careers · job market · jobs · networking

Try on Someone Else’s Life

I get asked to do informational interviews pretty frequently, and I think they’re one of the best tools out there for doing on-the-ground research about the kinds of jobs people with similar backgrounds have and how they ended up in them. But it can be hard to convince other people of their value, especially people who are shy, uncertain about where to start with career exploration, or convinced that anything remotely resembling networking is gross. In my latest article over at Chronicle Vitae, I suggest reframing informational interviewing as a way to try on someone else’s life and see if it fits, using the idea of life design conversations developed by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett: 

After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You’ll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You’ll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest. 

Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!

Image, Anna Levinzon, Creative Commons

academic publishing · book · from dissertation to book · networking

From Dissertation to Book: Doing Your Research


I defended in early September, and after awhile spent ignoring my dissertation completely, I’m about ready to turn my attention to it again. Six months isn’t a terribly long time to put it aside–I know lots of people who have taken a couple of years before moving to the monograph stage–but I’m always looking for a new project. And happily, the next stage in this one is one that PhDs are already really good at: research.

Let’s assume that you’re at the same stage as me in the process of transforming your dissertation into a book. Your pre-proposal online sleuthing needs to get you the information you need about two key things: the presses that you’re interested in submitting your proposal to and the acquisitions editors at those presses to whom you’re going to direct your pitch (we’ll get to that in a minute) and then your proposal.

The first question you need to answer is the question of which academic (or non-academic but scholarly–think Routledge) presses have a mandate and a catalogue that most closely match to your manuscript. This might seem counter intuitive–don’t you want to pitch to a press that isn’t already publishing competing titles? Ideally, no. You want to find a press that has proven strengths in your field, and that’s going to see your book as fitting neatly with their strengths and priorities. Plus, you’re going to do such a good job in your proposal of explaining the distinctive value proposition and contribution of your book that it will be clear to the presses you’re sending your proposal to that your book will occupy a unique but complementary place on their list.

So your research is going to be aimed at helping you do some monograph matchmaking. The best ways to figure out which presses you want to date are to:

  • Scan your dissertation bibliography and remind yourself about the books that were the most important, and closely related, to your research. Which publishers did they come out with? Were there a number clustered with one press? Put that press on your list to explore further.
  • Talk to mentors and colleagues in your field. Who have they published with recently? Which presses are doing (and publishing) interesting and innovative work in your field or subfield? Which ones come highly recommended? Which acquisitions editors do they know and trust?
  • Review the online catalogues of the presses you identified in steps one and two, including recent and forthcoming titles. In which catalogues do you find your book’s textual kin (a term I love coined by academic consultant Cathy Hannabach)? (Make sure you take notes on comparable titles that you find during this stage of research, as they’re going to form a key part of your proposal).
Once you’ve done your research and narrowed down the presses to which you’d be interested in submitting a proposal, it’s time to begin researching those elusive and deadly creatures–the acquisitions editors (AEs). These are the people to whom you’ll submit your proposal, and their job is to acquire, as the title suggests, new titles (books) for the lists (subject areas) they represent and specialize in. (You find lots of PhDs in AE roles, because they come with built in expertise and academic networks that help them source and evaluate new book proposals and titles to publish). AEs are the gatekeepers, and in pitching or proposing to an AE, you’ll need to convince him/her that:
  • your book fits the press’s mandate and 
  • your research and approach is excellent and
  • your book has a strong market and 
  • you’re more worth talking to and considering than the next guy
Here’s where your online research and academic network comes in. Who do you know who knows the AE responsible for your subject at the presses in which you’re interested? What is his/her approach? What feedback have others gotten on their proposals? What kinds of things is the AE just not interested in at all? What books are in the press’s pipeline that haven’t show up in the catalogue yet but are relevant to your looking into comparable titles and fit? Use that information to customize how you frame your book in the next stage.
What that next stage is varies. You may choose to do the convincing above via your proposal and cover letter, which I’ll talk about in the next post in this series. Or, you might start with a less formal email or conference pitch, which is the route I’ve gone. The logic is this: you’re a busy person, as are the AEs to whom you’re sending your non-insubstantial (somewhere in the realm of 10 pages, and always customized to each press’s requirements) proposal. (You might be wondering why I’m talking in plural here. Unlike journal articles, it’s totally okay at this preliminary stage–right up to when a press asks for a full monograph–to be in discussion with, and to send your proposal to, more than one press.) Why do that work without knowing that the press is even interested? And why not send your proposal to an AE who is already interested in and awaiting (eagerly, one hopes) its arrival?
Many people pitch their books to editors during meetings that they’ve set up at the big academic conference in their field, and lots of people have great success doing it that way. Karen Kelsky (aka The Professor Is In) has a handy post on how to approach the conference pitch, and a fantastic script for exactly how to talk about your book to an AE. For those of you like me who aren’t always at our annual meetings because of non-academic work commitments, for whom the timeline of the conference doesn’t match up with our plans, or who would just rather write to someone than pitch in person, email is the way to go. Many editors also prefer email pitches to in-person ones, either because of personal preference or because their conference schedules are packed–your research into the AEs for your subject should help you figure out which is the case and allow you to plan accordingly.
The script for an email pitch is very similar to the in-person one Karen gives above, with the addition of the fact that you should always try to leverage useful connections when reaching out to editors. Has your supervisor published with this press, worked this AE, and recommended that you pitch to him/her? Mention that in your email. Did you work with the AE for your field during the gap year you both took between your Master’s and PhDs? (True story!) Then make reference to that prior connection when you reach out. As with hiring managers, AEs are likely to pay closer attention to people who are already in, or come recommended by someone in, their network.
The best-case (although unlikely outcome) of your research and pitch is an invitation to submit a full manuscript. More likely, you’ll be asked to submit a proposal, but with the advantage of it being a solicited proposal to which the AE is already kindly disposed. And because the research you’ve done at this stage is laying a solid foundation, your proposal–which I’ll talk about next time–is going to be stellar. So get pitching!
#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · community · networking

