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!