Can I Call the Department? (And Introducing New Members of the Team)

Today’s post is a two-parter; in part one, I  tell you about all the ways that The Professor Is In is growing and expanding in Fall 2012.  In part two, I answer a burning reader question.

Part I:  The Professor Is In is Growing!

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve added two new members to the Professor Is In team. The first is Kellee Weinhold, former university professor in the fields of journalism, communication, and literary non-fiction, professional writing coach and consultant, and owner of the Eugene, Oregon writing studio Stir (and incidentally, my partner).

This is Kellee.

In addition to having twelve years of experience in the university setting, and enormous savvy about the ways of university hiring and politics, Kellee is a fierce proponent of self-expression in all forms and the sworn enemy of wimpy speech.  Kellee will be taking over Interview Bootcamps from this month. With the addition of Kellee to the team we are going to be able to increase the available private Interview Bootcamp slots through the interview season.

The second new member to join the team is Petra Schenk.   Petra is Dr. Karen’s office assistant, and has been doing yeoman’s work to handle the huge influx of new clients who came to us in Fall 2012.  She responds to emails, schedules, and also shares the editing of client documents with Dr. Karen.  Petra also works as the writing specialist for TRIO Student Support Services at the University of Oregon.  Petra was a nontraditional student, coming from a low-income and first-generation household. After transferring to UO from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, she completed her BA in linguistics in 2001. With an interest in documenting endangered languages and with the assistance of the UO TRiO McNair Scholar’s Program, she went on to complete an MA and PhD in Linguistics from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2008.

This is Petra

During her time as a graduate student, Petra cultivated a parallel career track as a student advisor and mentor, focusing on nontraditional college students. When not in the office, Petra enjoys reading, running, cooking, and especially hiking with her amazing daughter.

Both Kellee and Petra are fierce proponents of the message and the methods of The Professor Is In, and allies in the effort to get you ready for the market.  With their addition, we can expand our work and help more people get the assistance they need to confront the challenges of an academic career.

Part II:  Can I Call the Department?

Today I answer a question that I’ve received from readers with some frequency over the past several weeks.

“Can I call the department to check on the status of my application?”

You can, but there is little point in doing so.  It’s truly a “don’t call us, we’ll call you situation,” with the caveat that in today’s uncivil times, they rarely bother to call (or write) to tell you when you have not made the cut.  It’s all too common these days to hear nothing but deafening silence….all the way up to and beyond the completion of the search.

But to return to the question of “can I call?”  My strong advice to all readers is, do not call.  Please remember that all jobs in this day and age routinely get between 200 and 900 applications.   Consider the welfare of the poor secretary who would have to field those calls.

And again, to return to my main point—if they want you, they will call.   For most of you, for the vast, vast majority of jobs to which you applied, the call will not come. Sorry.

I remember the first year I was on the market (all the way back in 1995—supposedly halcyon days but actually an already brutal time in the anthropology job market), I literally thought that my local post office (this was the era of mailed paper applications) was experiencing some sort of malfunction because I had received not a single response from the 25 or so jobs to which I applied that first Fall.  Surely, there had to be some mistake??!!

There was no mistake.  I was sending out painfully bad application materials (having received no training whatsoever for the job market as I describe on this page of the website), I had a second-tier Ph.D. from the University of Hawai’i, and I was confronting competition from graduates of the top programs of the land.

The memory of that deafening silence, my painful confusion, my growing humiliation, my desperate calls to departments, my slowly dawning comprehension of my true chances on the market, my panic about money, my realization of the scandalous neglect of my professors….all these things are as fresh in my mind today as they were that Fall of 1995.  They are the things that catalyzed me to start this business, and that keep me working to find new ways to tell job seekers the truth about just how hard it is, and what you need to know to improve your chances.

But that’s me.  You’re just wondering about the status of your applications.

Approximately one month after you submit the application, if your conference is imminent and you are wondering if you’ll be invited to an interview, ok, sure, you can, if you must, write a single email to the department secretary (not the search chair) to inquire.  It won’t harm your chances.  That’s the extent of it, and frankly, I say again: don’t bother.  There is no mystery here.  There is no confusion or delay or problem with the search.  What there is, is the fact that you probably have not been short-listed. It’s painful and shocking and devastating, and no amount of reading my blog or others’ warnings will prepare you for the dismay, humiliation, and panic.

As those of you who have attended my webinars know, I urge readers and clients to do what they can to retain their dignity in an inhuman system that doles out humiliation by the bucketloads.  It is my opinion that calling departments to ask about the status of your application is an exercise in humiliation.  I recommend that you stand on the dignity that you have, do the best work you can to improve your record and your application materials, and be ready for the call when and if it comes.

Preparing for Your Interviews

Conferences have started and interviews have begun.  TPII clients are scarfing up interview invites right and left, and it’s very gratifying.

