How To Write a Journal Article Submission Cover Letter

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

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

This is pretty straightforward.

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

Assuming there are no instructions, the following is common:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign off, “Sincerely, XXX.”

And that is about it.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should You Go To Graduate School?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That advice is not wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postpartum Depression: On Motherhood, Academia, and Mental Health (A Guest Post)

In January, I posted a request on Facebook and Twitter for resources related to mental illness and academia.  I had been contacted by a reader recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, who was seeking information.  The response to my request was greater than I expected, and many expressed a wish for a list of the resources I discovered. I eventually compiled such a list and posted it on the blog in this post, Mental Illness and the Academy.  I also asked for guest posts on the subject.  I feel it’s important and yet too often shrouded in secrecy and shame.  We’ve had several guest posts so far, which you can find in the Mental Illness and the Academy category on the blog.  Today’s is on postpartum depression. Thank you, reader, for your willingness to share.


I recently found something I had written when my daughter was about six weeks old.  It reads:

“Over the past month and a half, I’ve sometimes felt like I’m falling apart, and often like I’m about to fall apart. That I’m being held together only by the finest – but strangely strong – of thread, made of guilt, fear, determination, hope, even shame.  I feel overwhelmed with the demands of motherhood, of the unbelievable physical and emotional exhaustion involved in caring for a newborn.  But even moreso, I feel overwhelmed by a sense of loss – losing all choice, freedom, the ability to walk away.  And then crushing resentment and despair for what my life has become and my inability to change it, to change my mind. The baby that I had so excitedly and hopefully awaited was here, and she was a burden beyond anything I had experienced or expected. And I hated her for it.  Even as I loved her.”

Being a mother is hard. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.  In hindsight, now with 19 months in the rearview mirror, I realize that what I was feeling early on (and for periods later in the first year) was a combination of the very real struggles of motherhood and the very real illness of postpartum depression.

A brief primer on postpartum depression: postpartum mood disorders, of which postpartum depression is the most common, affect 15% of mothers, and these mood disorders can happen any time during the first year.  These are different from the “baby blues,” which affect 80% of new mothers in the first month. And the baby blues — weepiness, exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, feeling trapped, wanting to run away, feeling nostalgia for the “old life” — usually subside, when hormones regulate, when breastfeeding creates happy hormones, when support systems help alleviate burdens, when new mothers get farther along the steep learning curve, when mother-baby bonding happens, when everyone gets some sleep.  But sometimes these feelings don’t go away and sometimes they get worse. And this happens for a variety of reasons, a confluence of factors related to both neurobiology and the external conditions affecting the new mother’s life — none of which are the mother’s fault.  Postpartum mood disorders are illnesses. They are life-threatening illnesses. They can affect anyone, and are not a sign of “weakness” or “unfitness” as a mother.  Last, as life-threatening illnesses, they require serious and appropriate treatments.

During the first year of my daughter’s life, as I was trying to finish the dissertation, I found myself in an abyss that at the time had no name and no visible way out.  Now I know it has a name and an exit. Don’t worry — my story has a happy ending. I was able to find and create the right support system, and today I can confidently say that I am happy a good portion of every day. (This actually amazes me as I write this.  There was a time when I could not imagine being happy again.  There was a time, as I was recovering, that I counted being happy sporadically throughout the week as a major accomplishment.)  I even managed to finish the dissertation.  But let me tell you why this happy ending was so hard to reach, why even now I worry that I will backslide, and what I have to continue to do as both a mother and an academic to keep my sanity, literally.

First, the general culture around motherhood in the U.S. creates pressures and silences.  While I was struggling, I found that I could not get many other parents to admit, even to themselves, that we sometimes don’t feel like it’s ‘worth it,’ that sometimes there is little or no reward, that sometimes we even have regrets, resentment, and a desire for something else. I can’t even get most new parents to admit that joy might not their predominant feeling.  And while I was frustrated and despairing about this at the time, in hindsight, I understand that there is so much expectation and pressure around motherhood: Not only are we supposed to do it all; we’re supposed to do it all with a smile. So shame on those who don’t, or can’t.

But other factors of my life compounded this: the stigma of mental illness, especially in the Asian American community, of which I’m a part; and the stigma of both mental illness and motherhood in academia.

In the Vietnamese American community in which I was raised, there are only two states of mental health: “crazy” and “not-crazy.” For Vietnamese Americans, who have survived war, displacement, abject poverty, torture, sexual violence, and continuing racism — what is something as simple and ubiquitous as motherhood?  Indeed, the irony here is that even as Vietnamese Americans have faced unimaginable trauma, we have no language to express the psychic toll these experiences take.  So I am a Vietnamese American woman surviving and carrying this legacy even as I am a new mother, surviving personal and structural burdens related to racialized motherhood in the U.S.  The traumas compound, but I found no way to talk about them, no names for my experiences, no voices to support my own.

