Bookshelf: The Professor Is In

Those who follow The Chronicle of Higher Ed will be familiar with their Vitae Career Hub, and that subgroup will undoubtedly have stumbled across The Professor Is In column. Karen Kelsky offers sound guidance to those actively engaged in the job-search nuances of academia.

As an administrator, I find that the advice column in Vitae offers a glimpse at the hiring processes used in other academic institutions, which are as varied as one would expect – for better and for worse. If nothing else, I would encourage all who earn their keep through the academy to sign up for the free Vitae weekly enewsletter.

Kelsky’s book, The Professor Is In, was written for the PhD grad student/tenure-track hopeful, emphasis on hopeful. The text offers concrete steps on how to map out a career that will land a tenure-track job and help earn that tenure bid. Reading through these chapters frames the tenure track as something of a gauntlet, and rightfully so. Here’s a nice summary article from The Atlantic on the topic of tenure.

But I digress…

The part of the book that caught my interest was the next-to-last chapter, Breaking Free: The Path of the Entrepreneur. To put the chapter into context, Kelsky advocates that those with PhDs have the motivation and skills set to hang their own shingle, much as she herself has done in building a profitable consulting gig. She frames it as releasing one’s self from a state of dependency on institutional validation.

There are a few key takeaways for those in the IEP industry: 1) self-esteem through institutional affiliation, and 2) the difference between academics and entrepreneurs .

Let’s start with the first point: Self-esteem

Self-esteem and self-worth are extremely vulnerable in knowledge workers within higher education (aside from imposter syndrome). As a teacher/administrator, we identify with our roles within our organization. If that role disappears, as in the case of a lost tenure bid, we place ourselves at risk for severe emotional setbacks. This is analogous to the current downsizing happening in the IEP industry. When longtime, loyal faculty find that the organization can no longer provide the previously assumed livelihood, the hit to one’s self-esteem can be devastating, impeding the resiliency trait needed to move on.

There are two ways to mitigate this risk, borrowed from the literature on leadership during downsizing. First is to orient one’s self as a knowledge worker within the larger context of the profession, less-so the institutional affiliation. Second is to practice cautious loyalty. In essence, faculty are employees of the institution and should be committed knowledge workers for the program, but not at the risk of losing opportunities to build marketable skills which will ensure continued employability down the road. Cautious loyalty is an interesting concept, and I have to wonder what the latent effects are on the faculty-employee when surrounded by the rigorous self-promotion and branding of the institution’s PR mission to ensure a healthy donor base.

Let’s move on: Entrepreneurs

The book cites a list of five differences between the academic and entrepreneurial mind-set taken from Kerry Ann Rockquemore, president of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (highly recommend if you have an institutional membership):

  1. Academics move slow; entrepreneurs move fast.
  2. Academics study problems; entrepreneurs solve problems.
  3. Academics function in constraint; entrepreneurs create possibility.
  4. Academics focus on patterns; entrepreneurs focus on exceptions.
  5. Academics loath promotion; entrepreneurs live to sell. (p. 414)

My current charge from the higher administration is to be entrepreneurial (within the bureaucracy of a large public university – see #3). The administrative training and academic coursework that has helped propel me – and like administrators – into leadership positions have done little to prepare us for the abrupt transition in our industry. Indeed, everything from accreditation to governance structures are built around the deliberate study and analysis of systems, not the quick iteration and immediate problem solving we need to incorporate into our business practices.

But it’s not all negative.

Where are our institutional affiliations can help its IEP leadership, I believe, is through formal education and training in entrepreneurship, marketing, and business strategies for startups. The U of I WebCon is a perfect example of ongoing professional development targeting PR an marketing skills development, skills not even in the same Dewey Decimal number range as pedagogical grammar. The entrepreneur mindset outlined by Rockquemore must be nurtured in order to be an effective academic leader in our programs today.

In sum, The Professor Is In offers a few key nuggets worthy of further rumination.