You’re Elite, The Job is Not: How Do You Tell Them You’ll Really Stay?

Today’s post is a Special Request Post for a reader, an ABD from an Ivy League, who wrote to ask, rather plaintively, how she might reassure a search committee for a job at a small, regional, teaching college that she Really Will Stay, if offered the job.

She hastened to add that she knew not to include an unseemly “fit sentence,” or to flatter, pander, or beg.  But what, she asked, should she write instead?

It’s my belief that the best approach to this dilemma is to tell the simple truth.  If you are a Ph.D. from an elite research program, but genuinely and truthfully believe that you will be happy in a non-elite, regional, or teaching-heavy environment, then you should just say so.

I would recommend something like this, at the start of your tailoring paragraph at the end of your letter:

“I am aware that my background, coming from an elite research institution, would suggest that I am focused on a career at R1-type institutions.  However, that is not the case.  I have a strong commitment to the type of teaching that is done at an institution such as Rural College, a commitment that has grown stronger the further that I have moved in my career.  I look forward to the hands-on work with students, and the potential for a balanced work life, that a career in Rural College would offer.  [Optional: In addition, my family resides in the area/my research will thrive in the area/I have a personal connection to the area]. I would not view a position there as a stepping-stone to another job, but as an excellent location in which to grow as a scholar and teacher.”

[10/27/11: Please note that a commenter below, who actually has experience on searches at such a school, suggests that the first and last sentences would seem to “protest too much,” and that the paragraph might better read:

“I have a strong commitment to the type of teaching that is done at an institution such as Rural College, a commitment that has grown stronger the further that I have moved in my career.  I look forward to the hands-on work with students, and the potential for a balanced work life, that a career in Rural College would offer.   In addition, my family resides in the area/my research will thrive in the area/I have a personal connection to the area.”

And another commenter from such a school believes the final sentence in this version is the most important.  I always trust experts who have actually “been there.”]

Note that no frantic claims were made of an “ideal fit,” etc.  Rather, legitimate sentiments were expressed in a calm and factual manner. This is the best you can do to reassure a skittish search committee.  I cannot promise that they will believe you.  But you are certainly entitled to tell them the truth.

Readers, feel free to add your own comments and experiences below!

How-To(sday): The Ten Commandments of Going on the Market as ABD

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.


(Tuesday Post Category–Strategizing Your Success in Academia)

Today is the second in our occasional series of “How-To(sday)” posts. This one is in response to a Special Request by Lauren, who wishes to know how to go on the job market while still ABD.

This is a good question. The whole issue of whether or not to go on the job market as ABD is quite fraught, with some advisors taking a strong position against it, and others taking an equally strong position for it. What’s a poor ABD to do?

Let’s see what some experts have to say. (Yes, there are a few experts that The Professor will grudgingly acknowledge have a modicum of wisdom). David Chioni Moore, in an older but still valuable 1999 article in the MLA Publication, Profession, argues that a dry run on the market is a wise choice. He argues that a first, ABD year on the market gives the candidate a chance to gain the knowledge that he or she needs while the stakes are still relatively low, and prepares him or her for success the next year, when the stakes are high.

Gregory Semenza, in his book, Graduate Study for the 21st Century (which I strongly recommend you buy), gives credence to the value of Moore’s viewpoint, but then cautions:

I would advise you against making an early entry on the market unless you are absolutely certain of three things.

  • Can you deal with the emotional fallout and depression of a failed job search?
  • Are you able to say with a straight face that going on the market will not derail your schedule for finishing your dissertation?
  • Are you prepared to turn down a job that falls short of your standards for a “good” job? (Semenza 243)

These are excellent questions. I would urge anyone considering launching into the job market while still ABD to consider them carefully, especially the first. Can you cope with a year of failure? Can you in fact be energized by it (as was my own case)? Not everyone can. So think carefully.

