Book review


Prosanta Chakrabarty,Wiley-Blackwell,Chichester, West Sussex, UK,2012, 192 pp., ISBN 978-0-470-96041-7 (paperback, $29.95).

Christopher K. Mathews*, * Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331-7305

This slim paperback (175 pages including 11 appendices) is, as its title suggests, a guidebook for students who aspire to careers in academia—specifically, tenure-track faculty positions in research universities. The focus, although not explicit in the title, is upon life sciences. The author, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University, writes from his own experience, leading part way up the academic ladder (i.e., he has climbed up from “the lowest rung of the totem pole,” mixed metaphor on page 5). The book is written in a breezy and engaging style and is easy to read.

Some of the advice offered is useful. For example, his instructions for preparing and delivering a scientific talk (student seminar, conference talk, job seminar) are well thought out and constructive.

However, there were many points at which I disagreed with his advice. Some of the disagreement is based upon my own experience in academic life, and some of his advice and statements of fact sound questionable to me. Some examples:

On page 15, the author writes, “Apply to people, not programs,” meaning that the successful graduate school applicant must identify a major professor who shares his or her interests before even applying to a particular department. In my experience, many if not most incoming graduate students have not yet identified their primary interest areas. That is why most programs have rotations, which allow students to sample life in several labs before settling upon a major professor. Dr. Chakrabarty says nothing about rotations.

On page 24, in commenting upon reference letters for graduate school, the author writes, “Letters from PIs are better than from graduate students or lecturers.”x In my experience the most useful letters are from those who know the student well, regardless of status, and who care enough to describe him or her.

On page 41, the author advises graduate students to take as few classes as possible, but if there is a course taught by a famous person or wonderful lecturer, the student should audit the class, so as not to be diverted from research. When I teach a course, it is hard work for me, and I expect the students to work hard also, if they expect to learn anything. Besides, most of the auditors are gone by the end of the second week.

Starting on page 45, the author advises graduate students not to put too much effort into their TA assignments, for example, being deliberately unavailable except during scheduled office hours, giving only multiple-choice exams, and getting late lab sections, so that the setup work has been done by another TA. Yet later, on page 91, when discussing negotiating strategies for an assistant professorship, he advises that teaching experience may qualify a candidate for a higher salary, “so keep all those official records of your teaching hours from graduate school.” In general, Dr. Chakrabarty seems to have a somewhat cavalier attitude toward teaching. On page 91, he recommends that the assistant professor not return exams to students, so that the same questions can be used on exams in subsequent years. After all, “….your lectures stay largely the same……”

In writing about whether the aspiring academic should take a postdoctoral position, the author writes on page 61, “….not everyone needs to do a postdoc. If you are happy to go on to a nonacademic career or teach at a small liberal arts college where research is not emphasized, then you should be looking for those jobs directly.” In my experience good liberal arts colleges have faculty selection standards comparable to those of research universities, and research is a major part of the job description.

Dr. Charkrabarty has a novel view of the postdoctoral experience. Page 67: “A postdoc is typically not there to be trained, but to produce………” Hmmmmmm. And on page 70 is a truly astounding statement: “As a postdoc you might find yourself working a 9-to-5 schedule. A 35- to 40-hour work week may not sound like much in an academic setting but when you have no other obligations aside from the research, it can be plenty.” Plenty for what? Certainly not the careers to which his expected readers aspire.

The author seems confused about funding mechanisms for postdocs. On page 64 he writes, “If you are a postdoc who has obtained a training grant, you can typically take that position and money almost anywhere you like.” He seems unaware that training grants are awarded to institutions, and the funds are generally not transferable. But fellowships, applied for and awarded individually…..there is another story.

In planning a job interview seminar, the author advises against mentioning any work that was done for the candidate's Ph.D. thesis, “because that will make you seem too much like a novice.” Hmmmmm? If it is good science and related to the candidate's current and prospective research activities, by all means, include it.

There is some odd advice to the prospective assistant professor planning to meet with administrators about his or her start-up package. Page 90: “You may even want to bring your spouse or significant other to these meetings……” As a former department chair, I was frankly embarrassed for the author at this one. Then, on the next page he suggests that the candidate use this opportunity to negotiate for a series of annual salary increases. He may be unaware that such increases are often based upon performance in the position and normally aren't promised in advance. And later on the same page he says that the candidate may be asked to choose between a 9-month or 12-month appointment, with the 9-month gig giving the professor a chance to request “summary salary.” Aside from this quaint phrasing, the annual period of appointment is normally part of the job description and not subject to negotiation.

Later, on page 106, the author rightly advises the novice assistant professor against accepting too much service work at the outset, including the following: “….just because you are elected as the youngest chair of your department doesn't mean that you will be granted tenure for your efforts.” This may be meant as a joke, but the whole concept of an assistant professor as a department chair is just too weird.

Finally, there is some advice about applying for research grants, but with relatively little about where and how to apply, how proposals are evaluated, and some nitty-gritty stuff like indirect costs and what they mean: “….the grant money that the institution keeps for processing and handling your grant is something that administrators love…..” (page 108).

If I were talking with a student about planning for an academic career, I would advise taking a student membership in either the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, or the American Society for Cell Biology. Both organizations publish monthly newsletters that contain a great deal of information about scientific careers—material that reflects the cumulative experience of many knowledgeable scientists who are concerned about the future of our science.