Thursday, October 28, 2010

Diversifying the (white) Academy: A Brief Film

OK, so I was inspired to make this (PG rated) short, admittedly ridiculous parody cartoon about academic diversity by the person who made the "So you want to get a PhD in the Humanities?" clip. I enjoyed laughing at her silly, yet poignant, little film so much that I wanted to try it out myself. That the online movie making process is now easy enough for a true novice like me to produce something in about 30 minutes it pretty amazing.

Anyway, it was an experiment and a lot of fun to make, and it didn't take very long either, which is probably clear in the final product. And, yes, both of my characters do sound an awful lot like Stephen Hawkings (with no offense intended to SH.) In the process of making it last night, I think I amused myself more than anything.

If any other A.B.D.s and/or Ph.D.s out there make more short, crazy films to blow off steam and revel in some comic relief, please send the clips my way! I'll be happy to post more high-quality films here once I give them a look. We could all use a few laughs now and then . . .

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Considering a Humanities PhD? Think Again!

If you haven't seen it already, this brief homemade video, So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities , is currently making the rounds in cyberspace. Have time to take a looksie?

I checked it out today and had a good chuckle. The low-budget quality is great; perfect for the topic under consideration! You really should watch it all the way through--it's only 3 minutes long--because the film honestly does get better and better. How many PhDs out there had a similar conversation before applying to graduate school ages ago? How many more conversations like this will it take to convince young people that a humanities PhD, particularly in a field like English, is not always the best way to reward one's hard work as an undergraduate? There are better ways, my friends.

For what it's worth, I honestly do hope prospective PhD applicants will take the film's message to heart, even if they think it's a total exaggeration. (FYI: It's so not an exaggeration . . . regardless of how sad this may seem.)


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Decision to Walk Away from Academia

Guest post by Benjamin Harrison

A few years ago, with a three-year contract about to expire and a family to support, I found myself on the verge of leaving academia. While I might have been able to cobble together some sort of teaching position to tide me over another year, that is a game for someone who is young and single, not married and supporting a family. In short, if I hadn’t found a tenure-track job that year, I would have been out of academia, and the prospect was too awful to contemplate for any length of time.

I conducted desultory explorations of other careers, including academic administration, secondary school teaching, and strategic consulting. But mostly I went to see a therapist and indulged a short-lived (but profitable!) addiction to on-line poker. Happily, I landed a tenure-track job, moved, and found actual people with whom I could profitably play cards. If the secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits, that would have been the time, right?

Well, life goes on, even when it’s going well. Here I am, once again about to leave academia and…I’m fine with it. What happened? How did I get to this place? I’m planning a few posts on this subject, mostly because the route was neither straight nor obvious, but it’s one that many PhDs have to take.

Although it was by no means the most important factor, I can now say, “I succeeded and decided to move on.” I grabbed the gold ring of a tenure-track job, finished my book, wrote two articles of which I am quite proud, locked up tenure, and won a couple of spiffy grants. I could stay in academia if I wanted to. As stupid as it might seem, leaving voluntarily is fundamentally different than leaving because I have to. Obviously, I’m very lucky to have a tenure-track job to abandon, but I think the larger lesson applies to everyone who is on the fence. If you’re contemplating a move out of academia, or face the horrid prospect of having that move forced upon you, find a way to make the decision yours. If it helps, remember that academia makes some pretty unreasonable demands on its acolytes, and it’s often not worth the price. Go, and don’t look back.

An important step in making the journey out of academia voluntary is to figure out what is keeping you in. It isn’t the high pay, or jet-setting lifestyle, so what is it? For me, a big part of it was that my research wasn’t done. I had a half-revised book, and a second project I loved. I didn’t know it at the time, but figuring out how to leave my research on my own terms was tremendously important. The first step was to wrap up the book; so if that’s your ultimate goal, get cracking. You might find that once you have closure on that project, you can move on. In my case, however, it was the second project that drew me in. I had a story to tell, and hated the idea of never doing so.

The answer, I’m afraid, makes me something of a caricature: I’ve begun work on a historical novel. To my surprise, I have found that writing in this genre satisfies many of the same psychological and intellectual needs that scholarly writing does. Call it methadone if you like. Whether I’m writing a scholarly monograph or a novel, my goal is to understand the past, and communicate that understanding in a way my reader will find meaningful. The difference is that when Ben Harrison, historian, runs out of evidence, he runs out of argument. When Ben Harrison, novelist, runs out of evidence, he makes it up. Obviously this particular route is not for everyone, but if you love the academy because you love writing, don’t stop! For my purposes fiction allows me to continue to think and write about the past in a way I enjoy. And right now, that seems like a pretty good way to go.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Private Schools & Carney, Sandoe: Redux

For those of you interested in teaching at a private school in the near future, I have both good news and bad news.

First the good news: Carney, Sandoe & Associates (or CSA) are actively recruiting well-qualified job candidates (and yes, M.A.s and Ph.D.s are most welcome) who are passionate about primary and secondary school teaching and experienced in the classroom. America's largest recruitment firm for the private school market is not prejudiced against men and women with doctoral degrees. In fact, to potential employers, a Ph.D. demonstrates subject matter expertise, a factor which is taken quite seriously by hiring committees at private schools throughout the country. Since certification is not required to teach at a private school, applicants can demonstrate their subject matter expertise in other ways: hence the significance of a M.A. or Ph.D. in a core subject.