Normally, I would expect to do an Interview Bootcamp with most of my clients, to prepare them for the real thing.  Unfortunately,  all of my Interview Bootcamp slots are already completely filled through mid-January.

Because of that, I created the Interview Bootcamp Webinar, which I have offered several times, and will continue to offer regularly through the Fall and Winter.  The next one is next Thursday, Nov. 15, at 2 PM Pacific/5 PM EST/22:00 GMT.   Here’s the description:

***In this 90-minute Webinar I teach you how to interview effectively for an academic job. We cover the most important elements of the interview, the most common errors made by candidates, and the most effective modes of organizing your responses to the major questions. As always, I provide templates for you to use in planning your responses, and abundant examples of both bad and good answers.

I also cover how best to prepare for interviews, whether they are by skype or phone, at the conference, or at a campus visit. Special tips for the dreaded Skype interview included.

Naturally we’ll touch on how to dress for the interview, and the all important issue of body language as well.

As always there will be plenty of time for Q and A at the end.

This Webinar channels all of Dr. Karen’s individual Interview Bootcamp energy and information, so that even those who didn’t get on the schedule for an individual Bootcamp in Fall 2012 will still know how to rock their interviews and get the job.***

You can sign up for it by clicking “Add to Cart” below.

Cost:   $100

After completing payment by clicking below, you will be redirected to the dedicated Go-To-Meeting Webinar Registration page, where you will fill out a registration form and be given instructions and an access code to sign in on your chosen day. 

Add to Cart

Now, moving on.  I want everyone who is preparing for an interview to read the following posts:

*The #Facepalm Fails of the Academic Interview

*Why You Need a Second Project: An Urgent #Facepalm Fail Addendum

*How Would You Mentor Graduate Students? Another #Facepalm Fail

*How to Describe a Course (In an Interview)

Particularly this last one, “How To Describe a Course (In an Interview)” is pure interview prep gold.  I tell every single Interview Bootcamp client to read it before our appointment.  And yet, time and again, either they don’t, or they do, but don’t do what it says.

Do what that post says!  I’m not going to repeat it here.  I will just say, it provides a FOOLPROOF template for you to concisely and effectively describe ANY COURSE that you might be asked to teach, from the Intro course of the department, to the boutique graduate seminar of your specialization.

Between the posts and the webinar, you will be prepped for the worst that they can throw at you.

List Addiction, Cont’d: The Dyad

List addiction is an epidemic among academic writers. I have a blog post about the subject (which I knew nothing about prior to my work in TPII), and I refer at least 50% of clients to that blog post at one point or another.   What is it with listing?  I don’t get it (well, I say that, but I suspect I had the same tendency back in my own early days of academic writing, for the reason noted by the first commenter below).

Anyway, there is a subsidiary brand of list addiction, which is the dyad addiction.  Apparently some clients “fix” their listing habit by removing the third element, but keeping the first two.  The dyad, when it is repeated, is still problematic.  And dyads have a particularly hypnotic effect in prose.

See the following, from actual client documents (thank you, clients!)

My role as teacher is to enable students to develop their artistic vision and aesthetic literacy through an informed and sustained practice of traditional and contemporary artistic methodologies coupled with critical study of art history and art theory.  I see in the rigorous study of art history and art theory an important tool for challenging students to go beyond the parameters of their initial understanding of formal and conceptual frameworks of art. Furthermore, I want my students to understand the importance of a perceptual approach in art making not only to create opportunities for direct investigation of media and subject matter but also to challenge the very conventions of art discourse.


Two principles drive my teaching: first, engagement follows from a direct understanding of the relevance of coursework to one’s life; second, in order to learn and grow students must be empowered to direct and own their learning. This requires targeted guidance from the teacher, since it often entails encouraging students to rethink their ideas about education. I present and model a paradigm of education in which the teacher maintains authority but is also open to student direction, and one in which students are encouraged (sometimes to their chagrin) to develop self-sufficiency within a safe and supportive environment.

To this end I set the stage for student engagement from day one, informing students that our course may be very different from what they expect, describing in detail my high expectations of their investment, and explaining the personal and professional benefits of this approach. In my Asian literature course for non-majors, inspired by the meditative traditions we study, we start every class with a few minutes of meditation and silent journaling about the reading assignment. I situate this practice in the context of my expectations for insightful contributions to class discussion and engagement in activities, and explain that students need to transition into the classroom setting, quieting their minds and preparing for our academic community. Instead of listening to a lecture on the meaning of passages from the Tao te Ching, students practice guided literary analysis of assigned passages, applying background knowledge from earlier lectures on general themes and context, to construct and challenge textual meanings in collaboration. At the end of the semester, I ask students to reflect in writing about their growth: what they can do (better) now that they couldn’t do before, how they will use some of the skills or material we learned in the real world, and what they have come to appreciate or understand about themselves through our work together.


