Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Scholarly Advice for Times Gone By: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Scholarly Advice for Times Gone By: Books

Article excerpt

Tara Brabazon on postgraduate career guidance that applies to an elite world that is shrinking.

Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD

By Frank F. Furstenberg

University of Chicago Press

208pp, Pounds 31.50 and Pounds 10.50

ISBN 9780226066073, 6103 and 6240 (e-book)

Published 20 November 2013

It is a maxim of life that we can only do something once for the first time. We can only experience that first teetering (in)stability on a bicycle before balancing, pedalling and gaining momentum. PhDs are the same. We do them once. We move on, but we remember. That memory twists and snakes through our career, marked by resentment or respect, disgust or inspiration. Very few people complete a second doctorate, so this first enrolment in doctoral study is also the last. This odd experience transforms the PhD into a period of mystery, confusion, abuse, bitterness and complaint.

An array of "how to" guides adorn publishers' catalogues, each providing strategies to "manage" or "master" a doctorate. There is a willing and desperate postgraduate audience for such publications. Frank Furstenberg's Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD is different. It aims to help scholars structure their choices into and out of a doctoral programme, and continues the story to incorporate the tenured "mid-career" years and the latter stages of academic life.

Furstenberg's career was based at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is now the emeritus Zellerbach Family professor of sociology. These details matter, because they determine the limitations of the book, and its strengths for a very specific audience.

This is a US-focused (indeed fixated) publication. When reading this book, it is as if the rest of the world's universities have evapor-ated. Such blinders are always problematic, but particularly when academic mobility is increasingly a reality for many scholars. Furstenberg seems unaware that the "life" he has constructed is not only geographically and institutionally specific but also historically dated.

This is a nostalgic book. Academic capitalism, neoliberal management and the wounded state of universities after the global economic crisis have left no mark on its argument or chapters. Furstenberg states that "academics have great freedom in arranging their professional lives". That may once have been the case, although my 20-year career does not recognise this freedom. …

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