Death of a Soul (on Campus)

Dr. Karen is on vacation in Italy July 2012.  During that time she is re-posting older blog posts  her regular Tuesday and Thursday posting days.  She’ll recommence new posting some time in August.


~~~~This post is an invited Guest Post on Worst Professor Ever. (originally published July 2011).  Visit Worst Professor Ever for some of the best alt-university commentary on the web! Worst Professor Ever is the brainchild of Amanda N. Krauss. She left a tenure-track position to have a life.~~~~

This past year I left my tenured professor position and administrative role as a department head at a Big Ten Research University. I was making close to six figures and was in my sabbatical year.

Why would I do something like that? Why would anyone? I am obviously out of my mind.

A little background: I got my Bachelor’s in Japanese Literature from the University of Michigan in 1985. I completed a Ph.D. In Cultural Anthropology, specialization on Japan, from the University of Hawai’i in 1996. I was offered a tenure track position at the University of Oregon that same year, received tenure at the UO, and was recruited to a tenured joint position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003. In 2004 I was made Head of one of my departments. I was Head for the term of 5 years. In 2010 I took sabbatical. During that year my family and I accomplished our long-awaited goal of moving back to Oregon. I submitted my final resignation to the U of I in early 2011.

As a department head of a small foreign language and literature department at a major research institution in the Midwest I made, as I said, an excellent salary. I had graduate students, generous summer research funding, and few obligations beyond the ones for which I was paid: holding faculty meetings, balancing the department budget, running searches, meeting staffing needs, handling tenure cases, filing faculty paperwork, and calculating faculty raises, on the occasions there were any. Don’t get me wrong, this was a great deal of work. I was busy, stressed, and I worked hard. But I was not nearly as busy and stressed as I had been as a new assistant professor. And I had far more to show for it at the end of the day. I enjoyed administration.

So why would I leave?

This is a hard question to answer in a single blog post, because obviously, my reasons were many, and unique. But in the end they revolved around two fundamental problems: 1) I needed to remove my children from a bad custody situation; and 2) my soul was dying at the University of Illinois.

These two problems intertwined over time—the difficulties I faced in caring for my children became so all-consuming that they forced a major life decision: focus all my non-work energies on my children, and give up research, or continue doing research, and put my children’s well being at possible risk. I made the decision without a second thought, but the outcome of making my children my first priority, while remaining in an administrative position, was an end to my writing and research. When the time came to address my second problem — my unhappiness at the University of Illinois – I did not have a publication record that would allow me to move to another faculty position.

And so, my partner and I made a joint decision. If she found a job back in our beloved Pacific Northwest good enough to support the family, I would leave behind academic work entirely.

This was not a completely wrenching decision for me to make. I was ready to leave academia. I had created a jewelry business and was enjoying building that. And I was desperately unhappy at the University. I had reached the unfortunate point where just being on the UIUC campus reduced me to tears.

And this brings me to the crux of the issue: the whole dying soul thing. Why was my soul dying in Illinois? Why was I so miserable? Why was it so bad that I was willing to chuck a highly successful twenty year career to get away?

People instantly assume it is because Illinois is “conservative” or “homophobic.” It is neither. It is a blue state. It is Obama’s state. It is politically moderate to slightly left of center in much of its northern half. The college town I lived in was of course an even more liberal-ish sort of place, with more than its share of progressives and the occasional radical.

And as far as homophobia goes—-that was a non-starter. From the university to our neighborhood to the kids’ teachers to the plumber who came to fix the toilet—people pretty much took us in stride. Even the court system, when custody was at its most contested, categorically refused to countenance any hint of a homophobia, or to consider us as in any way less than or different from a heterosexual family. I won custody. It was heartening.

No, life in Illinois was bad mostly because of the University itself. It was a dreadful place.

When I was at the University of Oregon, even as a harassed assistant professor, it was kind of fun. The students were curious. My colleagues were funny and irreverent. The staff was capable and opinionated. The administrators were down to earth. Nobody took themselves too seriously. We weren’t paid for shit. It was actually humiliating how badly paid we were—from administration on down. But people had their unassuming little houses and sweet gardens, and spent their weekends rafting or hiking or biking or driving about visiting wineries. Nearly everyone had a vibrant life outside of work. Dinner invitations flew back and forth, and when someone was facing a life crisis, people pitched in. We organized dinner brigades for new parents, helped out with yardwork for ailing friends. When I had my kids, delicious home-cooked dinners were delivered to our door every night for three weeks.

