The Gift of Good Advice

Taken for Granted

Kelly Krause, AAAS

Everyone trying to navigate the sometimes-treacherous terrain of a graduate school, postdoctoral, or professorial career needs a wise and available counselor. Some people are fortunate enough to have one in the form of a caring and involved mentor. But for those who don’t—and even some who do—the next best thing may be a new book, The Scholar's Survival Manual, by Martin H. Krieger, a professor of planning at the University of Southern California and a longtime blogger on academic matters. Because he holds a Ph.D. in physics and is a fellow of the American Physical Society and author of a book on physics, he understands science and scientists.

Krieger has compiled many of his blog posts into an astute handbook that would make a perfect gift for the academics on your list—from grad student to department chair—or even for yourself. Composed of many short essays, the book is, Krieger writes, "meant for grazing, not for reading all the way through." [Italics in original].  Readers should "open up the book anywhere and start reading" about topics that suit their particular interest.

With 40 years on faculties and multiple decades on hiring and promotion committees, Krieger has a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t. The topics covered range from the earliest days of graduate school through late-career musings on the value of a career. Relevant to early-career scientists are sections on choosing an adviser and a dissertation committee; finishing the dissertation; preparing to succeed at an interview, job talk, or meeting presentation; what to expect from your mentor and committee and what to do if they fall short; how to create effective cover letters and CVs; what to focus on while working toward tenure; what to do if your English is not perfect; what errors to avoid in grant proposals; and much more.    

Especially useful are clear-eyed discussions of what to do when things go wrong—when your dissertation committee is slow or balky, when your job search produces no offers, when you realize that you’re spending too much time as a postdoc. Krieger takes a broad view of what constitutes success. Who gets academic jobs, he writes, usually depends much more on departmental politics and personalities than on the relative merits of the various candidates, so not being chosen is generally not a reflection on an applicant. Faculty members, he says, want their protégés to "follow in our footsteps" and become professors. Many Ph.D. recipients, however, "work in industry and consulting, others choose jobs that suit personal needs, and others decide they do not like research and prefer to return to being a jazz musician. Or, rather than continuing to pursue a career as a research chemist, you go into politics and eventually become Chancellor of Germany, or you go back to school and become a rural physician. You have not failed as a chemist or whatever; rather, you have a new way of employing your talents and education."

This is a book to keep handy for when you need its sage perspective, which, given the strains of academic careers, will likely be often.

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