Author Archives: karenkelsky

About karenkelsky

I am the McNair Advisor in the University of Oregon McNair Scholars Program. I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology and have had tenured positions in four departments. I have helped scores of students get into and succeed in graduate programs around the country. I'll be sharing 20 years of information and skills here. When I'm not doing this, I make and sell jewelry and explore Eugene with my partner and two kids.

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Dear readers,


Project Graduate School has moved to a new home on the official University of Oregon blog hosting site.


Please find us there at:


Thanks for reading.

Why You Should Apply to 6-10 Graduate Programs

In my work with McNair students (and indirectly with the larger pool of Trio students) at the University of Oregon, one of the most common things that I hear is:  “I’m thinking of doing a Masters/Ph.D. in xxx at UO/Portland State/Oregon State.”

A statement like this may sound innocuous, but it’s actually a huge red flag. 


Because it shows that the student has no idea how graduate school really works. 

Undergraduate study is often, for many students–particularly those who are first generation, low income, or underrepresented–all about location. Indeed many of our McNair/Trio students actually start at one of the community colleges near their family’s home, and only later transfer in to the UO to finish out their degree.  This makes sense.  There is a lower barrier to entry if you stick really close to home, and keep things familiar and as inexpensive as possible.

But while that is fine as a logic for your BA, it is disastrous as a logic for graduate school.  Because graduate school decisions must be made on a complex calculus of (in no particular order):

  •  the funding package the program offers you
  • the stature and enthusiasm (for you) of the advisor with whom you’ll be working
  • the status of the department
  • the overall status and reputation of the university
  • the placement rate of the department (ie, how effective it is in placing its MAs/Ph.D.s into jobs)
  • the fit of the department to your scholarly interests

None of those things has anything whatsoever to do with geography.  Indeed, for students in Oregon, which does not have a density of top-ranked research institutions, these criteria usually point directly away from the state.

The fact is, your criteria for choosing graduate school, if you want to have a hope of high-quality permanent employment at the end of it (as a professor or as another kind of professional) must focus on issues of quality of the program, fit with your interests, and financial package.  And these are things that you find when you apply on a national basis.

In addition, you do not know from the outside exactly how enthusiastically a department will respond to your application, or how much funding they have available for you.

This is why in addition to applying nationally, you also apply in quantity.  At McNair our official requirement of our students is that they apply to 6-10 programs.  This is because the so-called “perfect fits” often end up not accepting or funding the student, while the “stretch” programs do.

If you are admitted with generous funding to more than one institution, you CAN negotiate.  You can say to one institution, “I’ve been given xxx funding by institution A.  I’d  prefer to come to your department.  Can you match this offer?”  And some of the time, they will.  And some of the time, they won’t, and then you have to make a hard decision.

But it’s my official position (me being Karen Kelsky) that you should never take out new debt for graduate school.  So the place that funds you well enough to avoid that is the place to go.

And folks in Oregon—sorry, but in our broke state, that will very likely not be anywhere around here.


Graduate School in a Downsizing Academy

The most important step that you can take when considering graduate school is to ask yourself, what is the job that graduate school will prepare me for?

If you are not focused on your post-graduate school goal, then your process of choosing graduate programs, applying to them, picking an advisor, deciding on a dissertation topic, and everything else, will likely be unfocused and relatively ineffective.  One unfortunate outcome for many of those who do not have a clear career goal in their graduate school plan is unemployment accompanied by debt.

The fact is, jobs for Ph.D.s have been evaporating for 40 years, and have now declined to crisis levels.  The reasons for this are the overall disinvestment in higher education in America.  Universities have less money to spend, and less of that reduced amount is spent on teaching per se.  Instead it goes to athletics, student services, and bloated administration.

