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

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

by Frank F. Furstenberg

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More people than ever are going to graduate school to seek a PhD these days. When they get there, they discover a bewildering environment: a rapid immersion in their discipline, a keen competition for resources, and uncertain options for their future, whether inside or outside of academia. Life with a PhD can begin to resemble an unsolvable maze.


More people than ever are going to graduate school to seek a PhD these days. When they get there, they discover a bewildering environment: a rapid immersion in their discipline, a keen competition for resources, and uncertain options for their future, whether inside or outside of academia. Life with a PhD can begin to resemble an unsolvable maze. In Behind the Academic Curtain, Frank F. Furstenberg offers a clear and user-friendly map to this maze. Drawing on decades of experience in academia, he provides a comprehensive, empirically grounded, and, most important of all, practical guide to academic life.

While the greatest anxieties for PhD candidates and postgrads are often centered on getting that tenure-track dream job, each stage of an academic career poses a series of distinctive problems. Furstenberg divides these stages into five chapters that cover the entire trajectory of an academic life, including how to make use of a PhD outside of academia. From finding the right job to earning tenure, from managing teaching loads to conducting research, from working on committees to easing into retirement, he illuminates all the challenges and opportunities an academic can expect to encounter. Each chapter is designed for easy consultation, with copious signposts, helpful suggestions, and a bevy of questions that all academics should ask themselves throughout their career, whether at a major university, junior college, or a nonacademic organization. An honest and up-to-date portrayal of how this life really works, Behind the Academic Curtain is an essential companion for any scholar, at any stage of his or her career.

Editorial Reviews

Howard S. Becker
“A lot of academics are going to find in this book just what they need to stimulate their own thinking and assessment of their career, whatever stage they’re in. Everyone who has worked in an academic position knows what these problems are, sort of, but a large number of professors and scholars refuse to think about them or to consider, calmly and with some reference to realities, what they should do about them. Behind the Academic Curtain will help them sort out what’s important to them. It provides a humane perspective on the insoluble dilemmas that inform a scholarly life.”
Mary C. Waters
“Every academic or potential academic should read this book. Frank F. Furstenberg gives sage and humane advice about every step of an academic career from deciding whether to go to graduate school to when and how to retire. These pages are brimming with brilliant career and professional advice. But even more importantly, Furstenberg reminds his readers to live a good and balanced life and shares his successful strategies for doing so.”
Katherine Newman
“Frank F. Furstenberg offers a wealth of insight into the arc of the academic career. From the first steps into graduate programs to the complexities of retirement, he draws on his personal experience as one of the nation’s foremost scholars and his observations of hundreds of fellow academics in the making to enlighten the reader in ways practical, tactical, and philosophical.  Anyone contemplating a life in the university world will want to devour this book and will come away from it equipped with invaluable insights into what it takes to succeed.”
Annette Lareau
“This is a rare book. Behind the Academic Curtain offers a thoughtful reflection on the challenges of managing a career. It has great advice for individuals at different life stages. Are you trying to decide if you should go to graduate school? Are you in the pre-tenure track? Are you feeling stalled after tenure? Is retirement looming? With good humor, Frank F. Furstenberg offers honest, intelligent guidance. Highly recommended!”
Inside Higher Education
“An exceptionally comprehensive guide to an entire academic career, from deciding where to apply to grad school to determining when it's time to retire.”
Reflective Teaching
“In this superb book, sociologist Furstenberg offers readers a sweeping description of the five stages of an academic’s career from graduate school, to choosing a career in (or outside of) the academy, to tenure review, all the way to retirement. The author, who is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, provides graduate students and professors his personal reflections on the many twists and turns that every PhD will face in his or her career.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Chicago Guides to Academic Life Series
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Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-06607-3



If you are thinking about entering a doctoral program, you are not alone. In 2011, according to figures provided by the Council of Graduate Schools, there were more than 600,000 applications solely to doctoral programs where students are aiming to earn a PhD or an equivalent degree. Overall, the chances of being accepted to any given program are about one in four: rates of acceptance vary greatly by the quality of the university and whether it is publicly or privately funded. About one in eight applicants was admitted in the top tier of private universities compared to over one in three of the second tier of public universities, and almost one in two in the lowest rung of doctoral programs that are classified as low-activity research programs.