#altac 101: Building New Professional Communities

One of the scariest parts of choosing to pursue a non-faculty career was the idea of leaving behind my academic communities. I spent my PhD immersed in engaged, supportive, and mind-opening communities, ones that formed on the picket line at York, in my long-running writing group, and through a national digital humanities consortium that brought together Canadianists from all over the country. Those people made me and my work better, and even as I knew that some of the friendships engendered by those academic working relationships would change when I stopped being a full-time academic, I really hoped that my existing communities would continue to sustain me even as I moved into a new career.

Inevitably, what I’d hoped would happen both has and hasn’t. The people who meant the most to me in my academic communities are still in my life in meaningful ways, and I love how our relationships have deepened and changed. But now that I’m in my fourth year of my academic administrative career, and especially now that I’m done my PhD, those communities aren’t sustaining me professionally the way they once did. Networking with other humanities academics isn’t going to help me further my career goals in the way I need to, and these aren’t the people any more with whom I need to talk and share about current research, trends, and best practices.

Happily, however, I’ve managed to find and build a new professional community that meets my new needs as someone who works in graduate professional development and research administration. It took a little work, a little digging, and a little waiting for the community to build itself up around a fairly new career path, but I’ve now got an awesome group of people in my corner, and my inbox, who make me feel supported in my work, who help me be better at my job, and with whom I’m excited to collaborate. If you’re also embarking on a non-faculty career, or you’re someone considering it but fearful of giving up the kind of community you found and built as an academic, I’ve got some advice:

1) If there’s a career, there is probably a professional society for it, although figuring out which one is the best fit for your need and goals can take a bit of work. In my case, it took asking colleagues, talking to people in similar positions, and keeping an eye in the agendas of upcoming events. In the end, I figured out that if I need to talk graduate funding administration, I go to the Ontario Universities Graduate Awards Forum. If I want to connect with my fellow postdoc coordinators, I go to the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators conference. Grad professional development? That happens at the annual meetings of the Graduate Career Consortium and the Canadian Consortium of Graduate Student Professional Development Administrators (CCGSPDA). These are the places where my people are now, and those people and places are awesome.

2) If there isn’t a professional society, you can make one happen. The CCGSPDA used to be just a small group of people who did graduate and postdoctoral professional development and had a LinkedIn group and semi-regular web calls. But then we got a name, and a Listserv, and an annual meeting, and official recognition by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, and an official mandate, and a whole bunch of new members. We’re a proper professional association now, and the CCGSPDA has become the primary place where I network, share ideas, learn about what’s new and find collaborators.

