The Personalities of a Graduate Program


Ah, Departmental Politics. The downfall of many a hapless graduate student. So many personalities, so many treacherous waters. How to navigate them?



This is without question the best book (in combination with Getting What You Came For [Robert Peters, 1997]) available on succeeding in graduate school and leaving graduate school gainfully employed.


If I wrote a book on graduate school, it would be this book.


The only caveat I must mention is that it IS, as stated in the subtitle, geared to graduate students in the Humanities.  Those in the sciences and professional fields may find some parts not entirely applicable.  Nevertheless, as an overall guide to graduate school, this one is IT.


Today I want to introduce a section of the truly wonderful first chapter, The Culture of a Graduate Program.

This section, pages 34-36, introduces the “ubiquitous personalities” found in American university departments.
Every would-be graduate student should learn to identify these personality types and understand thoroughly which type your advisor is, which types your committee members are, and what the potential pitfalls of each can be.


The types are drawn directly from Semenza.  However, the discussion following each one is my own, based on my own experience as a student and a colleague in 4 different departments.


•The High Priests and Priestesses:  The commonly regarded “superstars” of the program.  Oftentimes the most productive, with the widest national and international reputation.  Highly respected for their productivity and leadership.  Oftentimes come with monumentally massive egos to match.  Usually make excellent advisors, as long as you can cope with the ego factor.


•Deadwood:  Tenured faculty who ceased making original scholarly contributions to their field (and similarly, ceased to stay up to date in teaching or active and responsive in service) at some point in their career.  They can’t be fired, and they are just marking time until retirement.  Never, under any circumstances, have one of these as an advisor.  You can immediately tell if someone is deadwood by doing an internet search and finding that they have published nothing, attended no conferences, and won no major grants or awards in the past decade.


•The Black Sheep: The faculty member in a department who feels, justifiably or not, isolated, marginalized, and persecuted intellectually and/or socially.  They often turn this marginalization into a badge of honor, and indulge in paranoia and delusions of grandeur.   They may legitimately work in an area of the discipline that runs counter to the rest of the department’s focus.  Or, they may just be paranoid.  In any case, they will often try to reach out and collar new graduate students and turn them into “loyalists.”  Most graduate students are flattered until they realize this is a dead end intellectually and politically in the program.  Beware of the Black Sheep as advisor.  There are far more potential risks than benefits in most cases.


•The Careerists:  Generally younger faculty members who are absolutely, single-mindedly, fixated on building their reputation, status, and political influence in their scholarly fields.   They will be focused intensively on getting the next grant, attending the next conference, organizing the next symposium, publishing the next article, and editing the next book.  Assistant Professors, still seeking tenure, should legitimately be careerist to some degree, as it is necessary to building the kind of high powered resume that guarantees tenure.  However, for many faculty, the habits of careerism that begin early in the career are hard to break, and in fact only intensify over time.  Careerist senior faculty may or may not make good advisors.  They can teach you priceless skills in networking, self promotion, and chutzpah.  However, given their propensity to be constantly jetting off to the latest conference in Singapore, Amsterdam, and/or South Africa, they can be very, very difficult to actually meet with.


•Service Slaves:  Almost 100% of the time women, Service Slaves are untenured or tenured faculty members who are unable to say no when the department creates the committees that keep it running—ie, search committees, curriculum committees, grievance committees, advisory committees, etc.   Sacrificing their own research productivity to departmental needs, they are the “perpetual associate professors” who stagnate in salary and status, with little to show for their selfless work in keeping the department functioning while other, far more selfish individuals, garner prizes, praise, and raises.   Service Slaves generally make warm, fuzzy advisors who might even bake you cookies for your birthday.  But they fall short of the ideal advisor, being negative role models for scholarly productivity, self-promotion, and clear personal boundaries.


•The Curmudgeons:  Every department has at least one senior greybeard, nearly always male, who stumps about complaining about the downfall of the field, the discipline, the department, the university, the world at large, and who generally sets himself up to resent and resist every curricular and administrative change that comes under discussion.  Curmudgeons can be secretly sweet and good natured, or openly hostile and antagonistic.  Either way, you must never have a curmudgeon as an advisor.  They can serve as an informal mentor or committee member as long as counterweighted by younger, more forward thinking committee members.   But as primary advisors, they are a mistake.  They’re primary contributions lie in the past, and they are backward looking.  You need someone focused on the future, and who thoroughly understands the brutal, heartbreaking conditions of the contemporary job market.  Do not, under any circumstances, be seduced by corduroy elbow patches, grey hair, and warm welcomes!!!!   You need someone as your advisor who is in the very prime of their career.