In academia, even as there is academic language to talk about mental illness, I found no way to talk about it personally.  Mentall illness is still conflated with mental weakness, which is particularly dangerous for women — women of color especially.  We cannot afford to be seen as “weak” or “less.”  In fact, we have to do better than our white, male counterparts to even be considered for our token seat at the table.  We cannot reveal that mothering is a burden or a challenge, not to mention possibly a major disability.

In other words, I found myself at the intersection of the super academic (I don’t have a body or other commitments), the happy supermom of contemporary American womanhood (I can handle everything; My baby is my greatest joy; My baby makes everything worth it), and the model minority (Just work harder; Accept obstacles and just hurdle them no matter the cost). Together, these discourses leave us no way to talk about how motherhood is hard, and that sometimes it gets too hard. And so we have no way to talk about what mothers need, what it means to live healthily as a mother, what the different forms of necessary support look like.  They say it takes a village to raise a child; it takes a village to have happy, healthy mothers, too.

Like I’ve said, my story has a happy ending.  I read a book that saved my life: Postpartum Depression for Dummies(seriously, this is actually an AMAZING book).  Through its insights and encouragements, I sought therapy, both individual and couples’, I asked and received help with childcare and household duties from family for long periods, my partner took off work for several weeks and then worked from home for several months until I felt ready to be alone at home again.  And I got sleep. 8-9 hours a day. Sleep became the highest priority in my life, because I found that for me lack of sleep was directly related to my mental well-being. The exhaustion, physical and emotional, had settled into my bones and only regular sleep over MONTHS could chip that away.

In fact, sleep was more important than finishing the dissertation. I repeat: sleep was more important than the dissertation!  Once I was well on the road to recovery, I began writing again, an hour at a time, for a total of 3-4 hours each day.  Writing only happened when I was relatively well-rested. So some days, I napped during my designated work hour instead.

And this paid off, in the most tremendous of ways.  I’m happy to say that I can look at my daughter now and feel overwhelmed with a love and joy that borders on being painful. I enjoy her in ways I could not have imagined less than a year ago.  And I finished the dissertation. I found a daily balance that has restored my health and my sanity and my love.

But this is still a daily struggle.

I guage how well I’m doing by how far away the abyss feels. Do not be fooled — it is STILL there. It hasn’t disappeared from my life, no matter how large my joy has grown. It remains, sometimes closer sometimes farther away. It looms, just in the corner of my vision.  On good days, on the best days so far, it is somewhere in the distance and I can barely see it, barely think about it. But on the bad days — the days when I don’t get enough sleep, when my now-toddler throws one too many tantrums, when my partner and I just aren’t communicating and the resentment pings back and forth, when my writing and teaching seem to fail me, when I get one too many rejections, when support systems fail — the abyss draws near, and despair and hopelessness well up, alongside a suffocating panic because I fear that my depression will “take me” again.

So now I am very very very careful. I make sure I get 7-8 hours of unbroken sleep a night. I sometimes still nap. I need to work on eating more healthily and exercising regularly. But I do make sure that I make TIME — for myself, for my relationship with my partner, for work that gives me meaning, for friendships that mutually sustain. This time that I reserve is truly sacred. Professor Mommy recommends that young tenure-tracked professors who are mothers give up any notion of having “a life,” devoting all their time to their children and to the sprint that is the lead-up to tenure.  I completely disagree. While I know sacrifices have to be made (and I’m not sure that I’m actually willing to make most of the ones they list), there are some that can have dire consequences.  For me, the toll was on my health, my sanity, my love, possibly my life.  So my advice, for everyone, not just academic mothers: Find what is truly restorative in your life and GUARD it, cultivate it.  These are not silly hobbies or simple down-time. These are investments in your health, your sanity.  They are investments in the health and sanity of your family as well.  For me, they are investments in my love for my daughter, which I never ever want to lose the ability to feel again.

So I watch that abyss with the corner of my eye.  I watch my thoughts and feelings, like watching a half-tamed beast.  And if the abyss creeps (or jumps) closer, if I start feeling overwhelmed or trapped or even just numb, I know.  My energy and self are in danger of being depleted; the stores are dangerously low; it’s time to “restock,” restore.  This is the dance I dance, the balance I keep, every day now.  Because my life, and the lives of those I love, I now realize, depends on it.

PPD has taught me the value of health and how easily everything in our lives steals from that health. Never apologize for putting your health first — over your academic career and even over your child’s immediate needs.  What a child needs most is a healthy — ALIVE — parent.

Guard that health and that life with the ferocity and tenderness with which you would guard the life of your child.

For resources on postpartum depression, see the book Postpartum Depression for Dummies, and the org Postpartum Support International.  PSI has local branches and support groups, and can point you to other local resources such as therapists specializing in postpartum issues.

