponytail.  Reject the pageboy (of any length). Show that you ARE All That.  Spend the money on yourself to look good.  Find the hottest hair salon in your town, and become a regular.  You will be astounded at what a good haircut does for your confidence.  If you do nothing else from this post, do this.  Don’t know how to find the hottest hair salon?  Go to the hottest coffeeshop, find the barista with the coolest haircut (male or female, it matters not), and ask them where they got it.

Skin and Makeup:  I like makeup. Not everyone does.  It’s optional, of course. If you go for it, and I think you should, let’s lean away from Wet N’ Wild and more toward L’Oreal and Revlon.  No need to go into the overpriced department store brands at this stage in your career.  I like Revlon Colorstay because I put it on in the morning and don’t have to think about it again.  I recently discovered that lip stain makes a killer all-day blush.

Even if you don’t wear makeup, take care of your skin.  It’s your largest organ!  It deserves care!  Use a toner and moisturizer. They feel good and make a difference.Do the occasional clay mask.  Cheap ones are fine.  I like organics, myself.

JewelryWear conservative jewelry to job talks.  You may wear conspicuous jewelry at large conferences.  In your daily life in the department, aim for the middle.  Beware of jangling bracelets.

TopsTake out your tops and look at them them.  Are they stained?  Get them cleaned or throw them out.  Are they ripped?  Fix them or throw them out.  We notice.  Your students notice.  Please.

Iron your shirts. I know there’s no time. But iron your shirts.

Your blouse must button completely over the girls.  There must be no gapping of any kind.  Wearing a camisole underneath the gapping blouse is not an acceptable solution.  Your breasts must be, as Clinton says, locked and loaded, and covered in their entirety by your clothing.   Cleavage and bra straps are unacceptable in any academic setting. Leave the hooker-wear to the undergraduates.  Choose tops that don’t have to be tugged at to preserve modesty.  Aside from these two rules, wear what you want.  Take chances.  Be visible!  And your students will love you, simply love you, for any effort you make to stay current.  And wear colors, I beg you.  Black doesn’t make you smarter.

Addendum:   Readers have asked what to do when you’re really busty and blouses just don’t work.  I am not unfamiliar with this problem.  Pullover tops with some embellishment are good.

On a related note, the fitted jacket is the assistant professor’s best friend.  The best current fitted jackets look hip and professional.  Have jackets in many colors.  At TPII we disapprove of matchy-matchy for daily wear–but jackets can be combined with any skirts or pants in your wardrobe.  Here are a few cute ones, from the Boden website.  But DON’T buy jackets online! The fit is too tricky. See below.

From Boden USA

From Boden USA

From Boden USA

From Boden USA

***Be Aware:  Jackets are hard to fit!.  The best and most expensive jacket will not do its magic if it doesn’t fit YOUR body.  And a badly fitting jacket will look the opposite of good.  Jacket shopping can be grueling, like swimsuits.   Put in the time.  It’s worth it.  The time you spend in the stores you’ll more than save in the mornings when you’re rushing out the door for the 8 AM class.

BottomsPants or skirt?  The perennial question.  I don’t think it matters.  You must be comfortable.  Just leave behind the trailing earthmother skirts you wore in graduate school.  You are a young professional. You have to look like one.  Old-timers bewail the homogenization of the assistant professoriate, in their sea of dull grey suits.  Nevertheless, own a grey suit.  Just make it really, really stylish grey suit.  And wear it with killer shoes.

Shoes: You don’t need to wear heels if you don’t usually.  Flats or even better, flat-heeled boots (ankle boots or knee-height) are great. If you do like heels, for the job interview, wear a heel between 1 and 3 inches.  I don’t recommend flats because, frankly, you need the height.  Above 3 inches, and you’re tottering.  I wear this kind of heel every day, but that’s me.  I like heels.  Avoid stillettos and kitten heels–they stick in sidewalk cracks and trip you.  The round or square toe and a stacked heel keeps you safe from falling over as you approach the podium.  Beyond these rules, express yourself.  Have the hippest shoes that you can pull off.  They give you mystique.  They say, “I’m brilliant AND I’m cool.”

