Grad Student Advice
E. N. Anderson
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Riverside
My student Jenny Banh suggested I might write a book guiding graduate students on the academic path. I don’t have a book’s worth of knowledge, but after 50 years teaching for the University of California system, I have some tips.
The place to start is by recycling advice from Alex Lightman (web posting): Figure out what you’re best at, what you like best to do, what you can do that actually helps people, and what you can actually making a living at. If you are lucky, there will be a sweet spot that optimally fits all four.
For an academic, the item about actually helping people should have priority. If you are not particularly interested in helping people, you’re in the wrong field; with your education, you could make much more money doing almost anything else. The only reason to be an academic is that it’s your Calling, in the old sense. You feel a need to do it to help the world, or at least your students.
Anthropology, in particular, is a fantastic field not only for understanding people, but also for helping people and understanding how to help them more. It is great for dealing with those wonderful goals that are unachievable, but that really matter in the world: peace, health, justice, environmental sanity, and the rest. Ideally, it will allow a real predictive science of history, in which we can (within limits) predict troubles ahead and figure out how to solve them.
In my case, the sweet spot was the question of how humans and (the rest of) nature interact, and how we can fix that so people and nature can be one functioning system instead of a continuing fight. I found the right places to study this, too: China, Southeast Asia, the Northwest Coast of North America, and the Yucatec Maya world of southeast Mexico. In all these areas, people have coexisted for thousands of years with the rest of creation without totally trashing it—until the modern colonial world intruded and messed everything up, usually without helping the local people in the process.
Your sweet spot may be kinship theory, or classic films, or amoeba behavior. Just find it. At worst, if there isn’t an overlap between all four of the above, make the best accommodation you can.
Of course you won’t get to do your favorite thing all the time. Definitely do it for your grad work including Ph.D. thesis, but don’t expect it in a first job. Keep working at it and progressing toward it.
Second, do your best at what you do best. Don’t waste your time on anything else unless you have to. Life is too short. For most of us, that means focusing on one thing. There are true renaissance figures out there who can do great jobs at several different demanding fields—I have known some—but such people are so rare that unless you know you are one, don’t try it. Stick to your best shot and work it to death. (This does not mean that you should stick to one theory or subject. Some of us—myself included—are best at generalizing and integrating across fields rather than at laser-like focus on one idea or thing. If what you do best is integrate across theory-fields, go for it.)
On the other hand, if you are a renaissance scholar, go for it. One of my colleagues is a first-rate biological anthropologist and a first-rate concert pianist. And the ethnomusicologist and ethnographer Steve Feld is also a professional jazz musician. But they focus awfully hard on their fields. Still fewer people can handle three or four. I doubt if anyone ever handled five. Incidentally, it occurs to me that in almost all cases I know where someone is a genius in two or three fields, one of those fields is music. Must be a theory there….
Third, once you’ve found the ideal research focus, know everything about it. Become the world’s expert. But also maintain a broad knowledge of your whole field. Scan the major journals, go to the main conferences and check things out, keep on top of what’s currently considered “hot stuff” even if it’s just faddish nonsense. In other words, laser focus on your specialty and very broad overview of your whole discipline. Often you will be doing interdisciplinary work, and need to keep some competence in another field too.
This is difficult, but possible. However, you can’t spend too much time outside work. Academic scholarship is an 80-hour-a-week job.
Finally, recent psychological studies show that a very good way to get yourself out of a funk and get something done is to reaffirm your core values. Several experiments, for instance, involve students writing short essays on their core values—they then do better on tests, and shed test anxiety. At least meditate on your core values if you don’t actually write an essay.
Few comments are needed here. You know how to study and learn or you wouldn’t be reading this.
First, almost all grad students who wash out do so because of failure of will. No grad program admits incompetent students (unless somebody on the intake committee was asleep). Conversely, many (many, many) of the very best students give up because they just can’t take the pressure or because they get irrationally discouraged. Saddest is giving up ABD (all but dissertation). Don’t give up—you have important things to tell the world. If you want to switch fields, or find anthro unsatisfying, fine, but don’t just waste ten years of work because you hit a depressed spell. Carry on!
On the other hand, if you find anthro isn’t for you, get out quickly, before you run up a huge debt and/or waste years of your life on it. Most students do this—they recognize within a year that they’d rather do something else—but a few will stick it out. Still, it’s worth repeating: my considerable experience with “permanent students” and students who drop out ABD is that they all had the intelligence, the calling, and the research competence. They just got despondent. This is a tragedy, and it’s preventable, if you have a sympathetic advisor and a sympathetic counselor—professional or friend-and-family.
