Be proactive, resilient & realistic!

Argues that as an academic you are an independent professional shaping your own career

Success in academia doesn't happen overnight: it requires lots of hard graft, initiative, and resilience, and of course a dose of pure luck! Every career is different and so are everyone's life circumstances. So measure your "success" based on your own goals, values, and circumstances, not on "internalised external goals" derived from a mythical person such as the "world's most successful academic".

Do realise though that much of your academic career can only be shaped by one person: you! So hopefully the advice below will act as an inspiration for you to take the initiative to do so. If it has, please do let me know.

Be pro-active

As an academic you are an independent professional shaping your own career. That means you need to be pro-active and show initiative, not wait for things to happen, or wait for other people to reach out to you or tell you what to do.

  • If you would like to work with someone, just approach them, but do your due diligence beforehand. And remember: "You don't get married to someone after one date", effective collaborations take a long time to build up and require repeated (face-to-face) contact.
  • If you are unsure about submitting a paper to a particular research outlet, ask your colleagues for advice. You can use your university's research repository to find out who has published in the journal before.
  • If something takes a long time to do, ask yourself: are there smarter ways to do this? There almost always are. I was horrified to learn recently that one of my colleagues had spent more than a day tortuously doing a literature review in the Web of Science, whereas he could have done the same with Publish or Perish in 15 minutes.
  • Get a mentor. Your university might have a formal mentoring scheme. But even if it doesn't, don't sit down moping, find your own mentor. There are plenty of senior academics who are happy to help a bright and hard-working young academic. Just make sure you thank them if they do help you! (see also: Thank You: The most underused words in academia?)
  • In general, reach out. I hate to say this, but you are not unique. Every single thing you experience in academia has been experienced by someone else. Ask around with your colleagues, Google your problem, visit academic forums such as Academia stack exchange,  talk to others at conferences. Do not try to solve every problem on your own! Do be mindful though that some advice (especially online) might be plain wrong and that - like any individual - academics have a tendency to overestimate and embellish bad experiences and their lack of agency in them. Horror stories are so much more interesting to share than "I had such a good experience at work the other day". Apply your research skills: always triangulate.
  • And finally... Step back and reflect occasionally. I see many academics operating in a very reactive mode, running from one emergency to another. Many of these emergencies could have been prevented by spending a bit more time in reflective mode. Yes, initially that might mean spending yet more time on the problems you are facing, but it will pay itself back with dividends.

But also..., be resilient

You might well be a model of pro-activeness and yet not be as successful as you like. When you are just 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! One of my PhD students - Shea Fan - did not have any published papers when she finished her PhD. Her PhD only came together at the last moment and we had decided to aim high with her work. This meant receiving many journal rejections and doing zillions of painful revisions, but no published papers to show for it. She was fortunate to work for an institution that didn't have strict tenure requirements, but still ... she started to despair a bit.

Then, "all of a sudden" her fortunes turned and in the space of a month she got a journal acceptance, a nomination for a best dissertation award, and an award for the best conference paper. A year later she had three papers accepted for top journals, a book on Managing Expatriates in China and another conference award nomination. But of course this didn't happen "all of a sudden", it was the result of years and years of persistence! You can read about her work in a guest post on my blog: Managing expatriates’ identity: subtle desire, big impact

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 after all (and are great learning opportunities). Other times significant set-backs can turn out to be a blessing-in-disguise because they prompt you to do things you wouldn't normally have done. I have had several major setbacks in my career that were - pro-actively - turned into positive outcomes. 

For instance my first (failed) application for full professor led to the development of Publish or Perish, a free software program to show citation impact, now used by nearly a million academics. Although the development, maintenance and support for it continues to take up a huge amount of my time, it has also given me considerable name recognition, much more than I would ever have been able to achieve with my own research. It also led to an entirely new research program Quality and Impact of Academic Research, in which I have done some of my most impactful work.

Failed (internal) promotion applications in particular often lead to very negative emotions (see also: Internal versus external promotion). For some it can be like geting a dozen rejections for journal submissions and grant application submissions all in one go. Moreover, as our work is typically such an important part of our personal identity, rejection of an internal promotion application in particular can feel like a rejection from someone close to you, hurting both your feelings and your pride. One of my colleagues at Middlesex had withdrawn in a state of anger and bitterness after a failed promotion application. But after venting to some senior colleagues, she picked herself up, reflected on the best way forward, managed to get a sabbatical and research funding and has lots of exciting plans to take her into a new direction.

...and be realistic

Remember: even really famous academics have not been famous forever. They have all had their own struggles. I will give you just two examples in my own field of International Business. They are both academics that every IB scholar will have heard of, but I bet you didn't know this:

  • Geert Hofstede (the cultural dimensions guy that became one of the most cited social scientists and one of the few Management scholars that many academics know) didn't become famous until he was well into his sixties. And fame didn't come easily! The manuscript of Culture's Consequences was rejected sixteen times before it was eventually published by SAGE Publishing. He recently passed away in his early 90s, but in his late 70s/early 80s he was traveling the world on lecture tours with all expenses paid and a generous honorarium; not a bad retirement!
  • John Dunning (the (grand)father of international business), experienced significant fights with senior management at the universities he worked for as they didn't believe in International Business as a field of research. His autobiography, published just before his death, is a very interesting read:

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