But, subject matter expertise is not the same as, nor should it be mistaken for, real-world experience teaching and/or working with young people between the ages of 13-17. CSA's clients are the private schools and they, not CSA, are seeking new faculty members who are committed to working with young people and interested in elementary or secondary teaching as a lifetime career, not a fall back, or 2nd choice, career. For better or worse, they don't want academe's leftovers. Private schools want top faculty members and, while you may be surprised to hear this, there are enough applicants out there--particularly for humanities and social science positions--that the schools can afford to be quite picky.

The last thing you want to do, then, is represent yourself as a "failed academic," someone who sought desperately, perhaps for years, to find a tenure-track academic position but then finally gave up and decided to try private school teaching on a whim. Segueing from the world of higher ed to the world of secondary school teaching is not something to take lightly. For many Ph.D.s and A.B.Ds who love teaching, it's a smart and valid choice; but not everyone is suited to teach at a private school. Hiring committees are wary of hiring disillusioned Ph.D.s who may or may not be truly dedicated to their school's mission or passionate about educating young people.

So if you are seriously considering private school teaching as a plan B, what can you do to prepare yourself for the job market and increase your chances of being represented by CSA? Well, first of all, if you haven't done so already, it's in your best interest to start interacting with adolescents as soon as possible. Have you ever taught, tutored, assisted, worked with, or coached high school kids, for example? If so, these experiences need to be highlighted in your application materials. If not, then the onus is on you to gain some face-time with young people before (*but I'll come back to this with a couple of caveats) seeking representation from CSA.

If you've never worked with young adults, moreover, how will you know if private school teaching is the right career choice for you? Although many Ph.D.s assume that university-level and secondary-level teaching are fairly similar, interacting with and designing course content for 13-17 year-olds, and their parents, is a different kettle of fish entirely. Some of these students may be as smart, if not smarter, than the college freshmen you've worked with in the past, but a private school curriculum (i.e. the core subjects and classes offered) is completely different than that offered at a four-year college. You will need to broaden your scope, put away your niche interests, and focus on the core subjects offered by private schools: English, social studies, math, chemistry, foreign languages, drama, etc.

Keep in mind, too, that within these primary teaching categories there is not a lot of wiggle room. In other words, if you're an historian specializing in female literacy in medieval France, you're not going to be offering a special subjects course on this very narrow topic in a private school anytime soon. Instead, you'd be expected primarily to teach survey courses: European history, World history, even American history and the like. There might be occasions when your particular area of expertise will come into play but not as often as you might like if you're truly fixated only on your own research interests. Of course, we all know that most tenure-track professors teach general survey courses as their bread and butter. It's not that different at the private school level, except that introducing a new, highly specialized course would pose a much greater challenge.

A couple caveats: If you're in a high demand field (such as sciences and foreign languages), then you're chances of being hired by a private school, even without much classroom experience, are greatly increased. It's just a simple matter of supply and demand. So for STEM folks out there, applying sooner rather than later might be a smart move. If, however, you have a Ph.D. in a humanities or social science field, you will need to work harder to stand out.

NB: I'll be talking more about private school teaching in the future, as will Benjamin Harrison, so check back soon for the continuation of this discussion.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Carney Sandoe, the Job Search & My First Referral

Would you hire me?
Guest Post by Benjamin Harrison

As some of those who are considering the leap to teaching in a prep school know, Carney, Sandoe and Associates (CSA) are the most important name in the business.

For the uninitiated, CSA is a search firm hired by independent schools to help them fill teaching and administrative vacancies. Candidates “apply” to CSA and if they are accepted, the firm then operates as a matchmaker, connecting candidates with schools. The hard part (or at least the first hard part) is getting past the CSA gatekeeper. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this process is that even having gone through the process, I have no idea what CSA looks for in a candidate.

A few years ago I applied, and got nowhere. Last year I applied again, and made it. Same guy, same CV for the most part (I doubt they care that my book is under contract!), different result. My only piece of advice is that if you apply and get turned down, contact someone at CSA and ask how you can improve your application. I know this runs counter to everything we hear about the market – the discussion forum on the Chronicle of Higher Education has many, many threads telling candidates not to contact the search committee and ask why they were turned down.

The difference, of course, is that a university’s search committee doesn’t care even a little bit whether you ever find a job. (Hell, by the time you receive your rejection they have forgotten your name.) CSA, in contrast, would be pleased as punch if you were to submit a stronger application, get through the process, and then get hired. Why? Because that’s how they make their money.

Once CSA accepts you, you have to fill out an extensive questionnaire to make sure that the match is a good one. The questions range from teaching background and interests, to the kind of school you’d prefer (boarding? Single-sex? Military? Religious? Militantly religious?), to your geographic preferences, and interest in extracurricular activities. Then you submit a vita, personal statement, transcripts and a list of references. And then you wait for CSA to work their magic.