The quantity of actual permanent tenure-line faculty plummets, as these professors are replaced by short-term contingent instructors known as adjuncts.  Currently the percentage of college instructors who are adjuncts is hovering at about 65%.  Yes, that’s right.  The majority of university faculty are now hired on a part-time basis, with no benefits or job security, and paid just a few thousand dollars a class.  Visit the website of the organization New Faculty Majority to learn more.

In this context, newly minted Ph.D.s struggle to find permanent work–the kinds of full-time faculty positions with benefits that currently account for only about 35% of university teaching positions.  There are vastly, vastly more Ph.D.s than there are jobs for them.

This is where your planning comes into play.  If you are hoping to obtain one of these scarce positions upon completion of your Ph.D., then your strategizing for that outcome must start in your very first year of graduate school.  Actually, the point of this blog post is to tell you that it should start before you enter graduate school.   In fact, you should not choose a graduate program unless it has an excellent and well-publicized record of placement for its Ph.D.s in permanent, tenure-track positions.  Don’t consider attending a graduate program that doesn’t.

In addition, the program must have abundant funding, and be prepared to offer you a multi-year funding package, so that your years of study in the Ph.D. do not leave you with substantial debt.

With a Ph.D. from such a program, you will be situated to be competitive for the few tenure-track jobs that are available when you finish, and you will embark on the next stage of your life without the burden of crushing debt.

This is not the typical path.  The typical Ph.D. student does not know to look for these attributes in Ph.D. programs to which she applies.  She enters the program, dedicates years to it, only to find out at the end that she has been given no meaningful preparation for actually obtaining a permanent, full-time, tenure-track position.   She may have required years of loans to survive.  Proudly submitting her dissertation, she discovers that her applications for tenure-track jobs are rejected one after another.   She finds herself spending semester after semester doing part-time adjunct teaching that doesn’t pay the bills, or allow her time to do the research and writing that are required for a tenure-track job-worthy record.  After some years, she is confronted with the painful choice whether or not to give up on her dreams of an academic career in order to right her financial ship.

I wish this story were the exception but it is not; it is currently the norm.

The way to avoid this outcome is to ensure, as I wrote above, that the doctoral program you enter is doing everything possible to train its graduate students in all of the skills necessary to obtain tenure-track positions.  These include grant-writing, publishing, conferences, and networking, as well as generally keeping a close eye on the state of the job market in the field and evolving hiring priorities, and assisting their Ph.D.s to follow them.

It is not easy to discern whether a graduate program has a commitment to this kind of professionalization training.  Clues to look for include a “placement” page on the website that is up to date, and shows the job placements of recent Ph.D.s.  Also look for workshops dedicated to grant-writing and the job market, and an active brown-bag or seminar schedule that brings top scholars to visit (this promotes networking).   Ask currently-enrolled graduate students whether they are encouraged (and funded) to attend national conferences, and whether the department offers an academic writing seminar and support for publication.  Finally, ask current graduate students and faculty about recent Ph.D.s–where are they now?  If they answer with some version of, “gosh….I don’t really know,” turn on your heel and run in the opposite direction.  Only consider attending a department that has a strong institutional culture of tracking its Ph.D.s and identifying with their success.

It goes without saying that the individual advisor you choose should be looked at in a similar vein.  How good is he at placing his Ph.D.s in tenure-track positions?  If you can’t get a clear answer on that, or if the answer is, “not very,” don’t consider that individual as an advisor.

In all things related to graduate school, remember—you are in the driver’s seat.  Protect yourself.  Departments and advisors may assist you, but your success ultimately rests in your hands alone.

“Is That Your Final Answer” Or, Why Students Ramble

Students tend to ramble.  And the further into their graduate studies they get, the more likely they are to do it.  The question that must be asked is: why?

I was working with a Ph.D. student last week on  interview responses for an upcoming fellowship interview, and for the first time, I understood the answer to this question.

Students ramble because you are afraid to stop talking. Because if you stop talking, then your answer is finished. And if your answer is finished, then you have to commit to it. And it has to sit there, and either be right, or wrong. One way or another, you sink or swim on that answer.