I assumed that that’s how campuses are. I thought they were communities. In fact, being young, and ambitious, I spent much more time focusing on what I didn’t have at the UO—-a decent salary, adequate research funding, status.

So, when the offer came from the University of Illinois, I jumped at it. I was sure I had made the right decision. Money, status, research funding… all these things beckoned.

And then I found out. Found out what it’s like to be at a place where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are very, very important people. Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are doing very, very important work. Where most everyone is convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, they are very, very smart. That they are, indeed, the smartest boys and girls in the whole world.

I discovered the unbridgeable, heartbreaking chasm between a place where noone takes themselves very seriously, and a place where pretty much everyone takes themselves very (very) seriously.

A few encounters set the tone quickly: In the first week when I had my music playing as I unpacked boxes in my office, a colleague came by within minutes to say, “please turn that off; it’s very distracting.” In the first month or so, when one colleague and I drove out into the country for a secretary’s housewarming party, and discovered, awkwardly, that we were the only 2 of the 20 or so faculty members invited, who actually had bothered to show up. In the first semester, when, while teaching a seminar in the department seminar room, the Head burst in to berate me in front of the students for not getting his authorization first. In the first year, when I entertained colleagues at dinner parties only to have them act as if they had never met me when next I saw them. When, with painful regularity, the averted eyes and contact avoidance in the hallways made me wonder if Aspergers Syndrome was epidemic on the campus.

Human connection was virtually impossible.  Early in my first summer I asked a colleague in English if she’d be free for lunch one day. “I’m sorry, I’m on a strict writing schedule. I only have the nanny from 8 to 5 four days a week over the summer, so those days are out. I could schedule you in one of my off days I suppose.”

Of course at first I assumed these encounters were exceptions, and that soon I would find the fun colleagues, the ones with a sense of humor, the ones willing to take time for a human connection. But as the years passed by, I was forced to admit, there really weren’t any. At least among the regular humanities and social science faculty members with whom I mostly interacted. I found a few friends in the professional schools, and heard rumors of dinners and parties among colleagues in the sciences “North of Green.” And I found one good friend who was non-tenure line. Even the Jews and the queers, far from being the people with the loudest laughs and the raunchiest jokes, were, with but a couple of exceptions, stiff and self-important. Self-important queers? I couldn’t even wrap my mind around that one.

The only thing that people “did,” outside of work, was leave town. Leave town, that is, to work. I said we invited people for dinner, but really we didn’t often succeed in that, because most invitations were met with, “Sorry, I’m at a conference that weekend.”

In desperation we started attending a church. It was better. Mostly because no university people were there. But of course, that felt odd too. My family is half-Jewish. And we were, after all, university “types.” I like that whole academic schtick, with the sarcasm and the irony and the obscure references. The people at church were mostly lovely, but it never really stuck.

The few times I met others on campus also sadly trolling for human connection, they were on their way out. Nobody who cared about community stayed long at the UI, at least that I could see. I certainly would have exited within a year or two at the most, had I not been tied down by truly inextricable personal circumstances.

As it was, I stayed and kept trying to make it my home, for far, far longer than I expected. But in the end, I failed. Ultimately I too gave up and stopped trying, and became exactly like the others—insular and unavailable.

I, who have lived and thrived in countless parts of the globe, could not thrive in East Central Illinois. Sure the weather sucked. But truth be told, I didn’t care that much. Sure it was flat and ugly. But in reality, I could live with that.

No, it was the people. The people on campus. I couldn’t make it at the UI because of the culture of the UI. It was a culture organized around ego, self-importance, defensiveness, and pretension. Nobody trusted each other. There were no alliances.

At Oregon, the battles around the recruitment and representation of Native American students and faculty had been intense. I had been called on the carpet by Native American students in my classes, and had learned, through hard, earnest dialogue, to be a better, more aware, far less race-blind teacher.

At the UI, such dialogue was impossible. One of my departments fractured the year I arrived when the Latina/o students and faculty finally lost patience with the institutionalized racism and exclusion of the campus. Supported by the wonderful then-Chancellor Nancy Cantor (who was hounded out shortly after by the Good Ol’ Boys and went to Syracuse), they spoke out. But they were not heard. There was no way to hear them. There was no trust or good will. The black students, the Asian students, the white students, the faculty as an appallingly defensive collective—the department splintered into racialized factions, and never recovered, as far as I could see.