Feel free to contact the author through her co-written blog, Not That Kind of Asian Doctor, which explores Asian American life, academia, and motherhood.

Three New Webinars, and Campus Visit Thank You Etiquette

Today I want to answer an urgent query from readers that I am asked at least once a week, about the etiquette of thanking a department that has hosted you on a campus visit. And then tell you about three new webinars that are coming up this month. The webinars are “Writing Your Book for Tenure,” “Managing Your Career Once You Have a Job,” and “What Grad Students Need to Hear.” Keep reading to learn more.

How to thank a department: it is appropriate to write an email thank you to the department head, to the search chair, to the department secretary who helped arrange the visit, and then to any other individual faculty member with whom you feel you formed a special connection. Beyond that, it is unnecessary, and undesirable, to thank anybody else. Many readers inquire anxiously whether they should thank every single person they met. No, you should not. It is appropriate, if you wish, to send a thank you card to the department, addressed either to the department head or to the departmental secretary, but it is not required. Emails are the norm.

Now, without further ado, please read on about the three new webinars I’ve developed for Spring 2013. They are coming quickly (the first is next Wednesday), so if you’re interested, don’t delay. By the way, I’ve created a special discount code for the third one, “What Grad Students Need to Hear,” to make this webinar more easily affordable for the grad students who most need to attend it. The code is Grad25 and it gives you a 25% discount for that webinar only.

1) Writing Your Book for Tenure (4/10)

In most fields of the humanities and social sciences, a sole-authored monograph is the primary criterion for tenure, and getting the book done in time for tenure review is the leading source of stress for new assistant professors. You can do it, but it takes advance planning and organization. In this 90 minute webinar I walk you through the basic timeline for getting it done in time. We will cover the following:

conceptualizing your dissertation as a book
getting leave time to write
coordinating publication timeline and tenure review
writing a proposal
submitting your proposal
approaching editors
choosing a press
getting an advance contract
knowing what to publish as journal articles
setting up a writing schedule
dealing with positive and negative reviews
revising the mss.
details of indexing, copy-editing and cover art

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

Avoid unnecessary anguish and stress by understanding the process and planning ahead.

This 90-minute Webinar is scheduled for  Wednesday 4/10 at 2 PM Pacific/5 PM EST/22:00 GMT.   Cost:   $100

After completing payment by clicking below, you will be redirected to the dedicated Go-To-Meeting Webinar Registration page, where you will fill out a registration form and be given instructions and an access code to sign in on your chosen day.

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2) Managing Your Career Once You Have a Job (4/17)

Congratulations! You have secured the tenure track position! Now what?

This 90-minute webinar explains the basic organization of a successful academic career, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls besetting the naive new assistant professor. We’ll cover:

The all-important skill of time management
Learning to say no
Learning when to say yes
Teaching well but not too much
Dealing with colleagues
Understanding departmental politics
Handling service obligations
Managing your image
Applying for leave
Carving out time for research and writing
Charting your tenure course
Creating and maintaining your national reputation
Aiming for the next job

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

One of the most elusive achievements of the tenure track period is any kind of work-life balance.  With a clear sense of the obligations and challenges of the tenure track period you can improve your chances of achieving this balance and having a career that is satisfying and life-sustaining.

This 90-minute webinar is scheduled for Wednesday 4/17 at 2 PM Pacific/5 PM EST/22:00 GMT.  Cost:   $100

After completing payment by clicking below, you will be redirected to the dedicated Go-To-Meeting Webinar Registration page, where you will fill out a registration form and be given instructions and an access code to sign in on your chosen day.


3) What Grad Students Need To Hear (4/25)

Graduate training across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences is in the midst of a massive upheaval as higher education downsizes abruptly. Graduate students are caught between two competing trends: the pressure on departments to increase Ph.D. admissions to handle the teaching that professors no longer do, and the wholesale replacement of tenure track jobs for those same Ph.D.s with short-term adjunct positions.

In short, Ph.D. students vastly outnumber the available permanent positions for employment at the tenure track level. Meanwhile, faculty in Ph.D. granting departments rarely acknowledge these realities, preferring to increase their Ph.D. enrollments for the sake of personal or departmental prestige, while viewing the real suffering attendant on the Ph.D. job search with indifference at worst, passivity at best. Few graduate students are told the truth about the real financial risks of doing a Ph.D., and more importantly, the specific steps that can be taken to protect yourself, reduce those risks, and chart a course that maximizes chances of secure permanent employment after completion of the degree.

This webinar is dedicated to filling that gap. It covers:

Preparing for your job search from year 1 in the program
Understanding the financial risks and losses of a Ph.D.
Evaluating the status and job placement rate of your graduate program
Evaluating the effectiveness of your advisor for job placement
Changing advisors when necessary
Assembling a committee
Choosing a dissertation topic
Reading trends in your field with an eye to the job market
Setting a 5-year timeline to completion
Understanding the role of grants
TA-ing vs. teaching
Participating in departmental life
Avoiding excess service
Attending national conferences
Strategizing your recommenders
Building your CV
Producing the all-important peer reviewed publications

And finally, most important: Thinking like a t-t search committee.

