Monday, September 27, 2010

Why Being on the Academic Job Market Sucks: Part II

Discovering the Declining Market Value of Your Research Speciality
So I caffeinated myself this morning and sat down to take inventory of all the advertised tenure-track job openings in my particular historical field/chronological period, and the resulting list is pretty grim. OK, I'll be totally straight with you: it sucks. In fact, saying I made "a list" of the jobs that I both am qualified for and would accept if offered sounds silly since there are only 3 jobs in total.

Back in August, I predicted that the 2010-11 academic job market was going to be bleak for people like me, that is Ph.D.s who are neither A.B.D. "stars" nor specialize in currently trendy, for whatever reason, fields/regions/sujects/time periods. (In history the trend thing is relatively unpredictable and has ranged widely in recent years from environmental, Western, and Native American history to Middle Eastern, African, and Atlantic world history. Right now Asian history is having its heyday, if you want to call it that.)

One minute your major research topic can be "hot"; the next minute, it's OUT, ala Project Runway. However, the obvious difference is that clothing designers might spend at most a few months working on a new look before discovering it fails to measure up to the fashion world's latest whim. Academics spend years and years (even decades) researching, writing, rewriting, publicizing, agonizing over, waiting for feedback on, and, finally, publishing their work.

If a historian's special niche topic, which required multiple overseas research trips over a period of 5-6 years, suddenly lacks lustre in the academic marketplace, due primarily to external factors, what's one to do? Start over? Chuck the entire thing or tear it to shreds like last season's gown? Change topics or fields? Pretend to specialize in the Mediterranean world? No, the reasonable thing to do is press on with one's original topic and hope for the best, a tactic that may or may not work out in a junior historian's favor but is nonetheless the only option for most of us.

Of course, it's feasible that we junior scholars could simply walk away, say "to hell with it," and start exploring new non-academic career possibilities, so long as they absolutely do not involve spending multiple years on a magnum opus with little, or 0, market value. But walking away from this brutal market is a simultaneously liberating and terrifying prospect. I would feel immediate, intense relief if I stopped laboring at something that no one really wants to employ me full-time to keep producing. If there is no demand for what I'm selling, why continue to sell it? If my one-woman ship is going down, why not grab the nearest lifeboat and make for shore? (Really, how many metaphors do I need to construct before it finally sinks in that my work is not even valued by academe?)

Get me off this shinking ship-stat!
Yet I've invested years of my life and plenty of money and emotional energy on my academic career and particular subject matter. International institutions have given me grants and fellowships to support my research program and keep this sinking ship afloat, even though no one wants to commit to me for the long haul. Setting a match to my academic efforts thus far would feel like such a waste. But, as a lowly individual job seeker, I have no control over the academic marketplace. I have no control over anything other than my own decisions. Too bad I'm so damn indecisive.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Colbert Before Congress: Happy Friday!

Careers in Corporate Communications

Interested in transitioning from the ivory tower to Wall Street? Think the reading, writing, and analytical skills you acquired in graduate school, and perhaps beyond, would work well in a high pressure (but well paid) corporate setting? Sick of living in your parent's basement or a dull, dumpy, isolated college town!?

Then check out my latest Inside Higher Ed "On the Fence" column: From Academe to Wall Street.  In this piece, I chat with "Sally White," a former medieval professor turned Wall Street writer and novelist who successfully transitioned out of academe in the 1980s. Sally has not only had a fascinating career, she also has many useful and specific pearls of wisdom to share with Ph.D.s considering non-academic employment options, especially in the private sector.

Comments and questions about the interview are welcome and will be read by both Sally and myself!

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Off Subject: A Light Hearted Antidote to the Tea Partiers

Order now at !
Off Subject
Tired of all the Tea Party "take back America" hype? Feel sick to your stomach when you hear statements like the following by Sarah Palin, Queen Tea Partier, on Fox News: "I would offer myself up in the name of service to the public and run for President in 2012 if nobody else wanted to step up." Desperately need a laugh (and maybe even a new T-shirt) because the Tea Partiers have got you down?

Why not drop by the I'm Voting Tea Party website @ and pick up a T-shirt designed by Jeremy Kalgreen. I'm partial to the "Obama Won't Let Me Hunt the Homeless for Sport" T in navy but also think the "Obama Won't Force Muslims to Worship Jesus" T in chocolate brown is pretty good as well. It's a tough call, really; perhaps go for both? ("Obama Won't Nuke Canada" is also a gem.)

