Sunday, August 23, 2015

New Book from Karen Kelsky

Admittedly this is a third-hand citation/recommendation (something I'd never let my students get away with), but it's late August, and things are kind of slow, and I trust all the parties involved (though I don't know any of them personally).  Also,  it's the season for everyone from college seniors to new grad students to old grad students determined that this will be the year they turn that ABD into a Ph.D. (a situation I recognize all too well, even well over a decade after finally making the resolution come true one year -- and I'm still not sure why that year was the year) to think about what grad education entails, and should entail, and where it can and should lead.

So I thought I'd point out, via this excerpt from an interview by Rebecca Schuman in Slate, that Karen Kelsky (aka the professor of The Professor is In) has written a book entitled The Professor is In: How to Turn Your Ph.D. Into a Job.  Despite the somewhat hopeful title (hey; it's only useful if it actually sells), it sounds pretty realistic; witness the presence of a chapter entitled "It's Okay to Quit," and this description (from the Schuman interview) of material at the beginning of the book:

Rebecca Schuman: You write about delusion in the early chapters of your book. What do you think is the most pernicious myth about what you call the “Work of the Mind”?
Karen Kelsky: That there is some fantasy space for intellectual work that operates outside of the real economy. Intellectual work has to be supported with actual money. In the Renaissance, it was aristocratic patrons. In the high-growth postwar period in the U.S., the government made this investment, and that is when the current system of graduate training was established. We all forget this history and believe that the option of doing scholarly work is available to anyone with the talent, and that it’s above mundane concerns of money. It is neither. Refusing to foreground the actual monetary costs of academic labor in the current economy is a kind of grad-student gaslighting, and a form of abuse.
Full interview here.  Oh, and my advice to new grad students, and college seniors considering grad school: you should read this sort of book (and also the ones about turning your dissertation into a book or series of scholarly articles) as early in the process of grad education as possible (preferably before you even apply).  It's never too early to think about the big picture (and check for illusions). 


  1. Kelsky drives me nuts. Her 'advice' is useful to a small slice of privileged people looking for jobs that are equally privileged with colleagues who never questioned their own privileges. For the rest of us, it's absurdities and dead ends, the academic equivalent of the cliched satire of high-end restaurants with their overpriced spare absurdities in the place of food.

    Schumann's almost as bad: she steals ideas from twitter, never acknowledges her sources, and while her critiques of the system mostly have merit, she hasn't anything constructive to say. She's the anarcho-syndicalist wing of academic self-criticism: "Tear It Down!" is only a coherent program if you trust the people who can afford to build something new... we don't need any more stalking-horses for neo-liberalism.

    1. I agree with you about Kelsky. Her advice is really geared to those shooting for the top tier research jobs. Then again, if I had followed any of it, I probably wouldn't be teaching 5/5 in the hinterlands.

    2. Admittedly I haven't read the book (another thing I try not to let my students get away with, albeit with mixed success), but it strikes me that Kelsky may be trying to play to the crowds on both sides of the fence (as well as those sitting precariously on top of it), both pointing out the major problems with the current system, and showing people how to have the best chance (which still isn't much of a chance) to succeed in it. If she's also advising people to look closely at non-academic alternatives (presumably not limited to becoming a consultant to those who choose to try to stay in academia), then she's probably doing some good. Still, it's a tricky line to walk (and Schuman, in the interview, actually asks her whether her work isn't just raising the quality of dossiers submitted by those who can afford her services -- or,I suppose, make good use of her free advice -- which doesn't really change the job market, just raise the bar for success). So, yes it's a tricky position. Hence my advice to early/prospective grad students to read such tomes as soon as possible (and maybe consider paths other than the Ph.D.)

      Schuman has evolved over the past year or so, I think; post-motherhood (and, probably more relevant, post- a certain degree of success as a freelance writer), she's sounding (at least to me) like less of a bomb-thrower, and more like a scholar/researcher in the best sense of the term: someone who can see multiple sides of a question, and analyze/describe the workings of complex systems. I'm not sure she's come up with solutions to many of the problems she describes, but then again I'm not sure anybody has come up with viable solutions to those problems, and describing the problems precisely seems like a step in the right direction.

    3. Schuman hates this site, right?

      There are other writers like Kelsky who write about a part of academia that I don't live in and work in. I ignore them. I have the world I live and that's the one I have to figure out. I learn more about that here than anywhere.

  2. "I have seen search committees remarking lately on the 'Kelskification' of the cover letters and application materials they receive."

    Really, now? I don't know any of the people involved, but it sounds like Schuman is a good friend of Kelski and made that line up to push the book. Granted, I'm in math and not at a tip-top elite university, but it's clear that our applicants aren't flocking to one god-like person to be coached. If this line is actually true, then these people live in a very small bubble somewhere in academia.