To be continued……


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How Do You Write an Email or Letter to a Professor?

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to contact professors to serve as potential faculty advisors.  This can be a minefield.   I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school/doing research on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”

This is an instant-delete email.

Here is what an email to a professor should look like:

“Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a junior and will be graduating next May.  I have a 4.0 GPA and experience in our college’s summer program in xxx.

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  And if you are, if you’d be willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans.  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much,

Sincerely,

XX XXX

Why is this email good?  Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified.  It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website.  It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions.  It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work.  It shows that you respect the professor’s time.

All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.

Good luck!


Karen’s Foolproof Research Proposal Template

Unveiled here:  Karen’s Famous and Foolproof Research Proposal Template.

This Research Proposal Template has won hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money for multiple graduate students and scholars in the social sciences and humanities over the past 15 years.

You may share, but please credit Dr. Karen Kelsky of the McNair Scholars Program at the University of Oregon (see also at The Professor Is In, http://www.theprofessorisin.com).

Let’s walk through this step by step.

The first step is to identify what large general topic of wide interest that your specific project relates to.  These are topics that anyone, including your grandmother or someone sitting next to you on a plane, would say, “oh, yes, that’s an important topic.”  Examples include:  immigration, sustainable energy, changes in the family, curing cancer, new social technologies, environmental degradation, global warming, etc. Until you can identify a really broadly interesting theme that your project relates to, you will never be successful in applying for grants.

This is because your application must *excite* the readers, and the readers are likely from a range of different disciplines.  They will not all be interested in your discipline’s narrow debates.  They want to know that your work and your intellectual and scholarly vision are wide, and broad, and encompassing.

Once you have established your wide, much debated, topic, you then identify two bodies of literature relevant to your own training that dealt with this topic.

If you are an anthropologist, and your research is on Haitian communities in New York City, for example, you will start by pointing to the wide debates on immigration in America.  Then you will write, “scholars in many fields have addressed these important questions.  Within cultural anthropology, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have all explored the role of cultural beliefs in shaping immigrant communities.  Within Caribbean Studies, meanwhile, scholars such as xxx, xxx, and xxx have focused on the specific demographic and economic trends which have fueled outward migration.”

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This brief survey will be no more than 3 sentences long. And indeed all of the above must be done in two paragraphs and no more.  Complain, claim that it is “impossible,” and then get it down to two paragraphs.  Because it is only the Introduction to the “Kicker” Sentence, the axis on which your entire appeal for funding rests. And the Kicker Sentence must be on the first page.

The Kicker is your “HOWEVER” sentence.   The “however” sentence is the crux and the anchor of your entire proposal.

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It reads like this:

“However, none of these works have addressed the central question of XXXXXXXX.”

XXXXXXX in this case is YOUR view of what is most essential to an accurate understanding of the big topic, but which  has never to date been studied by anyone else.

This brings you to the GAP IN KNOWLEDGE:  “Despite much excellent work on themes such as XXX and XXX, scholars examining the transformations in immigration in America have not yet fully explored the importance of XXXX in creating and sustaining these communities.”

Now for the URGENCY:

“Yet, without such an understanding, we are left with an inadequate analysis that creates the condition for ill-informed policy decisions and a self-sustaining cycle of misunderstanding and resentment….”

Now for the HERO NARRATIVE.

“This study will remedy this gap in the literature by examining the class and racial politics of an immigrant Haitian community in New York City in order to more fully elucidate the heretofore unrecognized relationships between XXX and XXXX in one highly contested immigrant context. ”

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Remember, YOU are the HERO who is going to save us from ourselves and our inadvertant but devastating ignorance about the true significance of XXX!

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This is immediately followed by a CONCRETE AND UNMISTAKABLE STATEMENT OF YOUR RESEARCH PROJECT (One of the most common grant proposal mistakes is to never include a single and foregrounded, easily identified sentence encapsulating your research project) :

” This study will focus particularly on XXX.  Through a close and fine-grained analysis of XXX, I will show  that in contrast to previous assumptions, in fact immigrant communities are XXXXXX.”

