“But the advice that I want people to know is that you are already entrepreneurial. You are entrepreneurial just to get into the PhD program, especially if you're first generation.”
February 19, 2021 | by Angélica M. González-Sánchez
Karen Kelsky, PhD is one of our keynote speakers at our 2021 BA Conference. She will be giving a talk about “Going Postac In a Pandemic: Moving On with a PhD In a Time of Stress”. The registration for the conference is now open, CLICK HERE.
Karen Kelsky received her PhD in Cultural Anthropology, with a focus on Japan, from the University of Hawai’i. She’s the Founder and CEO of The Professor Is In.
Hi Karen! How’s your week going?
It is going well! It has been a little bit frazzling and busy, but that’s a good thing when you run your own business.
What’s the best thing that has happened to you this week?
I saw the list of questions yesterday and was like “what IS the best thing that has happened to me this week?”. I had to sit and think because with the pandemic it’s hard to think of things that are cheerful, but then I remembered. The best thing that’s happened this week was that my friends and I are watching a Japanese TV series called “Midnight Diner” and we are gathering in a socially distanced way and cooking the dishes that are featured each week in that week’s program. It was so much fun because I have a long history with Japan and know how to cook Japanese food and they like to eat it, so we are having a really good time. We are doing that on Tuesdays.
That is a great way to connect with people during this difficult time! I’m glad you’re doing that. So, as you know, in BA we focus on educating PhDs on their career options outside of academia. When did you start thinking about leaving academia and starting your own career advising business?
I started back about 12 or 13 years ago. I was a tenured professor and department head and I was really unhappy and struggling in my tenured position at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That had a lot to do with being frustrated with that institution which I was a terrible match with and also personal disruptions in my life due to a very contentious, scary, and traumatizing divorce and custody situation. The combination of those two things made it look less and less viable that I could continue a career successfully and happily in academia.
Was The Professor Is In your first business?
My first foray was a jewelry making business and I did it on the side. I’ve always been a crafty person and for 30 years I’ve been learning Japanese paper crafting as a hobby, on the side. So, I took my paper crafting skills and my big collection of vintage Japanese washi paper and I started making stuff out of it. Then I started miniaturizing them and making them into jewelry. Since they worked really well, I started selling them. That was my first foray into running a small business. What I learned in those years, 2 years later when I had the brainstorm, is that I could take the vast knowledge I had about professional careers and the job market and that I had the foundation I needed at that point to start a small business doing this other completely different thing. So, The Professor Is In has been running for over 10 years now.
“What’s interesting about running the business is that I’ve made so much bigger impact in the world than I ever would have as a tenured professor of Japan Anthropology.”
It’s always great to hear folks being honest about why they transitioned out of academia and to see that it can not only be because of professional reasons but also that personal reasons can influence and that it's totally ok and totally human.
Absolutely! If I had never left my first job at the University of Oregon and I had stayed there in my tenured position and just hung out, just stuck it out a little bit longer, I would have probably stayed in academia. You know the main reasons were my children - I had two small children- so I wanted to live closer to my family in the east, and that the salaries at the University of Oregon were so abysmal that we were really struggling trying to pay for childcare and it was just so difficult. I really took the job in Illinois because the salary was exponentially better, it was quite a bit closer to my family and it was a move up in prestige institutionally. All of those reasons made it feel like an amazing move, but it turned out that it was a horrendous mismatch in terms of the way people were, the way it functioned, the ethos of the place. And it was clear to me if I had stayed at Oregon I probably never would have left the academy cause I would have been happy enough, I would have made it work, and their salaries got a huge bump shortly after I left. The administration realized that they couldn’t continue like it was and so the salaries are much better now. In any case, I’m delighted to run this business. I mean, I love it! What’s interesting about running the business is that I’ve made so much bigger impact in the world than I ever would have as a tenured professor of Japan Anthropology.
That’s definitely true! The impact you are having with The Professor Is In is astonishing. On that same topic, what motivated you to make this career change?
