Impeccable academic advice

Dear colleagues,

You're in the academic system, and you've got a problem. Who do you ask for advice? You want to ask about your career or about what to do about a colleague, terrible Terry or pathetic Patsy, and you'd like an independent, wise comment.

In the US, you can write to Ms. Mentor, an omniscient senior scholar who has seen or heard every academic conundrum conceivable, and then some. In real life she is known as Emily Toth, a professor of English and Women's Studies at Louisiana State University. She started her persona as Ms. Mentor with the 1997 book Ms. Mentor's impeccable advice for women in academia, and continued as a columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Now Ms. Mentor has added to her vita with a new book, Ms. Mentor's new and ever more impeccable advice for women and men in academia, published last year by the most reputable University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ms. Mentor deals with all sorts of dilemmas. Research students write asking how much they have to put up with obnoxious supervisors. Casual staff write asking whether it's possible to ever make the transition to a full-time position. Academics seeking tenure write asking how much they have to publish or suck up to senior professors. Tenured academics write asking whether they should stay with their partner or their job, or whether to put up with life in a small town or second-rate institution. And so on.

Ms. Mentor's replies are informative, helpful and entertaining. She explains how the system works, reminds readers about what is valuable in their jobs and their lives, sympathises with their plight (or gently suggests that they are just whingeing), and offers both obvious and innovative options for addressing their problems.

A central theme in Ms. Mentor's advice is that if you want to be in the system, you need to play by the rules. If you want a permanent job in a research university, you'd better buckle down and publish. It's no use complaining that you're an outstanding teacher and have a wealth of professional experience: a PhD and publications are essential.

Ms. Mentor counsels being a good colleague. If you want to get a job and obtain tenure, you need to fit in. If you behave in an annoying fashion - for example by being open in your contempt for the no-hopers who've been around for decades - you are sabotaging your career. Ms. Mentor typically advises playing the system, for example flattering the powerful decision-makers. If you can't stomach this, then maybe you should consider a career outside academia.

This is not a matter of selling out. Ms. Mentor is most sympathetic to worthy causes, especially gender equality. Her advice is built about keeping your focus on the main objective. If you want to operate in the academic system, at least do what's required at the surface level - be collegial, be productive - so that you can have the opportunity to do what is really important, whether teaching, research or community service.

Reading the questions sent to Ms. Mentor and her advice made me appreciate the Australian system more. Here, the tenure process is far less gruelling and the need to placate immediate colleagues is less. The plight of Australian casual academics is bad enough, but in the US the so-called adjuncts are more numerous and more exploited, no doubt in part due to the absence of academic unions.

Reading Ms. Mentor's impeccable advice can be soothing. You thought you had real problems until you read about others whose problems are even worse. Or you can wince at those who moan about seemingly trivial issues. And even for those, Ms. Mentor has helpful comments. Not all problems have simple or satisfactory solutions - and sometimes it helps to know that.

Though Ms. Mentor has heard about every imaginable academic pathology, she maintains a love of the academy. As she says, "Academe is the most congenial profession for motivated and intelligent people who work well by themselves".

23 February 2010


Thanks to Bryce Fraser, Helen Kilpatrick, Jenn Phillips and Frances Steel for helpful comments on a draft.

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