Not Your Dad's Academic Career

The ivory tower is shrouded in mystery for many laypeople, students, and even new faculty. The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars From Graduate School Through Tenure, by John Goldsmith, John Komlos, and Penny Schine Gold (University of Chicago Press, 2001), aspires to give graduate students and junior faculty a candid introduction to an academic career. Drawing on their 75 years of collective experience, the authors hope to dispel misconceptions about academia.

The text is divided into two sections. The first, Becoming a Scholar, covers the graduate school years: deciding on an academic career, choosing a graduate school, being mentored, choosing a topic for the dissertation, and landing an academic job. The second section, The Academic Profession, offers advice on how to establish a career in academia, examines life as an assistant professor, and offers advice on teaching, research, and the social and political aspects of academic life. This section also explains the tenure process, offers suggestions on how to change positions, and discusses how to juggle a personal life and the responsibilities of a professor.

The authors of The Chicago Guide are three well-established professors who often disagree on how to navigate the academic seas. The text is organized in a question-and-answer format, with each contributor's answers appearing separately so their unique voices are preserved. Unfortunately, this strength is also a weakness. Although listening to three disparate voices might be pleasant in person, reading the often redundant responses to each question quickly becomes tedious.

A more traditional organization, integrating the three views within a framework of headings and text, would be more effective and concise. It would also take more work. The existing format is self-serving and, it would seem, more a function of narcissism than a desire to preserve "unique voices."

The authors of The Chicago Guide are all full professors, and all have chaired their respective departments. Their collective experience is significant, but do they really remember what it's like to be a junior faculty member? Unfortunately, this book gives us ample reason to doubt it. Readers more intimately familiar with the current state of affairs in the academic job market will find the perspectives and advice to be out of date--and out of touch. Academia has changed considerably since the mid-1970s, when all three began their careers. The academic job market has become more competitive; minimum requirements for hiring and tenure have increased.

Whether because of the passage of time since their last job search or their particular disciplinary blinders (history, economics, and linguistics), the authors make little effort to broaden or limit the scope of the advice they offer to all. Consider, for example, the chapter on landing an academic position, which they open with the absurd assertion that the job search "begins with the decision ... that the dissertation completion and defense are imminent" (p.74). This shortsightedness is only exacerbated by the dedication of a mere half-page to postdocs. Describing a postdoc position as a "consolation prize," the authors seem to be unaware that the postdoc, almost ubiquitous in the physical and life sciences, has become a nearly inescapable step in the training of science faculty members.

The Chicago Guide is plagued by a fundamental fault: laziness. The authors assume that their experiences have broad validity. As a consequence, they don't bother to do their homework. Goldsmith and Komlos, who are at research universities, are seriously misinformed about the expectations for faculty at other types of institutions--which greatly outnumber research universities. For example, Komlos advises that in interviewing for positions at regional campuses of state universities and liberal arts colleges, "you should let the search committee know that you are interested primarily in teaching and not in publishing," because, he says, faculty members at such institutions "have made the legitimate decision to be educators rather than creators of knowledge" (p. 101). The difficult job market has raised the bar such that no one can claim to be uninterested in publishing and still get hired, even at most "teaching" institutions.

This is one case in which the multiauthor format works well, for Penny Gold's views match reality more closely: "I would warn here against making assumptions about the relative importance of scholarship at various institutions. Beyond the top-ranking universities, where you can be sure that expectations about publishing are very high, it can be hard to tell. Many teaching institutions, even those with heavy teaching loads, want to have active scholars on the faculty" (p. 101).

When discussing the difficulties of balancing family and career, both male authors make light of the conflicts. "It's been hard, but ... all of us ... have had a very good time of it," Goldsmith recalls (p. 236). Komlos adds, "It did not come easily to me to dedicate a chunk of time every day to the children, but I learned how to do that, and am much happier for it" (p. 238).

Come on guys, let's get real! Research indicates that most men are not as involved as women in day-to-day childrearing activities, so it's not surprising that they experienced no problems juggling family and career. The female author, Gold, adopted a child late in life, well after earning tenure. The authors have apparently never known the struggle that I see my colleagues with children engage in on a daily basis, and they offer no advice on how to balance parenthood with the pursuit of tenure.

The chapter on diversity claims to examine discrimination in academia. Not having witnessed discrimination firsthand, Goldsmith recognizes "that both John (Komlos) and I are young (well, relatively young; postwar baby boomers), white, and male" (p. 242). Since the authors limit the examination to those areas where they have personal experience, there's no meaningful discussion about this important issue.

Still more egregious is the discussion of sexual harassment. The male authors explain that the relationship between graduate student and mentor is special; therefore, academics should be prepared for "the academic equivalent of oedipal conflicts and ... transference" (p. 248). Sexual relationships with students are understandable, they say, because professors are viewed by students as brilliant purveyors of truth and knowledge, and "authority figures ... might call forth erotic feelings in some students" (p. 249).

Fortunately, Gold offers a very different perspective on the issue of sexual relations in academia. In her experience, "it is more frequently male professors who use the power of their position to make suggestive remarks or to 'come on' to young women than it is students who try to seduce their professors" (p. 250). Tellingly, further discussion is dismissed by Komlos: "I don't think it is particularly useful to argue about which gender, or race, or ethnic minority has been more prone to commit improprieties" (p. 251). On the contrary; such a discussion would have been very useful.

Overall, The Chicago Guide is not to be recommended as a source of insight for future and current junior academics. The book is lazy, arrogant, and self-serving. The authors appear unwilling to explore important issues beyond their collective experiences; furthermore, they fail to acknowledge the limited value of their narrow experiences for today's young faculty members. The result is a very narrow book that offers little for academics in physical and life sciences, for the vast majority of us who are not at research universities, and for those who are not white, male, and childless. Perhaps even worse is the condescending tone throughout, as illustrated by Komlos's advice not to despair if you don't win a position at a Research I university, because "significant contributions to scholarship are made every day outside of the Ivy's. ... I have encountered very clever, knowledgeable, moral, helpful, intelligent, good-natured, creative, serious scholars at all sorts of institutions" (p. 159). Gee, thanks.

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