Well, the interesting thing was, after I had left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign I didn’t yet have a job and it was terrifying to be unemployed after having a successful career as a tenured academic. So I found a part-time position at the University of Oregon in the McNair Program advising underrepresented undergraduate students who were in the process of applying to PhD programs. It was a lovely federal program. I loved being part of it, although it was paid so abysmally that it wasn’t something that I could really consider to do in the long term. But what happened was that I was there, I was not the director, I was working with a marvelous man who was the director. So I started offering my advice to these undergraduate students and I was dealing with their questions and I realized that these poor students were like lambs to the slaughter house. They had no idea and the stakes are so high for these students because they are underrepresented, they are first generation, they are economically disadvantaged, and they have no back-up. They are not coming from privilege and the stakes for them are so high that they cannot afford the kind of gaslighting and exploitation that is the normative in academia and PhD training. They just can’t be allowed to walk into this without being warned about what they’re getting into. Because of this, I was really mobilized by working in the McNair Program and as I did that for them I realized that beyond the 15 students who are enrolled in our program I could be making this available to people across the country by using the internet. So I did come up with the idea that I would have a business, although I didn’t have any idea if it would be a business at all. I had no idea what would happen, but I just came up with the name and concept basically over a weekend and I created a really simple website and I started blogging. I blogged 5 days a week, every single week, for probably about a year. Filled the blog with information and hung out a shingle at the same time saying “I can help you with whatever”. And the thing was that then it just exploded because people were in desperate need for this help.
“To apply that kind of career thinking to PhD-level academic pursuits is really considered a betrayal of the whole ethos. Consequently, academics refuse to think of themselves as laborers, absolutely categorically refuse.”
Why do you think that many PhD programs do not usually offer that sort of career advice even though every PhD student would benefit from it?
I believe that it is because of the central motivating mythology of the academy which harkens back to the feudal era that the academy is, especially in the Humanities, a kind of religious calling. And that, as such, the work must not be monetized and the more you martyr yourself for the work, the more pure and holy you are. It’s really a quasi-religious orientation. And so to monetize it in any way, to instrumentalize it in any way, is wrong. That means to apply career-related thinking, even just simple career-related thinking that is normative anywhere else, for example thinking “I’m investing time and money into a credential, what kind of money and compensation I’m going to get as a result?”. To apply that kind of career thinking to PhD-level academic pursuits is really considered a betrayal of the whole ethos. Consequently, academics refuse to think of themselves as laborers, absolutely categorically refuse. The higher they get up in the hierarchy, as in tenured and full professors, the more resistant they are to unionization and the less willing they are to acknowledge that what they do is labor, that their students are laborers, and that the non-tenured adjunct faculty is labor. They won’t acknowledge it, because to them -the tenured people- it cheapens what they think they’re doing. So it’s a massive, massive structure of gaslighting.
“But certainly the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive, catastrophic collapse in university funding models in the past year, for which we are only just starting to see the cumulative figures now. There’s like a year delay in being able to know the financial impact. It’s just imperative that PhDs train to leave the academy in a very intentional and focused way.”
Thank you for explaining that so clearly! I’m still amazed by seeing these types of conversations denying the need for recognizing the value of our labor as PhDs. So, let’s talk about your current job. You are the CEO and founder of The Professor Is In. For those that are not familiar with it, what is the main goal of The Professor Is In?
We are a consultancy that is supporting academics at every step of their career, both in and outside the academy. Basically, on the one hand we help grad students writing grants and dissertation proposals. Then of course the focus of the business is PhDs on the academic job market, as well as other advanced degree holders on the academic job market . Also, tenured and promotion files, book proposal grants and such. Moreover, now increasingly assisting people in leaving the academy. And I did lay the groundwork in that part almost as soon as the business started. Well, I myself left the academy, so while I’m helping people get into the academy, I’m also hoping a lot of people will leave and do something else. But certainly the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a massive, catastrophic collapse in university funding models in the past year, for which we are only just starting to see the cumulative figures now. There’s like a year delay in being able to know the financial impact. It’s just imperative that PhDs train to leave the academy in a very intentional and focused way.
What do you do on a daily basis as a career advisor, writer, speaker and entrepreneur?