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The rest of the essay then provides substantiating evidence.  In other words, concrete evidence that the project is doable, by you, according to reasonable and well thought out disciplinary methods and timeline.

SPECIFICS:  This is one to two paragraphs of more specific information about the background, context, history, and limitations of the research.  This demonstrates that you’ve looked into the project thoroughly and are familiar with it from several angles.

LITERATURE REVIEW:  This builds on the very brief references in the first paragraph, and demonstrates that you have, in fact, read the major literature related to this topic.  All citations must be complete and correct.  Zero tolerance for misspellings or typos.  All sources MUST, without exception, be listed on the attached bibliography.

METHODOLOGY:  These are the specific methods that you will use to conduct the research.  These differ by discipline.

TIMELINE:  This is a month-by-month (or week-by-week) plan of research.  What will you do when?  Be specific!  Name dates!

BUDGET:  This is a general list of costs and any already committed funding sources.  Break down your legitimate research expenses, including lab supplies, field supplies, travel both large and small, books and materials, internet or computer access fees, etc.

All of this substantiating evidence is meant to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you will CORRECTLY UTILIZE the grant money once you receive it.

Finally, you cannot finish without a  STRONG CONCLUSION.  Even one sentence suffices, but do NOT neglect to include it.  It may read like this:  “I expect this research to contribute to debates on XXXXX and play an important role in shaping debates on XXXX and XXXX in the coming years.”

This Conclusion demonstrates that you are a master of both the micro and the macro implications of your project.  You have an unassailable timeline and budget, but you also have your eye on the wider scholarly world and your role in it.

Do all of this, my friends, and you will walk away with generous, abundant funding for your every project.  You will have the leisure to do the best work, and the best work will in turn legitimize you for the next major grant for which you apply.  You will be on the “GRANT GRAVY TRAIN“, and that is the key to the most successful and fulfilling academic careers.


How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

In previous posts I discussed point number one of graduate school recommendation letters:

NEVER ASK A TA TO WRITE ONE OF YOUR LETTERS!

To review the point of those posts:  Your letters should come from tenure-line faculty.  That means, someone whose title is either a) Assistant Professor, b) Associate Professor, or c) Professor.  Any additional words attached to those titles, such as “Adjunct,” “Visiting,” “Research,” etc. should almost always remove them from your list of letter writers.  The reason?  Graduate programs want to see the recommendations of experts who have completed the full arc of an academic career, from graduate school through permanent professional employment.  Those who have not generally have less experience on which to base their judgment of student potential.

Of course in a pinch, a Visiting, or Adjunct faculty can serve, and may well write you a wonderful letter.  Just be aware they are not in the very top tier of letter writer status, and try to limit such writers to one slot out of three.

In this post, I want to give you a script for asking for that letter of recommendation.

Preliminary Step one:  Do well in the professor’s class.  Visit her/his office hours.  Make sure she/he knows you as an individual.

Preliminary Step two:  Let the professor know in advance that you have graduate school plans and aspirations.  Make the professor part of your “team” of supporters.  Get her/him invested in your success.

Step one:  When the application stage comes schedule an appointment with the professor at least one month, and preferably two months, before the first deadline.

Step two:  Bring with you a copy of any work you did for the professor, as long as it is good.  A term paper that got an A grade is ideal.  Be prepared to remind the professor which class you were in, which term, and any distinguishing features of your performance in the class

Step three:  Explain in concise and well organized terms your concrete plans for graduate school applications, including the schools to which you want to apply, which programs and why, and your ideas for thesis/dissertation topics.  Do not ramble.  Do not digress.  Do not self-deprecate.

Step four:  Ask the professor if she/he would be willing to write a letter for you.

Step five:  If she/he expresses any reservation of any kind, politely thank her/him for her/his time, and leave.  Find another letter writer.  NEVER try to persuade someone to write for you.

Step six:  If she/he responds enthusiastically, lay out the general timeline, ask for advice on how to proceed and strengthen your application, and for any suggestions as to good programs and funding sources.

