A Guide to Academia

These days, when even the competition to gain an undergraduate degree is fierce, pursuing academic career can seem nearly impossible.

Drawing from experience as a college advisor, undergraduate instructor, PhD committee member, and mentor for graduate, undergraduate and high school students, Prosanta Chakrabarty has written a concise, practical guide to pursuing an academic career. A Guide to Academia: Getting into and Surviving Grad School, Postdocs and a Research Job advises students how to navigate the various stages of a career in academia, highlighting potential obstacles and suggesting strategies for conquering these obstacles.

With his recently published book in mind, we sat asked Dr. Chakraberty to discuss some of the experiences and inspirations that persuaded him to write this book.

  • What inspired you to write A Guide to Academia?
  • I was inspired by my own start (and false-starts) on the road to becoming an academic. I’ve always wanted to be a scientist but I didn’t always know the right path to becoming one. As an undergrad, I wasn’t sure how to apply for graduate schools or what I needed to do to have a good chance of getting in. As a graduate student, I wasn’t sure how I would figure out a topic for my thesis or how best to balance my time between teaching and my research. As a postdoc, I wasn’t sure how I could get a job or how to handle an interview. As an assistant professor, I wasn’t sure how best to spend start-up funds and build a lab. I wanted to write this book to help all the other people in those positions now and hopefully guide them to the best path towards success.

  • How does A Guide to Academia reflect your personal experiences and/or research?
  • As I say in the beginning of the book, “this is not a memoir.” I kept out personal stories in order to make the book more of a general guide. That being said, I did of course use my personal experience to write this book. I received a lot of great advice from successful people as I went through the process, and I wanted to share that information in an organized way. I started graduate school at the age of 22 and I started my position as an assistant professor at 29, so the process is all still very fresh in my mind. As I now have my own graduate students and postdocs I’m reliving those steps now and seeing them from the other side of the table. Throughout my career, I was also very involved in committees that brought in guest speakers/academics to talk about their own process. I learned a lot from those events and I tried to incorporate not only my own personal experience but what I’ve seen has worked for other successful people as well.

  • Can you give some specific examples of challenges you encountered as you worked toward your PhD? How did you overcome them?
  • Like many first-year graduate students I was very energetic and excited. I was also naïve. I thought I could be the best teaching assistant (TA) and give it (and all those undergraduates) all the time that it needed (and more) and still have plenty of time for research. I learned very quickly that being a TA would take away all my research time if I let it. At the time I didn’t understand the best way to balance teaching undergraduates and being a productive scientist. Eventually I learned that I could cut a lot of time out of my TA hours by better organizing the class and lumping all my TA work into the first part of the week so that I could have full, uninterrupted, days saved just for research. In the book I go through lots of specific examples on how to handle being a TA and saving time for research, which should be your priority as a graduate student.

  • Along the journey through academia, what would you consider the most difficult period that a student experiences? Why?
  • The first year of graduate school is certainly very unsettling when you come in with a head full of ideas and you have to deal with balancing all of your duties. It takes a while to get settled and to learn how to prioritize, and it may seem that by the time you figure it all out, you are about to graduate. Most early stage graduate students that succeed usually do so by taking advantage of the mentors around them, especially the more experienced graduate students in their lab and department. Leaning on these more senior students and emulating them is the safety net that will allow the new student to succeed.

    The other scary period is when you are about to finish up your graduate work or your postdoc, and you don’t know what is coming next or when. Dealing with that period in limbo where you are essentially waiting for the next opportunity to pop up is about as difficult as any in the academic process. I go through a number of ways to deal with that situation and how to stay ahead of the rest of the pack in terms of actively searching out new positions and making sure you are putting yourself in the best light to be recruited.

  • What do you think are the most common mistakes students make as they pursue a career in academia?
  • I think one of the most common mistakes is that students think getting a Ph.D. is the ultimate goal of graduate school. The degree is just a hurdle towards the real ultimate goal – getting a job you love. The degree is just a requirement. Some students don’t realize that your actual thesis isn’t as important as the publications that come from it. Hardly anyone will read your thesis outside of your committee; your publications will be what make your name. All that your peers, colleagues and future employers will focus on are your publications and grants and that should be the major focus of your time. Your thesis has to be good of course, but it isn’t the end game some students think it is.

  • If you could travel back in time and give yourself one piece of advice as a graduate student what would it be?
  • I would say, “Be more patient with your publications.” I was sometimes too hasty to publish in smaller journals with a rapid turnaround time in the hope of building up my publication record quickly. This isn’t the worst strategy because it is still better than the perfectionist who hardly publishes because they deliberate over every minor detail; however, there is a happy medium and I wish I knew that then. There are several cases where my work was taken less seriously because it was published in a less impactful journal. I wasn’t patient enough as a student to fully round out the work and have it prepared for a bigger journal.

  • What are three main points you hope readers of your book come away with?
  1. The academic life can be challenging but it is also extremely rewarding and fulfilling both at a personal and professional level.

  2. Publications and grants are the most important thing on your CV at every stage.
  3. Don’t discount the positive effects of networking and interacting with fellow academics; charm and hard work will get you everywhere; cynicism and apathy will get you nowhere.

Interested in learning more? Check out A Guide to Academia on wiley.com.

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