As always, time for Q and A at the end.

Let no grad student proceed uninformed!

This 90-minute webinar is scheduled for Thursday 4/25 at 2 PM Pacific/5 PM EST/22:00 GMT.  Cost:   $100

After completing payment by clicking below, you will be redirected to the dedicated Go-To-Meeting Webinar Registration page, where you will fill out a registration form and be given instructions and an access code to sign in on your chosen day.

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For North Americans: the peculiar British interview process (A Guest Post)

This wonderful post on the British academic interview process is written by Kean Birch, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science at York University in Canada.  It was originally published on his blog.  He received his Ph.D. in Planning at Oxford Brookes University in the UK, and he has a fine sense of the contrasts between the UK and North American interview protocols. I have long heard about these practices from my clients who interviewed for jobs in the UK, but I never had such a clear view of the process, until now.  I urge anyone who is applying for a UK-based job to read this!  Thank you, Kean!


I wanted to write a post for North Americans seeking jobs in the UK academic labour market. First, because there seem to be far more jobs over there at the minute and turnover is definitely higher; both result from institutional pressures like the RAE/REF – and if you don’t know what those are and want a job in the UK then best get reading! But I also wanted to forewarn and forearm applicants about the peculiarities of the UK interview process. Having been through the wringer a few times already – see this post – I thought I might be able to say something helpful.

Much of this is taken from my experiences with several interviews in the UK, including with members of the Russell Group. If you’re North American (or from elsewhere) then you’ll need to find out what that means – see here – as Britain has a finely honed hierarchy of universities, as with everything else in its class-obsessed culture. To start with, it’s worth pointing out that in several cases, the jobs I’ve applied for were not always a step-up so I was sometimes rather ambivalent about them. This likely affected my ‘performance’ on the day and my view of process, detrimentally in some cases. It is also worth pointing out that now I have had experience with the North American interview process, I tend to unfavourably compare the British process to the North American one.

First things first then. Be prepared to have only 60-minutes (or less) to make your case and make an impression. I imagine this can be quite a shock for many North Americans who are used to full-day or even two-day interviews. It means you have to be incredibly succinct in whatever you do.

Second, this 60-minutes consists of a presentation and a formal interview.

  • The presentation usually lasts for 20 minutes (plus 10 minutes Q&A) and is delivered to the full department, or whoever decides to turn up on the day – don’t expect full attendance however. Generally it covers your (past, current and future) research agenda and teaching agenda. Yes, it covers both! In 20 minutes! So, be prepared to pare down any interview material you have prepared for a North American audience – a lot!
  • The formal interview usually lasts 30 minutes and will be carried out by 4-5 senior academics (or HR types) from the university, most of whom will not be your future departmental colleagues. Usually it will consist of: a dean or head of school/college/faculty; a head of research and/or teaching in the school/college/faculty; the head of department; and maybe another senior figure from another department altogether or from an administrative department (e.g HR). This means that you may have only ONE interviewer who knows anything at all about your field; the others can be (and frequently are) totally clueless about what you do.

Third, the formal interview is a peculiar and strange event in itself.

  • It’s way too short:  the interviewers will frequently want to hurry you up, so they don’t want long, convoluted answers to questions and they might actually ask you to answer more quickly – don’t get thrown by this, I did. This is because they probably have another 4-5 people to interview that day, and they’re busy people for no-god’s sake! This comes across as really strange since you could be there for 10-20 years as a colleague; that is until you realise that the interviewers are not the ones who have to live with their decisions (i.e. they will not be your immediate colleagues and you may never see them again).
  • It’s not really about your field: you will be asked a series of management-speak questions (see below) rather than probing questions about your research and teaching or your discipline. This is because the interviewers don’t know your subject and because they are largely performing a box-ticking exercise in which they measure you against a series of HR-imposed criteria (i.e. job specifications drawn up by HR people and not future departmental colleagues).
  • The questions you’ll probably get asked (in some form or another) include the following: (1) why do you want the job; (2) what can you bring to the department; (3) what are your future research plans; (4) how would you teach so-and-so course; (5) how do you show research leadership or go about collaborating; and (6) something about the impact of your research. The last of these relates to the UK’s new Impact Agenda; whatever you do, don’t do what I did and criticise this agenda even though it is pernicious, damaging and short-sighted – see Professor Stefan Collini’s wonderful take on this nonsense, especially if you are in a humanities or social science discipline. Even the European Research Council has rejected it as damaging to independent and scholarly research. There are other possible questions, of course, so see this webpage for some questions that get frequently asked (and some possible ways to answer them).
  • Management-speak: be prepared for this, especially from those interviewers who are not in your field. I was thrown off in one interview with a question about how I might show future research leadership or something similarly opaque – well, to me at least! Now, I had no idea what the interviewer actually meant or was getting at – is it managing research assistants, or pushing forward current debates in your field, or a mixture of these two, or something else entirely? What I should have done was simply ask them to define exactly what they mean, but I didn’t … that doesn’t stop you not making my mistake though.
  • Preparation, preparation, preparation: what this all means is that preparation is key to getting through the interview; you have to know what the interview questions will be in order to develop adequate responses to them that can be delivered in a short-space of time, yet reveal how innovative and forward-looking you are as a researcher, teacher, disseminator, etc., etc. It is hardly necessary to say that this can be difficult; hence why it is important to be forewarned. You need pithy, short answers that reflect back the management-speak emphasis in the questions, informed by your scholarly experience and record but not dependent on them. Not an easy task, by any means!