Second, find a sociable advisor. An advisor who knows nothing about your area but loves to talk and share about the field in general is better than an expert in your area who won’t talk to you! If you have a non-responsive advisor, change advisors if at all possible. I have some real horror stories in my files—careers set back for years. Get someone who will talk and be responsible and be on time with paperwork and actually give you good advice. Be careful in picking a committee, also. You have to be able to work with these people, often under tense circumstances (deadlines, etc.), for years, often for a lifetime. Pick people who are friendly, available, prompt, and interested in your stuff. This seems obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how much of my professional time has been taken up dealing with problems between students and advisors, or giving the advice that their advisors were supposed to give but weren’t giving. Conversely, I remember one famous biologist telling how much he had learned while going fishing with his advisor (they apparently talked shop more than they fished). You may not get that kind of relationship, but at least try.
Never ignore good advice, even if it sounds trivial. One of the best tips I got from my grad advisor was to carry 3 x 5 index cards at all times, to write down whatever happens. I did this in the field and I keep doing it—I write down thoughts on my pocket cards every day of my life.
Third, the lone-wolf anthropologist is an extinct species. All work is now collaborative at some level. You depend on fellow scholars, and/or your field contacts: subjects, consultants, assistants, friends. Getting along with people is basic, and interpersonal skills matter. You do not need to be suave and charismatic (though it does help) but you need to be aware of the need to get along with all sorts of people. Being able to work with others is now more important than sheer brilliance.
Also, more and more projects are interdisciplinary (a very good trend), so prepare to work with people from other fields. If in environmental anthro you’ll have to work with biologists; in medical, with medical experts; in psychological anthro, with psychologists; and so on. To do this you have to know enough about those fields to be an “informed consumer” (as Dave Kronenfeld puts it), though not necessarily any more than that.
Form as many close bonds with your fellow students as you possibly can. A cohort is a wonderful thing. Student cohorts often stick together for life and form mutual support and back-scratching networks—citing each other, writing about each other’s work, etc. I still depend on my undergrad network for a lot of career help, and this is after 50 years.
Go to meetings and keep networking there.
Networking is NOT all the game, and NOT a substitute for your own hard intellectual work, but it is VERY important and is typically essential to success in the field. Brilliant loners make it, but not-so-brilliant loners rarely do.
My only comment on actual learning is that students in anthro these days are not always well taught (to put it mildly) in the area of theory. Read on your own. The one critical necessity is to read THOROUGHLY the theory you do read—whole books and articles, not bits and pieces and short takes. Short excerpts from the classics are not enough. Worse: many of the secondary sources and canned history-and-theory books are just plain wrong. Core or “boot camp” courses are often terrible (mine at Berkeley was) and are sometimes not given at all. You absolutely have to learn basic theory, and you may be on your own. Read, and find someone to ask about it.
Anthropological theory is derived, directly or indirectly, from the writings of Kant, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Boas, and a very few other people. (At a much more distant remove, it goes back to Plato and Aristotle, like the rest of western thought; there are still clearly identifiable Aristotelian and Kantian traditions in the field.) It really pays to know where anthro theory started, so you might read at least one book by each of those five. Note, among other things, that Kant enormously influenced the other four—they all read him in detail in the original German. His influence survives accordingly.
Durkheim and Boas, especially, have suffered from gross misrepresentation in the secondary sources. Of more recent major influences, Foucault is another notably worthwhile thinker who has suffered a lot of inaccurate summarizing. It follows that you are well advised to be sure to read fairly significant chunks of these people’s own writings.
One endless problem is separating a brief fad from a real trend. Use your judgment. If a guy is clearly an airhead but writes sententiously and impressively, he’s sure to be popular, but only for a while: a fad. If a guy writes well and gets popular but ALSO has surprising, exciting, evidence-based things to say, he’s got staying power. Some recent cases would be Deleuze and Derrida in the fad set, Latour and Sahlins in the set with staying power.
On field work, including ethics, read my “Methodology” post on my website, www.krazykioti.com. It has citations to the literature. The one indispensable reference is H. Russell Bernard, Research Methods in Anthropology (latest edition—new editions appear regularly). Take a copy to the field.
On writing: Every area has its styles. Read the journals for your area and see how they do it. Many have specific directions. The only general advice is write clearly and concisely—but even this is wrong for certain theory journals that require contorted, jargon-laden, postmodernist prose.
Grant writing, though, is an art that has to be learned. Most grant agencies are interested primarily in why they should give you money rather than your competitors for the very limited funding now available. This means you have to have a clearly stated problem that can be solved in finite time, and, far more importantly, that you know the best way to solve that problem, and can explain it clearly. In the lab sciences, including lab anthro, this means you even have to list the brand names of the equipment and reagents you will be using. Field anthro usually isn’t that demanding, but if you intend to make films or record music you have to state what equipment you will use.
