Memo to Professors: How Useless Are You? Really?

Regular readers of this blog know that I use this space for focused advice for young academics on overcoming specific pitfalls and challenges in the academic career—how to write an abstract, apply for a grant, deal with a difficult advisor, etc.

I don’t use this space to vent about the injustices of the academy or the cluelessness of its members.

However. There is a first time for everything.

Yesterday I published a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The column, titled “To: Professors; Re: Your Advisees” was fashioned as a “memo” to professors about their graduate students who come to me for help here at The Professor Is In, and an indictment of those same professors for their failure to properly advise their Ph.D.s on the full range of skills required to find tenure-track work in this day and age. Those skills include: writing a proper CV, crafting a brilliant job letter, calculating letter writers, publishing in top-tier journals, effectively working a conference, doing the elevator talk, and so on.

When I was a tenured faculty member on searches I always suspected, and now that I am an academic careers coach I know, that the vast majority of faculty have not only utterly abdicated their responsibility to train their Ph.D.s for actual careers, but heap contempt upon those who speak directly about the need for such skills. “You’re gaming the system,” they cry. “The Ph.D. is not a professional degree.” they intone. “It’s not my job” is the message.

This has enraged me for years—since my own graduate schools days, actually, as you can read here, and I am absolutely thrilled to have written and published that column and gotten my rage at this professorial lack of accountability off my chest at long last.

Being a regular reader of the Chronicle, I expected that the comment stream would be ugly and filled with trolls.

The most startling thing to me about the comment stream that did follow the column is how negative it ISN’T. I mean, yes, it has the usual column:troll ratio of anything published in the Chronicle. But the fury level seems muted, and the insults, frankly, pretty weak.

I’m mystified. Why am I not being villified in hundreds of flaming ad hominem attacks at the same level as Bill Pannapacker, in his pathbreaking columns?

There’s still time, of course.  It may come.

But in any case, there are certainly idiotic comments, and it’s those I wish to talk about it today’s post. I expected fury; I didn’t expect idiocy.

And the pouting….I didn’t expect the pouting.

Like all online writers, I of course was tempted to dive into the fray right there on the comment stream itself, but I was dissuaded by friends and supporters who said, in the words of one delightful Facebook fan, “do not give fools more crumbs than they already scavenged.”

So, here are a few of the critical comments from the column, and what I’d like to say in response:

How could I do all the other aspects of my own job (including but not limited to advising) if I spent my entire day only advising?  Students should get an advisor from their academic institution, but they won’t get a personal career manager, stylist, and coach–not because we don’t value the futures of our students, but because we don’t have the time (and often the expertise) to provide all these individualized services.

You know someone has lost the argument when the best they can come up with is, “I don’t have time.” That’s the answer that you just raise an eyebrow at when it applies to exercising, cooking, or spending time with your children. Call it what it is: evidence you don’t care enough to make it a priority.

How many Ph.D.s do most advisors have? 3? 5? Maybe 10? Not an impossible number when in fact, all you need to do is call one advisee meeting per semester to keep them on track and light fires under their butts about publishing, grants, conferences, and networking.

Laziness. Pure laziness.

Unless they are passionate about their subject (and would almost want to do the research on their own time even if they weren’t paid to do so) they may not have the independent attitude to succeed in their field.  So, I think that the lack of “support” is part of a natural weeding out process. I think that most of the skills that the article states that advising is supposed to teach can be learned independently and their masterly (sic) will not slow down the best students.

A natural weeding out process? Really?  This is not med school, people.

I do get frustrated with graduate students who don’t take responsibility for their own career prospects, and ask, constantly, “What’s coming at the end of this? What do I need to do to prepare? What is the capital that has value on this market? How do I accrue it?”

But to justify a refusal by advisors to promote their Ph.D.s’ best interests by every means possible, the Ph.D.s who have taught their classes and invested in their department for 5-10 years, as a natural weeding out process? Are you kidding me?   It goes without saying that this is just another iteration of the truly evil “love” cop-out: that you do it because you “love” it and true love can’t be measured by money.  That is the biggest lie of them all.

