Turning your PhD into a job

Is it a coincidence that I received a complimentary review copy of The Professor is In’s new book, The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD into a Job (by Karen Kelsky) on the same day as I received my first tenure-track job offer? No, you didn’t miss anything, my PhD is not complete, not really all that close – I still have 4 more interviews to transcribe, lots of analysis, and some chapters to write, and re-write. But I did manage to get a job as “Assistant Professor of Preschool Education” as an ABD at a pretty much unknown (outside of Quebec) public university (a very small university) in a city that is 2 and a half hours away from where I live with my partner and our two kids, one of whom just started high school this Fall (none of my family members were interested in moving cities 2 weeks before the start of the school year, so I’m a train-in, train-out academic this year – more on that in a later post).

So this post is a review of the book, as well as a plea to The Professor (or anyone really) to write the How to Survive Your First Year on the Tenure-Track, and How to Complete Your Dissertation While Working As a Prof books.  First things first, the book:

I discovered the Professor Is In’s blog and website almost a year ago, when I noticed the end of my scholarship looming and realized I needed to start applying for jobs. Due to my inability to correctly read the postdoc application (I thought I had to have submitted a final draft before applying), I started applying to adjunct positions and tenure-track jobs that mentioned ABDs (and a few that didn’t). Of course, one of my primary concerns was what to wear to a job interview, should I ever be offered one, and I stumbled upon the Professor Is In site when I googled “what to wear to an academic job interview.” I was immediately hooked, as her blog/site is all about how to play the academic game, and why you shouldn’t want to. Now I follow her on Facebook, and you can too!

When her book came out, I was super excited, and I put it on my wishlist, because even though it only retails for less than 9$, said scholarship was long gone and my credit card maxed out. So imagine my joy and amazement when the publisher offered me a free copy in exchange for a book review on the blog!

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The book is basically the blog in book form, so while I had already read the section on what to wear to an interview or what the search committee really wants to know when they ask those interview questions, it is great to have all that content organized logically and in book format. I really like being able to flip through the table of contents or open the book randomly and begin reading, depending on my mood. The information is useful and straight-to-the-point, and while it is somewhat disheartening to read about the decline of higher education funding in the U.S., it’s really credible and helpful. Kelsky takes her readers step-by-step through the job search process, with practical advice on how to prepare application materials, rock the job talk, and negotiate an offer, as well as everything in between.

Writing from Canada, and from a position where I can work at either French- or English-language universities, it mostly served to terrify me and make me feel really lucky to have a job at all. For example, in describing the job search, The Professor explains that a university may get 900 applications for a single job. She writes mostly from her experience in the humanities and social sciences (she was an anthropologist focused on Japan) working in the U.S. (the blog tends to be a bit broader with guest posts about applying for jobs in the U.K., as well as how to tailor your application for different types of institutions). This is not so much a criticism as it is a celebration of the detail of the book, and a call to other academics or former academics to publish similar books about job searches in other places. I applied to jobs in the U.K. and Australia and had a hard time figuring out the different titles (what is a Reader anyway?) and whether it’s a bad sign to be invited to an interview on the afternoon of December 24th (in Canada that would not happen, and if it did, you wouldn’t want to work at that university, but in England it appears to be within normal parameters).

The Professor also seems to assume that her readers are young and have gone straight from bachelors to masters to PhD without any professional experience. This is problematic for two reasons. First, chapter six, The Attributes of a Competitive Tenure-Track Candidate is basically a list of attributes for an emotionally mature candidate, things that those of us with professional experience and life experience should already have. Other sections of the book (Myths Grad Students Believe; How to Stop Acting Like a Grad Student, etc.) are similar. However, the author doesn’t discuss age discrimination (against the young or old) in academic hiring, how old is too old for a tenure-track position, which disciplines tend to value youth and which tend to value professional experience, and other concerns that might apply to those of us in our 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s when we complete the PhD.

Second, working in an applied field, I was disappointed that she didn’t mention the importance of professional experience. I’m in Education, where teaching experience in early childhood, elementary or secondary education is often mentioned in the job ad. I remember being a teacher candidate and being unimpressed when we were taught by researchers who seemed to have no understanding of what it’s like to teach children in a classroom. I understand that there are probably very few jobs in anthropology, philosophy, sociology etc. outside the university setting, so this may not be something she’s familiar with, but it would be nice to have a better understanding of the emphasis to place on professional experience vs. university teaching vs. research experience in the job search process.

While most grad students would probably be tempted to read the book as they begin to feel out the job market, in order to set yourself up to be number 1 out of 900, Kelsky’s advice begins with choosing the highest ranking school that offers you funding, choosing the right supervisor, and setting out a 5-year-plan as soon as you begin grad school. I’m not sure how to suggest she market it to those considering entry into doctoral programs, but I think the title sends the message that the book is addressed to those who are finished or close to finishing their studies, and often by that time, it’s too late to build the academic and publishing record and network she suggests. However, she doesn’t address being strategic about what field (and subfield) you enter, which seems to me could really influence your chances of landing a tenure-track. Early Childhood Education is a growing field, and there are fewer of us in it than in the more established K-12 field (and even fewer who can work in French). I know someone in Design who can’t even find a PhD program but who knows that she’ll easily find a tenure-track job as soon as she does because it’s a growing field and there are so few designers with PhDs. Of course trends change and may be different in different places, but if you’re thinking about what to study and you have a few different interests, and you already know you want a tenure-track job (I did not know this at all when I went back to school), it’s something you might want to consider.

In any case, I highly recommend the book, and even though not everything translates outside of the United States, it’s really a great resource!

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About joannelehrer

I am a PhD student attempting to critically engage with narrative research in early childhood education. My doctoral project focuses on family-educator and family-teacher relationships during the transition to kindergarten in marginalized communities. I created this blog to document the journey, and to reach out to others in the vague hope of creating an opportunity for exchange with other students or academics...kind of like a virtual message in a bottle.

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