The Perils of “Nice,” Cont’d: Recommendation Edition

I got to see a letter of rec this week, and was stunned at the way it sabotaged my client, a SUPERB AND TOTALLY HARD-ASS candidate.   It did this apparently from the best of intentions, by burying her achievements in endless verbiage about how “nice” she is, and focusing excessively on the warmth of relationship between the writer and my client, rather than on the client’s actual achievements as a scholar.

If you’re wondering why the client had a copy of her letter of recommendation….well, she’s in the hard sciences, and apparently it isn’t a completely unknown practice over there for recommenders to openly share their letters with the objects of recommendation.

Anyway, when I mentioned it to the client, she was way ahead of me. She directed me to this piece in the Chronicle, “Damning with Praise.”

“Bad news, ladies: your recommendation letters could be sinking your faculty job and/or your promotion chances,” the article starts.

“According to a new study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Psychology, letters that describe candidates in “communal” or cooperative terms—e.g., “agreeable,” “helpful,” “nurturing,”—are less highly regarded by search committees (hat tip: The Juggle) than are active terms. And, of course, the cooperative terms are most often used to describe female candidates, while active terms—like “confident,” “aggressive,” and “independent”—which are more highly regarded by search committees, are typically reserved for male candidates, the researchers at Rice University and the University of Houston found in their examination of 624 recommendation letters for 194 applicants for eight university faculty jobs.”

She told me that she had shared that piece with the recommender, and was hoping the message would get through. If the letter isn’t rewritten, she’s going to have to jettison the recommender, who unfortunately, is her advisor. The recommender is a woman.

The article goes on to quote Paula Szuchman: “what’s most troubling about these findings ‘isn’t that such cooperative qualities are underappreciated by those doing the hiring (at least in academia),’ but that women are characterized in those gendered terms because they’re female, not because they are ‘actually more kind or sympathetic than the men.’”

This is a real danger, people. Advisors—please beware how you write about women candidates. Do not substitute praise for their pleasant personalities for evidence of their actual substantive scholarly achievements.

The researchers also noted another disturbing trend: “that recommendation-letter writers often describe women in uncertain terms—using phrases such as ‘she might make an excellent leader’ versus what they used for male candidates, ‘he is already an established leader.’”

Candidates—I know that in most fields you don’t get to see the letters that people are writing for you, and this is a perennial source of uncertainty and stress.

But, to the extent that you can, please be alert to ways your letter-writers might be sabotaging you inadvertently, and make sure that all of your recommenders have your cv and all information about your full list of scholarly achievements close at hand as they write the letter. And also, that you continually update them with your most recent achievements moving forward.

You don’t want to be remembered as the “sweet young thing” of your MA program when you’re trying to establish yourself as a hard-core competitive scholar.

(Incidentally, this problem continues to apply all the way through women’s tenure cases. I saw it when I had the chance to review the tenure letters and the departmental reports associated with those cases.)

Tailoring a Job Letter, Beginning and Advanced

An expanded and updated version of this post can now be found in Chapter  23 of my new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. I am keeping a shortened version here, but for the complete discussion including the template for a job cover letter, please do purchase the book, which compiles all my major job market posts along with 50% entirely new material.

Today I return to the subject of tailoring a job letter. Whenever I find myself making the same corrections again and again across different client documents, I know that I’ve found a pattern (or “pataan”–as they say in Japanese–and “pataan” has more of the judgmental, ‘why do you keep doing the same thing over and over when I’ve clearly told you not to?’ feel to it, so naturally it’s the go-to word around my house).

Anyway, first, the basic and all too common mistake: if you can say it about any school or department or to any school or department, then it is not tailoring.


“I am excited to develop my career in research and teaching at your excellent department.”

“I would be interested to develop a range of undergraduate and graduate courses in the department.”

Etc., etc., etc.

I am constantly surprised at the difficulty that clients have in coming up with substantive and meaningful ways to describe the actual potential collaborations and involvements and initiatives they might participate in in the departments to which they are applying.

This difficulty really goes to the heart of the matter in the dysfunction that is graduate training in the present time. It is so profoundly myopic, and graduate students are enabled and indeed encouraged by their advisors and committees to be so completely self-absorbed and self-indulgent in their single-minded focus on the minutiae of the dissertation, that the poor students have absolutely no idea what the actual requirements are of the tenure-track position. Those requirements prominently include …

Let The Games Begin!

“I don’t need to see the Hunger Games.  I’m on the tenure track job market.”   (remark on the Professor Is In Facebook page).

Hello readers!  I’m back.   Italy has been visited (and loved) and Oregon’s delightfully temperate summer thoroughly enjoyed, and now it’s time to get back to work for Fall.