Take 5% of the time that you devote to your tiresome blah blah about the juxtaposition of structure and agency in the last third of chapter four of the dissertation…and spend it going over your student’s CV! And having them deliver the elevator talk—it IS only 2 minutes long, remember—that’s why it’s called an ELEVATOR TALK. Tell your students that they won’t get effing shortlisted unless they have at least one refereed journal article, and then tell them how to convert that chapter four into one of those.

All that? That takes about 15 minutes. Yeah. Not gonna kill ya.

What do most faculty members know about the job market? What do most faculty members know about writing cover letters or following up on interviews? Most of them have been on the job market once or twice, and they have only their own experience – often decades old – to go on. They are almost never given any training by their institutions in career advising. They don’t have a treasure trove of helpful connections or proven strategies. All they can really draw on is their experience on search committees, which really only helps in finding a job at their own institutions.

You don’t know how? You don’t know how? Are you effing kidding me? NOBODY TAUGHT ME HOW TO DO THIS. My advisor and my department were utterly, completely, shamelessly indifferent to the job prospects of their Ph.D.s. I failed embarassingly on the job market my first year, and put myself through an intensive bootcamp, using every research skill I had gained as a cultural anthropologist, to uncover the real requirements of the academic job market, and learn to master them myself.

How many searches do faculty members serve on, anyway? Once I was on the other side of the table, I had an unending stream of learning materials at my fingertips, every year, on how to get, and how to not get, a tenure track job. From the cover letter to the conference interview to the campus visit and the job talk…. every year I had a new set of evidence on what works and what doesn’t. All of that, instantly, was turned around into knowledge that I shared with my own Ph.D. Advisees. We would deconstruct every job talk afterward, often by email. “Good God, what was that???” Followed by, “Did you see what he did? Did you? Did you see how he flubbed that question? Now how would you have answered it?”

Again, not hard, not onerous, and not time-consuming. In fact, it was actually fun. Imagine that.

Given her demonizing of faculty, I wonder if Dr. Kelsky has always shown such diligence in advising students throughout her career? If so, I would love to hear more about how she managed her duties and provided this level of career counseling for students as a faculty member.

I was a tenured professor with a joint appointment in two departments and a department head (with two children to boot and a life disintegrating in a horrific multi-year custody case), and I managed to make sure all my advisees published before finishing, attended national conferences yearly, organized high profile panels, applied for and won the most prestigious grants in their fields, learned how to wear a suit, could shake hands firmly, and could talk intelligently, engagingly, and briefly, about their research. This is not rocket science.

Remember, too, faculty do not get compensated to do career counseling–if they do the stuff you do, they would be doing if “for free.” Why should they? It’s not a matter of arrogance or elitism (necessarily), but good old-fashioned rationality.

Professors do a whole bunch of shit for free. They publish articles for free. They write books for free. They serve on committees for free. They attend departmental potlucks for free. And…they already advise students. So why is this one thing—this “tacking on” of a little bit of additional advising to an already existing advising relationship—too onerous to be done for free? Why indeed.

We have a lot of unemployed PhDs right now, especially in the humanities, but I think it’s important to consider that a lot of schools that really have no business offering the PhD are giving it.  How many unemployed PhDs went to mediocre graduate programs?  If you’re thinking of going to graduate school and you’re not applying to, say, the BEST English departments in the United States, yes, you will be unemployed.

LOL. This one unleashed such hounds as there were on the comment stream. It’s so over-the-top clueless that it was mostly just funny.  And many commenters rebutted its exuberant elitism just fine.

But for the sake of thoroughness I want to state clearly: it’s the Ivy Leagues that far and away do the worst job of career training of Ph.D.s.

I saw it as a grad student, I saw it as a faculty member on search committees, and I see it now as Dr. Karen. The Ivy Leagues are simply appalling in their utter abdication of responsibility for the career prospects of their Ph.D.s. And the high second tier schools, large state R1s and R2s—they’re not much better, but they are better. Why? Because there’s no monumental sense of entitlement getting in the way. In the old days, undoubtedly the Ivy League pedigree was a total advantage on the job market, and its holders probably did not have to scramble and professionalize. But right now, the abysmal job market has had an interesting democratizing effect: Ivy Leaguers are as screwed as everybody else. And it’s the candidates who publish, and network, and self-promote, and organize, and scramble, and so on and so on, who get the jobs. And by and large, those candidates are not from the Ivy Leagues.

