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‘Stop Acting Like A Grad Student’: review of “The Professor Is In”

Roughly two years ago, a postdoc in my lab recommended a book to me called, “The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your PhD Into A Job,” by Dr. Karen Kelsky. A few clicks on Amazon, and the book was in my apartment. Despite good intentions to read it right away, life happens, and the bright blue book sat on the shelf.

Now, it’s the sixth year of my PhD program, and it’s gametime: I’m filling in the holes in my thesis story, and have a list of  companies that interest me. In starting this process, I remembered, “The Professor Is In,” and finally got started reading. Kelsky brings to the table real-life experience as a tenured professor-turned-career coach, and a great deal of her advice rang true with me. I highly recommend reading the whole book, but if you’re short on time like I was for two years (let’s face it, you probably are), here’s my quick takes:

Before I begin, I assure you that nobody is paying me to say good things about this book. I’ll also mention that Kelsky frames the book as advice for all PhD’s–science and the humanities. I’ll focus on the science-related aspects of what I learned, as that’s where my expertise lies. 

  • Be ready for a smack in the face about academia. If you read this blog regularly, you are already well-versed in the publish-or-perish environment, widespread anxiety, and work-life balance challenges of academia. But if you’re still in denial, buckle-up for a rough first chapter of this book. The first sections explain a lot of the problems that make academia a nonviable career path for so many people. Kelsky frames her book as presenting the cold hard facts about how difficult academia is, but that she knows what needs to be done if you still want an academic job. She writes, “With this book I hope to empower you, whether you’re a current or future PhD job seeker, to understand how the job market works, make informed choices about your career, and protect your financial security and mental health.” Sign me up.


  • The ‘Get Your Head In The Game’ section has the best advice ever: stop acting like a grad student. For awhile now, I’ve been trying to pretend that I am a postdoc, rather than a grad student, as a way to psych myself into feeling more confident and mature in lab. Kind of a mental version of, ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have.’ It was cool to see this idea in Kelsky’s book as well. She explains that grad students get very used to being at the bottom of the academic totem pole. Many of us tend to defer to older students, postdocs, faculty, etc. in the well-defined hierarchy of academia. Kelsky writes, “[Grad students] are unlikely to recognize the ingrained patterns of deference and humility that characterize their written and spoken self-presentation, let alone overcome them.” This kind of communication makes students seem infantile and ill-prepared in job searches, academic and otherwise. I would have never noticed it before, but I am absolutely guilty of this type of behavior and writing.


  • Learn to reduce emotion and increase facts in job documents. I’ve recently learned from my institution’s career advisor how it’s wise to use concrete numbers/facts in your resume wherever possible (ex. stating that you ‘presented to a 50-person multi-lab group meeting 10 times’ is more powerful than saying, ‘gave lab meeting’). Seeing similar advice here drove home the importance of spelling out exactly what activities I’ve done in graduate school. Kelsky also recommends reducing cliche emotional words, like “excited” or “passionate” when preparing cover letters and personal statements. Everyone is passionate, or they wouldn’t be applying to x job. The way to stand out as professional and serious about a position is to lay out what you’ve done to be the best candidate, rather than use platitudes that anyone could write.


  • We learn more than our thesis project in grad school. There’s an entire section in the back of the book titled, “100+ Skills That Translate Outside the Academy.” It’s empowering to go down the list and realize how many skills we as ECRs actually have. Someday, my ability to harvest lungs and spleens from 12 mice in under 2 hours may not be relevant to my career. But the attention to detail, patience, and focus that experience taught me is broadly applicable.

While some aspects of this book may be depressing for those committed to academia, the bulk of the book contains tips and tricks which can only be helpful when it comes to decision-making about our futures. For those of us seeking non-academic positions, the book is equally useful as a guide on professionalism outside of a lab setting. As I close the book and prepare to pass it on to fellow grad students in my lab, I am left feeling well-equipped for a successful final lap of grad school (even as I stop acting like a grad student).




Kelsky, Karen. The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Phd Into A Job. Three Rivers Press, 2015.

Karen Kelsky on Twitter

Featured image: Books HD by Abhi Sharma, Creative Commons.




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