I know it’s a tad early for those of you still in denial.  But jobs are posted and blood pressure is rising.  Dr. Karen is at the helm!


One announcement and two changes for the 2013 job season.  First, the announcement.  The waiting list to start work with me extends into the first week of October.  That is still time to make some of the deadlines of the typical fall market…but not a lot of time.  If you’re thinking of working with me, please don’t delay getting in touch.

Second, due to the intensity of the work already underway, I’ll be posting on the blog only once a week for the interim.  I hope to return to twice a week blogging after the Fall rush.  I haven’t quite decided on the posting day yet, but this week, it’s Tuesday!

Third, as promised, I’m inaugurating a regular series of webinars.  As you know we did the first trial webinar back in June, and it was terrific!  People seemed to like it, and it got great feedback.   I like the technology most of all because it allows for real-time interaction with the participants.  I present things, you ask questions, and I answer them.  We can get very specific and targeted, very quickly.

I’m planning to do two webinars a month on different topics, including:

What You Need To Know Now on the Tenure Track Job Market

Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track

How to Write a Winning Grant

Making a 5-Year Plan

There will be others, and if you have a special request for a topic, please by all means put it in a comment here on this post.

The first webinar is actually the day after tomorrow (Thursday August 9) so I’m using today’s blog post to announce it, as there is little time to get the word out.   From next week I will begin blogging on my regular job market and life-in-academia topics.  One blog post coming up is on the value of rage.  Another is on how job seekers damn themselves with faint praise.  Stay tuned.

I am putting live links to checkout in this blog post, so you can sign up for the webinars directly from here.  Both webinars that are currently scheduled are $100.

The perennial question is, how different are the webinars from the blog posts?  Are they redundant?  And a related question—if I’ve worked with Dr. Karen on my job materials, is there anything new for me in the webinar?

Answer: I’m committed to making these webinars valuable for anyone, including those who have read my blog posts or worked with me.  I use the time to go into the principles and the subtleties of powerful writing and verbal self-expression that I don’t get into in a short blog post, or in work on a specific job document.  I make a point to share bad examples from actual client work (anonymous of course) so that the pitfalls are clear.  And then I demonstrate how to fix them.  And the Q and A time allows for answers to individual questions and concerns.   Strategy webinars like “Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track,” meanwhile, focus intensively on issues of planning and self-protection that are much better suited to a conversation than a written post.  If you have any specific concerns or questions about whether a webinar is suitable for you, please do email me to ask at

Here’s the info:

1)  “What You Need to Know Now About the Tenure Track Job Market”—$100

In this 90-minute webinar I walk you through the conditions of the current American job market, the most common mistakes made by job-seekers, and the ways you can maximize your chances of success while looking for a tenure-track job.

We’ll cover:

*The big-picture conditions of the U.S. tenure track job market
*How to think like a search committee
*The four core qualities of a successful tenure track job candidate
*The Cover Letter: why yours probably sucks, and how to fix it
*The CV and Teaching Statement: common mistakes
*The three keys to academic interviewing

***To make this webinar useful even to those who have worked with me on their job documents, I focus also on the most common intangible pitfalls of the job market that I have identified after a year of working with clients. These include:

*the narcissism trap

*showing, not telling


*the perils of obstinacy

Includes 30 minutes of Q and A with Dr. Karen.

This 90-minute Webinar will be offered at: Thursday August 9 at 4 PM Pacific/7  PM EST/23:00 GMT

Cost:  $100

Add to Cart

2) Surviving Your First Year on the Tenure Track—$100

In this 90-minute webinar I walk you through the biggest challenges of the first year on the tenure track.  Topics we cover include

  • Dealing with new colleagues
  • Handling department politics
  • Finding mentors
  • Establishing a classroom persona
  • Learning to say no to service
  • Establishing a conference schedule
  • Protecting your writing time (and mental health!)

Most importantly, I walk you through the planning that you need to do, from year one, to situate yourself for your eventual tenure case.

This webinar is based on the advising meetings I used to have as Department Head with my first year assistant professors. They all got tenure.  It’s fun, but hard core!

This webinar complements the blog post, Advice For Your First Year on the Tenure Track, but focuses directly on hands-on recommendations for dealing with treacherous departmental politics and laying the groundwork for your tenure case.

Includes abundant time for Q and A with Dr. Karen!

This webinar will be offered Tuesday August 14, at 4 PM Pacific/7 PM EST/23:00 GMT

Cost: $100
Add to Cart
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You’re Elite, The Job is Not: How Do You Tell Them You’ll Really Stay?

Today’s post is a Special Request Post for a reader, an ABD from an Ivy League, who wrote to ask, rather plaintively, how she might reassure a search committee for a job at a small, regional, teaching college that she Really Will Stay, if offered the job.

