By Eric Garneau
Even the Ivory Tower Needs a Cash Flow
To many professors, a disconnect exists between the upper echelons of academia and the job market. Can the work of research and publication done by tenured academics be commoditized? Can we assign it a market value the way we do with more blue-collar output?
To many of us, the answer's probably an obvious 'yes.' After all, professors do get paid based on the work they do. But given the dissatisfaction of some graduate students who turn to those professors for career advice, many seem to want to resist thinking of themselves as workers in a job market, preferring to couch themselves comfortably in the ivory tower of academia. When graduate students can't secure any real help to get them a return on their investment, though, their professors' distant self-image becomes a serious problem.
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As a result, at least one former professor has taken matters into her own hands. Enter Karen Kelsky. In 2011 she branched off her own academic advising career at the University of Oregon to start an independent Ph.D. consulting firm called 'The Professor Is In.' Her job is to give Ph.D. candidates real, practical advice they can use to secure a tenure track position at a prestigious institution - or, failing that, find a job outside academia to make their investment worth it. Of course, Dr. Kelsky charges for her services.
Think about that. That means that Ph.D. candidates already paying massive amounts of money for their degree are willing to pay even more to get practical advice from someone looking at academic jobs as just that - a market of employment to be cracked like any other. In a recent editorial for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dr. Kelsky notes that she takes pride in her no-nonsense approach to guiding Ph.D. students to suitable careers focused less on dissertations than on successful grants, large amounts of publications, impressive industry connections and a deep curriculum vitae.
So, much like any consulting professional, Dr. Kelsky charges her clients hourly rates for her expertise. Want help writing a large grant proposal? That'll be $65 per hour. Need one of your publications edited? Write that check to the tune of $90 hourly. Dr. Kelsky even offers something called 'Intensive Job Interview Boot Camp' for $85 per hour, and you can score an initial 20-minute consultation for just $20. Dr. Kelsky makes no guarantees of success, but states in The Chronicle 'I am not infallible…. I'm available and you're not…. I don't sugarcoat the truth and you do.'
Where Does This Leave Academia?
And how do tenured professors themselves feel about all this? Unfortunately, Dr. Kelsky's website doesn't include a space for feedback from academics she's angered, but in The Chronicle she quotes some particularly galling examples of things her clients have been told that seem to validate her service. To some faculty advisors, jobs are 'not my problem.' Others say 'the Ph.D. is not professional training.' Still others believe 'jobs come up all the time!' With that kind of out-of-touch apathy, it's no wonder Dr. Kelsky has found a willing customer base.
Yet perhaps we shouldn't dismiss these professors' viewpoints so quickly. Do we want to consider academia in purely financial terms? Is the only value of a Ph.D. the money it brings in once it's been earned? After all, there's a real argument to be made that, for undergraduates, a balanced, non-career-oriented liberal arts education is really the best use of their time in college, at least for a good number of students. Can the same be said about Ph.D. candidates, or have they passed the point of needing balance and now require something with concrete, verifiable results? As long as the debate goes on, professors will continue to upset their career-minded charges, and Dr. Kelsky will continue to make money. That's probably okay with her.
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