The content of these paragraphs is sound.  It is the hypnotic repetition of adjectives and nouns (in the first case) and verbs, adjectives and nouns (in the second) that is so striking, and so peculiar, and that drags down the energy and dynamism of the prose.

The occasional dyad, just like the occasional list, is fine.  But if you have more than two lists or two dyads in a single document, you probably have too many.

Banish These Words

Do not use the words “unique” or “burgeoning” in any of your job documents.

They are painfully overused.

The first is just trite.

The second is over-dramatic.

That is all.

What Is a “Toxic” Campus? A Guest Post

I have been asked by readers to describe the qualities of a “toxic” campus or job. I have thoughts on this, and someday plan to write a post about it. But for now, I offer this anonymous guest post by a client, which she titles, “The Bad and the Ugly of Academia.”


I did the unthinkable. Walked away from a full-time tenure track position at a medium-sized liberal arts college. I do mean walked away. I quit.

Why? I decided that my mental, emotional, and physical well-being was more important than putting up with what had become regular teaching overloads because of short-staffing, an abusive dean, uncollegial and pettily competitive colleagues, lack of research support, and a generally unhealthy environment. That was five months ago. Since then, I’ve picked up an adjunct teaching gig as well as a part-time academic research position to help to make ends meet. I’m finally getting to write the articles that had been languishing because of oppressive teaching and service requirements. I’m searching for a new position. In general, my health and outlook on life have improved immensely since making the somewhat terrifying decision to leave.

Now, I wasn’t alone in leaving. A grand total of 15 mostly full-time tenured or tenure track faculty members left the college at the end of the Spring semester. These were largely voluntary departures. Four more tenured faculty members have indicated that they will be resigning at the end of the Fall semester. Considering that there are roughly 90 tenure-track positions, this could be considered full flight.

In one of her blog posts (It’s Okay to Quit), Karen wrote that the culture of higher education is becoming “increasingly soulless.” When I look back, I think that I must have been delusional to thing that “things are going to get better” despite the warning signs. In the past several years, the majority of faculty members who went up for tenure were denied: two of 13, one of nine, two of eight, zero of seven. These are not good numbers.

The tenure numbers were a reflection of a pattern that began several years ago. The college was chronically short-staffed across all departments when it came to full-time tenure-track faculty members due to difficulties in hiring. This meant that full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members were being asked take overloads practically each semester. In my own case, a 4/3 turned into a 5/4 or even a 5/5 load. Saying no was not an option. Because of the rules governing committee service at the college level, a smaller number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty were being forced into serving on those committees in additional to their service obligations at the school and departmental level. Again, saying no was not an option. It was likely to lead to substandard evaluations by one’s dean and denial of a merit salary increase.

New hires were being brought in and told that they would have ample time and resources for research, only to find that the other obligations left very little time for it. Teaching expectations, in terms of the numbers that had to be “hit” on student evaluations, didn’t leave a lot of room for attempting to balance teaching and research by cutting back on the teaching end (e.g., fewer assignments). If a faculty member couldn’t’ make the “numbers” (on most student evaluation scales, between a 5 and a 4), it meant a visit from the dean and a mandate to improve or be terminated.

This played out in the tenure decisions in an interesting way. The Faculty Handbook stipulated that faculty members were required to have a minimum of two publications when going up for tenure. Proceedings and lesser publications were allowable under these guidelines because of the teaching expectations. However, the rules in practice that the deans were using were in clear violation of the Faculty Handbook. The deans had begun to use impact factors to assess faculty publications. In my case, my dean told me that I had to have published a journal article in a journal with an impact factor of 3.5 or higher. As a colleague at another institution pointed out, there are no journals in our field that have an impact factor of 3.5 or higher. Across the college, faculty members who had been told on evaluations that their research was noteworthy or satisfactory were suddenly being told that they were “unsatisfactory” when it came to research by their deans. In one case, a colleague in another school was told that the book that he spent three years writing and had published was not going to count favorably toward tenure because the published was not “prestigious” enough. Since the faculty was not unionized, and the faculty governance committees relatively ineffective in dealing with an administration that backed the deans, there was very little that could be done outside of independent legal action.

Also, a disproportionate number of tenure denials were being made to female faculty members. Several did sue, and were awarded settlements in Federal Court. Most of those who had sued decided not to return to the college when given the option since they knew from female colleagues who had sued and returned that life was going to be miserable if they chose that route. The deans and the administration were unforgiving of any faculty member, but especially females faculty members (and even staff), who dared to object to or question the system and ever-changing rules in practice. One individual who complained about being sexually harassed by her superior actually received a letter from the college’s attorney outlining in detail the consequences of taking her complaint any further. These included immediate termination and loss of tuition benefits for the child enrolled at the institution. She did file a complaint with federal authorities, and the college made good on the threats contained in the letter. The woman later sued and the college was forced to pay the largest settlement ever awarded against it, but she certainly had no desire to return.