She hastened to add that she knew not to include an unseemly “fit sentence,” or to flatter, pander, or beg.  But what, she asked, should she write instead?

It’s my belief that the best approach to this dilemma is to tell the simple truth.  If you are a Ph.D. from an elite research program, but genuinely and truthfully believe that you will be happy in a non-elite, regional, or teaching-heavy environment, then you should just say so.

I would recommend something like this, at the start of your tailoring paragraph at the end of your letter:

“I am aware that my background, coming from an elite research institution, would suggest that I am focused on a career at R1-type institutions.  However, that is not the case.  I have a strong commitment to the type of teaching that is done at an institution such as Rural College, a commitment that has grown stronger the further that I have moved in my career.  I look forward to the hands-on work with students, and the potential for a balanced work life, that a career in Rural College would offer.  [Optional: In addition, my family resides in the area/my research will thrive in the area/I have a personal connection to the area]. I would not view a position there as a stepping-stone to another job, but as an excellent location in which to grow as a scholar and teacher.”

[10/27/11: Please note that a commenter below, who actually has experience on searches at such a school, suggests that the first and last sentences would seem to “protest too much,” and that the paragraph might better read:

“I have a strong commitment to the type of teaching that is done at an institution such as Rural College, a commitment that has grown stronger the further that I have moved in my career.  I look forward to the hands-on work with students, and the potential for a balanced work life, that a career in Rural College would offer.   In addition, my family resides in the area/my research will thrive in the area/I have a personal connection to the area.”

And another commenter from such a school believes the final sentence in this version is the most important.  I always trust experts who have actually “been there.”]

Note that no frantic claims were made of an “ideal fit,” etc.  Rather, legitimate sentiments were expressed in a calm and factual manner. This is the best you can do to reassure a skittish search committee.  I cannot promise that they will believe you.  But you are certainly entitled to tell them the truth.

Readers, feel free to add your own comments and experiences below!

How-To(sday): The Ten Commandments of Going on the Market as ABD

Dr. Karen is on vacation in Italy July 2012.  During that time she is re-posting older blog posts  her regular Tuesday and Thursday posting days.  She’ll recommence new posting some time in August.


(Tuesday Post Category–Strategizing Your Success in Academia)

Today is the second in our occasional series of “How-To(sday)” posts. This one is in response to a Special Request by Lauren, who wishes to know how to go on the job market while still ABD.

This is a good question. The whole issue of whether or not to go on the job market as ABD is quite fraught, with some advisors taking a strong position against it, and others taking an equally strong position for it. What’s a poor ABD to do?

Let’s see what some experts have to say. (Yes, there are a few experts that The Professor will grudgingly acknowledge have a modicum of wisdom). David Chioni Moore, in an older but still valuable 1999 article in the MLA Publication, Profession, argues that a dry run on the market is a wise choice. He argues that a first, ABD year on the market gives the candidate a chance to gain the knowledge that he or she needs while the stakes are still relatively low, and prepares him or her for success the next year, when the stakes are high.

Gregory Semenza, in his book, Graduate Study for the 21st Century (which I strongly recommend you buy), gives credence to the value of Moore’s viewpoint, but then cautions:

I would advise you against making an early entry on the market unless you are absolutely certain of three things.

  • Can you deal with the emotional fallout and depression of a failed job search?
  • Are you able to say with a straight face that going on the market will not derail your schedule for finishing your dissertation?
  • Are you prepared to turn down a job that falls short of your standards for a “good” job? (Semenza 243)

These are excellent questions. I would urge anyone considering launching into the job market while still ABD to consider them carefully, especially the first. Can you cope with a year of failure? Can you in fact be energized by it (as was my own case)? Not everyone can. So think carefully.

Our final expert, Kathryn Hume, in her spectacular Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt (soon to be reviewed right here by yours truly!), suggests going on the market only after your dissertation is defended.  “You start with a heavy black mark against you if you turn up for a research-oriented job without degree,” she cautions (Hume 3).

However, for the purposes of this post, we are going to assume that you HAVE considered all the excellent reasons not to go on the market as an ABD and have concluded that you will do it anyway.

Actually, I applaud you. My own personal advising philosophy is to urge anyone who asks to go on the market before they actually finish. It is my strong belief that only after large quantities of painfully humiliating failures on the job market will you gain the skills to succeed. This may not be true for others, but it was most definitely true for me. My first year on the market, as an ABD, was a bloodbath. Sometimes I still lie awake at night remembering all the ways I humiliated myself. If I had not had that year while still safely affiliated with (and getting a stipend from) my graduate institution, I would never have learned what I needed to to prevail on the market the following year.