The magic begins to happen . . . well, in my case it began today when I received my first referral. A referral is simply an email announcing that CSA has sent your file to a particular school. Ideally (though not always) the school will fit the criteria you laid out in the candidate questionnaire. In some cases, the school will then contact you offering a phone interview. In others, you must make the first move, sending a cover letter and/or email confirming your interest in the position.

The referral I received today stated that if I am interested in the position, I should follow up by mail or email. In this case, I have decided not to follow up – it is a relatively new school, which raises concerns about its stability, and (to be honest) at this point I’m feeling pretty picky.

*Have any comments or questions about the private school application process? Ask your questions here, or drop me a line at

Monday, October 18, 2010

Feeling the Job-Hunter's Funk

I've got a bad case of Monday morning fatigue today. I'm completely burned out with looking for jobs, applying for jobs, thinking about my professional future, remembering all those unsuccessful applications I've sent out in the past, and facing the sobering negative balance of my career choices thus far. Certainly this black cloud hovering above me, this feeling of utter weariness, is not a good sign for the first day of the "work" week: I should be fired up, pumped to put my nose to the grind stone, ready to start the week off on the right foot, or some other idiom appropriate to the job-hunter's unfortunate situation.

Nonetheless, I'm dragging; it's slow going in my mental household today. I'd greatly prefer to put my head down on the desk or slip back under the covers until tomorrow. When you're as far behind the professional/financial eight ball as I am, what motivation is there to keep plugging away day after day during a lingering recession? What good will all this unpaid labor really do me in the end? I've got all these academic articles in progress, for example, but hardly any relevant jobs to apply for. Am I losing the motivation necessary to press on in the face of obstacles? Oh, woe is me, right?

Goya, The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters 

On days like this I tend to smack myself, consume copious amounts of caffeine, or take a short break until my brain clears itself of what I like to call the job-hunter's funk, or simply, the funk. When you're a Ph.D. perpetually on the prowl for academic and non-academic employment opportunities, simultaneously trying to maintain an active research agenda on the one hand and experiment with new career paths on the other, feeling the funk is inevitable. There are days when you will feel like a big old lumpy useless undesirable BLOB, or like a tragic character in a Dicken's novel. Being stretched too thin, both personally and professionally, has its consequences; hence the overall funkiness of my day today-and not in a good way.

But I know I'm not the only one. One glance at the virtual world reveals plenty of depressed, exhausted, or apathetic A.B.D.s and Ph.Ds. looking for their next score, be it a job or a fellowship or a grant.

"I had just hoped for a less-exhausting job search season this year," writes someone by the name "minira" in a CHE forum thread. "But even narrowing the parameters of my search from last year's 'hit everything that moves' strategy, there are about a dozen jobs and postdocs I could and maybe should apply to. I'm just having trouble getting excited about any of them, and the thought of picking up and moving AGAIN next year makes me desperately unhappy." Minira is, of course, only one of many disgruntled voices out there. "The thought of going through the application cycle and moving again is exhausting," concludes another like-minded respondent.

Let's face it: we're all bone tired of submitting applications, waiting and waiting, and then, if we're fortunate, moving our crap from place to place in order to remain marginally employed. "Academic life is increasingly made up of a series of applications," bemoans Joseph Grim Feinberg, graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. "Months and years of my life have been taken away, and nothing short of systemic transformation will redeem them."

Feinberg might be talking solely about applying for grants but his first-person piece immediately brought to mind the hundreds of grants, tenure-track jobs, visiting faculty positions, postdoctoral fellowships, and nonacademic jobs I've applied for over the past several years. How many hours--days even--of my life have been wasted on the mind-numbing activity that is preparing job/grant applications? (Not to mention the time spent preparing for and traveling vast distances to preliminary and on-campus interviews.)

If there is one thing I've mastered, it's the ability to coast into mental auto pilot and apply for stuff. All sorts of stuff. I'm great at proposing things, stating my professional qualifications, and asking others for jobs and/or money. But constantly writing applications it's not the most productive way to spend one's time. It's not the most creative or useful activity. It won't help me out of the funk.

So what will? I dunno. Those articles I need to finish don't look too enticing. Neither do those applications I should send out. Ugh. Perhaps more coffee is the only solution . . .

Friday, October 15, 2010

Administrator-Scholars: Do They Have a Future in the Academy?

So I was reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed this morning and noticed the great article by Donna M. Bickford and Anne Mitchell Whisnant, "Building a Corps of Administrator-Scholars." [See:]

Bickford and Whisnant, both of whom are administrators and adjunct faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, begin by noting that more and more humanities Ph.D.s are assuming a wide variety of full-time administrative roles in the academy while continuing to research, write, public speak, teach and publish on the side. The significant academic efforts of these mostly female "administrator-scholars," however, remain largely unrecognized and unrewarded by academe. What Bickford and Whisnant would like to see is the creation of a formal system designed to recognize and promote the unique contributions of administrators with Ph.D.s., particularly those who remain active in their respective fields of expertise.

 "We've presented a proposal [at UNC] to design a system of options and policies that would better support and recognize the contributions of nonfaculty administrators with Ph.D.'s who occupy an often awkward in-between space in the academic hierarchy. Already in academe, people are talking about alternate academic careers for Ph.D.'s. But the promise of those careers won't be fulfilled without systemic change. Universities must create formal structures to assist our growing cohort in pursuing scholarly research and teaching while continuing to develop administrative skills and talents," they argue.

