Book Review: The Professor Is In, by Karen Kelsky

The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job
By Karen Kelsky (Three River Press, 2015); U.S. $15; 438 pages.

I’ve been a big fan of Karen Kelsky for years. Here’s someone who cuts through the mystique of academia and absolutely tells it how it is. Someone who had the courage to leave academia mid-career to start her own business, using the skills and knowledge gained from her time in higher education. Someone who quit academia and whose post-ac life is a success, not the failure that many predict or fear.

I was pleased to hear that Karen was publishing a book and even better, that there would be chapters on careers outside academia. It was nice to open the book and see Jobs on Toast listed as one of the recommended reference websites (*blushes*). As you might expect, the book is heavily weighted towards academic job-hunting, with nine sections dedicated to this theme and just one section on careers outside academia.

I don’t write about or give talks on the academic job search, so I found it fascinating to read Karen’s insights on the topic, especially since back in the day I was interviewed for five lecturing posts without an offer. With the forensic eye of a trained anthropologist, Karen leads you through the entire fraught job application process, warts and all. Forget your ivory tower and dedication to the life of the mind: welcome to a world of spiraling tuition fees and graduate debt, shameful adjunct pay and working conditions, and outrageous interview questions (WAY too inappropriate to reproduce here)!

Although slim by comparison, the section of the book on the non-academic job search (entitled ‘Leaving the Cult’) is jam-packed with value. Some of the topics Karen covers will be familiar to my readers already: there are sections on transferable skills, finding your calling, dealing with your feelings, reinventing yourself and of course writing your cover letter and résumé.

Yet within these few chapters are deeper insights which really get to the heart of the post-PhD career-change process. For instance, Karen uses the metaphor of the university as the teat from which everything of value appears to flow, and from which we have to wean ourselves post-PhD. As with much else in the book, the characterisation is brutal, apt and thought-provoking, all at once.

Unsparing even of herself, Karen recounts the expletive-laden rant which led to the idea for her consulting business in the first place. By channeling her feelings of anger and learning to trust her own personal sense of worth, Karen overcame the need for the approval of others, finding her calling as an entrepreneur, crafter, consultant, blogger and author.

All in all, I found it fascinating to have the two distinct career paths discussed side-by-side. By the end of the book, I couldn’t help feeling that one path is all about claustrophobic conformity, while the other path is about finding your freedom. If you still want to take the academic route after reading the book, Karen’s advice will keep you on the straight and narrow – but beware of the serious congestion up ahead!

If on the other hand you’re intent on leaving academia, you’ll get a knapsack of provisions, a rough compass bearing and the occasional signpost, but it’s really up to you to make your own way. That’s the challenge – and the joy – of becoming post-academic.

I also recommend you check out Karen’s website and consulting business over at The Professor Is In, where there’s a whole section on post-academic career support.

2 e-books to help you finish your PhD

How to Tame Your PhD
by Inger Mewburn; 122 pages

How to Tame Your PhD, by Dr Inger Mewburn

Inger Mewburn PhD, AKA @thesiswhisperer, will be familiar to many of you from her great advice on the excellent blog The Thesis Whisperer. This book compiles more than 20 posts from the blog into a single volume, preserving her inimitable chatty and informative style. Inger has excellent credentials for writing this book, having finished her own dissertation on the gestures used by architects in just 3 years!

The structure of the book closely follows the journey of writing a dissertation, without feeling mechanistic. There is lots of fantastic help plus ideas to get you through each stage, backed up by full references. One great advantage of the e-book format is that you can follow the links to explore a subject in further detail.

I really like the points where Inger explains how your feelings are related to your progress along the PhD track, and don’t necessarily reflect your overall ability! So if you’re feeling confused, that’s because you haven’t gone through the ‘threshold’ yet (I could definitely relate to that). And I recognise this feeling about my own writing even now: ‘The first time you put down your ideas, they will always look stupid.’ Yes, and that’s where a writer needs to be patient, and develop their ideas through reflection and feedback.

Whatever stage you’re at in your PhD, you’ll get great value from this book, as the price is so very low and the standard of advice is so very high!

17 Simple Strategies to Survive Your PhD
by Julio Peironcely
E-book; 35 pages; available to download from Next Scientist.

17 Simple Strategies to Survive Your PhD

Julio Peironcely PhD, AKA @nextscientist, is another blogger with an e-book – and this one is free! The e-book is really a collection of a short one or two page articles, which makes it great to dip in and out of. Although aimed at scientists the straightforward language and common-sense nature of much of the advice means that anyone can benefit from reading it.

There are some really good chapters: the chapter on prototyping is relevant not only for PhDs, but for any job where you are building products for a market. I also like the chapter in which Julio recognises how you start off your PhD with grandiose plans (‘cure cancer’), but how you ultimately need to scale back to get some results and complete. The chapter on productivity software covering Evernote, Dropbox and Mendeley is also very helpful.

