The Academic Woman interview (1): My career history

First of a series of four posts reporting on my interview with Anatu Mahama of the Academic Woman magazine

Anatu Mahama, editor-in-chief of the The Academic Woman, interviewed me and asked me some great questions on four key themes: my career history & advice for juniors, my past and current research, building inclusive research cultures, and research mentorship. This post deals with the first key theme.

Talk us through your academic history? Where did you study? Why did you choose your particular subject?

There was no “Grand Design” or strong purpose behind my academic history. Unlike many other academics I have never had a strong passion for a particular academic subject when I was young. However, foreign languages have always fascinated me. In my teens I studied six languages: Dutch, English, French, German, Latin and Greek. I graduated in five of them, adding only Geography and History to my selection and taking Economics as an extra-curricular subject. It was – and apparently still is – rather pejoratively called a “pretpakket” in the Netherlands, literally translated as “a fun curriculum”. It was seen as an “easy” option, taken only by pupils who have no ability in the supposedly more difficult Science subjects.

In my case, a lack of ability in Science subjects was probably not the main reason for choosing languages; I was quite decent in Mathematics and did well in Chemistry too. But I didn’t really enjoy Maths, probably partly due to my teacher who really didn’t think Maths was for girls; yes, it was the seventies... Not graduating in Mathematics meant, however, that I had closed the door on most university degrees – including Economics & Business which I really enjoyed. This was one of the reasons I opted for a vocational degree. The other reason was that none of the older generation in my family and only two or three of my 40-odd cousins had even tried university. So, university just didn’t feature on my horizon.

I therefore did a vocational degree in Business & Languages for 3½ years, learning how to write business letters in French, English, and Spanish and learning the basics of Marketing, Finance & Accounting, and Management. Then, after being expertly coached in Mathematics by my boyfriend, now husband – an electrical and later computer science engineer – I passed a “deficiency course” in Mathematics with a 10 out of 10 and went on to study Economics & Business – and in particular International Business – for another four years at Maastricht University after all.

After graduating I still had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I did some freelance work for the Dutch Open University, writing a course on International Human Resource Management. This included being the co-editor for an English-language textbook published by SAGE. The book is now in its 5th edition, with the 6th edition coming out later this year. In the course plan I had included a book chapter on HQ-subsidiary relationships and the role that expatriates played in this, but I couldn’t find anyone to write it. So, I wrote it myself. In the end, the chapter didn’t make it to into the book but given all the work I had put into it, I pragmatically decided to do a PhD on the topic. And that’s how I kind of rolled into doing a PhD in International Business. As I said there was no Grand Design.

Who/what has been your inspiration for career progression?

That’s a really good question and I wrecked my brain thinking about this. Unlike many other academics, I didn’t really have role models or mentors in my career. This is probably why I am so motivated to provide mentorship for junior academics who feel they need this.

I honestly can’t say there was any particular inspiration or a higher-level goal behind my career progression either. At any moment in my career, I just did what I thought was the right thing to do at the time. Just like my studies there was no “Grand Design” behind this and I have always been highly pragmatic. Moreover, I have always been a very hard worker, not thinking too much or too long about the whys and hows, and just getting on with things.

That said, I was lucky that I have been able to take on leadership roles that I really enjoyed such as being Coordinator for international students early on in my career, being Director of the PhD programme and Associate Dean Research when I was climbing up the academics ranks, and more recently being Research Mentor and Staff Development Lead at Middlesex.

However, what is important is that I either created these roles myself, volunteered for them, or made sure I was in the picture for them by ensuring my work in these areas was visible. It also meant saying no to other roles that do not suit my skillset or personality, such as being Head of Department or Dean. So maybe that is something that might help other academics? I have actually written up two blogposts about this: Be proactive, resilient & realistic! and When to say no?

What advice would you give to your younger self at the start of your career?

On a general level, there are two things I would have liked to realise earlier. First, that resilience and persistence are more important for an academic career than sheer ability and intelligence. Rejections – whether they are for journal articles, funding applications, or promotion applications – are perfectly normal and in most cases are the norm rather than the exception. So being able to “pick yourself up” after disappointment is crucial in academia.

Second, that an academic career is very much a marathon, not a sprint, many academic careers span 5 decades, some even span six. This means you can have multiple careers within the same career. And just like with a marathon, the key is endurance and pacing yourself. Those who run too fast in the early part of the race might well achieve early tenure or promotion, but they may well burn out or lose their intrinsic motivation in the process.

For the specifics nothing really... I am not so sure our careers – or our lives for that matter – would be more fulfilling or better if you knew everything that was ahead of you. I suspect that for a lot of research or leadership projects I wouldn’t even have started if someone had told me ahead of time how difficult it would be. It would just have been too overwhelming. Most of the time it is better not to know and just deal with things one challenge at a time.

Also, I do think too many older academics reason with hindsight. I hear a lot of them saying they wouldn’t embark on an academic career now if they had to do it again. Of course, I do understand these sentiments. But in my view, it is not terribly helpful to keep saying this to younger academics. Yes, academia might be a less congenial place than it was 30 years ago, but so is business. Industry might be a better fit for some aspiring academics and if that’s the case we should be honest and recognise that. But this needs to be a positive choice, not a negative one!

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