Order now at !
*NB: I am in no way affiliated with, nor do I benefit from, the I'm Voting Tea Party website and its products, other than feeling vicarious glee when anyone sticks it to the Tea Party.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Student Excuses: Some Things Never Change

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Grandparents are always dropping dead left and right at the beginning, middle, and end of the university semester or quarter system. Somewhere out there is a graveyard of unfortunate grandparents who never lived to see their grandkids make it through their first semester of college. "I couldn't submit my paper on time because I had to attend my grandma's funeral," is a fairly common statement made by American undergraduate students. (See the recent Chronicle of Higher Ed news piece on the "dead grandma phenomenon" for more classic examples:

In my time as a teaching assistant/instructor in the history department at Comprehensive National University (CNU), I fielded a myriad of comments, complaints, and concerns from students who worried they'd be penalized because of a family tragedy, a case of the stomach flu, a car accident, a family ski trip, a dramatic break-up, a 3-day old rancid burrito, a birthday party, an infectious spider bite, or a freak case of twisted testicles (I kid you not!) Mostly, these cases of student excuses bordered on the dull and tedious (a dead grandma, a twisted ankle, food poisoning, and the like). They all had the same lame reason for not submitting a paper or coming to class. It was a rare day when one of these students actually blew me away with their creativity and/or deviousness, or just plain bad luck, as in the case of the testicles mentioned above. NB: That guy had a signed note from the local ER, BTW, so it was pretty clear it was legit.

The thing is, undergrads are notorious for waiting until 3am to start a paper or study for an exam. Sure, they might have had 4 weeks to prep for the paper or exam but they're sure as hell not going to plan in advance! Start a paper one week early? Are you joking? Study for several nights before an exam? Are you nuts?! It's not that they're universally lazy or apathetic, they're just . . . busy. Really busy. Just ask my 20-yr old younger sibling. And lest anyone think I'm being overly harsh, remember I was an undergrad once too. Although I never claimed to have a dead grandma or a case of twisted testicles which prevented me from completing an assignment. But that's just me.

When tasks and deadlines therefore inevitably start to mount up come exam or paper time, and undergrads began to feel suddenly overwhelmed, the natural solution for many students is to fish around for a reasonable excuse: like a dead grandma. No one wants to admit the obvious: "I'm just so freakin tired and behind schedule because I stay up late with my friends most nights drinking and partying and hardly have time to read and write or think. I have to take all of these boring courses, including your's, and write all these pointless papers, when I'd really rather be doing something else. Anything else. So can you just, like, get over yourself and your "standards" and let me turn the paper in later, when I'm up to it? What's the big deal anyway? It's just a stupid history paper."

What they don't realize is that when they're speaking to me after class and saying, "Blah, blah, blah, can't turn in paper/take exam because my grandma yada yada yada  . . ." what I hear is, "I don't give a sh@! about this class; you're just a sucker like the rest of them; I've got better things to do." And so on. They speak, but I hear what they're really saying; we all do. We're not dumb. So let's just skip the pretense and start getting honest with one another, students. It will save everyone time and emotional energy and not place a death jinx on grandma.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Are You a Job Market "Star"?

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Recently, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education forums (see thread:,72036.0.html), academics employed on the tenure track at mid-tier universities have been discussing whether or not search committees should automatically eliminate "star" candidates from the applicant pool. Who are these so-called stars? Why exactly are members of search committees concerned about them?

The query began like this:
"So, those of you who've been on search committees: do you eliminate the star candidates if you deem them unlikely to accept or stay? There's a stellar candidate in our pool, for example, and I would be shocked if this person had less than five top offers. . . . My hunch is not to bother interviewing such candidates and risk failed searches in a time of such scarcity with [tenure-track faculty] lines. I don't even see why she'd stay at our school if she somehow took the job. . ." 

For those of us currently on the 2010-11 academic job market such questions seem both premature and absurd. Have they seen the job advertisements this year? Don't they know what were working with here? Of course, there will always be academic "stars" who really will receive numerous offers even during periods of bleak market prospects. These are the folks with elite pedigrees and hot research; powerful, well-connected, and active advisors; a large and supportive academic network of supporters and referees; numerous fellowships and peer-reviewed publications (even at the ABD stage); solo teaching experience; and either a book contract in hand with a top press or a book already forthcoming (or even just released).

Are you one of these lucky people, by chance? I can assure you that I am not. My pedigree, though easily recognizable, is not "elite"; my research is far from searing hot right now (there are only a couple of jobs in my subfield in any case); my advisor is active but not a powerhouse; my international network of connections is limited; I have won numerous fellowships, presented at tons of conferences, and published, but I have yet to publish a string of articles or secure a book contract. I am, in other words, a strong candidate but not an excellent one, not a star by any stretch of the imagination. During flush times someone like me would no doubt have already received a tenure-track offer. Now, however, with limited tenure-track faculty openings and all these "stars" darting about the academic stratosphere, I and others like me apparently don't stand much of a chance, even at mid-tier unis with heavier teaching loads or those in blatantly undesirable locations.

Or do we? Forum debates such as the one linked to above indicate that there are quite a few prejudiced tenured and tenure-track academics out there on search committees. They are deeply wary of stars, preferring to hire someone good but not amazing, someone who will stick around so the hiring department won't lose the line down the road. But how do search committees separate the shining stars from the meteorites? How can they  tell who is truly serious and committed and who is merely treading water until something better comes along? What to do?

