Banish These Words

Do not use the words “unique” or “burgeoning” in any of your job documents.

They are painfully overused.

The first is just trite.

The second is over-dramatic.

That is all.

What Is a “Toxic” Campus? A Guest Post

I have been asked by readers to describe the qualities of a “toxic” campus or job. I have thoughts on this, and someday plan to write a post about it. But for now, I offer this anonymous guest post by a client, which she titles, “The Bad and the Ugly of Academia.”


I did the unthinkable. Walked away from a full-time tenure track position at a medium-sized liberal arts college. I do mean walked away. I quit.

Why? I decided that my mental, emotional, and physical well-being was more important than putting up with what had become regular teaching overloads because of short-staffing, an abusive dean, uncollegial and pettily competitive colleagues, lack of research support, and a generally unhealthy environment. That was five months ago. Since then, I’ve picked up an adjunct teaching gig as well as a part-time academic research position to help to make ends meet. I’m finally getting to write the articles that had been languishing because of oppressive teaching and service requirements. I’m searching for a new position. In general, my health and outlook on life have improved immensely since making the somewhat terrifying decision to leave.

Now, I wasn’t alone in leaving. A grand total of 15 mostly full-time tenured or tenure track faculty members left the college at the end of the Spring semester. These were largely voluntary departures. Four more tenured faculty members have indicated that they will be resigning at the end of the Fall semester. Considering that there are roughly 90 tenure-track positions, this could be considered full flight.

In one of her blog posts (It’s Okay to Quit), Karen wrote that the culture of higher education is becoming “increasingly soulless.” When I look back, I think that I must have been delusional to thing that “things are going to get better” despite the warning signs. In the past several years, the majority of faculty members who went up for tenure were denied: two of 13, one of nine, two of eight, zero of seven. These are not good numbers.

The tenure numbers were a reflection of a pattern that began several years ago. The college was chronically short-staffed across all departments when it came to full-time tenure-track faculty members due to difficulties in hiring. This meant that full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members were being asked take overloads practically each semester. In my own case, a 4/3 turned into a 5/4 or even a 5/5 load. Saying no was not an option. Because of the rules governing committee service at the college level, a smaller number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty were being forced into serving on those committees in additional to their service obligations at the school and departmental level. Again, saying no was not an option. It was likely to lead to substandard evaluations by one’s dean and denial of a merit salary increase.

New hires were being brought in and told that they would have ample time and resources for research, only to find that the other obligations left very little time for it. Teaching expectations, in terms of the numbers that had to be “hit” on student evaluations, didn’t leave a lot of room for attempting to balance teaching and research by cutting back on the teaching end (e.g., fewer assignments). If a faculty member couldn’t’ make the “numbers” (on most student evaluation scales, between a 5 and a 4), it meant a visit from the dean and a mandate to improve or be terminated.

This played out in the tenure decisions in an interesting way. The Faculty Handbook stipulated that faculty members were required to have a minimum of two publications when going up for tenure. Proceedings and lesser publications were allowable under these guidelines because of the teaching expectations. However, the rules in practice that the deans were using were in clear violation of the Faculty Handbook. The deans had begun to use impact factors to assess faculty publications. In my case, my dean told me that I had to have published a journal article in a journal with an impact factor of 3.5 or higher. As a colleague at another institution pointed out, there are no journals in our field that have an impact factor of 3.5 or higher. Across the college, faculty members who had been told on evaluations that their research was noteworthy or satisfactory were suddenly being told that they were “unsatisfactory” when it came to research by their deans. In one case, a colleague in another school was told that the book that he spent three years writing and had published was not going to count favorably toward tenure because the published was not “prestigious” enough. Since the faculty was not unionized, and the faculty governance committees relatively ineffective in dealing with an administration that backed the deans, there was very little that could be done outside of independent legal action.

Also, a disproportionate number of tenure denials were being made to female faculty members. Several did sue, and were awarded settlements in Federal Court. Most of those who had sued decided not to return to the college when given the option since they knew from female colleagues who had sued and returned that life was going to be miserable if they chose that route. The deans and the administration were unforgiving of any faculty member, but especially females faculty members (and even staff), who dared to object to or question the system and ever-changing rules in practice. One individual who complained about being sexually harassed by her superior actually received a letter from the college’s attorney outlining in detail the consequences of taking her complaint any further. These included immediate termination and loss of tuition benefits for the child enrolled at the institution. She did file a complaint with federal authorities, and the college made good on the threats contained in the letter. The woman later sued and the college was forced to pay the largest settlement ever awarded against it, but she certainly had no desire to return.

