IB Frontline interview: mentoring section

Introduces the third section of my IB Frontline interview talking about my role as a mentor and my top tips for early career researchers

Ilgaz Arikan conducts wonderful interviews with scholars in International Business in the Frontline IB Conversations series. I was honoured to participate and thoroughly enjoyed my interview. As the full interviews are a bit long, I have cut my interview up in the three key sections: personal, research, and mentoring. Below is the mentoring section of my interview.

For more interviews with senior IB scholars, see this repository page on my website or the Frontline IB Conversations webpage. The interviews are also available as podcasts on all services, including Spotify, Amazon, Google, Apple, Tune In, and iHeartRadio.

Ilgaz was kind enough to send interviewees the questions in advance. As I am not good at improvising, I did reflect on the questions beforehand; I even wrote out some rough answers. In the 30-odd minutes available Ilgaz wasn't able to ask all questions. So, I have reproduced a cleaned-up version of my answers below.

What did you wish you had known earlier?

On a general level, first of all realise that resilience and persistence are probably more important for a successful academic career than pure brilliance. As an important part of that realise that rejections are perfectly normal and that every academic is faced with them. (See also: Be proactive, resilient & realistic! and CV of failures).

Second, realise that an academic career is very much a marathon, not a sprint. Many academic careers span five decades, some even span six. This also 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!! Those who run too fast in the early part of the race might well achieve early tenure or promotion, but they may burn out or lose their intrinsic motivation in the process.

For the specifics nothing really... I am not so sure our careers – or 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 projects I wouldn’t even have started if someone had told me ahead of time how difficult it would be; it would have been too overwhelming. Most of the time I it is better not to know and just deal with things one challenge at a time.

Also, I do think that too many older academics reason with hindsight. I hear so many of them saying they wouldn’t embark on an academic career these days if they had to start again. But they forget that they are very different people now. After three to five decades in any profession, it is easy to see the negatives and to become a little cynical. It is also all too easy to think academia (and life in general) was better in the past. We all tend to remember the good things and forget the bad.

However that doesn't mean that we should discourage our junior colleagues to embark on an academic career or overburden them with stories of "the dark side of academia" that we have discovered over a lifetime. Academia is not a wonderland and it might well be a more stressful place than it was 30 years ago, but so is business. Working in industry might be a much better fit for some aspiring academics. If that’s the case we should encourage that choice and prepare PhD students for it. But this needs to be a positive choice, not a negative one!

Which skills are most difficult to develop over time?

Good writing is hard, very hard, so you must work hard at it and keep learning. I am not a naturally gifted writer, and I am still not a great writer. But I am a hell of a lot better than I was thirty years ago. These days the "game" is not just to get published, but even to get past the desk-reject stage (see also: How to avoid a desk-reject in seven steps). So treat writing like any worthwhile skill. It needs constant and conscious practice.

The same is true for analytical skills. Some academics have a real aptitude for specific skills, whether qualitative or quantitative. But even then you still need to learn through hard graft. I think I heard one of the interviewees say that you should do this in graduate school, and I couldn’t agree more. That’s when you have the time and level of concentration that is needed to master complex analytical skills.

But don’t just stick with the methods you have decided to use in your PhD. I have given lots of sessions in PhD training about doing international research. Attendance has often been very poor. Many students would say: “well I am not planning to do international research, so I don’t need to know this”. And I have heard the same comments about other methods classes. I think this is a little shortsighted. You are never going to get the chance again to learn as much from experts in the field as you do during your PhD.

What are the top-3 mistakes IB scholars should avoid?

First, I would say, don’t see academia purely in terms of competition. Yes, the job market is extremely competitive these days, but that doesn’t mean you have to behave competitively if that means doing anything to beat others. Academia is all about collaboration. If I am on a selection committee (which I have been a lot in the past year), I am obviously looking for someone who is competent, but also for someone that I would like to work with. I am not looking for someone who might be a star performer, but who is going to stab me in the back if that helps their career.

A second, more concrete, mistake is not understanding that journals are communities. That publishing in a journal means that you are joining a conversation. Don’t overhype your contribution by saying that you are the first to have done this. Most of the time that’s not even true, it just means you have either not done your literature review well enough or that you have framed your study too narrowly. But if you truly are the first, then you need to explain why other academics need to know about this. You need to make some connections to what people already know. In the writing bootcamp that I am running at Middlesex University, I have called it the cement between the bricks of knowledge that are collectively building up the house of scientific knowledge.

Finally, thinking that only publications in the top journals in our field are worth considering, both as an author and as a reader. You can have an impact, whether that is academic or societal, without publishing in these journals. In terms of citation impact, out of my top-10 most cited outputs, two are books – one of which self-published – four are publications in journals that are not at all highly ranked, probably B or even C journals, one is a piece of software (which is my most cited piece of work) and only three are in JIBS or SMJ and they are at 7, 9 and 10.

What are your top-3 mentoring tips?

First, have a passion, do this job because you care and want to realise your own ideas. Many business school academics like to compare themselves with CEOs and consultants, even though they wouldn’t survive for a week in those jobs. I am certain I wouldn’t. I think it is more productive to see yourself as an artist. Despite all its constraints, an academic job allows you more freedom than most other careers, so use that freedom. Academics in (semi)permanent jobs are like artists in that we can realise our own ideas, dreams and passions. But unlike artists we have job security and a salary that’s significantly above average.

Second, find your happy place. Go for mentors and institutions because they are a good fit, not just because they are famous. Find institutions that fit with your own personal values and allow you to pursue your dreams, even if they are not the most prestigious institution you could work for. Academia can be a horrible place if you have the wrong supervisor or mentor or work in an institution where you are unhappy.

There are lots of universities out there, we don’t all have to strive to work at Harvard, MIT or LSE. However, I will say that especially when you get to a more senior level, you do need to be willing to craft your own career. My current job at Middlesex in staff development and research mentorship is my dream job. But it didn’t exist when I applied; I created it.

Third, don’t model yourself on others. 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 a mythical person such as the "world's most successful academic". You don’t even know how they have achieved that status. It might have been sheer brilliance or bloody hard work, but also just pure luck or coming from a privileged background. They might have had a lot of support from their partners - I would never have been able to do what I have done without my husband - or they might have had to sacrifice a lot in their personal life to achieve what they have in their professional life.

What I would like to say to women and in fact all younger academics, is that having caring responsibilities is the norm, not the exception. So don’t look at people like me, without caring duties and with a very supportive partner, as a model of what you need to achieve. Carve out your own path, it is not about being better than others, it is about learning from one day to the next and being a better person at the end of your career than at the start.

Any other questions I should have asked?

Maybe a question about my collaborators. Many academics are individualists and most of us are strong introverts – I certainly am. We often like to withdraw into the spaces of our own minds. But we also thrive on bouncing off ideas with others, especially if they are people that we enjoy interacting with.

And rightly so. Research isn’t about the sole genius. Especially these days, it is very much about collaborative research. But you need to choose your collaborators wisely. Make sure they have complementary skills, but compatible work methods and ethics.

Most of all make sure you actually like them, so you look forward to interacting with them and get positive energy from them. Working with friends will make your professional life so much more enjoyable (see also: On academic life: collaborations and active engagement).

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