The professor is in


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She starts in a reassuring, but somewhat depressing way:

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

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

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

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

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