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Review of Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job

November 24, 2015

“The American academy is in crisis.” With this bold statement Karen Kelsky sets the context for her book The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning your Ph.D. into a Job. On the back of ever-shrinking educational budgets, the percentage of classes taught by tenure-line faculty has decreased to a mere 25%. Rather than indulging in the narrative of crisis, Kelsky takes it as a point of departure in an effort to equip graduate students and early-career faculty with the tools and knowledge to navigate the academic job market successfully.

In ten sections comprising 63 short chapters, The Professor Is In covers an impressive range of topics relating to the academic job market. The book’s biggest strength is that it is both very thorough and to-the-point at the same time. While some may find her tone harsh or rude at times, in the end Kelsky’s direct language allows her to focus on her message without any distractions.

Three sections stood out to me as most helpful. In “Getting Your Head in the Game,” Kelsky advises her readers to “stop acting like a grad student” when entering the job market. Job applicants must present themselves as peers, capable of producing scholarship and teaching that is tenurable, and not as “peons” to their faculty advisors. Job materials need to reflect an applicant’s distinctive persona as a scholar and teacher, and highlight how the candidate would complement the hiring department’s teaching and research profile.

If you decide to read only one section of the book, make sure it is “Job Documents that Work,” and especially the chapter “What is Wrong with Your Cover Letter.” The most important take-away from this section is that most applicants “tell” without “showing.” Are you backing up the claims you are making in your materials with concrete examples and evidence? Why is that important, you ask? Search committees don’t want to read that you are passionate about teaching. Show them your passion for teaching by giving memorable and concrete examples of things you do in the classroom.

Lastly, the section on “Navigating the Job Market Minefield” includes a chapter on curating one’s online presence. Kelsky points out that it is crucial for job candidates to proactively maintain their online presence, since “if you do not have a clear online presence, you are allowing Google, Yahoo, and Bing to create your identity for you.” If you want to be in control of what people find about you online, you need to curate an image that is consistent with the way you present yourself in your application documents.

Given all its strengths, the book has very few shortcomings. Kelsky has a talent for pointedly telling her readers what they, under all circumstances, must avoid doing—that is, she makes it very clear what the biggest pitfalls of the academic job market are. At times, however, it would be helpful to get more concrete advice on what to do. Recommendations such as “stay on message,” while plausible, are so broad that they become almost meaningless, and readers would probably appreciate concrete examples of a good tailoring paragraph, or a good teaching statement.

As someone who is currently both on the academic and the alt-ac job markets, I was surprised that only the last section of the book addresses “leaving the academy” and strategies for navigating the non-faculty job market. The book’s subtitle, “turning your Ph.D. into a job,“ makes “job” a stand-in for “tenure-track faculty job.” This substitution inadvertently contributes to the problematic narrative that non-faculty jobs are an inferior alternative. I say “inadvertently,” since Kelsky herself is a strong advocate for people both within the academy but also those who decide to leave it for good.

Kelsky deliberately opens The Professor is In with a discussion of the exploitation of contingent faculty and the decrease in tenure-track positions. Unfortunately, the book soon loses most of that political drive, since its remainder is largely dedicated to preparing applicants for this very market that she initially criticizes. However, and this cannot be stressed enough, as a guide for aspiring faculty and their mentors, this book is a must-have, since it offers thorough hands-on advice, and by doing so, it demystifies the rather intimidating academic job market. 


Steffen Kaupp, Ph.D.

Graduate Student Affairs Administrative Intern, The Graduate School

Steffen is an intern in the Office of Graduate Student Affairs, and recently defended his dissertation on the transcultural politics of satire in contemporary Turkish German fiction. After graduating with a Ph.D. in German Studies this May, Steffen will join the faculty at the University of Notre Dame as teaching professor in the Department of German and Russian. You can find out more about his academic interests on his professional website.

Professional Development Tag

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