Wednesday 6 November 2019

10 Tips for Aspiring Academics Learned Since 1989

The night the Berlin Wall came down the astonishing scenes on TV inspired me to make two life-changing decisions. I left my first husband and resolved to get a permanent position in academia come what may. It was highly competitive then and still is. These are the ten commandments I would have inscribed on a tablet to give to my younger self.

1. No sex with other academics or students, ever. My first husband (marriage lasted two years) was an academic. My second one (together 28 years) isn’t. 

2. Get money in. It is amazing (if cynicism-inducing) how powerful people start treating you with respect when you’ve got outside funding.

3. Never resort to flattery. About 50% of academics are too smart to believe smarm and will not be able to trust you if you manifest it. You will also despise yourself.

4. When in doubt crack an inclusive joke. Humour is a political instrument.

Team Morale is Indispensable
5. While mental illness should not be concealed, spreading gloom is unprofessional. Get medical help if necessary and become a conscious booster of morale and esprit de corps.

6. Don’t give up. One of my two referees had died and the other had decided I was the Red Peril incarnate. Prof. Paul Cartledge, whom I’d never met, read my doctorate after I wrote to him to explain my predicament. He saved my career.

7. Don’t do nasty reviews. For some reason young classicists think they need to establish a reputation for cleverness by demolishing colleagues’ publications. Killing the Father/Mother, let alone brothers and sisters, is tacky. Hold your fire for when it actually matters.

8. Have a point of view (I’ve taught many reputedly ‘brilliant’ undergraduates who found they had absolutely nothing to say as postgraduate researchers). Otherwise change career.

9. Get impervious to envious haters. I’m still working on this since unearned hatred is very hard to cope with. But the academic community is disproportionately blighted by narcissism, rivalry and the envy + grudge + Schadenfreude uniquely encapsulated in the single Greek concept of phthonos (φθόνος). If your intentions are philanthropic, any malicious criticism of you is motivated by envy or simple joy in destroying others. Rise above.

Aristotle's Lyceum.. The first true university

10. Remember what a university is for! Real universities, in the tradition of Aristotle's Lyceum, are noble institutions dedicated to widening intellectual horizons in all disciplines, preserving our collective records and memories as a human race and enhancing the life of the community. This vision keeps me going when I’m treated as an ‘intellectual product’ conveyor-belt worker by profit-driven managements of commercialised quondam-universities.

Many of these apply to lots of other jobs, as well. Good luck!


  1. Hi Dr Hall, I hope you're not too harsh on your younger self. I had several supervisions with you on Homer back in 1988 when you taught at New Hall. It was my first term at university and I enjoyed being taught by someone who didn't fit some sort of ivory tower stereotype (though the same could probably be said for most of the Classics staff at Cambridge). I've been following your blog for a while and in particular like the way you can inject humour into personal politics since most people seem to lack the self-awareness to do this.

  2. Bless you Olli! Thanks for the kind comments! What are you up to thirty-one years on?

    1. I'm writing computer software now, so no link to Classics, though I did once angrily tweet at Boris Johnson, "You think you're Pericles but you're really Alcibiades." It made me feel better though he probably never saw it.

  3. You are painting a dark picture of academia here. Unfortunately, I have heard similar stories from others. You say no flattery, but let me encourage your readers to compliment; to praise good things and good people when you see them. It can make all the difference in some one’s day.