I myself was sexually harassed by the Vice-President for Academic Affairs (aka the guy who makes final tenure decisions). This unwelcome and unprofessional behavior went on for months despite my making it well known that I have a significant other and that we were living apart at the time because he was employed by another institution. For my lack of responsiveness, I was called into my dean’s office (good buddies with the VPAA) and told that I appeared to be “unhappy” at the college, and that it’s “just a game…. Just play the game.” He then proceeded to outline just how I was going to be harassed and set up for termination based on teaching if I didn’t “play the game.” Well, it certainly wasn’t a “game” to me, and he obviously hadn’t taken a good look at my teaching evaluations, which were among the best in the entire college. He did manage to find grounds for giving me an “unsatisfactory” rating on research because I hadn’t accomplished the impossible in terms of impact factor of publications.

I made the decision to “walk.” Things were not going to get any better. Shortly after I made my decision, a colleague in another school informed me that he had been given a terminal contract because, in the words of his dean, he “didn’t fit” at the college. This was a highly productive individual who could have gotten tenure at just about any R1. He told me that his dean objected to his having married his partner over the summer, and that he had been told that his openly gay lifestyle was objectionable to several senior administrators. He threatened to sue, and was given a settlement to leave the college and to not speak about either the institution or its administration and the reason for his dismissal. Several other gay male staff and faculty members who had married their partners also mysteriously” resigned” during this period.

Since leaving, I learned that one of the people denied tenure had decided not to return despite being given a year-long terminal contract. In response to his letter of resignation, the Associate Dean of his school called the custodial staff to have his office cleared out before he had a chance to remove personal items. The custodial staff was removing items from his office when another faculty member happened to be walking by and stopped them. She called him to come and get his stuff because it was going to be thrown in a campus dumpster. In coming to the college, he had been told that he would be instrumental in founding a new and innovative academic program. He did develop that program, which was approved and is slated to begin accepting students. What he got for his work was a denial of tenure and a trashing of his office. And so it goes…..

What about the rest of the faculty? They take it. The faculty culture is a culture of fear and perceived powerlessness. Many are tenured and are looking to keep their heads down and make it to retirement age. Some have spouses working in the area, making it difficult to leave in a bad economic climate. Others are quietly looking for new positions elsewhere. But if the Spring exodus is any indication, more are finding a way to walk away from a bad situation rather than continue to put up with academia at its ugliest.

Damning Yourself With Faint Praise–Teaching Edition

For some reason people love to include undergraduate student feedback in the teaching paragraph of their job letters, and that feedback usually looks like this (from an actual letter):

“Former students have consistently told me that I give helpful feedback on papers and in meetings about assignments, as well as stimulate interesting and informative class discussions.

Really?   This is the best you can do?

This is called damning yourself with faint praise. If this is the best you can come up with for student feedback, then don’t include student feedback in your letter.

In point of fact, I do not endorse including student feedback in your job letter because I think that it’s generally seen as exceptionally self-serving.  But when clients give me drafts that have a single student response that really stands out as original and compelling, I let it stay.

But claiming that you give helpful feedback does not qualify as original or compelling. Neither does going out of your way to claim that you stimulate informative class discussions.

These are both so weak as teaching achievements that the fact that you went out of your way to mention them does little but cast a wide doubt on your classroom abilities.

Again, I encourage you to simply describe your teaching in the teaching paragraph, and possibly include a single mean teaching evaluation score if you wish (I’m ambivalent about that as well, though—I don’t like to see numbers intrude on a good paragraph).  But feedback from students is treacherous, because undergrads are usually painfully inarticulate, if not indifferent, and you don’t want your case resting on their faint and unfocused  words.

[This applies to interviews too].

Information for Those Who Work With Dr. Karen

Today’s post is meant to clarify some confusion among some of you who are or are thinking of becoming clients related to the time required to complete the editing process.

I’ve had a few incidents this past month in which clients sent me 15-page sets of 4 different documents for postdoc or fellowship applications, one week before their final deadlines.

This is not possible. I require 24-48 hours for a response to each edit that arrives in my inbox.  I work on emails in strict order of arrival in my inbox. It takes about 8-10 working days to get through a single document, and remember we work sequentially, one document at a time.

When I give that first edit, it is not a final and definitive edit.  It is the first of up to FOUR edits included in document work.  In draft one we point out everything that you must now do to improve the document, focusing on readings in the book and on the blog so that you have the principles of good writing to take forward into the future.  We read for the weaknesses in your writing and argumentation and organization, and tell you exactly how to correct them. As many of my clients know, we will often contribute new and fresh phrasing ideas where I see opportunities to do so.  But overall, the job of revising and rewriting is yours.

The first edit will deal with large organizational and writing problems and errors.  The second, third, and fourth edit will refine to greater and greater clarity of argumentation and evidence, and felicity of phrasing.