One respondent suggested the following compromise: "We have this conversation in my department every year (and its variant, the should-we-list-this-person-who-already-has-a-great-job conversation). Our solution is to aim for a range of types on the short list: the rising star (if we don't list this person, the dean will say we're seeking mediocrity...), the star with the good job, BUT ALSO the excellent candidate who might be more likely to fly under other people's radar. And every now and then, someone from one of the first two categories will in fact accept our offer-- you can never tell what motivates people. Still, we've had more than one failed search lately."

Or, as another respondent noted, "My guess is that you don't have 3 candidates that are huge stars, so, why not just interview the one star as a long shot, and then you'll probably really get one of the two other "normal" people."

So, it seems, we "normal" earthlings do stand a chance, if and only if the applicant pool is not full of rising and already-employed stars; if these same people end up with multiple offers; AND if the hiring department aims for a range of types on the short list. But, honestly, even though I know I'm not a mediocre candidate, I'm still not holding my breath. As one anonymous search committee member noted, "I think we are now experiencing what some humanities folks have been experiencing for a long-time -- a glut of really great candidates. So, someone mediocre is just not in the cards."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Writing a Column: My Guest Post at The Urban Muse

Today I'm guest blogging at The Urban Muse, Susan Johnston's popular website for freelance writers, on the following topic: "How to Land Your Own Online Column."

Here's a brief taste:
"Many freelance writers dream of becoming a weekly, bi-monthly, or monthly columnist for a major online publication. As a columnist, the work is steady, you have a built-in audience, and, depending on the focus of the column, you’re essentially expected—and paid—to write first-person opinion pieces. The column becomes, over time, an individualized public meditation, a series of related articles showcasing your personal viewpoint on a particular subject. Done well, a regular column will accrue a dedicated readership (and keep you steadily employed).

What more could a non-fiction author ask for?"

But things are, of course, not always as simple as they seem!

Check out the rest of the guest post, and my pointers for pitching a column, here:

From The Urban Muse website


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Getting a Ph.D.: Often Not the Best Time of Your Life

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The inspiration for this post came to me after reading a news piece on Inside Higher Ed this morning: 'When College Is Not the Best Time' (Sept. 15, 2010; Serena Golden interviewed David Leibow, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and author of the new book, What to Do When College Is Not the Best Time of Your Life (Columbia University Press), asking him about the biggest problems faced by college students (i.e. undergrads) today. It turns out that financial or relationship difficulties are less likely to pose a significant problem for college students than academics. 

According to Leibow,  "College students want to succeed. They want to fulfill their own ambitions and make their parents proud. If their grades are low, and especially if they're forced to delay graduation or drop out, they feel demoralized and ashamed. Plans for further education are scrapped; career aspirations are abandoned; life trajectories are thrown off-course. If they were meeting their own expectations academically and had a few friends, most college students would be happy. And they'd be in a better position to deal with the other challenges that inevitably come along."

I am no longer a college student, and don't plan to become one ever again, but I can certainly relate to the feelings mentioned above. In fact, let's replace "college students" with Ph.D.s, and make a few other changes, and then see how the same paragraph takes on a new meaning:

"College students Ph.D.s really want to succeed. They want to fulfill their own ambitions and make their parents proud; and would particularly like to find a job after spending their entire lives in an academic bubble. If their grades chances of gainful/meaningful employment are low, and especially if they're forced to delay graduation or drop out or leave the ivory tower entirely, they feel demoralized and ashamed. Their judgemental advisors, and the seeming life of ease enjoyed by other, successful academics on the tenure track, make them feel like shit. They turn to drink or drugs or bad T.V. and contemplate teaching high school. Plans for further education are scrapped (I mean, really, what's the point anymore?); career aspirations are abandoned (tenure-track job? HA! As if!); life trajectories are thrown off-course (subsistence farming in someone's backyard becomes a distinct possibility). If they were meeting their own expectations academically, found work after graduation, got laid, and had a few friends, most college students Ph.D.s would be pretty happy. (This is because they still believe the myths of the tenure track). And they'd be in a better position to deal with the other challenges that inevitably come along, like their own imminent mortality."


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Myths of the Tenure Track

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Guest Post by Benjamin Harrison
As I consider the prospect of leaving academe (or, “leaping from the ivory tower” to borrow WorstProfessorEver’s felicitous phrase), and get to know more people who are already out on the ledge, I find myself wondering, “How in the world did we get here? How did we find ourselves in jobs that are so far from our original goal?”

While in graduate school, I had many conversations about the future and, no matter how drunk I became, I never said, “I’d like to teach at a mediocre school. I want to be thrilled when 1/3 of my students do the reading. I want to teach broad surveys to students with no interest in the humanities, who I’ll never see again. I want my research to wither and die for lack of funding.” And I’m damn sure that when my friend Hoboken Jones (pseud.) finished his doctorate at Ivy U, his career plans did not include “Come in second in multiple job searches, and spend years on end adjuncting for lousy pay.” How, then, do really smart (or at least well-educated) people find themselves stuck in lousy jobs and careers when other options are available?