Fourth, if you have flown over for the interview in person then be prepared to mingle with your fellow applicants on the day – you might even share lunch or nibbles with them. This can be disconcerting for some people, but it is also good in other ways as it means you can check out your ‘competition’ and get a good sense of how the interviewers rate you as a scholar (i.e. who they consider as your peers).

Fifth, if the university wants to offer you the job then they will usually do so on the day itself (which can be quite shocking from a North American perspective where it takes weeks to hear anything). Someone will call you that evening to make a verbal offer. Obviously, your best response is “That’s wonderful news, I look forward to receiving the formal contract” … or something similarly enthusiastic. There is a downside to this; if you don’t hear anything on the evening of the interview then you are likely not going to be offered the job – not always, but 90% of the time.

A very personal take on this whole process …

Since I moved to North America I have begun to think about these peculiarities since they really don’t make much sense when you deconstruct them. Why aren’t your future departmental colleagues interviewing you? Why does it all boil down to 30 minutes? What is all the management-speak about? Why is there such a lack of interest in your record and experience on the day? Etc. I’ve come to the conclusion that the British interview process is largely about finding people with the right attitude – it is about making sure that the university only hires academics who are adaptable to management priorities (e.g. shifting administration down to faculty), to wider institutional pressures (e.g. RAE/REF), to fitting in with the direction British academia is going more generally (e.g. the emergence of student consumers), and not rocking any boats along the way. It is, at heart, about disciplining future colleagues; more importantly, it is about ensuring that future colleagues discipline themselves rather than require constant oversight so that they are willing to adapt their lives to the constant and nagging administrative burden that will be placed on them as soon as they start. It is, in short, about breeding in compliance.

Recovery From Addiction and the Road to Academia (A Guest Post)

In January, I posted a request on Facebook and Twitter for resources related to mental illness and academia.  I had been contacted by a reader recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, who was seeking information.  The response to my request was greater than I expected, and many expressed a wish for a list of the resources I discovered. I eventually compiled such a list and posted it on the blog in this post, Mental Illness and the Academy.  I also asked for guest posts on the subject.  I feel it’s important and yet too often shrouded in secrecy and shame.  Today’s post is the first guest post in the series. I expect at least one more. Thank you, reader, for your willingness to share.


When discussing mental health issues, I think a discussion about substance abuse or alcohol abuse is warranted. Like mental illness, there is stigma associated with addiction.

Beginning in high school, it was pretty clear to me that I had a drug problem. I managed to pull together decent grades in high school and went to a good college. In college, my drug and alcohol use progressed and I was unable to maintain my grades. By my sophomore year, I had been arrested a few times and my grades had plummeted causing me to lose my scholarship. Thankfully, I was admitted into a drug diversion program, which afforded me opportunities for inpatient substance abuse treatment. When I completed the diversion program, my criminal charges were dropped (though the arrests are still on my record). Although the road to recovery was much more complicated then I can describe here (12 step groups, relapses, numerous treatment centers), I was able to complete college and set my hopes toward graduate school.

Being a recovering addict in graduate school has certainly had its challenges, but I think it has also afforded me some benefits. Probably one of the most challenging things is feeling like an outsider within the group of graduate students. It seems that even in graduate school, one of the “go to” social activities is heading out to the bar. Although I can be comfortable in a bar, I know that my time in bars should be limited. I often must balance the desire to be a part of the group and what I know I “ought” to be doing instead (staying away from bars!).

Even if I could avoid hanging out with other graduate students, it seems that alcohol is also the center of many department and professional development activities. There is generally alcohol at department parties or following an invited speaker. At national conferences and poster sessions, there is almost always alcohol being served. Part of professional development is to attend to these events; and unlike hanging out with graduate students, it is in my professional best interest to attend these events.

Please do not get me wrong. I know that the world will continue to drink even if I do not and I do not expect the professional world to change for me. I merely describe this to provide my perspective about the dissonance I feel at these events and the added challenges of being a recovering addict in academia.

