How to be an academic?


I have a new book out!

If you follow me on any of my social media channels, you probably know this already, but I thought I would tell you again anyway because I’m excited about it

The book is called “How to be an Academic” is essentially a compilation of writing I have done over the last eight years or so. Many of the pieces are  from way back in my Archives. I’ve included pieces that have not been read by that many people as well as a few of my most popular ones. I’ve also included pieces I’ve written for various newspapers and magazines. I was able to group the various pieces in logical sections, so the themes of the blog emerge more clearly. It was amazing having a professional editorial crew to help in this process. They have taken my work-a-day blog text to a whole new level (and eliminated masses of typos).

I’d like to thank Phillipa McGuiness of NewSouth for taking a chance on my version of blog to book. This project began by Phillipa inviting me for a cup of tea in Sydney and challenging me to write a follow up to Richard Hil’s Wackademia. That book was written by a member of the Baby Boomer generation, and was an account of what Hil saw as the ‘decline and fall’ of the contemporary university.

Hil recommended we fight back with resistence strategies that cannot realistically be employed by people on precarious contracts. Academia, at least in Australia, the UK and the USA has become a workplace that is borderline exploitative, at least to those who have little power or job security. By contrast, I offer a range of ways to think and act aimed at preserving our sanity and what remains of collegiality, while dealing with the ‘boy boyfriends’ our universities have, sadly, become.

My book is firmly a Gen X’ers account of living in the insecure academic world that has replaced the secure, well paid employment that used to be enjoyed by Hil, and many of his colleagues. The career advice that worked for these Baby Boomers – publish or perish – no longer works for our generation – and the millenials who have now joined us in our pain. Success in academia is no longer simply a matter of winning the publishing game. My book, like the blog, is full of ‘micro tactics’, aimed at helping you make the most of the system on your own terms.

Phillipa held my hand via email through the process and patiently waited for my late delivery of the manuscript. The only thing we didn’t see quite eye to eye on was the title. I wanted to put a question mark on it because I really feel there is no, one way to be an academic anymore. This book describes my way of doing it with the hope that some of my ways will work for you too.

If you are based in Canberra, I’d love to see you at my book launch tomorrow, September 7th 2017, at the pop-up village hall on the ANU campus at 6:30pm. Julie Hare will be doing a short speech and I will be signing copies and #refreshmentswillbeprovided. This will be the only chance to by a paper copy on campus while we wait for the Union Court re-build to finish.

We worked to keep the price point be as low as possible because I we are well aware that many PhD students – and working academics for that matter – are on low incomes. At the moment it’s around $10 AUD on Kindle.

If you’d like a paper copy, you can buy it in Australia from the co-op bookstore on your campus or other retailers like Paperchain and Readings. If you’re not on campus, or overseas, you can order the paperback edition from the NewSouth website (they can deliver internationally).

Here’s a short extract from the book – I hope you enjoy it:

I became an academic blogger, appropriately enough, over lunch (though my photoblog exploring the role of food in academia was still in the future).

This particular lunch was with my brother-in-law, Mark Nottingham. Mark was born in the United States, but my twin sister Anitra had dragged him to Australia to marry her some 20 years ago. I’d asked Mark to lunch to get some career advice for one important reason: he was successful, but he wasn’t an academic.

Prior to this lunch I’d played the Academic Hunger Games for 11 years, doing a bewildering range of casual teaching jobs while I completed two postgraduate degrees and raised a child. A series of lucky breaks and sideways moves had led to a position doing professional development workshops for PhD students. Being a research educator was a strange job and I was unexpectedly good at it, but it was precarious. My contract was going to run out soon and I had no idea where the next job was coming from. Other academics told me ‘Just publish and everything will be fine.’ But while my list of research publications was longer than that of most people of my age and stage, I’d just had five unsuccessful job interviews in a row and my early career academic friends didn’t seem to be benefitting from the ‘publish-or-perish’ advice any more than I was. Good people were passed over for job opportunities or had funding run out expectedly. Everything that was solid, as Marx once said, could easily melt into air.

In the decade I’d been hanging around academia full-time I’d seen many a person fall victim to a restructure and have to move interstate, or across the world, to secure a new position. The job market was brutal and seemed full of hidden rules that did not match the conventional advice. People with fewer publications on their resume were routinely appointed over those with lots of them. There was always a preferred candidate before each job was advertised, despite the outward appearance of fairness. In one case it was rumoured an influential professor didn’t want to lose his research assistant when the ‘soft money’ ran out. (Some people have salaries funded entirely from grants. If the next project is not funded, these people will quickly find themselves unemployed.) In another case, an extremely well-qualified female candidate was passed over, it was said, because the Dean thought there were ‘too many women’ already. I’d come to the conclusion that the publish-or-perish advice was just a nice way of saying ‘Play by our rules and do your time.’

I needed a fresh perspective and Mark seemed to have it. In the 20 years I’ve known him, Mark has worked in the tech industry. As is common in that industry, he has changed jobs frequently, but what has always impressed me is that he seems to do it with no visible anxiety. If Mark was bored or felt he was being treated badly, he would just quit – he once did this only weeks into a role. He has always been in hot demand, which is curious because to this day no one in the family is really sure what he does. All I knew at this point was that Mark was ‘internet famous’, which is a strange kind of invisible celebrity. There’s a Wikipedia page about Mark and, if you look him up, you’ll see he’s clearly a thought leader in his field – but you’ve probably never heard of him. That’s because internet fame is all about occupying a niche. Only a small number of people in each country care what he does, but because they are all connected by the internet, his celebrity has critical mass.

By the time the main course of this lunch was served, I’d been talking for 20 minutes straight about everything that was wrong with my part-time sort-of-job and what sort of permanent academic job I wanted instead.

Mark looked confused. ‘I’m hearing about where you work, Inger, but I still don’t really know what you actually do.’ This was nothing new. Even other academics didn’t understand it.

‘I’m a research educator,’ I replied, as patiently as I could.

‘Yes, but what do you do?’ Mark repeated insistently.

‘Um … research education stuff?’

Mark rubbed his forehead and took another sip of his wine. I pushed my salad around my plate as an uncomfortable family silence settled over the table. I glared at Anitra over the table. She was the one who had suggested taking Mark out to lunch in the first place.

Mark put down his wine and tried again. ‘Yes, research education. OK. But what does that actually mean? Remember that I know nothing about academia.’

Mark has a degree in photojournalism, but had spent a long time retraining himself in things internet. In his field, a Masters degree or PhD is common enough, but he didn’t need one – he’s good at what he does and everyone who matters knows it. I sighed and tried to explain myself. I told him I ran workshops for PhD students on stuff like writing, organising, job hunting, presenting and, well, the politics of academia. That I acted in an advisory role, interpreting the rules and processes of the university for PhD students and their supervisors. Supervisors and students were always getting angry at each other and fighting. Because of the unique position of research students – part staff, part junior colleague, part student – these are more like workplace disputes than standard academic problems. Fixing these problems requires a certain degree of rat cunning and a good grip on theories of power. I suppose you could say that part of my job at that time was a weird sort of workplace mediation. In what time I had left over, I wrote academic papers and did research about what makes for a successful PhD experience.

I took another gulp of wine, searching for a way to sum it all up. ‘If academia was Pulp Fiction, I would be Mr Wolf, hosing down the scene of the murder and finding everyone a fresh change of clothes…’