There is no way to rush this process.  It unfolds at exactly the appropriate pacing and timeline, and generally requires all four of the edits to reach completion.

As I said, the minimum amount of time, assuming you rush your edits, will be about 8-10 business days per document. For a longer document, if I take 24 hours for each edit draft, and you then take 48 hours to do your revisions, that is 72 hours per draft.  72 hours x 4 drafts = 288 hours.  288 hours comes to 12 days.

Please recall that I don’t work on weekends.

That means in practice, the minimum amount of time for your lengthy postdoctoral application to be thoroughly edited is 2 ½ weeks.  

If you do not leave at least 2 ½ weeks for the editing work to be done, the edits will not be finished by your deadline.

Please consider yourself forewarned by this explanation, which I will be sending to all new grant, fellowship, and postdoc proposal clients.

Also, to manage the intense demand for my services and large client load, I have several policies that are firm and non-negotiable:  1) I work on one document at a time, sequentially through 4 drafts, to completion before moving to the next document; 2) each draft # (# 1-4) must be marked in the file name of each draft that you return; 3) because I make many small unmarked edits for style and clarity, clients must download and edit from the exact document that I return to them so as to retain all edits moving forward; 4) work on any new document must be pre-arranged on the schedule and cannot be launched into on the fly; 5) clients need to demonstrate what I consider to be a reasonable level of improvement in each draft–I need to see real and consistent effort to understand and execute the editing principles that I recommend; 6) Quick Review clients must submit a document that has been completely overhauled to follow the principles explained in the blog posts, models, or accompanying PDF, and be correctly labeled as QUICK REVIEW in the subject line (as explained in the instructions upon purchase).  If I find that a client consistently ignores my policies, I cancel our work together and refund 50% of paid fees; rush fees are non-refundable.

Now it goes without saying, that if you are working on short things like job letters or teaching statements, or on smaller fellowships that requires only a 2-page proposal, the work will be closer to 8 days.  But for major fellowships such as the SSHRC (I’m looking at YOU, Canadians!), the Princeton Society of Fellows, the Harvard Society of Fellows, and all the various residential and dissertation completion fellowships scattered about the country?  2.5 weeks.

Please remember that Dr. Karen, appearances notwithstanding, does not have magical powers.  The time-space continuum continues to hold sway, and editing continues to be a long, hard, grueling process with no shortcuts.

The Worst Job Letter Ever Written (Not really…)

A few months ago one of my clients, after completing work with me on her job letter, ruefully sent along the original version of the letter that she had been using the previous year.  She wrote,

“I’ve attached a copy of the first job letter I ever sent (to a well-known private research university in the Midwest) during last year’s job cycle.  This letter is beyond bad, and I’m quite embarrassed that I sent it.

“What’s worse is that it was approved by my ‘nice’ advisor and another senior faculty member, also on my committee, who is considered a good writer and editor.  Yes, I received a few minor edits from both of them, so I could at least tell that they had read it, but not enough to make much improvement.  

“This letter was written before I discovered your blog.  I wasn’t officially on the job market last year and only applied for a handful of positions (the letters were better after the discovery of your blog), but this year I’m FT on the market so no room for error.  I’m glad I decided to go with your Quick Job Letter Diagnostic Package.  I feel so much more confident and competitive for this cycle!

“Anyway, I attached that first letter, edited for anonymity with a lot of XXXXX’s, to show how far I’ve come. Job letters have always been the bane of my existence, by far the weakest part of my application package.  The attached letter demonstrates many of the major letter writing mistakes you mention, but I think the most striking one is my severe list addiction. [KK: for more on the national scourge of list addiction read this post: Break the Cycle of List Addiction]

“When I re-read it, I realized that I’m not saying anything despite the wordiness.  Nothing is discussed in any depth; instead everything is told in list after list.  Feel free to share it as an example of what not to do.”

I am overcome with gratitude to this client for being willing to share this document so generously.  One of the hardest things for me to do in my work at TPII is to provide compelling examples of just how wretchedly bad job documents can be (and ususally are in their first draft).  I of course always tell each individual client how bad his or her document is.  I usually say some version of:  “Oh, xxxx, I’m so glad you found me. This letter is a total train wreck.”   But then we quickly banish that draft to the digital dustheap of shame, and it disappears never to return again.

Thanks to this caring and brave client, I now have a train wreck job letter draft that can live on as a model. (BTW, those of you who purchase the Quick Job Letter Diagnostic Package also get, in the included pdf, a set of four terrible first drafts along with their final versions–these are also very helpful.)

I give the letter to you below, with each paragraph annotated for the errors it makes. I  include references to the relevant blog posts addressing the error in more detail in a list below the letter..   The only errors this letter does not make are:  it is a good length and it has proper heading material in terms of date and address at top.

And just a note: I facetiously titled this blog post “The Worst Job Letter Ever Written” but it is far, far from the worst that I have seen.



