Against all advice

I read a lot of advice for early career academics. Much of it is similar: focus on your research, publish a lot (with an eye to metrics), be prepared to move universities and countries to further your career (or even get a foot in the door), align yourself with institutional values and priorities, develop your personal brand. Several of my previous posts detail the ways in which I haven’t followed this advice—for example, committing career suicide multiple times and living by the pirate’s code. And there are some excellent resources out there with more nuanced advice: Surviving and succeeding as an early career academic is one of my favourites, ImaginePhD is another.

Last week, at an university networking event (I think I was invited to encourage small talk), I spoke with someone who is about to move from a small community-driven workplace into higher education. He’d found the institutional induction alienating, which had increased his nervousness, and he wanted to know if I had any advice on making the transition to working in a large organisation.

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If you work in a university, you don’t need me to tell you they are complex places. They can have mechanistic, organic and bureaucratic elements operating simultaneously, with competing expectations and priorities. In a thought-provoking paper about university management and the traditions of collegial governance, institutional autonomy and academic freedom, Winter (2009) refers to universities as hybrid identities that “attempt to sustain traditional academic cultures while simultaneously promoting and developing corporate ideologies and structures” (p 124). For someone who is used to working in a smaller or more tightly structured organisation, this can feel chaotic.

Winter (2009) distinguishes between the “identities of ‘academic manager’ (values congruent with the managerial discourse) and ‘managed academic’ (values incongruent with the managerial discourse)” (p 121). An academic manager is defined as a professorial position, middle or line manager, who aligns themselves with institutional norms and values (examples of which might include economic rationalism and marketisation). On the other hand, a managed academic is described as being disengaged with the institution and holding a greater commitment to their discipline and professional identity (which might be determined by scholarship, intellectual curiosity, a community of practice, or student learning). This binary thinking is reductionist—I would argue most academics move between these positions—but serves to illustrate the competing aspects of being an individual within a complex workplace.

My suggestions over canapés were an attempt to understand and manage these tensions:

1. Join some committees

This is a risky strategy—academic housekeeping can be thankless, time consuming and a distraction from more highly valued work (especially for women). I have nonetheless found working on committees, particularly when new to a role, a valuable way to meet people and learn a lot in a short time. Before you go in: know the committees available to you, have an understanding what they do and where they fit in the structures of academic governance and give your tenure on the committee a sunset date (two years is common in my neck of the woods).

2. Chat with people over a cuppa

You will never again have as few emails or meetings as you do in your first few weeks in a new role. The people I spoke with at last week’s event had very different orientation and induction experiences. Some were not even introduced to colleagues! If you find yourself in this position, have a couple of cups of tea a day and introduce yourself to everyone who comes along. If you are unlucky enough to be working somewhere without a tearoom, spend time in corridors, lobbies or doorways. Some awkward and confused lurking may be forgiven in a newbie, and these thoroughfares offer opportunities to meet people, introduce yourself and move on (or linger, depending on how well the conversation goes).

You can also request a chat, ideally over coffee and a walk around campus, with people you will be working for, with or alongside. Introduce yourself, conversationally share some of your past work and your ideas for your new role, and have a mental list of what you want to ask them: what are they working on? What are their expectations of your role? Is there anyone in particular they think you should talk to?

This advice will not make you an academic superhero, but it may help you orient yourself in a large organisation and find some like-minded souls.

 

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