Job Market Prep as Therapy

For many, many clients, working with The Professor Is In on their job documents and interviews ends up having an intense, and totally unexpected, therapeutic effect.  People have described the work as “transformative,” and “life-changing.”  This email that Kellee and I received this week is the most thorough description of how this therapeutic effect works.

I share this today not just because it’s a terrific, poignant, funny, and well-written story of how one woman overcame the psychic damage of Ivy League graduate training to reclaim her sense of self, but also to urge anyone who is hesitant about doing the work of job market preparation to just get over yourself and do it.  It is a critical investment not just in your job market performance, but in your mental health.  I have come to understand, from the testimonials of so many clients like this one, that it is one of the most efficient and direct means imaginable of confronting, head on, your lingering fears and feelings of failure, and setting them behind you in a newly formed identity directed away from the past and toward the future. You don’t have to do this job market preparation with Kellee and me, but do it with somebody.  Not because you’re “careerist” and “instrumentalizing,” but because you care about yourself and your future.

And anyone reading this who is a graduate advisor…  think about what you might want to do differently to help your advisees feel supported instead of crushed.


Dear Karen and Kellee —

I’ve been thinking a lot about Interview Intervention over the past few weeks.  It was such a meaningful, empowering experience for me.

First of all, I want to say thank you to Kellee for fitting me in at 6 a.m. — I can’t imagine being not only awake, but alert, interested, and ready for business so early.  Thank you for being all of those things.

I was really nervous about the boot camp.  I didn’t sleep the night before, I was so nervous.  I’d read, of course, that it was rough for people, that they cried, that you were honest and direct, and it was a painful experience.  Obviously, I was expecting the worst.  Because I’d had plenty of (demoralizing) experience with that kind of criticism and I was worried I was setting myself up for another crushing interaction with The Academy.  This time without access to affordable grad student therapy.

As for the why and wherefore, I’m just going to jump in.  It’s probably going to be really long.

I finished my PhD in May 2013.  I’d been in grad school for 10 years, the first six of which were absolutely the worst years of my life.  No question.  I started out at [Ivy League], in the [Humanities] Department.  When I mention this to other people in the field, they groan.  Universally.

It was not the right place for me.  In fact, I knew it was a mistake the first day I stepped onto campus in 2003, a very intimidated, anxious, and almost pathologically shy 23 year old with absolutely no idea about anything, let alone how to survive in a combative, critical, absolutist Department.  But they had lobbied hard to get me, I was their first choice, and I felt like I should be able to make it work.  I should be able to do it.  It was all my fault, if it didn’t work.  Of course, it didn’t work.

But I hung on for six long, defeating years.  I was a terrible grad student: I had chronic incompletes (I turned in one paper 5 years late), I avoided the Department at all costs, I had panic attacks any time I came to campus.  My one goal in life was to avoid anyone and everyone in [my department].  Because it would only remind me of how shit I was at being the kind of grad student they wanted and how I was disappointing so many people, wasting so much time and money.  I was angry, too.  At myself, at the Department, at the University, at everything … I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t figure out how to make the situation better.  I felt like shit.  I was a failure at the one thing that I’d ever been good at: being a student, the thing that had gotten me out of my hometown in Washington, where the high school told us college was a waste of time and money.

With the benefit of hindsight (and many years of therapy), I can finally see that I was doing the best I could.  But between the fog of anxiety, a chronic (and long undiagnosed) hormone imbalance, and at least two major depressive episodes … I just couldn’t do much better than hang on, however miserably.

My evaluation at the end of that first year was one sentence: Needs to participate more in seminar.  Now, I’ve never been good in large-group discussions.  Never.  Not in high school, not in college.  I get nervous, my mind goes blank, and I just can’t do it.  It was something I didn’t know how to fix, I didn’t know how to improve or what to do or why I couldn’t just talk.  I felt helpless.  It became just another failure in a long list of Things I Could Not Do Right.

There were other problems, too, of course.  My advisor and I didn’t communicate effectively; I didn’t know I’d been in bad academic standing for a while … and I lost my funding in 2008.  My advisor dropped me without telling me, despite assurances that I could still defend a dissertation in the Department (I hadn’t lost degree candidacy).  For years, this was my defining failure: that I had to leave [Ivy League] with only an MA (and a sympathy MA, at that) after six years.

Thanks to some very good friends, I didn’t give up entirely.  I got in touch with a professor who’d left [Ivy League] for [Elite East Coast University] after my first year.  She listened, she sympathized, she told me to apply to [her department].  So I started there in 2009, with her as my advisor.  And I started over: I took three semesters of coursework and did the PhD qualifying exams again.  I turned in every paper on time.  I thrived: I won awards, was invited to work on interesting projects with interesting people, I even started talking in seminar a bit.  And I wrote a dissertation, the one I’d started in 2007.

