Your Best Shot at Staying in Academia: Tips from an Economist

2016-01-03 14.05.42I spent a good week in San Francisco earlier this year, travelling with my boyfriend who, with two colleagues, was to recruit some potential assistant professors for his department. My boyfriend is an economist. If you are not familiar with the academic job market in the economics field picture this: the job market is an actual physical market where demand and supply meet. In this case the venue was a suite in a swank hotel in the financial heart of San Francisco (picked by yours truly) where three young(ish) professors spent three long days interviewing job candidates. As was happening in hotels all across the city those particular days. Why San Francisco? Because one of the largest economics conferences was held concurrently, just a block down the road. So indeed people fly halfway round the world for a few sessions and a couple of interviews, and may be lucky enough to be selected for one or more ‘fly-outs’ to present a job market interview at interested universities.

The setting is bizarre (which I don’t necessarily object to), and it is also incredibly competitive (which is why the economics case is one to pay attention to, as I am seeing other disciplines moving in the same direction). In fact it is so competitive that I heard my boyfriend mutter something along the lines of: “I would not have stood a chance in the current job market. These CVs!” Back home he had more evaluating to do. This time for grants. Again, a similar sentiment: “I’m not so sure my chances would have been as great to get a VIDI grant if I had applied now, compared to ten years ago.” Ouch. The job market is changing. And however much we hate it (and I do believe most academics aren’t too keen on this development, collectively squeezed as they are) you have to somehow work taking into account the present conditions. That or leave, which is increasingly an option to take seriously, especially right after the PhD.

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I asked Bas (pictured on the right, waiting for well-deserved best-of-San-Francisco-ramen-noodles after a long day of interviews), as he now is part of the human machinery of academic hiring and judging what he would advise current PhDs and ECRs.

How to prepare if you want to stay in academia?

This is what I’ve distilled from our conversations on the topic:

1. Publications

No surprise here. Publications are a sine qua non. Make sure you have at least one single-authored paper in the mix, and go for quality over quantity. [AD: I remember a conversation with my late supervisor in Florence who was concerned by the CVs with lists and lists of multi-authored papers, often produced without much individual say. To him this heralded the end of the profession. Some of his colleagues rather disagreed, and urged their PhDs to collaborate and ‘pool resources’ so to speak, often including themselves in the mix, at times adding themselves as first author despite little intellectual investment in the work. Depends very much on the field…]

2. Push to the frontier

The PhD and ECR years are an investment to learn all there is to learn about your field, then push to the frontier of knowledge in your field. This is very much a marathon-like pursuit: training, training, training, putting the miles in, rather than having to do with genius or superior intellect. Many academics aren’t exquisitely bright. They do well because they chose their niche well and simply were consistent and kept at it. It doesn’t matter where you start exactly, just get going. Put yourself out there.

3. Beware of ‘lamp post academics’

Imagine I’ve dropped my wallet in a dark little alley at night. Now, where do academics tend to look for the wallet? Right, you’ve guessed it – on the main road where the lamp post is. At least there they can see what is going on! In other words: avoid doing data-driven research. It doesn’t answer any interesting questions. Sure, you may be able to get a publication out of it, and some people manage to build their entire careers on data-driven research, but it’s hardly satisfying and it doesn’t impress. Try to find the wallet in a place you may actually find it, even though it might take some stumbling around in the dark.

4. Develop your idea, make it researchable and convincing

If you’re trying to get a grant for a project there are three things you’ll need to demonstrate:
1. That you’re capable. That you can perform the research proposed.
2. That whatever you are proposing to do is important. You need an idea, and you need to show that that idea will contribute to one of the important debates in the field.
3. You need to convince the evaluation committee their money will be well spent.
Don’t underestimate the second and third part. They are what gives you a competitive edge. Many people are capable, only a sub-set have interesting ideas, and only a small sub-set manage to communicate successfully how exactly the project will be set up. Many academics are great at theorising, but get stuck in the clouds. Don’t be one of them. Tell us why your research is important, and be as specific as you can regarding the details of how research will be carried out, what exactly the grant money will achieve. Many researchers fail to do so. They overestimate the importance of skill and technique and method and get caught up in showing off how clever they are. The main idea and realisation of the project are the more important parts, and is what will make your proposal stand out.

5. Get to know your field

Go to seminars regularly, and contribute. Get to know people. Pay attention. To succeed in academia you need to get involved, to show up, to engage. How does the tribe work? What are the do’s? What are the don’ts? Read between the lines. What are the important debates? What triggers the main discussions? How do people ask questions and how are they answered? Observe and learn. Engaging is an investment in your human capital, and you cannot go without.

