Last-Minute Gift Ideas for Academics (or what to get with your holiday Amazon giftcards)

My department has recently introduced these two books to the grad students through reading groups and classes. Both give great professionalization advice for various stages in the studying, working, and writing processes.

Semenza, Gregory Colón. Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

This is a book that practically anyone involved in graduate studies, from newly-accepted students to scholars about to defend their dissertations, would find an invaluable resource. As its introduction boasts, it’s geared towards students who have already made the decision to dedicate their time and energy to graduate school, studying with faculty in order to become faculty themselves, thereby bypassing any discussion of applying to grad school or whether or not grad school is for you. The first three chapters focus on providing insight into aspects of the graduate education we deal with every day but that are rarely taught in any official capacity: how to negotiate department politics, how to field questions and misconceptions from those who don’t understand academia, how to use the different stages of the process wisely instead of just getting by, and how to structure and organize your time. Though the advice is detailed and helpful, the tone of the book is in no way warm or sanguine: Semenza does not sugar-coat anything. He knows the job is tough, and the process of getting there is even tougher. He talks about problems we all know about: the highly-competitive job market, the numbers of grad students admitted versus jobs available, the hiring of adjuncts instead of full-time faculty. He also criticizes the structure of graduate school itself, placing a lot of responsibility on advisors and faculty, who, even with the very best of intentions, simply treat their grad students as they, themselves were treated in grad school, thereby perpetuating the system. He offers his book as an extra advisor to supplement their guidance.

Chapters four through eight discuss, in-depth, the different stages of graduate school—the graduate seminar, the seminar paper, teaching, exams, and the dissertation. Some of the advice is simplistic and may already be part of your academic practices, like note-taking and organizing folders, but other advice simply helps you make sense of what you’re doing and why. Though Semenza recommends not reading these chapters selectively, I read the exam chapter and the section on the dissertation proposal while studying and writing for each, before I read any of the other chapters, and I still found the advice helpful. The next three chapters cover activities we engage in throughout our graduate career: conferences, publishing, and service. Some of the advice in the seminar paper and publishing chapters I even found useful for teaching writing in my own classroom, something that I found with the Belcher book discussed below, as well. The appendix includes several “professional documents,” such as C.V.s, job letters, abstracts, syllabi, and other important formats to guide you through seeking publications, conference presentations, and jobs.

I do highly recommend this book for individual academics, but I think the way that my department handled it was particularly effective: we gathered the grad students and a few faculty who were interested and formed a reading group, where we discussed one or two chapters per session. As I said, the book does not ease up on the harsh reality of the academic state of the humanities, and the dooms-day tone, though completely realistic and necessary (and appreciated for the respect it gives academics), could easily send grad students already on the edge into a serious panic. Reading the book as a group allowed for conversations that quelled this kind of panic and allowed us to measure our own experiences against Semenza’s and to make the most of the tough-love approach. This could be a book to hold onto through grad school, graduation, and even when we (fingers crossed) have grad students of our own to advise.


Belcher, Wendy Laura. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic    Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009.  

Belcher’s book, on the other hand, offers a more optimistic “you-can-do-it” approach to one single aspect of being an academic, both for grad students and established scholars: publishing an article. This workbook-style text demarcates a chapter per week, giving you specific activities to do each day for a specified amount of time, ranging from half an hour to about two hours. For example, the chapter for week 5: Reviewing the Related Literature opens with this list of tasks:

Day 1, Read through the pages in the workbook, 60 minutes

Day 2, Evaluate your current citations, 60 minutes

Day 3, Identify and read related literature, 8 hours (this is very unusual)

Day 4, Evaluate the related literature, 60+ minutes

Day 5, Write or revise your related literature review, 120+ minutes

Theoretically, if you are able to stay on task for every day (only five days per week, so there is some flexibility), you should be able to complete and polish up an article and follow Belcher’s advice for choosing a journal and submitting your final draft. My department offered a one-credit class that followed this book like a syllabus, completing the tasks for each day and spending about half an hour per week workshopping one another’s work along the way. The book does seem to work best if you have a piece of work already in mind, like an old seminar paper or conference paper. There really isn’t a chapter that guides you through starting from scratch, which is obviously the most time-consuming stage of the process. For me, the most effective part of Belcher’s method is just setting time aside everyday to work on my article and sticking to a schedule (though, to be honest, there were many weeks were I was barely able to fit in an hour or two). Belcher is both adamant and realistic: she insists that you should be able to find at least fifteen minutes per day to work on your article, even if it’s just on the back of an envelope in an airport. In a section in which she addresses common obstacles to writing, she bluntly states that, “If you really are too busy to fit in fifteen minutes of writing a day, then this workbook cannot help you. I recommend that you plan, in the very near future, a weekend away from it all where you can really think about your life” (26). On the other hand, she begins many of the later chapter with the concession that it is very possible that you haven’t been putting in your time every day or every week and offers some (shaming) encouragement: if you haven’t been working, now is a good time to start—it’s never too late!

I think my fellow grad students would agree that this book is very helpful in just getting you to work and write every day towards one specific (and necessary) goal and that it provides some really solid writing advice and techniques. I personally found the chapter on structure the most helpful. Some smaller sections within the chapters, however, I suggest taking with a grain of salt at times to determine whether they are really helpful for you. Some of the anecdotes seem slightly unrealistic and out of context at times and may discourage rather than encourage, as I think happens in many of these academic advice books. Like Semenza’s book, Belcher’s book also seems to underestimate the extent to which academics make themselves visible electronically, through blogs, online journals, etc. Semenza mentions almost nothing about these venues, and Belcher treats them fairly condescendingly. Nevertheless, her book offers guidelines and tips that could also extend beyond article-writing to teaching and other types of writing, like the chapters on editing sentences and on presenting evidence. Also similar to the Semenza book, this text is another useful tool that I think is best read amongst a group of students and faculty in order to make the most of its advice through further discussion and personal experience.

You can access some of the forms and schedules, like this weekly schedule, at Wendy Laura Belcher’s website: