I’m sceptical of books that make paint-by-numbers statements about complex and unique phenomena, but The PhDictionary cleverly uses the traditional dictionary format to explain academic terminology through the lens of personal experience.
Herb Childress’ opening anecdote, about his slow realisation that “college teaching is a family trade…I was learning everything by myself, while many others had some firsthand experience to draw upon”, immediately drew me in. His story, unlike that of many academics, is that of a mature student from a working-class background who is the first in his family to go to university. Now nearing retirement, he still characterises himself as a “straddler”: “a person who has left a working-class upbringing for a professional adulthood but is perfectly at home in neither community”. His book lays bare the unspoken and often assumed rules of the game and sets about defining them for the uninitiated.
What makes The PhDictionary so successful is that Childress’ perspective allows him to make the kind of class and structural analysis so often absent from career advice given to doctoral students and early career researchers. He uses the entry on meritocracy – “Ha. That’s funny; tell me another one” – to demolish it as a concept, arguing that it is very difficult for the hard-working and bright individual lacking cultural capital to overcome structural obstacles.
At the same time, Childress offers constructive, reassuring advice. In his discussion of networking, he explores why this aspect of academia seems so daunting to “first generation students and students of color” because “asking for help feels like begging”. But he gives concrete examples of good networking techniques that resonated with me as a third-year doctoral student. He notes that “asking for help needs to be concrete rather than specific. It needs to be occasional rather than constant. It needs to be confident and curious rather than narcissistic.”
Childress is writing about his experience in US higher education, and as there is significant divergence between British and American PhD programmes, some terminology will not be relevant for UK readers (such as the references to “comps”, the exams US students sit early in their doctoral studies). It can also be confusing when a word doesn’t mean exactly the same thing in the two systems. But the difference is not as much of a problem as you might expect, as the precarity and pressure that Childress discusses, and that he experienced in his own attempt to get on the tenure track, are increasingly becoming the norm in the UK academy.
Ultimately, Childress did not get as far as he wanted in his career; he never gained a permanent academic job, and instead rose to a senior position in academic administration. He advises others how to play the game in order to not make the same mistakes, but also warns that “you can do everything right and still not win”. Although this book’s format does not initially make it clear, this is an insightful and valuable memoir about the experience of social mobility within academia – both the gains and the costs.
Eve Worth is an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded DPhil student in modern history, Queen’s College, Oxford.
The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don’t Know (But Should) About Doctoral and Faculty Life
By Herb Childress
University of Chicago Press, 304pp, £42.00 and £14.00
ISBN 9780226359144, 9281 and 9311 (e-book)
Published 15 May 2016