And nobody wants to do that. Nobody wants to be pinned down as having answered a question in one particular way, because what if that way is the wrong way? What if that isn’t what they “want to hear”? So, you say to yourself, somewhere—probably unconsciously– “if I just keep talking, maybe I’ll suss out what they really want to hear, and then I can say that! Because, whatever they want to hear, I’ll say! If I just knew what it was!”

(This is the close cousin to the related problem that students often jump in before the questioner has finished talking. Why? Because you want to look like you “already thought about that,” and “didn’t really need to be asked,” and “really, should and would have said it already if you’d had a chance, but in any case will definitely tell you everything you could possibly want to know about it right now.” Because you’re afraid to look stupid. And if for some reason you left something OUT of your answer, then you have failed to tell them what they “want to hear.” So the slightest peep from the interviewer has to be met with an avalanche of new talking, talking which will surely cover everything they could possibly “want to hear” on the subject.)


Guess what? If you want to have a career in academia, you have to commit to your final answer. You actually have to speak in declarative sentences with a strong falling tone at the end that signals, aurally, the period.

You have to stop, and then wait. Wait while your interlocutor processes what you said, reflects on it, and then responds with thoughts of her own.

And guess what? She might disagree with you. Yeah, she might. And you still have to respond in declarative sentences.

Here’s how this looks, in a sample dialogue drawn from a typical interview scenario for a tenure-track position at a university:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would use Martindale.

Interviewer: Oh….? Why?

You: Because I think Martindale does the best job of bridging social and political economic viewpoints. He’s not the strongest on contemporary developments, of course, but that can be augmented with other readings. For the basic textbook, I think he gives the best and most thorough overview.

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Really? That’s interesting. What happened, do you think? What did the students dislike?

Interviewer: They found his writing too hard to follow, and the format was confusing.

You: Interesting. When I’ve used that textbook students have given it positive feedback. But that may be because I make them study guides of each chapter, and walk them through the chapter the first day we cover it in class, alerting them to the parts to focus on for the lectures and exams.

Interviewer: Ohhhh, what a good idea! I’ll bet that would help. We should talk more! I’m ordering my books for the next term this week, and I’d like to talk with you more about the options.

You: Perhaps over dinner after my talk today? I’ll look forward to it.

OK, what happened here? What happened here is that the interviewee stuck to his guns. He had a position, he stated it clearly, and he defended it. He did not panic and fall down when the interviewer took an opposing viewpoint. And what happened as a result? He had a meaty, substantive exchange with the interviewer that resulted in him coming across as a credible, authoritative and effective teacher. It resulted in a deeply satisfying dialogue. It also ended with the interviewer wanting to know more.

And that, dear readers, is where you want your interviewers to be. You want them eager to know more, and ready to ask for it.

Now, here’s how that usually goes, for the ramblers among you:

Interviewer: What text would you use for the introductory course?

You: I would probably use Martindale, although, you know, there are a lot of good options out there and I’ve heard good things about Nelson, and Richardson, and you know of course, NO textbook really covers everything so you always have to augment, but I’m sure you already know that….!

Interviewer: Ok, ok!  So, anyway, why would you use Martindale?

You: Because I think Martindale is pretty good on social and political economic viewpoints, although, you know, a lot of people say that he’s not that great on contemporary developments, but that isn’t always the main thing, because sometimes I assign other readings for that, like the Patrick piece from the Annual Review, and this great article I found on current theory that was in this one reader out of Routledge, and even though sometimes those are too hard for undergraduates it’s pretty important that they get a sense of the field….so, um, yeah, what was the question?

Interviewer: I used Martindale last year and I thought it was terrible. The students hated it. It was disappointing because I’d heard such good things about that textbook.

