The professor is in

I have a large, ever growing, pile of books sent to me by publishers in the hope that I will review them.

Smart publishers know that I have an interest in helping you make best use of your (probably limited) book buying budget. I’m even thought to have quite a lot of influence in the research education world… well, I have been around for so long people can’t remember when I started blogging (least of all me), so it’s more or less the same thing. But, it takes me a really long time to read and digest all these books… way too long.

I’ve started to call my ‘To Be Read Pile’ the ‘Pile of Guilt’

Anyway. Today I’m going to talk to you about “The Professor is in: the essential guide to turning your PhD into a job” by Karen Kelsky, PhD. I should have written this review ages ago because it’s easy. I only need two sentences:

  1. This an awesome book.
  2. Go and buy it immediately.

You can stop reading now if you like, but I suspect many of you wont. The Thesis Whisperer audience is full of discerning, intelligent people and you probably need more than two sentences to be convinced of buying anything – and rightly so. Let me expand on my two basic points.

Karen Kelsky used to be the head of department in a major US university, but quit everything to become a freelance career coach and blogger, running the website Why? Well, like an increasing number of people, she seems to have found the Academic Hunger Games wearying and opted for another life where she can use her skills as an academic mentor at large. Good for her I say and good for the rest of us, who can now benefit from her expertise.

I have watched Karen work online for a while and been consistently impressed with the way she operates. I’ve been blogging for years now and in that time I have seen websites seeking to cater to PhD students come and go. Many of them, to be frank, are pretty shonky. Offering generic, bland advice. Not so Karen Kelsky.

All the articles I have read by Kelsky fairly zing off the page with wit, passion and a deep, pratice-based knowing that gives her instant credibility. Her book is no different. This book is a fun read, chock full of advice for sure, but told through the auspices of stories and examples so that it’s engaging, not dull and preachy. Kelsky’s passion for her work comes through on each page.

One of the differences between Kelsky and myself is that I am a researcher of research education as well as a practitioner. In the last two or three years I have developed a keen interest in graduate employability. In fact, I have been almost exclusively researching in this area and publishing papers, so I’m as close to an expert on PhD graduate employability you are likely to get. Hence taking so long to read this book – I wanted to make sure that Kelsky had her facts right, and I am very please to report that she does. But she does so much more than report facts in this book.

The chapters cover a vast territory, from explaining the job seeking process, to publishing the right kind of papers, making sure you have the right documents, briefing you on the academic interview, pointing out key traps, negotiating the offer, getting grants and becoming a good advisor to others when you have achieved your dream academic job. It’s a dizzying array of material and the book is correspondingly large at nearly 500 pages (that’s my excuse for taking so long to read it anyway).

The best part of the book though, in my view, is the very end – a section aptly called ‘Leaving the Cult’. After some 400 pages of telling you exactly how to become an academic, Kelsky tells you how to stop being one.

She starts in a reassuring, but somewhat depressing way:

“It is OK to quit. It is OK to decide to move on and do something else. What started out as an inspired quest for new knowledge and social impact can devolve into endless days in an airless room, broke, in debt, staking at a computer, exploited by departments, dismissed by professors, ignored by colleagues, disrespected by students”

I had to take a deep breath after that. Actually, I think I needed a tot of gin, but she carries on:

“It’s OK to decide that’s not what you want. There is life outside of academia. But academia is a kind of cult and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted in its walls”

How true this statement is. I teach workshops on career destinations and opportunities. My “How to get a job in academia” one is always over subscribed, while I struggle to fill rooms with my “Plan B: destinations outside academia” one. The pull of the normative – what everyone else is doing – is very strong. I’ll admit, reading that section at the end is hard because it rings of truth – and honest emotion. Kelsky has been there. She has felt the shame and embarrassment of admitting that academia is not for her. I could relate to these feelings, I felt them when I left architecture, to the horror of so many of my colleagues who could just not understand my decision.

In one of the final chapters, “Let yourself dream”, Kelsky starts to offer some concrete ideas and strategies for moving on. The best part of this is her observations on motivation and her description of her struggles to identify her own source of motivation I laughed when I read what motivated her – exactly the same thing that motivates me! But you’ll have to read the book to find out 🙂

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If  you buy The Professor is in: the essential guide to turning your PhD into a job via this link you will donate a little bit of money to the ongoing costs of running the Thesis Whisperer – thank you!





14 thoughts on “The professor is in

  1. joannelehrer says:

    That is a great book, but I am surprised you weren’t as put off by the U.S. bias as I was, ‘must mean Australia’s academic culture is closer to the U.S. reality than Canada is! I also found it very much geared to younger students. while I appreciated the paper form of the book, all the content is also available on her excellent blog (for you cash-strapped grad students).

  2. Tori Wade says:

    Academic Hunger Games – yup! I quit the academy a couple of months ago, about 4 years after finishing my PhD as an older student in my 50s. Not for lack of personal academic career success (got to a Level C and became EiC of an international journal), but because it was impossible to get major grants and start building my own team. Also because I despised the lack of work/life balance. I always hated writing grant applications on the weekend and I saw way too many people for whom that was simply part of their weary, ground-down existence.
    The 21st century should be a golden age for learning and research, but the absurd ideology that money is everything as opposed to being a tool to do actual useful things has led to the tertiary education sector being starved and beaten. With the exception, of course, of the corporatised senior management.
    So now I’m getting yet another new life, and will shortly be signing off from this list. Just to say, doing my PhD was one of the highlights of my life; way more enjoyable, collegial and interesting than I thought it would be (and no I haven’t blotted out the final writeup phase). Knowing when to leave, however, is a very important skill. Actually leaving took a while i.e. finishing projects, finding someone to take over the journal etc, but now it’s done. Thanks so much for all the sage advice over the past 10 years and best wishes.

  3. Kerry says:

    I received this book as an ARC copy (in exchange for an honest review) just after I completed my postgraduate studies two years and I kept on thinking “Where was this book for my past academic year?!” Although, I am not so keen on pursuing academia right now, I think that still it can be a useful tool for anyone considering this route but should pick it up as early as someone in his/her undergraduate years to assist in future planning ( I believe she has such an anecdote in the book).

  4. carinaoreilly says:

    Joanne may have answered my question but I’ll ask it anyway – does this book have any relevance outside the US? Though the situation for postgraduates isn’t great in the UK, it is a long way from the Hunger Games of Academia that we hear of in the States. Is it actually worth buying (or even reading) for a postgrad trying to make their way outside the US?

    • ClareGS says:

      I’d come down down here to task the same question – it would be great to know how US-specific the advice is, or whether it is transferable to UK (and other) contexts?

      • joannelehrer says:

        The advice is useful – the context is completely irrelevant – does that make sense? She tells you how to prepare for a job interview, how to craft your application materials, I found it very practical, but check out her blog, it’s the same content. Actually the blog has some additional info, about interviewing at Oxford or Cambridge, that is not in the book…

  5. Lurker says:

    While I agree that much of the content is on the blog, I’d add a pitch for buying the book (if budget allows) as it provides a nice structure and flow, and is a nice reference. Plus it’s nice to buy the book to show support if you’ve benefited from the free blog (as I did with the ThesisWhisperer book) Context-wise, I think much of the advice is still incredibly useful outside the US, especially the attitude to PhD/career planning, but you’ll need to research and consider the specific interview/job application culture you’re applying in. I recently served as student representative on a faculty search panel and was amazed by just how clueless many of the applicants were about basic interview protocols (for any job, let alone a professorship) – they would have benefited immensely from this book.

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