August 3, 2015
Within a gloomy academic job market, at least one small corner is booming: academic career coaching. Capitalizing on the lack of career advice most graduate students receive while in grad school, Karen Kelsky — probably the biggest name in academic career advising —has built a successful business on helping graduate students practically prepare for the hunt.
But that doesn’t mean Kelsky preys on the hopes of the majority of Ph.D.s who’ll never land a tenure-track job. In fact, she’s made a name for herself — first on her blog, The Professor Is In, and then with private clients — by being blunt about their poor chances. But for those graduate students and Ph.D.s who decide to trod the path to a tenure-track position anyway, Kelsky offers intensely practical advice on such things as how to work a conference, how to tailor a curriculum vitae, how to answer outrageous questions in a job interview (and what not to wear) and even how to negotiate a job offer. Having led a number of tenure-track job searches as a tenured department head (of East Asian languages and literature) at a major Midwest research institution before leaving “the cult” of academe for good, Kelsky is both an insider and an outsider, seemingly breaking an unspoken code of silence for the greater good.
After blogging and coaching thousands of clients and potential clients for the past four years, it seemed somewhat inevitable that The Professor Is In would become a book. And so it has; The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job is out this week in paperback from Three Rivers Press/Crown. But while its publication was predictable, the content is fresh. Kelsky’s still blunt, but personable and even revealing about her own experiences with working in, leaving and grieving higher ed. And even though she makes no promises that her book is the golden ticket to a tenure-track job, the feel is somehow hopeful. As Kelsey writes, “[o]nly you can say what counts as your success.”
Kelsky participated in written Q and A with Inside Higher Ed. Her answers, edited for length and clarity, are below.
Q: You come at this issue from an interesting perspective. (You actually walked away from a tenured position for personal and professional reasons.) Can you talk a little bit about how The Professor Is In blog got started?
A: As I explain briefly in the book, when a combination of professional and personal challenges inspired me to leave my position as a tenured department head, I had to find a new occupation. After a year of deep depression as I tried to imagine a post-academic existence and purpose to life, my partner Kellee, who does coaching for a living, helped me see that my 20 years of obsession with grad student professionalization — which had started while I was still a grad student myself, and continued unabated all the way to the present — was not just a bizarre distraction (as it was mostly viewed by my colleagues), but actually the source of what could be a meaningful and important intervention for struggling graduate students on the job market.
I didn't know at the time if anyone would agree with me, and if anyone would want my advice, or pay for my help. But I knew with total certainty that for me, grad student preparation for the job market was a critical component of graduate training that was systematically neglected and disavowed in most graduate programs with which I was familiar. Once I tapped into that "mission," there was no stopping me. I had some rudimentary skills in blogging and social media marketing from a small handmade jewelry business I'd been running as a hobby for a few years, so in the space of a couple weeks I created a website and blog and Facebook page and Twitter account, and I started blogging five days a week on every mistake of the job search and the academic career that I had observed myself, my grad students, or job applicants make. I explained the "cultural logic” — i.e., the unspoken norms — that make those things "mistakes," with an anthropological skepticism, and spelled out how to correct them.
I had absolutely no idea if it would succeed. I just knew I had to do it. I could not not do it! And then when I had a first client within a week, and a full time roster within about a month, and over a thousand clients by the end of the first year, I was shocked, delighted, and gratified. And since then, it's just been trying to keep up with the demand. I get thank you emails every day, some from clients, but many more from readers who use the blog content to transform their own job hunt experience.
Q: The Professor Is In started out as a blog, then a business. At what point did it occur to you that it should be a book?
A. Once the blog gained a large readership (millions of hits), and I began to get media coverage and invitations to speak at campuses around the world, I knew that this had gone from the fringe to the mainstream, so to speak. Reader reactions through comments and emails showed me the need for and appeal of my style of frank, unvarnished (sometimes snarky) advice; at the same time, working with thousands of clients showed me that it was getting hard to navigate my blog and its hundreds of blog posts. I realized to really help people I'd need to collect the major posts into a book. Happily, I quickly found an agent who agreed, and together we found an editor who also saw the value right away. I discovered that the New York publishing world has deep and intimate connections with the world of unemployed Ph.D.s, so it was not a stretch for folks there to imagine the market for this book.