Well it’s funny, my day to day barely changed with the pandemic because basically I sit on my sofa, where I am right now, and I get out my laptop and I sit cross legged and I just type madly for hours at a time. I have a team of editors and my assistant. We are a team of 8 people and we work together. I also have another assistant who is working on the post-academic transition wing, as well as that team of coaches that’s over there. Basically, I’m kind of the empresario of handling the incoming clients, monitoring my email inbox, and making sure that they’re being handled well by the editing team. Also, working with my editing team to deal with the editing and making sure that everything is being conducted up to our standards, constantly quality monitoring. In addition, doing career consulting by Zoom; doing live interviews; campus visit, job talks and role play prep by Zoom. And then I also do a ton of speaking, like I am with Beyond Academia. In the old days, I would travel to campuses, either nationally or internationally, at least once a month, usually twice a month. Also, every spring I would make a 6-week speaking tour of England, Ireland and some parts of Northern Europe, and that was marvelous but of course we are not doing that this year. It’s been a great gig!
“I started out like a real outlier, like 'what is she doing!?'. Now it’s like, 'of course she’s doing that!'.”
I would imagine that the focus of career advising has changed over the time you’ve been working in this area. What are some of the main changes you have experienced in this field?
When I started the business, first of all, there was an outpouring of fury that someone would have the audacity to create a business like mine. That fury has, to a large extent, dissipated, except for a few hard-core pockets, mostly in the field of History as far as I can tell. And I’m like, “I don’t know what your deal is, you white male historians adjuncts and full professors!”, I mean, who knows what’s going on there. In any case, I started out like a real outlier, like “what is she doing!?”. Now it’s like, “of course she’s doing that!”. And people are copying me more and more and institutions are copying me more and more, so more grad colleges are creating career advising models that are very similar. They’re either using my stuff, they’re stealing my stuff or they’re replicating it in some way. So that has changed quite a bit, where my kind of career development approach to the PhD has gone from outlier to quite normative. So that’s good! I’m very glad to see that. The other thing that has changed is that there is less delusion among PhDs that there was 10 years ago, but there’s still way too much. There’s still too much delusionality, there’s too much exceptionalism meaning “I’m gonna be the one”, “It’s not gonna happen to me”. I can’t fight that, I’ve been fighting it for 10 years. I don’t know what else to do, but at least it is decreasing a bit. And the other thing that has changed for me, and I did say this earlier, is that I have moved -and the business has moved- from being overwhelmingly focused on the academic job search with the non-academic being just a small side corner to pushing the non-academic job search really into the center of what we do. Because, if you look in the book “Leaving Academia, a practical guide” by Christopher L. Catherine, he has data in there that says that only between 2 and 7 percent of people with PhDs will get a tenure track job of any kind. So, when that means that 93 to 98 percent of PhDs will not get a tenure track job then you have to prioritize, you have to normalize this as plan A, not plan B. Plan A has to be how are you gonna take your PhD and do something else that is not knocking on the door of the academy. That door is not gonna open.
Those statistics are really impressive. I wasn’t aware that such a small percentage of folks with PhDs are able to get a tenure track job. That’s surprising!
I do want to say, I always urge everyone to look at how the PhDs in your field in your program are doing on the job market, because there are pockets where some programs would produce people who can break through, so keep that in mind. But the best thing you can do is look at how the last five years of PhDs from your department in your field are doing and that’s gonna be a good indicator for you of what’s likely to happen.
“I am constantly in awe that the simple idea I had, which is that you can take control and reclaim autonomy vis-à-vis academia, turned out this way. You can choose for yourself how you’re gonna engage with academia, and you can pull back and validate your own actions, your own project, your own value frankly, away from this external validation system. Whether you stay in the academy or whether you leave it, doesn’t matter, but you can reclaim autonomy vis-à-vis the system, which is typically quite abusive in many ways.”
That’s great advice! Switching gears a little bit and talking more broadly about your career, what is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?
