New book guides new PhDs into academic reality

Book review by Zanaida Robles, DMA

Finally, a consolidated, down-to-earth, reality check for recently graduated PhDs and anyone else who feels like an underdog in the tenure track professorship market. Dr. Karen Kelsky has produced a book version of what she has been teaching her clients for years – a method for improving self-marketability and translating a long tedious job search into an offer of employment. Kelsky says her book “reveals the unspoken norms and expectations of the job market so that graduate students, PhDs and adjuncts can grasp exactly what is required in the tenure track job search, and accurately weigh both their chances of success and the risks of continuing to try.” One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how, in addition to offering a practical, methodical way to approach the job market, the book boldly admits that “the academy” is rigged against newly graduated, tenure-track job-seekers.

The Professor Is In is organized in 64 chapters, broken into ten parts with names like

  • “Dark Times in the Academy”
  • “Getting your Head in the Game”
  • “The Nuts and Bolts”
  • “Job Documents the Work”
  • “Techniques of the Academy Interview”
  • “Navigating the Job Market”
  • “Negotiating an Offer”
  • “Grants and Postdocs” and
  • “Some Advice about Advisors,” and
  • “Leaving the Cult”

These section titles alone are enough to pique the interest of any tenure-track contender. The book reads like a self-help memoir, as if Anne Lamotte might have written a “Tenure-Track Job Hunting for Dummies”.

Dr. Kelsky’s book contains a wealth of practical advice, along with an abundance of understanding with regard to the mental state of her target audience. Take, for instance, the chapter called “Stop Acting Like a Grad Student”, in which Dr. Kelsky says that graduate students’ “inability to make [the transition from ‘peon mentality’ to a ‘peer mentality’] is one of the core causes of failure on the job market, and it is one about which most job seekers remain utterly unaware.” She proceeds with a spot-on description of ways in which prospective job seekers sabotage themselves, with segments such as “You Drone on About Your Dissertation” and “You Make Excuses for Yourself, in which she plainly writes “Stop that! Stop it now!” Kelsky follows this with concise explanations of “Six Attributes of a Competitive Tenure Track Candidate.”

Unexpected nuggets of wisdom may surprise, such as in chapter nine, “Why They Want to Reject You”, in which Dr. Kelsky, with humorous realism, describes a scenario commonly applicable to search committee members.  She writes: “It’s not you they dread, per se. It’s the search itself. The whole exercise of sifting through applications, evaluating, discussing, interviewing, inviting, and offering in the demoralized and downsized industry.”  Or, consider chapter 46, “What Not to Wear”, in which she offers recommendations for what she calls “gender normative” men and women, as well as those who deliberately present as “femme dykes,” “butch dykes,” and “plain old lesbians.” Her matter-of-fact writing enables readers to embrace this gender-descriptive terminology in an inclusive way. With unassuming wisdom regarding gender identification, she writes: “it is a message that applies to everyone on the market, butch or not. The message is this: You need to be comfortable with who you are.

Of particular interest is Dr. Kelsky’s indictment of the what she calls “the academy.” In the first chapter, Dr. Kelsky states plainly that “adjunctification has openly decimated the career prospects of new PhDs, particularly in the traditional humanities and social sciences, where nonacademic uses of advanced degrees are still relatively unusual.” Dr. Kelsky likens the tenure track job market to “a lottery system,” “a Ponzi scheme,” and “the Hunger Games.”

Perhaps the strongest attribute of the book is the way in which Dr. Kelsky approaches her topic from a place of wisdom gained through personal experience, vulnerability, and courage. In her concluding chapter called “Declaring Independence,” she states that prior to voluntarily leaving the academy as a tenured professor, she had been angry, “living entirely according to the principle of external validation. [She] was in thrall to the academic cult, which dictates that you have value only if others in authority have validated your work.” Her personal experience and insight add gravity to the validity of her writing.

The Professor Is In convincingly suggests that becoming a top-notch candidate for a tenure track position is a skill that can be learned. The book contains numerous life lessons which can benefit people in various fields. But anyone one who enjoys reading autobiographies might also enjoy this title, as so much of the author’s life experience is infused into its pages. The book does not necessarily make a convincing case for why anyone should aspire to “stay in the game”, so to speak, and potential tenure track candidates may come away from this book with more questions than answers. As Dr. Kelsky says in her concluding sections, “Advisors, professors, employers, peers – they will make their judgments. But only you can say what counts as your success.”

1 thought on “New book guides new PhDs into academic reality”

Leave a Comment

Verified by MonsterInsights