Q: You're pretty hard on your fellow (or former) tenured colleagues for not offering the kind of professional training/advice you think they should to graduate students. Why do you think this kind of practical advice is in such short supply, and do you think the dynamic is changing at all with so much recent attention on the state of the academic job market?
A: In the course of the four years I've run The Professor Is In, I've seen a veritable revolution in grad student professionalization advising among my tenured colleagues, for the better, and at the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I'm a major cause of it. And that makes me happy. I realize the horrendous job market also inspires the tenured who care to dig deep and do better for their grad students, but I firmly believe that The Professor Is In has made it "safe" for tenured faculty to openly discuss things that had formerly been taboo, which I'd categorize under the general category of the “[return on investment] of the Ph.D." Yes, it's horribly, depressingly calculating, instrumentalizing, and neoliberal to talk about the "ROI of the Ph.D." But what's the alternative? Sending cohort after cohort of grad students out onto an obviously collapsing academic economy to sink beneath poverty adjunct wages, five- or six-figure grad school debt and crushing opportunity costs?
The book as written reflects the older reality of advisor denial and avoidance because that's the context that The Professor Is In arose from. And that is not gone! There continues to be a stubborn investment in a "Work of the Mind" mythology that holds intellectual work to be somehow separate from the money economy, as if it can be done without thought of wages. But I notice no tenured faculty who propagate this myth are working without wages.... And then, even when people will gesture toward job market skills training, it's still considered déclassé to speak openly of the way academic hierarchy is maintained, and status is accrued and lost through specific productivity choices. But the fact is, some things "count" more than others, and any savvy job seeker will calculate how to use their time to focus on those. My ethical principle at The Professor Is In is never to waste my readers' time on what "we wish were true" about the academy, but to devote myself to explaining, to the best of my ability, what I understand "is" true. Sometimes people don't like that..
In any case, If I were to write a new book now, I'd give more credit to the work of some colleagues to improve their job market preparation for their grad students, and the increasing resources that university career centers are pointing toward grad student professionalization.
Q: You're very honest about the state of academic job market. What should graduate students consider when thinking about trying to go that route, despite the long odds?
A: Understand that the tenure track job is the "alternative" career for Ph.D.s at this point. There is virtually no field in which the majority of new Ph.D.s achieve tenure-track positions. In many fields the figure is as low as 12 or 15 percent. Therefore, do not internalize a value system from your department that suggests that the tenure track job is the logical and linear outcome of the Ph.D. It is not. In light of that, constantly question whether a Ph.D. is a good idea at all and consider leaving to pursue other forms of career training. If you are totally invested in finishing, minimize any debt associated with it, and build a competitive record of peer reviewed publications, grants, major conferences, and sole-teaching experience, and network widely as a professional scholar. At the same time, stay abreast of non-academic options at every point in the process. Then, set an end date for trying to achieve the tenure track position. As I say in the book, I wouldn't try for longer than three years, if that entails adjuncting and financial suffering.
Of course, if you are a person with private means, who does not have to make a living based on the Ph.D./academic career, then none of these conditions apply.
Q: You say in the book that "yourself" if the last person you should be in a job interview. What do you mean by that?
A: I write in the book that "the better a grad student you are, the worse job candidate you make." Graduate programs are overwhelmingly focused on training students to write their dissertations, which is an excruciatingly long, anti-social process that narrows a person's worldview down to a sliver. It's really the opposite of what a job candidate needs to demonstrate in the application and interview process, which is (besides a finished dissertation) a wide understanding of and intervention in a discipline, a sustained forward arc of scholarly activity, a broad (not specialized) scope of teaching, and an ability to relate collegially to a wide range of potential colleagues.
And then there is the question of status — grad school demands a basic orientation of submissiveness and deference to the faculty, while the job search requires you to comport yourself like a potential peer. You have to transform from peon to peer, without anyone really explaining how that's done. Cultivating all those other capacities entails, in my view, letting go of the inwardly focused and deferential self that served you well as a grad student and dissertator, and cultivating an identity as an outwardly-oriented professional.
Q: You dedicate a pretty hopeful section of your book alternative academic careers. What advice do you have for Ph.D.s considering these kinds of careers?
