What is Assertiveness, for Women?

(Friday Post Category: Yes, You Can: Women in Academia)

I get so frustrated when I see the female students and colleagues I work with sabotage themselves and undermine their own authority and effectiveness because of an inability to be assertive. What is assertiveness, you ask? The definition of assertiveness for women in academia includes the confidence to state opinions clearly and firmly, to back them up in the face of disagreement, to make strong and steady eye contact, to use emphatic hand gestures, to display calm and confident body language while speaking and listening.

Women I work with as students AND as colleagues routinely display the opposite of assertiveness–instead of confidence, they express insecurity, instead of calm, they display anxiety, instead of eye contact they look to the side, instead of emphatic hand gestures they play with their hair and fiddle with their clothes, instead of calm and confident body language, they droop their shoulders, slouch in their chairs, tie themselves into cross-legged, cross-armed knots until they occupy half the space to which they’re entitled.

The small woman


Why does this happen? Women are trained from birth to self-effacement and deference. Women defer to men, in professional settings, across the board. I would have believed that in 21st century America this was no longer the case… until I started observing the speaking patterns and body language of the young women in the university setting, and beyond that, my tenured colleagues in my departments.

If you are a woman and want to test this supposition, I offer this assertiveness training exercise. The next time you are in conversation with a man, in a professional setting, and both of you start speaking at the identical moment, will yourself to NOT give in, to keep speaking, until he stops, and your voice prevails.

I’d wager money you can’t do it. If you can, you’re going to be surprised at the effort of will it takes. At how unnatural it feels. At how aggressive it seems.

The diminished woman


Because women defer to men in professional settings the vast majority of the time. They default to smiling and nodding. They default to agreeing. They default to ego-soothing (“just following up on what YOU said….”). They default to cooing little supportive noises (“mm hmmm, mm hmmm”). They default to that odd upward lilt, an epidemic among younger Americans, that transforms every statement into an insecure sounding question that trails off into uncertain silence. They default to the big eyed, tilted head listening pose that you might recognize from your puppy. They default to silence in the place of direct confrontation.   (Doubt my word on this? Read this amazing post on women in the workplace by body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, recently published on the Washington Post website.)

Women don’t exhibit these behaviors because they’re incompetent or stupid. On the contrary, these are the behaviors that little girls learn in their families and that work for them in countless environments growing up. And these behaviors transmogrify in the domestic sphere as women grow older. Women don’t necessarily defer to their husbands and domestic partners in the same way.

But in the professional world, where influence and power derive from individual authority, expertise, and confidence…. women’s learned domestic behaviors of agreement, soothing, indirection, and non-confrontation fail them badly.

The insecure woman


Here are the top five ways that women undermine their own authority:

1)  Ending their declarative sentences and statements on a verbal upswing or “lilt” that communicates self-doubt and deference.

2) Waiting their turn to interject contributions instead of diving in assertively.

3) Leading with, and defaulting to, what they “don’t know” and “can’t do” and what “won’t work.”

4) Having a weak handshake and deferential body language, including smiling too much, laughing too often, trailing off, taking up too little space, and defaulting to questions rather than statements.

5) Expressing themselves in a disorganized  manner that is so filled with caveats and apologies, that it muddies their main point and obscures the goal that they set out to accomplish.

The end result of years of such repetitions of these patterns is that women students and faculty accrue less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.

For many years I’ve led a workshop, Yes You Can: Women and Success in Academia. We review the patterns of speech and body language I talk about here. And then in the second half, we do role playing. My attendees dread the role playing. But about 3 minutes into it, they start to grasp just how deeply embedded are the unconscious speech and body practices that have consistently undermined their verbal assertiveness, expressions of authority and entitlement, and physical command of space. By the time they have each struggled painfully to get through the following three sentences, with no prevarication, excuses, second-guessing, or caveats, “I WILL APPLY TO GRADUATE SCHOOL IN XXX. I WILL SPECIALIZE IN XX. I PLAN TO BECOME A PROFESSIONAL XXX,” they grasp just how deeply and profoundly they have been denying their own voices.

We follow that up with many other professional scenarios, including disagreeing while maintaining steady eye contact and a steady voice, and the art of the firm handshake. By the end, attendees are always a combination of dazed, dismayed, inspired, outraged, shocked, amused, and totally fired up to test their new skills out on the first guy they meet. They report back incredible results.

If you’re a woman who struggles to make herself heard, you’re not alone. If you write to me, Karen, at gettenure@gmail.com, I will send you a Top Ten Tip sheet from my Yes You Can Workshop. Get in touch. We should talk.

