Proactive academia (1): On proactiveness in academia

Fifth of eight posts on my Irish Academy of Management Distinguished Scholar Interview

In October 2022 I received the happy news that I was elected as the 2022 Irish Academy of Management Distinguished International Scholar. I received a beautiful glass sculpture and was interviewed by the amazing Alma McCarthy on the topic Towards a more inclusive and proactive academia. This post provides an introduction to the interview section on proactiveness in academy.

Can you really proactively shape your own career?

First of all, let me be very clear that I am not saying that success in careers and life is all down to individual initiative and that if someone isn’t successful it means they haven’t tried hard enough. There are systematic biases in any system and there is a huge element of plain luck as well.

So, don’t look towards me or other successful senior academics as superwomen or supermen who can give you a template for a successful career. Sure, we can give you some tips and tricks, but remember we also just discovered how academia worked as we stumbled along. Everyone’s career is different. Choose a path that works for you! Where you were born and what opportunities you have had in life all shape who you are. We all have our own challenges and constraints in our personal lives, whether they are family, identity, or health related.

Within these constraints though, take control of your own career, be proactive. So, if something doesn’t work for you, take steps, however small to work towards change and don’t be afraid to ask others for help. You might find the presentation in our CYGNA network by Kristiina Mäkelä on having a development mindset and my blogpost on the AIB of developing a successful career useful. I have also applied this to my own PhD in the video below.

Again, and I can’t emphasise this enough, don’t compare yourself to academics with more than 30 years in the job. Remember, even famous academics have not been famous forever. They have all had their own struggles. 

I'll give you just one example in my own field of International Business, a person that most of you will have heard of: Geert Hofstede. He is the cultural dimensions guy that became one of the most cited social scientists of all times. But he didn't really become famous until he was well into his sixties. And fame didn't come easily! The manuscript of his most famous book - Culture's Consequences - was rejected sixteen times before it was eventually published by SAGE Publishing.

How important is international experience?

This was an audience question that we didn’t get to in the interview, so I am including my response here as it can be seen as an aspect of proactiveness. I would encourage everyone to move countries at least once in their career, preferable early on when you have fewer family responsibilities. For me, international experience was essential in my career and personal development for at least three reasons.

First, my own research is in International Business, and more specifically cross-cultural management, and global mobility. So, I felt I really had to experience these issues myself rather than just publish and teach about them. Second, given that meeting people face-to-face is still the best way to build connections, moving countries allows you to build up a truly global academic network. Third, you learn so much from working in different academic systems and universities. I have worked in three countries at seven universities so far and I have learned a lot from all of them.

Most importantly though, I think your whole outlook on life changes when you move internationally. When I grew up in the Netherlands in the 1970s, everyone saw people as divided into two groups: Dutch and foreigners. Most people without international experience still do. After moving to the UK, this started to change for me, though I admit this still looked at the country through "Dutch eyes". It took moving to Australia to realise that talking about domestic and foreign is just weird. They are all just countries that are part of one big world.

How do you develop a sustainable career plan?

This was another audience question that we didn’t get to in the interview and to me also relates to pro-activeness in the sense that we all need to take charge of our own careers. Hence, I am including my response here.

I think the most important thing is to realise that an academic career is very much a marathon, not a sprint. Many academic careers span five decades, some even span six. This means you can have multiple careers within the same career, focusing on different elements of academic work at different stages of your career. And just like with a marathon, the key is endurance and pacing yourself. Not everything needs to happen now!! You need to learn so much. The first five years of an academic career is just about surviving. If you survive you have done well!

But also, just persist. When starting out in academia it can sometimes seem that whatever you do, you don't make the progress you want. It took me 10 years to even get to a Senior Lectureship. Don't give up! Many aspects of academia require a persistent, long-term investment of effort and it is not always clear which efforts will make a difference for your career in the end.

Sometimes activities that you don't like doing turn out to be very useful for your career and are great learning opportunities. Other times significant setbacks can turn out to be a blessing-in-disguise because they prompt you to do things you wouldn't normally have done, like the PoP software in my case.

If you want to get some practical tips about how to build a sustainable academic career, I can highly recommend How to create a sustainable academic career.

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