A: Let me reiterate that it's the tenure-track career that is the outlier and the "alternative." The non-academic career is the norm for Ph.D.s. However, it's still hard to make peace with that. As I write in the book, there are two major hurdles to overcome. The first is psychic: the shame that comes with quote-unquote "failing" to achieve the tenure track outcome; the second is pragmatic: the feeling that you aren't really qualified for any other kind of work outside of academia. Both of those hurdles can be overcome but they take time and intentionality and self-care. I advise people to read widely in the very inspiring body of writing online of Quit Lit and post-ac stories. Seek out non-academic mentors and friends who can encourage and inspire you. Practice extreme self-care in the form of exercise, sleep, music, dance, art... all things that move you out of a linear and logical brain into a wider creativity. In terms of pragmatics, on a temporary basis, volunteer your time to explore other occupations (that's not a long-term strategy of course, but a great short-term one).
Do the skills tally that I discuss in the final section of the book, which helps you to disaggregate your academic identity from the wide range of skills that are attached to it. The example I like to give is: I am fluent in Japanese. That's not a skill that I ever articulated in that way while a professor, because all Japan anthropologists are basically fluent in Japanese and it would be absurd to consider that a "special" skill. But once outside the confines of the "Japan anthropologist" identity, my linguistic skill becomes unique and valuable. Every academic has a large quantity of such skills — public speaking, data analysis, statistics, writing to deadline, etc. etc. And then there are the many non-academic skills you've accrued over your lifetime. As I write in the book, it was origami that ultimately pulled me out of the academic identity and allowed me to see myself as a potential entrepreneur. Origami. Seriously, how weird is that?
Q: There's a lot of practical advice in your book and a bigger discussion about the larger, structural forces that are changing the shape of the higher ed workforce, possibly forever. So what's the "big picture" of your book, you had to describe it? What do you want people to get out of The Professor Is In?
A: Because substantial debt is now central to both undergraduate and graduate schooling, and tenure track jobs are evaporating in an era of 75 percent adjunctification, anyone contemplating a Ph.D. should calculate its financial repercussions very, very carefully. I never offer the blanket injunction: don't do it. But I tell every potential Ph.D. to study the cost of the program, the health of the field, the program's placement rate, the individual advisor's placement rate, the financial package, the cost of living in the area, and their own age and potential for subsequent career reinvention if and when the tenure track option doesn't work out. Once in the program, do everything deliberately (as I explain in the book) to prepare for the job you want, and that should bridge both academic and non-academic possibilities. Every line of the CV, and every word of the application and interview can be deliberately crafted to aim toward a specific outcome. That doesn't mean the outcome is guaranteed. But every person can use their time and energy effectively to maximize their chances for it. That's what I help clients do when I work with them.
I am sometimes called a "hypocrite" for running a business helping people pursue a career that I left, in an academy that I critique. I see nothing hypocritical in what I do. I know that people love their research and their ideas and their colleagues and their academic worlds. I know that they want to pursue them as a life's work. I felt that way. My former colleagues and students and clients still feel that way. The world of academic pursuits is valuable and important and meaningful. It is essential to the health of our country and the world. I am in awe of the talent and dedication that my students and clients and colleagues bring to it. It should be subsidized by the state. But it isn't. Therefore, it is risky, and nobody should be a martyr to it, and destroy their financial future for its sake. There are specific steps that all graduate students can take to prepare themselves for the job search, and they can and should pursue those tactically at every step through graduate school. My book explains exactly how to do that.
Q: This book is obviously geared toward would-be graduate students, grad students and recent Ph.D.s. Who else would benefit from reading it?
A: I hope that advisors will read it cover to cover, even if it's painful. Every chapter covers a topic that job applicants are absolutely desperate for advice about. While advisors don't necessarily have to agree with all my advice (although I hope they do!) the topics alone will enlighten them on their advisees' points of ignorance, confusion, and fear. That way they can go directly to the career advising that really helps, and skip platitudes and false reassurances.
I believe it's an ethical requirement of all Ph.D. advisors to tell the truth about the employment conditions and financial costs of the Ph.D. In the book I say that advisors who uncritically encourage bright undergraduates to go to Ph.D. programs are engaged in the equivalent of the "subprime lending" that led to the mortgage crisis. This is because graduate school debt, which is a requirement for most grad students without private means, especially in the humanities, is what's now paying faculty and administrator salaries and funnels profits to lenders, all the while destroying the student's financial future. It is ethically wrong and it has to stop. Advisors need to start telling the truth about the ROI of the Ph.D. I hope my book will jump start that conversation.
Read more by
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes
What Others Are Reading