CYGNA: One size doesn't fit all - Diversity of academic career paths

Reports on our 45th CYGNA meeting in which we discussed four alternative career paths in academia

Since founding CYGNA in 2014 we had 30 physical meetings in London-based universities. When COVID-19 hit, we moved our meetings online. Our 45th meeting focused on the diversity of academic career paths. It was superbly organised by Carole Couper (third row, third from left) with three wonderful speakers: Axèle Giroud (top row, third from left), Khalida Malik (top row, third from right), Martyna Janowicz (top row, second from right).

We had 38 attendees attending (part of) the 2-hour meeting, 36 of which can be seen above. As has become common in our online meetings, we had many international members joining us, including from Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Half of the participants were from outside the UK.

We also welcomed one new attendee: Imane El Hakimi, Senior Lecturer in Leadership and HRM at Northumbria University. Half of our attendees were PhD students and early career researchers, with the remainder being at the mid or advanced career stage. This made for a perfect audience for our meeting on the diversity of academic career paths.

Carole had created a stellar session for us, with four great speakers and plenty of time in break-out rooms to share our experiences, challenges, and suggestions. I was thoroughly impressed with all of the presentations and the wealth of experience and advice that was shared. It was great to have clear examples that demonstrated that there is more than just one standard academic career path.


In the first 25 minutes of the session we had four excellent presentations with presenters who not just provided great insights, but also stuck to their time limits. Below the presenters summarise the key lessons of their presentations. Thank you so much all for helping to co-create this blogpost. It seems we have learned a good lesson in our last CYGNA meeting: CYGNA: Co-creating academic well-being.

Academic/Policy path

  • Axèle Giroud, Professor of International Business, Alliance Manchester Business School

Overall, my academic career appears reasonably linear. I received my PhD from the University of Bradford in 2000 and have received a number of promotions both in Bradford and in the University of Manchester.

Where my career path differs is that I had a number of external engagements with international organisations, first as an expert, then as a staff member. From 2012 to 2015, I worked as a Senior Economic affairs Officer for the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development (UNCTAD). I returned to academia as a Professor of International business for the Alliance Manchester Business School in 2015.

Working for a different organisation and outside academia has presented both advantages and challenges. I gained in-depth knowledge on the needs of policy markers, and understood better how to facilitate links between academic research and policy making. This experience gave me more insights into the needs and ways to conduct research for impact, as well as ways to present research so it can be used in various contexts and by multiple stakeholders. I now have well developed professional networks in both international and academic organisations across the world.

From a personal perspective, it also means that my family and myself moved internationally, experienced various cultures and became more flexible and adaptable. Such a decision comes with challenges however. For instance, I had to promptly adjust to a different work culture. Career changes and working in different professional environments can mean slower progression and promotion. Last but not least, moving internationally can be challenging for the whole family.

Multinational/eclectic path

Khalida Malik, Adjunct Fellow, School of Business, Western Sydney University

I have not followed the traditional path into academic life. Rather, it is an amalgamation of circumstance and using industry experiences resourcefully to achieve a treasured goal. When one’s family already has six PhD’s in science and management including a Professor, my pursuit of the PhD is not really exceptional. Lacking the linear path after my undergraduate degree in Kenya and even though I had admission at the University of California Davis, it was not meant to be.  

Instead, I worked as a teacher and in administration and studied German. The first scholarship from the Goethe Institute was to deepen my understanding of the language. The second scholarship, which I declined, was to train as a teacher in the German language. However, a more distant shore had beckoned, and I arrived in Australia as a skilled migrant. Once again, it was work but in a variety of HRM roles.  

Enrolling in a Master's degree seemed like the appropriate next step and I commenced with the PhD in 2016. I believe challenges in academia are not really that different to working in industry. There have been many highlights on my academic journey and I do not feel compelled by any mimetic desire to follow my contemporaries by adhering to all the indicators of what it means to be an academic. I embrace any work-related opportunity whether in a University setting or in industry that comes along as I carve my own path rather than being duped and incapacitated by the concept of career. 