Academia is a verb

What I have learned from observing Bas carving out an academic career for himself over the past decade is that academia is very much about doing the work, about getting engaged, about putting yourself and your work out there. Academia is a network of people with ideas, and becoming part of this network is as important as the ideas themselves. Another thing I’ve noticed, and the reason I believe he is doing well is inner drive. Depending on workload and competitiveness in your field inner drive is what will allow and motivate you to continue on the academic trail. You need abundant inner resources to overcome the obstacles and hurdles that are par for the course. Without, academia can be a tough gig, and you may be better off somewhere else…

Which of the above advice speaks to you? Should you focus in on that next publication, rewrite that grant proposal, or spend some more time getting to know people in your field? The inner drive part is addressed in the HappyPhD course. It will give you tools to uncover it, and help you work with ‘effortless effort’. As always, if you like this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

‘The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD into a Job’ – Reflections

Karen Kelsky, of ‘The Professor Is In’ has a book out, based on her years of advising PhDs. Preparing yourself (and the range of documents that represent you) for the job market is her niche. I once thought I’d regularly feature PhD book reviews on this site, that is until I actually read some PhD advice books. Many of them didn’t appeal. This one is an exception. If you are in academia, and want to stay there: get this book. If you want to quit academia: same. It is written from a U.S. Perspective with the U.S. (humanities) job market in mind, and although the job market and reward systems aren’t quite as bad in most (North-)European countries, much advice applies equally. What I appreciate most about Kelsky’s advice is that it’s frank. She discusses many of the unwritten and unspoken rules of the academic life and job hunt, and as an (now) outsider she can speak her mind, and believe me she does. She gives advice on everything from your publications to your CV to your language to your lipstick, and in the end she swears. To me, the swearing is worth the price of the book alone. (I wonder whether I should add this, but I acted the swearing bits out. Entertaining and liberating I can tell you).

The best advice of the book – and I add some of my own:

1. The Myth of ‘The Work of the Mind’ or: Face Reality

I was so impressed with the outraged swearing bits, and I think it’s best to start there, as I believe it goes straight to the heart of it. NOBODY IS TELLING THE GODDAMNED TRUTH – is what Kelsky exclaims on page 394. Her anger is aimed at the self-delusion of academics, who insist that academia is somehow different from the corporate sector, shielded from competitive pressures, even though it has become, in fact, a highly competitive and tightly squeezed and often unfair profession. The l’art pour l’art and meritocracy mentality in academia still prevails despite all evidence to the contrary: the unwritten rules of academia are that we should be ‘above’ the vulgar drudgery of practical matters such as money. The denial of the material is seen as admirable, as way of life that is, in itself a critique and a rejection of corporate and cultural forces. No, says Kelsky, who calls this the Work of the Mind myth: denying reality when it comes to money and career prospects does the exact opposite: it reinforces those structures, as they stay obscured. So better play the system than deny it.

I agree with her (though with some ambiguity, as a bit of an unworldly flower child myself, but then this is exactly Kelsky’s point), and have come to agree more with her over the years. I have personally experienced what it is like to hit a rough patch (debilitating illness) in academia, and in my situation, as I was on a performance-based grant system, it meant my income stopped from one day to the next. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that I know more about precarious living than I would like. It is no joke. Nothing against living dangerously for a bit, but there is an expiration date to the precarious lifestyle. And depending on the academic job market where you live and work, this may well be glossed over for the most part. Academics can often no longer afford to buy into the Work of the Mind myth, in the most literal sense. The system – in many academic job markets – is broken. And so are young academics’ bank accounts.

Taking this seriously, and taking seriously what you can do to improve your chances within the system, or how to improve your chances by leaving the system, is what Kelsky’s book is about. Professionalisation. Oh dirty word, and how we need it!

2. Be Strategic in Building Your CV

Where professionalisation starts is by knowing your job market and preparing for it. Yes, we’re talking building your CV, and being strategic. This goes against the myth of meritocracy in which the ‘best’ scholars will automatically be rewarded with jobs after their PhD. As we all know, with all the counting publications and ticking boxes that goes along with academia these days, this is no longer the case, and Kelsky hammers this point home. I will say this: the most successful PhDs are those who COMBINE high quality work (the work of the mind, and how well you all do it!), with a professional attitude towards presenting their work (this needs some work, probably). Call it being strategic, call it marketing or self-promotion. Call it whatever you want, but the fact is, although academics don’t like to talk about it: you should be doing it. It’s not about being calculating or taking action only instrumentally. It is about being professional. The book covers this in-depth, and it is highly valuable advice.

Some specific advice Kelsky gives here is with regard to getting published. She says waste no time on low-impact work such as edited volumes. I completely agree. Be strategic with your time and effort. Please. Much of this boils down to what is valued in your field, and it is important to figure this out. I’ll add to this by saying that not all academic markets are created equal. To give you a personal example: there is no hope in hell I would have gotten a position in the more quantitative-oriented field of political science after I finished my PhD, based on my non-existent publication record. That said, two scholars in slightly more sheltered fields, independently, urged me to apply for a position with their department/ institute. They said my work had potential and whenever they look for new recruits they value quality over quantity. My health got in the way, but the point here is this: try to find out more about your job market, and the job market in adjacent fields. Be prepared.

