A podcast listener wrote today to ask if I have a list of favorite books about academia. The query made me realize: I DO have a list of books to which I return over and over for advice and insight, but I’ve never written about it. So without further ado, here is my personal and idiosyncratic top 12 list of books about academia, in no particular order. Where possible books are linked to Powells independent bookshop in Portland, Oregon – they ship nationally and internationally.
Please add your own best books suggestions in the comments!
Christopher Catarine, Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide. Simply the best book about overcoming the mental, emotional and practical obstacles to moving on with a PhD. The only advice book I’ve ever reviewed here at The Prof Is In; it’s that good. I appreciate the author’s candor about his own struggles with the transition, working through the stages of denial, battling with internalized shame and elitism, and coming out the other side. We also hosted Chris Catarine for a deeply enjoyable conversation on the podcast.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Space-Time, and Dreams Deferred. One of the most important books published about academia in recent years, this long-awaited intervention weaves storytelling, astrophysics, and Black feminist praxis into a stunning, vibrant and fearless meditation on the science of theoretical physics (and much more), the racism, sexism and dehumanization of STEM fields, and beyond that, the right of everyone to experience wonder, and to love the night sky. Taking on topics like the physics of melanin in skin, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, and the systemic exclusions of STEM professional life for BIPOC and other marginalized scholars, the author – one of a handful of Black woman tenure track faculty in Physics and an outspoken social media presence (@Ibjiyongi on Twitter) – has done immense service through the writing of this book (which is also a risk for an untenured assistant professor in a field that does not professionally acknowledge this genre of publishing). Disordered Cosmos will change the way you think, write, do science, look at stars…. suffice to say it deserves to be required reading by all academics.
Patricia Matthew, ed. Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure. A collection of essays by BIPOC scholars that expose the bullshit factor in university’s claims of valuing diversity, and the terrible toll it takes, especially on Black women academics. Reveals in particular how Black women scholars are punished and disciplined more harshly than any other group of faculty, and how institutional claims of inclusiveness are everywhere denied by actual practices of marginalization, overwork, and impossible standards for tenure. Covers topics such as mentorship, activism, tokenization, gaslighting, contingency, and the opportunities and perils of social media. Matthew’s Preface and Introductory chapter are particularly harrowing and illuminating.
Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy, The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure-Without Losing Your Soul. Although this 2008 book is outdated in some respects, not reflecting the catastrophic collapse of academic hiring in the years since its publication, its advice remains essential for Black scholars on the tenure track, especially in terms of concrete skills and strategies for recognizing and avoiding expectations of overwork and exploitation, maximizing productivity, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Rockquemore founded the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development, and the authors’ focus on intangibles like integrity, spirituality, community and connection are, to my mind, particularly valuable in the destructive productivity-at-all-costs academic environment.
Gabriella Gutierrez Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, and Angela P. Harris, eds. Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. A gripping, enraging and inspiring collection of first-person accounts of the ways that women of color are subjected to fear, rage, contempt, disrespect, and countless forms of micro-aggressions, discrimination, and marginalization in the academy – and the power of story-telling and community to resist. Emphatically intersectional, every essay charts the ways that not just race, class, and gender, but also sexuality, disability, political identity and more impact the ways scholars both individually and collectively navigate hostile institutions, and find ways to not just survive, but thrive.
