Book review: two new guides to academic life

The high degree of autonomy one gets as an academic is both a blessing and a curse. Making your way up what counts for a career ladder these days is tricky. It’s hardly surprising that the academic career guide is an emerging book genre with strong sales. I’ve benefitted from the academic guide to life genre myself. My book How to be an Academic (which was republished as Becoming an Academic in the USA and UK) sold astonishingly well and I continue to get lovely emails from people, thanking me for writing it.

I wrote this book, in part, because I didn’t see the kind of guide I wanted on the shelf. When I started out as an academic, nearly 20 years ago now (!) there were very few guidebooks that explained how an academic job worked. Those that did exist seemed to have been written for someone working in the 1950s. It seems publishers have woken up to the fact there’s a market amongst PhD students and early career academics for advice books. Two new books about being an academic have landed on my reviewer pile in recent times: How to be a Happy Academic, by Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa and Survive and Thrive in Academia: the new academic’s pocket mentor by Kate Woodthorpe.

They have quite different advice and strategies, so I thought I’d give you a brief overview of both so you can decide which is the best for you.

How to be a Happy Academic by Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa. Sage. $29.95 AUD

As a super fan of post it notes, the cover of How to be a Happy academic made me, well – happy (well played cover designer!). The slightly unconventional vibe of the book’s title is reflected in the rest of the layout, which is cleverly designed to reward the quick flick through. Key messages are printed in huge type throughout, sometimes taking up half a page so that the physical book kind of screams affirmations at you. The layout also helps you find key sections really easily.

The basic premise of this book is that academics can be both happy and efficient: a dream I would like to believe in too, so I was happy to strap in for the ride.  The book is fairly hefty at over 200 pages and extremely well referenced. I don’t say this just because they cited me (well, maybe just a little bit); it was heartening to see I was in good company. Just about every major scholar on doctoral education and productivity was in there. This careful engagement with the literature has resulted in a considered and interesting book on how to approach academic work.

Instead of giving you ‘tips and tricks’, How to be  a Happy Academic encourages you to first define what success looks like for you – and work backwards from there. There are a number of structured activities that step you through the process of evacuating and analysing your own values and motivations. I suspect if I had done these steps I may have triggered an existential crisis, so I didn’t – but they looked pretty great. I’m certainly going to take some of these into the classroom with me and try them out with PhD students who are wondering if they want to be an academic or not.

The mid section, which attempts a new theory of academic work was the most interesting one for me. Clark and Sousa start with a diagram called ‘The Core’ which attempts to describe academic work in a wholistic way. The Core has six major dimensions or facets, including: habits and systems, creativity, human work, learning, influence and persuasion and writing. The authors go on to unpack each of these facets in a separate chapter. These chapters are necessarily short, but they open up topics so big that each one is a necessary surface skim rather than the deep dive I was craving. That being said, it was honestly refreshing to see a human centred way of looking at academia, which resonated with my own experiences. Each chapter had really excellent suggestions for getting these key dimensions of academic work right.

The last section, of case studies, is the least successful part of the book in my opinion. While these are interesting and read as authentic, I don’t think they add that much value. But perhaps I am not the right audience. I have seen enough in my 20 years for these stories to seem annoyingly familiar. If I was new to the profession, these case studies might function as the window into the academic world they are intended to be.

So, should you buy this book? Honestly, it will be most useful for people who are early career researchers or established academics like myself who mentor others. If you are still a PhD student, you might want to hold off until you have decided you want to commit to academia, although the first section on values will be useful for anyone struggling with the existential question: what do I want to do with my life?

Survive and Thrive in Academia: the new academic’s pocket mentor by Kate Woodthrope. Routledge. $29.95 AUD

Survive and Thrive in Academia aims to be a ‘supportive comrade’ to people starting out in the academic profession. This book is for people who are confused by the academic workplace  and lack good mentors of the human variety to help them through it. Sadly, many people lack good mentors and role models (it’s certainly one of the factors which accounts for the popularity of this blog for nearly a decade now), so this book will find a ready audience.

Survive and Thrive breaks down academic work in the conventional way, with sections on teaching, research followed by a catch all section on administration, management and leadership. It’s 231 pages, but a small format paperback, so it lives up to the ‘pocket’ label. This book is explicitly in the ‘tips and tricks’ genre, with these elements carefully boxed out so you can flick though and get the highlights quickly. The book is well referenced with helpful suggestions for further reading.

The advice offered in each section is solid and pragmatic – you won’t go wrong following what Woodthorpe has to say. Where the book is really helpful is in explaining the broader ‘neo-liberal’ policy context and how this affects the way the academic workplace operates (in Western countries at least). For example, the section on teaching contains an excellent and necessary section on ‘surveillance’ and evaluation of teaching, including the criteria that administrators use to judge whether your teaching is successful. I wish someone had put this in my hands when I started teaching, although I suspect it might have completely freaked me out. Likewise, the section on creating your niche gets right to the heart of what conventional academic success is all about. Sadly, I didn’t have the pocket mentor to explain it to me… A much older colleague dropped the knowledge over a cigarette one morning. I’d hunted him down because I was despondent after yet another unsuccessful job interview. ‘No one understands a generalist in academia’ he explained, after a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. I based the next five years of my career on this one comment. Survive and Thrive makes the same point, but in more detail and without the second hand cigarette smoke.

While Woodthorpe’s wisdom and experience ooze out of every page, this book is not going to start a revolution. If there was one criticism I was going to offer it would be that Survive and Thrive is deeply conformist in the way that How to be a Happy Academic is not. But it’s a jerk move to criticise people who choose to conform rather than rebel. I’ve rebelled a bit, sure – but I’ve also conformed . I’ve benefitted from rebelling more than from conforming, but all have to eat, so I’m not going to judge. Woodthorpe aims to help her audience to survive by understanding and responding appropriately to the demands the academic workplace, not to rock the boat. Judged by that criteria, the book succeeds admirably and deserves a place on the shelves of many early career academics.

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8 thoughts on “Book review: two new guides to academic life

  1. Charles Knight says:

    I cannot comment about these specific books but I think a lot of the generalists books and their advice on being an academic to be downright dangerous because they are often written if there is such a thing as the academy.

    Advice that makes sense in one discipline area is pretty stupid in another. For example I’d never give advice to a STEM or HUMs person beyond the incredibly generic because culturally they are complete alien to me as a mgmt academic and the other way around. My behaviours that have made me successful on my own terms as an mgmt academic would not get me a job as an adjunct in the HUMS.

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      I take your point about generic advice certainly. Universities are institutions and they have certain kinds of structure. There is a lot of ‘generic’ advice which helps people navigate these structures that people who don’t have mentors can’t access easily. That’s where these books fit in. As to what to publish and what to teach – that’s where it gets madly specific and difficult to tell anyone anything!

  2. larasayed01 . says:

    Thank you ever so much !

    Warmest regards,

    Afef Hedfi

    Le mar. 8 oct. 2019 18:02, The Thesis Whisperer a écrit :

    > Thesis Whisperer posted: “The high degree of autonomy one gets as an > academic is both a blessing and a curse. Making your way up what counts for > a career ladder these days is tricky. It’s hardly surprising that the > academic career guide is an emerging book genre with strong sales.” >

  3. efficacy says:

    I notice that both books have titles which imply that the choice to be in academia is a done deal. Do either of them discuss the very real decision of whether to stay in academia, or to seek this happiness, survival and thriving elsewhere?

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