I myself was sexually harassed by the Vice-President for Academic Affairs (aka the guy who makes final tenure decisions). This unwelcome and unprofessional behavior went on for months despite my making it well known that I have a significant other and that we were living apart at the time because he was employed by another institution. For my lack of responsiveness, I was called into my dean’s office (good buddies with the VPAA) and told that I appeared to be “unhappy” at the college, and that it’s “just a game…. Just play the game.” He then proceeded to outline just how I was going to be harassed and set up for termination based on teaching if I didn’t “play the game.” Well, it certainly wasn’t a “game” to me, and he obviously hadn’t taken a good look at my teaching evaluations, which were among the best in the entire college. He did manage to find grounds for giving me an “unsatisfactory” rating on research because I hadn’t accomplished the impossible in terms of impact factor of publications.

I made the decision to “walk.” Things were not going to get any better. Shortly after I made my decision, a colleague in another school informed me that he had been given a terminal contract because, in the words of his dean, he “didn’t fit” at the college. This was a highly productive individual who could have gotten tenure at just about any R1. He told me that his dean objected to his having married his partner over the summer, and that he had been told that his openly gay lifestyle was objectionable to several senior administrators. He threatened to sue, and was given a settlement to leave the college and to not speak about either the institution or its administration and the reason for his dismissal. Several other gay male staff and faculty members who had married their partners also mysteriously” resigned” during this period.

Since leaving, I learned that one of the people denied tenure had decided not to return despite being given a year-long terminal contract. In response to his letter of resignation, the Associate Dean of his school called the custodial staff to have his office cleared out before he had a chance to remove personal items. The custodial staff was removing items from his office when another faculty member happened to be walking by and stopped them. She called him to come and get his stuff because it was going to be thrown in a campus dumpster. In coming to the college, he had been told that he would be instrumental in founding a new and innovative academic program. He did develop that program, which was approved and is slated to begin accepting students. What he got for his work was a denial of tenure and a trashing of his office. And so it goes…..

What about the rest of the faculty? They take it. The faculty culture is a culture of fear and perceived powerlessness. Many are tenured and are looking to keep their heads down and make it to retirement age. Some have spouses working in the area, making it difficult to leave in a bad economic climate. Others are quietly looking for new positions elsewhere. But if the Spring exodus is any indication, more are finding a way to walk away from a bad situation rather than continue to put up with academia at its ugliest.

Damning Yourself With Faint Praise–Teaching Edition

For some reason people love to include undergraduate student feedback in the teaching paragraph of their job letters, and that feedback usually looks like this (from an actual letter):

“Former students have consistently told me that I give helpful feedback on papers and in meetings about assignments, as well as stimulate interesting and informative class discussions.

Really?   This is the best you can do?

This is called damning yourself with faint praise. If this is the best you can come up with for student feedback, then don’t include student feedback in your letter.

In point of fact, I do not endorse including student feedback in your job letter because I think that it’s generally seen as exceptionally self-serving.  But when clients give me drafts that have a single student response that really stands out as original and compelling, I let it stay.

But claiming that you give helpful feedback does not qualify as original or compelling. Neither does going out of your way to claim that you stimulate informative class discussions.

These are both so weak as teaching achievements that the fact that you went out of your way to mention them does little but cast a wide doubt on your classroom abilities.

Again, I encourage you to simply describe your teaching in the teaching paragraph, and possibly include a single mean teaching evaluation score if you wish (I’m ambivalent about that as well, though—I don’t like to see numbers intrude on a good paragraph).  But feedback from students is treacherous, because undergrads are usually painfully inarticulate, if not indifferent, and you don’t want your case resting on their faint and unfocused  words.

[This applies to interviews too].

Information for Those Who Work With Dr. Karen

Today’s post is meant to clarify some confusion among some of you who are or are thinking of becoming clients related to the time required to complete the editing process.

I’ve had a few incidents this past month in which clients sent me 15-page sets of 4 different documents for postdoc or fellowship applications, one week before their final deadlines.

This is not possible. I require 24-48 hours for a response to each edit that arrives in my inbox.  I work on emails in strict order of arrival in my inbox. It takes about 8-10 working days to get through a single document, and remember we work sequentially, one document at a time.

When I give that first edit, it is not a final and definitive edit.  It is the first of up to FOUR edits included in document work.  In draft one we point out everything that you must now do to improve the document, focusing on readings in the book and on the blog so that you have the principles of good writing to take forward into the future.  We read for the weaknesses in your writing and argumentation and organization, and tell you exactly how to correct them. As many of my clients know, we will often contribute new and fresh phrasing ideas where I see opportunities to do so.  But overall, the job of revising and rewriting is yours.