I think this is a fabulous idea, and one which might make academic administration much more desirable as an alternate career for talented Ph.D.s interested in the non-teaching aspects of academe. But the slew of comments following the article are reflective of the continuing, stereotypical bifurcation of the academy into administrator/supportive-drone types versus faculty/knowledge-disseminators.

"The mission of the academy is to discover and disseminate knowledge. Everything else is support. The faculty complete the mission and the staff (administrators) provide the support. This piece sounds like a backdoor into the mission end of the academy," argues one critic. But wait, responds another, your attitude simply "perpetuates a class-based version of academia where the faculty are the elite, and the staff are their servants." Yet another critic calls foul on both the aims of the article and the assumption that administrators can, and should, assume more faculty-esque smart-people tasks: "It has nothing to do with being a servant or being elite. The university has certain tasks that need to be done. You were hired to do those important tasks. If you are busy doing the work of a faculty member, than who will be doing the administrative work? Will we have to hire yet another administrator-scholar to do the work for which you were hired?" Certain tasks are reserved for certain folks; end of story.

Apparently you cannot work in a "support" role at a university and simultaneously engage in, and be rewarded for completing, some of the tasks of a faculty member, otherwise there will be no one around doing your critical admin role, whatever that may be. Holding down the fort, answering phones, filing paperwork, typing, talking to students. You know, supporting stuff. To use a sports analogy, faculty members are like the boxers, who go out, take a beating in the ring and capture the crowd's attention; administrators are like the lackeys on the sidelines, squirting water in the boxers' mouths, wiping them down, smacking them on the ass, providing moral and sometimes physical support. The administrator-lackeys might dream about being in the ring, beating someone to a pulp, reveling in a bit of glory, but who, then, would clean their mouth guard or rub their muscles after the fight? No one, thats who.

Don't mess with me; I've got a mission.
So is there really a future for so-called administrator-scholars in academe? Is the academy really ready for them? Or will the old, time-honored adage remain true?

Administration and faculty, never the twain shall meet.
(At least not in the ring.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Job-Hunting 101: Academic Style

Underneath the good cheer is a very queasy stomach.
To all the 2010-11 academic job seekers out there: Are you scrambling to put together last-minute applications for tenure-track job openings in your field? Is this your first year on the market, or have you already had several unsuccessful trips on the job market merry-go-round and are now feeling dispirited and perhaps sick to your stomach as a result? Wouldn't it be great to follow a simple and straightforward checklist, approved by search committees everywhere, when applying for tenure-track jobs?

Luckily, my newest Inside Higher Ed column "Standing Out from Herd" was not only written with the stressed-out, overwhelmed job seeker in mind but was also rubber stamped by various search committee members.

Here's a taste:

"Congratulations! Whether you’re a Ph.D., or A.B.D., in the humanities, social sciences, or a STEM field, the launch of another academic job market cycle is officially upon us. Now what? Let’s say you’ve scanned the job advertisements and found a handful of 2010-11 tenure-track job openings for which you feel qualified to submit an application. In the current climate of limited tenure-stream openings, large and talented applicant pools, and both rising and employed academic “stars” now setting their sights on mid-tier and teaching-intensive colleges and universities, how can you, a strong but perhaps not stellar job candidate, stand out from the herd? Do you have what it takes to compete this season?

I’d like to offer my fellow tenure-track job seekers a quick brush-up on the academic job application process in the form of a top 10 list – arranged in order of importance. Keeping in mind that application deadlines are looming, my advice is to get started on these tips ASAP."

If you're in need of guidance, or would just like a bit of reassurance, feel free to read the top 10 tips here:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Freelance Writing: Alternate Careers Continued

Not Your Typical Career Advice Post

I realize that some veteran freelancers may think it unwise to call freelance writing a "career" (in the sense of a full-time, paid position with benefits) and, at this point, I'm inclined to agree with them. Breaking into freelance writing is almost as difficult as finding a tenure-track academic job, only the pay is much worse and more sporadic. Simply put, making a proper career out of freelancing takes initiative, time, guts, connections, and supplemental resources; it's not the path of least resistance. You may have to live in someone's basement for a year, go without electricity or cable, or even subsistence farm your parents' backyard, in order to live the freelancing "dream." In fact, you may be waiting for the dream to pan out indefinitely. I'm not joking.

Crap, did I forgot to pay the electric bill again?

My own attempts to segue into freelance writing have convinced me that while it can be a great way to broaden your professional social circles, experiment with a variety of writing genres, and diversify your writing portfolio, it's not the best way to make money. Consequently, it's also usually not the best time investment. You might pour your heart and soul into researching, writing, and polishing that 1,500 word article over a period of several days, but you're still only going to get paid $100. And who wants to start off on an alternate career path that is not only strewn with significant hurdles but also pays worse than adjunct teaching? As for myself, I refuse to gear up madly in pursuit of yet another career promising limited, or nil, financial returns. (Been there, done that, thank you very much.)