3) Find the people like you outside of formal contexts. I run a centre called the Research Training Centre within a hospital-based research institute, at which about 1,200 graduate students and postdocs work, and there are at least a half-dozen research institutes in Toronto alone. And guess what? Almost all of them have some version of my Centre, and some version of me. We’ve all recently connected for the first time, and we’re going to start meeting in the new year to collaborate, share ideas, and trade war stories.

4) Don’t forget about Twitter, and find your hashtags. If you can find the accounts and hashtags people in your profession use, you’ve tapped into a broad and useful professional community that extends beyond the walls of your organization. Via hashtags like #altac, #postac, #withaphd, I can tap into a North America-wide community of people interested in graduate professional and career development in all kinds of contexts, and that diversity of ideas and perspectives makes me so much better at my job.

networking · promotion

On Feminine Modesty and Self-Promotion

At the interview for my new #alt-ac job, there was only one question that really threw me for a loop. After the Associate Dean asked it, I looked down at my hands. I paused, for more than a second. I might even have blushed. The question?

“Tell me what your peers would say the best things are about you as a researcher and a colleague.”

 Maybe the question shouldn’t have surprised me. Is this the new “Tell us about your strengths /weaknesses”? Maybe those of you who are on hiring committees know. But interview pressure or no, this is a hard question to answer. Because as women–and especially as female academics–we are taught that to speak highly of ourselves, to speak strongly about our strengths, to shine light on our positive accomplishments and qualities, is braggy. Not humble. Unbecoming. Immodest. As Lee puts it,

 Good Female Academics are mild and quiet and work away at their jobs, hoping to get noticed, but well aware that any attempt at blowing their own horn will be met with derision and dismissal….This is the message we’re sent as girls and as women. To believe in ourselves is arrogant, unfounded, untrue.

 So to be asked to do just that, to blow my own horn, even in an interview–which is explicitly an exercise in presenting a public, polished, and promotional version of oneself–was really hard. It felt not unlike realizing that I’d left the house pantsless. And especially hard because of the way the question was phrased. Not only was I being asked to speak positively about myself, but I was being asked to do so on behalf of others–not just to think highly of myself, but to own that others thought highly of me too, and to speak in for them.

I was lucky that I’d already established a good rapport with the interview panel by that point, and so I could laugh about how difficult being asked to answer that question was as I formulated an answer. I told them about qualities and achievements that I thought my colleagues appreciate in me–my work to build opportunities for teamwork and skills development among graduate students, my attempts to create forums where my peers could showcase their research, my ability to effectively coordinate large groups of people and projects with lots of moving parts, the great parties I throw–but it was uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable repeating it here. But I’m doing it, because I don’t think that we, as female academics, will stop feeling like self-promotion–even self-belief–is unbecoming, immodest, or arrogant unless we keep doing it: talking about what we’re good at. Celebrating our accomplishments. Making others aware of our work. Sharing our knowledge publicly. Convincing others that our voices need to be part of the conversation. This is what CWILA is doing in encouraging women to pitch book reviews. And what does when she exhorts us to say yes when the media calls. And what Hook and Eye’s boast posts encourage us to do on a regular basis. 

It’ll get easier. It is getting easier: for us, as women, to answer questions like the one that I got without demurring, or blushing, or laughing. And for those around us to get used to the idea that yes, we are knowledgeable, effective, powerful, respected. And it’s okay to hear us say that. Because it’s true.

What about you, dear readers? Do you find self-promotion an uncomfortable experience? Been judged for doing it? How do you work against the spoken and unspoken expectation of Good Female Academics? Or have you figured out how to transcend them in ways that you’d like to share?

photo by Arturo de Albornoz // cc

appreciation · balance · good things · grad school · making friends · networking

Coats on the floor, the wine’s over there: Department parties

By the time Friday afternoon landed on my lap, the party had 60 or so confirmed attendees. The department holiday party. At my house. And from my rough estimation–necessarily rough because some people, sighted by my husband in our very living room, came and went without me ever pushing through the crush to get to them–it seems like they all came.

I love the department holiday party. I have always loved these affairs, from the very first one I attended nervously as a Masters student, to the first one I attended nervously as a PhD student, to the first one I attended nervously as a new Assistant Professor, all the way to the ones I now (nervously, natch) host.