The first edit will deal with large organizational and writing problems and errors.  The second, third, and fourth edit will refine to greater and greater clarity of argumentation and evidence, and felicity of phrasing.

There is no way to rush this process.  It unfolds at exactly the appropriate pacing and timeline, and generally requires all four of the edits to reach completion.

As I said, the minimum amount of time, assuming you rush your edits, will be about 8-10 business days per document. For a longer document, if I take 24 hours for each edit draft, and you then take 48 hours to do your revisions, that is 72 hours per draft.  72 hours x 4 drafts = 288 hours.  288 hours comes to 12 days.

Please recall that I don’t work on weekends.

That means in practice, the minimum amount of time for your lengthy postdoctoral application to be thoroughly edited is 2 ½ weeks.  

If you do not leave at least 2 ½ weeks for the editing work to be done, the edits will not be finished by your deadline.

Please consider yourself forewarned by this explanation, which I will be sending to all new grant, fellowship, and postdoc proposal clients.

Also, to manage the intense demand for my services and large client load, I have several policies that are firm and non-negotiable:  1) I work on one document at a time, sequentially through 4 drafts, to completion before moving to the next document; 2) each draft # (# 1-4) must be marked in the file name of each draft that you return; 3) because I make many small unmarked edits for style and clarity, clients must download and edit from the exact document that I return to them so as to retain all edits moving forward; 4) work on any new document must be pre-arranged on the schedule and cannot be launched into on the fly; 5) clients need to demonstrate what I consider to be a reasonable level of improvement in each draft–I need to see real and consistent effort to understand and execute the editing principles that I recommend; 6) Quick Review clients must submit a document that has been completely overhauled to follow the principles explained in the blog posts, models, or accompanying PDF, and be correctly labeled as QUICK REVIEW in the subject line (as explained in the instructions upon purchase).  If I find that a client consistently ignores my policies, I cancel our work together and refund 50% of paid fees; rush fees are non-refundable.

Now it goes without saying, that if you are working on short things like job letters or teaching statements, or on smaller fellowships that requires only a 2-page proposal, the work will be closer to 8 days.  But for major fellowships such as the SSHRC (I’m looking at YOU, Canadians!), the Princeton Society of Fellows, the Harvard Society of Fellows, and all the various residential and dissertation completion fellowships scattered about the country?  2.5 weeks.

Please remember that Dr. Karen, appearances notwithstanding, does not have magical powers.  The time-space continuum continues to hold sway, and editing continues to be a long, hard, grueling process with no shortcuts.

The Worst Job Letter Ever Written (Not really…)

A few months ago one of my clients, after completing work with me on her job letter, ruefully sent along the original version of the letter that she had been using the previous year.  She wrote,

“I’ve attached a copy of the first job letter I ever sent (to a well-known private research university in the Midwest) during last year’s job cycle.  This letter is beyond bad, and I’m quite embarrassed that I sent it.

“What’s worse is that it was approved by my ‘nice’ advisor and another senior faculty member, also on my committee, who is considered a good writer and editor.  Yes, I received a few minor edits from both of them, so I could at least tell that they had read it, but not enough to make much improvement.  

“This letter was written before I discovered your blog.  I wasn’t officially on the job market last year and only applied for a handful of positions (the letters were better after the discovery of your blog), but this year I’m FT on the market so no room for error.  I’m glad I decided to go with your Quick Job Letter Diagnostic Package.  I feel so much more confident and competitive for this cycle!

“Anyway, I attached that first letter, edited for anonymity with a lot of XXXXX’s, to show how far I’ve come. Job letters have always been the bane of my existence, by far the weakest part of my application package.  The attached letter demonstrates many of the major letter writing mistakes you mention, but I think the most striking one is my severe list addiction. [KK: for more on the national scourge of list addiction read this post: Break the Cycle of List Addiction]

“When I re-read it, I realized that I’m not saying anything despite the wordiness.  Nothing is discussed in any depth; instead everything is told in list after list.  Feel free to share it as an example of what not to do.”

I am overcome with gratitude to this client for being willing to share this document so generously.  One of the hardest things for me to do in my work at TPII is to provide compelling examples of just how wretchedly bad job documents can be (and ususally are in their first draft).  I of course always tell each individual client how bad his or her document is.  I usually say some version of:  “Oh, xxxx, I’m so glad you found me. This letter is a total train wreck.”   But then we quickly banish that draft to the digital dustheap of shame, and it disappears never to return again.

Thanks to this caring and brave client, I now have a train wreck job letter draft that can live on as a model. (BTW, those of you who purchase the Quick Job Letter Diagnostic Package also get, in the included pdf, a set of four terrible first drafts along with their final versions–these are also very helpful.)