I am, however, interested in attaining the following, all of which I believe freelance writing does afford:

1. Professional contacts in the non-academic world
2. Experience writing for a wide variety of print and online publications
3. Hands-on experimentation with writing genres outside my traditional comfort zone
4. Ability to reach new, diverse audiences
5. Short-term, incremental steps away from academe

Freelance writing is great for those of us who enjoy writing and working independently but are not sure if we're ready to make an actual career as a professional writer, either inside or outside the ivory tower, on our own or as part of an organization. I think we learn best by doing, and freelancing is one way to get busy and flex your mental muscles. FAST. You don't have to sit around for months and months waiting for the perfect full-time job to materialize. Instead, you can get out there and start working on small projects right away and even make a little pocket change. You can also make contacts with editors and establish positive working relationships with media professionals outside academe.

The important thing to keep in mind is that freelancing is not something you'll suddenly transform into a full-on, well paid career overnight. It's better, in my opinion, to think of it as a practice run, an experimental jaunt into the world of non-academic communication. It's a great way to test the waters and gain confidence in your ability to market yourself to, and communicate with, a much wider public than the small, exclusive circles of academe to which you've been confined in the past.

So far my freelancing "career" has consisted of article writing for legitimate magazines and other print/online publications, column writing for Inside Higher Ed, and manuscript editing and proofreading for various academics. All of these were either ongoing paid assignments or one-time only gigs, and they were acquired in a variety of ways. In some cases I sent queries and sample clips to editors before they commissioned me to write an article; in other cases I submitted completed articles and hoped for the best (not all were selected for publication); and still in other cases editors and fellow academics contacted me directly to ask if I would write a specific piece or proofread a text. Finding work through people you know, or organizations that you trust, is a wise way to get started. So, too, is submitting queries to editors at well-established print and online publications.

Do keep in mind that the world of freelancing is full of bottom feeders. Avoiding scams is key. Be wary of anything that sounds to good to be true! I was nearly suckered into a lucrative sounding part-time freelancing gig with a fictitious company whose sole intent in advertising for a freelancer was to convince X number of job candidates to pay an exorbitant fee per month to join an online site for writers. (Yes, is a scam. Don't fall for it!) A little online research indicated what was really going on and the misstep was easily avoided, but it is annoying to have to sift through false leads. For this reason, I would avoid hunting for freelance writing and editing leads via websites like There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this site but they tend to just scan Craigslist, which is full of dicey ads, and then post links to job openings that may or may not be legitimate. Why waste your time? Time is money . . . and mental and emotional energy.

In sum, on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate freelancing a 3 in terms of viable career options for humanities Ph.D.s. While I enjoy the work and will continue to pursue freelancing opportunities on the side as they come my way, I think I (we) can do much better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Beware the Career Transition Nightmare

You're running through a dimly lit empty hall filled with closed doors . . . rushing to find the right classroom . . . searching for lecture notes . . . trying to remember what you're scheduled to teach. Glancing down, you notice you're improperly dressed, or even naked, without shoes or socks, or god forbid, undies. Though you're 100% ill prepared for today's class, and full of terror and anxiety, you open the door and find hundreds of students waiting for you (or just someone scary). Making your way over to the lectern, you wonder what the hell you'll talk about today and why you don't remember accepting, or wanting, the position. You wonder whose idea this was anyway. There must be some mistake, you conclude . . . 

 . . . Moments later you find yourself on a motorbike, clad in shorts and a tank top, weaving through a crowd of people in an office building with one arm. In the other arm you're holding a black leather briefcase. Spotting you, someone important looking beckons you to follow them down a bright, artificially lit hall into a conference room. Everyone is waiting for you to take the podium. You open the briefcase . . . discover its empty. A cell phone rings. You answer. Its your lover, or spouse, or friend, reminding you that you never submitted your dissertation, or that its full of errors, and the graduate program is going to rescind your Ph.D. . .  You flee the conference room. Glancing at yourself in a random mirror, you see someone naked with missing teeth and hair. You can't find an exit, but that makes the terrifying little man in the corner whose watching you very happy indeed . . .

I give up already.
Sound familiar? This sample scenario pretty much sums up my latest round of job-hunting/career transition nightmares. I jerk bolt upright at 4am, with sweaty palms, a pounding heart, and feet tangled in the sheets. Annoyance with myself  for having such ridiculous anxiety dreams about teaching or looking for work or forgetting to attend class trumps whatever fears I might have just experienced in dream land. (Listen, subconscious, enough with the tardy, clueless student dreams already; I'm well and truly done with school now!)

These dreams are pretty easy to read. They're about losing control of one's professional identity and falling apart as a result. The equation is simple: if you lose track of your professional self, you lose everything, ranging from your sanity to your underwear. OK, for someone still fully in career search mode, that is a bit freaky. Why are our professional identities so entangled with our personal, interior selves? Is there some way to disentangle these various selves, to tell them apart?

Herminia Ibarra, author of Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, argues that a mid-life career change amounts, in essence, to a total reinvention of the core self. While we're holding on to the past with one hand, clinging tightly to the time and effort we've invested in a particular path, we're simultaneously reaching out toward an unknown future with the other. For career changers, this can lead to a confusing yet necessary period of being, as Ibarra calls it, "between identities," in which we feel deeply fragmented, pulled in several different directions at once. This experimental phase, though exciting at times, is truly nerve wracking for the individual.