In general, minimally:
–you have to cite the major current literature that actually contributes to the question (as opposed to general stuff that merely mentions it)
–you have to know the methods currently used in this area
–you have to show you know exactly which methods are best for your particular case (this is in italics because it tends to be the make-or-break ingredient in a grant proposal)
–you have to explain how you will interpret results (data) to prove your case.
Agencies now typically require you to explain how you will work with people on the ground, share results with them, and credit them properly. This is important, and is required because people on the ground—over the decades—have insisted on it. (Read Vine Deloria in extenso if you wonder why.)
Most rejections of grant applications are based on either (1) the problem is not stated clearly, (2) the problem can’t be addressed in the real world in finite time (don’t ask for funding to bring peace on earth or solve the question of where culture came from), or (3) the methods are not shown conclusively in the writeup to be state-of-the-art, adequate, and pertinent. #3 is the real killer.
Be as concise as possible and don’t waste much time doing anything other than the above.
IRB’s are usually not a terrible problem for anthropologists; see my Methodology writeup.
Most of these guidelines are for people seeking jobs as university professors, because that is the only work world I know well, but today most anthropologists find jobs outside of academia. More and more areas of work are finding that anthropologists—if adequately trained—have several particularly valuable and distinctive skills:
–they know how to ask questions—not just questionnaires but depth interviewing, etc.
–they know how to listen
–they have learned as second nature to attend to differences in people’s outlooks, backgrounds, and viewpoints
–they know what culture, ethnicity, and religion are and aren’t. They don’t believe everybody has the same “rational choice” behavior, but they also don’t assume that all Hispanics like hot sauce or all Muslims are terrorists or all Generation X’ers are selfish
–they can, as a corollary, get along with different types of people
–they can usually write well; they can write research papers, grant applications, do comprehensive plans, do research statements, etc. If you aren’t trained in these things in your grad program, complain loudly and find training in those areas somehow. All major universities have workshops on grant applying.
–they are good evaluators and program critics
–they are comfortable in the field, and adjust to even quite rough situations
–and so on.
Because of this, anthropologists are now in demand—in fact, in rather desperate demand—in health care and medicine. This includes, most importantly, public and global health, maternal and child health and care, and environmental health. Also golden are environmental planning, development of all kinds, and any and all international enterprises. Anthropologists are in demand in personnel and marketing departments. They are in extreme demand for grant-writing for small NGO’s and such. All these take some special training beyond anthro, but usually not much. My anthropologist daughter got a public health master’s and promptly got six job offers. (She went on to a nursing degree and research nursing work.)
The standard places to look for jobs are ads in the journals and newsletters, but note that listservs routinely post job openings. The Eanth-L listserv in environmental anthro, for example, posts pretty much every environmental anthro job opportunity. There are medical, agricultural, and nutritional anthro listservs that routinely post job openings in those fields. I assume the same is true for other sub-sub-fields.
One major problem that has to be faced is that products of the snob schools already have a leg up. Partly it’s the name—a Harvard or Chicago product will almost always be hired over a UCR product with comparable brilliance and knowledge. Partly it’s the contacts and the inside knowledge; the snob school kids are more apt to know that Richard Roe has just replaced John Doe as the Big Fad in your field. So, get to conferences, pick people’s brains, don’t be left in the dust—know who’s the big name and what’s the “happenin’” theory. But, more to the point, the snob schools actually do, on average, a good job of teaching. I have certainly known plenty of exceptions—people who got through Berkeley or Chicago or wherever without learning a thing, presumably by playing political games. But usually the Ph.D.s from those schools really are well trained.
Given those realities, FACE IT: YOU HAVE TO BE BETTER THAN THEY ARE, AND THAT TAKES A TERRIFIC AMOUNT OF WORK. You have to make sure you get the theory training and find out who the latest big names are.
On the market, sell yourself shamelessly but appear to be modest. Write a good CV with detail but not too much detail.
Get out publications—it is now almost impossible to get a tenure-track job in archaeology or biological anthro without publications, and even cultural anthro is getting there. (One of my students was told it now takes 5 publications to have a shot at a job. That would be true only at major research universities, and not always at them. One or two is enough for most places. But, realistically, the more the better.)
More serious is grant-getting. I have heard people in the lab sciences cut to the chase on hiring committees with the coldest of cold lines: “How much money is he bringing with him?” Anthro is not so crass, but any grants sure do help, and the more—and more prestigious—the better. Universities today survive on grant money, and if you aren’t going to contribute….