I give the letter to you below, with each paragraph annotated for the errors it makes. I  include references to the relevant blog posts addressing the error in more detail in a list below the letter..   The only errors this letter does not make are:  it is a good length and it has proper heading material in terms of date and address at top.

And just a note: I facetiously titled this blog post “The Worst Job Letter Ever Written” but it is far, far from the worst that I have seen.



Associate Professor, XXXXXX
Chair, Search Committee
Department of XXXXXX
Private Research University
XXXXXX Campus Drive
XXXXXX, XX 12345-6789

Dear Dr. XXXXXX:

I am writing to apply for the assistant professor position in XXXXX as advertised on XXXXX. I am excited about the opportunity to apply for a faculty position in the School of XXXXX at [Private Research University] based on its variety of innovative degree programs, interdisciplinary approach to education and research, and supportive environment for students and faculty. I am a doctoral candidate in XXXXX at [Public Research University] and fully expect to fulfill my degree requirements by XXXXX. My
dissertation, which I am completing under the direction of Dr. XXXXX, uses XXXXX method to examine the process of XXXXX among XXXXX population. I believe my teaching experience and interests, combined with my interdisciplinary learning in XXXXX and research background in XXXXX and XXXXX, make me a strong candidate for the position outlined in your notice.

[Candidate flatters and panders to the institution to which she’s applying (B).  “Fully expect” sounds defensive and unsure.  “Completing under the direction of Dr. xxxx” shouts grad student, shows excessive subordination, and is over-humble (A). “I believe” shows insecurity and hyper-emotionalism. A letter is not a screed (H).  “make me a strong candidate…” is a desperate and anxious fit sentence (F).]

My primary theoretical and empirical research goals are directed toward understanding and enhancing XXXXX and XXXXX in XXXXX and XXXXX contexts, including finding ways for XXXXX population to maintain their XXXXX and improve their XXXXX and XXXXX in a variety of settings, and I am well prepared to meet
these goals. My doctoral education and training in XXXXX and prior degree work in XXXXX have enabled me to develop a truly integrative and holistic way of thinking about XXXXX and XXXXX, which is why being part of an interdisciplinary program such as yours, is especially important to me. My research interests span many areas, including XXXXX dimensions of XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX factors that affect XXXXX and XXXXX, the process of XXXXX and its outcomes, transnational and comparative perspectives on XXXXX and XXXXX, and XXXXX education. I have advanced training and experience in research design and a number of methods, both qualitative (e.g., XXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX) and
quantitative (e.g., XXXXX statistics, XXXXX statistics), though my current work is mostly qualitative. In your school, I am particularly interested in the activities of the Institute on XXXXX as they coincide with my interests in XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX.

[Telling rather than showing (E).  No specifics of the research and no title. Devolves into a dreary and endless list of topics (D). “I am well prepared to meet these goals” is defensive and desperate.  “enabled me to develop a truly integrative and holistic way of thinking about…”  substitutes adjectives for content (E).  “Which is why being part of a department such as yours…” is desperate, begging, pandering, and also overly emotional (A, B).   “My research spans many areas….” spirals into a vortex of list addiction (D).  “In your school…” uses a second person pronoun that is best avoided in job letters (B) and although this is actually valid tailoring, is buried in lists and distracting verbiage.  “I am particularly interested in…. coincide with my interests” is telling not showing; also, nobody cares what you are interested in, they care about evidence of what you did and published and will do and publish next.]

My dissertation provides an examination of the process whereby XXXXX population develops, maintains, and communicates XXXXX, employing XXXXX study design and using XXXXX method. I used XXXXX to explore XXXXX, as a function of XXXXX and XXXXX, in order to develop an understanding and explanation of XXXXX for this particular group. I plan to turn my dissertation into a manuscript after its completion. Additional research experience includes my work as a research affiliate with XXXXX Initiative, a statewide project to access the challenges and opportunities that arise from XXXXX. After analyzing statistical data from the household survey, I wrote the chapters on XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX, and XXXXX for the state report. This experience familiarized me with social implications XXXXX has for
XXXXX and XXXXX, and I can therefore bring these issues to the classroom in an informed manner. I am also completing two independent projects, XXXXX and XXXXX. Both manuscripts will also be submitted for peer review to XXXXX and XXXXX, respectively.

[Dissertation arrived at too late, and not titled.  Again relies on a verb list (“develops, maintains and communicates”).   “Develop an understanding and explanation of xxxx for this particular group” is  unimpressive as a research goal; appears derivative and unoriginal (A).  No core argument and intervention of the research articulated.  Plan to turn diss into book mentioned with no substantiating evidence or plan of work.  Detour into other research of unclear relevance confuses the reader, who is further bewildered by a long list (D).  “I can therefore bring these issues to the classroom in an informed manner” is damning self with faint praise, also raising teaching abruptly and inappropriately in the diss paragraph.  “I am completing two independent projects” is bewildering–are these related to the diss project or not?  If not, why doing them?  Mention of specific publication plan with journal title is good–but no clear articulation of a larger and coherent publication trajectory from past to present to future.]