"The reinventing process is rarely quick or easy, even for the veteran job-hopper. Emotionally, it is hard to let go of a career in which we have invested much time, training and hard work. Letting go is even harder when the alternatives remain fuzzy. And yet there's no avoiding this agonizing period between old and new careers: A transition can begin years before a concrete alternative materializes, as we start creating and testing possible selves," notes Ibarra.

Viewing the beginning or middle stage of a career transition as a trial-and-error period of experimentation, doubt, and inner turmoil, where our identities remain in a constant of flux, certainly explains the nightmares. Transitional states are never fun or easy; they're mentally, emotionally, and financially draining. And the bad dreams merely confirm how we're really feeling about being torn between options A or B, or pushed out of one career into another due to a lack of openings, or not having any money. But whether or not we end up actually making a professional switch, we still need to suffer through these painful periods in order to better understand, and test out, the possible selves before us.

Ibarra's work makes clear the underlying connection between what we do for a living, and the values and beliefs associated with our careers, and how we define ourselves. Our basic but implicit assumptions about life are often so buried beneath the surface that we rarely stop and think about how our working identity can either affirm or contradict personal values rooted at a much deeper level.

All this makes for excellent food for thought. Knowing the whole job search thing is really about the self is motivation to keep battling those pesky nightly demons. I'll try to keep an open mind, then, the next time I find myself in my undies in a dark classroom, alone with Freddy Krueger.

Nails on a chalkboard, anyone?

Friday, October 08, 2010

Prep School Applications: The Personal Statement

Guest Post by Benjamin Harrison

My deepest apologies for a long absence from this lovely page – midterms beckoned with an insistence rivalling that of a hungry infant...

In previous posts (here and here), I’ve discussed the differences between the job application materials required by prep schools and by colleges and universities. In the last post in this series, I’ll touch on the dreaded Personal Statement. In some ways this will read like the Statement of Teaching Philosophy that some schools require, and you may be able to adjust it, but there are also important differences. (For discussion of this subject by someone who has actually landed a teaching job in math, visit Sam Shah’s webpage. I’ll also admit that I feel less sure about this post than others I’ve written.)

According to Carney Sandoe’s website, your personal statement is “a reflection of your philosophy of education, your belief system in terms of pedagogy, and/or your ideas about teaching and/or administration. It is a way for your voice to shine through your file and reach out to potential schools... Your personal statement can take many forms. It can include anecdotal information that will make your candidacy more interesting to a school. It can outline your professional accomplishments and address how your experiences have prepared you for this move. You may want to touch on an example from your past where you were inspired by a former teacher or colleague. You could discuss a few of your personality traits, in particular those that help explain why you work well with kids or why you would be successful in a school setting. OR, you can blend any number of these themes.”

The personal statement is doubly important for Ph.D.s because, as I’ve mentioned before, some administrators are suspicious of a Ph.D.’s motives for seeking a job in a prep school. You’ve started to allay those concerns with your CV (which highlights your work with tweens and teens) and cover letter (which briefly explains why you’re doing this), but your teaching statement is where you have to close the deal.

As in the case of the letter and CV, your prep school personal statement will probably be shorter than your statement of teaching philosophy. (Carney Sandoe suggests 1-2 pages.) While the statement is shorter, it has to cover a lot of ground, perhaps more than your teaching philosophy. Think of your personal statement as a story that interweaves past, present and future. How did you decide that prep school teaching is the life for you, and what kind of teacher will you be? Many statements (including Sam Shah’s) begin with an anecdote that captures the moment at which the author’s desire to teach crystallized. Alternately, you might lead with a description of a particularly striking class-room experience that illuminates your teaching style. But in either case the goal is the same – to make the person behind the application come to life.

Leading with the personal accomplishes two important goals. First, it forces you to discuss your individual experience rather than wander off into a vague discussion of your teaching philosophy. (Guess what? Every teacher on the planet encourages active learning.) Don’t simply say that you try to get students excited about your class, explain how you do it. Do you try to connect chemistry to the real world? Of course you do, but how? Do you use literature to bring history to life? What books or poems do you use, and what lessons do students learn from them? Second, the act of writing about this key moment will bring a passion to your writing that both captures the reader’s attention, and (hopefully!) serves as a leitmotif for your entire statement.

Good luck, all. If you have corrections or comments, I’d love to hear them!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Alternate Careers, cont.: Commerical or Academic Publishing

Let me be straight with you. When I finished my Ph.D. a few years ago, my first thought (other than "oh, crap, now what? I've got to pay back my student loans . . .") was the following: "If I can't find a tenure-track job, or decide I'd prefer to do something else with my overly specialized humanities degree, the first alternate career I'm going to explore is the world of commercial or academic publishing."

I am a total bibliophile: I love reading, I love amassing books, I love stroking books (esp. old books), I love writing, and I love editing and proofreading the work of others. What a perfect job, right?

So I read as much as I could online and even bought a few books including How to Get a Job in Publishing by Alison Baverstock and Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future by Jason Epstein, as well as a thorough textbook introduction to the publishing world, the title of which I can no longer remember (sorry.)