The answer lies in two myths that prevail in most graduate programs. For their entire graduate careers students are told, and tell each other, that getting a tenure-track job is the alpha and omega of their studies. What is more, students come to believe that landing on the tenure track leads inevitably to professional fulfilment. This message is problematic on a number of fronts. Most obviously, the ongoing collapse of the job market places success beyond the reach of many scholars. But the “tenure track = success” message also omits the fact that – to be frank – many tenure-track jobs are not all that great. Whether it’s the workload, working conditions, or location, many of those who land tenure-track positions find academe lacking in important ways.

To be clear, I do not believe that graduate advisors knowingly set up their students for disappointment. But I do think that professors at Berkeley, Chicago and Yale have no earthly idea what life is like at chronically underfunded, third- and fourth-tier universities. They’ve never taught students who are unprepared for college. They don’t know that the pay at many schools is too low to support a family. They have never had to pay for conference registration out of their own pockets. But how could they know these things? Graduate advisors are among the lucky ones,  “The lottery winners, those with light teaching loads, sabbaticals, and research support.” They travel through life blissfully ignorant of how the other eight-tenths live; and if I were in one of these good jobs, I would not even consider leaving. I don’t have a particularly good solution to this problem. Simply informing graduate faculty and students of this reality will do no good. If the demonstrable horror of the job market does not dissuade a graduate student, complaints from a few malcontents on the tenure track are unlikely to make any difference. Every student is convinced that she will be the one to grab the brass ring.

The second myth that sustains miserable faculty is that with enough hard work, a good scholar can publish his way out of an undesirable job. While this may have been true ten, fifteen or twenty years ago, in today’s world the “starter job” is no more real than Bigfoot. No matter how good your CV, if there are no jobs, there are no jobs. But myths are more comforting than reality. The myth of “writing your way out” allows us to continue believing that while the academic hiring process is cruel and capricious, academe as a whole remains a meritocracy. Good scholars can find good jobs.

The perpetuation of the “write your way out” myth is pernicious and demonstrably at odds with reality, but survives because it serves a number of powerful interests. Most obviously, it comforts young faculty when they discover that their library has not purchased any books in their field since 1975. “No problem,” I told myself four years ago. “I won’t be here long.” Second, it comforts graduate advisors. If their students wind up with a 4-4 teaching load and no research support, it’s because their work is substandard, not because academe rewards excellent scholars with mediocre jobs. While no advisor wishes unhappiness on her protégés, it’s much easier to stomach an underperforming student than to admit that you are sending all your students into unsatisfying careers.

Finally, this myth allows schools to treat their faculty badly. For as long as junior scholars continue to believe that one more grant, article, or monograph will allow them to move up the academic ladder, they will tolerate lousy conditions for low pay. If the day ever comes that masses of junior faculty realize that their current job is as good as it gets, universities will have a problem. But to any administrator who might read this and consider raising salaries, renovating classrooms, and increasing the library’s budget, don’t worry. Even if your faculty start fleeing in droves, there are plenty more where they came from. The myth is that durable.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Science Ph.D.s are Hurting Too . . . Big Time

On the Fence Recommends:
Check out this great new blog hosted by The Guardian, "Punctuated Equilibrium," written by a science Ph.D. searching for work in the U.K.:

Here's a taste:
"Like most people, I always wanted to be a success; I was born wanting to accomplish something worthwhile that would justify my existence on this planet. So even though I worked long and hard to make myself into a success, I've only managed to succeed at failure.

Even though I managed to work my way through to the PhD and I also managed to win a postdoctoral fellowship, my efforts to progress beyond that stage were stymied. Frustrated with my inability to find a job – any job – I fell back on the one thing I've always done since I first could pick up a crayon: I wrote about it. Except this time, instead of hiding my words under my mattress, I wanted to make my frustrations public. Because I knew thousands of other young scientists also shared my sense of betrayal, I wished to remain anonymous, to give voice to their outrage as well as my own. So I started a blog. . ."

*Turns out it's not only humanities Ph.D.s who are hurting right now . . . but blogging clearly helps! (Amen to that.)

Prep School Applications: The Cover Letter

Guest Post by Benjamin Harrison

Once you’ve rewritten your CV for an audience of prep school teachers and administrators, you need to do the same with your cover letter. As with your CV, your prep school cover letter should be half as long as your college/university cover letter – between 1 and 1½ pages is ideal. As with all letters of this sort, it is an art, rather than a science, so what I offer here is just one way of selling yourself.

Part I: Who are you and why are you writing to them? This is not unlike the opening of your higher education letter. Who are you and where are you from? For what job are you applying? It is also here that you need to start explaining why you want to jump to a secondary school. Your fancy degree is well and good, but your reader will be curious, wary, or even suspicious of your motives. Does he really want to teach in a college but can’t find a job? Did she fail to get tenure? No school wants to be your Plan B, so you have to convince them that they’re Plan A. (It helps to convince yourself of this first, but that’s for a different post.)