Hooray for Elite White Men! External Reviewers for Tenure

(Thursday Post Category: How to Get Tenure)

Today let’s talk about your external reviewers for tenure.

First, since this blog is new, my credentials. In my 15 years as a faculty member at two major research institutions, I worked on 6 tenure cases. On one, I served as the chair of the tenure committee, on the other five, I was, as Department Head, the ultimate person in charge of them.

All of the tenure cases I handled as Department Head were successful.

You probably don’t know this, but the Department Head highly influences the outcome of a tenure case. Yes, of course the candidate’s record is the ultimate criterion. Did you publish enough? Did you refrain from actually harming any students? Did you impress enough people in your field to get those all-important external reviewer letters that claim that yes, you are indeed the long-awaited Messiah of your discipline?

But, in the end, those cardboard boxes in the secretary’s office full of your giant (we hope), unwieldy, many-faceted record of publications, service, conference talks, external reviews, teaching evaluations, advising, and awards, which first went through digestion by your tenure committee, must now be further condensed into one, single, even more easily digestible, 5-10 page statement by the Department Head, before it is sent on to the Dean, the College Tenure and Promotion Committee, The Campus Tenure and Promotion Committee, and finally the Provost. (please note—this chain of command differs slightly on every campus).

And that letter can look pretty different depending on who’s writing it. “Cynthia has published some articles in refereed journals.” Versus, “Dr. Jones has published 5 articles in leading refereed journals in her field, including the top ranked journal in her sub-discipline, with her most recent article winning an award from the Society for Feminist Astronomy.” Get it? Your Department Head can make or break the tenure case, unfortunately sometimes without even realizing it.

I wanted my junior faculty to get tenure, and I worked hard with them from their first years in the department to strategize the dossier they would ultimately submit.

If you’re an assistant professor looking ahead at tenure, you hope your Department Head does the same for you. If she hasn’t so far, schedule an appointment and see if you can light the fire.

Anyway, besides haranguing my junior faculty to PUBLISH, GODDAMMIT and BE SELFISH (topics of later posts), I mainly worked with them on making sure they were accumulating a stable of external reviewers who would write those crucial, terrifying, all-important, make-or-break external evaluation letters.

For anyone who doesn’t know, external evaluation letters are lengthy, detailed letters by famous and influential people in the candidate’s field. They are solicited by the Department Head the spring before the year of tenure evaluation. Ie, usually spring of the 5th year. There usually need to be 5 to 6 letters in a tenure file as it moves forward, and the names come from a list that is generated, usually, in part by the candidate herself, and in part by the faculty of the department. The Head collects a list of approximately 10 names, and works down through them until she has collected 5 to 6 who aren’t on sabbatical, or ill, or too busy, and who actually agree to do the review. The major parts of the dossier are then sent out to these individuals–say, the book and/or a stack of articles, the candidate’s research statement, maybe a grant application or two…. In any case, a pretty big stack of reading.

The reviewers spend the summer reading this stuff, and then write a 4-5 page letter evaluating it, and making a recommendation—is he a leader in the field? Is his productivity what you would expect in the time frame post Ph.D.? Would this candidate get tenure at their institution?

The external evaluation letters are the crap-shoot of the tenure process. Not only the candidate, but the Department Head sweats bullets. You just don’t know. Is the reviewer a nut job? Do they understand the stakes? Do they grasp that the slightest BREATH of doubt can undermine an entire tenure case? If they are, god forbid, foreign, will they be willing to grit their teeth and write the preposterous hagiographical superlatives required in the American tenure letter genre?

And above all, are THEY, the external reviewers, GOOD ENOUGH? You can get all the superlatives you want, but if they come from associate professors from podunk regional campuses, they’ll sink a tenure case just as fast as a bad letter.

The fact is, your external reviewers have to be the BEST people from the BEST schools. And who might that be, you ask?

Elite White Males. From Elite Institutions.

You want White Male Full Professors from Ivy League and equivalent institutions.

Yes, you heard it here first. Make sure by the time you get to your 5th year in the job, you have in your pocket, by virtue of steadfast and committed conference activity and prolific publication and networking, a collection of elite white male full professors (NOT associate) at elite institutions.

In the cases I handled, only one out of the six external reviewers could be at the Associate rank.

And if I sent a list of reviewers up the food chain that contained even one from what was considered an insufficiently illustrious institution, the list was sent back.

Of course not ALL of your reviewers have to be male. But I’ll tell you the truth, if you send up a file with all women, or mostly women, in MOST fields, I’m sorry to say it, it will not be perceived as the strongest file. Sexist. Outrageous. But true.