Not all faculty members were politically passive during my years there. Some worked to confront the racist Chief Illiniwek mascot, just as some worked to unionize. As I said, it is not a conservative place. No, in the end, it was something worse, for me. It was a cold place. It was an empty place. It was a place where nothing, not any damn thing, was more important than the next publication, the next grant, the next conference.

And I couldn’t do it. I could not make it work. Ashamed of myself, lonely beyond belief, alienated in ways I had never imagined possible for someone as energetic and passionate as I am, I stepped away. Faced with the choice between money and status there, and no money and no status in the place I’d known before and loved, I chose the latter. And I have not looked back.

I’m not bitter. I don’t hate academia. I know what it means to enjoy an academic job, and I hope that a few lucky individuals still have the opportunity to do that. To that end, I’ve created this business, The Professor Is In , offering my institutional and practical knowledge to graduate students and junior faculty who need it.

For myself, I feel spectacularly lucky to be back in Oregon, raising my kids, building a business, hiking the trails, and working half-time at the University, this time as an advisor in the McNair Scholars program, which prepares exceptional first generation, low income, and underrepresented undergraduate students to apply to and succeed in Ph.D. Programs.** I am in the right place. I made the right choice, and I’m happy.

**Update 7/2012:  I have left the McNair Scholars position at the UO to go full time as The Professor Is In.  The business has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and I am thrilled to be able to devote all my energies to the business of helping junior academics confront and overcome the dilemmas of an academic career (including the dilemma of deciding to leave it).

Leaving for the Month of July, Back August 1

Dear readers and clients,

As I’ve mentioned repeatedly on FB, Twitter, and the newsletter, I’m leaving for the month of July for Italy for a family vacation.  I will be entirely incommunicado during that time.

I will be here:

Scalea, Italy

If you have written an email to me, or have work outstanding, please don’t expect a response until I return.

I’ll be back in the saddle from August 1.

Thanks for your patience, and have a great July.


Should I Send Out a Book Proposal Before the Manuscript is Completely Finished?

This is a Q and A that arose on the blog this week, following the blog post, How To Write a Book Proposal.

I’ve been asked this question many times.  This is my answer.


Q:   Karen, can I ask you to elaborate on the advice you give earlier in this comment thread, to prepare and send your proposal out before the manuscript is completely revised? I’m eager to make progress toward getting my book published, but I feel like I still don’t completely understand how the different stages in the process relate to one another.

Here’s my situation. I have a dissertation that has more or lain fallow while I spent a year in a teaching-focused position and went on the market. I’ve got one chapter that needs a lot of work, one that needs a bit of work, and two others that are more or less in their finished form. But also, my sense of the project and its stakes has evolved over the last year, and I’m planning to hash all that out in a revised introduction.

So, does it make sense to draft the prospectus now, so I can begin the process of circulating it to presses while I work on making revisions this fall (which will be my first year on the TT)? Or should I focus my energies on refining the manuscript further before setting to work on the prospectus?

A:   This is an excellent question and one that I am often asked. It’s delicate, and in the end, only you know the state of your manuscript. But basically, I generally advise writing up the proposal and sending it out BEFORE the mss. is in “perfect” shape, because in that way, if you get a bite from an editor with the proposal, then you have some clear ideas and parameters for what the revisions should focus on and look like. And also a formal or informal deadline for completing them. I think that it’s always easier to write with a clear goal than in a vacuum of uncertainty. So in a way, the order I propose is also a psychological tool to get you launched and directed, rather than endlessly and fruitlessly “revising” to no clear end.

Logistically, the editor/reviewers are going to demand certain revisions in the revision process as well, and you won’t know what those are prior to sending out a proposal, so that too can help to prevent lost time and ease the process.

If you work up a proposal and send it out, and get some bites, and they ask to see the complete manuscript while giving you some general comments on the project, then, you can write back and say, “I’ll have it to you in 2 months.” Then do some revisions that reflect any cues or reactions you’ve gotten, and do a modest set of revisions in that two months, and then send them the damned mss. They will then demand more substantial revisions which you can execute moving forward.

The only caveat here is, if your dissertation/manuscript is truly an appalling mess. Then, if you write up a terrific proposal, send it, get requests for the full mss and send it, then you will immediately destroy your chances.