And contrary to popular belief, ABDs do, occasionally, even in this market, get job offers. Especially if they’re in hot fields.

So, with no further ado: here are the ten things you must do to prepare for going on the market while ABD:

  1. You must have your dissertation substantially finished, and have a rigorous writing schedule and a firm defense date.  This defense date must be stated clearly in your cover letter, in the first paragraph. You must not deviate from this writing schedule.
  2. You must have at least one publication in a refereed journal.  You will not be competitive without this. If you lack this, don’t bother going on the market as an ABD.*
  3. You must have a sexy dissertation topic, however that is defined in your field. It must be sexy enough to seduce the search committee into taking a chance on you, against their better judgment.
  4. You must have a vibrant conference record at the leading national conferences in your field, presenting papers (not, god forbid, posters) on well-regarded panels, on your dissertation topic.
  5. Your ABD year, you must organize a major panel for the leading conference in your field. You must gather leading young scholars (NOT other ABDs and graduate students!) to speak on the panel. You must score a hugely important senior scholar in your field to serve as the discussant. Ideally, you acquire for your panel whatever “special” status your national conference confers, such as “invited status.”
  6. You must have recommenders who are not all from your Ph.D. granting institution. The presence of a third recommender from an elite outside institution proves that you are far beyond the normal run of ABDs and are in fact a dynamic young scholar soon to be launched.
  7. You must be able to see beyond your dissertation to the book/series of articles that it will eventually become, and articulate that publication plan clearly.
  8. You must not make querulous excuses about the state of the dissertation (“I am still working on chapter 4….” “I know I need to add more discussion of race….” “I need to revisit the archive to gather more material for my second case study…”) This is graduate student talk, not job candidate talk.
  9. You must be able to speak about teaching as if you are already a full-fledged faculty member, not a TA. You must have your own original courses developed, as well as ideas for basic intro courses and core seminars in your field.
  10. You must be able to articulate the import of your dissertation in advancing disciplinary boundaries and forging new knowledge and connections in your field(s). Nobody wants to hear about what your dissertation is. They want to hear about what your dissertation does.

It goes without saying that all of the other advice about the job market applies: You must have an impeccable c.v., a flawless cover letter, and a sparkling teaching statement. You must know how to decode a job ad. You must know how to dress and speak in interviews.

The difference, if you’re ABD, is that you must work harder to live up to the cardinal rule of the academic job search:

a) They are hiring a colleague, not a graduate student.

b) Do. Not. Speak. Or. Act. Like. A. Graduate. Student. 

*It occurs to me that the field of History seems to discourage ABDs from publishing in refereed journals.  It is conceivable in that case that a refereed journal publication would be viewed as inappropriate or “premature” by search committees. By the same token, it is conceivable that some history advisors are clinging to an outmoded model of graduate training.  I need further education on this point, and would appreciate hearing from historians at all ranks about the best mode of advice for their field.

[8 PM Update:  After considerable Twitter discussion among a range of historians, the consensus seems to be that for History ABDs, publications are officially optional, but unofficially needed for the top jobs.  For second tier jobs, they are likely truly optional, and possibly outweighed by teaching experience.  Upshot: The lack of a refereed publication is not a total deal-breaker for a History ABD on the job market the way it is in some other fields such as English and Anthropology.]

I <3 Self Promotion and So Should You

Dr. Karen is on vacation July 2012.  During that time she is re-posting older blog posts  her regular Tuesday and Thursday posting days.  She’ll recommence new posting some time in August.


I read a Career Advice column in Inside Higher Ed this past month that I loved. It is called “The Value of Self-Promotion,” and it’s written by Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee. Rachel Connelly is the Bion R. Cram Professor of Economics at Bowdoin College. Kristen Ghodsee is the John S. Osterwies Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Bowdoin. So these women are no slackers. Clearly they know their way around the academy.

Their column advises junior people (anyone looking for a job or on the tenure track) on how to send off-prints of published articles to well-known and influential senior scholars in their field. Connelly and Ghodsee open with this invigorating line:

“One of the biggest myths of academia is that you only have to be smart enough and have good ideas to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Hear, hear!  They go on.

“For better or worse, the marketization of academia and the persistence of “old boys’ clubs” in universities around the world means that who you know is just as important as what you know.”

Really, I love these guys.

“This is one of lesser-known aspects of the academic world, because so much of your graduate school training will have been about attaining the appropriate knowledge rather than the appropriate contacts. Indeed, some professors will insist that nothing but merit counts, even if they are well aware of realities to the contrary. We believe that it is a cruel disservice to graduate students for advisers not to prepare them for the realities of academia, no matter how much they might wish things were otherwise.”

Did I mention I love these guys?