In addition to research, I am committed to pursuing an academic career that values teaching and mentoring. My teaching interests include XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX influences on XXXXX, and research design and methods, but I am prepared to teach other XXXXX courses. I believe I am qualified to teach the undergraduate courses XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX and the graduate courses XXXXX and XXXXX in your school. I have several semesters of teaching experience,
ranging from teaching assistant to graduate instructor. Most recently I designed and team taught a new undergraduate course, XXXXX. Feedback from my students identified me as an effective and approachable instructor. I also held a teaching internship with Dr. XXXXX, current president of XXXXX Education Organization. I incorporated a new section on XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX that was well
received by the class and resulted in an engaging discussion with the students. His mentorship, along with the instruction I received from Dr. XXXXX in my teaching practicum, taught me a great deal about instructional pedagogy, course design, and class management. I look forward to a time when teaching and mentoring play a larger role in my academic responsibilities and would be privileged to work with your doctoral students in XXXXX program and undergraduates in XXXXX and XXXXX concentrations.

[Opens by stating the obvious.  Then an excessive list.  “I believe I am qualified….” shows insecurity and damning self with faint praise (H).  “Feedback from my students identified me as an effective and approachable instructor.” is pathetic in how low the bar of faint praise has been set.  “teaching internship with Dr. xxxx” subordinates self, emphasizes grad student identity, and is over-humble. “His mentorship….” is distasteful in its excessive humility and self-abnegation, situates candidate as perennial grad student peon.  “Would be privileged to work with your….”  distasteful degree of over-humble flattering, pandering, and begging (B).]

My commitment to higher education extends to my service activities. I am very active in XXXXX National Organization, currently serving on its XXXXX and XXXXX Committees and as the elected XXXXX Representative for [Public Research University], where it is my job to encourage student involvement in the organization. I also served as the student representative to my department’s XXXXX and XXXXX
Committees and to the College of XXXXX’s XXXXX Committee. My service activities cover commitments as serious as my appointment to XXXXX National Organization’s XXXXX Committee and as fun as organizing and leading the XXXXX activity and hosting XXXXX at last year’s XXXXX Meeting.

[This long para on service is the last nail in the coffin of this candidate’s identity as insecure, overly humble, and excessively eager to serve.  Service does not get anyone a job.  National level service can be given one sentence and no more; campus level service none.  This much on service raises a major red flag that the candidate will be one of those young female hires who can’t say no, expends herself on service, doesn’t get publishing done, and gets turned down at tenure.   “as serious as…. as fun as….” is utterly inappropriate for a job letter, and juvenilizes and genders the candidate as a frivolous female.]

I believe that I would be an asset to your school and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the position and my qualifications with you further. I have enclosed a copy of my curriculum vitae, together with two writing samples, and have arranged for three letters of reference to be sent to you under separate cover. If you require additional information or materials, please contact me by phone (123.456.7890) or email ( I will also be available to meet with anyone from your
school at the XXXXX Meeting in XXXXXX this [month]. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

[“I believe that I would be an asset…” is desperate begging (B).  Meanwhile, there is no substantive tailoring of this letter speaking to the actual initiatives and faculty of the department/campus and how candidate would contribute (C). The repetition of  “would welcome the opportunity….If you require…. please contact me…. I will also be available….” communicates desperation.]


Clueless PhD Candidate



Blog Post Reference List

A.  Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks

B. How to Tailor  a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging)

C.  Tailoring a Job Letter, Beginning and Advanced

D.  Breaking the Cycle of List Addiction

E.  This Christmas, Don’t Be Cheap

F. I’m The Ideal Candidate For Your Position!

G. The Dreaded Teaching Statement: 8 pitfalls

H.  Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Try.

Does the Status of the Press Matter?

Today’s post is in response to a reader who wrote in asking, “does the status of the press matter when seeking to publish your book?”

Sometimes I am surprised by what people ask me, and this is one of those times.

Does anyone not know the answer to this question?

The answer is:  yes, the status of the press matters.  It matters a LOT.  It matters like—choose right and you get a great tenure track job and a career and a retirement plan, choose wrong and you live forever in adjunct hell.

