Image: An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
Imagine you meet an escapee from a cult. Having recently fled her confines, the escapee is full of anguished tales from the sequestered realm she once inhabited. She has learned its tacit rules and analyzed its internal logic. She shares this information with an intrigued public, many of whom are members of the cult themselves. The escapee issues dire warnings. The cult is brutal and unfair. The cult is both powerful and rotting from within, its leaders scrambling to assert their relevance through a series of punishing rituals and loyalty tests. The escapee is relieved to have gotten out.
Now imagine the escapee offers to help you join the cult if you are willing to pay her hundreds of dollars.
This is the business model of The Professor Is In, a career-counseling service for would-be academics launched by former professor Karen Kelsky in 2011. An anthropologist, Kelsky quit her job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after years of disgust with the conformity and exploitation of academe. “The culture of higher ed is increasingly soulless,” she writes. “Academia is a kind of cult, and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls.”
On a blog titled “Pearls of Wisdom” – soon to be repackaged as a book – Kelsky lays out the strict social rules of the tenure-track market, including advice on how to structure application materials, what to wear, and how to comport oneself to please a search committee. Her advice paints a picture of academia that is rigidly conformist, where a bad hairstyle or the wrong letterhead will get you rejected, and where one’s research and accomplishments pale in importance to one’s ability to market them to a very exacting audience.
Kelsky’s career advice makes academia seem unappealing for anyone who values intellectual inquiry or independent thought. In other posts she lays out its offenses even more blatantly. She discusses exploited adjunct labor, overworked yet abandoned graduate students, and shrinking department budgets. Her honesty is her selling point, but the product she is selling is utterly unattractive.
So why are graduate students paying Kelsky $125 an hour – leading to a standard total fee of between $337.50 and $450 – to make their job application materials as attractive as possible?
Why is the service so popular that Kelsky is often booked months in advance, and has expanded into additional services including interview prep ($250), general career counseling ($300), webinars, and a book? Her clientele – graduate students, postdocs, and adjuncts – likely make low salaries. Adjuncts earning the standard fee – $2,500 to teach one course – would find more than 15 percent of their earnings eaten up by Kelsky’s services. Following her advice often means buying, literally and figuratively, into an expensive academic system, one in which you always must attend your annual disciplinary conference and procure proper clothing to nail that interview. These are not rules of her invention: She speaks from the system she once inhabited.
On one hand, The Professor Is In is yet another example of academia’s pay-to-play ethos. Kelsky’s services should not be necessary, but they are. As she writes, “I am the available and career-savvy adviser you need, that you should already have, but probably don’t.” But your real adviser does not charge hundreds of dollars to keep you in the game.
Judging by dozens of testimonials and from her Facebook feedback, Kelsky’s services are successful, but like so much in academia, they can only be used by people who have financial means or who are willing to go into debt. In 2011, during my one year on the faculty market, Kelsky’s service was recommended to me but was so expensive I could not fathom using it. A friend of mine, already heavily in debt from years in graduate school, did. She was the only friend of mine to land a tenure-track job that year. But at what cost – social, financial, moral?
On the other hand, I cannot blame Kelsky for creating a successful enterprise where there was clearly a need. She does not sugarcoat academic life or lure in clients by making it seem attractive. In fact, she makes academe seem so repellent that she is, paradoxically, viewed as a trusted source. If Kelsky is honest about the deleterious state of higher education, she will surely not mince words about your own shortcomings. The real question is why so many clients are willing to be molded into a system presented as abhorrent. That paradox is not her creation, but it is her windfall.
The success of The Professor Is In is a symptom of a broader disease. The popularity of the service highlights many inadequacies of academia: absentee advisers, search committees who value conformity and superficial symbols of belonging, a pay-to-play job market where every decision comes at a cost. (It should be noted that Kelsky gives much of her advice for free on her website, making her clients’ willingness to pay a steep fee all the more remarkable.)
As the market tightens and graduate students scramble, The Professor Is In flourishes. Its truth will not set you free, but, provided you pay, it may open the door to the gilded cage. With an anthropologist’s eye, Kelsky details a convoluted, rigid system – and shows how it can be manipulated, in more ways than one.