Advice for a Scholar Seeking a Life in Academia

Educating the Academic

The need to train professionals, educate citizens and advance knowledge of our world has never been less, yet the academic environment where this takes place is changing at a pace where its easy to question what one is to do to contribute to its mission. In this continuing series on life in academia, I offer some advice for those seeking to join its ranks as I step away from this life after two decades spent immersed in it. 

As a professor at a world-class research university in a dynamic and challenging field of study I have the privilege of meeting some of the brightest young minds around. The many roles that a professor can take — as educator, learner, scientist, advocate or activist – are highly attractive to many of these ‘bright minds’ so it is no surprise that I get asked a lot about how they can join the academy.

Not surprisingly, many of them aspire to become full-time professors. In this latest instalment of the Alien Shores series looking at the changing world of academia I provide some advice for those interested in getting into the profession that I am about to transition away from.

Shortly after I started my undergraduate studies I discovered psychology and found a “home” for the ideas I had about organizing with people and making a splash in the world. Soon after learning about the field and the opportunities I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a professor. Throughout my career I studied to be a professor, seeking to apprentice under my advisor, not just take direction. He was the Chair of my department and very generous with his time and knowledge, sharing much (within all appropriate and ethical bounds) about life in the academy. He gave me an unvarnished, true account of the ups and downs of academic life and prepared me as best he could for the challenges ahead. I studied and learned and watched everything and even then it only did me so much good. The field is changing so quickly and professorial life is transforming far faster than anyone thought.

So as I leave the profession in a full-time capacity, what can offer someone who, like me, wants to get into this line of work? To the scholar who seeks a life in academia I offer this:

1. The world outside of the university is a minefield: proceed with extreme caution and pack all the right equipment. I’ve been told by more than one leader in my field “you shouldn’t attempt community-based research until you have tenure“. They were right. But I am very glad I didn’t listen and tried it out, but then my risk tolerance is a bit skewed.In terms of logistics, CBR consumes vast amount of time, is poorly appreciated, nearly impossible to resource appropriately, has time schedules that wreak havoc on your life, and offers nowhere near the academic value commensurate with the energy involved. It is also fun, creative and connects you to the world in ways that traditional research can rarely do. When you are starting out it is very difficult to weigh the pros and cons of doing this kind of work so my advice is, if you’re going to do CBR, get a team — a good one — and find collaborators with experience who can help you along. It is very hard to go it alone.

How about knowledge translation? If you want to get your knowledge into anything other than a report, academic journal or conference presentation, you are on your own unless KT is the explicit focus of your research. Why? It is hard, has little value inside the academy and you will not be given the supports to do it anywhere close to the way it deserves. At the same time, it too is fun. Among the highest honours I’ve been given is when people — the public, practitioners, or policy makers (even other academics) — tell me that they used something that I developed to solve a problem and it added value to their work. I care far less if people find my work clever, exquisitely crafted, or even “cutting edge” if it doesn’t lead to use at the end of the day.

Like CBR, find like minds and work together. Network and build on to the communities of people who are interested in your work and pay no heed to the naysayers. I’ve been told that the Internet had no future for helping people change behaviour and now regularly get challenged on my use of social media as a legitimate tool for KT. If you are reading this, then you already know that this medium works. Is it better than other tools? That depends and that’s why we do the work — to find out.

2. Don’t believe everything you read, see or hear from leaders in your institution or field. It’s too easy (and natural) to look at the head of an organization and take what they say as representing the direction they are heading. I would take the words of a senior director with a funding agency, university president, Dean or politician to heart and expect to see the changes that they spoke of. They aren’t lying, but the mechanism they use is flawed. In academia, nearly everything is directed through peer review, meaning that leadership might define the problems, but researchers determine the manner in which they are solved.

I recall sitting on a grant review panel where one of the criteria for a strong grant was a clear knowledge translation plan and seeing proposal after proposal being lauded as excellent with KT plans that included nothing more than a commitment to write the findings in a peer review journal or present at a conference. I spoke up and challenged these as weak examples of KT and the panel review coordinator agreed, but my peers saw that as appropriate and therefore the projects were favourably rated. Why would academics see it this way? See #1.

3. Your peers are your allies and your enemy. Innovation is nearly impossible by peer review. Despite challenges and commentaries on the weakness of the system, it persists and thrives in academia. Peer review has been challenged as sexist (PDF), dangerous, and almost antithetical to innovation. By its very nature, peer review is designed to judge research based on the best current evidence and the status quo, not by what could be. Indeed, to judge a proposal by imaginaries created from possible futures, rather than evidence is tantamount to academic misconduct in the peer review system.