Part II: Why do you want to teach at a prep school? I believe that this is perhaps the most important paragraph in your letter, and is the first point of divergence from the higher ed letter. You’re fundamentally unlike most applicants new to the prep school market. These folks, bright and shiny with their newly minted Bachelor’s degrees, finished college and decided to teach at a prep school. You, on the other hand, finished college and decided not to teach at a prep school. Why have you changed your mind? Nobody gets a doctorate so they can teach prep school, so what gives?

Part III: Why should they hire you? Here you need to make clear how your experience in grad school and/or on the tenure track has prepared you for teaching at a prep school. What classes can you teach? Why is your approach to teaching well-suited for prep schools in general and their prep school in particular? (You will want to look closely at the school’s mission website for this. A department chair at a college might not know what the mission statement is, but you should assume that the headmaster at a prep school does.) Other than an extremely detailed knowledge of pre-colonial leather-working practices of the Tuareg, what do you have to offer?

Part IV: Closing. Nothing too fancy here. Some people include the extracurricular activities that they are interested in advising, which might not be a bad idea. There is a rather strange idea floating around that prep schools require their teachers to coach. Simply put, this is not true. Some private schools have very good athletic programs, and they didn’t get that way by asking people with no knowledge or interest in sports to design a third-down blitz package. What schools will want, however, is service outside the classroom. Want to advise the science club? The student paper? Now is the time to let them know, but remember that the important part is demonstrating that you know about this requirement and are willing to do your part.

*Next up, the personal statement!

Save the Humanities: Start Making Money!

'No-Brainer': Public domain image
If you're a humanities Ph.D. like me and you've read the recent piece in The Chronicle Review, "Can the Humanities Survive the 21st Century?" ( you may be wondering why you bothered to spend years of your life training to educate and enlighten the masses about the value of critical thinking, reading, and writing. Because let's face it: the masses, generally speaking, and the techno-savvy, permanently distracted, twittering and text-messaging youth of the 21st century in particular, just don't care anymore. They're more interested in attaining the basic technical skills necessary to land a job that will propel them post haste into the middle class. Shakespeare, Plato, Jefferson, Douglass, King, Woolf, DuBois, hooks, and the like; these venerable oldies are for 20th century sissies . . . or trust fund babies.

My (much) younger siblings and their friends spend more time on their i-phones trolling facebook and sending IMs than they ever would on reading, writing essays, debating heady topics, and pondering the fate of humanity. They're certainly not reading the newspaper, or intelligent popular novels, or humanist non-fiction; nor are they watching PBS or independent films. These things are for older, idealistic saps like me, motivated people who spent WAY too much time with their noses in books rather than learning useful skills and making $ in their 20s. Consequently, while we smarties may have interesting things to say about the state of the Congo, or climate change, or Beck's whacked out tea party, we're nonetheless still looking for work, still poor, and living in our parents' basements or some other pathetic location. Ouch.

And, according to Frank Donoghue, even if we're lucky enough to find academic jobs as tenure-track professors, our struggle to publish in obscure journals and write dense monographs for tenure simply contributes to the self-contained, esoteric system responsible for making the humanities increasingly irrelevant to society and hence worthless.

"The shift in the material base of the university leaves the humanities entirely out in the cold. Corporations don't earmark donations for the humanities because our research culture is both self-contained and absurd. Essentially, we give the copyrights of our scholarly articles and monographs to university presses, and then buy them back, or demand that our libraries buy them back, at exorbitant markups. And then no one reads them. The current tenure system obliges us all to be producers of those things, but there are no consumers."

I have to agree with Donoghue here: the current tenure system requires academics to buy into a culture of intellectual production with limited (or virtually no) public demand or consumption, and this just doesn't make smart long term financial sense. Such a ridiculous system cannot be sustained indefinitely. We're simply shooting ourselves in the foot with our low-traffic journal articles and overpriced academic tomes that only mom and dad are willing to buy (mainly so they can show their friends what a Ph.D. and five+ years of research and writing has produced).

What is the solution, then? How can academics save the humanities? "The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won't be in universities," Donoghue concludes. I don't think we should give up on the humanities just yet within the context of higher ed, but it is becoming clearer to me that humanist thinkers and practioners need to start considering how to go about making meaningful, relevant contributions that the masses can understand and appreciate. Otherwise, our self-contained, profitless research culture will put us all out of work sooner rather than later.

But academics as a whole are so resistant to change and so slow to respond to social and culture trends. Tenured humanities professors would rather pooh-pooh criticisms about the devaluing of the humanities than really explain why history or English matters or, worse still, reconsider "the system " itself.

This humanist, however, is here to say that the humanities are important; critical thinking does matter; and yes, people who know how to think, read, and write well should get paid well. Very well. Can't we show the public what we've got to offer instead of keeping it all to ourselves? Isn't it time we started demonstarting our worth and demanding compensation for our efforts? Show me the money, I say, either inside or outside a university context, and I'm there. It's a no-brainer.