Our final expert, Kathryn Hume, in her spectacular Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt (soon to be reviewed right here by yours truly!), suggests going on the market only after your dissertation is defended.  “You start with a heavy black mark against you if you turn up for a research-oriented job without degree,” she cautions (Hume 3).

However, for the purposes of this post, we are going to assume that you HAVE considered all the excellent reasons not to go on the market as an ABD and have concluded that you will do it anyway.

Actually, I applaud you. My own personal advising philosophy is to urge anyone who asks to go on the market before they actually finish. It is my strong belief that only after large quantities of painfully humiliating failures on the job market will you gain the skills to succeed. This may not be true for others, but it was most definitely true for me. My first year on the market, as an ABD, was a bloodbath. Sometimes I still lie awake at night remembering all the ways I humiliated myself. If I had not had that year while still safely affiliated with (and getting a stipend from) my graduate institution, I would never have learned what I needed to to prevail on the market the following year.

And contrary to popular belief, ABDs do, occasionally, even in this market, get job offers. Especially if they’re in hot fields.

So, with no further ado: here are the ten things you must do to prepare for going on the market while ABD:

  1. You must have your dissertation substantially finished, and have a rigorous writing schedule and a firm defense date.  This defense date must be stated clearly in your cover letter, in the first paragraph. You must not deviate from this writing schedule.
  2. You must have at least one publication in a refereed journal.  You will not be competitive without this. If you lack this, don’t bother going on the market as an ABD.*
  3. You must have a sexy dissertation topic, however that is defined in your field. It must be sexy enough to seduce the search committee into taking a chance on you, against their better judgment.
  4. You must have a vibrant conference record at the leading national conferences in your field, presenting papers (not, god forbid, posters) on well-regarded panels, on your dissertation topic.
  5. Your ABD year, you must organize a major panel for the leading conference in your field. You must gather leading young scholars (NOT other ABDs and graduate students!) to speak on the panel. You must score a hugely important senior scholar in your field to serve as the discussant. Ideally, you acquire for your panel whatever “special” status your national conference confers, such as “invited status.”
  6. You must have recommenders who are not all from your Ph.D. granting institution. The presence of a third recommender from an elite outside institution proves that you are far beyond the normal run of ABDs and are in fact a dynamic young scholar soon to be launched.
  7. You must be able to see beyond your dissertation to the book/series of articles that it will eventually become, and articulate that publication plan clearly.
  8. You must not make querulous excuses about the state of the dissertation (“I am still working on chapter 4….” “I know I need to add more discussion of race….” “I need to revisit the archive to gather more material for my second case study…”) This is graduate student talk, not job candidate talk.
  9. You must be able to speak about teaching as if you are already a full-fledged faculty member, not a TA. You must have your own original courses developed, as well as ideas for basic intro courses and core seminars in your field.
  10. You must be able to articulate the import of your dissertation in advancing disciplinary boundaries and forging new knowledge and connections in your field(s). Nobody wants to hear about what your dissertation is. They want to hear about what your dissertation does.

It goes without saying that all of the other advice about the job market applies: You must have an impeccable c.v., a flawless cover letter, and a sparkling teaching statement. You must know how to decode a job ad. You must know how to dress and speak in interviews.

The difference, if you’re ABD, is that you must work harder to live up to the cardinal rule of the academic job search:

a) They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

b) Do. Not. Speak. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student. 

*It occurs to me that the field of History seems to discourage ABDs from publishing in refereed journals.  It is conceivable in that case that a refereed journal publication would be viewed as inappropriate or “premature” by search committees. By the same token, it is conceivable that some history advisors are clinging to an outmoded model of graduate training.  I need further education on this point, and would appreciate hearing from historians at all ranks about the best mode of advice for their field.

[8 PM Update:  After considerable Twitter discussion among a range of historians, the consensus seems to be that for History ABDs, publications are officially optional, but unofficially needed for the top jobs.  For second tier jobs, they are likely truly optional, and possibly outweighed by teaching experience.  Upshot: The lack of a refereed publication is not a total deal-breaker for a History ABD on the job market the way it is in some other fields such as English and Anthropology.]