Associate Professor, XXXXXX
Chair, Search Committee
Department of XXXXXX
Private Research University
XXXXXX Campus Drive
XXXXXX, XX 12345-6789

Dear Dr. XXXXXX:

I am writing to apply for the assistant professor position in XXXXX as advertised on XXXXX. I am excited about the opportunity to apply for a faculty position in the School of XXXXX at [Private Research University] based on its variety of innovative degree programs, interdisciplinary approach to education and research, and supportive environment for students and faculty. I am a doctoral candidate in XXXXX at [Public Research University] and fully expect to fulfill my degree requirements by XXXXX. My
dissertation, which I am completing under the direction of Dr. XXXXX, uses XXXXX method to examine the process of XXXXX among XXXXX population. I believe my teaching experience and interests, combined with my interdisciplinary learning in XXXXX and research background in XXXXX and XXXXX, make me a strong candidate for the position outlined in your notice.

[Candidate flatters and panders to the institution to which she’s applying (B).  “Fully expect” sounds defensive and unsure.  “Completing under the direction of Dr. xxxx” shouts grad student, shows excessive subordination, and is over-humble (A). “I believe” shows insecurity and hyper-emotionalism. A letter is not a screed (H).  “make me a strong candidate…” is a desperate and anxious fit sentence (F).]

My primary theoretical and empirical research goals are directed toward understanding and enhancing XXXXX and XXXXX in XXXXX and XXXXX contexts, including finding ways for XXXXX population to maintain their XXXXX and improve their XXXXX and XXXXX in a variety of settings, and I am well prepared to meet
these goals. My doctoral education and training in XXXXX and prior degree work in XXXXX have enabled me to develop a truly integrative and holistic way of thinking about XXXXX and XXXXX, which is why being part of an interdisciplinary program such as yours, is especially important to me. My research interests span many areas, including XXXXX dimensions of XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX factors that affect XXXXX and XXXXX, the process of XXXXX and its outcomes, transnational and comparative perspectives on XXXXX and XXXXX, and XXXXX education. I have advanced training and experience in research design and a number of methods, both qualitative (e.g., XXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX, XXXXX) and
quantitative (e.g., XXXXX statistics, XXXXX statistics), though my current work is mostly qualitative. In your school, I am particularly interested in the activities of the Institute on XXXXX as they coincide with my interests in XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX.

[Telling rather than showing (E).  No specifics of the research and no title. Devolves into a dreary and endless list of topics (D). “I am well prepared to meet these goals” is defensive and desperate.  “enabled me to develop a truly integrative and holistic way of thinking about…”  substitutes adjectives for content (E).  “Which is why being part of a department such as yours…” is desperate, begging, pandering, and also overly emotional (A, B).   “My research spans many areas….” spirals into a vortex of list addiction (D).  “In your school…” uses a second person pronoun that is best avoided in job letters (B) and although this is actually valid tailoring, is buried in lists and distracting verbiage.  “I am particularly interested in…. coincide with my interests” is telling not showing; also, nobody cares what you are interested in, they care about evidence of what you did and published and will do and publish next.]

My dissertation provides an examination of the process whereby XXXXX population develops, maintains, and communicates XXXXX, employing XXXXX study design and using XXXXX method. I used XXXXX to explore XXXXX, as a function of XXXXX and XXXXX, in order to develop an understanding and explanation of XXXXX for this particular group. I plan to turn my dissertation into a manuscript after its completion. Additional research experience includes my work as a research affiliate with XXXXX Initiative, a statewide project to access the challenges and opportunities that arise from XXXXX. After analyzing statistical data from the household survey, I wrote the chapters on XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX, and XXXXX for the state report. This experience familiarized me with social implications XXXXX has for
XXXXX and XXXXX, and I can therefore bring these issues to the classroom in an informed manner. I am also completing two independent projects, XXXXX and XXXXX. Both manuscripts will also be submitted for peer review to XXXXX and XXXXX, respectively.

[Dissertation arrived at too late, and not titled.  Again relies on a verb list (“develops, maintains and communicates”).   “Develop an understanding and explanation of xxxx for this particular group” is  unimpressive as a research goal; appears derivative and unoriginal (A).  No core argument and intervention of the research articulated.  Plan to turn diss into book mentioned with no substantiating evidence or plan of work.  Detour into other research of unclear relevance confuses the reader, who is further bewildered by a long list (D).  “I can therefore bring these issues to the classroom in an informed manner” is damning self with faint praise, also raising teaching abruptly and inappropriately in the diss paragraph.  “I am completing two independent projects” is bewildering–are these related to the diss project or not?  If not, why doing them?  Mention of specific publication plan with journal title is good–but no clear articulation of a larger and coherent publication trajectory from past to present to future.]