If peer review was a drug it would never be allowed onto the market – Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal Of the American Medical Association (cited in Smith (2010))

A descriptive analysis of submissions to peer reviewed academic journals found little reason to believe that the editorial peer review process improves the quality of research presented in the literature. They conclude:

At present, little empirical evidence is available to support the use of editorial peer review as a mechanism to ensure quality of biomedical research. (Jefferson et al. (2007))

Much more research is needed on this, but the work done to date isn’t positive for those seeking to do things differently. At the same time, in actually doing research, peers can be extremely useful and even necessary to getting things done and done well (see point #1). Finding some intellectual or practice peers is a critical step towards warding off loneliness in a profession that can be extremely isolating if you let it. Many academics are saddled with being the only person that studies “X” in their department, providing few allies. Find your tribe, wherever they are in and out of academia or your department or institution. Joining professional societies and getting active in them is a great way to ‘hang with your peeps’ that have common interests and build your network.

Your peers are your allies, but they are also your enemies. And as the comic Pogo quoted:

I have met the enemy and he is us

4. It doesn’t get better (unless you make it so). The anti-bullying movement directed towards the gay and lesbian community is framed around the idea that it gets better. Maybe for them, but the same rules are far from true within academia. Too often have I see people drawn by the idea that things get better once you get a long-term contract, or a tenure-track position, or tenure, or a promotion, or a grant or a publication… and all of that is one big lie. I have watched people work just as hard if not more so with success and achieve little in the way of happiness or change in status. In my last two years  as a F/T professor I had over $2M in grants and published more than a dozen peer-reviewed papers, book chapters and monographs, while supervising a team of more than 23 full-time people. I got a teaching award*, a raise, and invitations to speak at keynote events. I was as successful as I ever was going to get and I was getting more miserable by the day.

Once the initial glean of the publication or successful grant application wears off, it is back to normal. This is traditional behavioural economics research and stands up in practice.

Why is this the case? Partly, because the degrees of difference between the work is so hard to perceive and the scales that people use to judge work is highly skewed, everything gets treated the same or we use conventional scales to measure unconventional products. In some places, a $500K contract is viewed less positively than a $100K peer-reviewed grant (see previous points for reasons), which is disheartening to see or experience. Also, because it is so difficult to judge the impact of a paper, they are all viewed in the same light so your Magnum opus might be treated the same as a paper you cared very little about. No one cares like you do and that is sometimes difficult to accept.

(* The teaching award was an exception, that did more to buoy my spirits than anything I’ve experienced in my career, largely because it was completely from the heart by a group of students and faculty who went out of their way to say “thanks”. That was one of those cases where simply being nominated meant the world to me. That I won was just icing).

5. Make small changes often, rather than rock the boat at once. When I became a professor, I knew from day #1 what kind of things I wanted to see different. That we have students — particularly graduate students — sitting in desks in rows listening to someone talk at them for hours is an afront to learning. Armed with educational theory,  two certificates in post-secondary teaching, experience teaching in secondary school, and years of experience as a student, I was going to change the classroom. Having done lots of research, studied knowledge translation, and worked in the community, I was ready to transform the way research could be done. In both cases, I jumped in full-tilt within the means I had available.

And then the system bit back.

It wasn’t so much that anyone or thing resisted, but rather massive change at once is stressful and it was hard to handle all the unexpected consequences of making major changes simultaneously. I study complexity and teach behaviour change so I should know better. If I was to start again, I’d still do it all — but just in smaller chunks over time. But then, I knew I didn’t have much time so that might be part of the problem.

6. Figure out who you want to love you, because it can’t be everyone. Jack of All Trades is a very lonely person inside the university walls, and is loved outside of them. Academia rewards (and punishes) the expert. When you are the right fit, your specialization is golden. “Great, we were looking for someone who studies this exact ______” is wonderful to hear when you are at the institution — maybe one of a handful in the world — that is looking to hire someone with that specific set of skills and interests. There is a lot of ego-stroking in academia when you first get called “an expert” and that is a big part of the problem. We want to be loved and respected, we’ve worked pretty damn hard to be good at something, and we want the recognition. Being an ‘expert’ gives some of this to us.

But if you want to have impact outside in the world, your expertise is going to be limited. That’s OK, but one has to remember that it is indeed rare when someone presents with a highly specialized topic that is widely accessible outside of academia. Broad-based skills are useful in the world beyond the academy and are easier for n0n-academics to comprehend. Thus, people either need to be skilled communicators outright or do the kind of work that is relevant to the community from the outset, using the language of that community. The public — or other professionals or policy makers — will love you, but not necessarily the academy. It’s reasons why fields like community development, program evaluation, social design, and health promotion have a hard go of it in academia: they comprehensive fields that tend towards breadth, not depth. Yet, these skills are needed desperately to solve a certain class of problems. Both specialization and broad-based scholarly skills are useful, its just they are not appreciated equally in all settings.

Telly Sevalas’ Kojak character would ask: “who loves ya, baby?“. You need to ask the same question and accept that it won’t be everyone.

7. You can learn a lot from the military. For many of us in academia, the thought of modeling ourselves after the military in any way is a bit unpalatable. Yet, if you can get past the armed conflict part of their work, military folk have a lot of lessons to teach us faculty. Here are some of them:

You cannot successfully fight on any more than two fronts at the same time. Thus, if you want to develop diversified program of research, it needs to have two major themes and no more. I had three major programs of research and it was too hard to manage. By program of research, I mean a series of linked projects operating under one general theme — the kind of thing that you will be asked to articulate when you apply for a career award or certain grants. I was too ambitious and excited and it was costly in terms of my mental health and wellbeing.