I <3 Self Promotion and So Should You

Dr. Karen is on vacation 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.


I read a Career Advice column in Inside Higher Ed this past month that I loved. It is called “The Value of Self-Promotion,” and it’s written by Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee. Rachel Connelly is the Bion R. Cram Professor of Economics at Bowdoin College. Kristen Ghodsee is the John S. Osterwies Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin. So these women are no slackers. Clearly they know their way around the academy.

Their column advises junior people (anyone looking for a job or on the tenure track) on how to send off-prints of published articles to well-known and influential senior scholars in their field. Connelly and Ghodsee open with this invigorating line:

“One of the biggest myths of academia is that you only have to be smart enough and have good ideas to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Hear, hear!  They go on.

“For better or worse, the marketization of academia and the persistence of “old boys’ clubs” in universities around the world means that who you know is just as important as what you know.”

Really, I love these guys.

“This is one of lesser-known aspects of the academic world, because so much of your graduate school training will have been about attaining the appropriate knowledge rather than the appropriate contacts. Indeed, some professors will insist that nothing but merit counts, even if they are well aware of realities to the contrary. We believe that it is a cruel disservice to graduate students for advisers not to prepare them for the realities of academia, no matter how much they might wish things were otherwise.”

Did I mention I love these guys?

Especially because their advice is explicitly directed at women.  The column is actually adapted from their new book Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia (Rowman and Littlefield).  Because women are the worst (this is me talking, not them) at self-promotion!  Women far too often sit back and wait to be noticed.  They fret endlessly about seeming “arrogant” or “pushy.”   I’m here to tell you that pushy is good.  You have to toot your own horn, and put yourself out there.

Anyway, Connelly and Ghodsee devote the column to describing exactly how you get physical off-prints (NOT pdf files!!) of your published pieces and send them to the most influential people in your field with a brief hand-written note. Something along the lines of, “”I am sending you a copy of my latest article. I found your work really helpful while writing this, and I would appreciate any ideas you might have on how to improve my arguments.”

They also make a point of reminding you that you were also conscious to cite all influential scholars in your specific area of focus in your bibliography.

And then they write, “even if they were tangential to your argument.”

Well, that released the wolves. Sort of. Actually, they didn’t get a lot of comments (and two of them are by me, telling them how great I think they are!). But most of what they did was negative in that particular superior,elitist, judgmental professorial tone that we all know so well.

Here’s a selection:

The advice — writing senior people and possibly lying about how useful you found their work, and referencing their work “even if their work is tangential to your own” for networking purposes — is unprofessional and unethical advice. …These games should be replaced by honest, well done scholarship and true dedication to professionalism — that is what will impress senior people; otherwise the academic profession will continue to slide into a Wall Mart mentality.

…I am disheartened to read two scholars who advocate such anti-academic ploys — referencing work even if it is tangential to your own, just to ‘show what you’ve read, even if it contributes nothing to your argument? referencing senior scholars’ work just to ‘make friends’ with them? Is this a joke? Do you really think that anyone would not see this for that it is – shameless self-promotion without regard to intellectual quality?

What many of these readers are responding to, Rachel and Kristen, is the slight note of insincerity in your article. While the advice is generally useful, following it for no other purpose than professional advancement is going to backfire on the junior scholar. We’re not dummies, after all. If you give more professional advice in future columns, I suggest you justify it by addressing WHY and HOW your advice advances academe as a whole rather than the careers of a select and cynical few who are willing to game the system.


I bolded terms in each comment because to me they perfectly encapsulate the gap between the old, obsolete mind-set, and the new one required under current market conditions.

I want to pause here and say that when I was training my own Ph.D. students, I always advised them to do precisely what the authors are recommending here. (And just fyi, my students are all [with the exception of one who chose a different career path] gainfully employed in academia). I also did this practice myself throughout my career. And I was on the receiving end of such off-prints many times. I found these small academic gifts, with a personal note, a lovely gesture. The senders were in or close to my field, and the kinship with my work was clear. In many cases I would not have found the piece on my own, so having the off-print was helpful.

