To build a successful academic career, you need to play by the rules.
I recently completed the first five years since the end of my PhD. I felt that this was a suitable moment to take stock of my professional achievements and shortcomings and to make plans for the further development of my career. In order to do so, I booked an advising session with Karen Kelsky, an academic careers consultant and former professor at a major US university. (Do take a look at her blog. It considers, from a US perspective, professional development issues similar to those I discuss on this site.) At some point during our correspondence, she made a point about the need to know the rules by which academic careers work and to follow these rules closely. This comment stuck with me, and it made me think. So what exactly are the rules by which academic careers work? Where does one learn them? How does one learn them? And how, exactly, is playing by the rules to the benefit of one’s career?
The answers to these questions might seem self-evident: You learn the rules while you do your PhD and grow into academic labour through your initial appointments afterwards. The rules tell you, for example, that you need to be well-regarded by your students, teach to a high standard, score highly in student evaluations, produce a lot of publications that will play well in the REF, attract substantial research grants, build collaborative networks with colleagues in your field, and so forth. However, while all this is both important and at least fairly self-evident, it’s not enough to make it in academic sociology. I know lots of very good sociologists who have been doing all these things and are nonetheless unemployed, underemployed and, most certainly, underappreciated. They seem to be doing everything right and still do not make it into stable careers. Interestingly, they mostly feel uncertain about the reasons for their predicament, and many of them can point to peers with similar or lesser achievements who have made it big.
An obvious reason for the struggles faced by many recent PhD graduates is, of course, that universities produce far more graduates than they could possibly ever employ. Just as important is the fact that academic labour is not only governed by formal, overt rules and expectations, such as those that I mentioned above and that are typically listed in job advertisements. In order to make it, you also need to understand many of the more subtle aspects of academic life – how to build a reputation in your field of research, how to make sure that your work is read, recognised, and cited, how to belong to the right networks, etc. The formal, overt rules are clearly stated and easy to notice. The informal rules and techniques of academic labour often remain opaque to PhD students and early-career scholars. I think that a reason for this might be that traditional PhD programmes are today often unable to properly socialise students into academic life and teach them these rules and techniques. Being informal, you discover them through contact, collaboration and mentoring relationships with your supervisor and other established academics. However, PhD programmes today are often too large and senior academics are often far too busy for such mentoring relationships to be easily possible. What might have worked at Oxbridge in 1900 won’t necessarily function in a modern PhD programme with 30, 50, or 100 students. Thus, as a matter of serendipity, some students do get to be mentored, but many others don’t. The latter might complete their PhDs and do well in academic terms, but, more likely than not, they might miss out on a crucial part of their education. Not knowing all the rules, it is quite easy to remain an outsider and fail to make it, lots of publications, grants and good teaching evaluations notwithstanding.
To be sure, many PhD programmes are not like this at all, and many departments have recognised the problem and taken steps to address it. Nevertheless, the problem does continue to be significant, both for current students and for those who have already graduated and are struggling to get by. To begin with, there might need to be a firmer and more explicit recognition of the fact that PhD programmes today cannot limit themselves to teaching students how to write intellectually sophisticated theses and papers. In an age in which academia has reconfigured itself as an ‘industry’ and in which the term ‘cut-throat’ hardly does justice to the scale of the problems graduates face on the academic job market, PhD programmes, to a large extent, ought to be about ‘training for the job’. Students need to be taught how to find an academic job in the first place and how to do this job. By this I do not mean the intellectual pursuits that are typically identified with academic labour – I mean all the rest: the admin work, the routines necessary to effectively teach large numbers of students, the formalities of successfully applying for grants, how to build a reputation and effective research networks, and so on. A clear understanding of all these issues is necessary for PhD students to become credible candidates for academic jobs. The traditional model of largely self-directed intellectual development by which many PhD programmes operate just does not work anymore.
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