When there are so many twists and turns in my journey, it is crucial to have a positive attitude and not get lost in a series of mirrors. I accept each venture has no guarantee of success, but it is important to treat each event as an opportunity to excel. Many times, I do feel I compete against myself! When I think about what I have learned is that (as you can see above):

There is always another horizon beyond the horizon that is visible to you. In other words, you are only limited by what you can see rather than what lies beyond. These are the horizons for action and that is what is exciting – imagining future possibilities and always looking at ways to use and further develop your transferable skills. Remaining flexible and resilient is key.  Surround yourself with positive and motivated people. Finally, it is about acknowledging you have agency.   

Industry/academia path

Carole Couper, Sheffield University Management School

From a distance, my career path can be described as atypical and extremely nonlinear, with many ups, downs, and a complete change of direction in my 40s. I left industry behind to study for a PhD in Management/International Business at the University of Glasgow. This was both an exciting and scary move for someone in their mid-forties, but it turned out to be the best decision I have ever made. Going back to studying after so many years involved a steep learning curve, but I persevered, and my MSc with Distinction led to winning a Scholarship to pursue the PhD.

After graduation, my atypical profile turned out to be a major challenge when applying for my first academic post: after 18 months of constant rejection by institutions across Canada, China, France and the UK however, I was offered a Lectureship position in Executive Education/IB at the University of Sheffield, with a job description that looked like me. I have stopped trying to predict what the next step of my ‘career’ might be, but for now I am happy learning, researching, publishing and teaching.

An atypical and nonlinear journey has meant continual learning from experimentation, and constantly having to adapt to new environments. As a scholar of China throughout my journey, and drawing from Yin Yang and Tao philosophies, I have come to think of my career path as a learning journey, where acceptance of paradoxes results in greater harmony with the environment and within oneself. In other words, any new step of the journey will bring positive and negative aspects that must be appreciated as necessary parts of the same journey. My key learnings can be summarised as:

  1. Being atypical equates to feeling like a round peg trying to fit a square hole. While this can be an uncomfortable and frustrating position, it is important to appreciate how this kind of profile also increases visibility (standing out from the crowd), and more importantly for me, may offer more freedom (I do not always have to meet the expectations of my peers, whether in Academia or Industry).
  2. As an atypical profile, the lack of existing role models meant I had to continually experiment and learn from that process. It can take more time and effort to reach a positive outcome (i.e., being offered a first academic position) but the journey is all the more interesting and rewarding for it. How I did appreciate getting this first job! While I always listen to advice, I also learned to take it with a large pinch of salt, as advice from peers may not always be appropriate to the person with a significantly different journey.
  3. Finally, I have found that developing self-awareness with an understanding of how existing skills and experience can transfer and match new rules and expectations is critical when navigating the atypical journey. I adapt by highlighting how my strengths and skills will contribute to a new environment, not by trying to pretend I am something that I am not. Staying true to myself means I will end up in the right job for me rather than somewhere where I will feel miserable.

Academia/Academic Management path

Martyna Janowicz, Tilburg University, Executive Secretary & Senior Policy Advisor

Throughout the last 20 years, I have moved through a series of positions, that took me progressively closer (see the colours!) to what I truly want to do… well, at least most of them did. What I discovered is that the same set of interests (1) academic research on (2) organizational change & (3) management that I started with in my PhD - and did not fully satisfy me - when reshuffled to (3) management of (2) organizational change in the (1) academic setting - that my current function of senior policy advisor offers - bring me a lot of satisfaction.

The bottom line is, dare to try different positions, learn from each of them, and continue building on what you love and are good at. It might be a more challenging route and perhaps less straightforward, but it is better to continue looking with the chance that you will find what truly brings you joy than choose for a smooth career and not look at all.

