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Karen Kelsky
(Karen Kelsky) Credit: Kellee Weinhold

A guide for the perplexed

When venturing into a foreign land, wise travelers bring along a reliable guidebook that explains important landmarks; the local culture, values, and folkways; and the problems, misunderstandings, and dangers that can arise. That’s why graduate students and postdocs pondering the tenure-track job market need to read an astute and revealing handbook published this month, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job.

Trained as an anthropologist, author Karen Kelsky has the perfect combination of expertise and experience to explain to both newcomers and old-timers what they’re likely to encounter on the academic job market and how to improve their chances of reaching their destination. A former tenured professor at a midwestern university who has served as a department chair and been a member of multiple hiring committees, Kelsky is able to recognize and interpret both the overarching patterns of behavior and belief that shape the faculty job application process and the small but significant details that can strengthen or undermine interactions with decision makers. 

Disillusioned with academia, Kelsky left her institution in 2010 and the next year began a consulting business, also called The Professor Is In, that advises people hoping for academic jobs. She writes an advice blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae career hub called—you guessed it—The Professor Is In. Although the book focuses on the humanities and social sciences, its insights are easily adaptable to the natural sciences.

Learning the culture

From her multiple viewpoints, Kelsky sees academic training and hiring as a high-flown bait-and-switch operation. The “unspoken cultural norms, biases, and expectations” of the academy, she writes in the book, shape and protect practices that exploit the unrealistic hopes of the great majority of graduates students and postdocs. “The modern university … systematically requires an unending supply of young, vulnerable idealists to work for poverty wages as graduate student teaching assistants … and, of course, adjuncts,” she writes. Those in the natural sciences and some social sciences can add postdocs to her list. “The advanced degree [and postdoctoral training] these students earn [are] … simply a byproduct of this systemic exploitation, and not meant to carry value forward as a basis for high-wage employment” within the academy.

To avoid years of penury and frustration—and to shape a reasonable work life for themselves—aspiring academics must take charge of their own destinies, she says.  Some who do so will achieve the elusive goal of a tenure-track job. The rest will be much better positioned to avail themselves of the other opportunities they find, she counsels. “Graduate school”—and, by extension, a postdoc appointment—“is not your job; [it] is a means to the job you want,” Kelsky explains. Therefore, she states, “[t]he biggest challenge for the tenure track job seeker is not finishing the dissertation, churning out publications, or cultivating fancy recommenders. It is transitioning from the peon mentality of graduate school [or a postdoc position] to the peer mentality of the job market.

“The inability to make this transition is one of the core causes of failure on the job market,” she continues, “and it is one about which most job seekers remain utterly unaware.” To have any chance of landing a tenure-track job, aspirants “must use every year in graduate school [and their postdoc appointments] to produce a record oriented precisely to the demands of the tenure track market, while keeping an eye open to nonacademic options.”

Success is measured by one’s ability to acquire the qualities of a competitive candidate. These qualities, Kelsky explains, are productivity, or a demonstrable “record of professional accomplishment beyond the requirements” of your program; professionalism, or application documents and a personal presentation that indicate a savvy colleague rather than a desperate graduate student; autonomy, or behavior indicative of “a full-fledged autonomous … member of the scholarly community” who acts according to the real parameters of the academic market and workplace; collegiality, or the ability to forge effective personal connections and “make yourself known as an up-and-coming scholar in your field”; and an explicit, detailed, and realistic plan showing how you intend to “maintain your productivity” in the years leading up to a tenure review.

Kelsky provides detailed instructions on how to acquire each of these attributes, or at least convincing facsimiles. Her advice is clear-eyed, explicit, and unsparing—so much so that it may strike some idealistic applicants as cynical. She explains how to adopt the trappings of the culture you are entering. Her tips cover what to wear and, even more important, what absolutely not to wear—to various events along the road to a job; what kind of paper, fonts, and business cards (yes, business cards) to use to convey your message and reinforce your image; and even what to eat and not to eat as you chat up contacts and potential employers at conferences and, hopefully, interviews. She decodes the standard interactions at these events, revealing the true meaning behind various questions and comments you are likely to encounter. She gives detailed advice on how to prepare for these interactions and provides similar guidance on creating the essential documents.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

If all this seems artificial, contrived, and taxing, that’s because it is. But so is adaptation to any new culture. In an academic market so brutal, treacherous, and unforgiving, getting this right is also deadly serious because even one mistake can undo months of careful preparation. And, as Kelsky repeatedly mentions, this all takes lots of hard work, time, and discipline. 

Beating the system?

There’s only one problem. Kelsky’s advice is so rigorous and realistic that it just might, paradoxically, create a phenomenon made famous in another exotic journey, when Lewis Carroll's Alice encountered the Red Queen and the need to run ever faster just to stay in place. Kelsky’s techniques can increase an applicant’s chances of success, but only if not everyone adopts them. And the odds are still long: Kelsky is the first to recognize that the reason most people don’t get hired for a tenure-track job isn’t their resume, or their wardrobe, or their job talk. Rather, it’s the shortage of tenure-track openings that is the biggest obstacle. 

Like any good anthropologist, she knows that “[i]ndividual efforts alone cannot overcome systemic forces. My advice cannot counteract wholesale contraction of the university economy, and this book cannot conjure jobs where there are none. Job seekers can and should make their very best efforts, but there are not enough jobs for everyone.”

Given that hard reality, she also provides excellent advice for maintaining one’s dignity and self-respect during this bruising exercise and—crucially—knowing when to exit academe. Taking issue with the self-serving ideology underlying the academic training system, propounded by professors with secure lifetime sinecures and good pensions, she explains why leaving academe is a perfectly acceptable, even praiseworthy, step.

Until word about this book really gets around, following Kelsky’s instructions should give job applicants a real advantage in finding an academic job. The book even provides help in deciding whether to take the plunge. That makes this modestly priced volume unquestionably one of the best investments that newcomers to the academic job market can make in their future success and sanity.

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