Step seven:  After leaving, follow up with an email.  The email should:

a)  thank the professor for their willingness to write for you

b) include a copy of your personal essay/statement of purpose

c) include an excel spreadsheet that clearly lists, for each of the 5 or more programs to which you are applying (and yes, you should apply to at least 5):

c1. The program

c2. The deadline

c3. The contact person

c4. The means of submitting the letter

Special Note:  You do NOT need to provide stamped envelopes for your letter writers!  It is a professor’s job to write these letters and the university pays all postage for letters of recommendation.

Step eight:  Repeat the above with two other faculty members, for a total of three letter writers.  If possible, make sure your letter writers come from relevant fields.  IE, if you are applying to do a Ph.D. in Japan anthropology, have at least one letter from an Anthropology faculty, and one from a Japan studies faculty.

However, it is also OK to change fields!  If you wish to go to graduate school in a new field that you did not study in your undergraduate days, that is FINE.  Then just ask your letter writers to focus on your general aptitude and potential for advanced work.

Step nine: enthusiastically accept comments and criticisms of your essay/statement of purpose from your letter writers if they have any.  Be willing to revise your essay.  Take your ego out of it and be grateful for constructive criticism.  You may submit a new essay all the way up to the application deadline.

Step ten:  Let your letter writers know the outcomes.  And thank them again.

Do all this and your letter writers will stay excited and invested in your success.   And their letters will reflect that.


The A+ Graduate School Essay

As we continue on our path of learning the strategies for success in applying to graduate school, I will now introduce your guide to all things personal essay-related:  The A+ Graduate School Essay.  This pamphlet summarizes my years of wisdom and advice related to writing the personal essay.

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the personal essay for your graduate school application is the single most important element of the application, and arguably the single most important piece of writing that you will do in the early part of your career.

The A+ Graduate School Essay teaches you the key things you need to know to write a brilliant personal essay.

A spectacular essay will be instrumental in bringing you years of graduate funding in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A mediocre essay will play a large role in consigning you to a graduate school life of overwork and debt.

And of course a really poor essay will keep you from entering graduate school at all.

This pamphlet summarizes the core techniques for writing the essay that will get you admission WITH FUNDING!   Share freely, but if you repost, please give full credit:  “Written by Karen Kelsky, Ph.D., McNair Program, University of Oregon [with this URL]”

Read and learn!  And comment!  I want to hear your thoughts!

The A+ Graduate School Essay


How Much Time Should You Spend on Your Graduate School Application?

One of the most frequent questions I get when I advise undergraduate students considering graduate school is:   how much time should I spend on my graduate school application, especially my personal essay?

The short answer is:  two months.

You should plan to spend at least two months working on your personal essay/statement of purpose for your graduate school application.

Why two months? 

Because the best essays get you into the best programs with the best funding package.

Let’s break it down.

Consider that even the most minimal funding package includes a tuition waiver and a stipend.

For the sake of argument, let’s value the tuition waiver at $12,000 annually, the cost of graduate tuition at a moderately priced state university.   Let’s assume a 40%  TA appointment, which carries a stipend, again at mid-level state university rates, of approximately $15,000.  Together, these equal $27,000 a year.  Keep in mind that the vast majority of graduate programs end up funding multiple years (even when they don’t guarantee it up front).  Rarely does a student enjoy funding one year only to have it withdrawn the next.  So, multiply $27,000 by five years (a very abbreviated Ph.D program indeed!), and you come to $135,000.

Now consider the amount of work that went into your application.  Say, for the sake of argument again, that you spend 2 hours a day, 7 days a week, for two months.  At 10 hours a week for 8 weeks, you have dedicated 112 hours of work.

That comes to about $1200 per hour of work.

Is $1200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?

Now let’s dream bigger.  Suppose your stellar essay gets you into a private university with an abundant endowment.  Their graduate students enjoy multiple year funding with NO teaching requirement!   Your 5 years of funding could now encompass tuition waivers worth $40,000 annually and $30,000 in stipend.  $70,000 a year for 5 years?  $350,000 in funding.  For 112 hours of work.

Is almost $3200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?

Get to work on that essay.

Expect to put it through 20 or more drafts.

Expect to show it to 10+ readers. Make sure these readers are professors and advisors at your university.  Pull every string you can to obtain help.

Make sure to have it read by faculty and advisors in different academic fields and subfields, to ensure it speaks across a broad audience.

Expect to labor over EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.

In fact, expect to labor over every single word.