Applications to doctoral programs have been steadily rising over the past decade, especially among women, who now make up a majority of applicants and acceptances to graduate programs. Overall, more than 70,000 new students entered doctoral programs in 2011; slightly over half of these first-time students were women. These new entrants to doctoral programs make up only a small proportion of the total enrollment of graduate students in PhD or equivalent doctoral degrees, which numbers more than 440,000 students. In 2010/2011, about 63,000 doctoral degrees were awarded, a 50 percent increase above the previous decade. Although slowed a bit by the Great Recession, the United States remains one of the world magnets for higher education, especially graduate education leading to a doctoral degree.

If you are thinking seriously of becoming a professor, completing a PhD is virtually required. I say virtually because some people have entered academia without a doctorate or its equivalent, although this route has become much rarer over time. (There is more latitude to teach without an advanced degree in many professional schools, although here, too, substitute qualifications count for less these days than they once did.) Many people who are ABD (all but dissertation) do manage to find employment in higher education, but they are almost always confined to teaching in two-year institutions or the lower ranks of four-year colleges and universities. This is because in most fields, there is no shortage of highly competent candidates vying for good jobs. The academic marketplace is highly competitive in most academic disciplines, even for positions that are deemed to be less than ideal. Of course, there are many other career options besides an academic career that you can pursue with a PhD, as I will discuss in the next chapter.

Most students are trained at a more prestigious graduate program than the department in which they accept their first job. Or, to put it differently, nearly everyone will be downwardly mobile when they leave graduate school. This makes it highly desirable, if not imperative, to attend the highest-ranked program that you possibly can, unless you are not contemplating an academic career, are willing to constrain your future options, or have as a primary goal teaching rather than scholarship. Settling for less early on increases the chances that you will have to settle for less when you look for a job: "Aim as high as you dare" is good advice for most people. In any case, it makes sense to think clearly about your long-term goals and ambitions before you enter graduate school, even if you will modify or refine them after you start a program.

In many respects, the biggest decision is the first one: Should you take the plunge and enter a PhD program? Deciding to go to graduate school is not the same process for everyone. Every year a substantial number of students move seamlessly from undergraduate to graduate studies. Indeed, a small proportion of graduate students begin their program as undergraduates, taking courses as they complete their baccalaureate. This is especially true in the natural sciences, where professional commitments typically are formed earlier in life, oft en before or during college. It may be less true in other fields, where the decision to go to graduate school may come after working for a while after college, even if getting an advanced degree was always a consideration.

I fell in love with academia and wanted to be a professor after I took my first sociology course in college. I remember thinking at the time, "Oh, this is what I want to do the rest of my life." As far as I can tell from observing hundreds of graduate students over the years, I was a bit odd, certainly by today's standards or even by standards of a generation ago when young adults made professional commitments at earlier ages. These days most instead come to the idea of getting a PhD more deliberately and gradually than I did. Like marriage and childbearing, career decisions have become more intentional and deliberate and therefore protracted. Young adults are undoubtedly right to take their time and think about what they are getting into before deciding to go to graduate school.

In this era of a more leisurely transition to adulthood, it is extremely common for students to take some time off after college and explore their career options through practical experience in their chosen field before entering graduate school. This is generally a good idea because students who come right out of undergraduate studies can founder when they discover that they have not fully realized exactly what is involved in obtaining a doctorate degree. The experience of graduate training is really very different from what it takes to earn a bachelor's degree. Much, much more will be expected of you as a graduate student.

Getting a PhD is a big deal, as most graduate students will tell you. First of all, it generally takes a lot of time. Programs vary widely in how long it takes to complete a doctorate, but you can figure that at least five, and conceivably ten, years of your life will be consumed in the process. The length of time required to obtain a doctorate varies enormously depending on the discipline, funding, and the quality of support provided in a given field and the department. Graduate training is generally shortest in the natural sciences and engineering and longest in the humanities and for doctorates of education, with the social sciences falling in the middle. But that is in part because financial aid is more plentiful in the natural sciences and scarcest in the humanities. The more depressing fact is that many who enter a PhD program will drop out somewhere along the way unless they begin and remain utterly committed to finishing their degree and unless they have the necessary support and guidance to see them over the long haul.