Although I have had a lot of practice over the years with feeling comfortable without having a drink, my thoughts at these events typically vacillate between professional development thoughts (“I must network”, “I must present my research clearly”) and addiction thoughts (“I would love to drink with everyone else”). I think these feelings stem from a number of things. I want to fit in just like everyone else and sometimes I get tired of responding to the question “why aren’t you drinking?” (mostly asked by other graduate students, not professionals) Also, these events tend to be fairly anxiety-provoking and at times it would be comforting to have a drink to ease my nerves. Finally, as is the case with most people in recovery, no matter how long I have been abstinent from drugs and alcohol (and no matter how horrible my life was when I drank and used drugs) there is still that desire to get smashed.

Another challenge I have faced as a recovering addict in academia is how to balance my school/ work and recovery (as well as all the other typical obligations). Recovery is a lifelong process. I think a common misconception (it was for me at least) is that once someone has gone through treatment, they are “cured”. However, 12-step recovery groups encourage lifelong participation that includes meetings, service committees, and helping other recovering addicts. At times, the demands of graduate school/academia and the time I need to devote to recovery activities can interfere with each other.

Despite these struggles, I have been a productive graduate student. I have been nominated for and received several grants, research awards, and teaching awards. I have successfully developed a program of research and publication history. Sometimes, I think my experiences as a recovering addict in 12-Step recovery have contributed to my success. For one, I am a survivor who overcame several obstacles to arrive to where I am today. To stay clean I had to learn some new skills such as persistence, commitment, service, humility, and self-acceptance—all characteristics that are important to a successful academic life! And despite the fact that at times I am jealous of my graduate student peers who relive stress on Friday night at the bar, I think being a recovering addict has taught be how to use other coping strategies to manage stress—and I never have hangovers on Saturday!

Most of the research I have read suggests that stigma associated with addiction may be stronger than stigmas for mental illness (perhaps because it is perceived as a “choice”). Thus, I have also struggled with whether I should disclose my past. I have told a few graduate students and my advisor (who I knew would be understanding). I think, at least for me, it has been helpful having a handful of people who know why I do not drink alcohol. It helps me remain accountable and also allows me to speak honestly about how I am feeling—which are both important for recovery. At times, I have also been forced to disclose the information to explain my criminal charges and academic blemishes as an undergraduate. As far as I can tell, the disclosure has not affected my graduate school career; however, I can’t help but think about how disclosure may affect my future career goals as an academic.

Why Have I No Power? Thoughts on Negotiating the Tenure Track Offer

I was working with a Negotiating Assistance client last week, and about halfway through our work, as I said for the fourth time or so, “you can’t really ask for ALL of that; you’ll have to pick and choose,” he cried out over email, “But why? Why have I no power?”

At first I laughed—I thought it was hyperbole for comic effect, and ironic self-dramatization. But then I realized he was serious. Then I got annoyed—well of course you have no power, why would you think you had power? But then, as days went by, I found myself reflecting on this cri de coeur. Why does he have no power? Does he actually have NO power? What is power, for a successful job candidate negotiating his first job?

I realized that answering this query accurately requires a rather careful parsing of the successful candidate’s real position vis-a-vis the hiring body. And it is to that that I turn today.  For those of you hoping for more of a “how-to” on negotiating, please refer to this post, How to Negotiate Your Tenure Track Offer, and this one, Stop Negotiating Like a Girl.

So first of all, let’s remember Marx. You are the labor, not the owners of the means of production. Ipso facto, you really have almost no power. This is fact.

Add to this that your labor market is vastly, obscenely oversaturated. There are hundreds if not thousands of you who would leap at the job. At the entry level position in the academy, you have almost no leverage.

If you are the happy recipient of more than one equivalent offer (and they must be equivalent—ie, both must be tenure track jobs, not postdocs or the like, and both must be at equal status institutions), then you have more leverage.

Now, a tweak of this basic set of facts at the academic hiring level is that once the department has decided on YOU as their top candidate, they’ve invested thousands of dollars in the search already, and have likely voted all other candidates unacceptable. Therefore although there are in theory hundreds or thousands of you to take the slot, in fact, the nature of tenure track hiring means that all the department’s eggs are kind of concentrated in one basket, and the basket is you. So….. a little leverage appears on the horizon!

However, increasingly in recent years, institutions have taken to rescinding offers of candidates who seek to negotiate an improvement in their contract. This is no joke. It’s not yet common, but it’s happens with regularity. I find it more common among very low status regional colleges than among elite R1s and SLACs, but then again, the forum Universities to Fear has accounts of rescinded offers that range the entire spectrum of institutional locations. I just had a NA client see an offer rescinded last month. Thank heavens she had a second offer in hand. Otherwise, tragedy. She was attempting only a very modest and reasonable negotiation.

