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A Candid and Humorous Look at Life on the Tenure Track in "Academaze"
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The POSTDOCket

Volume 15, Issue 4 (April 2017)

Hanaa Hariri

 

If you are a postdoctoral scholar on the job market or a newly hired assistant professor, Academaze is just the book you need to read. The pseudonymous author Sydney Phlox is a tenured physical science professor at a large public research university in the United States and a famous academic science blogger known as Xykademiqz. In this book, Phlox skillfully paints a candid picture of the academic maze that one must navigate in order to secure a job in academia and thrive as a tenure-track and, later, tenured faculty member. Without revealing her real-life identity, Phlox writes with unparalleled nerve and uncensored accuracy describing specific situations that she has encountered, especially as a woman in a male-dominated field.

 

Academaze speaks to a wide range of academic readers at different career stages, and, to a lesser extent, non-academics who are interested in understanding what professors at research universities really do. The first chapter is geared towards the general public and entirely devoted to making the academic profession seem less mysterious and more accessible. Since public opinion is a base for determining research funding and support for public universities, Phlox rightfully urges academics to take every opportunity to get through to the people around them about the significance of what they do—both as educators and as research investigators—to help people better appreciate academia as an engine for discovery and economic prosperity. In these few introductory pages, Phlox manages to shine a bright light on the disconnect between academics and the general public, highlighting the severe lack of resources available to fill this gap.

 

The remainder of the book is predominantly oriented toward academic readers before, during, and after tenure. The book is thoughtfully organized into short, yet remarkably comprehensive chapters; thus, it can be read in a random order based on the reader’s interest. The relevance of each chapter will vary depending on the reader’s career stage. As a third-year postdoctoral scholar in biological science, I found the sections on academic job searches and the tenure track particularly enlightening and pleasantly overwhelming. Being on faculty search committees, Phlox gave an insider’s view of the hiring process and the requirements to survive the first cut. I also found her advice on how to navigate the first few years as an assistant professor practical and straightforward.

 

The book contains elaborate sections on teaching and service, grant proposals and funding, working with graduate students and postdocs, peer review of papers, communicating science, networking, collaborations, work-life balance and more. Humorous cartoons created by the author herself accompany each section to better illustrate some of the discussed ideas which is certainly a unique and refreshing feature of this book. Moreover, Phlox brilliantly borrows from novelist Stephen King’s excellent advice in On Writing, which, in some cases, pertains precisely to academic scientists. Phlox also discusses aspects of the dynamics of an academic institution and stresses the need for developing political skills as key to fulfilling your academic goals.

 

Finally, my favorite section to read was on women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Phlox offered her honest and, at times, provocative take on numerous issues that women in STEM deal with throughout their careers. Topics range from seemingly trivial issues, such as how to look professional and how to demand attention, to more complicated scenarios that women in STEM have yet to discuss more openly and publicly, such as the “mean girls” syndrome. In brief, this section was bursting with advice for both women and men STEM, whom she urges to simply listen, be empathetic, and speak up for their female colleagues. Phlox acknowledged with confidence that bias against women in STEM is real, and over the course of their careers, they are likely to get friction under their professional wheels. “If you suspect that someone is biased against you professionally, don’t waste your time going around looking for validation; assume they are indeed biased and try to minimize their influence on your career…Focus on surrounding yourself with supportive people of both genders, and keep looking and going ahead.”

 

Overall, Academaze is insightful, inspiring, and entertaining. It is well-written, and the subjects covered flow fluently and with great ease. Reading this book feels like having a long conversation with a friend who is wise and experienced, and, at times, harsh and irreverent in a warm and welcomed way. It is a must-read book for anyone considering an academic career. Sydney Phlox does a phenomenal job building a comprehensive view of what it takes to succeed in academia. This book is an invaluable resource for academics at all career stages, and a survival guide particularly for young women in the STEM fields.

 

Hanaa Hariri, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

 

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