And that is only the beginning. Becoming an academic usually involves a lengthy apprenticeship that starts in graduate school but in many fields stretches even beyond the time when you complete your thesis. Many PhDs are not ready to become assistant professors for several years even with a degree in hand, oft en accepting a postdoc, a research position, or perhaps a teaching position off the tenure track. In many respects, the process is more analogous to medical training than getting a law degree. Even in the natural sciences, few go directly from graduate school into an academic job; in the humanities, generally the process of gaining a tenure-track job can be very protracted.

But first things first: let's consider whether getting a PhD is the right choice for you.


How do you know whether you are a good candidate for graduate school, much less an academic life? There are some easy answers to this question, which I'll take up first, and there are many other considerations that can only be answered once you have decided to take the plunge. Assuming financial support—a big issue that I will return to later on in this chapter—here are some pointers for whether you are a good bet for getting a PhD.

A friend of mine some years ago asked me to talk to his daughter, Emily, about whether she should get a PhD in history. Emily was a brilliant undergraduate who had been nominated for a distinguished scholarship to enter a top PhD program. At first, it seemed like a no-brainer, but after talking to Emily, whom I knew pretty well, for an hour or so, I was convinced that she was not ready to get a PhD and probably would struggle in an academic career unless she could overcome some of her undergraduate habits. "I'm not sure that I want to spend my life writing academic papers," Emily told me. "I want to do something more in the real world." Th at is not necessarily the kiss of death, I explained to her, but as our conversation proceeded, I discovered several other counter-indications for Emily's prospects in graduate school. She had always had trouble finishing her papers, brilliant as they eventually turned out to be. Although she was capable of working on her own, she really preferred working with others. In fact, she explained that she hated competitive situations and suffered when she faced deadlines.

Procrastination is a serious problem if you want to be an academic. People who cannot get their work finished in a timely manner tend to face troubles in graduate school, especially in the later stages of a PhD program. Furthermore, in most academic disciplines, the ability to work independently—oft en in the isolation of the library, lab, or in the field—is a necessary condition for completing a doctorate. I explained to Emily that being able to manage your time, complete tasks, and regulate your work life is essential to finishing a graduate program and critical to academic success. If she continued to have trouble on these fronts, she was going to have problems in graduate school. Despite my advice that she put off graduate school and work for a while, Emily spent a couple of relatively fruitless years in graduate school before she dropped out to enter a successful career in business. It wasn't a complete waste of time, she later told me, but she found quickly that graduate school was not for her. But for many people who enter graduate programs without the soft skills to get a degree, it takes more than a year or two to discover that they are in the wrong place.

We tend to assume that getting a PhD requires a high level of intelligence or, perhaps I should say, the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in doing well in school. Of course it does, but it takes more than that, as Emily's case illustrates. Doing well as an undergraduate is virtually a necessary condition for entering a PhD program, but it is not a guarantee that you are good material to get a PhD. Students need to have or acquire in graduate school a set of soft skills that support their intellectual capacities. These soft skills may vary somewhat depending on the academic field, but most successful academics must be able to work on their own, take and benefit from critical advice, work simultaneously on several tasks at once, manage setbacks in their work, and be capable of resisting outside pressures that tempt one away from work demands.

My graduate advisor told me many years after I completed my dissertation that he thought I enjoyed life too much to amount to anything as an academic. It is true that even as a graduate student and a young faculty member, at a time when I worked a lot harder than I do these days, I always believed it was important to make ample space for exercise and entertainment—not to mention a family life. But the sentiment that you need to be able to work hard was on the mark. Academic success requires long hours of study, research activities, and lonely time in front of a computer writing up results. Think about how you responded to the challenge of taking exams, but think even more about whether you enjoyed the process of developing projects, implementing them, and writing up the results. If you don't relish these activities, then entering a PhD program may not be for you.