In your application letters and in interviewing, your whole game is to explain, very deferentially and politely, why the people offering the job need YOU rather than your competitors. The surest way to NOT get the job is to ask what they can do for you (salary, leaves, etc.) The only way TO get the job, usually, is to read the job description with obsessive interest, and pounce on every detail. If they emphasize teaching, stress your qualifications as a teacher. If research, talk up your research. If there is a line in there about potatoes, highlight your knowledge of potatoes and your fascination with them. If there is a line about critical theory, read up on it and comment intelligently on it. If the ad is for a North Americanist with special interest in spruce trees, become an instant expert on that. Also, and this is absolutely critical, study up on the members of the department, and talk about how well you would relate to their interests and how much you want to work with them. You have to know who they are and what they do.
Then be careful not to get your letters mixed up. It is all too easy on a computer to recycle a form letter for every application. Then we who are hiring can get some hilarious amusement when you start out addressing UCR and talking about UCR’s concerns, but slip in the middle of the letter into talking about how well you’d relate to the profs at UC Irvine and how much you want to work with them. We all understand—you just forgot to change the application letter—but, alas, your application goes straight into the circular file (or “file 13” as the Mexicans call it). Sorry. If you’re that careless, we don’t want you. (Yes, that sounds cold, and it is, but it is literally what I have heard more than once in this particular situation.)
You will be required to get three people to write letters of reference for you. These should, other things being equal, be your dissertation committee, or your major professor plus some employers who know your teaching record. Obviously, the former is generally the better set for a research job, the latter for a teaching job. It should also be obvious, but for some reason never is, that you should solicit letters only from people who know your work, can comment intelligently on it, and—this is critical—are known to be prompt with letters. Only a very few professors are dilatory about writing these letters, but they can ruin you.
Being a “freeway flier” or temp for years is generally not a good place to be, unless you were a temp at one place and did well there; if that is the case, they are morally bound to give you a good opportunity at any job that comes along. Outright “insider hiring” is illegal. By law, the place has to advertise widely. But in fact a well-qualified temp will often be hired over a more or less equally qualified outsider. If you are the outsider in this case, it hurts like hell—but you must understand it and realize that it is fair and even necessary.
On the other hand, laws now prohibit discrimination on the basis of “race,” ethnicity, age, and everything else not directly related to job performance. Religious schools can give preference to people of their religion, at least for teaching theology and the like, but otherwise you can expect fairness, and sue the socks off anybody that doesn’t deliver it.
My general experience is that of 100 applicants for a position, only about 20 actually fit the ad; 15 of them don’t talk about how they would relate to the faculty; 1 or 2 of the rest are obviously a bit out of the loop; so our short list of 3 or 4 people is very easy to generate. Then, usually, only one of those 3 or 4 interviews well.
If you make it to a job interview, again tailor your interview presentation (normally an hour-long talk) to the audience. If it is a teaching school, focus on giving a vibrant, exciting presentation, with beautiful visuals and clear explanations. If a research place, focus on your present and future plans and projects (remember, they want to know what you will do for them). Subtly but very, very clearly emphasize any grants you got, and, above all, what major grants you plan to go for and expect you will actually get.
Be polite. Be prepared for anything. I recall one job candidate whose talk was interrupted by an earthquake. She fell apart and couldn’t go on. (Lost the job, but luckily got a better one.) Things like that really do happen. Be prepared, above all, for hard questions; most hiring committees just happily listen to anything, but there are those that really test you by asking searching questions.
A minor point, very annoying to me personally, is that the more prestigious eastern schools essentially require women to dress in very expensive, stylish clothes for interviews. No such thing for the men. This bit of sexism and classism makes me sick, but you have to deal with it if you apply to one of those schools.
Otherwise, if your application letter and subsequent interview and interview talk have a lot of really interesting detail about your research, and a lot of serious thinking about how you would mesh with the department you’re applying to, you have a very good chance of being hired. My experience is that no more than one or two candidates per job opening do this. If your letter is short and lacking detail and doesn’t speak at length to the department and people you’re applying to, you don’t stand much chance.
When starting a new job, expect to have to teach (or do) the stuff nobody wants to teach or do. Bear it. This phase ends quickly.
Money and other nonsense
I can’t advise much here, except to think seriously before running up a huge debt. You won’t make much with an anthro degree, even in the best possible job. You will never have a house and may never have a kid if you get too deep in debt.
If you do get a job and have some money, get a house as near work as possible—given house prices. Commutes are death. Also, get a small house, in good repair, with a small yard. House repairs and “fixing up,” and yard work, are far more deadly to careers than anything else outside of a bad marriage. Think maintenance.
Otherwise, usual consumer advice.
FIRST rule: Respect the students.
