I Don’t Know You

In last week’s Job Offer Digest, one of my successful clients wrote this:

“Still, don’t kid yourself; working with Dr. Karen is hard! It forces you to take a long hard look at yourself, your work, and your presentation of your work. As she knows you ONLY through these documents, the feedback you get from her reflects what a committee will think when evaluating you. This reflection is sometimes harsh but, if you work with her, you have the benefit of improving and learning from each draft. Everything she says WILL make you better. As a result, I am coming out of this whole process more confident and secure in myself and my research.”

This is the crux of my work with clients:  I know you only through the documents. So I’m an excellent stand-in for a search committee reader.

You may be blessed with excellent advisors who are doing their best to help you. I hope you are.  But your advisors KNOW you.  And that means that they are constantly – albeit unconsciously – filling in quantities of information/background/rationalizations as they read your cover letter and other documents.  I don’t blame them for this. I did the same with my own Ph.D. students.  I was not a brilliant advisor by any means.

But as The Professor Is In, I can do something different.  I can look at your job documents with an objective eye. I have no information to add.  I take everything exactly at face value.  If you don’t write it, I don’t know it. If you don’t write it well, I don’t understand it.  If you write too much, I am instantly bored.

I say all this not for marketing purposes, but for explanatory ones.  Many people still wonder what it is I do, and why it has a value beyond what advisors can provide.  This, I think, is the value.  I subject your writing to the judgment of a perfect stranger.  And that is a good thing, although not an easy one.

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I Don’t Know You — 11 Comments

  1. I think this is really helpful, as some of us do have excellent advisors who are hands-on and constructively critical, but do, of course, know us. And, of course, several cohorts of job-seekers have now read your advice. I’m wondering, therefore, if there is a group of clients who are not disasters but need just a little touch-up with the help of an outsider, and if so, whether you can talk about that in more depth. What do you do for folks who come to you with almost there materials, rather than ones in need of wholesale reconstruction? Many posts give a good sense of the disasters you encounter (and save) but not of those who need tweaking. Can you talk about this group (if it exists) and how working with them may be different? Thank you.

    • I know this isn’t the answer you want to hear, but I virtually never encounter a client who needs only a “touch up.” Yes, some are more disastrous than others. But most are still fairly disastrous. There are countless ways to screw up: the length, the organization, the structure, the wording. Then there is the balance of teaching vs. research. Then there is the (lack of) tailoring to the job. Then there are the endless, simply endless, errors of tone: hyper-emotionalism, excessive humility, self-importance, grandiosity. And then there are errors of style: list addiction, word repetition, adjectives in place of arguments. I don’t have exact numbers, but I know the percentage of clients who get passed with fewer than 4 drafts is in the single digits. In those rare events I do refund their unused payment or apply it to other work.

      • Thank you for your reply. I was curious because this post seems to potentially offer a service to those who are almost-there, but it might not be the population that has used your services much previously (and given the crap-shoot of the job market, may consider it even as they’ve had some but not full success). A different market segment, so to speak.

        • I have an incredibly wide range of clients–some are trying for the first time, some have tried for years with no success at all, and then some have gotten really close time and again, and want to take a step to diagnose the problem (which is often actually an interviewing problem) and close the final gap if possible. And then, some clients have wonderful supportive advisors, while some are totally neglected, and some are in between.

          However, none of this variation seems to make much of a difference in our actual work together. Peoples’ documents just tend to be really, really bad (albeit bad in a wide range of different ways–sometimes the writing, sometimes the thinking, sometimes both). Even really supportive advisors seem to have a lot of trouble helping their own Ph.D. students edit down their documents to remove excess and foreground only the actionable facts and evidence that will speak to search committees. Mostly, I think, as I say in this post, because advisors are over-involved in a dialogue WITH the student, and fill in too much backstory unconsciously. Anyway, I just want readers to know that people come to me from all sorts of subject positions, and as long as the client has a good attitude about the work—ie, can take the critique and be willing to change their practices of writing, speaking, and thinking about the job market —I can help, by performing the role of a rather impatient and skeptical search committee stand-in.

  2. As someone who worked with Karen on my cover letter, teaching statement, and research statement, I have to say that the work she and I did together was worth every penny. In fact, her rates are -generous- when compared to the value that I continue to see in the work we did together and in the skills that I have been able to apply to other facets of my professional life.

    It was very, very difficult at times, even despite the fact that I am often my worst critic (not in an insecure way, but in a suspicious “Why is everyone telling me these docs ‘look great!’, but I know they don’t and yet am also not sure what else I can do to fix them?” kind of way). Actually, in the end it was really comforting to know that my intuition about specific areas of my docs was correct, and that most of the time my mentors really -were- just using niceness to blow me off so they could get back to other things.

    Thank you, Karen.

  3. I hear exactly where you are coming from, TBF. Last week, I reached out to Karen to receive help with my cover letter. Prior contacting Karen, my trusted advisors assured me that my letter was great, but deep down in my gut, I know it is NOT. It is waaay to long, It reads like a running log and I don’t know how to fix it, literally. I am looking forward to the TRUTH.

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