Your Briefcase: You’re not still using a backpack because that would be sad.  You bike to work?  Of course you have a messenger bag.  Now take out your briefcase and look at it.  Is it stained?  Is it ripped?  Is it canvas?  Throw it out and go buy yourself a high quality, stylish leather or microfiber briefcase, preferably black, but there’s some give on that one.  If you want a limited edition graphic designer item, go for it.  It’ll add to your mystique:  “Oh this?  It’s from London, so, yeah….”

How to afford all this on an assistant professor’s salary? Second hand boutiques.  Any college town worth its salt will have at least one and probably a handful of high quality second hand women’s clothing boutiques.  Shop at these, and you can cover 75% of your clothing needs.  True, you’re buying your undergraduates’ cast-offs, and have to hate your life to some extent. But, whatever. I didn’t buy new clothes until after I was tenured.

Why do all this? Because image matters.  And because you’ll feel better.  And when you feel better, you perform better.  Don’t believe me?  Try it out for a month, and find out for yourself.

“Trust me, you’re gonna like the way you look.”


Using Rage to Stay Motivated, Part Two

(Tuesday Post Category–Strategizing Your Success in Academia)

Last Tuesday I wrote Part 1 of “Using Rage to Stay Motivated,” a Special Request post for Allen.  He asked how to stay motivated while writing his thesis.  Staying motivated through the long years of work on a thesis or doctoral dissertation is one of the greatest challenges of the academic career.  I always think of the thesis writing stage as in some ways the nadir of the process, because you feel at your most vulnerable—is what I’m writing good enough?  Will it even be accepted and passed by my committee? You may have many challenges later in your academic career, but rarely will you be operating from such a position of fear.

Last week I wrote about using personal rage to stay motivated.  For many of us, rage about our topics gets us up in the mornings and keeps us awake late at nights.  It inspires.  It energizes.  It motivates.  And that’s a good thing.  If you’re angry about your topic (global warming, cancer, racism, homophobia), use that rage, harness it, channel it and be powerful.  Yes, in academia you have to translate rage into scholarly prose.  You can’t say “I’m outraged” directly.  But believe me, your message comes through loud and clear.

But what about those who do not have personally enraging topics?  What if your thesis topic seems neutral, and benign?  Two things.  First off, not to beat a dead horse, but do take a moment to ask yourself—why are you really, REALLY writing this dissertation?  What do you want to prove?  Is there a voice in your head that you’re in a battle with?  In many academic cases, there is, but it’s unacknowledged.  Academics are, as I said last week, a timid lot, generally afraid of high emotion.  Make sure you’re giving your emotions their due.  You might actually be really angry about something—and far better you KNOW and acknowledge that, then keep it repressed and have it come out in all of the multitude of self-defeating, self-sabotaging ways that angry young academics have to stifle their own voices, creativity and careers.

But let’s assume you did that, and you really aren’t angry about your topic per se, or about any individual connected to your topic.  There is still a way to use rage to stay motivated.  This is scholarly rage.

Basically, every piece of scholarly work is a hero’s journey.  You are the hero.  The topic is the field of battle.  The dragon is ignorance/misinformation/poor scholarship.  And your enemies?  The scholars who have misled the populace with their false dogmas.

You must save the day.  You must uphold the standard of truth.  It falls on your trembling shoulders to right the wrongs of the false scholars and rescue the populace from the dragon of ignorance.

Create the scene–in words, in pictures, in diagrams–of this battlefield.  Who are the scholars who have not properly accounted for xxx?  Who are the scholars who have neglected xxx?  Why did they do so?  What were the stakes?  Above all, what was their agenda?   And what knowledge, what advances, have failed to materialize because the populace has uncritically accepted their views?

Now, how will you save the day?

How have you seen the previously unseen, recognized the previously unrecognized, given visibility to the previously neglected?  Why are you doing so?  What are the stakes?  What is your agenda?

