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

reviewed by Helen Janc Malone - February 28, 2014

coverTitle: Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD
Author(s): Frank F. Furstenberg
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022606610X, Pages: 208, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

Do you want to become a tenured professor? Have you ever wondered what such a career journey would look like? Are you already on an academic journey and are curious as to what the next stage could bring? Frank E. Furstenberg documents the traditional academic pathway in his new book, Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD. His sage, honest, direct, and compelling exploration of academic life is captured in a practical guide designed to explore in detail each stage’s expectations, opportunities, and challenges as faced by tenure-bound scholars. Drawing from an aggregate of data—his personal experience at the University of Pennsylvania, anecdotal evidence from colleagues and students, research studies, and media coverage—Furstenberg offers his insight into what is critical for managing a successful and balanced academic career.

Furstenberg organizes his book in five stages: 1) entering graduate school; 2) an academic career or not; 3) being an assistant professor; 4) academic midlife; and 5) the endgame. Each chapter offers a detailed map of steps an academic must thoroughly consider in order to move up the career ladder. At each stage, Furstenberg explores opportunities, expectations, and challenges (e.g., family planning during the assistant professor stage), particularly during the pre-tenure process and the complexities that lead to  tenure.

In each chapter, Furstenberg addresses exit points from academia, as a way to acknowledge that: a) a wider set of options exist for scholars outside the traditional academic career, particularly for those oriented toward practical applications; b) the shift toward adjunct and non-tenure positions is widening the pool of academic pathways; and c) the existing system is often complex and at times, cumbersome, and might not be suitable for every scholar.   

In his first chapter, Furstenberg guides a prospective doctoral student through all the key aspects of graduate life and offers tips on how to succeed and graduate. He covers topics ranging from making a decision to enter graduate school, finding the right institutional fit, selecting an advisor, succeeding through the coursework stage, picking a thesis topic and selecting a committee, to persevering when other demands compete for one’s time. For instance, Furstenberg puts doctoral students at ease by noting, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Most students I know enter a fog-like period when they start putting their dissertations together” (p. 35). He suggests to the reader that establishing a consistent writing schedule will not only help a student graduate but will set them up for a productive academic career.

In Chapter Two, Furstenberg offers a candid discussion about the academic job search process, which often appears nebulous to prospective candidates. He draws from a wide range of data to help graduates from all disciplines set real expectations about what is possible given the current higher education job market and emerging disciplinary trends. He places no value judgment as to whether the reader decides to pursue an academic career or not. He explains:

True, many academics wrinkle up their noses at non-academics and vice versa, but the intellectual and professional worlds overlap to a high degree. There are good reasons for selecting one path rather than another, but my advice is to follow your passions, your talents, and your predispositions, assuming you have a choice in the matter. (p. 41)

For those on an academic path, Furstenberg offers an insider’s view into the academic job search, from start to finish, letting novices in on the selection process, from common procedures, to the decision-making and negotiations.

The rest of the book is devoted to the faculty on a tenure-track. He easies the newly minted assistant professors’ anxieties in Chapter Three, noting that this stage is perhaps the most difficult in academia, because the novice academics often feel a sense of doubt, anxiety, uncertainty, and culture shock. As Furstenberg candidly notes:

The important point for you as a new member of this “family” is that you have to make sense and figure out how it works and how you are expected to fit into the picture. This knowledge may take some time and effort to acquire depending on how transparent, complex, or concealed departmental dealings are. One sure bet is that only rarely will your new colleagues completely share a conception of how things actually work (p. 78).

He posits that some of the common worries could be eased through practical time management strategies, from not over-committing to administrative duties, not over-preparing for coursework, balancing expectations, and establishing consistent, year-round writing habits.

Furstenberg does not shy away from difficult subject matters, ending Chapter Three with a tenure decision-making process. He offers the most common tenure review procedures and directly addresses the reality that some academics face—rejection:

Being rejected for tenure is nonetheless a test of character and commitment. It requires a certain amount of self-confidence to pick up pieces and move elsewhere. Rejected candidates sometimes speak of being treated like ghosts by their colleagues. At the same time, a lot of encouragement can be forthcoming from supports in the departments and your mentors and friends elsewhere. Being turned down for tenure is a painful event, but not infrequently it can turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the injured party because he or she ends up moving to a department that provides a better fit (p. 111).

He devotes the last two chapters to tenured faculty, and the joys and pressures that come in mid-career. As Furstenberg notes in Chapter Four, mid-career opens academics to a newfound freedom to pursue their own research interests. Mid-career also comes with institutional (e.g., assuming departmental leadership positions) and external pressures (e.g., speaking engagements). Furstenberg thus, reiterates the importance of sticking to routines, schedules, and writing habits that keep academics true to their own research agenda and interests, and not overcommitted.

The last chapter, “the endgame,” is the most personal, as the author himself is in this stage. He notes that the pre-retirement stage of academia can be satisfying because faculty drive their own research agenda and are often in leadership positions within the department, albeit the administrative duties do not lessen at this stage. As Furstenberg explains, no one will pressure an academic into the emeritus status; thus, the decision should be made based on several factors: financial feasibility, joy and satisfaction with work, ability to stay active and engaged in research and teaching, as well as personal and social considerations. As he pens in the end of his book, “When activities are no longer gratifying, then and only then, you will know it is time to stop” (p. 171).

Overall, Furstenberg’s advice can be summed up in one word—balance. He advocates for balance in expectations, in academic and administrative duties, in internal and external professional commitments, and in personal and professional lives. He also advises the readers to stay true to one’s self at each stage of the process: from selecting the right institutional fit, to deciding whether to stay the tenure-track course, to knowing how to say “no,” and ultimately, when to retire.

Having experienced a part of the academic journey myself, I find the book accurate and compelling. It should be a required text for all aspirating doctoral students and perhaps recommended as a refresher for academics at any stage of their career paths.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 28, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17448, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 6:48:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Helen Malone
    Institute for Educational Leadership
    E-mail Author
    HELEN JANC MALONE (Ed.D., Harvard University) is the Director of Institutional Advancement at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, DC where she supports the work of three centers: Center for Leadership and Policy; Center for Family, School and Community; and Center on Workforce Development. Her research focuses on system-level educational change and equity. Her recent select publications include: Leading Educational Change: Global Issues, Challenges, and Lessons on Whole-System Reform (Teachers College Press, 2013), The Futures of School Reform (Harvard Education Press, 2012, book chapter), and Expanded Learning Time and Opportunity: New Directions for Youth Development (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
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