Why do I believe this practice is effective? First, because of the very reason the authors speak of. Self-promotion is absolutely necessary. Great thoughts will do you little good if nobody knows about them. You cannot afford to sit passively and wait for people to find you.

And posting things on your website is a POOR substitute! Senior scholars do not have time to go hanging about the internet! The website is really a relatively ineffective self-promotion tool for a young scholar seeking a job or tenure, and very time consuming to develop.

No, senior scholars are usually very paper-centric, still. Send them paper and a note. It works.

Second, this is one of the finest methods available for starting to collect your stable of potential tenure letter writers. You cannot have explicitly collaborated with your future letter writers. You can’t have been colleagues or friends. But you want to make sure that you have a collection of 6-10 people who are broadly familiar with your work and impressed enough with you to write the superlatives you need for tenure. Sharing of your work is an excellent method of beginning that process.

Now, to the comments and their obsolete mind-set.

The Professor believes that it is criminal when tenured faculty members admonish junior people and job-seekers against using every means available to promote themselves and their work.

The Professor believes that it is criminal when professors judge and dismiss job seekers’ efforts to strategize a job trajectory in this appalling economy by calling them “games,” “ploys,” and “gaming the system.”

The Professor believes that it is criminal when professors suggest, in this day and age, that a job- or tenure- seeker’s primary task is to “advance academe as a whole” rather than their own careers.

A comment stream is one thing. But the advising that takes place in professors’ offices across the country is another. And far, far too common in those offices is the attitude of the commenters above. In imposing this obsolete and irresponsible world-view, these professors are handicapping their advisees and practically guaranteeing that they finish their Ph.D. without job or career.

At the tail end of my own graduate school days, when I had already received my tenure track job offer at Oregon, but was lamenting that I had just missed a far, far better one at an Ivy League, my most beloved professor, who was actually in English (he was my external committee member), said to me, one day in his office, “God, Karen, don’t be so careerist.”

I was shocked, infuriated, and disappointed. And also confused. Why would I not prefer the highest ranking, highest paid, most prestigious, most generously supported job I could get?  The job with generous built-in leave time?  The job with a mortgage subsidy?  Why would anyone not set out to get that? I was thrilled with the tenure track offer that I had, of course, but why would I not also grieve what might have been?

That exchange stayed with me, and rankles me still. It was in the 1990s, when things were already REALLY bad on the market, although nothing compared to today.

And he was wrong. The commenters I quote above are wrong. It is not gamesmanship or careerism to want and go after the best job you can get.

Promote yourself. And don’t look back.

Should I Do an Edited Collection?


Let me say it again: No.

Let’s put it a different way:

You: But, it’s just the papers from a conference panel. Is it ok then?

Me: No.

You: But, I’m co-editing it, so I don’t have to do all the work. Is it ok then?

Me: No. And, please, co-editing? Are you kidding me?

You: But all I have to do is collect and edit the papers and write an Intro. Is it ok then?

Me: No. And you’re doing all this and don’t even have a chapter in it? Are you kidding me?

You: But I’ll have a book for tenure.

Me: No, you won’t. Edited collections don’t count.

You:  But it’ll get me a job.

Me:   You want to know what’ll get you a job?  A REFEREED JOURNAL ARTICLE IN THE TOP JOURNAL IN YOUR FIELD.  Write that!  Write two of them!  Hell, you can write a whole effing monograph in the time you are going to waste fighting with your contributors, waiting for the external reviewers, arguing with your lame press, agonizing over the copy-editing, and trying to market the book because your lame press doesn’t spend a dime in advertising.

You: Really?

Me: Yes.

You: An editor from a really great press I never heard of actually got in touch with me! And asked me to do it! Is it ok then?

