the cover of the book A PhD Is Not Enough! A Guide to Survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman

Book Review: A PhD Is Not Enough! A Guide to Survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman

Not the most useful guide to graduate school or careers

A PhD Is Not Enough! A Guide to Survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman (Basic Books, 1993) is a how-to guide to building a career in science. While Feibelman acknowledges careers in government and industry labs (and even recommends getting a job in such a lab prior to switching back ot academia), the book is more relevant to academic research careers.

As a how-to guide, it feels a little out of date and out of touch. Thirty years ago when it was first released, it was probably amazing. Now—even with multiple editions and updates, the latest in 2011—it feels … well, it feels like it was written by some white physicist dude in the '90s. Which it was.

An assumption throughout the book is that if you diligently do your postdoc and establish yourself in your field, you'll have a solid chance of landing an assistant professorship or a good position at an industrial or government lab. Feibelmen even suggests that postdocs "work hard", as if that's enough for success. Perhaps it was in the '90s. Not anymore.

Surface-level advice

A PhD Is Not Enough! is a fast, easy read. Feibelman's advice is straightforward. The downside of its brevity is the accompanying lack of depth. The surface of succeeding in science is all common sense, so while there are some good gobs of advice, much of it feels surface-level. For instance, Feibelman says that when picking an advisor, you may have to choose between a prestigious prominent senior scientist and a junior scientist who may make a better mentor, so choose carefully. But he has little to say on how to actually choose or what factors might lean you one way or the other.

There is little to no recognition of the diversity of people in academia, and some of his comments now come off as tone deaf. For example, he writes that, "If you are congenitally shy, you have a real problem, one that would be helpful to overcome." As if shy or introverted people don't know that the world is designed around extroverts?

The book also shows its datedness in the funding chapter. Feibelman notes that a young researcher may even have to get a grant in order to work—uh, everyone has to do that now? Applying for grant money is part and parcel with science research these days. Feibelman also mentions the "good ol' days" before WWII when scientists didn't have to go searching for funding… wouldn't that be nice!

Planning your career, from postdoc to tenure

Feibelman paints a rosy picture of tenured life: job security so long as you occasionally teach a class and don't violate the university's moral standards. I think there's more to it than that… He does note that professors tend to be extremely busy and have a lot of responsibilities (the three pillars of academia: teaching, research, and service), but doesn't dig into it at all.

If you want to become a tenured professor, Feibelman recommends landing an industry or government research position, then switching directly to a tenured position, skipping over the assistant professor route. I doubt this is as viable a path today as it was thirty years ago, and it probably wasn't applicable to many disciplines even then (remember, Feibelman was a physicist). The downsides to government and industry work are, according to him, that you have to deal with management and have less low-paid labor in the form of an army of students and postdocs. So, maybe not much downside.

What about doing a postdoc? Do one if it aligns with your goals. And then, while a postdoc, you should endeavor to finish a significant project, make a name for yourself in your field, and demonstrate that you are useful.

Feibelman seems to think that it's easy to find postdoc positions and jobs. As long as you can give a good presentation, didn't take too long to finish your PhD, and have the requisite seriousness, knowledge, and engagement, then great, you'll probably be able to produce a few publications, and you're hired.

The same attitude shows up in the chapter on interviewing for academic jobs. Feibelman's advice is simple: prepare in advance and don't be a jerk. Think ahead of time about your research direction, how you'd contribute to the university, and how you'd fit into the department. Practice your job talk before you give it. Negotiate your offer up front.

But, like I said, finding a postdoc or a research job is often more complicated and competitive now.

Publish or perish

Feibelman's advice on writing and publishing is outdated. He argues that the negative connotation of academia's mantra "publish or perish" is misplaced, because we need to disseminate research. He thinks we ought to publish shorter, more frequent papers instead of saving up for a big paper. He also thinks that writing well will increase your readership.

I disagree on all points. Yes, disseminating research is important and publishing is part of that. But. Now, even more than in the '90s, academic culture has shifted toward too much publishing, publishing incremental results instead of important results, quantity over quality, because quantity is easy to count when someone's going up for tenure or applying for grants. Over 3 million new articles are published every year in 30,000 different journals. There are, estimated, over 50 million scholarly articles.

Your readers will be the people whose work most closely aligns with yours, who need to know what you're doing so they can learn from it and adapt to it. Writing well has nothing to do with it. We use search engines to find relevant papers; we don't peruse printed journals and read whatever seems well-written.

Is reading A PhD Is Not Enough! worth it?

I don't recommend picking this one up. There are numerous more recent and informative guides to graduate school and research that you can choose from, all of which will likely serve you better. Try A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum by Jessica McCrory Calarco or Amanda Seligman's Is Graduate School Really for You?: The Whos, Whats, Hows, and Whys of Pursuing a Master’s or Ph.D.. (Reviews forthcoming!) I'm also writing a book on flourishing in graduate school, which you'll see on shelves soon!

If you're thinking about career plans, especially if you're considering leaving academia, try So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius (Read my review!) or Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide by Christopher Caterine (Read my review!). Or—my favorite and not academia-specific—pick up a copy of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (Read my review!).

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