Yolanda Flores Niemann, Gabriella Gutierrez Muhs, and Carmen G. Gonzalez, eds. Presumed Incompetent II: Race, Class, Power, and Resistance of Women in Academia This 2020 update to the first edition is an even more essential intervention in the context of rising white supremacy, misogyny, violence, and right wing attacks on higher education. As DEI initiatives become increasingly institutionalized, vigilance at the ways they cover over persistent symbolic and actual violence against BIPOC women scholars is ever more necessary. For me, the stories of tenure, promotion, and upper administration are the most compelling–revealing as they do that as some (too few) BIPOC women move up in academic rank, the (always institutionally disavowed) violences of whiteness continue unabated, requiring constant, exhausting re-negotiation.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. It way too often falls to me to be the first to inform way too many people (generally Black or first-gen white scholars) – as gently and compassionately as I can – that their online PhD is more or less worthless (with occasional exceptions) for the purpose of finding an academic job. I struggle to cram a PhD program’s worth of mentorship into our one hour appointments, explaining to dismayed clients both the ways that the online program lied (and failed entirely in disciplinary/professional training), and concrete steps they can take to achieve a degree of competitiveness in their job search. Without exception I urge them to read Lower Ed. Nothing I can say can equal what McMillan Cottom does in this closely researched, path-breaking, and utterly devastating take down of the unregulated, predatory, for-profit degree industry that exactly targets the most vulnerable students and preys on their lack of academic and financial capital, resulting in heartbreaking debt and mostly unusable credentials. McMillan Cottom is extraordinary in her ability to present academic research in page-turning prose.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal, The Freelance Academic: Transform Your Creative Life and Career. This complilation of Pryal’s columns fearlessly exposes the exploitative labor conditions that immiserate adjuncts, and the self-defeating cycles of denial, martyrdom, misplaced elitism, and fear that all too often entrap adjuncts into cycles of abuse. It then walks readers through the process of freeing yourself, and best of all: plotting your own freelancer/ entrepreneurial future.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal, Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education. Mental health challenges (and neurodivergency) are rampant in academia, but discussion of these remains entirely stigmatized. As someone on the autism spectrum who also experiences depression, I am immensely grateful for Pryal’s work in taking up the topic and exposing the multitude of ways scholars with mental health challenges are ridiculed, marginalized, and even fired from their positions…even while the precarity and abuses of academia are catalysts of mental anguish in themselves. In a down to earth style that draws from her personal experience, Pryal discusses issues of disclosure, accommodations, disability, collegiality, stigma, and ways to support yourself, your colleagues, and especially your students in mental health crises, diagnosis, treatment, and recovery.
Jessica McCrory Calarco, A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum. This massive tome covers it all, starting from choosing a program and advisor, and then moving methodically through those invisible skills necessary to survive grad school and academia: finding a team of supporters, deciphering jargon, finding funding, publishing and self-promotion…even talking concisely and effectively about your research, which is a major challenge to most academics of every rank, and one of the biggest hurdles of the academic job search. Deeply researched (50 pages of notes and references) and comprehensive.
Amy Gentry, Bad Habits. [Novel] This psychological thriller by an English PhD and NYT bestselling author is equal parts hilarious, excruciating, and harrowing. Framed by razor-sharp depictions of departmental and disciplinary politics, the story of murder unfolds within an irrevocable logic of pitiful academic egos and status battles, and the lives broken in their wake. The author contributed two fascinating guest posts to the blog about her journey from academic to novelist: part 1 and part 2.
Sydney Phlox, Academaze: Finding your Way Through the American Research University. This tongue in cheek, conversational collection of essays and cartoons, written by a pseudonymous white tenured woman STEM professor at a midwestern R1, many taken from her xykademicx blog, walks the reader through the challenges of the tenure track and tenure, offering wisdom on mentoring grad students, networking, the ethics of peer review, academic politics, service, networking, and the other core elements of the job that are rarely if ever explicitly explained. While they are not informed by intersectionality, her chapters on work life balance and women in STEM are valuable. In principle I dislike and judge anonymous academic publishing, especially by the tenured, as I strongly believe that it fuels rather than challenges the overarching culture of abuse and secrecy; however, I do rely on this author’s blog post, A Good Little Girl, in all of my talks to women academics.
Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your PhD Into a Job. Yeah, my own book, because I believe in self promotion (and because I think it’s still the best book on the academic job market and not falling prey to the academic cult), but more so to let you all know that I’m working on a second edition that is going to include way more content on BIPOC issues, right wing attacks on the academy, the uses and abuses of social media, disability and mental health, leaving the academy, and the post-covid higher ed contraction. Suggestions welcome; leave them in comments below.