I am Karen Kelsky, aka, The Professor. I’ve been a tenured professor at two universities (Oregon and Illinois) and a Department Head. I’ve advised many, many graduate and undergraduate students, and the students I’ve worked with have been very successful in their professional endeavors. As faculty member I served on and chaired many hiring committees, and as Department Head I handled tenure mentoring and tenure cases (all of which were successful). I can most likely help you if you are trying to navigate the rough seas of the academic world.
Here’s a short current cv-resume hybrid.
My (Uncensored) BIO:
I spent 15 years in the academy as first an assistant professor, then a tenured associate professor, and finally department head in two major research universities, the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (To expand: I also had 6 years in my Ph.D. program at the University of Hawai’i, and now 6 years as an academic careers consultant, coach, writer and speaker at The Professor Is In).
I left my tenured position and the role of department head in Illinois because my family and I chose to relocate back to our beloved Oregon, and I had reached the point where I was ready to move on to a second career. Not because I hated academia–it’s a terrific job, and I want to see others get into it–but because when it came down to it, it was more important for me to live where my heart is (Oregon) than to continue as a professor in the midwest, a place that crushed my very soul. (For more on that see my Tech in Translation guest post, Death of a Soul on Campus, here).
And the fact is, I was always skeptical of academia, even as I moved successfully up through its ranks. I’m from Pittsburgh, only a single generation away from steelworkers. The people among whom I grew up had no interest in intellectual pursuits. My parents sent me to college, it’s true–but with the goal of my coming home married to a doctor or an engineer. No one in my circle went to graduate school, let alone aspired to entering the professoriate! I have the true Pittsburgher’s distrust of bullshit and posturing, and when I got into academia, my ‘bullshit meter’ instantly went into the red zone. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I went to college at the University of Michigan, majoring in Japanese Language and Literature, and graduating with honors. I got a cushy job teaching English in Japan at a college in the glorious Japan Alps, lived in Japan for two years, learned to ski, made a bucket-load of money, and then spent it all backpacking around Asia by myself for a year.
I started and dropped out of two public policy oriented graduate programs at the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins before finally settling on a goal of a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology of Japan. I had successfully applied for and won the Three-Year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. My plan was to study the cultural impact of Japanese company culture on Thai workers working at newly opened Japanese multinational plants in Thailand. I was offered a breathtaking (to me at the time) financial package at Cornell.
Then I went for a visit to meet my soon-to-be Cornell advisor, and he behaved to me like a dismissive toad. Apparently, in 1989, a “transnational” project was not considered legitimate in the hidebound world of Japan area studies. Welcome to academia.
So I turned on a dime, and went to the University of Hawai’i. I was enticed there by a generous East-West Center multi-year fellowship that, combined with my NSF, meant I had full and generous funding for my Ph.D. I had a well known advisor at the UH, a leader in the field, and a woman – which I thought was going to be a good thing.
While working on my Masters degree, I took up surfing, and got to noticing an interesting phenomenon on the Waikiki beaches—young Japanese female tourists picking up local white guys and financially supporting them over the course of short or long affairs. I wrote a paper that turned into a dissertation (and eventually my tenure book). I went to major conferences every year, and I even got published in a major journal while still in graduate school. I had a great record, grants, and publications, and a high profile dissertation topic.
Then I went on the job market. And then and there discovered just how badly my advisor and department had failed me. I had no professional job training whatsoever.
I learned that no cultural anthropology Ph.D. from the University of Hawai’i had landed a tenure track job in living memory.
And that no one in the department cared.
Job training, cover letter and c.v. instruction, interview practice, technical skills, career advice….. these were non-existent in my graduate program. And I only understood that when I was actually finished and looking for a job.
With the job letter I’d written, I barely made a short list. The few times I did, I made a total fool of myself at the interview.
I had no. idea. what I was doing.
After a disastrous failed year on the job market, I finally said, “fuck you, useless department and useless adviser. I’m going to train myself to get a job.”
I embarked on an intensive self-education process—I found out who got the jobs I’d applied for, where they’d been trained, what their grad programs were like, what kinds of things those departments did for their students. Using job data in the now defunct journal Lingua Franca, I found the top 5 departments producing successful job candidates in my field, and I studied the graduate curriculum, trendy jargon and department culture of those places. I sent my cover letter out to every single person whose arm I could twist for a critical edit. I spent hours upon hours writing out potential interview questions and their answers, and practicing them.
And then I went back out on the market. And I got a whole bunch of interviews, and a tenure track job offer at a fabulous research institution. I was on my way.
But I was pissed. Pissed as hell. Pissed that I’d had to do it completely on my own. Pissed that 25 people in my graduate department were getting paid really good salaries to completely neglect their advising responsibilities and abandon their graduate students. Pissed that I’d spent 6 years in a program that had never once mentioned the need for professional development.