You: Oh, wow, really? Oh gosh, I never even thought of that. I wonder if my students thought that? You know, a few of them DID say to me that it was kind of hard to follow and I noticed that their quiz scores were really low in the beginning, so I was trying to figure out what to do, and I thought of maybe making study guides that would help them, so I made some and it seemed to help, but you know, it’s hard to say, and I should really look at some other textbooks, like maybe Nelson, which is what my advisor used when he taught that class and I was his TA, so yeah, I hope maybe I can ask you what has worked for you because you know I’d definitely do whatever was expected for the way the department teaches that class……. you know?

Interviewer: Ummmm, ok. So moving on to the next question….

Here’s what happened in this case. In this case, in the candidate’s abject eagerness to “please” the interviewer and say whatever it is that he thinks she “wants to hear,” he ended up doing several things:

  • overwhelming his interviewer in several panicked, inarticulate monologues.
  • squelching all opportunity for collegial dialogue.
  • undermining his own authority and credibility as a teacher.
  • reinforcing an outdated subordinate identity as a graduate student TA.
  • burying the effective teaching method that he devised to deal with the text, which was creating chapter study guides.
  • boring and alienating the interviewer, who drops the subject and irritatedly moves on to another question.

In short, the panicked, rambly effort to just keep talking until some kind of magic “right answer” will present itself…… that effort is precisely the behavior that bombs the interview and disqualifies the candidate as an effective teacher, a confident professional, and most of all, an appealing colleague.

The fact is, there are not that many “right answers” in an academic setting. Sure, there are sometimes strong ideological orthodoxies that some departments adhere to, and it’s important to keep all of your antennae alert to those. But you can discover many of those by thorough research ahead of time.

The fact is, there are fewer orthodoxies per se, then there are opinions. Because academics specialize in having opinions. And in order for you to make an impression as a credible academic, you too must have opinions, strong opinions, that you’re prepared to state clearly, and defend.

That doesn’t mean being a jerk. The best speaker and scholar is the one who is open-minded and pleasant. But not one who is a doormat, and who is so afraid of offending someone that he literally won’t stop talking because his“final answer” might be wrong.

No, ramblers, that has to stop. Ask yourself, “is this my final answer?” And be ready to say, “yes.”

[This post is adapted from one originally published at Karen Kelsky’s other blog, The Professor Is In.  The opinions expressed on that other blog are those of Karen Kelsky personally and do not necessarily reflect the position of the University of Oregon McNair Scholars program.]

How to Write a Proposal Abstract

Today we look at the paper/conference proposal abstract.  This is a critical genre of writing for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.  Usually between 200 and 500 words long, it is a short abstract that describes research/a talk/a journal article that you are GOING to write.  This is in contrast to the abstract of the research/dissertation/article that you have already written.

Mastering the paper abstract is one of the most important skills you can acquire while still a graduate student.  Learn the tricks of the paper abstract and you have the ticket in hand to a steady ride of conference and publishing opportunities.  These are the conferences and publications that a few years down the line, set your c.v. apart from your peers, and land you that job.


The paper abstract is highly formulaic.  Let’s break it down.  It needs to show the following:

1) big picture problem or topic widely debated in your field.

2) gap in the literature on this topic.

3) your project filling the gap.

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your original argument.

6) a strong concluding sentence.


Each of these six elements is mostly likely contained in a single sentence.

Sentence 1:  Big picture topic that is being intensively debated in your field/fields, possibly with reference to scholars (“The question of xxx has been widely debated in xxx field, with scholars such as xxx and xx arguing  xxx]”).

Sentence 2:  Gap in the literature on this topic.  This GAP IN KNOWLEDGE is very, very bad, and detrimental to the welfare of all right thinking people.  This is the key sentence of the abstract. (“However, these works/articles/arguments/perspectives have not adequately addressed the issue of xxxx.”).

Sentence 3:  Your project fills this gap (“My paper addresses the issue of xx with special attention to xxx”).