In addition to research, I am committed to pursuing an academic career that values teaching and mentoring. My teaching interests include XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX and XXXXX, XXXXX influences on XXXXX, and research design and methods, but I am prepared to teach other XXXXX courses. I believe I am qualified to teach the undergraduate courses XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX and the graduate courses XXXXX and XXXXX in your school. I have several semesters of teaching experience,
ranging from teaching assistant to graduate instructor. Most recently I designed and team taught a new undergraduate course, XXXXX. Feedback from my students identified me as an effective and approachable instructor. I also held a teaching internship with Dr. XXXXX, current president of XXXXX Education Organization. I incorporated a new section on XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX that was well
received by the class and resulted in an engaging discussion with the students. His mentorship, along with the instruction I received from Dr. XXXXX in my teaching practicum, taught me a great deal about instructional pedagogy, course design, and class management. I look forward to a time when teaching and mentoring play a larger role in my academic responsibilities and would be privileged to work with your doctoral students in XXXXX program and undergraduates in XXXXX and XXXXX concentrations.

[Opens by stating the obvious.  Then an excessive list.  “I believe I am qualified….” shows insecurity and damning self with faint praise (H).  “Feedback from my students identified me as an effective and approachable instructor.” is pathetic in how low the bar of faint praise has been set.  “teaching internship with Dr. xxxx” subordinates self, emphasizes grad student identity, and is over-humble. “His mentorship….” is distasteful in its excessive humility and self-abnegation, situates candidate as perennial grad student peon.  “Would be privileged to work with your….”  distasteful degree of over-humble flattering, pandering, and begging (B).]

My commitment to higher education extends to my service activities. I am very active in XXXXX National Organization, currently serving on its XXXXX and XXXXX Committees and as the elected XXXXX Representative for [Public Research University], where it is my job to encourage student involvement in the organization. I also served as the student representative to my department’s XXXXX and XXXXX
Committees and to the College of XXXXX’s XXXXX Committee. My service activities cover commitments as serious as my appointment to XXXXX National Organization’s XXXXX Committee and as fun as organizing and leading the XXXXX activity and hosting XXXXX at last year’s XXXXX Meeting.

[This long para on service is the last nail in the coffin of this candidate’s identity as insecure, overly humble, and excessively eager to serve.  Service does not get anyone a job.  National level service can be given one sentence and no more; campus level service none.  This much on service raises a major red flag that the candidate will be one of those young female hires who can’t say no, expends herself on service, doesn’t get publishing done, and gets turned down at tenure.   “as serious as…. as fun as….” is utterly inappropriate for a job letter, and juvenilizes and genders the candidate as a frivolous female.]

I believe that I would be an asset to your school and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the position and my qualifications with you further. I have enclosed a copy of my curriculum vitae, together with two writing samples, and have arranged for three letters of reference to be sent to you under separate cover. If you require additional information or materials, please contact me by phone (123.456.7890) or email ( I will also be available to meet with anyone from your
school at the XXXXX Meeting in XXXXXX this [month]. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

[“I believe that I would be an asset…” is desperate begging (B).  Meanwhile, there is no substantive tailoring of this letter speaking to the actual initiatives and faculty of the department/campus and how candidate would contribute (C). The repetition of  “would welcome the opportunity….If you require…. please contact me…. I will also be available….” communicates desperation.]


Clueless PhD Candidate



Blog Post Reference List

A.  Why Your Job Cover Letter Sucks

B. How to Tailor  a Job Letter (Without Flattering, Pandering, or Begging)

C.  Tailoring a Job Letter, Beginning and Advanced

D.  Breaking the Cycle of List Addiction

E.  This Christmas, Don’t Be Cheap

F. I’m The Ideal Candidate For Your Position!

G. The Dreaded Teaching Statement: 8 pitfalls

H.  Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Try.

Does the Status of the Press Matter?

Today’s post is in response to a reader who wrote in asking, “does the status of the press matter when seeking to publish your book?”

Sometimes I am surprised by what people ask me, and this is one of those times.

Does anyone not know the answer to this question?

The answer is:  yes, the status of the press matters.  It matters a LOT.  It matters like—choose right and you get a great tenure track job and a career and a retirement plan, choose wrong and you live forever in adjunct hell.

If you are in a book field, you need a book for tenure, certainly, but increasingly you need a book just to get a job at all.  I am not saying that the book has to be OUT to get the first job.  But you need to be well into the process of book publication to get that job. By which I mean, be able to talk knowledgably about the book plan and timeline, perhaps have chatted the book up with an editor at a conference, or been invited to submit a proposal, and beyond that, have a proposal ready to send, or in submission.

Whether or not you’re finished with your dissertation, if you are in a book field, you need to be looking ahead to the book, and thinking about where, when, and how it will be published.

In these circumstances, naturally, you will be excited if you find your work being solicited by an editor at a press.  But if you’ve been invited to submit a proposal by an editor, you must not instantly leap at the invitation!  You must make sure that the press is of a caliber that will advance your career.