Their [Professors’] job is to toe the company line and that line is very often far afield of contemporary realities or even the student’s best interests. Everyone that gets all of the help they need from their faculty should continue to do so.  For all of those who are being ignored, fed lies, or subjected to academic malpractice – there are folks out here happy to take some money for what the university can’t seem to, or won’t, provide.

This one said it best. It’s academic malpractice. Nobody would accept these excuses from their doctors, and doctors would be sued for such negligence.

I’m sorry that there is such a devastating need for my services.  I’m happy to have created a successful business providing them.  I like seeing people succeed.  It gratifies me.  And I’m glad that the column prompted so many commenters to show their true stripes, and admit to the truth: they are too lazy, too entitled, and too selfish to lift a finger from their tiny, myopic intellectual fiefdom to be bothered learning the skills to help their Ph.D.s find real work.

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Memo to Professors: How Useless Are You? Really? — 21 Comments

  1. I’m an avid fan of your blog and think you’re doing a great job for the profession on a number of levels, not the least of which is deciphering the bull and the hypocrisy within the field. I will say, though, to both disagree with you and pay you a backhanded compliment, is that the ignorance that professors have today about both the job market and advising is not always so easily written off. The advice you give is highly specialized and represents a finely tuned skill that not all professors have, nor is it something they can learn if they just “cared more.” Some professors are better teachers than scholars. Some are better editors than others who are better collaborators.

    Mentoring is a skill akin to counseling; some have it and some don’t. That shouldn’t be an excuse, of course. Bad teachers still have to teach. Bad mentors still have to mentor, and professors should be trained to do so. But there’s no real training for this and often they’ve just inherited a system equally ignorant (or dismissive) of mentoring. I would hope professors would do right by their students, but sometimes it’s not fixed by devoting more time or care to it.

    In fact, if you’re looking to expand your practice, you might consider offering seminars directed to faculty on how best to mentor their students while making reasonable demands on their schedule as they go for tenure, write their books, and the like. This might be tremendously helpful to schools looking to improve their placement rates.

    • I hear you… and am willing to entertain your point. But seriously, as I was writing today’s post, i got to thinking that the crux really is: ALL professors serve on search committees repeatedly over their career. They *know* what gets you hired and what doesn’t. I get that not everyone has a cultural anthropologist’s attention to micro-practices of speaking and behavior, but the teaching opportunities that are offered every year (or at least, used to be, before the economic meltdown) to see successful and unsuccessful t-t candidates are available to all faculty members. The “I don’t know how” excuse is truly, truly a paradigmatic expression of “sanctioned ignorance.” We need a postcolonial critique of faculty as the elite. Not as elitist (which is overdone), but as, actually, the elite, who are maintaining their position through a complex series of silences and evasions.

  2. Thanks, Karen! Your memo hit home. @Ivy and no advice from my advisor on: CV, networking, job search, options, relevant career issue.

  3. I really appreciate your response to the Ivy League Snob, both here and on the original post. I totally agree. I have friends at top ten programs, and I feel like I’ve gotten much better mentorship. Being at an up-and-coming (as we like to call it) program means that our faculty puts a ton of work into professionalizing us. It’s not always perfect, but I felt pretty well prepared for the market last year.

    I’d also think the tide is shifting a bit. I agree that Ivy Leaguers are as screwed as everyone else. And from my limited perspective, it seems like they might have a harder time in some ways. A lot of my friends at more prestigious programs have done no or very little teaching. And time and again that seems to hamper their ability to get jobs at places where you have to teach increasing numbers of students. For a lot of folks at my program on the market, being able to say that we’ve been teaching our own classes for 6 years is a big advantage (not that there aren’t other problems with the ways universities exploit grad student labor. . .).

  4. From your mouth to God’s ear–or at least, from your blog to dissertation advisers everywhere!

    But I suspect that the ongoing crisis of the academic job market has produced a certain detachment. Every institution of higher learning is producing more Ph.D. candidates than there are jobs; we all know it. In a bad job market, it is all the more crucial that Ph.D. students learn to play the game and make themselves as marketable as possible, but the bad job market means that no matter how hard everyone pulls (candidate and advisors and mentors), some people aren’t going to make it. The more effort advisors put into to the process, the more likely they are to find that their efforts come to naught–especially if EVERYONE starts putting that much savvy into the process of getting their students into TT jobs. If only more people working harder and more effectively were enough to create more tenure track lines! But the demand stays the same–while your advice could substantially increase not only the supply but the quality of the supply.