The tally:

  • 24 empty bottles of wine
  • 18 empty bottles of beer
  • 5 king cans, hidden under the dining room table
  • 4 bags of ice
  • 2 trays of sushi
  • 2 vegetable platter
  • 1 tray of sweets
  • 1 cheese platter
  • 2 boxes of Carr’s water crackers
  • 4 bowls of cheesies
  • 3 ramekins of homemade nuts-and-bolts
  • 1 Christmas cactus
  • 1 pointsettia
  • 2 hostess gifts of cookies
  • 1 daughter in a taffeta dress offering one cheesie to each incoming guest
  • 0 edible leftovers of any kind
  • untold amounts of shortbread ground into the floor
  • vast amounts of wine spilled: on the walls of three rooms, the kitchen cupboards, the floor
  • 15 guests shooed out after midnight
  • 3 leftover mittens
  • 1 lost bicycle light

No Mad Men-style debauch (and thank God) but no stilted junior high school church social either, the holiday party as manifested around here is a real mixer: staff, and faculty, graduate students from all levels and years of study, locals, out-of-towners. Spouses, kids, kids’ friends. (Only one sessional instructor this year, though.)

It’s the kind of thing, actually, that makes me think about the general segregations of everyday life. About how narrow my own life is, in general, and how much like sticks to like. In playing host to so many different people, I’m aware of doing some … stretching to make everyone feel at ease, and this reflects on the insularity of my own life rather than on anyone else’s awkwardness. I’ll find some toys for the two year old, and then, across the room, all of a sudden, a Master’s student I taught a required undergraduate course to several years ago. Asking a former chair about his European adventures over the last decade and a half and then joining a conversation among twenty-somethings about long-distance relationships. I’m at a place in my life where I know what daycare costs, what constitutes a good mortgage rate, how to distinguish gins in blind tastings, what it feels like to get older, how to be “appropriate” in company, what’s happening in the New York Times and The Guardian. I don’t know which are / if there are any good live music venues here. Do people go out dancing? Where? Good, cheap ethnic food? Dunno. Used bookstores? What? What happens after 8pm around this town? I have no idea. What do apartments cost? Bus routes to the grocery store? So parties can lead into new conversations, for everyone. Even meeting colleagues in this context can lead in new directions than might usually be traversed: you experience different conversation prompts while trying to wipe soy sauce off the wall than you do around the committee table waiting for the meeting chair to show up.

One of the great things about a really good party is mixing socially with people who are not exactly like me, and in situations that are not the norm. (I say not exactly, because we were averaging about two degrees in English apiece.) Candles and students and spouses and everyone in their socks and sparkly things / nicer pants.

Long live the holiday party, I say, a bit of fun and magic in a mostly routinized term.

faster feminism · networking · spotlight

Faster Feminism Spotlight: Helene Vosters

I’ve been inspired, in part by our own mandate of faster feminism (itself inspired), in part by our friends at University of Venus who recently posed a networking challenge, and in part by good old feminist networking. In the name of inspiration, connection, networking, and getting the word out, I’ll be doing periodic Faster Feminism Spotlights. The aim of these spotlights is to shine them on folks doing the positive and often provocative work of inspiration.

I was first introduced to Helene Vosters’s work in one of those weird and serendipitous moments of connectivity. After giving a paper from my current research–something I’m calling the Collapsible Commons–several audience members did me the kindness of asking Real Questions. You know, those rare questions that are both supportive of your work and push you to think harder and better about what it is you’re trying to say. Dream questions. One asked me about vulnerability. Another asked me to think about layered history and layered space. In the hallway another audience member came up to me and suggested I look at Vosters’s work. “I think she’s really interesting,” she said. She was right.

Helene Vosters is a performer and a performance scholar. She has an MFA in queer and activist performance from the New College in California and is currently pursuing PhD studies in performance at York.

On July 1, 2010 Vosters started Impact Afghanistan War. The concept was simple: fall down in public one hundred times a day for a year. In her artistic statement Vosters writes that each fall represents a death in Afghanistan. Unlike the Canadian military personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan there have been no accurate records kept recording Afghani deaths. This is not an oversight.

Impact is an attempt to “reach beyond the numbness produced by abstract numbers, political debates and media spectacularization” she writes. “It is my attempt to register, through my body, the impact of our (Canada’s) engagement in Afghanistan. In a larger sense, it is an inquiry into empathy.”

You can watch Helene fall here.