Sentence 4+ (length here depends on your total word allowance, and more sentences may be possible):  The specific material that you are examining–your data, your texts, etc. ( “Specifically, in my project, I will be looking at xxx and xxx, in order to show xxxx.  I will discuss xx and xx, and juxtapose them against xx and xx, in order to reveal the previously misunderstood connections between xx and xx.”)

Sentence 5:  Your main argument and contribution, concisely and clearly stated. (“I argue that…”)

Sentence 6:  Strong Conclusion!  (“In conclusion, this project, by closely examining xxxxx, sheds new light on the neglected/little recognized/rarely acknowledged issue of xxxxx. ”).


Start by writing out your own version of the sentences above, succinctly if you can, but without stressing about your word limit too much.

Once that is done, edit to your word count.

One of the key points of the paper abstract is that it is very short, and every word must count. No fluff, no filler, no blather.

Remove wordy phrases like, “it can be argued that,” “Is is commonly acknowledged that,” “I wish to propose the argument that”—these are all empty filler. Work in short, declarative sentences.

If you are wondering—how do I make an argument when I haven’t written the paper yet?  Well–that’s the challenge.  Come up with a plausible, reasonable argument for the purposes of the abstract.  If you end up writing something different in the actual paper itself, that’s ok!

Make sure that your final product shows your:

1) big picture

2) gap in the literature

3) your project filling the gap

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your argument.

6) A strong conclusion.


For your reference, here are two abstracts that demonstrate how the principles above work.  Each has parts missing, as noted.  Inclusion would have strengthened the abstract:

1.  Access to marriage or marriage-like institutions, and the recognition of lesbian and gay familial lives more generally, has become central to lesbian and gay equality struggles in recent years [Sentence 1–Big problem].  [Sentence 2–Gap in literature MISSING here].  This paper considers what utopian fiction has to offer by way of alternatives to this drive for ever more regulation of the family [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. Through analysis of Marge Piercy’s classic feminist novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, and Thomas Bezucha’s award-winning gay film, Big Eden, alternative ways of conceptualizing the place of law in lesbian and gay familial lives are considered and explored [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. Looking to utopia as a method for rethinking the place of law in society offers rich new perspectives on the issue of lesbian and gay familial recognition [Sentence 5–Her argument, weak]. I argue that utopian fiction signals that the time is now ripe for a radical reevaluation of how we recognize and regulate not only same-sex relationships but all family forms [Sentence 6– a strong conclusion.].

[Imagining a Different World: Reconsidering the Regulation of Family Lives. Rosie Harding. Law and Literature. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2010) (pp. 440-462)]

2.  History, it seems, has to attain a degree of scientificity, resident in the truth-value of its narrative, before it can be called history, as distinguished from the purely literary or political [Sentence 1–Big problem]. Invoking the work of Jacques Rancière and Hayden White, this essay investigates the manner in which history becomes a science through a detour that gives speech a regime of truth [Sentence 2–Literature, no gap mentioned]. It does this by exploring the nineteenth-century relationship of history to poetry and to truth in the context of the emerging discipline of history in Bengal [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. The question is discussed in relation to a patriotic poem, Palashir Yuddha (1875), accused of ahistoricality, as well as to a defense made by Bengal’s first professional historian, Jadunath Sarkar, against a similar charge in the context of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s historical novels [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. That the relationship of creativity to history is a continuing preoccupation for the historian is finally explored through Ranajit Guha’s invocation of Tagore in “History at the Limit of World-History” (2002) [Sentence 5–Her argument, weakly stated].  [MISSING Sentence 6—a strong  conclusion].

[History in Poetry: Nabinchandra Sen’s “Palashir Yuddha” and the Question of Truth. Rosinka Chaudhuri. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 66, No. 4 (Nov., 2007) (pp. 897-918)]

Good luck with your abstract!! And be sure and get in touch with Karen at if you need some help.


(this post originally published by Karen on


What Should Grad School Types Do Over the Summer?