First corollary: Spare us the crap about this new generation of students being history’s worst, dumbest, least prepared, and—above all—the most disrespectful of professors. The oldest documents in ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Chinese, and Greek all have this stuff already, and the crap hasn’t changed since. Many of the people I hear saying this stuff are people I knew as students, and I remember their professors (sometimes including me) saying the same things about them! For the record, the best class I ever had, in terms of overall performance, was in 2000, and one of the best was my very last class, in 2006. Some of the worst classes I ever had were back in the mythical 1960s. (Yes, everybody was thinking, but up to half of them were too stoned for it to matter.)
Second rule: Go where the students are if you want to find them. This should be elementary advice, especially for anthropologists, but few of my colleagues think about this. There is, for instance, the fact that most of our students now come from families without much college background. A large percentage of our students are the first members of their families to go to college. Also, virtually all our students at UCR and local colleges come from “minority” or immigrant backgrounds. The traditional student—white, middle or upper class, from an educated family—practically doesn’t exist here. Thus you can’t expect students to act like the “proper university student” of old-time novels and movies.
Remember that students are individual human beings (not mere representatives of a worthless generation) and have their human concerns and their very different personalities and experiences. Use your ethnographic skills to find out where they are. (I recently read an “education expert” airily dismissing the existence of different learning styles. I wondered what planet he was on.)
Therefore, third rule: Learn basic counseling techniques. You’ll have plenty of students sobbing in your office, over everything from flunking a quiz to being beaten and deserted by Significant Other. You will certainly encounter suicidal students and will probably face mentally ill ones, some of whom might be threatening (though in 50 years I was never threatened). Know how to deal with it. Ask the counseling center and read a book or manual on crisis counseling. Know when to stop: it is NOT appropriate, safe, or legal for you to deal with genuinely hard cases like mentally ill or severely troubled students. Get to know people in the counseling center so you will know where to refer such cases.
Students, especially graduate students, do most of their learning out of class. It is absolutely essential for good teaching to have a lot of out-of-class contact, including social contact.
As to the nuts and bolts: Common sense should tell you to organize lectures in advance, write up notes, and post them online. Also, if you use PowerPoint or other visuals, don’t make them so crowded that students can’t read them. I once saw a grad student do this and actually say “I realize you can’t read this slide….” So why on earth did he show it?
Worst of all is giving a “lecture” by just reading off your PowerPoints. If you ever do that, my ghost will haunt you and drive you to madness and death.
It is far better to put your course notes on line and/or hand them out than to give dismal text-only PowerPoints. In fact, many of us came to put our course notes online all the time.
Most anthropology departments have serious problems planning curricula, because the field (and often the department too) is so diverse and disunited. Think very seriously about this. Plan your dream sequence of courses and options for the students, and talk it out with the department. Hopefully, the department will come up with some sort of plan. We had a model schedule and selection of options in the 1970s through early 90s. Unfortunately, we let it fall apart after that. This was an enormous disservice to the students. Finally things got so bad that courses that had been dropped (and were never taught any more) were still listed in the university catalogue, because nobody was bothering to take them out.
A department plan or curriculum has to change as new people are hired, old ones retire, or middle-career ones change their focus. Such changes should be made fast and cleanly. Planning is really make-or-break for a department.
Student evaluations are now routinely used to evaluate professors. Don’t be lulled into being a crowd-pleaser. Promotion committees know all about this, and may distrust a prof with all good evaluations. She may be a true Great Teacher—there really are such—but she may be a crowd-pleaser and easy grader. To paraphrase the old movie cliché, promotion committees have ways of finding out which you are. Promotion committees like to see a prof with good evaluations in literate, judicious style and BAD evaluations in stupid, nasty style. Confucius was once asked: “If everyone likes a person, does that mean he’s a good person?” Confucius answered “Of course not. If the good people like him and the bad people hate him, then he’s probably a good person.” Promotion committees generally have a similar idea. (Personal confession: my all-time favorite eval said, simply, “Too much work for too little grade.” YES! I was not an easy grader and I did require college-level work. I’d infinitely rather have that eval than be stroked for giving crowd-pleasing lectures and easy A’s.)
When I was a grad student at Berkeley, there was a sign by the grad office with a quote from A. L. Kroeber, who founded the department and ran it for more than half a century. He advised scholars to publish anything they had to say as soon as possible, so people could “shoot at it,” and not be perfectionist. This was dynamite advice, and I have always followed it. Kroeber got hit by plenty of shots, many deserved, but he got a lot of wonderful and accurate data out too, and the debates triggered by his mistakes greatly advanced the field. (Remember what Darwin said about “false views” greatly advancing science because everyone takes such pleasure in proving them wrong.) I admit, I have published a lot less than Kroeber and been a bit more careful, but still that advice truly made my career.