    I dunno–if I were in a position to advise grad students, I too would be tempted to believe in the “natural weeding out” advising model and focus my efforts where I know they will produce results–in my own research.

  5. I don’t know about the American system in this regard but in Australasia universities have careers services – often but not always a large and well funded one. These offices focus on various things depending on how good the staff and leadership are and the strategy of the institution. The most well respected ones spend a lot of their time up selling their graduates in the market place.

    I wonder if they need to be doing more of what you are doing here instead or as well? Instead of selling the cross-purpose skills of the PhD maybe they need to be teaching some. They tend to focus on undergrads and hope that supervisors (advisors) or the graduate school/s will do the work with training PhDs in career skills. Maybe careers centres need to be working with academics and students to focus on the academic job market and start teaching some of these skills as part of the PhD training and support programmes which are compulsory at most institutions.

    If this support was offered centrally in the basics then advisors would only need to engage with existing learning processes to provide their more detailed knowledge of the discipline specifics (such as differences in conference etiquette, top journals, who you should be networking with and so on). If candidates were already being engaged in this thinking by the institution they themselves would bring it up and ask for this more specific advice. This would also place less of a burden on supervisors themselves perhaps making it easier for them to engage with the specifics if someone else was promoting the transferable skills.

    It would also help foster a professional network creating a space for more literature from and for those professionals. In the same way as student learning advisors have created a whole research lead community looking at research and writing skills transference the same thing might happen for academic career advice. And the more literature there is out there the more likely people are to pick it up and start using it in their own pedagogy.

    Then again maybe I’m just an idealist who thinks that the university should be working for and with its students and academics rather than treating them as a faceless yet marketable commodity.

  6. OMG- I think I love you. Seriously. I just found your blog via the Chronicle article. Holy wow!

    I recently spoke with an acquaintance at a top ten program who was aghast when I told him that my advisor never had the talk with me that I need to try to publish in more prestigious places (to be fair, he has been on me to publish… he just didnt tell me that it needed to be in the top tier journals). I had an epiphanie then and there… I realized that one characteristic of my advisor which seemed like an attribute at the time was that he is a nice guy. He has never tried to push his ideas on me… his advising style has been largely driven by me…. (this is his style, he says that different advisees need different things). I think in the end, it ended up being a disservice. I think I needed someone to have the “come to jesus” talk with me several years ago.

    I’m on the job market and am confronting the very real possibility that the last 8 years I spent doing a PhD may have just ended up being an expensive, time consuming, life draining hobby. This realization thrills me to no end.

    • The nice advisor is the downfall of countless graduate students. I devote my number one slot to the nice advisor in my post, “The 5 Top Traits of the Worst Advisors”

      As I said in that post, if you haven’t cried at least once before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss.

      What I mean is, when you go in and say, “I’ve submitted an article for publication,” the nice advisor says, “how wonderful! Go out to dinner with your husband to celebrate! I know a great restaurant!” The toxic advisor says, “give me a break, you don’t have anything good enough to publish.” But the fierce, effective advisor says, “what journal did you submit it to? Oh? So, you know that’s a second tier journal? Why did you submit it there? You’re going out on the market next year, and you already have one article in a second tier journal from last year. What you need this year is a top-tier article. You should have come and talked to me first. What else do you have to send out somewhere better now?” You might cry from disappointment there, or later. But trust me, THAT is an advisor who is actually dedicated to helping you get a job.

      • Yes… I realize this. Seems as if I should have happened upon your blog and your service about 5 years ago. But on the upside, I am learning what not to do when I begin advising. 🙂

        On a side note: I may be doing a post-doc- which if this is the case, I think I will be enlisting your services to make sure I get the most out of it. Your blog is awesome- thanks for being a truthful voice out there…

        • Dear Karen.

          I published my first article on a first-tier journal in my field before coming to the job market mainly BECAUSE of my advisor. I considered my research unworthy (and that’s why some send it to second-tier). My advisor said: send your article to me. Advisor revised it twice with VERY PROPER suggestions before being submitted. It was accepted with editorial suggestions for improvement.

