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.