Panel discussion

After the presentations Carole asked the presenters's view on three key questions.

Question 1: How do you see a career path?

  • Career is a parasitic metaphor, reflecting the unattainable aim of having a consistent career (path). Coping through reflectivity and flexibility.
  • There is no such thing as a standard academic path, it differs in different countries as well.
  • Perception of standard academic path leads to feelings of 'failure', did not make it: is it real or in people's minds?

Question 2: What are the challenges you experienced?

  • There is little help for academic that want to transfer outside of academia
  • Your academic reality is often defined by your PhD supervisors

Question 3: What coping strategies do you recommend?

  • Start early in the PhD to think about alternatives, through small actions, talk to others, widely
  • Learn to accept rejection
  • Prioritize: only pursue things that you find important

Break-out rooms

After the plenary presentations and Q&A we all moved to one of four break-out rooms led by the presenters. Below is a picture of one of the break-out rooms. The key messages from the break-out rooms are summarized below.

Academic/Policy path

We had a great diversity of profiles in this break-out room, colleagues had experience working in various industries (eg. as lawyers, marketing specialists, accountants, etc…) and across the world. The core question we discussed was how to reach out to policy makers. We discussed various strategies, including writing blogposts on one’s research, working as short-term consultants for various organisations, actively sending one’s research outputs to specialists, etc…

In terms of coping strategies, various suggestions were put forward. Always remaining positive – even in times of rejections or set-backs -, and open (“Best to do something and fail than to regret not trying”), maximize your network and share your strengths/successes, engage in inter-disciplinary projects, and increase visibility (eg. organise conferences, …). We all agreed it is important to strive towards having an (positive) *impact* on society.

Bricolage/eclectic path: key themes

Members of this group were exercising their individual agency especially when dealing with factors that shape career (for example, the demand to publish, research (meso level) / work/life balance / personal priorities / aging and ill health). The pandemic (as a macro level event with many consequences) has led many to reprioritize their lives. I believe this is a global trend.

CYGNA could consider a special interest group / higher-level career counselling platform to prepare all academics of the value of remaining flexible and resilient in their approaches to building career especially when there are so many constraints.

This needs to stress the benefits of social capital – bridging capital (CYGNA is a fantastic vehicle for this and has so many talented and highly experienced members) and even volunteering (in or outside of academia) as a way of accessing limited job opportunities. This is where those transferable skills can be sharpened.

Industry/academia path: key themes

Being at a crossroads, with doubts about whether one was in the right place. 

  • Unsure as to what to do next: industry/consultancy (described as 'practical' work)? Academia? What is there for a PhD Graduate in Management, what are the options? Also little knowledge of academic ways/expectations/realities as a PhD student.
  • Being in turbulent times was also raised, maybe as an additional trigger to doubting and questioning one's path. Needing flexibility?
  • Dealing with constant rejection, e.g. journal submission, funding applications.

The notion of freedom in academia

  • The rigidity of academic workload allocation frameworks and the lack of freedom (of expression or objectives), especially compared to expectations before joining academia. 
  • This came primarily from people who had moved into academia having worked in a different environment before. Academic frameworks appear to be based on a 'standard academic path', little flexibility or freedom.

How to bridge industry and academia

  • The notion of 'silos' and lack of cross-environment interaction outside of formal avenues of KTPs and research impact.

Academia/academic management path: key themes

Key advice: connect with a mentor or advisor in your specific context, someone who can share experiences, provide advice and tips.

There is clearly a need to create more room and recognition for administrative tasks within academia. Of course, they should not replace the core of the academic career fully – research and teaching do need to remain at the core, but people taking up management tasks should not penalized for doing so. If such tasks are to become more integral element of the academic careers, the big challenge will be to develop clear assessment criteria.

Another but related aspect is the flexibility of the academic careers – there should be more room to choose and adjust your focus depending on the life stage, whether it be due to personal circumstances, or preferences.

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