Presses that advance your career are major university presses and Routledge and the like.  Presses like Ashgate, Rowman and Littlefield, and Palgrave and so on are an indeterminate rank and will count at some universities and departments more highly than at others. Other presses must be evaluated very, very carefully.  There may be a small and obscure press that is well known and important in your particular niche—and then it is fine to pursue publication with that press.  But in general, small and obscure presses do not advance your career.

Putting a book out with an obscure press is not much different than having no book out at all, in terms of gaining a tenure track job or tenure.  Yes, you’ll have a book between covers that you can put on your shelf and proudly show your friends and family.  But a book that “counts” for the tenure track job market and tenure?  That book needs to be out with one of the major presses of the academic world.

You may observe that some well known and influential senior scholars sometimes publish with presses that are not of the first rank.  Why?  Because they can. Because their reputations are unassailable, and they can afford to pursue publication that is based on prior personal connections, or that is less rigorous in terms of review, with no impact to their standing.

But for anyone seeking to create a scholarly reputation, the importance of the status of the press of the first book cannot be overstated.  Any press that does not have “University” in its name should be approached with great caution.  Inquire closely with advisors you trust whether or not to consider it.

Location, Location…what?

This past week the Chronicle of Higher Education posted a column by Alexandra Lord, titled “Location, Location, Location.”  Lord is the person behind the site on nonacademic careers, Beyond Academe, and she also runs an online Web journal, the Ultimate History Project. She also, apparently, works full time in a nonacademic position as a preservationist.

This article, in a nutshell, involves her regret at taking a tenure track position in a part of the country that she did not like.  She uses her own story to open a wider meditation on how much weight academics in general should give to location in their job searches.  Her advice:  don’t consider taking a job in a place that won’t be congenial to you, for any number of reasons, including the location of your extended family, or your sexual orientation or religion.  She took issue in a mild sort of way with a previous column by David Perlmutter (one of my favorite Chronicle columnists, btw), that was called “Embrace Your Inner North Dakotan.”  In that column Perlmutter told job seekers in essence that they must beware the kind of elitism and disdain with which academics tend to view the non-coastal, non-urban, non-hip parts of the country and be open to the possibility they might be happy in small, rural places.

I liked Perlmutter’s column.  I also like Lord’s column.  As far as I’m concerned, they are both exactly right.

But apparently I am in the minority in believing so.  The comment stream following Lord’s column is filled with a mystifying degree of dismissiveness and even hostility.  Perlmutter himself contributed a weirdly hysterical reaction involving Jews and Muslims.  The issue seemed to revolve around Lord’s own credibility as a person who left academia, and outrage that she would in turn imply that leaving academia was a good choice if academic jobs were not available in good locations.  “How DARE anyone,” comments seem to imply, “put anything before the demands of the scholarly career?!” As the always reliable “graddirector” says:

“It should be noted that no one is forced to go to graduate school.  By doing so, you are already agreeing to enter the world as it exists that honestly is not going to change.  These realities are the same that have been there for over 100 years and come from being highly trained for geographically dispersed opportunities.  This is really no different than the coal miner or auto assembler whose mine or local plant closes.  They have the choice of moving to another part of the country where their skills are in demand but with the cost of leaving their family and friends, or staying in their current community and entering a cycle of poverty. ”

The meta-message is clear:  The true academic is the one who sacrifices.

As Bill Pannapacker remarked on my Facebook page, about the comment stream to the piece:  “Summary of comments: If you want to be an academic, you must accept misery. It’s your duty not to be happy.”

Rarely do we see the cult-like nature of academia revealed so starkly.  The cult demands sacrifice and the cult will have it.  And the cult will punish harshly anyone who questions the value of the sacrifice, and dares to ask, “is it worth it?”

In terms of numbers I think the majority of commenters actually support Lord’s position.  But they seem to be the ones not permanently employed in academia.  The ones who appear to be writing from the position of tenure seem to say: “suck it up.”

I actually believe that people can be happy in a variety of places.  I was a finalist for a position at Stanford, and ended up getting a job in Oregon. I had no desire whatsoever to live in Oregon, and spent a good number of years pining for the Palo Alto that might have been.  And then after a while, I realized I loved Oregon.  Then I, perversely, moved away to take a fancier job in the Midwest.  I could not live there.  I tried with all my might.  But I could not.  It was embarrassing to admit defeat, but eventually, I did and left.  And back in Oregon, I know I’m in the right place.

My own story splits the difference.  My story suggests that a person’s got to be open minded about many unexpected locations to which their job search might take them.  And at the same time, when the chips fall, and the parent takes ill or the partner needs a job or the heart wants what the heart wants…. then you’ve got to listen and make a choice, and that choice may be to leave the location, or, as in my case, to leave the profession in order to leave the location.

I don’t think this is blasphemy!  But I’ve come to understand that to many it is.  Be careful about telling your advisor, and don’t expect them to throw you a going away party.