So the PhD came to mean a lot more than just the professional qualification.  Finishing is the hardest fucking thing I’ve ever done, but I did it.  I can’t tell you how proud I am of that.  I told my first advisor, in my very worst year, that I would finish.  And I did.

I even got a first job, a VAP position in [my field] at an R1 institution.  It’s a teaching job, but it’s a job.

Problem is, this history made me even more anxious about the job market.  Because I was carrying around this failure, which I was convinced I had to keep a deep dark secret if I was ever going to get hired.

So when Kellee took my anxiety in stride, and told me that sure, it was an issue but one I could deal with and practice and improve … it blew my mind.  Just to be listened to and not judged and not be told that I would never get a job because I struggle with interviewing: I couldn’t believe it.  She was so matter of fact about this Thing that I’d told myself was bad and impossible and unfixable.  Actually, it wasn’t any of those things.

What I didn’t expect was how kind Kellee would be.  I’d been terrorizing myself thinking Intervention would be [Ivy League] all over again.  It wasn’t.  She listened, she gave me some strategies to deal with the anxiety, she helped me to formulate responses and organize ideas.  She was patient.  Most importantly, she let me be nervous.  She told me it would be okay, even if I was nervous in interviews.  She reminded me that I can say, “I know my dissertation sounds weird” — in short, that I can be myself, nerves and all, and still have an okay interview.  Maybe not an effortless, easy breezy beautiful Covergirl kind of interview, but nonetheless an interview that just might get me hired.

Turns out, I don’t have to keep repeating this exhausting Wagnerian [Ivy League] drama each and every interview.  I can shut up the voice of XX XXXX — head and Superego of the [Ivy League] Department, figure of so many anxiety dreams — and speak with authority about what I do and how I do it.

I wasn’t that person any more.  Cheesy as it may sound, the Intervention let me confront that [Ivy League] version of myself — the failed, sick, sad, and lost kid — and finally put her away.  Not just because I’m ten years older.  Somehow, Interview Intervention was the end station in a long, long, so long process of moving on.  And coming a bit closer to accepting myself as the person and scholar I am, not the one I feel I should be or could have been.  Even if I do still curse at [Ivy League] stickers on cars and donation requests from the Alumni Association.

My heartfelt thanks for the experience.  Working with you both has been challenging, but so rewarding in ways I didn’t expect.

All the best,


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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Job Market Prep as Therapy — 7 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I had a somewhat similar experience with doctoral study in a different discipline in a top-ranked department at another elite university. You articulate so well what I have been feeling.

    I have found working on my application materials for academic jobs painful. Here I am, engaging in an act of self-definition after well more than a decade of marination in shame, fear, poverty, and bullsh*t. So, who am I? Who do I want to be? What do I have to offer the world? For what sort of reward?

    Somehow as I have been figuring out answers to these questions–I am not done yet–the impulse to feel grateful should anyone offer me an interview, let alone an academic job, has evaporated. I feel oddly calm. I’ll put my best foot forward and if no one wants what I’ve got to give, I know I can get over it and move on.

  2. I must say that my experience has been quite different. I am extremely grateful for the help, but I find the process more painful and disheartening than anything I’ve gone through in graduate school.

    • Well, I’m glad you’re hanging in with it, dissenting. My feeling in your case, as in some of my other clients, is that your professors allowed bad writing habits to become ingrained, and in this did you a great disservice. However, bad habits can be unlearned, although it is indeed dreadfully painful. I think you’re doing excellent work.

  3. I had this experience too. I try to tell people why I have two MA degrees, and about my experiences at [top dept in my field] and I just feel rotten and horrible and broken. When the alumni donation request letters come I want to burn them. When I hear someone went there, I become angry and emotional. I have difficulty dealing with my colleagues who were successful there. I almost dropped out of academia altogether after my experience at [top dept], after I had a nervous breakdown… but when my anxiety doesn’t get the best of me I love my work. XXXX, author of this letter? If you’re out there reading this, you’re not alone. I asked a question in seminar at my current university last week and panicked so hard I don’t know if I actually spoke a coherent sentence. My brain kind of “whited out”, as it does.

    My dept chair (kindly) refers to me as the most anxious student ever to cross the threshold of his office. And he had that experience too. Now known as one of the smartest people in our field, he couldn’t get a job when he graduated from [another top dept in our field] because his anxiety led to him choking during interviews. He kept trying, and he made it.
    We can DO this.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s always good to be reminded that I am not alone in this madness. I was an undergraduate at an elite university and chose later to attend my local state university for my doctoral degree. I didn’t want to return to another highly competitive environment and, so far, this has been a good decision for me. I’m not working with big names in my field but I attend conferences and this has allowed me to make good contacts and keep abreast of the scholarship. I’ve received a number of grants and a dissertation fellowship. But it is still tough–as I now write my dissertation, I’ve had my first panic attacks ever in my life–why DO we do this to ourselves!! Nonetheless, I know my anxiety would be considerable greater in a high-stakes department.

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