Proactive academia (2): Tips for junior academics

Sixth 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 some tips on how junior academics can be more proactive in their careers. I will talk mostly about research, administration, and leadership as these are areas in which we often have more autonomy than in teaching.

Dare to be different and critical, but…

In research, don’t be afraid to be different and critical of current research. I have elaborated on this in a presentation I did on how International HRM research needs to change. Here are the last two steps Dare to be different and critical. I have also talked about this in my blogpost on the story of my first academic paper, which was very critical of prior research.

Yes, I know only too well that there is bias in the system. Yes, some academics - senior or junior - are self-centred, unethical, or downright nasty. But there really isn’t some sort of conspiracy to keep junior academics down. Remember that many senior academics, editors, and reviewers are only too happy to help junior academics and promote a healthy academic exchange.

And don’t think that papers by senior academics automatically get published. Yes, seniors have a better hit rate because they have experience. But if I look at my last three papers, only one had a smooth ride, the other two were rejected at two, three or even four journals, sometimes taking more than five years to see the light. My co-authors and I persisted, and in the end they all got published. And if I am very honest, they all got much better in the process.

I talk to many junior academics’ whose papers are rejected or even desk-rejected. Some are convinced the system is biased against them. But their papers are often completely unsuitable for the journal they were submitted to and are poorly written. So don’t ever send a paper to a journal without having someone else – someone who has experience with the journal in question – look at it. I still get what is called a “friendly reviewer” to read my papers before submission and I return the favour.

So, dare to be different and critical, but also be rigorous, respectful and, when you get an Revise & Resubmit, be responsive. If you do have a paper that you think is very good and you have spent a lot of time polishing it, but are struggling to get it published because it is very critical of established work, feel free reach out to me. I am always happy to give advice.

Can junior academics really contribute to administration  and leadership?

Yes, there is also a lot we can do even as ECRs in shaping our academic environments. You can start small. For instance, as I mentioned in another post the JQL grew out of my ECR membership of my university's research committee in my first permanent job.

In that same job, I created a role as coordinator for international students at a time when international student support was in its infancy. This meant I could combine my research in cross-cultural management with practical sessions on cross-cultural communication skills, and advocacy for international students.

But I also ended up organising trips in Yorkshire, and even international dinners at our home, complete with a dedicated website. Did I get a workload allocation for that? No, but it did provide me with a much greater understanding of how universities could support international students. It even led to a funding application for a research project on student learning styles. And the social events were a lot of fun!!!

The most successful junior academics that I have worked with in the past 20 years were those who took initiative. They used the level of autonomy that does exist in any academic job to make improvements within their own nexus of control. They created some bottom-up improvements rather than wait for “management” to solve everything. Too often I hear academics say: someone needs to do something about this, why not be that someone? You are not a worker on a production line, you are an independent professional!

My firm belief is that everyone should take a stint in university management – taking on roles such as programme manager of a major teaching programme, HoD, PhD director, or Associate Dean – to appreciate how difficult it is to be a university manager. Academia is quite unique in that most incumbents in university management positions are academics themselves and return to being a “normal” academic after their managerial role. And unlike what some academics seem to believe you really don’t instantly become evil when you take on a managerial role šŸ˜Š.

Any tips that juniors can apply instantly?

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