By Karen Kelsky
Dear faculty members: I sell Ph.D. advising services on the open market. And your Ph.D. students are buying. Why? Because you’re not doing your job.
Lest you think that by advising, I mean editing research papers and dissertations, let me disabuse you. I offer those services, but rarely am I asked for them.
A former tenured professor at a major research university, I am now running an academic-career consulting business. That’s right: I am doing graduate advising for pay. I am teaching your Ph.D. students to do things like plan a publishing trajectory, tailor their dissertations for grant agencies, strategize recommendation letters, evaluate a journal’s status, judge the relative merits of postdoctoral options, interpret a rejection, follow up on an acceptance, and—above all—get jobs. And business is so good I’m booked ahead for months.
As my own former Ph.D. advisees would happily tell you, I am not infallible. Your students don’t come to me because they think I’m the perfect adviser. They come because I’m available and you’re not. And because I don’t sugarcoat the truth and you do. When their work is bad, I tell them. Point blank. “Your essay is truly awful,” I’ve said. Or, “Has no one ever taught you how to write a grant?” Most important, I highlight the career stakes of their errors: “This job letter is no better than a B+, which in this job climate, may as well be an F. Do it over.” And they do.
When I ask them why they come to me—and not you, their Ph.D. advisers—the answers never vary. “Oh, my adviser? He’s supportive about the diss. But in terms of my career? I’m totally on my own.”
Why am I the pinch-hitter for an absentee professoriate?
Let me be the first to tell you, your advisees are working hard. They have certainly gotten the memo: Jobs are impossible, so publish before you finish. Network. Professionalize. They just don’t have the foggiest notion how to do any of that.
Cultivate a letter-writer? Do the elevator talk? Tailor a job letter? You are sending your Ph.D. students out onto this job market so unprepared that it would be laughable if the outcome weren’t so tragic. Meanwhile, when students ask for help with their job search, too many of you respond with some version of “not my problem” or “the Ph.D. is not professional training.” When one of my clients asked her adviser for career help, the professor accused her of trying to “game the system.” Incredibly, one of you told another of my clients, “Jobs come up all the time! It’s not like there’s a season for them!”
To be sure, my clients tell me that advising occurs—endless advising of “the dissertation project.” As if that project, and its minutiae of citations and shades of meaning, is the point of graduate school. It is not the point of graduate school. It is simply a document that demonstrates a mastery of a discipline and a topic. The point of graduate school, for the actual graduate students themselves, is preparation for a career. A career like yours, with benefits and a retirement plan.
That kind of career derives far less from a thick wad of dissertation pages than from the quantity of one’s publications, the impressiveness of one’s grant record, the fame of one’s reference-writers, and the clarity of one’s ambition. I don’t find it problematic to say any of that openly. But apparently you do. You reject it as “vulgar” and “careerist”—as if wanting to have health insurance is vulgar and wanting to not go on food stamps is careerist.
That is pure intellectual snobbery. To acknowledge your graduate students as people in a workforce requires you to acknowledge yourselves as workers, and to do that you must finally abandon the self-delusion of the ivory tower—that scholarly work is “above” capitalist exchange and anything as gauche as money. And that you will not do. The irony of faculty “work” (“I’m working on a project on death and the abject”) is its scrupulous denial of any acknowledged kinship to the actual wage-work for which you do, indeed, draw a salary.
For years now, many professors have used the abysmal job market as an alibi to entirely neglect career advising for their doctoral students. “Well, the job market’s impossible,” my former colleagues would say, airily, “of course I always tell them that.” And for too many professors, that’s where their sense of responsibility to their advisees’ career prospects seems to stop.
But I write this today to argue otherwise. Your responsibility to your advisees extends to telling the whole truth about the academic enterprise at this time. Tenure-track lines have been evaporating for years. Aiming for a tenure-track job is, for most students, unrealistic. For those students who wish to try, the effort requires years of methodical training and calculation of career chances, from the point of arrival in the graduate program through the dissertation defense and beyond. Your job is to look up from your students’ dissertations, and assist them in mastering those skills and calculations.
How? By teaching your Ph.D.’s how to write a CV; to cultivate prominent scholarly supporters; to pursue grant money with a single-minded purpose; to apply for national awards; to publish, publish more, publish higher, write a stellar application letter, and do the elevator talk.
And when, even after doing all of the above, the tenure-track job doesn’t materialize, as it often will not, instead of averting your eyes in shame from their so-called “failures,” you step up, professors, and work with your Ph.D.’s to transfer their skills into some sector of the economy that is not contracting as badly as your own.
Your job is to tell them the truth. And to extend an ethos of care beyond your advisees’ writing and research to encompass their material existence. Because your students need work, even when it’s not the coveted tenure-track job. Work is good. You work. So should your Ph.D.’s.
Karen Kelsky is a former professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Oregon who left academe in 2010. She now runs a consulting business and a blog called The Professor Is In.