I have been a reader of Karen Kelsky’s professional academic advice blog, The Professor Is In, for at least 4 years now. I’ve always enjoyed her posts and her guest posts but, above all, I’ve appreciated the no bullshit attitude to academia that is sorely lacking in other spheres. Because I have found the blog so useful in my own academic endeavours, I naturally said yes when offered a review copy of Kelsky’s new book, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. This is where the puffpiece ends and my steely-eyed review begins.
Clocking in at 420 pages covering a whopping 60 chapters TPII, at first glance, might seem like an unnecessarily protracted tome. ‘There can’t possibly be this much ink to spill over applying to academic jobs,’ you might say. That is where you would be wrong. The book’s ten parts cover everything from the myths of academia that somehow persist in 2015 (i.e. that the tweed and cognac life of the mind-type jobs still exist–they don’t)* to navigating every aspect of searching for and applying to academic jobs and postdocs and ending with leaving academia behind like an abusive partner and striking out into other non-academic fields or forging ahead for yourself. Comprehensive? Check.
What struck me most about the book is just how well Kelsky articulates the ignorance of many established academics and universities to the struggles of the newly-minted PhDs, adjuncts, and grad students whose labour they exploit with little quid pro quo. She has a lot to say about advisors and the following passage is one that I feel many of my fellow grad students can relate to:
“Some advisors understand their advising responsibilities to end with the writing and defense of the dissertation manuscript. Other advisors who obtained their degrees and jobs in a far different era are devastatingly ignorant of the conditions of the new university hiring economy” (17)
I have many grad student friends who have advisor horror stories, but this advice isn’t really about horrible advisors; it’s really about how advisors do their jobs or, rather, how they don’t. And I think this is the main reason that paid services such as the one Kelsky offers have been successful, namely, students seldom receive the full support or advice they require to think ahead to after the dissertation. The takeaway from my reading TPII is that, yes, advisors and administrators at universities could be doing a better job. Yes, many seem willfully ignorant of the state of academic careers for emerging scholars. And, yes, even great advisors falter because they themselves often aren’t receiving the full support they require, but: grad students and new PhDs should not fall victim to the myopia of the ivory tower. For better or worse (it’s worse, definitely worse) grad students are in charge of every aspect of their academic careers and they sorely need a community of supporters and trusted mentors from both inside and outside their departments to give themselves the best shot at whatever comes after grad school.
Aside from the nuts-and-bolts advice given throughout the book (The Foolproof Grant Template, budgeting advice, how to dress for interviews, etc) the theme that Kelsky returns to over and over is that there are so many variables that are out of the applicant’s control in the world of academic hiring, we have to focus on those things that we can assert some control over when applying for jobs. Namely, the applications themselves should be as above reproach as humanly possible. This is where TPII comes in really handy. As I read through the book, I couldn’t help but feel more confident about my own abilities in applying for academic jobs. I am still somewhat on the fence about whether I want to enter the academic job market at all, but being reminded that I have at least some control over the process was refreshing to hear. Too much academic advice is polemic: ‘you’re never going to get a job’ (diffident negativity) or ‘of course you’ll get a job, you’re smart!’ (ignorant toxic positivity).
As thorough and encouraging as TPII is, Kelsky never shies away from telling the brutal truth about the current climate of academia. At times, the book’s ‘do this, don’t do that, this is wrong’ tone can feel overwhelming. This is why I would suggest reading it at intervals not longer than an hour or so at a time if you think that kind of thing would bother you. This is the part of the review where I tell you stuff about the book I disagreed with.
“If you’ve never cried before, during, or after a meeting with your advisor, something is amiss” (366)
This prescription really struck me as a bit off. Have I cried during this PhD? Sure. Was it because of something my advisor said or did? No. This is only my experience and I know many others have definitely had a good old cry because of something their advisor had (not) said or done. Maybe I’m the exception to this rule. I’m hoping not. I don’t think Kelsky is wrong to say this, though I take issue with the word ‘cry.’ It’s just not inclusive of the range of emotional expression. I think it would have been better if the sentence were worded differently. Maybe “if your advisor has never pissed you off/upset you/said something that made you emotional–in whatever form that takes–something is amiss.” It’s a little thing but it irked me a bit.
“If you run into someone you just did a hotel room interview with, you don’t have to act like you are employed by an escort service and pretend you have never met them” (127, original emphases)
This soundbite is taken from the chapter on interviewing at conferences/in hotel rooms. Interviews which, from what I’ve heard, can be a truly awful experience. There were a few moments in the book that, like this one, were trying too hard to shock the reader. This was one of them. It didn’t happen enough times to make much of a difference in terms of the overall quality of the advice. I think it is perhaps symptomatic of keeping the straight shooter persona that shock moments like this appear. I don’t think the book needs trigger warnings or anything like that. In fact, if you’re looking to get into academia, TPPI should act as a general trigger warning that the modern higher education system doesn’t value you as much as it should (or even pretend to?) and if that sort of thing isn’t your bag, maybe try something else. TPPI even has a whole section on leaving the academy.
For me, as a grad student who can see at least some light at the end of the tunnel (I’m talking about a guy looking at his phone near the end of the tunnel kind of light), the thing that was most important for me was the reminder that the dissertation is just a stepping stone. It seems to me that the dissertation can rule and ruin many a grad student’s chances if they get too mired up in its perceived importance. That’s why it was nice to read:
“Nobody wants to hear about what your dissertation is. They want to hear about what your dissertation does” (80)
But the most salient advice Kelsky offers is one tiny imperative that says everything.
“Don’t accept advice at face value” (84)
So I guess this is the part of the review where I tell you whether to read the book or not? I would say yes, read the book. The setup is such that it can easily be used as a reference work. A lot, but not all, of the info in the book can be found on Kelsky’s website as well if you don’t have sixteen Canadian dollars. Oh, that’s the last thing I should tell you. Most of the advice is tailored to the American experience but much of it translates to Canada as well. We don’t have the same institutional hierarchy here (much as our ‘Canadian ivies’ would like us to believe) but we do have our R1s and whatnot so nothing is going to be foreign to the Canadian reader here.
*full disclosure: I wrote that sentence while smoking a pipe and sipping a fine pumpkin-flavoured whiskey.