New Book by Penn's Frank Furstenberg Takes Readers 'Behind the Academic Curtain'

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460November 1, 2013

Four years after retiring from the University of Pennsylvania, Frank Furstenberg has written a book that draws on his 42 years of teaching experience to help those in the pipeline from graduate school to the professoriate.

The book is Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a Ph.D. The author of many books, Furstenberg is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology Emeritus and an expert in the field of family dynamics, extended adolescence and delayed adulthood.

Each year there are more than half-a-million applications to Ph.D. programs. Only one in four results in an acceptance. And under half of those who enter a Ph.D. program will make it all the way through.

Furstenberg thinks that the attrition is because so few people really know what goes on behind the “academic curtain.” Understanding how academic life actually works, not just how it is supposed to work, he contends, is essential to finding happiness and success with a Ph.D.

“Despite all the ‘how-to’ books and blogs, I am always amazed at how little newcomers know about what goes on behind the academic curtain," Furstenberg said. "Yet the system of higher education is arranged to sort and shift, so it behooves the Ph.D. candidate or first-year professor to understand how things work in academic life.”

When he first applied to graduate schools, Furstenberg admits that he barely knew how to find the best graduate program.

"I wanted to know a few things for sure. How long it takes graduate students to complete their program? Where Ph.D.'s in a particular program land jobs. What is it like to be a grad student in the department and how strong is the climate of support for grad students."

Furstenberg's curiosity about differences between institutions with very strong graduate research programs and the programs at institutions with lower research intensity prompted him to write the book.

"Where you go has a huge impact on your ability to land a good job," he said.

The book reveals his knowledge in chapters on a range of issue like what not to do during the campus job interview, what goes on behind the scenes in a tenure decision, why not to drink a 32-ounce Margarita at an academic conference and how to retire gracefully.

Fustenberg began his teaching career at Penn in 1967. He said that the time management strategies he used in graduate school and as a full-time faculty member still serve him well today in retirement.

The route to retirement is far more individualized than the path of most academic careers that begin in a highly standardized way. In the book's final chapter, Furstenberg describes different approaches to retirement.

"Retiring with grace is one of the most difficult challenges in an academic career," he wrote. "Too many people want to be carried out of their office rather than make a decision to stop."

These days Furstenberg no longer teaches but still supervises graduate students and post-docs and does speaking engagements.

He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. 

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