– “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy” (see points #3 and #8 to identify the enemy — hint: its you and me). You can’t plan your career with an expectation that it will unfold as you outline. Plans are just vague roadmaps to keep you pointed in a direction, not a vision of the exact future ahead. One has to approach the work as developmental in nature.

Protect your supply lines. From Ghengis Khan to Napoleon to Hitler, the lessons of protect your supply lines comes through in the history books (along with “don’t be a mass-murdering megalomaniac psychopath”). You need to plan for a long haul and make sure that you have the supplies — people, equipment, social support, and emotional fortitude — to operate in cycles that often go in years, not months. For example, taking on a student as an advisor means that you need to have the future supplies for the work itself (1-5 years or more of direct contact depending on the degree) and the years afterward when they apply to graduate school, jobs, grants and beyond.

Academia is designed for the tenured professor who is dedicating a life to the institution and the profession, but the reality is that there is little support for these roles. Thus, you are asked to supply a set of projects and studies that may require you respond to questions, publish papers, or support trainees and staff in various ways well beyond the funding cycle or your contract.

8. Determine how much your soul is worth and price it accordingly. Academia is not a job-space, it is a calling. If you’re thinking of clocking in 9-5 and leaving what you do at the office at the end of the day you are in the wrong business. Indeed, you probably won’t do good work because ideas come at all hours and they need attention when they ask for it. The freedom that comes from this job is a blessing and curse and how it plays out is really up to you. I personally have no problem diving in full-tilt in a period of flow to my work, but it needs to be done consciously and with permission. Otherwise, your friendships, love life, relationships with family and yourself will suffer, sometimes greatly. I know this firsthand.

While I dropped a lot of things from my sometimes unreasonable standards I did decide where my line was and stuck to it. There was one project that I steadfastly refused to rush, skimp on, reduce or limit and I held fast to that. There were a handful of people who I also would ensure they had my fullest attention whenever I met with them no matter what. These were staff or students whom I would give priority to over anything else and I hoped would never feel that I rushed them or ignored them. That was the price of my soul. When career demands started to haggle with me on this price most vociferously, I knew it was time to go. You need to know when your time to go is or be prepared to hold your price.

9. Treat your gas tank like you would handle winter driving conditions (always leave something in the tank). Going all out is something of myth — “give it 110%”, “winners never quit”, “give it your all”. It never stops. When I started, there were a few “quiet times of year” in the academic calendar. Usually early November, January and February, May and July. Now, that doesn’t exist. New Year’s Eve between 11pm and 1am is about it for quiet in the life of an academic. You can keep on going all the time if you allow work to drive your life and demand you use the full tank of gas. The emails rarely stop, the funding opportunities are never-ending, and there are always manuscripts to write, read and review. No matter what kind of joy you derive from your work, always leave something in reserve. Just like winter driving in Canada — you need a little gas left in the tank both for safety, but to ensure that your fuel lines don’t freeze (see supply lines issue above).

I, too often, gave it my all and suffered for it. By “all” I don’t mean hold back creative energy, passion, enthusiasm, or yourself, but rather make sure that you can replenish what you have in whatever way possible. Take a day (or a few) off, read for fun, or exercise (see next point). It need not be a lot, but do something to leave something in the tank and know when you’re getting low. You’ll always be asked to give more; resist.

10. Get out…a lot. Exercise. No really, do it. See movies, listen to music, watch plays, get physical with people in any way appropriate and possible. Use your body, mind and soul to extend outside of your work. See the world that you’re trying to influence even if that influence is a long way from the lab bench you work at or theoretical proposition you are putting forth. My biggest failings were letting work take over too often and neglecting the parts of myself that were important. Your important others — partners, children, friends, pets — will let you know in obvious or subtle ways that you’re neglecting them, but that message can only be heard if you are attentive. As for yourself? That’s even harder as the internal voice can be easily squelched or rationalized out. And if you lose yourself, you’re not much to anyone else.

What makes academic work so insidious from a self-care standpoint is that there are rewards for working hard – more grants, more publications, more recognition — but as you’ll not from #4, the yellow brick road only leads to Oz.

If you’ve read this far, you are either determined to learn about academia or in need of much more to read in your life. So if you are looking for something a little more inspirational, I would recommend the following:

PhD Comics. Yorge Cham’s delightful take on academia is so funny because it is so close to reality.

Dance Your PhD: There are a lot of efforts out there to make even the most arcane subject matter entertaining. Scour the web and delight in some of the most ridiculous things you’ll see tied to your dissertation topic and its a few minutes — or hours — well wasted.

An academic life is not for everyone, but it can be a wonderful space if you’re prepared. Do your research (on the job itself), be true to yourself and those close to you, and get supports. If you do and bring a smile to your day, you’ll probably do OK in this life.

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