Especially because their advice is explicitly directed at women.  The column is actually adapted from their new book Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia (Rowman and Littlefield).  Because women are the worst (this is me talking, not them) at self-promotion!  Women far too often sit back and wait to be noticed.  They fret endlessly about seeming “arrogant” or “pushy.”   I’m here to tell you that pushy is good.  You have to toot your own horn, and put yourself out there.

Anyway, Connelly and Ghodsee devote the column to describing exactly how you get physical off-prints (NOT pdf files!!) of your published pieces and send them to the most influential people in your field with a brief hand-written note. Something along the lines of, “”I am sending you a copy of my latest article. I found your work really helpful while writing this, and I would appreciate any ideas you might have on how to improve my arguments.”

They also make a point of reminding you that you were also conscious to cite all influential scholars in your specific area of focus in your bibliography.

And then they write, “even if they were tangential to your argument.”

Well, that released the wolves. Sort of. Actually, they didn’t get a lot of comments (and two of them are by me, telling them how great I think they are!). But most of what they did was negative in that particular superior,elitist, judgmental professorial tone that we all know so well.

Here’s a selection:

The advice — writing senior people and possibly lying about how useful you found their work, and referencing their work “even if their work is tangential to your own” for networking purposes — is unprofessional and unethical advice. …These games should be replaced by honest, well done scholarship and true dedication to professionalism — that is what will impress senior people; otherwise the academic profession will continue to slide into a Wall Mart mentality.

…I am disheartened to read two scholars who advocate such anti-academic ploys — referencing work even if it is tangential to your own, just to ‘show what you’ve read, even if it contributes nothing to your argument? referencing senior scholars’ work just to ‘make friends’ with them? Is this a joke? Do you really think that anyone would not see this for that it is – shameless self-promotion without regard to intellectual quality?

What many of these readers are responding to, Rachel and Kristen, is the slight note of insincerity in your article. While the advice is generally useful, following it for no other purpose than professional advancement is going to backfire on the junior scholar. We’re not dummies, after all. If you give more professional advice in future columns, I suggest you justify it by addressing WHY and HOW your advice advances academe as a whole rather than the careers of a select and cynical few who are willing to game the system.


I bolded terms in each comment because to me they perfectly encapsulate the gap between the old, obsolete mind-set, and the new one required under current market conditions.

I want to pause here and say that when I was training my own Ph.D. students, I always advised them to do precisely what the authors are recommending here. (And just fyi, my students are all [with the exception of one who chose a different career path] gainfully employed in academia). I also did this practice myself throughout my career. And I was on the receiving end of such off-prints many times. I found these small academic gifts, with a personal note, a lovely gesture. The senders were in or close to my field, and the kinship with my work was clear. In many cases I would not have found the piece on my own, so having the off-print was helpful.

Why do I believe this practice is effective? First, because of the very reason the authors speak of. Self-promotion is absolutely necessary. Great thoughts will do you little good if nobody knows about them. You cannot afford to sit passively and wait for people to find you.

And posting things on your website is a POOR substitute! Senior scholars do not have time to go hanging about the internet! The website is really a relatively ineffective self-promotion tool for a young scholar seeking a job or tenure, and very time consuming to develop.

No, senior scholars are usually very paper-centric, still. Send them paper and a note. It works.

Second, this is one of the finest methods available for starting to collect your stable of potential tenure letter writers. You cannot have explicitly collaborated with your future letter writers. You can’t have been colleagues or friends. But you want to make sure that you have a collection of 6-10 people who are broadly familiar with your work and impressed enough with you to write the superlatives you need for tenure. Sharing of your work is an excellent method of beginning that process.

Now, to the comments and their obsolete mind-set.

The Professor believes that it is criminal when tenured faculty members admonish junior people and job-seekers against using every means available to promote themselves and their work.

The Professor believes that it is criminal when professors judge and dismiss job seekers’ efforts to strategize a job trajectory in this appalling economy by calling them “games,” “ploys,” and “gaming the system.”

The Professor believes that it is criminal when professors suggest, in this day and age, that a job- or tenure- seeker’s primary task is to “advance academe as a whole” rather than their own careers.

A comment stream is one thing. But the advising that takes place in professors’ offices across the country is another. And far, far too common in those offices is the attitude of the commenters above. In imposing this obsolete and irresponsible world-view, these professors are handicapping their advisees and practically guaranteeing that they finish their Ph.D. without job or career.

At the tail end of my own graduate school days, when I had already received my tenure track job offer at Oregon, but was lamenting that I had just missed a far, far better one at an Ivy League, my most beloved professor, who was actually in English (he was my external committee member), said to me, one day in his office, “God, Karen, don’t be so careerist.”