I am trusting that this is not the case, while knowing full well that MANY dissertations are allowed to pass committees and defenses that have no business whatsoever being passed. This relates to the phenomenon of the “nice advisor” that I discuss in the post, “It’s Not About You.”

And then again, some graduate students are so impossible to work with that committees/advisors pass them simply to get them out of their hair.

And that’s NOT the committee/advisor’s fault.

I have no idea which kind of dissertation experience you, or any reader, had, and what the quality of your dissertation/manuscript is. So just be aware that you must have it read by real, blunt, critical readers in your field, for a reality-check about whether it can pass muster as a manuscript to be reviewed.

A manuscript that is not quite book-ready is totally fine. But one that is a complete train wreck is not.

Should I Go To Graduate Student Conferences?

Today’s post is a Special Request post for Andy, and many other readers, who have asked, “Should I go to a graduate student conference?”

The answer is, yes, once.  And after that, no.

The lines that “count” on your cv for tenure track jobs are lines that show significant peer review and competitiveness.  The acceptance process for major national disciplinary conferences is peer reviewed and competitive.

It is not so for most graduate student conferences.

Graduate student conferences make it easy for graduate students to present, which certainly is a major part of their appeal.  But the low barrier to entry also means that they fall under the “Costco” model of CV-building—cheap and low-value.

Secondarily, at the major national disciplinary conferences you will encounter and perhaps meet large numbers of successful and influential scholars in your field.  Few such scholars will be in attendance at a graduate student conference.   While meeting other graduate students from programs around the country does have value, as some of them will be successful and influential scholars one day as well,  at these conferences you will not have the intensive professionalization experience– of seeing senior scholars present, interact, pitch their books to editors, and so on –that socializes you for your own next career stage.

[Add:  Thirdly, as mentioned in the comment stream, graduate student conferences are not perceived as competitive in most cases.  This is a separate issue from whether x or y conference actually IS competitive.  I realize there may be one or another field-specific exceptions to this rule, but in general, search committees will not be familiar with any given graduate student conference on your campus.  They will most likely lump all grad student conferences together in a single category that they perceive to be not-rigorous and not-competitive.].

Nevertheless I do recommend that you go to a graduate student conference once or so, if the opportunity arises and costs you nothing, because you need formal presentation experience.

And if you have the discipline to submit annually to the major national conferences in your field while attending graduate student conferences on your campus or in your immediate area (ie, that cost you nothing), then the additional presentation experience  will be of benefit, and there is no harm in attending more than one.

The problem arises when you view the graduate student conference as an acceptable substitute for the hard and scary work of composing competitive submissions to, and actually attending and presenting at, the big national conferences.  Because then, at the end of your Ph.D., you will have a long list of conferences, to be sure, but not a list that serves you as a competitive tenure track job candidate.

Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post IV

Following up on the article From Graduate School to Welfare in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I am featuring stories of Ph.D. poverty here on the blog, contributed by readers. I will post them on Thursdays over the next month or so. I believe that one of the most important tasks before us is to publicize the poverty associated with graduate school and adjuncting for so many, to break through the denial of Ph.D. programs, and to expose the conditions of labor in the academy to the public at large and in particular to tuition-paying parents.


Here is my story: I finished my PhD in theology in 2004.  I did not look for a job right away because my children were still in high school and we really wanted them to finish where we currently live.  Three years ago, after looking for more than a year, I received an offer for a tenure-track job.  That offer lasted exactly 24 hours before it was rescinded– they told me they did not have funding for the position.  (I believe them, as they have not yet filled that position.  But really–check before you offer!)  I was then able to get a one-year appointment at the University of [Small Ohio Town], making $35,000 for 140 students in four sections a semester, 3-4 new preps. Yes, I know.

That one-year was renewed twice, which means that I’ve had the one-year for three years.  The department would like to keep me, but again, they are apparently out of money.  (They’ve brought in a new chair from outside, which was much more expensive than they anticipated–or so I was told.)  During these three years I have applied for many jobs, and have received a few interviews and even one campus interview, but no job offers.

[Small Ohio Town] has been lovely, but I really need a job with some security for my family.  About 18 months ago my husband was diagnosed with a major illness. This illness killed both his brother and sister, and another brother has also been diagnosed, so it’s not a real surprise to us, and we are living along in the same way we always have.  However, it limits my prospects in some ways, because he needs to be near a major teaching medical center (think Cleveland Clinic), so we need a major metropolitan area.  In other words, places like Helena, Montana, are out.