Summer is upon us. Long, lazy days at the pool, barbeques, beers, suntans…. Um, no, not if you’re a graduate student or planning to be one. No, for you, young gra-(duate student)-sshopper, summer is for work.

Not for you.

What kind of work, you ask? That’s a good question. And there are several possible answers. Here are some, in no particular order:

Plan 1: Enroll in summer classes and get some credits out of the way.
Plan 2: Enroll in summer research/independent study credits and work on an independent research/writing project.
Plan 3: Work to save money for graduate school.
Plan 4: Get into an internship or summer research program off campus that provides hands-on training in a related field.

All of these are excellent options, and everyone will have a different set of personal circumstances (budget, family obligations, etc.) that will influence their choices.

But overall, Plan 1 may be relatively short term thinking, in terms of preparation for getting into and out of the best graduate school programs with the best funding package. To achieve that, you need to stand out with independent research experience and ideally, a published paper to your name. Plans 2 and 4 are your best bet to achieve that.

Similarly, Plan 3 is a commendable and responsible choice, and it is never wrong to save money. But by the same token, if you focus your energies on Plans 2 or 4, it MAY transpire that your graduate school years are completely funded by generous fellowships, leading ultimately to an excellent full-time job.

When I advise students, one of the primary points I try to drive home is that you should always EXPECT and AIM FOR and do everything possible to PREPARE FOR an abundantly-funded graduate school experience.

In other words, do NOT start out expecting and planning to painstakingly scrape through graduate school with a punishing cycle of part time work and loans.

This initial mindset may play a large role in which of the four summer plans above that you choose. While a summer job can definitely help you put a little money away, that money will not go far in covering graduate school expenses. A summer internship or research project, while possibly costing more up front, may well make you competitive for a top-tier funding package at your ideal graduate program.

None of these outcomes is guaranteed of course! There is always risk in every choice. But with careful advising, especially consulting with potential advisors and directors of graduate study at the programs you most want to enter, you can gather the information to make the best informed choice.

How is Graduate School Different from Undergraduate?

Undergraduate students considering graduate school are often confused about what exactly graduate school IS.

That is understandable. Graduate school is kind of mysterious, and if you haven’t had family and friends who have gone through it, it’s very difficult to discern from the outside what makes it different from undergraduate study.

In a nutshell, graduate school is advanced schooling that allows you to *specialize* in a particular field. Where undergraduate study is generally meant to be broad, graduate school is narrower and deeper. The Masters degree is somewhat specialized, and the Ph.D. degree is highly specialized.

In practice, in terms of what you actually DO once you enter a graduate program, the primary difference is where the main initiative for learning rests.

In undergraduate study, initiative substantially rests with the professor, department, and university.

The professor conceptualizes, creates and teaches the course. The department creates the major. The university sets the distribution requirements.

The student fulfills these pre-determined expectations, and gets credit toward a degree. While the student definitely brings dedication and hard work, the work is mainly fulfilling expectations set by others.

In graduate school, by contrast, the initiave for learning rests with the student above all. You are the engine of progress, and responsibility for conceptualizing goals, charting a course to meet those goals, and staying on track toward those goals, rests squarely on your shoulders.

Professors *advise* but they rarely direct your study.

Coursework itself plays a diminishing role after the first year, and more and more you’re expected to do independent research that you conceptualize and execute on your own.

Even in your classes, the interpretations, evaluations, questions, debates are initiated by the students. The onus is on you to:

read in depth
develop a critical analysis of the reading
ask questions
develop scholarly opinions
learn to support your own positions.

And on a larger career scale, in terms of what job you get after finishing, the onus is on you to observe trends in the field, to find and pursue conference opportunities, educate themselves about hiring, and to get yourself to departmental events, particularly job talks.

The advisor’s role is typically more reactive than active.

Too many new graduate students don’t understand this difference and waste valuable years floundering around waiting for some professor to tell them what to do and how to do it.

Remember, once you’re in graduate school YOU are the master of your fate! Take the reins and run!