Career pathways

I spent part of this week – my final working week for the year – at the Macquarie Minds showcase. I wasn’t able to attend all sessions but those I did proved thought-provoking. Listening to these academics it was easy to see why they are at the top of their game: they are passionate, they communicate effectively to non-specialists and they show that their research and teaching matters.

The session on Pathways to Building  an Academic Career: From PhD to Professor is one with resonance for the ideas I discuss in this blog. The panel consisted of university leaders and senior academics. I have worked with many of them, I have been and continue to be mentored by them, and I enjoyed hearing the stories of their academic careers.

The session started with an introduction to the new academic promotions policy, which I think is a very positive step (the challenge will be changing the mindsets of promotions committees).

Photo by @uche_ngwabe via Twitter.

The idea of luck or the accidental academic career (as I have previously mentioned) was a dominant one. And one piece of advice was to say yes to lots of institutional service (“things no one else wants to do”) to open up career opportunities, to which Twitter responded:

But the title of the session seemed a misnomer, and I believe there was a mismatch with audience expectations. Casualisation was the elephant in the room. There was a lively Twitter backchat that raised some of these points:

I asked about this final point during question time – it is a difficult question and the panel responded thoughtfully. Colleagues and I continued to discuss the ideas for a long time after the session. I would like to think there are some ideas in the works for helping academic aspirants to have “lucky accidents” and for PhD graduates to be supported to apply their academic research to non-university contexts with minimal risk. Watch this space.

How lucky are you?

Cross-posted (with minor editing) from Teche.

With the luck (or otherwise) of the Melbourne Cup behind us, my thoughts turn to luck of a different sort. I came first in our $2 office sweep, so I am feeling pretty lucky. But am I ‘lucky’ to be an academic?

Over the last ten years, first as a PhD student and then as an academic, I have listened to lots of academics talking about their careers – on panels, at conferences and in workshops. These discussions are usually framed as advice to aspiring academics on negotiating career paths. And I have learned a lot from them. But at almost every one of these sorts of events, senior academics have described themselves as lucky. A typical comment goes something like this: “I have not been strategic in my career, I have just been very lucky.” As an audience member, this used to make me feel angry – if it is luck that gives you an academic career, how can I get lucky?

Two recent things got me thinking about my response a bit more deeply. What’s wrong with luck as a measure of academic success?

First, I attended an early career event where Catherine Lumby talked about her academic career, warts and all. At one point, she said she had been very lucky. She was pressed on this point: what do you mean? And replied something like this: I said yes to opportunities that came my way, even when I had too much on my plate already.

I was thinking about this combination of luck and hard work, when a second thing occurred. This video was shared on Twitter: A Tale of Two Women and their Careers in Science.

There is a lot to take from this video, including its important message about the impact of caring responsibilities on women’s academic careers in the Sciences. But here is how I shared it on Twitter:

When career paths are inflexible – as is the case in academia – talent and work are not sufficient for success, and luck dominates. So next time I hear an academic say their career is down to luck, I am going to ask for their thoughts on these questions: do you have to work too hard or take on too much to get lucky? Can a slow academic be lucky? And how can we change academia so that capability, rather than luck, is the secret to success?