I can’t figure out why I haven’t been able to get a TT job yet, and neither can many of the other people I’ve spoken to.  One person has said that my degree is “stale” and hiring committees are more apt to go for people just out of school as they have more potential. Others say that I am qualified for an associate professor’s position. I have no idea what to think about any of this. I can’t make heads or tails of the contradictory advice I’ve been given. I’ve been reading your website and have identified a few things in my documents, so I’m hoping that we can work together to make these stronger.  I’m fairly sure that I’m burying my strengths, but I don’t know how to bring them out in the best way.  Also, I’m pretty sure I still sound like a graduate student.  I have many questions about this whole process.

Introducing Webinar: “What You Need To Know Now About the Tenure Track Job Market”

This month I’m launching into a new platform–the webinar. June 26 and 27 I will be offering an inaugural 90 minute webinar, titled “What You Need to Know Now About the Tenure Track Job Market.”

In this webinar, I walk you through the conditions of the current American job market, the most common mistakes made by job-seekers, and the ways you can maximize your chances of success while looking for a tenure-track job.

As many of you may know, I had to discontinue initial skype consultations with new clients this past month, due to overwhelming demand. I took this step to balance my business and my home life, so that my kids no longer have to come in to my home office at 7 PM and ask, “Mommy, are you STILL working?”

It is my hope that webinar technology allows me to offer a service that can still offer some immediate and personal interactive elements, even while not individualized.

I hope to expand these in an ongoing monthly schedule, offering targeted support for the evolving stages and deadlines of the standard American academic job market calendar. This inaugural webinar this month will gauge the interest among all of you, Dear Readers, out there in the cybersphere!

We’ll cover:

*The big-picture conditions of the U.S. tenure track job market
*How to think like a search committee
*The four core qualities of a successful tenure track job candidate
*The Cover Letter: why yours probably sucks, and how to fix it
*The CV and Teaching Statement: common mistakes
*The three keys to academic interviewing
*Negotiating basics

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


The 2 time options (you have to choose one):

Tuesday June 26 4 PM Pacific/7 PM EST/23:00 GMT

Wednesday June 27 8 AM Pacific/11 AM EST/15:00 GMT

The cost is: $100

Here’s how you sign up: Click –> The Prof Shop page of The Professor Is In website. The Webinar is listed first; simply click on “Add to Cart.” Finish checkout through Paypal. Once finished, you’ll be automatically directed to a dedicated registration form, that gives you more info, and an access code for the day of the event.

Any questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask me at This is new technology for me, and we’ll figure it out together.

Desperation, Addiction, and Your CV

It’s not often that I’m rocked back on my heels by any piece of writing that I see in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but this piece, “Not Quite Bulletproof” is one of those times.

It starts out as a meditation on academic credentialism, and then, ever so deftly, takes us to the author’s battle with alcoholism, and recovery.

I made a comment on the piece, to the effect that academic credentials can’t save you from your inner demons, and indeed can be another kind of socially sanctioned addiction (which is just restating the author’s point in stupidly pedestrian prose, but…).

I knew full professors at my R1 programs who were absolutely credential/competition addicts.  Their CVs were spectacular.  And they were fueled by desperation.  It was painful to watch.

Actually, when I look back at my own earlier days, I think my competitiveness arose out of the same kind of self-loathing, and desperate, doomed effort to be, in the author’s words, “bulletproof.”

On this blog I promote a steely-eyed attentiveness to the length and quality of your CV.   I see that as a mode of professional self-care.   But it’s a fine line indeed between that and an addiction to productivity.   Take care.

How Do You Make a “Short” CV?

Today’s post is a simple one, responding to many queries:  How do you make a “short CV”?

A short, or two-page, CV is often required for grant applications and the like.  The point here is to sketch the main highlights of your record without excessive or repetitious detail.

You must make a number of adjustments to your full-length CV in terms of content and formatting.  Do NOT try to game the system by going to a 10 point font and .5” margins.  The margins must remain 1 inch (OK, maybe .75″), and the font  11 at minimum (and whether or not you can get away with 11 depends on which font you use, since 11 in Garamond is one thing, and 11 in Bookman Old Style is something entirely different).