I discovered quite quickly that the publishing world was undergoing a process of major transition due to the increasing importance and popularity of digital technology. Whether a job candidate was interested in working in editorial, marketing, production or sales, without a basic knowledge of e-publishing and other current trends, and an awareness of some of the larger crises facing publishers today, he/she would have little hope of either getting an interview or landing a job, even at the entry level.

Since I'm a historian and basically a speed reader, I read the textbook first and absorbed the history of publishing and the major world-wide players in the industry in about 48 hrs. So far so good. Then I moved on to reading about publishing as a business, learning how the four main departments (see above) function differently, and yet work together constantly, to achieve the final result. It became clear to me that I was most interested in the editorial side of things: working with authors, acquiring and editing manuscripts, writing copy, focusing on all the little details, etc. Reading How to Get a Job in Publishing, in which the duties of each department are discussed in detail, only confirmed my assumptions. Editorial should be my home department, assuming I could find a job in publishing in the first place. And this was going to be pretty tricky, considering the fact that I lived a FAR distance from any publishing centers. Like an academic position, a publishing job would require a move.

The first few resumes and cover letters that I sent out resulted in silence. Nothing happened; zilch. But I kept applying. The next thing I knew I had two interviews lined up, one with a major commercial press, another with a company that produces mainly textbooks. Both interviews were for entry-level editorial positions working with reference works. Not my #1 choice but at least I could get my foot in the door as an editorial assistant. And Baverstock and other industry insiders swear that just finding a job in the department you would like to work in for the long term, in my case editorial, is a great way to begin. Most people change jobs and/or positions relatively frequently in publishing anyway.

Needless to say the first interview didn't go as well as I had anticipated. First there was the editorial test, then there were all these touchy feely personal/professional questions, then there was the awkward and brutal salary disclosure, and finally, I discovered that I'd have to return for a 2nd round interview if I made it onto the short list. (You can read about my experience at the first publishing house, "Botching the Interview," here: I wasn't very poker-facey at this interview, and I did a poor job, I think, of hiding my disappointment about the low, low salary and need for another interview. I had already paid out of pocket to fly to said distant city, stay in a hotel, and take a taxi to the publishers. Having to do it again didn't bode well for my pocketbook, esp. considering the salary and lack of moving assistance. They also wanted someone who could start right away.

Another thing that bothered me was the spatial layout of the place and the gender dynamic. The publishing "house" actually looked like a bleak newsroom, with desks manned by women placed close together in the middle of a large, central room surrounded on the left and right by larger enclosed offices, nearly all of which contained important looking men. The lack of women in key positions made me feel slightly icky.

After some soul searching, I withdrew my name from the search and cancelled my upcoming interview with the 2nd publisher, who had already emailed me to ask if a max salary of $22,000-$24,000 was going to be too low for me. As a 30 yr old with a Ph.D., tons of debt, a need to relocate asap, and a partner based elsewhere, too low it most certainly was.

Disappointment set in immediately. I knew I would like the job, and the industry, even if being an editorial assistant seemed super easy and meant more for a 22 yr old with a B.A. But if I had lived nearby and not needed to make a professional level salary due to my poor life choices, I would have accepted the position regardless just to get a feel for the publishing world. There is nothing better than real experience to confirm your assumptions. Instead I walked away, remained in the academic world, and am still looking for a meaningful career with a decent salary. I don't regret my decision or my experience but do wish things might have worked out better. And I really wish editors received higher salaries.  

Moral of the story: Know what you are getting into; do research; read about the publishing industry and know what department you'd most like to join. Spend a lot of time looking at job ads and exploring company websites.

Useful sites:

*There are, I'm sure, lots of fantastic entry-level publishing jobs out there that no doubt pay better starting salaries (like $35,000). However, being independently wealthy can't hurt; for this reason working in publishing feels dangerously close to working in academe.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Get Thee to Boot Camp: Combating Obstacles on the Non-Academic Track

Over the weekend I made a mental list of the top 3 alternate careers I would most like to pursue if I either cannot find a tenure-track academic job or choose to leave the academy irrespective of my future prospects in the ivory tower.

In no particular order they are:
1. Writer/editor/researcher (in an academic, government, or corporate setting)
2. Head reference librarian (university, research, or public)
3. University administration, especially something along the lines of "associate director and/or director of ______ program" (women studies, career services, and the like)

Now, all of these options sound fairly reasonable for someone with a Ph.D. who also works as a freelance writer on the side. But there are large, disheartening obstacles attached to each alternate career I have listed. I can sorta see the light at the end of the tunnel but am unsure whether I'm 100% ready and willing to start jumping through a new set of hoops, or climbing ropes, or scaling fences, or doing push ups. (Although the intense workout would be a pretty sweet bonus in any case.)

Am I fit enough to navigate my way through?
Working as a full-time writer, in whatever setting, usually requires several years of steady employment experience. Right now I have a checkered professional history, with most of my experience involving part-time undergraduate teaching in one form or another as well as unpaid or low-paid administrative positions. I have never actually been hired by an organization to work specifically as a "writer" 9-5pm, M-F; instead I write a column, occasionally proofread for others, and publish various non-academic articles here and there, depending on the work available. Is this enough to land a job as a staff writer, despite my lack of full-time experience or references outside academe? Only time will tell.

