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.

Written by katherinechen

September 17, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Posted in academia, books

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4 Responses

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  1. I went to strongly reinforce two points made in the post: first, Dan Chambliss’s paper on the mundanity (note correct spelling) of excellence is a superb piece on how very simple habits, once practiced and sustained, can lead to excellence. Second, completely in accord with Dan’s article, I strongly suggest that students and tenure-track faculty begin working on the kinds of habits listed in the post. For additional theory-informed suggestions on “good habits,” see any of Eric Barker’s Tweets & posts. He does an amazing job of scanning the social psychological and psychological literature on best practices regarding working effectively.

    Liked by 2 people

    Howard Aldrich

    September 17, 2015 at 4:25 pm

  2. Thanks for this post and the book recommendation. I’ll add something important that I heard last night at a talk by a visual effects artist, Ramahan Faulk, that complements what you and Howard said.

    In the Q&A, Faulk talked a lot about how to be successful when you want a career in a small field of talented people. He attributed his success to dedication and talked about the long hours he had to put in to create high-quality work, especially early on. However, he stressed that it was entirely possible to feel a sense of balance in that life because he loved his work, enjoyed it, and was good at it (and yes, an undergrad student actually asked him about work-life balance in a field that required long hours and frequent travel). He admitted that when he first started (he’s primarily a digital sculptor), it took much longer to create a product that he was proud of. He was less efficient because of a lack of experience. However, over time, because of long hours that he invested, he became both better at what he was doing and more efficient. Although it sounds a bit like he uses increased efficiency to create more work than to cut back on his work hours (like many academics), he describes that as a choice and the growing sense of efficacy and the positive emotion it creates as what propels him forward.

    I think many students grow weary in grad school because it takes them so long, and so many hours, to accomplish something that they (or peer reviewers) see as worthy and they can’t imagine doing something so arduous for the rest of their lives. What we need to tell student – like you both say above – is that it takes practice, but it it gets easier and you come to feel more efficacious at what you’re doing, whether teaching, research, or working in another creative field, like digital arts.



    September 18, 2015 at 11:24 am

  3. Wow, just read The mundanity of exellence. Superbly written, interesting, informative, with an ending that deserves standing ovation. How I miss this kind of writing in contemporary academic literature.

    Liked by 1 person

    Ivan Z.

    September 18, 2015 at 11:53 am

  4. Second the approval of Mundanity of Excellence.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 18, 2015 at 3:08 pm

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