I was shocked, infuriated, and disappointed. And also confused. Why would I not prefer the highest ranking, highest paid, most prestigious, most generously supported job I could get?  The job with generous built-in leave time?  The job with a mortgage subsidy?  Why would anyone not set out to get that? I was thrilled with the tenure track offer that I had, of course, but why would I not also grieve what might have been?

That exchange stayed with me, and rankles me still. It was in the 1990s, when things were already REALLY bad on the market, although nothing compared to today.

And he was wrong. The commenters I quote above are wrong. It is not gamesmanship or careerism to want and go after the best job you can get.

Promote yourself. And don’t look back.

Should I Do an Edited Collection?


Let me say it again: No.

Let’s put it a different way:

You: But, it’s just the papers from a conference panel. Is it ok then?

Me: No.

You: But, I’m co-editing it, so I don’t have to do all the work. Is it ok then?

Me: No. And, please, co-editing? Are you kidding me?

You: But all I have to do is collect and edit the papers and write an Intro. Is it ok then?

Me: No. And you’re doing all this and don’t even have a chapter in it? Are you kidding me?

You: But I’ll have a book for tenure.

Me: No, you won’t. Edited collections don’t count.

You:  But it’ll get me a job.

Me:   You want to know what’ll get you a job?  A REFEREED JOURNAL ARTICLE IN THE TOP JOURNAL IN YOUR FIELD.  Write that!  Write two of them!  Hell, you can write a whole effing monograph in the time you are going to waste fighting with your contributors, waiting for the external reviewers, arguing with your lame press, agonizing over the copy-editing, and trying to market the book because your lame press doesn’t spend a dime in advertising.

You: Really?

Me: Yes.

You: An editor from a really great press I never heard of actually got in touch with me! And asked me to do it! Is it ok then?

Me: No, and never, ever, ever accept an offer of publication from someone from a press you’ve never heard of. Or even a press you have heard of, if they come chasing after you. It’s the prom, sweetheart. Don’t go with the first person who asks you (unless they’re the dream date you’ve been waiting for). Do the work, and get yourself into position to get the date you really want.

You: But I am already committed.

Me: Get out of the commitment.

You: But it’s my friends.

Me: Have drinks with your friends. Go to Vegas with your friends. Do not waste your precious writing and research time gathering up and, god forbid, editing, your friends’ questionable essays and volunteering unpaid, uncredited time to get your friends a publication. And by the way, their chapter in your edited collection is barely going to do them any good either.

You: But I’m going to go ahead and do this edited collection.

Me: It’s your funeral.

How to Build Your C.V.

(Wednesday Post Category:  Landing Your Tenure-Track Job)

Today’s post is another Special Request post, this time for Ana, who had a question about c.v.s.   What is the best way to organize and write an academic c.v? she wonders. She also asks if I know of any special tech tools for create a kind of “master” c.v. that could then be tailored to jobs, grants, etc.

I have to admit that I do not know of any such tools. But what about you, my readers? Have you found an app or some fabulous geeked out system for collecting and organizing your c.v. material? Kind of like a c.v. Endnotes? Please comment below if you do. We would all like to know.

What i do know is that lo, so many years ago, when I was a young assistant professor, I received a piece of wisdom from a respected senior colleague. That colleague was a model of productivity, and she liked me, and wanted to see me succeed.  This piece of advice was not a trick for organizing c.v. s but rather a trick for thinking about them.

She told me, early in my first year in the department, “make sure that each month you add another line to your c.v.”

Each month I add another line to my c.v.? Yikes. Really?

That sounded impossible. But she did it, sure enough, and her c.v. was a thing to behold.

She said, “this is not going to be hard for you.”

And she was right.

By the time I added on the national conferences I attended every year, and the talks on campus, and the guest lectures, and my new classes taught, and small campus grants, and new graduate students, and article manuscripts, and local and national committees, and the reviewing I did for journals and presses, I did have 9 new items a year (she didn’t count summers). Heck, sometimes I had a lot more than 9 new items a year.

It wasn’t that hard.

The key was, to keep my c.v. in mind at all times. When I had to make choices about how to spend my time, which requests to accept, when to say no, and so on, I thought about my c.v., and thought about the line. Did I want the line? Did I need the line? Was it a good line? Was there a better line? It was an amazingly clarifying exercise.

Sure I did things to be collegial, things that didn’t translate into c.v. lines. I helped out colleagues. I went the extra mile for students (sometimes). I was a good department citizen. But I was focused. I knew what my goal was. And that goal was tenure.

As my career went on, I had the opportunity to see many c.v.s of many peers from my own and other institutions. And I realized that few of those peers had received this kind of advice. They most definitely had not been adding a c.v. line each month.

