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Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD
Date Reviewed: March 5, 2015
In this superb book, sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg offers readers a sweeping description of the five stages of an academic’s career from graduate school, to choosing a career in (or outside of) the academy, to tenure review, all the way to retirement. The author, who is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, provides graduate students and professors his personal reflections on the many twists and turns that every PhD will face in his or her career. In today’s difficult economic climate, coupled with the precipitous drop in enrollments in the Humanities across the board, Furstenberg’s realistic explanation of what it takes to succeed while traversing the marathon of graduate studies and then landing either a research or liberal arts teaching faculty position should be mandatory reading for anyone considering a doctorate in religious studies. While an academic career is rightly coveted by many young and ambitious minds coming out of college, this book in many ways provides a much-needed reality check.
The book contains five chapters. In Chapter 1, “Entering Graduate School,” the author chronicles the various professional and emotional stages that graduate students experience. He emphasizes the amount of hard work, consistent self-doubt, and high level of competition that students face, and provides information about doctoral exams, writing a dissertation, dealing with faculty, and retaining funding.
Chapter 2, “An Academic Career or Not?” delineates the various options, or plan B’s, that a recent PhD has with respect to finding meaningful work, alongside some sobering statistics about the slashing of available positions of tenure-track jobs in today’s market. Furstenberg explains the steps one goes through when searching for an academic position (for example, the application process, postdoctoral fellowships, campus interviews, and contract negotiations).
Chapter 3, “Being an Assistant Professor,” describes the many challenges experienced when transitioning from graduate student to professor. Among the important topics the author discusses are acculturating to one’s home department, building a positive rapport with colleagues, choosing how and when to live up to the expectations of service, and managing the often heavy burden of teaching, all while not allowing one’s research to lag. With respect to research, the author includes useful advice on how to circulate one’s work and network at conferences and other venues. The chapter concludes with a helpful ten-page treatment of the nuts and bolts of the tenure process.
Chapters 4 and 5 are concerned with the new tests that PhD’s face in the middle and end of their careers, such as avoiding complacency, grappling with intensified responsibilities of university and disciplinary service, training graduate students, and considering retirement. As the author himself notes, most of the publications on academic careers center on the beginning stages of one’s career, so these two chapters represent a unique contribution to the literature.
In sum, Behind the Academic Curtain is an excellent summation of the stages, rewards, and challenges that every PhD in religious studies will face in his or her career. Tenured professors will be less likely to pick up this book to find new revelations or affirm what they already experience, but they should nevertheless know about it and may want to assign it as mandatory reading for undergraduates interested in graduate school, or graduate students working under their tutelage, who remain unclear about the path ahead of them.
Overcoming Adversity in Academia Stories from Generation X Faculty
Date Reviewed: February 12, 2015
This collection of essays by seventeen Generation X faculty members serving in various types of institutions and representing a range of disciplines, ranks, and roles aims to “demonstrate the personal issues, conflicts, and triumphs that are definitive of this generation” as they pertain to their academic careers. While some contributions are stronger than others, as a whole the book achieves its purpose through the insightful and honest author self-reflections.
The first sentences of the opening chapter offer, “The truth is unbelieveable, not because it is untrue, but because no one wants to believe it. I am living proof.” The readers’ fear the whole book may sound like the all-too-familiar voice of a Gen Xer is quickly affirmed. The self-analysis of the first story flows into the next three installments and the reader may begin to wonder if the whole book is going to simply be a series of texts from a group of faculty who managed to gain a formal education but think life as a teacher ought to be different somehow.
However, Andria J. Woodell’s recollection from a female white southern social psychologist’s perspective changes the tone of the book and is followed by primarily thoughtful reflections and analysis of personal choices and responsibility, within the realities of various institutional contexts. Most authors adeptly identify key factors in their personal journey, including educational background and aspirations, family dynamics, sexual orientation, or race, which impacted their experiences in academia. Following these observations they share information about specific institutional obstacles and supports they encountered along their respective journeys and how each responded to the interplay of these factors.
David Prescott-Steed’s chapter, explaining how his PhD research project on “the abyss” metaphor became an intentional factor in his post-doctoral decisions personally and professionally, was entertaining, well-written, and an appropriate summary of a Gen Xer’s values encountering the challenges and triumphs of everyday life. Likewise, Kathleen and George Mollock’s perceptive essay on an academic couples’ journey in the higher education milieu, first as students and then as faculty, describes the choices they made and consequences of those choices, some anticipated, others unexpected.
For most Gen X academics, this would be a beneficial read, even if they cannot identify with every individual story or institutional context. Likewise, for the late baby-boomer or early-Gen X administrator, it may provide helpful examples of understanding how the realities of academia are seen from different points of view. For either a faculty member or administrator in a faith-related institution, the narratives of individuals in these contexts also describe the unique challenges and approaches to these extra dimensions of academic life. As a whole, the book presents an appropriate and necessary diversity of experiences (race, gender, sexual orientation, discipline). While some chapters were stronger than others, it was a worthwhile book to read and would be a valuable addition to a post-secondary library.
Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience: The University of Washington's Growth in Faculty Teaching Study
Date Reviewed: February 6, 2015
University of Washington colleagues and scholars Beyer, Taylor, and Gillmore began their work in assessment with a rather simple – but important – question: “Without external pressure to do so, do faculty make changes to their teaching?” (17). To answer this and the subsequent follow-ups (“If so, what changes?” and “Why?”), they engaged in an extensive, qualitative study that drew from a sample of fifty-five male and female faculty members and eight graduate students of various ethnicities and in different stages of their professional careers. The findings of their study, they argue, challenge the prevailing image of professors as disengaged from anything other than their research, and show that faculty remain deeply engaged simultaneously with both their research and with current pedagogical methods, best practices, new and emerging technologies, and – above all – the development of critical engagement for their students with their respective disciplines. Perhaps most surprising, they argue, is that the findings of this study demonstrate that professors exhibit a desire for improved teaching even though most have not received teaching-training and even in the absence of external pressures.
Then why change? A faculty member makes it through the semester, notes intact; what, then, stimulates the need for any change at all? Beyer, Taylor, and Gillmore’s findings reveal that even with increased interest in the development of “best practices” among faculty at institutions of higher learning (91), change in the classroom is driven by interaction between faculty and their students (91), and generally takes one of two forms: internal or external. In the case of internal change, faculty work to introduce methods that encourage greater, earlier, and deeper engagement with their own course content. This type of change is often induced by assessment, observation, or conversation between faculty and student. External changes, on the other hand, are introduced as a result of workshop activity, collegial conversation, and observation. It is worth noting that external change accounts for the smallest percentage of reasons for change, a mere 12 percent (105).
This book is valuable for revealing in quantifiable terms what many in this field already know; that teaching is a dynamic and malleable activity. But what it also reveals is that the greatest changes in the classroom occur when professors are tuned into the intimate voice of their own discipline, within the context of their own classroom. External influences and opportunities are important, but what appears to be more important is the willingness of a professor to pay rigorous attention to the needs of particular groups of learners, at particular moments in time. And though it should not be necessary to provide evidence of how hard professors work and how much they care, it is nice to have this study as evidence.
The Peak Performing Professor: A Practical Guide to Productivity and Happiness
Date Reviewed: January 30, 2015
Today the question of how to manage the three dimensions of a professor’s work – teaching, writing, and institutional citizenship – in ways that are satisfying, sustainable, have integrity, and allow for other dimensions of “having a life,” is increasingly fraught. Multiple contextual factors contribute to this state of affairs, from economic conditions that result in fewer tenure-stream positions to demands for greater accountability and the questioning of the value of a baccalaureate degree. The contemporary situation creates uncertainty for faculty, most of whom have made significant investments to become professors. Uncertainty feeds anxiety that grows into distraction that saps energy and enjoyment in the work. This is bad for professors and for their universities. Enter Susan Robison, psychologist, former full professor, and faculty development expert. Hardly naïve about larger contextual factors impinging on the professorate, Robison offers a way forward: teaching faculty practices of self-regulation that “increase their own productivity and satisfaction in areas over which they have control” – their own lives and work (xv).
Robison presumes that faculty become professors motivated by deep purposes to which they are committed. Purpose grounds aspirations and commitments. It anchors internal coherence to satisfying lives in which professors accomplish good work as teachers, scholars, and university citizens. From this basic assumption flows Robison’s framework: (1) capture the energy or “power” of one’s deep purpose and articulate that purpose and the mission, vision, and goals that flow from it; (2) establish priorities, organize projects, and cultivate work habits that align with purpose; (3) develop interpersonal skills and cultivate mutually supportive relationships; and, (4) engage in the self-care essential to long-term health. After explaining and providing both reflective exercises and concrete strategies for each element in the first four parts of the book, Robison applies her framework very explicitly to the roles that professors occupy – professor, teacher, scholar, servant leader, and human being – in part five. Her claim: when individual faculty “define productivity and happiness for themselves with a view to their own long-range success,” the results will benefit both faculty and institutions (11).
Composed in a workbook format, readers can turn to the sections of the volume that most interest them, or read from beginning to end. The volume employs theories and strategies from a range of fields, selected, conceptualized and presented specifically for faculty. This is one of its strengths. It also has an extensive bibliography for those wishing to pursue a particular topic.
Robison’s positive tone and direct, uncomplicated approach likely will lead some readers to dismiss The Peak Performing Professor as too simple, too normal. And the workbook format leads to some repetition. But for those trying to compose lives and careers, those looking to find a way to retrieve the lost pleasure of being a professor, and those charged with supporting others to do good work, this is a book worth reading