On a mission
Karen Kelsky is on a mission to save the academic world from incompetent and/or irresponsible graduate advisors. She wrote:
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.
Kelsky is both a former professor and chair and a PhD in cultural anthropology, which together make her eminently qualified to observe, interpret, and help the strange tribe we call academic faculty, faculty developers, and faculty wannabes. For years she’s written a blog, The Professor Is In. Just recently she’s published a book of the same name, subtitled “The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD Into a Job”.
Justifiably laudatory reviews of this book are available online, and I won’t repeat them here. As the title implies, it targets PhDs (and, to my mind, emphasizes the natural and social sciences); we could benefit from comparable works for physician-scientists and clinician-educators. Importantly, it fills a significant gap in the academic self-help literature, between ‘how to get a PhD’ and the ‘how to get promoted – how to help others get promoted’ continuum. Some personal favorites pertinent to my world are:
- At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory, Second Edition, by Kathy Barker
- Academic Scientists at Work, Second Edition, by Jeremy Boss and Susan Eckert
Why good advice is necessary but not sufficient
The most interesting part of The Professor Is In is what it almost doesn’t say or doesn’t say. One thing it almost doesn’t say is: “If you insist on a likely unsuccessful quest for an assistant professorship, this advice will keep you from becoming unsuccessful immediately.” [You need to read carefully between the lines to see it, but it is there. But let me make it more obvious.]
Neither The Professor Is In nor this blog is about whether to pursue a career as an academic faculty member or how to choose a training program that will best achieve this goal. Imagine if they did. Further imagine if, like medical centers and business schools, graduate programs were to disclose the fraction of matriculants with this goal who actually achieve it, and by when. Right now, the disclosure for all biology PhD programs lumped together would look like:
[Notice the framing in the upper right; an alternative statement would be >92% of entering PhD students will not become tenure-track faculty.] Of course, past results are no guide to future performance; your mileage may vary; do not attempt at home. This is an average for one area of graduate study; actual statistics differ among and within broad areas of study and among graduate programs. Yet for many if not most areas and programs, the number of matriculants seeking assistant professorships vastly exceeds the number of assistant professorships. Given these odds, why would any rational being count on becoming an assistant professor and not also prepare for an alternative career [except in those rare areas and programs in which the odds are good]?
Any rational being would say not, but we are people and thus not rational. Academic faculty and their trainees collude in the collective delusion training only to become an assistant professor is often feasible if properly executed. Why? Our cognitive bias is: what you see is all there is. All around us are people like ourselves who have ‘made it’. We tell ourselves stories in which the route to success is straightforward and we are the heroes.
My vain hope for the second edition: A sure-fire prescription for combatting this delusion, and its counterpart in faculty anticipating promotion despite evidence to the contrary. Or, is it more important to maintain confidence and morale?
Job interview illusions
One of these stories we tell ourselves is that assistant professorships go to the best applicant. Indeed, much of The Professor Is In is about the obvious missteps to be avoided so that one is likely eliminated in due course instead of immediately. For example, Part V: Techniques of the Academic Interview, covers what to expect, what to wear, what to eat and drink, how to fend off inappropriate questions, etc. While its focus is on job interviews, it is broadly applicable to the many explicit and implicit interviews that academic life comprises.
Clearly, with >100 doctorates competing for a position, the selected applicant will often be very good by chance alone. But ‘the best’? The techniques we use to rank applicants are deeply flawed. According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations
- Typical interviews explain only 14% of subsequent performance
- References explain only 7% of subsequent performance
- Number of years of experience explain only 3% of subsequent performance
The numbers speak for themselves.
Why are interviews, in which academic faculty place such stock, so problematic? For better or worse, the interviewers are human and will be subject to the biases of the human mind. They will, for example, prefer or disfavor the interviewee because of:
- The interviewee’s accent
- The interviewee’s names, both given and surnames
- Whether the interviewee is physically attractive
- The height, age, race, and apparent gender of the interviewee
- The time of day of the interview
- The weather on the day of the interview
- Whether the interview is the first, last, or in the middle of a series
in addition to the ‘usual suspects’ (prestige of training institutions, prestige of journal or press of publications). They will very quickly (within the first 10 seconds, according to work that Bock cites) form an impression, and spend the rest of the interview seeking information that confirms the first impression.
All of these preferences are unrelated to the ability to perform an academic job relative to other candidates, and most are beyond the control of the interviewee.