If you are in a book field, you need a book for tenure, certainly, but increasingly you need a book just to get a job at all.  I am not saying that the book has to be OUT to get the first job.  But you need to be well into the process of book publication to get that job. By which I mean, be able to talk knowledgably about the book plan and timeline, perhaps have chatted the book up with an editor at a conference, or been invited to submit a proposal, and beyond that, have a proposal ready to send, or in submission.

Whether or not you’re finished with your dissertation, if you are in a book field, you need to be looking ahead to the book, and thinking about where, when, and how it will be published.

In these circumstances, naturally, you will be excited if you find your work being solicited by an editor at a press.  But if you’ve been invited to submit a proposal by an editor, you must not instantly leap at the invitation!  You must make sure that the press is of a caliber that will advance your career.

Presses that advance your career are major university presses and Routledge and the like.  Presses like Ashgate, Rowman and Littlefield, and Palgrave and so on are an indeterminate rank and will count at some universities and departments more highly than at others. Other presses must be evaluated very, very carefully.  There may be a small and obscure press that is well known and important in your particular niche—and then it is fine to pursue publication with that press.  But in general, small and obscure presses do not advance your career.

Putting a book out with an obscure press is not much different than having no book out at all, in terms of gaining a tenure track job or tenure.  Yes, you’ll have a book between covers that you can put on your shelf and proudly show your friends and family.  But a book that “counts” for the tenure track job market and tenure?  That book needs to be out with one of the major presses of the academic world.

You may observe that some well known and influential senior scholars sometimes publish with presses that are not of the first rank.  Why?  Because they can. Because their reputations are unassailable, and they can afford to pursue publication that is based on prior personal connections, or that is less rigorous in terms of review, with no impact to their standing.

But for anyone seeking to create a scholarly reputation, the importance of the status of the press of the first book cannot be overstated.  Any press that does not have “University” in its name should be approached with great caution.  Inquire closely with advisors you trust whether or not to consider it.

Location, Location…what?

This past week the Chronicle of Higher Education posted a column by Alexandra Lord, titled “Location, Location, Location.”  Lord is the person behind the site on nonacademic careers, Beyond Academe, and she also runs an online Web journal, the Ultimate History Project. She also, apparently, works full time in a nonacademic position as a preservationist.

This article, in a nutshell, involves her regret at taking a tenure track position in a part of the country that she did not like.  She uses her own story to open a wider meditation on how much weight academics in general should give to location in their job searches.  Her advice:  don’t consider taking a job in a place that won’t be congenial to you, for any number of reasons, including the location of your extended family, or your sexual orientation or religion.  She took issue in a mild sort of way with a previous column by David Perlmutter (one of my favorite Chronicle columnists, btw), that was called “Embrace Your Inner North Dakotan.”  In that column Perlmutter told job seekers in essence that they must beware the kind of elitism and disdain with which academics tend to view the non-coastal, non-urban, non-hip parts of the country and be open to the possibility they might be happy in small, rural places.

I liked Perlmutter’s column.  I also like Lord’s column.  As far as I’m concerned, they are both exactly right.

But apparently I am in the minority in believing so.  The comment stream following Lord’s column is filled with a mystifying degree of dismissiveness and even hostility.  Perlmutter himself contributed a weirdly hysterical reaction involving Jews and Muslims.  The issue seemed to revolve around Lord’s own credibility as a person who left academia, and outrage that she would in turn imply that leaving academia was a good choice if academic jobs were not available in good locations.  “How DARE anyone,” comments seem to imply, “put anything before the demands of the scholarly career?!” As the always reliable “graddirector” says:

“It should be noted that no one is forced to go to graduate school.  By doing so, you are already agreeing to enter the world as it exists that honestly is not going to change.  These realities are the same that have been there for over 100 years and come from being highly trained for geographically dispersed opportunities.  This is really no different than the coal miner or auto assembler whose mine or local plant closes.  They have the choice of moving to another part of the country where their skills are in demand but with the cost of leaving their family and friends, or staying in their current community and entering a cycle of poverty. ”

The meta-message is clear:  The true academic is the one who sacrifices.

As Bill Pannapacker remarked on my Facebook page, about the comment stream to the piece:  “Summary of comments: If you want to be an academic, you must accept misery. It’s your duty not to be happy.”

Rarely do we see the cult-like nature of academia revealed so starkly.  The cult demands sacrifice and the cult will have it.  And the cult will punish harshly anyone who questions the value of the sacrifice, and dares to ask, “is it worth it?”

In terms of numbers I think the majority of commenters actually support Lord’s position.  But they seem to be the ones not permanently employed in academia.  The ones who appear to be writing from the position of tenure seem to say: “suck it up.”