Me: No, and never, ever, ever accept an offer of publication from someone from a press you’ve never heard of. Or even a press you have heard of, if they come chasing after you. It’s the prom, sweetheart. Don’t go with the first person who asks you (unless they’re the dream date you’ve been waiting for). Do the work, and get yourself into position to get the date you really want.

You: But I am already committed.

Me: Get out of the commitment.

You: But it’s my friends.

Me: Have drinks with your friends. Go to Vegas with your friends. Do not waste your precious writing and research time gathering up and, god forbid, editing, your friends’ questionable essays and volunteering unpaid, uncredited time to get your friends a publication. And by the way, their chapter in your edited collection is barely going to do them any good either.

You: But I’m going to go ahead and do this edited collection.

Me: It’s your funeral.

How to Build Your C.V.

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

Today’s post is another Special Request post, this time for Ana, who had a question about c.v.s.   What is the best way to organize and write an academic c.v? she wonders. She also asks if I know of any special tech tools for create a kind of “master” c.v. that could then be tailored to jobs, grants, etc.

I have to admit that I do not know of any such tools. But what about you, my readers? Have you found an app or some fabulous geeked out system for collecting and organizing your c.v. material? Kind of like a c.v. Endnotes? Please comment below if you do. We would all like to know.

What i do know is that lo, so many years ago, when I was a young assistant professor, I received a piece of wisdom from a respected senior colleague. That colleague was a model of productivity, and she liked me, and wanted to see me succeed.  This piece of advice was not a trick for organizing c.v. s but rather a trick for thinking about them.

She told me, early in my first year in the department, “make sure that each month you add another line to your c.v.”

Each month I add another line to my c.v.? Yikes. Really?

That sounded impossible. But she did it, sure enough, and her c.v. was a thing to behold.

She said, “this is not going to be hard for you.”

And she was right.

By the time I added on the national conferences I attended every year, and the talks on campus, and the guest lectures, and my new classes taught, and small campus grants, and new graduate students, and article manuscripts, and local and national committees, and the reviewing I did for journals and presses, I did have 9 new items a year (she didn’t count summers). Heck, sometimes I had a lot more than 9 new items a year.

It wasn’t that hard.

The key was, to keep my c.v. in mind at all times. When I had to make choices about how to spend my time, which requests to accept, when to say no, and so on, I thought about my c.v., and thought about the line. Did I want the line? Did I need the line? Was it a good line? Was there a better line? It was an amazingly clarifying exercise.

Sure I did things to be collegial, things that didn’t translate into c.v. lines. I helped out colleagues. I went the extra mile for students (sometimes). I was a good department citizen. But I was focused. I knew what my goal was. And that goal was tenure.

As my career went on, I had the opportunity to see many c.v.s of many peers from my own and other institutions. And I realized that few of those peers had received this kind of advice. They most definitely had not been adding a c.v. line each month.

And a lot of those peers were struggling. They weren’t getting the jobs they wanted. They weren’t getting the grants. They weren’t getting tenure.

They didn’t seem to put two and two together.

C.V.s are not just records that passively reflect the things that you “happen to do.” They are records that you actively, consciously, and conscientiously build. You watch your c.v., you think about it, you nurture it. You ask, is it where it should be right now, this month, related to the goals I want to reach this year? If not, take action that very day to change it. Finish that half-done article. Submit for a grant. Apply to a conference. Volunteer for a talk.

Take charge of your c.v. To me it matters less how well-tailored it is to this application or that. What matters is that it is a document that shows your pride in your work, your passion, and your motivation.

How Women Can Speak Better in Public: Stop Apologizing and Get a Career

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


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

Authority: The Key to Academic Speaking

Women at all levels of the academic trajectory, from graduate school through tenure, all too frequently speak like wimps.

Ie, in ways that come across as insecure, hesitant, diffident, and non-authoritative.

Women graduate students and junior faculty with whom I’ve worked routinely start with what they “don’t know,” then apologize for “not knowing” it, then make excuses for “not knowing” it, then apologize for making excuses, then feebly advance a claim so clouded in caveats that it is barely recognizable as a scholarly argument, then trail off in vague  queries as to whether “it was clear or not.”