Writer’s block is the classic worst problem for academics. It is purely psychological, but horribly annoying. I once gave it up for Lent. To my surprise, this worked. At the end of Lent I figured, Why should I let it back in? I’ve never had serious writer’s block since. Basically, the lesson is, you can get out of the writer’s block trap by devoting yourself to whatever you believe in that will let you transcend it.
Procrastination is closely related and almost equally crippling. Same advice. Just do it. As a friend of mine who wrote a book on procrastination pointed out to me, there is no easy answer, since—if there is a perfect cure out there—a true procrastinator will put off trying it. Watch out and don’t get trapped into this mind-set.
Search diligently for the ideal place to publish your stuff, and then write in their style with their format. Find their style guide. Every journal and publisher has one online now. There is always some journal, often new or obscure, for which your paper on the left nostril of the red-backed vole is ideal. Another one will yearn for your paper on the early films of Roy Rogers. Not the same journal. And probably neither of them the flagship journal of your field. And there is almost always a book publisher for even the most arcane topic (though I never could publish my guide to gardening in the tropics). Just LOOK. Go online, use keyword searches, and find every journal on earth that publishes your kind of work. Check each one out (50 or 100 if you need to) and send off journal articles accordingly.
For a book, you have to write up a prospectus, and then send it off to all possible publishers. This prospectus is a document with a set form, though each publisher has a slightly different version (posted online at their website). You have to give the title, main theme, abstract (100 to 300 word summary), and a thorough account of who might buy it—what the target audience is—and where to advertise it. The publisher wants to know what conventions to show it at, what journals to advertise it in, what journals to contact for reviewing it, what professional societies would be interested in it, and so on. Some publishers want a table of contents and even chapter summaries, and most want a sample chapter. They also want your short CV.
Think seriously about how you can reach the maximum number of readers.
You can NOT send a full ms of an article or book to more than one publisher at a time. On the other hand, you are expected to saturate everybody with prospectuses. The best way to do this is to go to your professional convention (the American Anthropological Association annual conference for anthropologists) and talk to the publishers’ representatives there, and drop off prospectuses with them.
Finally, there are those anonymous reviews. All journal and book mss of any scholarly quality get sent out to 2 or 3 reviewers. About 90% of the resulting reviews are helpful and fair—though often fairly harsh in the way they say it. The other 10% are taking out on you their problems with spouse or chair or substance abuse or something. They will give you a mean and unfair reading. Often they make it clear that they never read the ms. For instance, they will attack you for things you didn’t say—or even when you said the opposite. The eminent psychologist Roy Baumeister got so fed up that he wrote a savage but hilariously funny screed about this: “Dear Journal Editor, It’s Me Again….” You can probably find it online. Look it up. It’s consoling to know that even one of America’s leading psychologists gets this same treatment.
Do NOT take these reviews personally. Think of all your written work as evolving and never perfect. You can always use some critique. If that critique is phrased civilly, be deeply thankful. If it is uncivil, use what you can of it and disregard the rest. Never protest to the editor or waste your time ranting. Complaining to colleagues is merely annoying; they’ve all been through it too, and are apt to answer you the same way the old wolves answered the young wolves in Kipling’s Jungle Book: “We knew it three seasons before.”
Little to say here, since every institution has its own wants and rules. In general, there are teaching schools and research institutions. Teaching schools want evidence of superior teaching, usually in the form of student evaluations plus peer observations. Research schools want publications and grants. They expect a major article in a refereed journal per year, plus a book for tenure (not just your thesis—unless you have massively rewritten and added to it). Some expect even more. The big ones most certainly expect funding—you have to get grants, if only small ones. Small ones may lead to large ones, and show you are making progress.
Department and community service is theoretically taken into account, but in reality the best it can do is be decisive in a very marginal case. If you are barely making it in teaching and research, good service can save you. Normally, however, it does no good, and young professors are usually advised NOT to invest much time or effort in service when they could invest it in teaching and research. A responsible department will place you on minimal-work committees so it looks like you are doing something but in fact you are not worked too hard at this.
Denying tenure if this is done is VERY rare. Now and then someone gets into serious political trouble. There is recourse, if you were unfairly treated: the law, plus the American Association of University Professors—the latter has no legal authority to do anything, but can provide very bad publicity for a school. Normally, if you don’t alienate people, you’re OK.
Just be nice to everybody and look for the good in everybody. Use your ethnographic skills: figure out where people are coming from, why they are there, and how to be nice to them and get along with them given those various standpoints.
Keep your office door open (see below), be available, keep your office hours. Nothing ruins a college student’s experience like unavailable professors. If you’re in the private sector, nothing ruins your work like being unavailable and unlocatable. Use the social media.