*PS-I'll be traveling over the next week and lax on my blogging duties.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Putting together a Prep School Application: The CV

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Guest Post by Benjamin Harrison

Perhaps the biggest mistake that you (a Ph.D. hoping to make the jump to prep school teaching) can make is to neglect revamping your application materials. Many prep schools are suspicious that a candidate with a Ph.D. is applying out of desperation rather than any real desire to teach at the high school level. An application that seems more appropriate for a position in higher education will only confirm that suspicion.

While many top private schools look like high-end colleges, this does not mean that you should apply with the same set of materials. No matter how much a school looks like a small New England college, it’s still a high school, and they’re looking for high school teachers. In short, when crafting a CV, cover letter and personal statement, you need to start from scratch. Remember that the underlying goal of all your materials is to make clear that your interest in teaching at the secondary level is genuine. You signal this implicitly when you put together your vita, and explicitly when you write your cover letter and personal statement. If you cannot provide a good explanation for making this move, they aren’t going to help you make it.

As a rule of thumb, everything you submit to a prep school should be half as long as it would be for a university position: Your CV and personal statement each should fit on two pages, and your cover-letter on one. My vita includes the following sections, in order:

1. Teaching and advising experience. This is a twist on the “Employment History” section of your old CV. The difference is that you don’t simply list the positions you have held. Rather, explain how what you’ve done at the collegiate level is appropriate for the high school level. Emphasize your contact with students in smaller classes, and any experience you might have as a mentor. For example:

Visiting Assistant Professor, Small Town College, Small Town, USA

• Taught classes of 15-25 students on _______, _____ and _____ with emphasis on ____, ___ and ______.

• Identified failing students early in the semester and worked with them individually to ensure their success.

• Advised College poetry club and oversaw publication of Small Town College Poetry Review.

2. Education. Keep it brief. Omit the names of your advisor and dissertation committee, and the title of your dissertation. To be blunt, they have never heard of Professor Bigname, and don’t care about the subject or historiographical significance of your research.

3. Courses Taught. Just provide a list.

4. Other Experience. Have you done any work with high-school age kids? Were you a camp counsellor? Did you volunteer through Big Brothers/Sisters or coach a little league team? Here’s where you can tell them.

5. Publications. Some might argue with including them at all, but I do. When the list of new faculty goes out to Mom and Dad, the administration will be happy to say, “Dr. Harrison’s book on the nature of presidential power will be released by Fancy University Press in the fall.”

6. References. Just a list here. If you are using Carney Sandoe or another placement firm, you won’t have to worry about arranging to have them sent, but include the names and contact information here.

*Next up – your personal statement!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Introducing "Benjamin Harrison": Regular Guest Contributor

My name is "Benjamin Harrison" (a pseudonym), and I’m jumping off the tenure track. For the last few years, I’ve been an assistant professor in the humanities at a non-flagship state university. I was one of about a hundred applicants, so when I got the job I felt lucky. I moved my family here, and we thought I/we could be happy, but it has turned out otherwise.

The largest issue is family. I just can't raise my kids here. The state is incredibly insular: the top grads from the top high schools go to, not Harvard, or Berkeley, or Williams or anywhere else that requires an essay portion on the application, but to Huge State University because they have a famous football team and are the only school on anyone's radar.

There are also financial issues. I have not received a raise in four years, and none are on the horizon. (When I earn tenure, that raise will be about 5%, so I'll get back a bit less than inflation has taken away.) There is little institutional money for archival research, and nowhere near enough for a trip overseas - which is where my archives are. While my children could attend the university at which I teach at a 50% discount, I would pay full-freight to send them to a university in the same system.

Obviously I am far from alone in this situation. The good news for most third-tier institutions such as mine is that the majority of humanities faculty have concluded that the sacrifices are worth it. They may not be happy with their current situation but if that is the only way to stay in academe, they are willing to do what it takes.

I have come to a different conclusion: In the coming academic year I will search for a job teaching at the secondary level, and blog about my experience here. My goal is to provide some insight into the process for other Ph.D.s and A.B.D.s who are considering a similar move, and perhaps a forum for discussion.

More Crackdowns on the Lone Star Professoriate

Have you heard? Professors in the College of Public Affairs and Community Service at the University of North Texas will soon be required to spend a minimum of four hours a day, four days per week, on campus. According to the new policy, adopted last week, the extra faculty face time is intended, in theory, to allow students greater access to professors and more easily facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration.
For more on the story, see

Sounds like another top-down Lone Star higher ed accountability measure to me. Speaking of which . . . A&M faculty are not taking the new, "silly" evaluation measures lying down. [For more on this earlier story, see below, "What's WRONG with Texas?"] They're doing what professors do best: discoursing and objecting (politely and on paper, of course).

Sunday, September 05, 2010

For the Newbies: Book Proposal Reviews Revealed

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Today I had the opportunity to examine the generic "score" sheet sent out to MS book proposal reviewers by MUP [pseudonym for Major University Press], one of the most highly respected academic presses in existence. While I've known for some time that presses such as MUP are interested in the suitability of proposed books for use in the classroom, I had no idea that the undergraduate market played such a huge role in editorial decisions. To be sure, many scholarly monographs find their way into the hands of graduate students, but I wouldn't expect undergraduates to read 90% of the texts produced by academic presses.

