navigating the academic pipeline: swim forth or swim out?
As the yearly season for academic hiring opens, and as students consider applying to graduate program, now is the time to reflect on one’s place and prospects in the academic pipeline. Written by two economists who also are parents, Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia raises important issues germane to those who are entering, navigating, or exiting the academic pipeline. While the book is aimed at academic women, a general audience would benefit from tenure-track tips. (Examples: the authors suggest working on and submitting grant proposals so that senior colleagues who serve on grant panels can become acquainted with junior colleagues’ work. The authors also recommend against co-authoring with colleagues who might be able to write tenure review letters, as co-authorship will preclude letter-writing.)
Like Fabio in his Grad Skool Rulz book, the co-authors Rachel Connelly and Kristen Ghodsee have a brutal and blunt chapter (“Know Thyself, part 1”) urging those unsure about academia to understand the limits of the academic job market, such as being expected to move where the jobs are and facing continual rejection. They warn that applicants should expect to spend between 3 to 5 years on the job market and that any job prospect might become THE job.
One especially illuminating section addresses how some job applicants may take positions at particular kinds of institutions, assuming that these allow for a work-family balance, without understanding that other institutions may have the resources better suited to support working parents. Although the authors don’t go into this in great detail, some employers are prepared to dole out substantial resources to faculty – funds that can cover all of conference travel expenses, a book allowance, a guaranteed spot in a desired school for a child, subsidized housing in a good school district, college tuition payments for children, etc. – that other employers cannot.
The book excels in revealing strategies used by academic parents to manage the limitless demands of academia and parenting. The one quibble that I have concerns a section where the authors offer a composite case of a “good student” who embarks upon an academic career as a default. The hypothetical academic struggles with the everyday challenges of academia and parenting; she eventually resigns from her tenure-track position to stay at home to raise children, supported by a husband who agrees to be the bread-winner for the family. Using this case, the authors invite readers to assess whether they truly enjoy “the life of the mind,” which include self-managing an academic career where deadlines can be postponed up until a point. The authors urge readers not to opt out of the pipeline in the way that the composite case’s academic does. They want readers to examine their “motivation” for considering an academic career.
While the authors’ advice adopts a realist perspective, as we know from Herbert Simon’s work on decision-making, people often don’t know what their preferences are (or fully understand the consequences associated with certain choices), until they try them. My added suggestion is that students and tenure-track faculty try cultivating certain habits – namely, formulating research questions, writing regularly, and meeting publication deadlines – as early as possible.* If these don’t jibe, move onto other career paths.
* As an analogy, read Dan Chambliss’s “The
Mandanity Mundanity of Excellence” article about swimmers.