The 2nd option, working at a library, is even more fraught with difficulties. Becoming a reference librarian requires an MLS degree in addition to the Ph.D. I have looked into this and experienced a feeling of revulsion upon learning that I would need to pay for and retake the GRE; submit undergrad transcripts; find people willing to write letters of recommendation; demonstrate mastery of a foreign language (again); and pay thousands of dollars to sit through 36 more credit hours of schooling. Um, yuck. It's not that I'm against going back to school, I just don't know if it would be worth it to me in the long run as an unemployed 30 something, when there are so many other things, I hope, that I can do with just a Ph.D. But the idea of being surrounded by books 24-7, and not having to sell anything, is awfully tempting.

Breaking into university administration sounds less than glamorous, I must admit, but it would allow me to use what I know and tap into my type-A personality skill set. I like the idea of helping to run a program and continuing to work with academics and students. But would I enjoy working with university staff and higher-up admin types on a daily basis? Again, I have no idea. Therein lies the problem. With limited administrative experience, and no experience managing people or budgets, why would anyone hire me for an administrative position when there are more than enough qualified applicants looking for work right now? My sense is that HR would place my application in the "REJECT" pile straight away, unless I had special connections. Hmm . . . need to work on establishing those connections.

In sum, I don't have a steady employment history doing, well, anything; I've spent the last 10 years in school and part-time teaching but I no longer relish the thought of teaching as much I used to; I don't have the additional qualifications necessary to work in a library; my lack of administrative experience doesn't bode well for an office job; and I haven't worked long or steadily enough as a freelance writer to prove that I'd be a good hire for a staff writer position.

Ugh, back to square one. If I was really smart I would establish a "Kick Your Soft Ph.D. Ass Into Gear" career transition boot camp. As long as the fees were low, I bet there would be plenty of takers. Who wouldn't like to tone up, lose a few pounds and prepare for a new career all in one go?

Ready to get buff and make $!?!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Translating the Value of the Liberal Arts Degree

How do we reach parents and students increasingly anxious about the economic outcomes of their undergraduate degrees and still manage to convince the next generation to invest in liberal arts majors and classes? Proclaiming the "value" of the liberal arts in the abstract (good citizen, critical thinking skills, flourishing life of the mind, etc.) is no longer working, writes Richard A. Greenwald  in an article today at Inside Higher Ed:

"We need to speak more concretely to the economic as well as the intellectual value of a liberal arts degree," he observes. 

I agree, of course; boy do I agree. I only wish the concrete rather than abstract value of a liberal arts degree, and now Ph.D., was clearer to me, too. I went into this at age 18 (in the beginning at least) believing that the liberal arts allowed for the greatest amount of self exploration, creative expression, reading/writing, and critical analysis, all elements I sought in a major, and especially in a lifelong career, at the time. I still seek these elements in my pursuit of a professional life but have now come to realize that they're not appreciated by the vast majority of people in the US and that getting paid a decent salary to be a well-rounded, smart, critical thinker and writer is incredibly difficult. The economic value is still lost to me personally.

So who can blame these skeptical parents and undergrads? We liberal arts majors don't usually have good news to report about our personal financial situations, at least not at the moment. Well, come to think of it, none of my friends who majored in English, history, or anthropology back in the day ended up where they would have liked. Let me give you an illustration of where they are now.

Some highly subjective but legit examples of real-world results of liberal arts degrees:
1. Waitress for a catering company ($12.00 per hr)
2. Library assistant ($15.00 per hour)
3. Library clerk ($11.00 per hr)
4. UPS driver ($10.00 per hr)
5. High school teacher ($45,000)
6. Adjunct university instructor ($12,00 per year)
7. Administrative assistant ($38,000)
8. Assoc. director of an academic program ($40,000)
9. Tenure-track professor ($50,000)
10. Freelance writer (negligible salary info.)
11. After-school programs consultant ($13.00 per hr)
12. Unemployment benefits

Where's my change?

I could list more results but the proof is in the pudding: no one I know with a liberal arts background makes more than $50K per year, and these are people in their 30s and 40s. Now, for some, a salary ranging anywhere from $12-50K, with both $12 & $50K being the result of many additional years in school, might be good enough. I say let's advise all of those people with low salary expectations (and hence no knowledge of the costs of real world living) to major in the liberal arts. Then no one will be bitter and shocked down the line.

My list is also reflective of the major "economic shift" that Greenwald talks about: "Today estimates are that over 25 percent of the American population is working as contingent labor -- freelancers, day laborers, consultants, micropreneurs. Sitting where we do it is easy to dismiss this number because we assume it comes from day laborers and the working class, i.e., the non-college-educated."

Um, NO. I don't assume it comes solely from the non-college-educated. Only someone sitting relatively pretty would make such a statement!

"Today’s liberal arts graduates will need to function in an economy that is in some ways smaller. Most will work for small firms and many will simply work on their own. They will need to multitask as well as blend work and family," he concludes.

None of this sounds that promising to me as a job-seeking Ph.D. in my 30s. Can't imagine how it would sound if I was 18.