Your name and address at the top will of course remain.  For those of you who use the words “curriculum vitae” above or below your name:  this is a time when you can consider removing them.  The date, for those who include it, can also be removed.

Remove most extra white space on the page.  Leave a single blank line above each new heading and subheading, but otherwise, remove most blank lines.

Next, be sure that each heading contains only major highlights.  Under Education, you’ll list just your 3 major degrees (BA, MA, PH.D.) with no extra training or schooling thrown in.  Under Academic Appointments, list only the major appointments, and only for the last decade.  Under Publications, if you have many, limit to high status publications (books, refereed journal articles, book chapters), and remove things like book reviews or (except for particular fields) conference proceedings.   Under Grants, list the large and important ones only.  Conferences need not extend back further than about 5-8 years.  Follow each heading in which you have done such editing with the word “(selected).”

Keep publication subheadings to the extent that you can, at least to distinguish books vs. articles and chapters.

Focus on hard outcomes, not ongoing projects.  “Research” should be included only if it is specific grant-funded lab or field research; otherwise, research must be represented on the CV entirely by your lists of publications and grants.

The headings that are critical for the short CV are:

  • Education
  • Professional Appointments
  • Publications
  • Grants
  • Awards and Honors
  • Conferences
  • Invited Talks
  • Languages (if these are relevant to your scholarly identity; if not, skip)

Headings to almost certainly jettison include:

  • Research Interests
  • Teaching Interests
  • Dissertation summary
  • Service
  • Outreach
  • Non-Academic Work
  • Related Professional Skills
  • References

Headings that should be considered carefully depending on the grant:

  • Teaching Experience
  • Professional Affiliations

Short CVs typically are requested as part of research-oriented fellowship applications, and the role of teaching in these fellowships varies.  Some fellowships include a major teaching element; some include very little.  The specific fellowship requirements will dictate whether or not to include any mention of teaching on the short CV.  As with all other headings, it will likely be truncated—a brief list of courses by title, rather than a term-by-term record of specific teaching assignments.

You will have to fiddle with your formatting and spacing to achieve a good outcome in the short CV.  Again, it must always be in visible/legible font, with reasonable margins. Abundant white space, however, that you would want to keep in the full-length CV, can be removed.   It is understood that all or most headings will be “selected.”  Prioritize your highest status achievements, and the more recent ones.  Beware of any excess verbiage, and any elements that deviate from the strictly academic/scholarly.

If I’ve missed anything, please ask in the comments.

Ph.D. Poverty–Guest Post III

Following up on the article From Graduate School to Welfare in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I am featuring stories of Ph.D. poverty here on the blog, contributed by readers. I believe that one of the most important tasks before us is to publicize the poverty associated with graduate school and adjuncting for so many, to break through the denial of Ph.D. programs, and to expose the conditions of labor in the academy to the public at large and in particular to tuition-paying parents.


I have a Ph.D. in musicology (“music history & culture”), taught 31 sections of 22 different courses at seven institutions, co-edited and contributed three chapters to a book related to the subject of my dissertation, published an additional book chapter and journal articles/reviews, presented 27 conference papers and invited talks, and so on. However, I am presently unemployed and living on welfare.

As an undergraduate, I incurred about $18,000 in student-loan debt. As a graduate student at a major research university, I did not want to get into much additional debt or to put financial strain on my rural, single-income, lower-middle-class parents. (I am the first person in my family to attend university.) During my early grad school period (M.A., plus preliminary Ph.D. work), I only incurred a little additional debt (around $3000), because I lived modestly, worked as a TA, did several part-time RA and similar jobs, did “external” part-time work (choral singing), and even did a utility-company office temp job for a few months—for only slightly more than minimum wage.

My field of musicology eventually hit a crossroads, with some people getting into such areas as critical theory, cultural studies, gender issues, and popular culture. It seemed like the best place to be, so I started over at another major research institution, in one the most significant programs for what was then being called “new musicology.” Over the five-year period of my “residency,” I had quite good financial support, but almost all of it involved doing something other than my own work. At one point, too, I had to arrange to borrow $8000 from one of my grandparents just to cover an unexpected fee. I also needed an additional student loan (about $6000) and additionally incurred about $10,000 in loan and credit-card debt (for moves, computers, transportation, books, conferences, and so on).