Notable exceptions are biographies, microhistories, neat surveys, and the like. But to think that large numbers of history professors would assign a theoretically sophisticated, overly academic book like Dror Wahrman's excellent The Making of the Modern Self (published by YUP & winner of multiple prestigious awards) in their undergraduate courses is a bit of a stretch.

However, on MUP's score sheet queries along the lines of "Does the proposed MS in question make a significant contribution to the existing historiography?" are absent. Marketing considerations, particularly those related to textbook course assignments, dominate. In addition to questions one would expect to see about the quality of the proposal itself, MS reviewers are asked to provide the following information:

Q. List the last four courses that you taught.

Q. What books did you assign for each course?

Q. Were these books effective? Why or why not? Will you assign them again?

Q. Would you assign the proposed book in one of your courses?

Q. Between 1-10, rate the book proposal on how likely you are to assign the finished book.

Q. What changes would you propose to better suit the proposed book for courses?

Q. What are the competing titles that instructors would assign in class? How does this book compare to these titles?

Q. Would you recommend this book to fellow course instructors?

And so on.

The larger point is: never assume that an academic or commercial press will pick up your 1st book on merit alone. The textbook market plays a critical role. Without a market in which to place and sell your book, the press has little reason to publish it, even if it is amazingly brilliant.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Why Being on the Academic Job Market Sucks: Part I

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Every fall thousands of hopeful Ph.D. and A.B.D. job candidates everywhere fantasize about landing a great academic teaching/research post, preferably one that's tenure track. Financially, most of are pretty poor or, at best, living uncomfortably from month to month. I, for example, know of no one in my current professional state-of-being category (a low-level assistant professor, visiting professor, or postdoc) who is living large and rolling in cash. Instead, we're all looking under couch cushions, counting our pennies, and deleting threatening debt collection messages from our home answering machines. (Or, if we're really clever and still use mom and dad's house as our "permanent address," despite our mature age, we tell our parents to delete the messages.)

What we have to look forward to this fall/winter, however, are increasing expenses associated with the academic job search: postage, paper, envelopes, transcript fees, dossier service fees, photocopying fees, conference registration fees, hotel fees, and the real killer, airline fees.

While the economy remains relatively stagnant at present, the price of plane tickets is on the rise. Sure, it's better for the airlines, but what about us? Paying premium prices to fly to conferences and interviews is a job seeker's worst nightmare. Nonetheless, according to the NYTimes, "Air fares have marched steadily upward in recent months and are now close to pre-recession levels — and that’s not even counting all the fees that airlines have introduced lately."

This price increase dovetails with a significant decrease in the number of flights, and destinations, offered by airlines. So we're not only paying more to fly around the country, and perhaps earth, in search of employment, we're also going out of our way to get there. "For the airlines, flying fewer and fuller planes has paid off," notes the NYT; but "Passengers are paying the price."

Expensive plane tickets are one thing, of course, but having to wait until the last minute to purchase them is even worse. And this is precisely the situation that most (fortunate) job seekers find themselves in after Thanksgiving. We're anxiously waiting for the phone to ring, or looking for a message in our email inbox, hoping our efforts and myriad job applications were not in vain. We're praying someone on the other end of the line will say, "I'd like to invite you to interview with us at the A.H.A. in Boston next month . . ." [Or the M.L.A. or other major conference of your choosing.]

When this does happen the response is frequently, "Yay! Great news! I've got a shot. But wait, oh crap, oh f@!*, now plane tickets have reached nightmarish proportions! Flying from middle of nowhere U.S.A. to Boston will require driving 2 hours to the airport, making 3 transfers, spending 8 hours in transit, and cost me $600 out of pocket. All for 1, maybe 2, interviews."(I flew all the way to San Diego last January for 1 interview. Yes, I will admit it.)

What to do?"

"'My advice now is don’t procrastinate if you’re planning to travel over the holidays,' said Rick Seaney, the chief executive of, a travel Web site."

Gee, thanks for the great advice.

For the rest of the article, click here:

Friday, September 03, 2010

What's WRONG with Texas?

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On Sept. 1, 2010 the Bryan College Eagle announced that Texas A&M will now start "grading" faculty according to how much $ they make for the university; this new system, says Frank Ashley, the vice chancellor for academic affairs for the A&M System, will "help administrators and the public better understand who, from a financial standpoint, is pulling their weight."

This is how it will work:
"A several-inches thick document in the possession of A&M System officials contains three key pieces of information for every single faculty member in the 11-university system: their salary, how much external research funding they received and how much money they generated from teaching.

The information will allow officials to add the funds generated by a faculty member for teaching and research and subtract that sum from the faculty member's salary. When the document -- essentially a profit-loss statement for faculty members -- is complete, officials hope it will become an effective, lasting tool to help with informed decision-making.