I actually believe that people can be happy in a variety of places.  I was a finalist for a position at Stanford, and ended up getting a job in Oregon. I had no desire whatsoever to live in Oregon, and spent a good number of years pining for the Palo Alto that might have been.  And then after a while, I realized I loved Oregon.  Then I, perversely, moved away to take a fancier job in the Midwest.  I could not live there.  I tried with all my might.  But I could not.  It was embarrassing to admit defeat, but eventually, I did and left.  And back in Oregon, I know I’m in the right place.

My own story splits the difference.  My story suggests that a person’s got to be open minded about many unexpected locations to which their job search might take them.  And at the same time, when the chips fall, and the parent takes ill or the partner needs a job or the heart wants what the heart wants…. then you’ve got to listen and make a choice, and that choice may be to leave the location, or, as in my case, to leave the profession in order to leave the location.

I don’t think this is blasphemy!  But I’ve come to understand that to many it is.  Be careful about telling your advisor, and don’t expect them to throw you a going away party.

The Perils of “Nice,” Cont’d: Recommendation Edition

I got to see a letter of rec this week, and was stunned at the way it sabotaged my client, a SUPERB AND TOTALLY HARD-ASS candidate.   It did this apparently from the best of intentions, by burying her achievements in endless verbiage about how “nice” she is, and focusing excessively on the warmth of relationship between the writer and my client, rather than on the client’s actual achievements as a scholar.

If you’re wondering why the client had a copy of her letter of recommendation….well, she’s in the hard sciences, and apparently it isn’t a completely unknown practice over there for recommenders to openly share their letters with the objects of recommendation.

Anyway, when I mentioned it to the client, she was way ahead of me. She directed me to this piece in the Chronicle, “Damning with Praise.”

“Bad news, ladies: your recommendation letters could be sinking your faculty job and/or your promotion chances,” the article starts.

“According to a new study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Psychology, letters that describe candidates in “communal” or cooperative terms—e.g., “agreeable,” “helpful,” “nurturing,”—are less highly regarded by search committees (hat tip: The Juggle) than are active terms. And, of course, the cooperative terms are most often used to describe female candidates, while active terms—like “confident,” “aggressive,” and “independent”—which are more highly regarded by search committees, are typically reserved for male candidates, the researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston found in their examination of 624 recommendation letters for 194 applicants for eight university faculty jobs.”

She told me that she had shared that piece with the recommender, and was hoping the message would get through. If the letter isn’t rewritten, she’s going to have to jettison the recommender, who unfortunately, is her advisor. The recommender is a woman.

The article goes on to quote Paula Szuchman: “what’s most troubling about these findings ‘isn’t that such cooperative qualities are underappreciated by those doing the hiring (at least in academia),’ but that women are characterized in those gendered terms because they’re female, not because they are ‘actually more kind or sympathetic than the men.’”

This is a real danger, people. Advisors—please beware how you write about women candidates. Do not substitute praise for their pleasant personalities for evidence of their actual substantive scholarly achievements.

The researchers also noted another disturbing trend: “that recommendation-letter writers often describe women in uncertain terms—using phrases such as ‘she might make an excellent leader’ versus what they used for male candidates, ‘he is already an established leader.’”

Candidates—I know that in most fields you don’t get to see the letters that people are writing for you, and this is a perennial source of uncertainty and stress.

But, to the extent that you can, please be alert to ways your letter-writers might be sabotaging you inadvertently, and make sure that all of your recommenders have your cv and all information about your full list of scholarly achievements close at hand as they write the letter. And also, that you continually update them with your most recent achievements moving forward.

You don’t want to be remembered as the “sweet young thing” of your MA program when you’re trying to establish yourself as a hard-core competitive scholar.

(Incidentally, this problem continues to apply all the way through women’s tenure cases. I saw it when I had the chance to review the tenure letters and the departmental reports associated with those cases.)

Tailoring a Job Letter, Beginning and Advanced

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  23 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including the template for a job cover letter, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.

Today I return to the subject of tailoring a job letter. Whenever I find myself making the same corrections again and again across different client documents, I know that I’ve found a pattern (or “pataan”–as they say in Japanese–and “pataan” has more of the judgmental, ‘why do you keep doing the same thing over and over when I’ve clearly told you not to?’ feel to it, so naturally it’s the go-to word around my house).

Anyway, first, the basic and all too common mistake: if you can say it about any school or department or to any school or department, then it is not tailoring.


“I am excited to develop my career in research and teaching at your excellent department.”

“I would be interested to develop a range of undergraduate and graduate courses in the department.”

Etc., etc., etc.

I am constantly surprised at the difficulty that clients have in coming up with substantive and meaningful ways to describe the actual potential collaborations and involvements and initiatives they might participate in in the departments to which they are applying.