In my immediate ABD period, I borrowed $30,000 from another of my grandparents in order to move back to my place of origin and get settled, pay off certain costs related to the move (including my vehicle), and have enough to live on for perhaps a year or so. While also working on my dissertation, I taught part-time at one or another of two universities, worked part-time at a music festival, and did more choral singing. I also moved most of the way across the country for a temporary, full-time teaching job at another large university. After that, I moved all the way back again. (Since starting university, I have moved an average of four times every three years!) Around the time that I defended and filed my dissertation, I began teaching part-time closer to home at a community college (which I did for two years), added more choral singing, switched to a different one-off course at another university, then moved temporarily the other direction halfway across the country for a five-month teaching position at yet another university. In the meantime, I had phone interviews for tenure-track academic jobs (and the occasional fly-out), presented, and published. Over seven years, though, my credit card and loan debt piled up by about another $20,000.

Then, I had a one-year full-time gig back at my Ph.D. school, but I had no money to get there (or back) or to live there for the first ten weeks, so I took out an $8,000 loan. During that academic year, I had several more phone interviews (plus two fly-outs), plus more papers, talks, and publications. Then, I moved back to yet more places, including several months in my parents’ camper-trailer. I initially had enough money to live on from the previous year’s job, but eventually did part-time reference writing again (for roughly minimum wage) and also went approximately another $3000 into credit card debt. By early 2008, my accumulated, “short-term” debt of about $114,000 started to catch up with me, including the nasty surprise of the government claiming I owed back-taxes of more than $8,000. (I should clarify that in my field, there are very few post-doctoral fellowships.)

I have always used computers quite a lot, so an old friend convinced me to apply for a government-funded program for “second careers.” However, after starting an 12-month program in software development (in September of 2009), I found out that I was not eligible for the funding. I thus had to borrow $16,000 more from my family in order to stay in the program, cover my tuition and living expenses, and so on. I did very well in the program (GPA of 3.97) and had a successful paid internship in the summer of 2010 that counted as part of my studies and which actually brought together aspects of musicology and information technology. However, because of my extreme level of education and experience in musicology, I have not been able to get much additional experience in IT or to find further, paid, full-time work in it (or in anything else). I’ve been independently developing a project in an area I call “Digital Public Music History & Culture,” but I have no idea if I’ll ever make any money from it.

Two-thirds of my things are now in a storage locker (paid for by my father), and I also no longer have a vehicle. I went through bankruptcy in 2009-10, but I still owe around $72,000, of which I owe $54,000 to my family. I have been on welfare since April of 2011. Since completing my Ph.D. almost nine years ago, I have only lived above the poverty line for 22 months, and I currently live well below it.

Don’t Get Your Career at Costco

From a reader, on Facebook:

“Thank you for the post on The Five Year Plan.

“After reading it, I realized that during my years as a tenure-track assistant professor, I went about publishing and doing research, the way I do the grocery shopping: concentrating on the sale items (conferences, book reviews, on-line collaborations), ie, all things that seemed ‘affordable.’

“As a result I stock up on unnecessary items and find myself too tired to focus on the important things, those items that do not go on sale, but that are the building block of a good kitchen: articles and books.

“Luckily, it’s never too late to understand one’s mistakes and amend them. I wish I had realized the importance of planning about 4 years ago. Although I have managed to publish quite a bit, I have squandered a lot of time and energy, because I did not have a clearly elaborated research plan.

“I am getting there, thanks to your suggestions, for which I am deeply thankful.”


I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a brilliant and elegant sketch of the seductive allure of the “easy.”  Everybody has done it–accepted an offer to publish or present a paper because it was handed to you, possibly by a friend or ally, without any particular effort on your part.  “It’ll be quick!” you say to yourself.  “I’ll get an easy line on the CV out of it!”

Who knows, you might even congratulate yourself on your career savvy.

The quick and easy sale items of the academic career leave you with a CV that looks like the stockpile of an extreme couponer—a collection of stuff that you’ll never use and that doesn’t sustain you.  Put in academic terms, the CV becomes a stockpile of low-rent quasi-achievements that don’t actually bring you visibility and job offers.

An extreme couponer at home

One high-risk, high-cost item—a book proposal successfully written and pitched to the leading press in your field, a journal mss. dragged through the excruciating, endless review process of the top journal in your area–is worth ten of the cheap alternatives like book reviews.

If you are an extreme couponer of the academic marketplace, don’t be misled by the rapidly growing length of your CV.  If the content is not rich and meaty and meaningful, the quantity counts for little.