Ashley said the document, when complete, will be an argument to the 'people of Texas' that academia does, in fact, pull its weight."


What do you think, readers?
Will "the document" demonstrate academics' worth to Texans? How will humanities professors, many of whom teach difficult, writing-intensive courses, fare in such a ranking system? Is this really just a popularity contest/whoring out of academics cloaked in the guise of a public accountability measure? Will this type of ranking system spread to other universities?

Read the rest of the story here:

and the Chronicle's commentary here:

This latest development at A&M, combined with the state-wide mandate to publish all university syllabi online as well as the textbook controversy from earlier this year, compels me to stay very far from the Texas educational system indeed. Anyone else with me?!

*On the textbook crisis, see "Texas Textbook MASSACRE: 'Ultraconservatives' Approve Radical Changes To State Education Curriculum," from the Huffington Post:

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Looking for Inspiration?

If you're intimidated by the prospect of applying for jobs, whether they're academic or non-academic positions, you may want to peruse this suggestive (if brief) list I compiled for an earlier Inside Higher Ed column: "Summer Schemes."

Books for Career Transition Periods
•Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, “So what are you going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia (2007)

•Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (2004)

•Carol Eikleberry, The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People (2007)

•Jerald M. Jellison, Life After Grad School: Getting From A to B (2010)

Preparing for the Job Search
•Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong, The Academic Job Search Handbook (2008)

•Susan Britton Whitcomb, Job Search Magic: Insider Secrets from America's Career and Life Coach (2006)

•Cynthia Shapiro, What Does Somebody Have to Do to Get a Job Around Here! 44 Insider Secrets and Tips that Will Get You Hired (2008)

Finding Your Passion
•Barbara Sher and Barbara Smith, I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What It Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It (1995)

•Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (2008)

•Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life (2002)

•Gina Lake, Radical Happiness: A Guide to Awakening (2007)

Web Sites for Academic Job Seekers Considering Plan Bs
•The Versatile PhD,
•Leaving Academia,
•Beyond Academe,
•Typical Interview Questions,
To read the rest of the column, go to:

Follow me on Twitter

On the Fence is now on Twitter. (Yes, I practice what I preach, even if it is difficult at times.)

Follow me, Eliza Woolf, @ PhD_onthefence

Applying for Administrative Positions, continued

Three Business Men by Kosta Kostov

Prof Hacker, a blogger over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers useful tips for those seeking alternative, non-faculty positions on campus. In a guest post, "The #alt-ac Track: Negotiating Your 'Alternative Academic' Appointment," Dr. Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, argues that for graduates of doctoral programs, the "failed academic" stigma, though deeply flawed, is incredibly difficult for job seekers to overcome.

As Nowviskie explains, while YOU may be more than ready for a permanent switch, and poised to make a major contribution to the non-faculty side of things, there is a strong chance your potential administrative colleagues will view your career transition with skepticism. And skepticism = no job. It's an unfair but harsh reality.

Nowviskie, however, makes an excellent case for change. "If they are to serve us well," she observes, "academic IT, libraries, publishing, humanities labs and centers, funders and foundations, focused research projects, cultural heritage institutions, and higher ed administration require a healthy influx of people who understand scholarship and teaching from the inside. That our culture for many years has labeled these people 'failed academics' is a failure of imagination."

Read the full post here:

The Power of Social Media/Networking, continued

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For all the aspiring freelance writers out there in cyberspace:

Stanford University held a conference earlier this summer (June 18-19, 2010) on The Future of Freelancing: Redefining Journalism. Reinventing Yourself.

Here's a description of the event: "125 successful freelancers and 50 top editors, agents and experts met at Stanford for two days to talk about the changing market for great writing. The results: A thought-provoking new collection of knowledge about the economics of writing, the increasingly vital role of the independent journalist, the impact of technology on publications, and the future of storytelling."

As I mentioned in an earlier post, social networking is an excellent way to find job leads, particularly if one is trying to get started as a freelance writer. The freelance journalist Damon Brown gave an informative talk about the importance of sites like Facebook and Twitter. To read a recap of his talk, just click on the link below.

"Freelancers: Tweet and Facebook Your Way to Jobs and a Devoted Following" :

NB: I think this information is equally valuable for Ph.D.'s seeking other alternate careers (unrelated to freelancing) outside academe. In  many ways, without a social/virtual network of contacts to give one a leg up, a resume/job letter submitted cold by a newly minted Ph.D. is simply another needle in a proverbial haystack.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Private/Public School Teaching: Interest is out there

This post is from 2009 but for anyone considering a career teaching in a private/public school, you may want to check out the following blog maintained by a high school history teacher. He (was) is specifically looking for Ph.D.'s to apply to open positions at his school and offers some advice and words of wisdom to prospective applicants.

An even older post (2004), by a former public high school teacher/blogger, offers a critical look at the current certification process in the U.S. public school system. While Ph.D.'s may be great teachers, we're hampered by the requirements imposed upon the educational system at both the state and federal level. Interesting food for thought . . .