Academaze: Finding Your Way through the American Research University by Sydney Phlox

Academaze Book Review

I was given an advance free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Blogger Sydney Phlox (academic science blog ) is woman in a (mostly) man’s world – a professor in a physical science field at a major research university in the U.S.

SP is a US university professor, so the book provides us with insight into how things work across the Pond (tenure, funding, teaching, travel for work, etc). Having said that, I think that the principles might be pretty similar elsewhere (UK and Europe at least, I can’t comment on Asia or Australia).

This book is a must read for anybody interested in how the STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) world works, what the life of a scientist/researcher/lecturer is like at an American university, the things they have to do to keep their labs/ research groups going;

  • anybody interested/ thinking of/wanting to work in STEM/ especially, but not exclusively, women;
  • family and friends of the said women or men; undergrads and postgrads wanting to pursue career in academia, career advisors and student advisors, PhD students and post-docs, PIs and mentors;
  • anybody wanting to know what the life of a(n) (academic) researcher is like.

I think this is a fantastic book to prepare you for what to expect of a career in Academia.

I really enjoyed reading Academaze, which is such an appropriate title for it. The book is very easy to read, the chapters and subjects covered flow very well. While I was reading the book, it felt like I was talking to a more experienced, very friendly and professional colleague over a cup of tea. The world of academia would benefit from more Sidney Phloxes!

Academaze is a very inspiring book from a very inspiring person, Sydney Phlox is a role model for women in STEM, or any career. The book is bursting with excellent advice, great humour, a realistic but hopeful ‘can-be-done’ tone. Things are well explained, but not at all patronising, and with funny cartoons galore to illustrate the points. It also makes you contemplate roles within STEM from the perspective of colleagues across an institution’s hierarchy.

She’s covered it all: advice on how to navigate your relationships with your colleagues, supervisors, PIs, mentors, lab/group/ institution and field politics, career advice and job hunting for recent graduates, even mental-health advice (it doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to get done up to an “it’ll do” standard) and coping techniques; from impostor syndrome, writing papers and grant proposals, to balancing family with work, teaching and advising on travel for job/career, even advice for non-native English speakers.

I am a woman in STEM  in the UK and have recently completed my postgrad studies. I wish I had read this book as an undergraduate or just after graduating, as it would have answered a lot of questions I had, and quite a few I didn’t know I had. It also would have saved me a lot of grief and help me make more informed decisions.


What next?

I started learning some new ‘things’ while finishing my postgrad studies. It’s a very strange feeling when you’re finished with something that has been taking up all of your time and energy: like there’s something missing from my life and I’m forgetting something, but can’t quite remember what it is. It’s strange finally having more free time, and not having the same thing on your mind for years. It’s like I came out of the dark and I forgot what the outside world looks and feel like. There is future to look forward to. Only I am not the same person any more. Years went by, good and bad things happened.

Yet again I find myself between two stages in life: after the studies and before a new career path. Last time I rushed into something and not listened to my instincts. This time I wanted to take time and research my options more thoroughly and carefully and also take other skills, talents and personal preferences into consideration. I’ll share my experience with you in this post. I hope you find it helpful.

There are a lot of questions to ask and answer when considering a new career path. This is called self-assessment. It enables you to gather information about yourself and put the puzzle pieces together. It is essential that you are completely honest and opened with yourself when answering these questions, so you get the maximum out of self-assessment exercise and can be well informed to find the career path most appropriate for you. I highly recommend getting help and advice from a careers adviser/ counsellor if that’s at all possible. In the UK, universities and colleges offer this service during your education and for a limited time period after graduation or completion of your course, or you can inquire at your county council – local library. I don’t know if things have changed on the Balkans.

Below are some of the questions you need to answer. Some of them are more general, and some more individual.

How do you decide where to go and what to do next (career wise)?

How much do you know about yourself and what more do you need to find out? (Who you were ‘then’ vs who you are now? When I say ‘then’, I mean before you wanted to change career paths, when you were starting your previous job, studies, etc. What made you want to change your career path?

Did you choose your current career path because your first choice seemed impossible at the time? How do you remember and remind yourself what you liked, what were your talents long ago and what are they now? Do they differ and if they do, how/ in what? Have you changed fundamentally, or have you remained the same at the core?

Which values and beliefs are important to you (value inventory)? What do you want out of life and career/ job? What are your priorities? Are you a people’s person or not? Do you like collaboration? What keeps you interested/ ‘out of mischief’/ challenged? Do you like a challenge?  If you are the type who gets bored quickly/ within 3-6 months, you might like a job/career employing different sets of your skills and abilities.

What motivates and drives you, what are your needs and attitudes (personality inventory)? What makes you happy? What do you enjoy? What’s important to you?

Which activities do you like and dislike and why (interest inventory)? What are your hobbies, what do you like to do in your free time?

Where do your talents lie (aptitude inventory)? What do you find easy to do? But, importantly, do you also enjoy using your talents? For example: if you are very talented at learning languages, but you don’t enjoy doing it, then you should take that into consideration. What are your skills? How do you join/ combine the two satisfactorily? It is important to distinguish between enjoying research and enjoying learning!

Think of your dream job and does such a job/career exist? If there isn’t, is there a gap in the market for it? Or do you want/need a longer career break?

Where are you willing to compromise, if you are willing to compromise? How much do you need to earn/ how little can you afford to earn?

Do you need to move for any reason (lack of funds, contract running out, studies finished, going back to live with your parents for a while)? It is easier to move to another city / country/ continent if you are by yourself (single and don’t have any dependents – children) if necessary. This move also depends on the knowledge of other foreign language(s).

Changing careers is not an easy thing to do. Support from your friends and family is priceless if you have it. But even if you don’t, stay true to yourself, talk to other people in a similar position and research potential career paths. It’s your life, do what makes you happy.

Have you ever changed careers or know someone who is trying? Do you have any questions or comments about your or friend’s experience? Feel free to share them here.