All the while fiddling with their jewelry, fussing with their hair, smiling too much, laughing awkwardly, and glancing anxiously around the room.

You don’t do that, you say?  Maybe you don’t and that’s good.

But more likely you do and just don’t know it.  Because nobody has ever called it out for what it is:  women’s learned patterns of deference to (male) authority.

Let me say that again, louder:


For women in academia, this is a career-killer.  Academic legitimacy is based on scholarly authority.  To the extent that you fail to express yourself authoritatively (which doesn’t mean obnoxiously, by the way) you make yourself invalid as a scholar.

The best way to explain the contrast between deferential and authoritative speech is through role play.  In the following videos I demonstrate first, the deferential woman scholar, and second, the authoritative woman scholar, confronting a fairly hostile challenge to their work.

I play both roles, first the challenger, then the speaker.  Because I initially framed the video as a job talk Q & A session, where stakes are high, egos on full display, and muted aggression common, I am in high defense mode.  Naturally this can be toned down for a graduate seminar or conference.  The basic message, however, remains the same.

The hostile questioner attacks the speaker’s argument, which, she claims, “flies directly in the face of the central thesis advanced by “Nelson.”  Nelson, we are given to understand, is an extremely well known and influential person in the field (Nelson is total fiction, not based on any real individuals, living or dead).

****Be aware, that in neither case has the speaker read the new article by Nelson.  This is all pure performance.****

(Please excuse their low production quality. I hope to improve on this as we move forward at The Professor Is In. The glare on my glasses is annoying, I know.)

The Deferential Public Speaker

Video 1: (if it is missing below, please click here)

The Authoritative Public Speaker

Video 2:  (if it is missing below, please click here)

Never Apologize!

Some might call this bluffing, but it is not. The speaker shows a calm substantive command of the literature in her field, and has a confident sense of her own distinct place within it.

She never needs to apologize for not having read something! She does not need to read every piece of writing in her field to understand its basic organization and politics. She can improvise with both substance, and style.

The goal in all such encounters is to stand up for yourself. Nothing more, nothing less. In this particular case, the message is:   Nelson is important, I am not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him.  In short, I am an important young scholar.

Confident, relaxed body language, firm, fearless eye contact, and a declarative tone…. all of these say, in academic code, “you talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to ME?”

And then finish strong:   NOT, feebly, “did that answer your question??” but with firm, healthy boundaries: “Next Question?”

**Regular readers will have noticed that this post is strangely similar to Wednesday’s post, “Deflecting the Hostile Question at a Job Talk!” I realized that my point in that post was really something larger and much more important—how WOMEN, specifically, talk like wimps. So I’m revised the post, and reposted it here.**

Is Your Writing Better Than Waffles?

Last week, I was working on a client’s materials. We were on something like draft #4 of her dissertation abstract, following on weeks of work on her c.v. and job letter. She’d been working hard, and her materials showed it.

It was Sunday morning, and I was working at the kitchen table, which is the warm weather office space of TPII. Come colder temperatures, I’ll be forced to migrate down to my basement office so that the family can once again eat dinner inside.

I opened her document. I read the first sentence. “Oh nooooooo,” I cried to myself, “Noooo! Not like this!!! This is all wrong! Jargony, wordy, abstract, and convoluted! Didn’t we already already go over all this???”

I clutched my head (literally) in despair, groaned, and then quickly dashed off an email. “You’ve got to rewrite this, especially the first sentence— I’m going to leave this until you get me a new draft.” “No problem!” she wrote back instantly, email being a live-chat-like experience with my clients when they’re working down in the trenches on a piece of writing. “But I’ve got to run to work now so I’ll give you something new later this afternoon.”

I moved on and did other things.

An hour later, I felt a nagging sense of guilt—had I been unjust, and overhasty, in my condemnation of the sentence? Was it really that bad? And did it justify postponing a reading of the whole piece? I re-opened the document.