Because, the fact is, women are perceived as less rigorous.  More (gag) ‘motherly.’  Less critical.

By all means reject this reasoning.  And fume.  And shake your fist.  But if it’s your tenure case–YOUR TENURE CASE– take no, absolutely no, chances.  Conduct your feminist agitation broadly and widely.  But in your tenure case, check and double-check the gender breakdown of your stable of potential external letter  writers.

Granted, this may differ in some fields. Dance, perhaps. Women’s Studies. Even in some parts of a field like Anthropology it can be hard to find enough men! But in most fields, you need to do it.

It’s tricky, because they can’t be what’s called “Too Close” to you. They can’t be a former teacher or advisor, they can’t be a former colleague, and you can’t have co-published with them.

They have to be at what’s called “Arm’s Length.” You can have been on conference panels with them. You can be in an edited collection with them. They can be on the editorial board of a journal you published in. But they can’t be the Editor.

It’s damn hard to come up with 6 such people, but you need to do it. So get out there, and start sucking up to Elite White Men.

Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template

NOTE: An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  51 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 visual model of the Foolproof Grant Template, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.

Unveiled here:  Karen’s Famous and Foolproof Research Proposal Template.

This Research Proposal Template has won hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money for multiple graduate students and scholars in the social sciences and humanities over the past 15 years.

You may share, but please credit Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In, http://theprofessorisin.com).

Let’s walk through this step by step.

The first step is to identify what large general topic of wide interest that your specific project relates to.  These are topics that anyone, including your grandmother or someone sitting next to you on a plane, would say, “oh, yes, that’s an important topic.”  Obvious Examples include:  immigration, sustainable energy, changes in the family, curing cancer, new social technologies, environmental degradation, global warming, etc. Until you can identify a really broadly interesting theme that your project relates to, you will never be successful in applying for grants.

If you work on arcane topics or in a small field (ie, medieval French literature), don’t despair. You don’t have to relate to current events or go all presentist.  You just need to find the way in to your topic that starts at its widest possible relevance or interest, as appropriate for your field.  Don’t start at your topical micro-niche, even when you know you’re writing for others in or near that niche.  You always must show a wider import/context to your topic.

This is because your application must *excite* the readers, and the readers are likely from a range of different disciplines.  They will not all be interested in your discipline’s narrow debates.  They want to know that your work and your intellectual and scholarly vision are wide, and broad, and encompassing.

Once you have established your wide, much debated, topic, you then identify two bodies of literature relevant to your own training that dealt with this topic.

If you are an anthropologist, and your research is on Haitian communities in New York City, for example, you will start by pointing to the wide debates on immigration in America.  Then you will write, “scholars in many fields have addressed these important questions.  Within cultural anthropology, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have all explored the role of cultural beliefs in shaping immigrant communities.  Within Caribbean Studies, meanwhile, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have focused on the specific demographic and economic trends which have fueled outward migration.”


This brief survey will be no more than 3 sentences long. And indeed all of the above must be done in two paragraphs and no more.   Because it is only the Introduction to the “Kicker” Sentence, the axis on which your entire appeal for funding rests. And the Kicker Sentence must be on the first page.

The Kicker is your “HOWEVER” sentence.   The “however” sentence is the crux and the anchor of your entire proposal.


It reads like this:

“However, none of these works have addressed the central question of XXXXXXXX.”

XXXXXXX in this case is YOUR view of what is most essential to an accurate understanding of the big topic, but which  has never to date been studied by anyone else.

This brings you to the GAP IN KNOWLEDGE “Despite much excellent work on themes such as XXX and XXX, scholars examining the transformations in immigration in America have not yet fully explored the importance of XXXX in creating and sustaining these communities.”

Now for the URGENCY:

[… Please refer to Chapter 51 of my book!]



The rest of the essay then provides substantiating evidence In other words, concrete evidence that the project is doable, by you, according to reasonable and well thought out disciplinary methods and timeline.






All of this substantiating evidence is meant to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you will CORRECTLY UTILIZE the grant money once you receive it.

Finally, you cannot finish without a  STRONG CONCLUSION Even one sentence suffices, but do NOT neglect to include it.  It may read like this: […]

Do all of this, my friends, and you will walk away with generous, abundant funding for your every project.  You will have the leisure to do the best work, and the best work will in turn legitimize you for the next major grant for which you apply.  You will be on the “GRANT GRAVY TRAIN“, and that is the key to the most successful academic careers.

Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for a Letter of Recommendation, Part One

In my work with undergraduate students helping them apply to graduate school, one of the biggest problems I encounter is the student’s lack of appropriate people to write their letters of recommendation.  All too often the student will come in with a list of names, and all of those names will be the TAs who are teaching their classes.