3. Be ‘not-Yourself’

Ooooh, I like this one, though there is a lot of room for semantic discussion here… Kelsky argues that being ‘yourself’ is just about the worst advice anyone could give a PhD about to embark on the job market. No, she says – you have got to be a marketable version of yourself. A professional version of yourself. Please, do all of us – and yourself in particular – a favour by not being yourself! To start the semantic discussion: who is more ‘yourself’: the person who shows their insecurities and too many of their personal hang-ups in professional situations (Kelsky’s definition of yourself) or the person who has a more mature and confident presentation, despite feeling the same insecurities (Kelsky’s definition of not-yourself)? To stop the semantic argument: it doesn’t matter what you call it, but bring your more professional self to the job interview! Much advice on this in the book.

(In case you’d like to know my stance on self versus non-self – just to you know, re-start the argument as even former academics do – the more confident person is the ‘truer you’ in my opinion. It is who we are without the nonsense we tell ourselves. And we, women especially, do a lot of making ourselves smaller than we are. I have written about this here. I believe this true, confident self is who should show up at the job interview. This isn’t a mask or a persona, even though something like a job interview is a performance no matter how you put it. But this confident self is who you really are. Your feeling insecure has nothing to do with it.)

4. It’s OK to Quit Academia

Finally, and I love this advice: It’s OK to quit academia. Kelsky gives you permission, and she is so very right. Academia is such an insular setting, and depending on your field, you may be brainwashed into thinking that although there may be life outside of academia, it isn’t worth much! This way of viewing the world is so arrogant I don’t even know where to start. Now of course, you realise I am writing this as someone who works as a coach (the horror), one who left academia, and one who reads self-help books. Can you fall any deeper one asks? Oh yes, you can: she sells (sells!) online courses via the Internet. That include words like productivity. What a life.

But in all seriousness: check your prejudices and those of your peers. A perceived loss of status can be hard on the ego, yet in the end, who cares. It helps to know, though, that leaving academia may hurt (or not), depending on how self-identified you are as an academic and how invested you are in seeing life in academia as the only way. Kelsky shares some personal stories about her transition to being a coach, which involve lying on the couch in the fetal position, and origami (not simultaneously). I truly commend her for including these personal stories, as they show how hard it can be to let go of what we thought was our life, while building a new one that may be, in fact, a much better fit. One that properly pays the bills to boot. As you would expect, she has a lot to say about that too.

You can buy Karen’s book here. It is very good. Do yourself a favour, and invest a few dollars in your future by buying it. Of course, as we’re selling, I have something to offer as well. It is the HappyPhD course. People say it is well worth the money. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Should I quit my PhD?

Last week an old friend and PhD colleague popped up on facebook. In fact I hadn’t spoken to him in eight years, since the moment he decided to quit his PhD. I remember going for a coffee together, him rather pensively stirring his sugar into his espresso, and telling me that was it – he was leaving. “One year of writing a PhD, and I haven’t been this depressed in my entire life,” he said. He also told me his professor was trying to persuade him to stay: his work appeared to be promising (and he was the kind of professor who likely saw being depressed and miserable as an integral part of academic life, and nothing to be overly concerned about).

I remember that coffee chat well, and I also remember being impressed with his decision to leave. In my mind it was a courageous decision: to not stay ‘just because’, but to actively quit because staying was simply not the right thing to do.

There are so many reasons to keep plodding along:

    1. Not wanting to ‘fail’, in your own eyes or the eyes of others
    2. Not wanting to give up the ‘certainty’ of a miserable PhD life in favour of a potentially equally miserable life outside of academia (and thus failing twice!)
    3. Not wanting to give up on something that sounds good, even though it may not feel good (again failure!)
    4. Not having to be confronted with your general cluelessness about life in general (failing full stop)

So, yes, basically just avoiding failure.

You realise of course, that I am not talking about my friend here. I am talking about myself. I thought he was courageous for leaving. Maybe I should have done the same.

I mentioned I would be giving a talk at our university in a month’s time. “You should come along,” I said. “I can tell them how to write a PhD without going nuts, and you could tell them about how to leave before you do!”

If you are doubting whether this whole PhD business is (still) right for you, consider the following:

1. Only pursue a PhD for the right reasons. In my mind, there are basically two, the first being the most important:
A. Writing a PhD is something you intrinsically want to do.
B. A career in academia is a career you are seriously considering pursuing.
(There is one exception: in some career paths – I am thinking about medicine- you are expected to write a PhD at one stage. In that case you just have to suck it up and do it, whether you like it or not).

2. If you are not enjoying doing your research, and are miserable a lot of the time nobody is stopping you from quitting. I am not talking about the bumps in the road that anyone writing a PhD has to face at some point. I am talking about semi-permanent PhD blues. There is nothing wrong with deciding that finishing your PhD is not something you are going to do. In fact, it might be a very good decision.

3. The only one who judges you harshly for the decision to quit your PhD is you! My friend thought I considered him a loser for quitting, and to be honest it broke my heart to hear him say that (my heart breaks easily). Of course I did not think anything of the sort. It is courageous to take bold decisions that are right for you. Conversely, it is cowardly to not take decisions you should take, because it goes against the conventions of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

4. Really, forget about ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and what it’s supposed to look like. You will never figure it out, anyway. (Or, if you do, email me and explain it to me – I need educating).

Are you contemplating quitting your PhD? Tell me in the comments!