If you really care about your topic— and most of you do or you wouldn’t be engaged in this madness called a doctoral dissertation— this battle is already raging in your head.  You just may not have identified it as such.  Your power, though, your motivation, lies in bringing it into the open.  Be angry that scholars haven’t seen what you see!  Be angry that it has fallen to you to reveal the truth about this subject!  Be angry that others will resist your claims!  Be angry that your advisor doesn’t “get it.”

And then channel that anger into writing.  Write more.  Write better.  If people say to you, “I still don’t get it,” don’t just passive aggressively claim they’ve “missed the point.”  Explain your point better!  Go back to the drawing board!  It’s proof you’re not there yet!  It’s your job to make sure people get it.  Do the work.  Get it done.

We wouldn’t be doing this thing called scholarship if we didn’t believe the stakes are critical.  Now get in there and fight for them.


How to Write an Email to a Potential Ph.D. Advisor/Professor

***Please note that I no longer respond to comments/questions to this post!  Please see our  Grad School Application Guidance Package, plus some individualized services, below the post***

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to write an email to contact a professor to serve as a potential Ph.D. or graduate school advisor.  This can be a minefield.  Yet the email inquiry to a potential advisor is one of the most important steps in your entire graduate school process, in that it is your chance to make a first impression on the person who will dictate many elements of your life for the next five to ten years.

I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”

This is an instant-delete email.

Here is what an email to a professor should look like:

“Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a [junior] and will be graduating next May.  I have a [4.0 GPA] and experience in our college’s [summer program in xxx/internship program in xxx/Honors College/etc.].

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.  My specific project will likely focus on xxxx, and I am particularly interested in exploring the question of xxxxx.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  If you are, would you willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans?  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much,



Why is this email good?  Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified.  It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website.  It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions.  It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work.  It shows that you respect the professor’s time.

All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.

Good luck!

***Please note that I no longer respond to comments/questions to this post!  However we offer individualized assistance and coaching with your graduate applications dilemmas, applications, and decisions***




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Here’s What Goes in Your Tenure Portfolio–A Special Request Post

(Thursday Post Category—Here’s How You Get Tenure)

This is a Special Request Post for Joan.  She wishes to know how to create a tenure portfolio.

While every tenure process differs slightly by campus, and you should confirm all expectations with your department chair in your first year and annually afterward, by and large your tenure dossier consists of 7 elements:

1.  Your c.v. in correct tenure format

2. Your publications

3. Your teaching portfolio

4. Your tenure statement

5. Grants and awards

6. Evidence of service

7. Your external review letters


These documents will be reviewed by your tenure committee, and department head.  The department head will transform the portfolio of materials into a lengthy tenure report on your case, which, with your external letters and some substantiating materials about teaching, will advance to the associate dean, dean, college committee, and campus committee.  Ultimately your successful tenure will be approved by the Provost (or equivalent).  Here is what each of these elements includes:

Your C.V. in Correct Format

Most institutions require a tenure c.v. to adhere to very strict guidelines.  One of the elements of this is the marking of every publication as “peer-reviewed” “invited” “highly selective” etc., as well as strictly clarifying if the publication is published, in press, accepted, in revise and resubmit stage, or merely submitted.   The c.v. format is meant to prevent “padding” and “obfuscation.”

Your Publications

All articles, books, book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and other items written by you.  Whether your institution considers online writing such as blogs relevant to tenure is something you must discuss well in advance with your Head/Chair.  This will also include reviews of your major works, as in reviews of your book in major journals.  Some institutions may require evidence of citation of your work.

Your Teaching Portfolio

Your teaching statement/teaching philosophy, your student evaluations, all of your syllabi, some major assignments or projects from your classes, peer reviews of your teaching by colleagues, examples of teaching skill development through your campus’s Teaching Effectiveness Center (will have a different name on every campus).  Will also include a list of your graduate student advisees and their status, and the committees on which you are a member.  Also special intiatives and teaching to undergraduates, such as independent studies.

