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.


When things aren’t slow

This post was prompted by my agreeing to take on a new leadership role with an estimated workload of one day a week. It was also triggered by a feeling of trepidation when a colleague asked what I was up to at the moment. I made a list of the things I am doing in July and August and collected the multiple notepads I had been working from (at work, in my handbag, and at home):


I am excited about a lot of things on my to-do list. To name a few: the forthcoming issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy; a peer review action research project; directing a growing undergraduate degree program; facilitating teaching inductions and workshops; conducting interviews for a history of the Academic Identities Conference; co-authoring papers on topics and with colleagues I care about; facilitating communities of practice for early career and teaching-focussed academics; and planning future research projects.

My challenge is to manage this busy period within part-time paid work hours.

Note I said ‘busy period’ — these strategies will not work if there is no end in sight. If your workload is unhealthy, unsustainable and unsupported, don’t struggle on alone. (I have made suggestions for finding like-minded souls before. Join a union. Also check if your university has a staff wellbeing program or counselling service).

Workloads in academia are not an individual problem. This recent Times Higher Ed article by Ruth Barcan makes the case for institutional responsibility for the “almost 40%” of academics who want to quit the sector. This figure is from a Times Higher Education’s 2016 University Workplace Survey. In my research with colleagues on aspiring and early career academics’ experiences at three Australian universities, the numbers were less alarming:

At the extreme, ECAs consider leaving academia. Of the participants, 16 (3%) stated this explicitly: ‘I want to get out of higher education and research as soon as possible’ and ‘I plan to leave academic at the end of my post-doc [because of] limited opportunities.’ Another 46 (9%) refer to moving into private or community sectors as an option: ‘I do not know whether I will stay in academia long term or move into industry.’ Others stated that they did not have career plans, with 57 (11%) respondents undecided about the future: ‘My career plans are fairly vague’ or ‘I will re-evaluate whether academic life is for me’ or ‘No fixed plan, but I would like to spend some time in academia at some stage.’ There were 89 (17%) blank responses to the question about career plans; by contrast, all 522 participants answered the questions about their ideal academic job.

This is a more telling result when the responses of women with caring responsibility for children are isolated. Of the 128 respondents in this category, 16 (12.5%) stated that they were considering leaving academia. That means everyone in our study who said ‘I want to leave, get out, or quit’ was a mother. (Ruth Barcan may not be surprised by this: 80% of the people who contacted her to discuss leaving academia were women). (Note we did not ask about leaving academia explicitly).

High workloads will be a familiar story for most of you. With thanks to colleagues who allowed me to think aloud (or vent) and offered solutions, I am using a range of strategies (and there is slow privilege at work here):

  • I am working an extra day a week from home. This is taking pressure off the feeling that I was volunteering my own time for work activities. I am spreading this load over a few days so it feels manageable and, for the short term, being flexible with my self-imposed rules about not working nights and weekends (I recommend Tseen Khoo’s post about working weekends);
  • I talked through my current projects and activities list with my manager and was supported to stop, delegate and defer some things. This is extremely helpful if you have a supportive manager, supervisor or mentor;
  • I revisited strategies for prioritising work: what three things do I need to achieve today? What is the relative importance and value of these tasks?;
  • I scheduled everything into my calendar (which looks a little crazy with multiple things listed simultaneously, but keeps tasks in one place);
  • I let people know they might have to wait, and I asked for extensions where possible (if you haven’t heard from me yet, my apologies);
  • I put a pause on agreeing to new commitments. Or at least I told myself I would do this. To be honest, it hasn’t gone well and I agreed to a speaking gig today — but if anyone asks, then tomorrow I am saying no!;
  • I am allocating time to task (not task to time) because time is finite but tasks are infinite (this advice from here). Sometimes I have to remind myself that near enough is good enough, done is better then perfect, and aiming for 80% is ok;
  • I am continuing to practice self-care — exercising every morning, eating good food, sleeping enough. And for wakeful nights, I find reading on the Kindle is a good distraction from thinking about work, and soon sends me back to sleep.
  • I will give myself a reward at the end of this busy period. I am taking a week off in September. It looks like this might clash with my university’s Staff Wellbeing week. I think this is a great initiative, but I might not be participating this year. I have to consider my wellbeing.