          I was able to do it because MY ADVISOR was very supportive, and behing my back ALL THE TIME, responding to emails the same or next day, and reading every single page I sent carefully with comments…. I agree with you: those in my Department who had “nice advisors” (and you sure know ALL of them…) had a hard time getting any email back, any page read….but they kept with them because “they were so nice”…

          Warning: If you advisor does not reply to your email within 48 hours, you are not a priority. If advisor neglects your emails more than 3 times: RUN!. Really, RUN! Before it is too late. For some people around me, it was too late (i.e, getting into the market with an advisor who never cared and did not care now…)

          • great, great example of how the system is supposed to work (and yet so rarely does). thanks for the voice from the front.

  7. I fully agree with and appreciate your article (both the original and these replies). I think one additional point for those who don’t think they get paid for advising or think that it isn’t worth their time is that one of the best paths to success in your own career is to put out strong students and get them placed in great faculty positions elsewhere — and that won’t happen nearly as often without an adviser’s help. A successful track record with previous students also helps give you your pick of new students.

    • Absolutely, Charles! I’m surprised that nobody pointed this out in the comment stream of the Chronicle article! It’s such a foundational truth of the academic career.

    • In my experience, limited as it is (ABD at a premier R1 in social sciences) this idea of your students somehow impacting your career is limited. My advisor and his colleagues are at a place in their own careers where students no longer impact their careers. We also establish relationships with advisors based solely on intellectual compatibility and its advantage to the diss. I don’t think students are at all aware of a prof’s actual record of job placement. This seems far and secondary to their reputation in the field and how you will be trained as a scholar. Speaking with advanced students on the market also doesn’t help get a sense of a prof’s job placement record because, well, there just is no real expectation that your advisor helps land you a job. We’re taught to think that your advisor helps you get the best intellectual product you can and everything else is up to you.

      Worse, I’ve sat on hiring committees and read tepid letters from advisors about their own students. Sabotage by any other name.

  8. Oh, no, professor. You have forgotten “The work will speak for itself” as a reason that advisors don’t prepare us for career logistics. My advisor, brilliant as he is, golden as his name is, full rank as he is, REPEATEDLY tells me, woman, 29 yrs old, one publication to her name, that my “work” will “speak for itself”. My “food stamps” will also speak for themselves because I still don’t know how to write a proper job letter or sit for an interview. And this is at the premier program in my discipline….

  9. Yesterday I was speaking with a Masters student who is attending an top research university in the area for Engineering. She was applying for federal travel research grant money and wanted me to read her proposal and give feedback. I told her that I was happy to read for grammar, etc., but she should really seek the help of her mentors and advisors in her department for feedback on the content and the context. I said that asking for their feedback would have the added benefits of guiding her in how to write for her field (something I do not know) and allow them to get a better sense of her work so that they may write her letters of recommendation (something required for the funding). Of course told me that she “didn’t want to bother them.” Anyway, she said, “it was hard enough to write the recommendations letters for myself, I’m just having a hard time with starting the proposal.” That’s right. Her professors told her to WRITE HER OWN letters of recommendation and THEY WOULD SIGN IT.

    So, not only are they not advising this student on her writing, her proposal skills, and her research… but they are also not taking the time to write her a letter of recommendation for funding that would get HER money to work on THEIR projects and further her career.

    PLUS, these letters are not confidential nor genuine. Maybe this is something more common in the STET fields? Still, it just seems very wrong.

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  11. I was incredibly lucky in this regard. My advisor pushed me to publish and I had one article published and two in press when I graduated. I had my choice of a couple of post-docs or a tenure track position. When my advisor’s wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness he was (understandably) out of the picture a lot and he asked another person on my committee, a wonderful woman, to step up. She took me to conferences with her and introduced me to a lot of people. Since she was extremely well known in the field, that helped, too.

    I took the tenure track position, by the way, because I had three small children to support. Having left full-time teaching years ago, I now teach in doctoral programs occasionally and I see a problem where there are very many part-time faculty who aren’t around much and the full-time faculty seem over-burdened. It is true that many students greatly underestimate that they will need to do get a tenure track position and don’t want to hear it when I tell them differently.

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