Your Tenure Statement

This is your own reflection on your research, teaching, and service, past, present and future.  There are usually word limits and formatting requirements.  Disregard these at your peril.  It is typically approximately 5 pages long, single-spaced, and if at a typical R1, devotes 60% of its length to research, 30% to teaching, and 10% to service. Your percentages should reflect the norms of your institution and position, and so may weight teaching and service more heavily. (We will discuss the elements of an effective tenure statement in another post).  It must primarily encapsulate your research accomplishments, contributions, and trajectory from past to future (a substantial second, post-tenure project is a key–but often overlooked–element of this statement) in language that can be comprehended by an interdisciplinary higher level committee from across the campus—ie, that can very well include faculty from biology, physics, English, cinema studies, economics, agricultural sciences, anthropology and French, all on one committee.  In short, this piece of writing must make the case for your brilliance and productivity without using any field-specific jargon.

Grants and Awards

Evidence of monetary grants you received both large and small.  This may include the proposals you wrote to apply successfully for the grants and the letters awarding you the grants.  Both small on-campus grants and large multi-year grants should be included. Also includes non-monetary awards you received, such as best journal article in xx field by a junior scholar (this would also be in the Publications file), outstanding teacher awards, best undergraduate mentor award, etc.

Evidence of Service

Letters documenting your service on any department and campus committees and collectivities, such gender and equity committee, curriculum committee, faculty senate, search committees, tenure committees, etc. Also includes evidence of service to your discipline, such as manuscript reviews for refereed journals, grant proposal reviews, etc.  Also includes outreach initiatives you might have pursued to the community, local schools and organizations, and media coverage of your research, etc.

Your External Review Letters

These are the 5-6 letters obtained by the department head/chair from illustrious senior scholars in your field/s. These individuals will have read a selection of your publications, and your tenure statement, over the previous summer, and will compose a lengthy single-spaced letter evaluating your work, its quantity, its pace, its import and originality, its impact on the field, and its likelihood to make you a leader in the field in the coming years.  They will be asked, specifically “Would this candidate receive tenure at your institution,” which can make for some interesting language when the letter writers are Ivy League and are thinking “no” but have to write “yes.” The biggest risk is usually slightly less then completely effusive language, as even a phrase that even implies a question will be scrutinized intensively by the tenure committee, department head, associate dean, dean, college committee, and campus committee.  However, the department head, in their larger statement of support for tenure, provides the summary and context of the letters and can often minimize any damage.  Letter writers fully understand the stakes of tenure review.  The norm is that anyone who is not fully supportive will not agree to write a letter in the first place.  Few, few scholars make it their business to sabotage a junior colleague’s career and life. Of course it does happen, but rarely, very rarely.


Effective and organized departments will require you to create a dossier in your first year in the form of a binder or a box of files, and expect you to add these documents to it on a monthly or semester-ly basis.

Disorganized departments will find the secretary frantically calling to ask why your dossier isn’t ready when your tenure committee is scheduling its first meeting and the chair/head is on the verge of sending out her requests for letters to external reviewers.

Protect yourself, and keep good files.  Keep every scrap of paper that crosses your desk thanking you for sitting on x committee, or congratulating you for winning that $250 for your media literacy initiative.  Collect copies of not just your major publications, but the book reviews that you write, and every small publication that you produce, as well as published reviews of your work.  Ana Salter has a great ProfHacker post that discusses the digital aspects of this.

DO NOT TRUST YOUR MEMORY.  In year 5 you will have forgotten the 3 independent studies with undergraduates you (foolishly) agreed to do in your first term.  You will have forgotten that you served as an external reviewer for a minor  journal in your field.  You will have forgotten that you served on the grievance committee in  your 2nd and 3rd year, mostly because the committee never once convened.

You are your own advocate. Noone else has your back.  The responsibility for protecting yourself and your tenure case lies with you. Besides productivity, organization is your best friend.

Do you have any questions about all of this?  Please put them in comments below, and I will answer each and every one.