What strategies do you use to manage intense times at work? And how can you ensure there are less busy times ahead?

“Career suicide”

(Image from BLASST cartoons)

When I accepted my first academic position on completion of my PhD, I was pretty happy about it. My PhD was in Cultural Studies examining corporeal feminist philosophy and motherhood. (At the risk of understating it, this topic is not generally considered a canny choice for any career, but it was what I loved and lived). I changed discipline and built on research assistant work in education that I had completed during my PhD candidature. My new role was a part-time, fixed term, teaching-focussed position in the University’s central learning and teaching development unit.

I was warned by a well-meaning colleague that I was “committing career suicide” by accepting it.

It seemed to me that the only alternative was to continue sessional or casual teaching for the indefinite future. At that point, I had already been tutoring and lecturing casually for almost a decade. It was an example of Hobson’s choice, a free choice in which only one thing is offered. (I was also advised to move overseas for a post-doc, but I had a sick baby at the time).

I am not alone in facing limited (and limiting) choices, as early career academics in my research with colleagues stated:

Quite frankly it is impossible to make plans. I should have been hired as a full time academic … years ago … The best I can get is casual positions. These have been at several universities across a wide variety of departments over many years. I have become some kind of Universal Academic that can be called in at short notice to teach: Mathematics, Statistics, Finance, Business, Marketing, Engineering, Media Studies, and lately even Music Theory. This situation is clearly absurd…

Another described the risk of being ‘stuck’:

In order to progress in my career I need to continue researching and publishing, as that has been shown to be the area where academics get rewarded. Although I am teaching focused, if I am not research active I don’t think I will be able to progress at the same speed as other academics and will be stuck in a role for a longer time.

Teaching-focussed academic work — which includes sessional teaching and ‘teaching only’ or ‘80% teaching’ roles (as opposed to ‘traditional’ or ‘balanced’ 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service roles) — was the focus of a recent post on The Conversation with the grim headline Teaching only roles could mark the end of your academic career. The research by Bennet et al (2017) supports the view of career suicide:

The TA role emerged as a negative career move for academics that transition from teaching-research roles and a career-limiting move for academics new to the sector … Teaching academic roles are attractive to new graduates as a pathway to an academic career. However, with no research provision and a directive not to engage in discipline-related research, it is doubtful that new entrants will develop the research or supervision profile required to transition into traditional teaching-research roles. Ironically, heavy teaching and administrative loads also limit access to professional learning, such that TAs are arguably less likely than their peers to develop and evidence excellence in teaching. Similarly, promotion to leadership roles is an unlikely outcome for TAs, despite them developing a nuanced understanding of teaching and learning within their areas. In our study, TAs had little confidence that they would one day achieve a professorial position.

By my colleague’s measure, I may have committed career suicide multiple times: doing a PhD part-time, having a baby mid-PhD,  taking a lot of carer’s leave, becoming a professional (general or administrative) staff member, accepting the aforementioned teaching-focussed role, changing discipline, staying at one university, being part-time, being sick, having another baby …

Right now, at this moment in time, I feel both confident and challenged by my career for a number of reasons (many of which were precarious last year): my career choices have been rewarded thus far, I am in the sweet spot of part-time work (the secret to happiness for working mothers, according to this article), and my institution’s new promotions policy aims to recognise and reward teaching-focussed academics.

In ten minutes, I will be hosting morning tea for a group of teaching-focussed academics. This month, we will be discussing the Teaching Perspectives Inventory. I have found this a useful starting point to articulate my philosophy of teaching which formed part of my application for Higher Education Academy Senior Fellowship and will contribute to a future promotion application.

Despite the weight of gloomy research evidence, I remain an optimist at heart.