Pissed as hell that the department head said to my incoming class of grad students, in our “welcome and orientation” meeting:
“You’re never going to get an academic job, so don’t even bother trying.”
Before my move to Oregon, I created a Job Market Workshop for my sad little crew of peers in the department at UH, the rest of the neglected graduate students. I tried to teach them what I had taught myself. But for many, it was already too late. Some cried.
And then I went to Oregon. But I never forgot my experience. And lo and behold, there I found a second department, filled with good and decent people, to be sure, but where career preparation was non-existent, where technical job skills training was unheard of, where the whole question of “are our Ph.D.s employable” was never asked or answered. And I was furious. Again.
I published, began to work with my own graduate students, taught hundreds of undergraduates, got several major grants, including the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, and got tenure. I got recruited to a “bigger, better” job shortly after tenure and found myself in two new departments (joint appointment), where, lo and behold…. group after group of Ph.D. students were admitted and advanced without any thought or attention to their professional training and job market preparation.
There were some dedicated faculty advisers there to be sure. But by and large, the faculty egos were massive. The battles over getting “your” candidate admitted intense. And the investment in those same students’ employment after completion? Minimal to non-existent. I was angry.
It was here that I spent five years as Department Head. It was in that position that I finally learned about…
I learned with calculator in hand about the downsizing academic industry, and the financial (not intellectual) foundation for virtually every curricular, programmatic, and hiring decision made in a university setting. As Head I came to grasp at a visceral level that Ph.D.s are admitted to serve university teaching needs. Without their serf-like labor, the entire system would crumble.
And I learned that job lines are argued for and approved, again, with calculator in hand. For graduate students to be competitive for those lines, they must be mentored to sell themselves on a job MARKET, to package their ideas in ways that upper administrators can grasp, to be the job candidate who can explicitly demonstrate he or she is going to make or save the university money.
And these are the origins of The Professor Is In. At my first department, and then my second, and my third, and my fourth, I continued to teach an evolving version of my Job Skills Workshop. I changed the name over time to Professionalization Workshop. I intensively trained my own graduate students in what it takes to get ahead, think ahead, and plan for an actual career in academia instead of just a useless Ph.D. and a shit-load of debt. I exploited every grad seminar – no matter the topic – to grab a new crew of graduate students and intensively professionalize them, often against their will! I even got an endowment to create a full-day retreat dedicated to professionalization training. And my students did well.
But I’ve never forgotten the things I learned from my own graduate school days and beyond. The shock of that first year on the job market is as fresh to me today as it was in 1995. I know viscerally what it means to love scholarly work with all your heart, and then to discover that none of your mentors cared enough to show you what was necessary to allow you to keep doing it.
The problems of the academic job market are of course not individual. They are structural. The last forty years have seen a calamitous defunding of higher ed, and a takeover of the entire university infrastructure by neoliberal corporatizing forces. Tenure track hiring is decimated, and there are hundreds if not thousands of Ph.D.s for every single scarce opening. Individual job preparation can only go so far.
But every individual Ph.D. needs to know what they’re up against, and needs to be able to say they did every possible thing to maximize their chances of having the career they want and that they trained for. I want you to be able to give it your best shot, get a secure academic job if you can, and if you can’t, know that you left it all on the field, and walk away with your head held high. It’s why I created The Professor Is In, it’s why I wrote my book (priced low to be accessible to every graduate student), it’s why I speak around the country and the world sharing these truths, it’s why I maintain active Twitter and Facebook accounts devoted to the most current higher ed news, and it’s why I work with clients, helping them refine their job applications and interview skills to take their very best shot at an academic job.
Some complain that I make money from grad student struggles, but in fact, all of my best insights are available entirely for free on this blog. I receive emails almost daily from readers who thank me for helping them get a tenure track (or post-academic) job, having never paid me a cent. You are free to do the same. My professional work as an editor, coach and speaker, however, is paid work, and I have no qualms about that.
The university system is not your friend. If you’re lucky, you have good advisors, but even good advisors cannot undo the systematic assault on tenure track employment, which gets worse with every passing year. And sorry to say, it’s far more likely you have bad advisors, who, even in 2017, still neglect their professionalization duties, still refuse to know or admit the devastating realities of the academic job market, and still leave their graduate students to fend for themselves.
So, now in 2017 and beyond, I continue to edit, coach, write, and speak on the apocalyptic conditions of tenure track hiring, in order to help Ph.D.s make the best choices they can: to know what the academic job market is really about, know how to prepare for it, and know when to leave.
Good luck, and thanks for visiting The Professor Is In.