And a lot of those peers were struggling. They weren’t getting the jobs they wanted. They weren’t getting the grants. They weren’t getting tenure.

They didn’t seem to put two and two together.

C.V.s are not just records that passively reflect the things that you “happen to do.” They are records that you actively, consciously, and conscientiously build. You watch your c.v., you think about it, you nurture it. You ask, is it where it should be right now, this month, related to the goals I want to reach this year? If not, take action that very day to change it. Finish that half-done article. Submit for a grant. Apply to a conference. Volunteer for a talk.

Take charge of your c.v. To me it matters less how well-tailored it is to this application or that. What matters is that it is a document that shows your pride in your work, your passion, and your motivation.

How Women Can Speak Better in Public: Stop Apologizing and Get a Career

Dr. Karen is on vacation in Italy July 2012.  During that time she is re-posting older blog posts on her regular Tuesday and Thursday posting days.  She’ll recommence new postings some time in August.


(Friday Post Category–Yes, You Can: Women and Academia)

Authority: The Key to Academic Speaking

Women at all levels of the academic trajectory, from graduate school through tenure, all too frequently speak like wimps.

Ie, in ways that come across as insecure, hesitant, diffident, and non-authoritative.

Women graduate students and junior faculty with whom I’ve worked routinely start with what they “don’t know,” then apologize for “not knowing” it, then make excuses for “not knowing” it, then apologize for making excuses, then feebly advance a claim so clouded in caveats that it is barely recognizable as a scholarly argument, then trail off in vague  queries as to whether “it was clear or not.”

All the while fiddling with their jewelry, fussing with their hair, smiling too much, laughing awkwardly, and glancing anxiously around the room.

You don’t do that, you say?  Maybe you don’t and that’s good.

But more likely you do and just don’t know it.  Because nobody has ever called it out for what it is:  women’s learned patterns of deference to (male) authority.

Let me say that again, louder:


For women in academia, this is a career-killer.  Academic legitimacy is based on scholarly authority.  To the extent that you fail to express yourself authoritatively (which doesn’t mean obnoxiously, by the way) you make yourself invalid as a scholar.

The best way to explain the contrast between deferential and authoritative speech is through role play.  In the following videos I demonstrate first, the deferential woman scholar, and second, the authoritative woman scholar, confronting a fairly hostile challenge to their work.

I play both roles, first the challenger, then the speaker.  Because I initially framed the video as a job talk Q & A session, where stakes are high, egos on full display, and muted aggression common, I am in high defense mode.  Naturally this can be toned down for a graduate seminar or conference.  The basic message, however, remains the same.

The hostile questioner attacks the speaker’s argument, which, she claims, “flies directly in the face of the central thesis advanced by “Nelson.”  Nelson, we are given to understand, is an extremely well known and influential person in the field (Nelson is total fiction, not based on any real individuals, living or dead).

****Be aware, that in neither case has the speaker read the new article by Nelson.  This is all pure performance.****

(Please excuse their low production quality. I hope to improve on this as we move forward at The Professor Is In. The glare on my glasses is annoying, I know.)

The Deferential Public Speaker

Video 1: (if it is missing below, please click here)

The Authoritative Public Speaker

Video 2:  (if it is missing below, please click here)

Never Apologize!

Some might call this bluffing, but it is not. The speaker shows a calm substantive command of the literature in her field, and has a confident sense of her own distinct place within it.

She never needs to apologize for not having read something! She does not need to read every piece of writing in her field to understand its basic organization and politics. She can improvise with both substance, and style.

The goal in all such encounters is to stand up for yourself. Nothing more, nothing less. In this particular case, the message is:   Nelson is important, I am not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him.  In short, I am an important young scholar.

Confident, relaxed body language, firm, fearless eye contact, and a declarative tone…. all of these say, in academic code, “you talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to ME?”

And then finish strong:   NOT, feebly, “did that answer your question??” but with firm, healthy boundaries: “Next Question?”

**Regular readers will have noticed that this post is strangely similar to Wednesday’s post, “Deflecting the Hostile Question at a Job Talk!” I realized that my point in that post was really something larger and much more important—how WOMEN, specifically, talk like wimps. So I’m revised the post, and reposted it here.**

Is Your Writing Better Than Waffles?

Last week, I was working on a client’s materials. We were on something like draft #4 of her dissertation abstract, following on weeks of work on her c.v. and job letter. She’d been working hard, and her materials showed it.

It was Sunday morning, and I was working at the kitchen table, which is the warm weather office space of TPII. Come colder temperatures, I’ll be forced to migrate down to my basement office so that the family can once again eat dinner inside.

