How to create a successful academic career: AIB - Ask, Invest & Believe

Write-up of my contribution to a conference panel on career strategies at the 2017 AIB-UKI meeting in Birmingham

I originally posted this as part of a write-up on a conference panel that I participated in at the 2017 Academy of International Business in Birmingham [WAIB Panel: Academic career strategies for women in the UK]. However, I realised that many academics might read the title and think it doesn't apply to them. So I am reposting the write-up of my part of the panel here as a separate blogpost. Being the last contributor I tried to keep my comments general and structured them under the AIB acronym: Ask for advice, Invest in your career, and Believe in yourself.

"A" stands for Ask for Advice

  1. Participate in networks such as WAIB: Women in the Academy of International Business or the London-based CYGNA network. The latter has been running for five years now. We have 5 half-day meetings a year, always announced ahead of time and have many academics from other parts of the country and even other countries participating too.
  2. Don’t hesitate to write to senior academics, but please be courteous and considerate: you are asking them a favour! If you do get help or advice, please remember to send them a thank-you email, however brief. Over the course of my career I must have written hundreds of emails in response to unsollicited requests for help, responses that many times weren’t even acknowledged by the recipient. Yes I know this sounds incredible, but it still happens to me very regularly.
  3. If you are uncertain whether some task that you are asked to do can really be expected of you ask around with your colleagues (and read Would you ask a male academic the same question?). Women in particular often just take on extra work without speaking up. Senior managers sense this intuitively. They don’t typically overload you consciously, but in my experience women often end up with more work than men simply because they don’t complain, don’t say no, and often do the job very conscientiously. A lot of their work tends to be in the "Wives of the Organization" category, i.e. essential for the smooth running of an organization, but not highly visible.
  4. You can find plenty of advice online in blogs and fora. Have a look at The Professor Is In, The Thesis Whisperer and The Research Whisperer. My own blog now has nearly 200 postings in categories such as Academia Behind the Scenes, Academic Etiquette, Positive Academia, and Publish or Perish tips.

"I" stands for Take an investment view on your career

  1. Over the course of your career, continue to invest in acquiring new skills, accumulating experience and building up strong relationships. See new tasks as an opportunity to learn, not as a chore. In academia, more than ever we need to keep developing ourselves. We need to plan for Intelligent Careers and keep our options open.
  2. Take a long-term investment perspective, not everything “pays off” instantly and some things never do. You need to have a balanced portfolio, don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Remember that an academic career might span five decades. Don’t get angry and frustrated if you don’t make it to Associate or Full Professor in 10 years. If you are successful in your academic career you will probably be an Associate or a Full Professor for the bulk of your career anyway. Enjoy the journey and don’t burn out or lose your motivation before you get there. And once you do get there, reach out and help others. Which brings me to the next point...
  3. Do things for others without necessarily expecting a "return on investment". You might be surprised at how these things sometimes even end up helping you in your own career. My website, which I have been running for 20 years now, the Journal Quality List, Publish or Perish, my blog on all things Academia; I never did any of these things expecting to gain something from it for my own career. Yet, even though these initiatives take up a large chunk of my time that I could have spent writing papers or applying for research funding (or just taking time off), they have given me great name recognition and do get my academic work read more than it otherwise would have been.

"B" stands for Be true to yourself or Believe in yourself

  1. By all means be strategic, you need to be strategic to get ahead. This nearly always means striking a compromise: sometimes you have to give in a little to get what you want ultimately. But make sure you don’t compromise yourself and what you stand for.
  2. Understand that everyone has their own career and personal struggles. When you are young and struggling to get an academic foothold, it is only natural to be a little envious when looking at more senior academics in comfortable positions. But remember: you don’t know what they went through, most academics have their own story of struggles! Like many of you, I also started out with fixed term and casual positions and have had several major setbacks in my professional life, including having been rejected for internal promotion to both Associate Professor and Full Professor. What matters is not what obstacles you encounter, but how resilient you are.
  3. Put yourself in your own shoes in 10 years time. What would you like to have achieved and what do you need to do right now to get there? But also: would you like what you will become in 10 years if you do continue to work the way you do now? If you don’t, maybe you should reassess your priorities?

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