To do well in a graduate program, you must also have a high level of passion, intellectual curiosity, and devotion to a field of study. To be sure, going to graduate school can reinforce these essential proclivities for entering academic life. Without them, much of our work can seem empty and pointless. Not everyone has the good fortune to fall in love with a subject as I did (much less to stay in love with it). And many who do could find their love quashed or extinguished during graduate school or during the early years of an academic career. Still, you really need to feel the fire in your belly, or at least have a steady flame of desire, that keeps you going when you face the inevitable challenges, disappointments, frustrations, and even rejections during graduate school and beyond.

Finally, an essential quality for staying the course is an ability to manage stress. When my non-academic friends tease me about the seemingly idyllic life that I live—teaching a course or two, traveling for research and conferences, and schmoozing with my graduate students—I sometimes bring them up short by asking them to recall how they felt during exam week at college. That is a chronic condition when you enter academia, I explain. It seems that you are always in debt to someone and usually many people at once. A paper or review is past due. A graduate student is waiting to hear from you about their thesis proposal or first chapter. You need to get a letter or several letters of recommendation off. Colleagues are waiting for the portion of the committee report that you agreed to write. And so on. Being a professor or a full-time researcher is definitely not a typical nine-to-five job. And lest you have the fantasy of time off in the summers, in my experience it almost never happens. Most academics are cramming their summer months with research, writing, and oft en teaching. While we carve out time for fun, I dare say that few of us manage to put our work completely aside for long periods of time. Many American academics are oft en amazed when they discover that their European counterparts typically take off completely for a month in the summer.

Graduate programs are not very adroit in selecting students with the soft skills required for being an academic. What matters most for admission—and it should come as no surprise—is abundant evidence of intellectual talent. Programs are looking for people like Emily. It is taken for granted that brilliant people, like Emily, will possess the needed soft skills or, at least, will acquire them along the way. This is a questionable assumption. Work habits, character, personal skills—whatever you want to call the package of attributes that individuals bring with them into graduate school—are arguably no less important to success in graduate school and in academic life than the imperative of having a good intellect and, let's say, strong analytic skills and imagination.

It is a tall order to have it all. Most students I see in graduate school enter programs possessing only parts of the package of intellectual aptitude, soft skills, ambition, and devotion to learning a discipline. Graduate school provides a space and time for learning how to gain the missing pieces and for putting them together before going on the job market. Of course, I am assuming here the most obvious part of graduate training: mastering the knowledge and skills to be a biologist, political scientist, classicist, or whatever your chosen field.

Daunting? No doubt, but for those who have the "calling," as the great political economist and sociologist Max Weber described the vocation of science (and, I would argue, other academic disciplines) and the life of a researcher, it can be inspiring, gratifying, and intensely rewarding work. This is not just my biased opinion. A great deal of evidence shows that professors have among the highest rates of job satisfaction of any occupation. Being a professor provides an opportunity to do meaningful work (for those who think of scholarship as meaningful), teach and mentor, and experience a great deal of personal control over your work. In this particular sense, being a successful academic is almost like getting paid to be a creative artist.

Now, if you are not deterred by the demanding list of job qualifications, read on: the next question is where to go and how to get into the program of your choice.


I've already provided the first rule of thumb for selecting a graduate program. Reach as high as you can in the quality of the schools to which you apply. The National Academy of Sciences has a ranking of top programs in most disciplines, and there are other ratings available to you that may be useful in making a list of desirable schools for consideration. The rating system is far from perfect, and you should not take it as gospel. Ratings of departments are conservative and give high weight to past performance, and are therefore somewhat out-of-date by the time they appear. Talk to people in your chosen field, read the descriptions of programs, and find a good fit of your interests with the programs. Overall, the ranking of the program should generally be among the most decisive considerations of where to apply if you are aiming for an academic job. Rarely is there a "single" best department, but there are usually several or more that should warrant your interest.

Excerpted from BEHIND THE ACADEMIC CURTAIN by FRANK F. FURSTENBERG. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Frank F. Furstenbergis the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of many books, most recently Destinies of the Disadvantaged: The Politics of Teenage Childbearing. He lives in Philadelphia.

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