Being nice to people includes being as good as you possibly can to department and university staff: secretaries, administrative assistants, MSO’s, etc. These people do everything for the school, usually work terribly hard at very long hours for terrible pay, and are almost invariably really good, dedicated individuals. (Yes, I’ve known some exceptions, but really few.) They also control all the minor but vital details, like access to the copier and instructions on how to use it, filling out forms for grants, and getting help scheduling. So they can make your life wonderful if you’re good to them—or, if you aren’t…you get the idea.
Throw a lot of parties. I used to have an open, informal party at the end of every quarter. These were fondly remembered—much more so than my teaching. Academics are sociable beings, and need to unwind and talk shop, but seem rarely to be party organizers.
Never believe gossip. Most academic gossip reduces to one of two formulas: “X doesn’t like Y” or “X is screwing Y.” Experience teaches that these claims, and other gossip, are wrong at least 90% of the time. As to the other 10%, who the hell cares? Stop worrying about it.
On the other hand, if you actually know something bad is going on, do not trust or deal with said people, if possible. If it’s actually illegal behavior, report it to the appropriate administrator.
Be aware of who might stab you in the back or screw you out of a good thing (very few colleagues really do this, but there is always someone). Be nice anyway, but watch your back. The way to spot such people is that they are always complaining about others. Complaining about the sorrows and ills of the world is one thing—it can merely mean the complainer is an idealist. But constant complaints about one’s family and work associates mean trouble. Such people usually cannot be trusted.
Nothing is served by the endless squabbles and gossip that mess up universities and other workplaces. This does NOT mean you should put up with everything. If you need to state an opinion that differs from others’, do so. Just do it civilly and politely. I had to learn the hard way that 60s-style “confrontation” is purely bad and never does anything but harm.
Though the vast majority of academic conflicts are trivial personality issues, there are always a few—thankfully a very few—genuine skunks in any workplace, including universities. They tend to rise in the system, too, because they love power and because they play games that honorable persons do not do. Thus they get ahead at the expense of others. Unless you are their department chair, or on a relevant committee such as Personnel, there is not usually much you can do about them except be unfailingly courteous, avoid them as much as possible, and wait them out. They generally get fired or else move on. (One species of skunk is the one who’s always looking for a better job, and thus never bothers to do anything for his or her university—s/he doesn’t expect to be there long. And usually isn’t there long, thank God.) Again, be warned, but do not think this is at all a norm. Such people are rare and don’t usually last—though they do unfortunately take over the university in certain tragic cases.
Keep a detailed written record of events at your university or other workplace, and of your department. Nobody seems to keep workplace histories. In a university, where there is a complete turnover of students every 4 years or so, this leads to real disconnect. Even if you’re not in the know, keep a record, for fun, for ultimate writeup as group history, for political improvement of it all, and other reasons. Budgets especially need to be recorded. You will find these records increasingly useful after several years at a place.
If you’re at a university, do everything you possibly can, politically and personally, to shore up the core academic functions: library, classes, professor contact time, remedial learning, research facilities including labs, and so on. In the current economic climate, this means defending them against the administration’s desire to divert money to athletics, flashy projects, luxurious facililities (especially for the administration), and other nonacademic matters. This latter tendency is sometimes called the “business model” of administration, but any real business that neglects its core mission for flashy stuff promptly fails.
The worst problem currently, nationwide and at my university, is the library. Administrations have found that the library is a long-term concern that can always be defunded “just for this year” without damaging much. Librarians are politically weak at most schools, have few faculty advocates, and are regarded as “mere” support staff even if they are actually highly-trained professionals. Most US universities have inadequate and declining libraries, even if they are otherwise rich. We once had a chancellor at my university who one year redirected the library’s special book budget to redecorating his office. At the University of Missouri they just cut 100% of the library’s funds for the year—but the football coach makes over $2 million a year. Libraries are the absolute basis of the research function of the university, and this is true for freshmen and Nobel prize winners alike. As a student or professor or other academic, make helping the library your first priority. If you aren’t an academic, you still depend on local university libraries for all kinds of public data functions, so you need to concern yourself very seriously with local academic libraries.
All places now have zero tolerance for sexually harassing students, or bullying. I always kept my office door open (unless I was napping in there) and my whole body visible from the corridor.
As with other matters, there is a first rule: Consult with everybody, then do what you believe is right, then thank everyone for their advice—whether you took it or not. If you didn’t use it, just thank them and tell them you found their advice helpful—no need to go on and point out that it helped you know what to avoid. People in academia, and elsewhere, desperately want to be consulted, listened to, and recognized. Nobody is more deservedly hated than an administrator who won’t consult and won’t thank. But as to following their advice: Get all opinions but then make your own judgment. Of course you have to go with the majority or the consensus if it’s a democratic situation, but very often you will have to make the choices, either because it’s your responsibility or because no one else will help or be decisive.