As you’re probably aware if  you’re reading this, a TA (or here at Oregon a GTF) is a graduate student who is getting their graduate school funded by working in the classroom, leading discussion sections, assisting the professor, and/or grading.  As such, TAs may be only a year or two out of their own undergraduate days.

It is true that you may know your TA better than you know the distant and perhaps slightly forbidding professor in charge of your course.

Nevertheless, you must never ask the TA to write your letter of recommendation.

This is true even if the TA has enthusiastically supported your graduate school aspirations and dreams, and has offered to write one for you.  This is true even if your TA is brilliant and working in the very field you hope to enter.

Submit an application that includes a recommendation letter from a TA, and you immediately downgrade your application’s chances of success.

TAs cannot write letters of recommendation for graduate school, because they are not actually professors.  This is NOT just because professors and graduate programs are elitist and status-obsessed.   Rather, it is because TAs have not finished their Ph.D.s, and they do not have the professional experience to be able to judge an undergraduate’s potential for success in graduate school and in the academic profession.

There are countless small and large hurdles to overcome on the path to a graduate degree.  The TA is familiar with some of them, such as the GRE, the application essay, coursework, working in the lab, and maybe even fieldwork and starting work on the dissertation.  As such, the TA may be a great informal advisor.

But the TA will not yet have experience in defending the dissertation, teaching hundreds of students, working closely with undergraduate and graduate students in an advising capacity, working as a colleague, and building a professional reputation.   Yet these are the ultimate skills of a successful academic career.

Professors, by virtue of the fact that they are professors, have experience in all of these areas.  And they are in a position to judge a student’s potential in all of these areas.

Therefore, in sum, you must never ask a TA to write a letter of recommendation for you for graduate school.  You must always go to the professor in charge of the course.

In Part II, I will discuss how to make sure you are enrolling in courses taught by faculty (and not TAs), and how to approach your professors for letters.

(This post originally published on the blog, Project Graduate School”–http://www.projectgraduateschool.wordpress.com).

Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for a Letter of Recommendation, Part Two

In an earlier post I explained the reasons that you must never ask your TA for letters of recommendation.  All of your letters must come from faculty, preferably full-time faculty in your major department or one closely affiliated .

Now I’ll discuss some tips for accomplishing this.

If you don’t know the professor well, then get to know her. Go to her office hours.  Discuss your graduate school aspirations with her.  Ask her for guidance.  Remind her gently who you are and what grade you are getting/got.  Bring in a paper that you wrote for her course.

And make sure, when choosing your courses for next term, that you enroll in courses that are taught by faculty members and not by TAs.  It is OK to call the department to ask.  You may also simply search the name of the instructor on your university website people/department directory to see if they turn up listed as faculty or as student.

As you get into upper division classes, make it a central goal to work with professors. If you have dreams of graduate school, you must gather around you at least two and preferably three faculty members, ie, actual professors employed by your institution, who will write you strong letters of recommendation.

And, what you are seeking are professor who are full-time faculty members of the school.  While “visiting”/”adjunct” professors will do in a pinch, they are not as good (for the same reasons listed above) as regular, permanent, full-time faculty from your college or university, and preferably from your major.

You want the professor to enthusiastically agree to write the letter.  Any hesitation or reluctance….move on to someone else.

And, do NOT expect to see the letter, or to in any way tell the professor what to write.  This is a trust exercise.  And, professors know the stakes.

In sum: do not be intimidated!  It is part of a professor’s job to meet with undergraduates AND to write them letters.  YOU ARE ENTITLED to ask faculty members to write recommendations. And as long as the professor is genuinely supportive of you, the professor has an obligation to fulfill this professional responsibility.

Good luck!

How Do You Write an Email or Letter to a Professor?

***Please note that I no longer respond to comments/questions to this post!  For additional help, see a list of individualized services to help you in your path to graduate school, and the Guidance Package, both offered below the post***

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to contact professors to serve as potential faculty advisors.  This can be a minefield.   I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

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

This is an instant-delete email.

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

“Dear Professor XXX,

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Good luck!

***Please note that I no longer respond to comments/questions to this post!  For additional help, see a list of individualized services to help you in your path to graduate school, and the Guidance Package, below***





Add to Cart

View Cart

Encapsulates all of the advice that we provide in our graduate school advising services, including:

1. General instructions and overview of the function and “best practices” of an initial query email to someone you hope to work with

2. A template for what an email like that should look like

3. A sample email to a business school prospective advisor

4. A sample email to a comparative literature prospective advisor

5. A sample email to a computer science prospective advisor.