I opened her document. I read the first sentence. “Oh nooooooo,” I cried to myself, “Noooo! Not like this!!! This is all wrong! Jargony, wordy, abstract, and convoluted! Didn’t we already already go over all this???”

I clutched my head (literally) in despair, groaned, and then quickly dashed off an email. “You’ve got to rewrite this, especially the first sentence— I’m going to leave this until you get me a new draft.” “No problem!” she wrote back instantly, email being a live-chat-like experience with my clients when they’re working down in the trenches on a piece of writing. “But I’ve got to run to work now so I’ll give you something new later this afternoon.”

I moved on and did other things.

An hour later, I felt a nagging sense of guilt—had I been unjust, and overhasty, in my condemnation of the sentence? Was it really that bad? And did it justify postponing a reading of the whole piece? I re-opened the document.

I re-read the first sentence. Yes, it really was that bad. It was just a bad sentence. She’d fallen back on all of her old writing habits—the ones we’d spent weeks, through revision after revision, identifying and eradicating.

But this time I kept reading, and what did I find? After that sentence, a beautifully crafted, expertly-written dissertation abstract. An abstract that displayed ALL of the skills that this client had gained over the past weeks. An abstract that was, frankly, spectacular.

How did I miss this? I wondered (as I quickly dashed off another email, that said, in essence, “mea culpa, sorry I unnecessarily freaked you out right before work!”)

I thought back to the moment an hour earlier when I’d first opened the file.

At that exact moment, my 10 year old son and his sleepover buddy had just run into the kitchen, chattering loudly, chasing the rabbit, knocking a plate onto the floor, shattering it, and demanding waffles for breakfast.

“You can make pancakes yourselves,” I had said, as I do, every Sunday morning. “But weeee doooon’t waaaaant tooooo” was the response. “Weeee waaaannttt YOOUUUU tooo maaake WAAAFFLES.” “Yeah, well, too bad,” I replied, “I’m busy. I’m sure your pancakes will be delicious.”

At that moment my partner walked into the kitchen, took in the scene—boys milling, me frowning at my laptop, typing furiously—and quietly took out the waffle-iron. She browned some sausage we had in the fridge, fried some eggs, and mixed up some waffles. Acutely conscious of the studied silence I nevertheless continued typing away. I didn’t ask her to make waffles! I told myself. I never said we’d have waffles. This is not my responsibility! My partner studied the growing pile of dishes in the sink. I kept typing. I shall continue, I told myself: this is important! But it was no good. My mind was now firmly in that kitchen, irritatedly aware of the boys, now spilling syrup on the deck furniture outside, and guiltily conscious of the judgment emanating from the general area of the sink.

That’s how I missed it. When only half your brain (and half is really generous here) is on the piece of writing, you miss things.

Why mention this on the blog? Because, dear readers, this is all too often how your job and grant materials are read. Especially now that so many job and grant applications are online. No longer do reviewers go into a small, airless office to pore intently through manila folders. Now, they access these documents online, usually from anywhere. And certainly women faculty, and any faculty with children, will be doing a LOT of this work at home, sometimes, right there at the kitchen table.

If your piece of writing—whatever it is— doesn’t sparkle from the first sentence, grab that reader, impress her, engage her, inspire her to keep reading, flow naturally and seamlessly into a paragraph and then into an essay built on dynamic argument, fine-toothed organization, and vivid, energetic wordcraft….if it doesn’t do those things, your piece of writing will be firmly closed, placed into the reject box, and never opened again.

Your piece of writing is competing with chattering children, ringing phones, pinging text messages, the teenager flouncing, the waffles burning and the partner judging. Above all, the partner… asking, once again: Really? You really can’t stop that for 10 minutes and make breakfast? I’d just like to point out that you didn’t wash the dishes last night, after dinner, like you promised, and now there are twice as many in the sink. But don’t worry. I’ll just get those. Really, it’s my pleasure.

There is no room in this wired age of non-existent boundaries for leisurely contemplation, at least not of your application materials.

I caught myself (why, I’m still not exactly sure) and had the time and inclination to go back and double-check. You can’t count on that. Actually, you can more safely count on the opposite. Most faculty on a selection committee are far too time-stressed to give any application more than a few minutes apiece. Anything in the first sentence and first paragraph has got to be beyond good—it’s gotta be genius. And by genius, I mean: substantive (no filler), concise (no rambling), direct (no digressions), simple (but not simplistic), dynamic (not stagnant) and—the word that all of my clients will recognize—punchy. What is punchy? It is writing that reaches off the page and grabs the reader’s collar and DEMANDS that they keep reading. And writing is rarely born punchy. No, it gets punchy in one way—editing and revising, editing and revising, editing and revising.

Your application materials need to be punchy enough, from the very first word, to beat the waffles.