Moreover, a key component of many academic interviews is ‘the Macon Test’, as described by a faculty member in Atlanta, Georgia:
The Macon Test …is the mental calculation a faculty member employs to determine if he or she would like to have a faculty candidate as a companion on a three-hour road trip to some town like Macon, Georgia (scientists in the Northeast might use Poughkeepsie as the destination). This quick test is based on the first impressions of the people we meet. In this case, we, the faculty, ask ourselves if the prospective candidate would be good company over the long haul of an academic lifetime, or if he would be an annoying or boring passenger on the trip. In the latter case, the candidate flunks the Macon Test, and might not get a job offer.
The Macon Test has some justification. Faculty members clearly have an interest in not appointing those who will be highly disruptive and poor academic citizens, or who will be unhappy in their ranks. But it is also a prescription for social conformity, groupthink, prejudice, and lack of diversity. Regardless, it typically will be administered in academic interviews – and a high score on the Macon Test can trump many a defect in an interviewee.
[Can these biases be defeated? Yes, but not by the interviewees. Google, which has more financial and human capital to invest than many search committees and even many universities, does this, as Bock describes in his book’s fifth chapter, entitled “Don’t Trust Your Gut: Why our instincts keep us from being good interviewers, and what you can do to hire better.” Google eschews unscripted interviews, and uses combinations of tests that they validate against actual job performance (including the performance of applicants they reject). Interestingly, their studies have led them to exclude managers (in academic-world, the faculty of the hiring department) from the hiring decision.]
Karen Kelsky’s next book
A larger question is: why do we persist in such delusional behavior when we should know better? [And if you are wondering ‘why a post on graduate advising’, the question is applicable to the entire faculty life cycle.]
As Woody Allen’s character puts it in the conclusion to Annie Hall:
It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.
Books such as The Professor Is In advance our understanding and should be part of the armamentarium of every competent faculty member and faculty developer. But they get us only so far. We are academic trainees, academic faculty, and faculty developers because we need the eggs. We also need books on how to cultivate imaginary chickens.
Which brings me to Karen Kelsky’s next book. She writes (https://www.facebook.com/TheProfessorIsIn/posts/960887117291169):
It’s about the “Ph.D. Brain”: powerful, analytical, critical, skeptical, productive, logical, goal-oriented, but also obsessive, dismissive, self-critical, narrow, competitive, cynical and judgmental. The Ph.D. Brain is both wonderful and terrible, our best asset and worst enemy. With it, you end up with overdeveloped analytical skills, and underdeveloped intuition and self-care. Those of us who have it are seeing our native habitat collapse (the university, RIP) and we – both those on the tenure stream in the corporatized university, and those who never make it in – must learn how to thrive in a hostile environment. I’ll talk about academic productivity (and yes, getting tenure). But the larger gist is: in a post-apocalyptic world, how can you harness your Ph.D. aptitudes, and when necessary overcome them, to make your way forward in a healthy, balanced, financially secure way?
Very sketchy ToC:
I. Intro: The Endangered Ph.D. in a Post-Acapocalyptic World
II. The Ph.D. Brain: Greatest Asset or Worst Enemy?
III. Systems Under Stress: Productivity and Self-Care in a Contracting Academy
IV. How to Get Tenure Without Losing Your Mind
V. The Crux of the Matter: Healthy Productivity
VI. Learning to Value Yourself (and Get Paid)
VII. Activating Your Whole Mind
(… how our thinking and values have to change to survive and thrive as hyper-specialized species when our habitat is being razed.)
Welcome, cultural anthropologist, to the worlds of ecology, psychology, and decannomics. We look forward to your next book.
And she is right: Her book/blog/service (and others like them on behalf of faculty) wouldn’t be necessary if we all did our jobs as developers of current and future faculty.
√ If you advise or develop others (including yourself), ask yourself: Have I fully disclosed to my client the extent of my expertise, what I am prepared to do (and not do) in the course of a relationship, and any conflicts of interest or commitment? Have I fully explored my client’s tolerance for pain and truth, and am I prepared to deliver these accordingly? If I cannot meet my client’s needs, have I disclosed this so that my client can make other arrangements? Have I clearly communicated the odds of success and failure? That is, have I obtained informed consent for what is about to ensue? If not, do so.
√ If you are advised or developed by others (or yourself), have these questions been answered for you? If not, ask them, find another advisor, or accept the consequences.
√ If you are involved in appointing faculty, consider Laszlo Bock’s observations, ask ‘is the way we’ve always done it the best we can do?’, and – if not – be a change agent.
√ Should we formally obtain informed consent from anyone who enters a PhD program?
 Karen Kelsey indicts graduate advisors as solely responsible for this delusion. I disagree; advisor and advisee are jointly responsible. Indeed, as she says, “unfortunately, PhD students are largely resistant to professionalization.” The subordinate status of the advisee is no excuse; Moreover, although advisor and advisee are clearly hierarchical, ‘managing upward’ is feasible and often required.
©Martin E. Feder 2015