Summer and winter breaks. A cozy office overlooking the quad. The feeling that you are changing the minds and lives of young people by teaching something you have devoted your life’s work to.
While a job in academia is one of the best jobs you can attain (proved by the high levels of reported job satisfaction), getting that “dream” job is by no means a guarantee. In fact, it is much more likely that you will not receive one.
Brennan uses his experience as a well-published academic to help others learn what you can do to improve your odds of receiving one of those jobs in his most recent book, Good Work if You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia. Brennan’s advice—which, in my opinion, would have also been a fitting first line in the introduction—is “if the work does not make you happy, then it is not worth doing.”
Oftentimes, those entering doctoral programs are already being labeled a doctor by family and friends—we’ve all heard those blasted jokes about needing a doctor on a plane, even though the “future doctor” in question might be studying economics, art history, or Medieval literature. However, only half of those who enter a doctoral program in the United States end up actually earning the title of “doctor.” Some quit, others fail.
Although the title suggests that this book’s sole purpose is to help those succeed in academia, Brennan’s book accomplishes much more than that. Brennan seeks to give data-driven advice on how to succeed in graduate school, how to stay productive in your work, and what to expect on the job market—as well as what steps one can take to have the best shot of attaining what most see as the ultimate goal: tenure.
Brennan first lays out the unpleasant truths associated with academia, ensuring the audience that he or she is aware of what the reality of the path to becoming an academic is. Some of the advice might upset readers—indeed, dating other graduate students is highly advised against—but a devoted and focused aspiring academic will find wisdom between the pages of this book: if you want a research-focused academic job, follow these rules.
Brennan does not attempt to coddle the reader; in fact, the first words of the introduction point to the “Unpleasant Truths” about academia. At the same time, the reader is pulled back into interest “about the World’s Best Job.” This tactic is meant to brush away the imagery of intellects drinking coffee in the ivory tower, being paid to think big thoughts. Brennan holds back no punches about the brutally honest truth about the world of academia.
This compact section holds, in my opinion, the two best quotes in the entire book. The first, found on page 2, states that “in some situations, you can’t help but face the facts. If you’re crossing the street, you’d better look both ways.” In essence, Brennan wants to provide the reader with all of the facts before he or she decides to cross the street.
Four pages later, on page 6, Brennan states that “Academia is not a perfect meritocracy, but it’s not a lottery, either. The winners understand the system; the losers tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.” In this line, the reader is forced to come to the realization that while the system is not perfect, this book is intended to strictly tell the reader the reality of the life path they have chosen and the ways in which they can navigate successfully through the leviathan that is the system.
Chapter 1, “Do You Really Want an Academic Job?” extends upon the introduction with even more bleak, hard-to-swallow truths. Brennan illustrates this through “Ed.” One does not want to be an Ed. Ed thinks that graduate school is for thinking about ideas, sans the aspects of writing and teaching said ideas. Graduate school, specifically doctoral programs, is a professional degree that seeks to teach students how to be a professor—through Brennan also notes that graduate schools tend to fail in this regard.
Importantly, Brennan makes the case in this chapter that advice that comes from one’s advisors might be misleading precisely because the student is receiving guidance from the person who did get the “awesome” research-oriented job. While this statement probably neglects the ability of others (advisors) to put themselves into the shoes of someone else (their student who likely will not be in the same role as them), I am sure that this is the case for many graduate students out there.
Chapter 2 provided the most insight to me given my status on the road to academia. This chapter contains advice centered on the steps one should take if they intend on succeeding in graduate school. Some of the more important points were clear and likely uncontentious: professionalize early, use proper time management, utilize one’s role as teaching assistant to develop future classes, and have three papers under review at all times. Others, however, were more disputable: do not pay to get a PhD, do not date other graduate students, and do not “over-teach.”
One particular piece of advice within Chapter 2 that I found incredibly relevant, considering the high volume of conferences and networking events my graduate program encourages students to attend, was his argument for finding the right balance of networking and “sucking up.” Simply put, Brennan reminds readers to be a “normal” human in networking settings. It is important to realize, as Brennan states on page 64, “you [as a graduate student] will never have less expected of you and never face less pressure than you will as a graduate student.”
Brennan encourages readers to take advantage of this unique position in life by forming authentic and genuine connections with others and also giving time to one’s self for personal fulfillment and recreation. These steps, Brennan attests, will substantially increase one’s odds of receiving a tenure-track job.
Chapter 3 is a great read no matter which stage in academia one is in. Throughout the chapter, productivity is a central theme. When people think of keeping track of budgets, they may think of bank accounts. However, a different kind of budget is often ignored—one’s time budget. Brennan realizes the importance of tracking one’s time budget as a way to ensure one is spending their time in a way that is beneficial for one’s professional goals, but also does not neglect one’s mental health.
This realization was a wakeup call for me: Yes, I should take breaks and enjoy myself on occasion. While graduate students often get vague advice like “put your butt in the chair and write” or “just do it,” Brennan takes a different approach. He suggests instead concrete statements like “write 20 hours a week” and “use the same argument (or principle) for multiple papers.” But, Brennan follows his pattern of adding value to his book by providing avant-garde statements, such as “busy is beside the point” and “grade less.” “Grading less” according to Brennan does not mean being a bad teacher, but instead a smart teacher.
Another benefit of reading Brennan’s book while in graduate school is the concluding piece which is a topic that no one wants to think about: what to do if you do not get the dream job. On the other hand, Chapter 4 provides advice on how to increase one’s chances of getting that coveted dream job whatever that may be for the individual graduate student.
Brennan lays out a straightforward formula. First, create a CV that stands out amongst numerous other CVs. A CV tells the hiring committee why they should hire you over the hundreds of other potentially qualified applicants. Therefore, one should give the hiring committee a “hook” that signals originality, endurance, and excellence. These details may come from creative yet impactful research topics, numerous publications, and evidence of success within the classroom.
Brennan speaks to the much-desired fly-out portion of the job market experience. However, Brennan warns that the job is not earned yet. Sound advice like “ask questions that signal you care about the department and your future colleagues” and “show interest in teaching any class they recommend” should be well received by those who care to listen to it. Overall, the advice within this portion of the book is expected and does not include the sort of strong, provocative advice Brennan provides in previous chapters.
Some might take away from the book’s title and synopsis that its audience is solely prospective graduate students, but that is inaccurate. This book is also a beneficial read for newly minted PhD candidates to aid in their productivity skills and advisors of graduate students to learn how to best mentor, guide, and be a valuable resource to their advisees. As a current doctoral student, I recommend this book wholeheartedly.