New book! Becoming and academic


I have a new book out!

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate… My book ‘How to be an Academic’has been re-published in the US by Johns Hopkins University press as‘Becoming an Academic: How to get through Grad School and Beyond’, which means it is now easily available in Europe and the UK as well as the USA. I’m also excited that ‘Becoming an Academic’, has a lovely shiny new cover which picks up on my ‘home brew’ pile of paper branding:

If you don’t already own the Australian version, you can buy this new release for a very reasonable price of $19.95 directly from the publisher, on the American Amazon site and the UK Amazon site and Book Depository.

It was an interesting process preparing the book for the US market. I searched and replaced every mention of ‘PhD Student’ with ‘Grad Student’ and all mentions of ‘Supervisor’ became ‘Advisor’. Then the hard work began. Apparently the book was ‘very Australian’, which meant I had to find US equivalents of references I took for granted, such as ‘having a whinge’, ‘lollies’ and ‘fish and chip shop’. I did win my lovely publisher over to keeping in the last piece about Gough Whitlam and The Dismissal, so non-Australian readers get a little bit of Australian political history at the end.

The US version of the book has a slightly different chapter order, which I think is an improvement. The chapters still tackle all the tricky aspects of academic life, like how to write to deadline, deal with rejection and manage academic assholes – as well as celebrations of the lovely sides of academic life, like friendships. I’m excited that this book is now easily available to readers in the UK and the US and I hope you enjoy it. Below is an extract from the introduction, as a bit of a taster.

Some years ago a more senior academic gave me a little pep talk about the difference between nepotism and patronage and the importance of cultivating Contacts. It took a while to appreciate the value of this cold-blooded advice. I went on to be rejected four times before I had to face up to the sad truth: no architecture department was going to hire me. Just like a bad boyfriend, the university was not willing to commit to me. I was just not sexy or interesting enough. I didn’t have a PhD or a list of publications the length of my arm. I needed to let go of my Brideshead Revisited fantasy of professors sitting around, drinking port with their students in book-lined rooms.

It’s an unhappy truth that a research-heavy CV is the tight leather trousers of the university employment dance. Teaching ability is like a good personality no one is going to take you home from the disco. Simon French reckons some people lead a charmed life and don’t get their heart broken until they fail to get promoted into the professoriate, or get retrenched because someone decides the university isn’t teaching medieval history anymore. Some aspiring academics are broken early on by an academic mentor or advisor who makes their life a living hell. Simon talks about bouncing back after the university has become your bad boyfriend. It’s true that people do react in different ways to being unlucky in love. Some will swear off having a relationship forever and go out to get paid more in the private sector; others stay, but are permanently bitter.

I don’t like bitterness. I decided to continue to love the university, while being aware of its faults. I put on the tight leather trousers of the academic employment disco and got a PhD. Fast forward nearly 15 years and, although the permanent job eludes me still, my contract is so long I am not that worried. I’ve learned to live by my wits and survive the Academic Hunger Games on my own terms. While I liked where Hil was going with much of his critique, in my opinion the resistance tactics he offered at the end of his book were just not useful. Most of them were geared to making it hard for your managers. I think this is tilting at the wrong windmill. Overwhelmingly, academic managers are just trying to cope with a system that is fundamentally unmanageable and underfunded; the real problem is the lack of vision and investment by successive governments. Academics who do not have secure employment would probably find themselves without a job next year if they made their managers’ lives hard by protesting. Protesting is fine for people close to retirement, but for the new scholar, it’s career suicide.

So this book doesn’t tell you how to resist; I seek instead to empower. I want you to think about your own terms of engagement with the bad boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other university, either as a grad student or an academic. I want to help you win the Academic Hunger Games, but not by stepping on other people’s throats. While there are a lot of hints, tips and tricks in here that have helped me and others, I also want to meditate on bigger issues. I want to talk about how to exist in a heartless workplace without becoming a jerk and how to persist in the face of difficulty – and when to give up. I want this book to help you think about what kind of academic you want to be and what sort of workplace you want to help create for yourself and others.

Some of the posts in this book deal with the emotional sides of academic life; others reflect on the kind of behaviours which are common in academia – and how to deal with them. Still more offer lessons on dealing with academia as a workplace and the kind of skills needed to prosper there. Some include more than a little critique of academia itself.

Regular readers will recognise some posts, no doubt, but you could think of this book as the remixed, 12-inch extended edition of the original songs. Creating this book gave me a rare opportunity to pull together scattered bits of writing from the blog and other bits of journalism, such as magazine articles; it was a bit like fitting pieces of a jigsaw together. Sometimes I’ve taken a paragraph from one post and attached it to the end of another, or pushed two whole posts together and edited them to the point where it has become something entirely new.

Like many academics, I have certain obsessions: the town/gown riots in medieval universities, the social function of food in academic settings, and a love of verbs that sometimes frightens my students. I tend to return to the same themes again and again, so the chapters came together relatively easily. Each is about different ways of being an academic. My special interest as a researcher is employability, so in that chapter I have brought together posts that offer advice on how to win the Academic Hunger Games, as well as cautionary tales. I then reflect on the culture of academia and the people who inhabit it. I follow with a chapter on being productive, touching on the specific workplace challenges and how you can use technology to solve them. In the chapters on writing and productivity I include posts on making academic work faster and easier, so you don’t get overwhelmed. The final chapter has been reserved for my most angry posts – those I have written for my union newspaper, reflecting on the broader political issues that impact academics and their work.