So the generalized atmosphere of fear mitigates against leverage for you.

So…do you have any power? Well, it’s my opinion that yes, you do. Even without a second offer, you have a little. The department has invested an enormous amount of money and time into finding you, and you can use their desire not to have the search fail to your advantage. You have a LITTLE bit of power, and it is in that LITTLE that the work of negotiating happens. You can ask for x but not y, z but not q. You can ask for a, b, and c, but not a through h inclusive. And so on.

Traumatized former job seekers tend to be so desperate and craven and codependent and eager to please that left to their own devices they barely ask for, say, half of “x.” That is a mistake. All job offers should be negotiated! At the same time, occasionally an offeree suffers from delusions of grandeur and believes that tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars should be provided as tribute to his or her contributions.  Far more often offerees simply have no conception of how the budget associated with a line is actually funded–ie, what pots of money are available, and where they reside, and to whom they may be given, and what strings are attached to them that tie the negotiating department head’s hands.

Let me repeat: All job offers should be negotiated, unless you have it on good authority that the institution you are dealing with is a known rescinder.

Negotiations will cover things like salary, moving expenses, teaching release, a guaranteed junior sabbatical, research funds, start up funds, conference funds, and many other things.

How many of these things you can ask for will hinge on the status of the institution. A R1 or Ivy League will accommodate longer lists; elite SLACs will too. But heading downward status-wise, more and more doors will be closed. To evaluate you need a decent sense of the financial status of the institution with which you’re dealing, and then the relative status or rank of your department within that institution.

It will also depend on your field. The fact is, hard science and life science offers are breathtaking—absolutely breathtaking—from a humanities point of view. I help people negotiate and I stand by flabbergasted at what they get. Any lab-based field hire will easily get 10 times what social sciences and humanities hires receive.

If you’re in the humanities, and you’re negotiating at a small college, and you have no other job offer, then you have very little power to negotiate indeed. You can seek to nudge up salary. You can extract some more startup funds, or a bit of conference travel funding. You can ask for a course release in the first year. And maybe 1 or 2 other things. But not a princely sum.

Negotiating is really an art. I have clients give me a rundown not just of their initial offer but of how warm or cold the department felt, how eagerly they feel they’re being recruited, their sense of what recent hires have been given, the overall financial outlook of the institution, and a range of other factors. Then we carefully construct our negotiating requests.

In sum, then, it is a hard lesson that at the end of all those years slaving away in the Ph.D. program and on the job market, and perhaps as an itinerant adjunct, when you finally grab the gold ring of the tenure track position, you still have very little power indeed. But that is the case. However, never confuse little power with no power. You have some, and a successful negotiation will extract every last little bit of benefit from it.

How to Organize a Panel for a Conference

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been engrossed in CV Advance Strategizing Sessions with many clients. The work has gone well, and we quickly move through all of the elements required for a powerful and effective academic record for next year’s job market. All, that is, except for my injunction to organize a panel for the major national conference. That one, without exception, stops clients in their tracks. “But HOWWWWW????” they wail, by email. “How do you organize a PAAANELLLL????”

I’m always surprised by this. Organizing a panel is not that hard, and in some ways its actually kind of fun. Why don’t people know how to do this?

Well I could ask that about many things I write about here, until the cows come home. For now, I’ll just explain how.

The first thing you do is find your major national conference, and check the website. The conference will likely have a theme. If it does, think about the theme. Is there a way to relate your scholarly project, in a broad sense, to that theme? If you can, that helps your chances of acceptance. But it’s not absolutely critical.

Note the deadline, and start work about 2 or 3 months before submission deadline. You need to start early because you are a small person with no social or academic capital. Thus, to grab participants to your panel, you must act early and quickly.

Note that many conferences have a special kind of status for some panels, ie, an “invited panel” or some such. Those are typically reviewed by sub-disciplinary units, and have earlier deadlines. If you feel your work fits beautifully into such a sub-disciplinary unit, then try to make the earlier deadline. It is a smaller review pool and your panel with get more attention.

Think of a panel theme. It should derive organically from your dissertation research, but be bigger and broader than the research itself. It should be an “umbrella” concept that can hold both your dissertation research, as well as 3-4 other related papers. It should not be so broad as to be entirely dull (Gender and Asia, for example). But it should not be so detailed as to be impossibly narrow (Japanese Women Who Study Abroad and Marry Foreign Men). It has to hit the sweet spot of a topic broad enough to appeal to a decent audience, while being specific enough that it marks your particular and memorable scholarly world view. Let’s say “Women and Globalization in Japan”, or, “Gendered Transnationalism in Japan”, or, stepping a bit wider, “Gendered Transnationalism in Asia.” The first would get the smallest audience, the second a slightly larger one, and the third larger still.

