Beyond Tenurecentrism (COVID19 Best-Of-Postac Help)

Starting today I will be re-posting the best of our post-academic transition content each week, to 1) help you envision ways of moving on with your PhD in the face of the COVID19 crisis and 2020 academic job market collapse, and 2) get to know some of our splendid team of postac coaches who are available to help you both imagine new futures, and then manifest them.

Today: Beyond Tenurecentrism, by our postac coach Dr. Karen Cardozo.

Karen Cardozo

Bio: Karen Cardozo started in career counseling at Harvard in the 1990’s and returned to the field two decades later. In between, she completed a Masters in Higher Education Administration at Harvard (1993) and PhD in English/American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (2005).  Before, during and after the PhD she worked as a dean at Mount Holyoke and taught a wide range of courses in the Five College Consortium of Western Massachusetts. When a tenure track position didn’t materialize, Karen made a Real-Ac turn back to career development at Williams College, only to then land a tenure-track position in Interdisciplinary Studies at MCLA in the Berkshires, where she introduced a new course on the changing world of work and ultimately gained tenure). Karen was recruited thereafter for the role of Executive Director of Career Development at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. That experience launched her into her current position as AVP of Career Design at Northeastern University in Boston. Karen identifies primarily as a developer of whole human beings, and tries to be one herself by meditating, spending time with her husband and sons, hiking with her dog Sadie, and making music with her band, Show of Cards ( You can email her at or find her on LinkedIn here:

Karen Cardozo’s post-ac consulting philosophy:

With a Masters in Higher Education Administration and a variety of work experiences on 8 different campuses (R1 and SLACs, public and private, single-sex and coed), I have significant institutional knowledge and expertise on Alt-Ac careers as well as related diversity issues. As a generalist MBTI-certified former career counselor, I’m also well-suited to offer a robust diagnostic approach to broader career change possibilities. And because I’m an interdisciplinary scholar currently located in the tenure system, I am well-placed to help you consider the comparative merits of academic versus nonacademic jobs, as well as the transferable potential of your scholarly background. Finally, as an aspiring yogi, singer-songwriter, and parent, I can empathize with and support your larger efforts to compose a satisfying and meaningful life.


Beyond Tenurecentrism

As we learned from the postmodern linguistic turn:  language matters.  It is the container that determines the shape and volume of our thoughts, generating particular realities.  In A Postcapitalist Politics (2006), J.K. Gibson-Graham showed how “capitalocentrism” prevents us from acknowledging the existing diversity of economic arrangements and the different identities of economic actors that result.   By analogy, as I argued in “Contemplating Contingency” (Modern Language Studies Summer 2012) tenurecentrism robs us of meaningful ways to acknowledge the diverse lived experiences of the untenured “new Faculty Majority.”  The terms adjunct, contract/sessional, and non-tenure track each have a significant conceptual flaw. To wit:

The meaning of adjunct as supplemental or inessential fails to acknowledge that the untenured masses are the majority without whom Higher Ed could not function.  In emphasizing short-term employment, “contract” obscures the fact that most “adjuncts” work at the same institutions over significant lengths of time up to and including their entire career. It’s the jobs that are temporary, not the people, most of whom are persistent beyond reason and committed to and fully capable of being professional faculty.

“Non-TT” defines a whole group of individuals by what they are not rather than what they are and therein carries all the false assumptions and descriptive limitations of non-fiction, non-White and other such binary terms that betray the privileged standpoint from which one group confers the “non” designation in the first place. Non-men?  It’s nonsensical!

Similarly, in naming and framing the situation of folks who are wondering whether they should continue to pursue an academic career, I question the implied linear sequence in “post-ac” or second-best fallback in “alt-ac.”  These terms belie the new outlook that graduate students and even tenure track faculty need to maintain from the start, knowing what we now know about the uneven lay of the academic land.  The Track is a failed metaphor.

As Marc Bousquet has made clear, the doctoral system’s only interest lies in reproducing the traditional professoriate while ensuring the continual supply of adjunct and graduate student labor that underwrites both the job structures of Real Professors and the larger institutional infrastructure (How the University Works 2008).

Today, the pursuit of an academic career is best engaged within a larger controlling framework whose mantra from the outset is multiplicity (not a track but a “roundabout,” if you will, with many potential points of ingress and egress).  Acquiring the Ph.D. should not be viewed as an entrance ticket to The Big Show, but more like a highway toll (and oh boy, does it take its toll!)  allowing you to ride to any number of destinations and exit points.  In the same way that the literature on mentoring has reframed the dyadic  senior-junior kinship model of “a” mentor into a more functional and diversified team of mentors (including peers) who meet different needs, today’s graduate students and junior faculty members should view their academic pursuits as only ONE potential career path while genuinely and simultaneously exploring others.  Inefficient?  Maybe.  Necessary? Absolutely.

This new mindset requires assiduous participation in a head game that is antithetical to the disciplinary thinking or single-minded focus that is the hallmark of most doctoral programs. Instead, think of your life as a Windows operating system. The ONLY program that was automatically installed when you matriculated into your graduate program was Preparing for Your Academic Career (and as The Professor has amply argued, that is a shoddy program with a lot of bugs and very few updates).

You will need to download and open other applications, such as Keeping Your Options Open, Acquiring Additional Experiences and Skills, and Building a Broader Network (both within and beyond the academy). Indeed, the most fully disciplined among us suffer the most when the sustainable academic career doesn’t materialize.

As a graduate student and even as a faculty member, you need to keep building a broader portfolio of experience, interests, and skills beyond the strictly academic.  Many of you out of financial necessity have already done this by working multiple jobs; as have activists through community engagement, or parents by coaching or volunteering in schools, etc.  The real problem is that you’ve been disciplined by the doctoral system to jettison all that stuff from your C.V. and view it as irrelevant.

I knew something was very wrong with the system when I was once told by a sympathetic member of a faculty search committee for which I was a finalist was that my prior work raised questions about whether I was a “serious” candidate.  What was that prior work?  Not stripping in the red light district or working at Trader Joe’s (an ongoing fantasy of mine—no more “what’s for dinner!”), but the fact that I had held administrative positions.  Not in PLACE of garnering excellent teaching and scholarly credentials, but in ADDITION to having done so.  An academic department that cannot see the value of a scholar who ALSO knows something about how the university works is a unit destined for irrelevancy if not extinction.

My point is:  the academic system is narrow-minded and has no stake in developing you as a person of broader capacities and options.  Only you are the CEO of that corporation.

Read the rest here…..

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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.

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