Essential Reading| Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career

THE book that explained the mysteries of
grad school to me. My most recommended book
for students considering the challenge
of life and work beyond the BA.
So you want to go to grad school? If so, you can begin by consulting one of the very best books on the often mysterious and baffling world of postgraduate education. I have chosen The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career as the next title for my Essential Reading post series because it is a book that I have recommended perhaps more than any other since completing the journey through MA and PhD training. And even while it is not specifically related to the world of art history, it is a book that offers a very honest and frank insight into what it takes to pursue education beyond the Bachelor’s degree while addressing the many aspects of the pursuit that are often sidelined or left ignored by graduate schools. This includes topics such as the basic distinctions between undergraduate and graduate studies, the real length of time and amount of money it takes to complete a PhD, the high degree of competition and realities of the current job market, what life is like as a new professor, and the many sacrifices and bonuses to personal and other career options students encounter when they make the choice to go on with university studies.

In my case, I first spotted this book in a university book store after being accepted to an MA program. I already knew that I wanted to pursue a postgraduate degree and possibly work in academia, but I was still uncertain about the intricacies of the process. Having spoken with a range of professors on the topic (something I routinely encourage any student considering grad school), I was left with an impression that what determined one’s success with postgraduate education was having a very realistic outlook and a game plan to complete the task.

The Chicago Guide is written very much with that kind of pragmatic approach and is constructed as a series of conversations between three professors from very different backgrounds and institutional settings: John A. Goldsmith, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago; John Komlos, Professor of Economics at the University of Munich; and Penny Schine Gold, Professor of History at Knox College.  With chapters including “Deciding on an Academic Career,” “Entering Graduate School,” “The Mentor,” “Landing an Academic Job,” and “Family, Gender and the Personal Side of Academic Life,” the book is a useful tool to help navigate not only the grad school experience, but also the daunting and seldom addressed challenges of transitioning out of postgraduate studies back into the “real” world of work. Even though written in 2001, the book still reads in a very “of the moment” kind of way, especially with respect to the strategies and tips for preparing oneself for the difficult job market. If there is anything dated at all about the book, it comes with the statistics concerning the time and money it takes to complete postgraduate work and find a job—unfortunately more is required of both and the roads to success are not as simple or as straightforward as described ten years ago.

One of the best features I have taken away and urged students to use from the book is the list of questions Penny Gold asks students to pose to experts they already know or admire (here is a direct copy of the list from Chapter 2 of the book which can be found reproduced here):

  • To professors who know your work well: Do you think graduate school, in this particular field, would be a good choice, given my level and kinds of talents? Do you think I would have a contribution to make?
  • To professors in your field who have completed graduate school within the last five years or so: What are the current issues in the field? Where do you see the field going? What is graduate school like these days?
  • To these and any other professors whom you admire or whom you might aspire to be like: Are you glad you became a professor? What are the best things about life in academia? What are the most difficult or troubling things?
  • To graduates of your own college or university who are now in graduate school in a field close to yours or who have recently obtained jobs (your undergraduate teachers, the Career/Placement Center, and/or the alumni office should be able to give you names and addresses): How have you found the graduate school experience? Did you find that you were well prepared for the program you entered? Is there any advice you wish you'd had before entering graduate school?

For some comic relief about grad school, check out PhD Comics
Bottom line, if you are contemplating staying in school beyond an undergraduate degree, it is worth the investment to purchase a book like this. After some years in grad school, I even took the time to write a letter thanking the authors for producing it, expressing my gratitude for finding an uncensored and realistic account of the process. You can find a chapter and more info about the book here, and the text is now available as a digital download.  For more information about the grad school experience, I also highly recommend checking out the Chronicle of Higher Education Advice column and the fantastic resources of Phinished. For fun, you can also follow the hilarious weekly cartoons published by Piled Higher and Deeper (with an example from the site featured above). Good luck and let me know how it all works out!