In my administrative positions, I always asked for input, then flew a trial decision, then followed the qui tacit consentit rule: “Who stays silent has consented.” In other words, anyone who does not protest by a given deadline time is considered to have voted in favor of your choice. This amazingly expedites decision-making.
Another rule is that whoever DOES protest has thereby volunteered to fix the situation or at least propose the solution. Establish zero tolerance for whining. If somebody routinely doesn’t like your way of doing X, put him or her in charge of X forthwith (if it’s possible to do so).
Assume that all conflicts are the fault of ALL the contestants until PROVEN otherwise. The “he started it” blame game is an invitation to lying and dodging responsibility. Get them to settle it. Listen to the full stories of all sides, with care and sympathy, but don’t believe a word of it. People in the midst of conflict almost invariably distort their stories. Listen to all sides and note the differences. Thus, when you’ve heard all sides, do what YOU think best.
Sexual harassment: This is scary. If it’s real, you have to get on it instantly with 100% attention, and immediately contact university counsel. On the other hand, there are students who will make false accusations. They can ruin a faculty member’s career. Obviously there is no simple way to tell true from false, but if a clearly desperate student breaks down in your office, chances are almost 100% that it’s real, but if a clearly angry and vicious student just takes a high moral ground on it without seeming very upset, you want to watch out.
Detail is the soul of administration. The best administrators have broad vision but are ALSO superb detail persons. They keep track of every paper and file and data point. They organize their information and USE it. Think of health care, and the need to keep data available, and how frightening it is to you as a patient to discover that your HMO always loses your drug allergy data. (They always lose mine, and of course this is life-threatening.) Details matter.
All universities have a vast number of good, diligent, scholarly, caring faculty members; a few troublemakers; and a few manipulators. The good, diligent ones rarely get any recognition. They get taken for granted. Always be sure to thank people like that for their good work, and do small things for them. They usually hate the embarrassing public recognition that bad administrators love to give. Quiet personal thank-yous and dinner invitations are much better. The troublemakers can be endured, but don’t reinforce them.
The real problem is the manipulators. Every university has a few people who never work but continually play politics instead. Fortunately there are very few, but they always manage to rise rapidly in the system and often wind up running it. Then they do incalculable damage. An extreme but revealing case is Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University till recently. He loved his career and Penn State’s football so much that he “looked the other way” though he knew that at least one coach was routinely raping young boys in the locker rooms over more than a decade. Most manipulators stop short of that, but they can ruin the library, gut programs that are vitally important but not “flashy” enough, sell out the business school to corrupt businesses, and ultimately wreck the university. These people start by getting themselves into all kinds of cushy positions that involve no responsibility, like running “centers” and being on committees that look important but don’t actually do much. If you are running a department and have one of these people, fire him or her. Period. This can be done even if they’re tenured. They always slip up and take another job on the side or harass a student or do something else for which firing over tenure is required.
Much more common are professors who are good scholars but also suave and sociable and thus successful at politics. They can easily drift into playing politics more and more, and working less and less. Get them to do the scholarship, and also get them into useful, responsible political positions where their skills are used for good purposes: things like the honors program, the library committee, or editorship of a journal.
Having It All
Many women are now concerned about “having it all,” which seems to mean having a demanding job, raising kids, keeping up on movies and TV, running a model home, and sometimes dressing stylishly too. No, you can’t have all that. Men long ago resigned themselves to having to work full time, and thus sacrifice some of the childrearing and home care, and all or most of the rest. The realistic hope is a demanding job, some time with the kids, a sort-of-clean but not excessively orderly and decorative home, and not much else.
I was a single parent for five years on top of managing some of the more difficult years of my career. Everything went fine (though it was a rough ride). But the house was a very small minimal-care place, and of course things like movies and vacations went over the wall.
In most fields it is perfectly possible to have a career AND have kids—I’ve done it—but in the lab sciences, where you may have to spend very long hours in the lab, there are special problems. I often wonder why biologists, in particular, don’t read Darwin; they seem to take a perverse delight in wrecking their younger colleagues’ reproductive chances. Still, with a cooperative partner and good local child care, a lab scientist can do perfectly fine as a parent. Lots do it.
Finally, one of the most important things I have learned in life is that the greatest goals in a career are those where any progress is good, but absolute success is impossible: World peace, perfect health for all, justice for everyone, a thoroughly protected yet profitably used environment, and so on down to a perfect marriage and perfectly raised kids. Keep trying. The journey truly is the end.
So, plan your life realistically. Think what you really want. Give up other things accordingly.
Thanks very much to Jenny Banh for suggesting this and helping with it.