This difficulty really goes to the heart of the matter in the dysfunction that is graduate training in the present time. It is so profoundly myopic, and graduate students are enabled and indeed encouraged by their advisors and committees to be so completely self-absorbed and self-indulgent in their single-minded focus on the minutiae of the dissertation, that the poor students have absolutely no idea what the actual requirements are of the tenure-track position. Those requirements prominently include …

Let The Games Begin!

“I don’t need to see the Hunger Games.  I’m on the tenure track job market.”   (remark on the Professor Is In Facebook page).

Hello readers!  I’m back.   Italy has been visited (and loved) and Oregon’s delightfully temperate summer thoroughly enjoyed, and now it’s time to get back to work for Fall.

I know it’s a tad early for those of you still in denial.  But jobs are posted and blood pressure is rising.  Dr. Karen is at the helm!


One announcement and two changes for the 2013 job season.  First, the announcement.  The waiting list to start work with me extends into the first week of October.  That is still time to make some of the deadlines of the typical fall market…but not a lot of time.  If you’re thinking of working with me, please don’t delay getting in touch.

Second, due to the intensity of the work already underway, I’ll be posting on the blog only once a week for the interim.  I hope to return to twice a week blogging after the Fall rush.  I haven’t quite decided on the posting day yet, but this week, it’s Tuesday!

Third, as promised, I’m inaugurating a regular series of webinars.  As you know we did the first trial webinar back in June, and it was terrific!  People seemed to like it, and it got great feedback.   I like the technology most of all because it allows for real-time interaction with the participants.  I present things, you ask questions, and I answer them.  We can get very specific and targeted, very quickly.

I’m planning to do two webinars a month on different topics, including:

What You Need To Know Now on the Tenure Track Job Market

Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track

How to Write a Winning Grant

Making a 5-Year Plan

There will be others, and if you have a special request for a topic, please by all means put it in a comment here on this post.

The first webinar is actually the day after tomorrow (Thursday August 9) so I’m using today’s blog post to announce it, as there is little time to get the word out.   From next week I will begin blogging on my regular job market and life-in-academia topics.  One blog post coming up is on the value of rage.  Another is on how job seekers damn themselves with faint praise.  Stay tuned.

I am putting live links to checkout in this blog post, so you can sign up for the webinars directly from here.  Both webinars that are currently scheduled are $100.

The perennial question is, how different are the webinars from the blog posts?  Are they redundant?  And a related question—if I’ve worked with Dr. Karen on my job materials, is there anything new for me in the webinar?

Answer: I’m committed to making these webinars valuable for anyone, including those who have read my blog posts or worked with me.  I use the time to go into the principles and the subtleties of powerful writing and verbal self-expression that I don’t get into in a short blog post, or in work on a specific job document.  I make a point to share bad examples from actual client work (anonymous of course) so that the pitfalls are clear.  And then I demonstrate how to fix them.  And the Q and A time allows for answers to individual questions and concerns.   Strategy webinars like “Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track,” meanwhile, focus intensively on issues of planning and self-protection that are much better suited to a conversation than a written post.  If you have any specific concerns or questions about whether a webinar is suitable for you, please do email me to ask at

Here’s the info:

1)  “What You Need to Know Now About the Tenure Track Job Market”—$100

In this 90-minute 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.

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

***To make this webinar useful even to those who have worked with me on their job documents, I focus also on the most common intangible pitfalls of the job market that I have identified after a year of working with clients. These include:

*the narcissism trap

*showing, not telling


*the perils of obstinacy

Includes 30 minutes of Q and A with Dr. Karen.

This 90-minute Webinar will be offered at: Thursday August 9 at 4 PM Pacific/7  PM EST/23:00 GMT

Cost:  $100

Add to Cart

2) Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track—$100

In this 90-minute webinar I walk you through the biggest challenges of the first year on the tenure track.  Topics we cover include

  • Dealing with new colleagues
  • Handling department politics
  • Finding mentors
  • Establishing a classroom persona
  • Learning to say no to service
  • Establishing a conference schedule
  • Protecting your writing time (and mental health!)

Most importantly, I walk you through the planning that you need to do, from year one, to situate yourself for your eventual tenure case.

This webinar is based on the advising meetings I used to have as Department Head with my first year assistant professors. They all got tenure.  It’s fun, but hard core!

This webinar complements the blog post, Advice For Your First Year on the Tenure Track, but focuses directly on hands-on recommendations for dealing with treacherous departmental politics and laying the groundwork for your tenure case.

Includes abundant time for Q and A with Dr. Karen!

This webinar will be offered Tuesday August 14, at 4 PM Pacific/7 PM EST/23:00 GMT

Cost: $100
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