Include not one wasted word, not one line or phrase that does not communicate something specific about your and your plans, that does not advance your core theme and argument, and that does not SHOW (rather than TELL) your exceptional and concrete plans, preparation, and aspirations.

Expect to see your wonderful, compelling, original draft, that you slaved over for hours, torn apart, criticized, and rejected by your academic readers.  Expect to tear your hair out and maybe shed tears.

Expect to pound your breast and claim that it is “impossible” to say all you “need” to in “only two pages.”

Then, get it down to two pages.

There is no single endeavor that you will engage in, possibly in your entire working life, that will yield such generous, abundant, and life-changing results as your graduate school essay.  Write a stellar one and a path to success opens, bringing with it the time and leisure to truly relish graduate school and think the great thoughts and attend the local and national events that lead to brilliant dissertations and jobs.

Write a mediocre one and the path may still lead to graduate school, but a graduate school that carries with it the stress of indebtedness and the strain of overwork as a inadequately funded Teaching Assistant.

Naturally, a bad one will not lead to graduate school at all.

Now, get to work on that essay.


The 5 Top Mistakes That Women Make in Graduate School

Next week I’m offering a new workshop for the UO McNair Program:  “Yes You Can!  Women and Graduate School.”

( Wed Feb. 26;  PLC 51 11-1:30; RSVP to Carrie Stampe at stampec@uoregon.edu if you’re interested in attending).

It’s a workshop I’ve led quite a few times in different forms, formally and informally, over the course of my 15 years in academia.

I created it, and keep leading it, because I just can’t bear to watch all the ways that women shoot themselves in their collective feet in academia (and other professional settings too).

Starting with myself.  I made a lot of mistakes on my path through graduate school, my first job, tenure, move to a new institution, and departmental headship.  And I watched my female colleagues make them too.  And then I watched my students make them–most especially the graduate students I’ve mentored personally through their Ph.D.s.

The mistakes arise from a single source: Women’s lifelong training, in our culture, toward various forms of self-effacement, both obvious and subtle, that undermine their authority in the institution, handicap their effectiveness in speaking and acting in the institution, and block their feelings of entitlement to claim the rewards of the institution.

I work with some powerful and fierce women.  Heck, I am a powerful and fierce woman.  But even so, one after another of us falls prey to patterns of speech and thought that position us as “less than,” “secondary to,” “less deserving than,” “less intelligent than,” “in service to” the professors, administrators, and colleagues we encounter in the university.

Let me be clear:  At this point in feminist time, it’s not likely that any woman in the American academy would consider herself less intelligent or capable or deserving than an equivalent man, simply by virtue of her gender.    And for sure I’m not claiming that women are to blame for sexism and institutional gender discrimination, which persists in large and small ways! (the topic of other posts).

What happens is subtler.  What I am claiming is that women are frequently far from their own best advocates.  Women tend to speak and behave in patterns, usually unconsciously and derived from their socialization from childhood, that through their repetition, “perform” a “role” of being less intelligent and capable and deserving than some imagined peer or competitor.  These same patterns are ones that men, by and large,  because of their socialization from childhood (and of course with some exceptions), avoid.

Here are the top five ways that women undermine their own authority:

1)  Ending their declarative sentences and statements on a verbal upswing or “lilt” that communicates self-doubt and deference.

2) Waiting their turn to interject contributions instead of diving in assertively, and seeking a collective experience rather than firmly expressing an individual viewpoint.

3) Leading with, and defaulting to, what they “don’t know” and “can’t do” and what “won’t work.”

4) Having a weak handshake and deferential body language, including smiling too much, laughing too often, trailing off, taking up too little space, and defaulting to questions rather than statements.

5) Expressing themselves in a disorganized, circular, non-linear manner that muddies their main point and obscures the goal that they set out to accomplish through the interaction.

The end result of years of such repetitions of these patterns is that women students and faculty accrue less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.

While women together have to combat institutional sexism and the glass ceiling, women individually can vastly improve their scholarly achievements and career prospects by being alert to self-defeating patterns of thought, speech, and behavior from their earliest days in the field.

And that’s what my workshop does.  Especially when we get to the role playing.   From shaking hands to asking for a letter of recommendation, to expressing major disagreement with a colleague—we learn how to display the decision, confidence, and authority that gets results.