Once your theme is decided, you choose a title, and write a panel proposal abstract. This will follow the instructions for panel proposals given on your national meeting website. For some insights on writing a proposal abstract, see this blog post. It is about individual paper proposal abstracts, but it will help orient you in the right direction. Start with a broad topic of general interest, refer briskly to the existence of scholarship on this topic, note a gap in the scholarship, observe sternly the scholarly stakes of such a gap, declare the thematic of the panel addressing the gap, give examples of projects that the panel will cover, and end with a gesture to the wider contribution and significance of these projects and the panel theme writ large. As commenter MB notes below, you might actually wait to write the final panel abstract, or at least tweak your earlier version, AFTER you have solicited and received all of your participant submissions, as you’ll undoubtedly get new insights and inspiration from them.

Now, armed with the title and panel abstract, you solicit participants. This can happen in several ways. First, you can ask friends and colleagues. Second, you can send out a “Call for Papers” to your disciplinary listservs, discussion boards and the like. Third, you can find people around the country whose work you like and admire, and email them to ask. All of these are legitimate means of acquiring participants, bur for graduate students the first should generally be avoided.

This is because the most important thing is that you DO. NOT. ASK. OTHER. GRADUATE. STUDENTS. First off, because the point of this exercise is to launch you as a highly visible young star on the year that you first hit the job market. Huddling around the fire of an obscure little panel on Wednesday night or Sunday afternoon with a group of other unknown graduate students is going to do nothing to achieve this goal. Secondly, the “graduate student panel” is a kiss of death conference-wise—I’m not saying you won’t get accepted; you might. But your audience will be miniscule. And that is demoralizing, for you and for the audience.

So, focus your efforts on young assistant professors. More senior people will probably already have panels lined up with old friends and so on, but some young assistant professors will still be up for grabs, and getting increasingly anxious as the submission deadline for the major annual conference nears.

Make sure that you have a good topical range (ie, if the panel is on an “Asia” theme, don’t have all the participants working on Japan). Get provisional titles from your participants, as well as paper abstracts as early as you can.

Once you have collected your participants you need to find a discussant. [Please note that disciplines do differ in their conference panel structure, so my advice here may not apply perfectly to your disciplinary context.]  You will scan the national horizon and think about what famous tenured professors are working on themes similar to that of your panel’s. You will compile a list of candidates. You might ask your participants for their recommendations. You want a well known, indeed famous if you can manage it, discussant because that discussant draws audience to your panel that you—unknown graduate student that you are—cannot equal, and also lends credibility to the whole project. You will then put them in order of preference, and you will take your package of material—the panel abstract, and list of participants, and the paper abstracts—and you will send an email of inquiry to the first Dr. Famous Professor on the list, inquiring politely but not obsequiously if she will serve as your discussant. She may say no, and you may need to move through 3-4 discussant candidates before you find one who is not already engaged. Don’t take this personally.

In choosing both panel participants and the discussant, attend to the institutional location. Don’t choose a set of participants all from one single institution. This is very common with inexperienced and frightened graduate students, who often will organize a panel with 3 other graduate students from their own department, and then a professor discussant FROM THEIR OWN DEPARTMENT. This is another kiss-of-death move for a panel. If you’re wondering—do people even notice this? Yes, they notice, and they avoid like the plague.

[Parenthentically, if you are a professor and you are asked to serve a discussant for a graduate student panel that is comprised entirely of students from your home department, be a mentor and tell them “no,” and tell them why: because they need to put their big girl pants on and go find a famous and potentially intimidating discussant from another campus whom they don’t already know.]

Once you have collected all the participants and the discussant, you can then submit the whole package to the conference review committee. You may have to solve small organizational problems such as, “who will serve as chair of the panel.” As organizer, you will likely want to serve as chair, as long as it does not prevent you from delivering a paper. You need to deliver a paper. And Dr. Famous Professor needs to SPEAK, because in speaking she will draw the audience that you want.

Et voila, you have organized a panel. If the panel is accepted, you hope that you will be given a decent time slot, ie, not Wednesday or Sunday, but as a graduate student, you don’t always get that wish granted.

Once the panel is accepted, then you have the task of setting a deadline for your participants to submit their papers to you, which must be early enough to be able to give the discussant PLENTY of time to read and think on prior to the date of the panel. You do not want an angry or alienated Dr. Famous Professor on your hands, and late papers are one of the leading causes of anger among discussants who probably feel they are doing you a favor just agreeing to be on the panel in the first place, and certainly want to be treated with considerable respect and appreciation, not to mention professional courtesy.

Being the panel organizer gives you one other ace in the hole, and that is the panel get-together. This can be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even just drinks, but as the organizer you do get to bring your little group together, with Dr. Famous Professor, for a little socializing at the conference. And this is good, very good. You get to know the young assistant professors, and they get to know you, and you all get to know the famous professor. This is how reputations are built and careers made.