Presidential Column

Focus on Academia: The Complete Academic

Universities are fascinating places. Since 1965, when I began my freshman year in college, I have spent the greater part of my life at six universities (Washington & Lee University for undergraduate work; Yale University for graduate work; and then on the faculty at Purdue University for 12 years, the University of Toronto for three years, Rice University for eight years, and now Washington University in St. Louis for seven years). Studying universities and their inhabitants has become an avocation. Each university has its own ethos, its own peculiar characteristics, and its endearing student customs. W&L has a fancy dress ball, Purdue has Swine Day and a Pork Princess (really – or at least it did when I was there), Rice has a Beer-Bike Marathon, and my current home has something called W.I.L.D. – Walk In, Lie Down. (Don’t ask).

Despite differences, at their core universities are remarkably similar. Each has a dedicated faculty who have chosen to spend their lives seeking and teaching truth as they know it about a particular part of the intellectual universe. In adjoining buildings there can be faculty of tremendously different intellectual interests – a scholar of Islamic art in the middle ages, a geophysicist who studies Martian geology, an anthropologist who studies contemporary Indonesian culture, and on and on. But each shares the search for knowledge and the commitment to impart their knowledge to new generations of students.

C.P. Snow wrote famously of the “two cultures” of academia – by which he meant the sciences and the humanities – but from sitting on various university committees, I have come to appreciate that our institutions of higher learning represent many more than two cultures. Often the forces that serve to drive us apart seem to transcend those common values that hold us together. Even in our own field, we can see this in the divisive forces within psychology that sometimes drive departments apart (although I suspect that personality differences are usually the driving force and that academic differences are used as an excuse for the divorce).

My presidential columns this year will mostly be about various topics in academia, either within psychology or more broadly. Academia is a misunderstood field by those outside (I was asked just yesterday, “So, you don’t work in the summers, right?”), and often from within the academy, too.

As in most complex organizations, many of the important rules of academia are not written down, despite our faculty handbooks, our rules of ethics, and so on. Graduate students and junior faculty must learn these unwritten rules and too often they are taught by the School of Hard Knocks, as they learn the rules only after bruising experiences.

In 1987 Mark Zanna and John Darley edited a book, The Compleat Academic, which was intended to help rectify this situation. The basic idea was to get leading figures in academic psychology to write chapters on the heretofore unwritten rules of academia and to provide practical advice. I reviewed the book for Contemporary Psychology and thought it was wonderful. I could only wish that someone had handed me this book when I was a graduate student or assistant professor.

Now, 16 years later, a revision is coming out with my having become a third editor. The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide (edited by Darley, Zanna, and Roediger) has just been published by the APA Press. The new edition is completely revised and greatly enlarged, with many chapters and topics included that did not appear in the first edition. For example, Kathleen McDermott and Todd Braver address the critically important question that graduate students must ask themselves: Should I seek a job directly out of graduate school, or should I attain further education and research experience (and publications!) by taking a postdoctoral fellowship? In other new chapters, Louis Penner, John Dovidio, and David Schroeder provide tips for assistant professors on “Managing your department chair,” and Richard Bootzin writes about the special issues confronting clinical psychologists in academia. These are just some examples.

For those of you familiar with the first edition, your old favorites are back. In my review in 1987, I wrote that Daryl Bem’s chapter on how to write an empirical journal article was the single best piece I had ever read on this topic. His revision retains this distinction. The chapter by John Darley and Mark Zanna on “The hiring process in academia” provides even more sage advice than the 1987 version. Read it before you go on a job interview! Probably the most discussed chapter in the first edition was by Shelley Taylor and Joanne Martin on “the present-minded professor.” Its successor – “The academic marathon: Controlling one’s career” – is every bit as provocative.

Although I am hardly an unbiased witness, I suspect that the second edition of The Compleat Academic will be widely read. I certainly think it should be. (The editors and authors receive no royalties, by the way; these go to the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, which sponsors the book). Although the volume is intended primarily for graduate students and beginning faculty members in psychology, I suspect that practically everyone in academia can read it with profit. For example, even though I have been teaching for 30 years now, I still picked up new ideas when I read Douglas A. Bernstein’s and Sandra Goss Lucas’s chapter on “Tips for Effective Teaching.”

A future review of The Compleat Academic will appear in the Observer written by members of one of its intended audiences, graduate students. They will better judge whether the editors met their goal of informing the next generation of academics about topics that the authors and editors ourselves had wondered about (but did not know about) when we were just starting out.

This fall I am leading a graduate seminar on The Psychology of Academia, using The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide and another new volume, Psychology 101-1/2: The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia by Robert J. Sternberg (also published this summer by APA Press). Sternberg’s book also provides insights about academia from one of the leading academic lights of our age. I hope to learn as much as I impart in my course this fall.


Observer Vol.16, No.7 July, 2003

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