I re-read the first sentence. Yes, it really was that bad. It was just a bad sentence. She’d fallen back on all of her old writing habits—the ones we’d spent weeks, through revision after revision, identifying and eradicating.

But this time I kept reading, and what did I find? After that sentence, a beautifully crafted, expertly-written dissertation abstract. An abstract that displayed ALL of the skills that this client had gained over the past weeks. An abstract that was, frankly, spectacular.

How did I miss this? I wondered (as I quickly dashed off another email, that said, in essence, “mea culpa, sorry I unnecessarily freaked you out right before work!”)

I thought back to the moment an hour earlier when I’d first opened the file.

At that exact moment, my 10 year old son and his sleepover buddy had just run into the kitchen, chattering loudly, chasing the rabbit, knocking a plate onto the floor, shattering it, and demanding waffles for breakfast.

“You can make pancakes yourselves,” I had said, as I do, every Sunday morning. “But weeee doooon’t waaaaant tooooo” was the response. “Weeee waaaannttt YOOUUUU tooo maaake WAAAFFLES.” “Yeah, well, too bad,” I replied, “I’m busy. I’m sure your pancakes will be delicious.”

At that moment my partner walked into the kitchen, took in the scene—boys milling, me frowning at my laptop, typing furiously—and quietly took out the waffle-iron. She browned some sausage we had in the fridge, fried some eggs, and mixed up some waffles. Acutely conscious of the studied silence I nevertheless continued typing away. I didn’t ask her to make waffles! I told myself. I never said we’d have waffles. This is not my responsibility! My partner studied the growing pile of dishes in the sink. I kept typing. I shall continue, I told myself: this is important! But it was no good. My mind was now firmly in that kitchen, irritatedly aware of the boys, now spilling syrup on the deck furniture outside, and guiltily conscious of the judgment emanating from the general area of the sink.

That’s how I missed it. When only half your brain (and half is really generous here) is on the piece of writing, you miss things.

Why mention this on the blog? Because, dear readers, this is all too often how your job and grant materials are read. Especially now that so many job and grant applications are online. No longer do reviewers go into a small, airless office to pore intently through manila folders. Now, they access these documents online, usually from anywhere. And certainly women faculty, and any faculty with children, will be doing a LOT of this work at home, sometimes, right there at the kitchen table.

If your piece of writing—whatever it is— doesn’t sparkle from the first sentence, grab that reader, impress her, engage her, inspire her to keep reading, flow naturally and seamlessly into a paragraph and then into an essay built on dynamic argument, fine-toothed organization, and vivid, energetic wordcraft….if it doesn’t do those things, your piece of writing will be firmly closed, placed into the reject box, and never opened again.

Your piece of writing is competing with chattering children, ringing phones, pinging text messages, the teenager flouncing, the waffles burning and the partner judging. Above all, the partner… asking, once again: Really? You really can’t stop that for 10 minutes and make breakfast? I’d just like to point out that you didn’t wash the dishes last night, after dinner, like you promised, and now there are twice as many in the sink. But don’t worry. I’ll just get those. Really, it’s my pleasure.

There is no room in this wired age of non-existent boundaries for leisurely contemplation, at least not of your application materials.

I caught myself (why, I’m still not exactly sure) and had the time and inclination to go back and double-check. You can’t count on that. Actually, you can more safely count on the opposite. Most faculty on a selection committee are far too time-stressed to give any application more than a few minutes apiece. Anything in the first sentence and first paragraph has got to be beyond good—it’s gotta be genius. And by genius, I mean: substantive (no filler), concise (no rambling), direct (no digressions), simple (but not simplistic), dynamic (not stagnant) and—the word that all of my clients will recognize—punchy. What is punchy? It is writing that reaches off the page and grabs the reader’s collar and DEMANDS that they keep reading. And writing is rarely born punchy. No, it gets punchy in one way—editing and revising, editing and revising, editing and revising.

Your application materials need to be punchy enough, from the very first word, to beat the waffles.

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.