Finally, the importance of having a social life and not spending too much time in the lab is nicely summed up in Julio’s observation that ‘The goal is to have a purpose to finish your work today’. This is a very simple but powerful reminder to keep your work and personal life in healthy balance, and have someone or something to look forward to each night. Note that in signing up to receive the e-book, you also subscribe to a marketing mailing list – you can unsubscribe by clicking on the link in the first marketing email you receive.

Get 17 Simple Strategies to Survive Your PhD free from the Next Scientist website.

How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days

How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days
By James Mulvey
E-book; 124 pages; available to download from

How to Find a Career by Jame Mulvey

In this book James Mulvey absolutely nails the predicament felt by many thousands of arts and humanities graduates each year. These folks have spent 3 years delving deeper into subjects that they love and are passionate about, determined to push themselves and the boundaries of knowledge further. They’ve written smart papers, won prizes, got good grades, seemed destined for great things, maybe gone on to study at postgraduate level.

Underlying this success is the unspoken assumption that all their efforts will pay off and lead to great jobs after graduation. However, as many jobless arts and humanities students know to their cost, the harsh reality is that it doesn’t always work out this way. We all know humanities BAs who have ended up labouring in dead-end jobs to make ends meet, wondering where it all went wrong for them. James’ diagnosis of this situation is that it’s not the jobseeker who has failed – it’s the higher education system itself that has failed humanities graduates.

Universities rightly focus on teaching academic skills, as part of getting to grips with a body of academic knowledge (you went to study a subject after all!). However, this emphasis on academic competencies means that a bright student can leave university well-equipped for the interpretation of lyric poetry for instance, but totally lacking the practical kinds of skills required for jobs in business and the public sector.

This mismatch explains the predicament affecting so many of today’s arts and humanities graduates, compared with their peers taking more vocational subjects – they can spend months, if not years, in the ‘wilderness’ before finding a decent job. The time spent in a dead-end job can be painful, not only in financial terms but also in personal terms: high-flyers who are used to academic success can struggle to deal with a lack of prospects and feelings of failure. For postgrads too, competition for academic posts is extremely fierce, and so as more and more MAs and PhDs enter the mainstream job market (either by choice or by necessity), they also need help in communicating their value to employers.

This is where James’ clear 126-day programme comes into its own. Beginning with the sound advice to define yourself by what you can do (for an employer) rather than who you are (a humanities graduate), the emphasis at all times is on developing a practical and marketable set of skills, rather than relying upon your degree alone to get you a job. James’ key advice is to decide upon a target area of work and then set yourself some relevant goals each month, taking small but significant steps towards achieving these goals each week.

For instance, if you want to break into magazine publishing, then your monthly goals might be: learn about the publishing industry; write some articles; put together an online portfolio; and send in 3 letters of application to publishing companies. James provides all the guidance and tools that the reader needs for their chosen strategy, with the core components being a Monthly Goal Chart and a Weekly Productivity Chart – you can feel your confidence rising even before you start to fill them in!

So whilst their competitors sit at home firing off application after application based upon their past academic achievements, in search of that elusive ‘good job’, followers of Mulvey’s method will be growing their practical skills week after week, and learning what works through trial and error. At the end of a couple of months, the candidate who has spent their time and energy getting to grips with the practicalities of a specific industry will have the edge over their purist but out-of-touch peers, as the contrasting cover letter examples in the book wryly illustrate.

As someone who personally made a successful transition from a post-doc research position into a business career, so much of what James sets out in this book rings true with my own experience. What definitely helped me in breaking out of academia was identifying a target industry, understanding the typical skills and knowledge required in that industry, and then relentlessly developing my own skills and knowledge by reading, practising, applying for jobs, failing and picking myself up again, until I finally got my job offer some months later! The effort that I’d invested in learning about my target industry definitely paid off, as my practical skills complemented my academic skill-set and showed that I would hit the ground running.

The reality is that today’s humanities graduates face an extremely tough job market, and they need all the help they can get. Fortunately, if they take this book and put into practice James Mulvey’s solid advice, they have the chance to massively shorten the time taken between finishing their degree and starting a great career. James also provides specific advice for postgrads and PhDs who are looking for a non-academic career; here is my favourite piece of guidance:

The big problem with academics is that they often don’t think of themselves as changing careers. They see themselves as ‘finding work outside of academia with a PhD.’ This is a mistake because the reality is there is no work for PhD’s outside of academia. There are just some jobs that a PhD could be good at.

In other words, you need to stop thinking of yourself as a PhD looking for work. You need to stop talking about yourself as a PhD looking for work. Instead, you need to talk about yourself as a researcher, analyst, and writer looking to switch careers from academia into private industry.

In a couple of sentences James neatly sums up the key shift in mindset that the PhD looking for a non-academic job needs to make. Once you appreciate that the transition from academia to business is 90% continuity and 10% self-promotion and re-skilling, rather than 100% ‘failure’ and starting from scratch, your successful mainstream career is just around the corner.

Given the reasonable price-tag and the 100% money-back guarantee, this has to be the best-value careers guide humanities graduates can buy! Find out more and buy a copy of How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree.

Read my note about affiliate links on the Jobs on Toast website.