Well, can I say two? One of them is that I managed to write the book “The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job” and I am excited to write a second edition of it. I would have done it already if the pandemic hadn’t happened and destroyed my motivation to do anything whatsoever. Because I know that my book absolutely changed the way that the PhD apparatus in the United States functions. I know it did. It removed plausible deniability from those professors and PhD students. So that I think I’m very proud of. But the larger thing that I’m proud of is that every single day without exception I get an email from someone telling me that I changed their life. And I can’t get over that. I am constantly in awe that the simple idea I had, which is that you can take control and reclaim autonomy vis-à-vis academia, turned out this way. You can choose for yourself how you’re gonna engage with academia, and you can pull back and validate your own actions, your own project, your own value frankly, away from this external validation system. Whether you stay in the academy or whether you leave it, doesn’t matter, but you can reclaim autonomy vis-à-vis the system, which is typically quite abusive in many ways. Everyday I get a message from somebody telling me that that message of our business changed their lives because either they used it to figure out how to correct the way they were applying for jobs and they got an academic job, or they realized that they didn’t want to be part of an abusive system and they left the academy or they have a spouse who is an academic and they couldn’t understand why they were suffering so much but they read my book and now they understand their spouse better. It’s amazing! So, I feel very humbled and grateful that I was able to do that.
It is truly amazing how your book and business have been able to touch so many people! Us in the BA team are big fans of what you do and are really excited to have you as a keynote speaker for our Beyond Academia Conference 2021. Since your talk will be focused on strategies for non-academic job hunting in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, do you have any parting advice for PhDs who are currently working on pursuing their career goals during this time of stress? And for those looking for future job prospects, what’s your input on how we can stabilise ourselves in these uncertain times?
Well first of all, can I tell you something? I have watched the BA Conference go by for so many years now and I’ve always been really wistful like “I wish they would invite me! Why don’t they ever invite me?”, but I’m really glad you did this year. But you know what, it makes sense because I wasn’t really known for leaving the academy advice. So I kind of get that I wouldn’t be an obvious choice to be invited, because I was known for advising on how to get in the academy and that’s been an intentional shift in our work here at The Professor Is In. It’s been like “oh my god, we have got to get this message out, it’s really urgent!”. So I can kind of see why the timing worked out the way it did. In any case, the thing is that I’m delighted to do it, and the fact that my daughter is a senior Berkeley student and can make it to the conference is also wonderful!
In terms of advice, I do, I have endless advice. But the advice that I want people to know is that you are already entrepreneurial. You are entrepreneurial just to get into the PhD program, especially if you’re first generation. To discover this world, to find the funding to do it, to propose a new scholarly project out of thin air and to advance it, to defend it in your dissertation defense, not to mention writing it and so on, doing the research. You’re already really entrepreneurial thinkers, you have finely trained brains to do research and collating information, cross referencing it, keeping records. You have the skills and using those skills that you have you can explore the world of the non-academic job market and then mobilize the hundreds of skills that you have already. You don't necessarily need any new skills, you just have to remember the ones that you have. And that’s not just the fact that let’s say I’m a Japan anthropologist so I’m fluent in Japanese, I have some ethnographic research skills, I know how to write academic prose. No. Those are not the only skills you have. You have organized events, you know how to use social media, you have multicultural expertise, you have stakeholder management which is a corporate term that you’ve been doing by managing your thesis committee for example. Managing your committee is like herding cats; well that’s stakeholder management! So you have all of these soft skills that you have not learned the names of properly, but they are there and all you have to do is identify them, learn the language to speak of them and write about them, and then learn how to apply to the jobs that are out there, including possibly starting your own small business.
That’s awesome! We love our transferable skills! Thank you so much for that advice and I know that you’ll be talking a lot more about this in your keynote lecture at our Beyond Academia Conference 2021. Thank you very much also for joining me for this interview and for offering your valuable time to us at Beyond Academia! We are really looking forward to having you as one of our keynote speakers at the Beyond Academia Conference 2021.
Karen Kelsky, PhD will be offering her keynote lecture at the Beyond Academia Conference 2021 on February 25th at 10am. For more information and to register CLICK HERE.
Angélica M. González-Sánchez is a 5th year Comparative Biochemistry PhD student at UC Berkeley. She’s the BA Co-director and Logistics subcommittee leader for the Beyond Academia team 2020-2021. If you would like to participate as a speaker in Beyond Academia events, contact her on LinkedIn.