Proactive academia (3): My advice for senior academics

Seventh 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 senior academics can continue to be proactive in their careers.

Walk the talk

My main recommendation to senior academics is "walk the talk" or "put your money where your mouth is". Many senior academics tend to complain an awful lot about "the state of academia" and often seem to think things were "so much better in their days". That’s only natural. After a long time in any profession you start to see its flaws clearly and you can get more than a little cynical about them. I do fully recognise that.

But my problem is that many of these academics complain largely by publishing their concerns in books and opinion pieces in top journals and make little effort to change things in their day-to-day practice. Sure, there are lots of things wrong in academia, but you are not going to change anything by just writing about them. You need to be proactive and work to change our academic system and culture. However, that might mean making choices that do not just continue to maximise benefits for your own career.

If you’ve made it to professor at 50…

That brings me to my second point. One of my Middlesex colleagues, Praveen Kujal, said to me: if you have made it to professor at 50, you should spend your time supporting others in their careers and serving the academic community. That is almost exactly what I did eight years ago.

At 49, having been professor for 7 years and involved in university management positions for nearly ten, I made a conscious choice to sacrifice reputation and salary to move to a non-elite university (Middlesex University). This meant I could make a real contribution by helping academics who hadn’t benefitted from the relative smooth career path that I have had.

Now, please don’t think I am a saint, I am not; I am happier in my job than I have ever been. Personally, I see focusing the last 10-15 years of your career in areas where you can make a real difference for others as crucial to staying motivated. It is all to easy to become very cynical.

Return to meaning

If you are a senior academic and are serious about wanting to contribute to changing are profession, I can highly recommend Return to Meaning: A Social Science with Something to Say by Alvesson, Gabriel and Paulsen (2017). To me it is the best of the many books lamenting the “state of academia” as it doesn't just analyse the problems, but also suggests solutions that every academic can apply.

The authors' recommend to "recover meaning", not just by policy changes (not unlike my white paper on the REF) and reforming organizations and institutions, but also by reforming our day to day academic identities and practices. As academics, we often justify our actions based on presumed external constraints, but the authors cogently argue that we - and especially senior academics in relatively secure positions - have more freedom than we often pretend we have. Here are some representative quotes.

"Some social science academics can and do stand up for their values and priorities, accepting less than optimal pay, status, and prestige in return for greater fulfilment in the work they do."(2017:51) [that's me at Middlesex!]
"In the majority of all cases, competent and ambitious researchers insisting on sound priorities would not face any actual disciplinary consequences other than in their imagination." (2017:51)
"Developing and reinforcing myths about the impossibility or enormous costs of not following the system's imperatives [...] means that researchers can wash their hands of responsibility, happily complaining about lack of choices, and often profiting from the game."(2017:53)

This freedom, they argue, is key to recover meaning in social research:

"Many academics downplay the freedom they have in constructing their identity and emphasize the imperatives and pressures [...]. Recovering meaning in social research [...] seeks to reinstate identity as a crucial part of the research, not as the product of external pressures but as the result of the researchers' own conscious (and sometimes unconscious) choices and the way they exercise their freedoms." (2017:100)

"We do claim, however, that most researchers have more power than they realize. They largely evaluate each other's efforts, they deploy resources, they promote and discourage different practices. [...] Few groups have as much individual and collective autonomy, free time, and self-governance as academics. Few groups can escape system imperatives and rigid control as easily as academics." (2017:139)

Finally: never too young?

We all like saying that you are “never too old” to do something. I think we should reverse this in academia. As a senior academic, don’t think your junior colleagues are “too young” to take on a leadership position. The problem is that when you get to a certain age, everyone seems young, inexperienced, and even naïve. 

That might even be true, but that’s not always a bad thing. It also means they are not yet as jaded and cynical as many older academics are. They are often willing to "just give it a go". What they miss in experience, they amply compensate with drive and energy. Just be there in the background for advice if they need it, but let them fly and let them make their own mistakes.

As a junior academic I was certainly much less burdened with knowledge and (bad) experiences. For instance, reading back my first article (1995), I am impressed at what I dared to write. It really did help that I was naïve and had no idea of academic politics. But it also helped that I didn't know all these academics that I called out on doing a bad job in their academic referencing of prior work. 

Sure, we are not going to make a 30-year old a Vice Chancellor, but there are plenty of leadership roles that younger academics can take on. Thinking back, I successfully ran major initiatives in my twenties and thirties and so did many others in my network. Reserving leadership positions for those in their fifties and sixties deprives junior scholars of the ability to make a contribution. And in many cases, it frankly stymies innovation.

If you have kids, it might help you to think back to how you felt yourself at 18 or 20 (independent, and both willing and able to take on the whole world) and how you feel about your own young adult kids (surely, they are not old enough yet to…). As seniors we can play our roles in making early and mid career academics feel more comfortable to express themselves, take initiative and not lose their natural drive to “change the system”. In my view this is one of the most important contributions senior academics can make to academia and even to society more widely. 

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