academic selves and academic careers

I visited the wonderful Department of Geography at Maynooth University a couple of weeks ago, and I was kindly invited by the Supporting Women in Geography Ireland group there to a discussion session about developing a career as an academic. I was sent a bunch of questions beforehand, which clearly articulated some of the key issues for this group: how to manage multiple demands to do different kinds of academic work, how to manage caring responsibilities with academic work, how to get on…

I don’t usually post about this sort of thing, though I do retweet about women’s experiences of academic life, on occasion. But the invitation and the questions gave me an opportunity to pull together a few thoughts around these topics, and also to reflect on how lucky I’ve been in my career: I’ve (almost) always had supportive line managers, I’ve never been asked to teach to the exclusion of research, I’ve never to have had to move from one fixed-term contract to another. I have though taken extended maternity leave and worked part-time for several years. So here, for what they’re worth, are seven things I think are important to make the time to think about and act on, to manage in pressured times. I’m sure there are more. But here goes:

1 figure out your ‘brand’. Ok, so it’s a horrible term to use, ‘brand’, but it’s a question I once heard a colleague ask of candidates at a job interview and I think if you do figure yours out, it’s a very useful way to simplify lots of decisions you’ll face. Your brand summarises the kind of geographer/academic that you are or you aspire to be. What’s your key research area and how does it contribute to the wider (sub)discipline? What sort of teaching do you want to be superb at? What sort of administrator or manager are you, or would you like to be? What are you most committed to? What fires you up, what do you loathe? But also, what sort of colleague are you? Are you a loner, a collaborator, a leader? Work those things out and you have some priorities to focus on.

2 find a mentor and work with them to figure out that ‘brand’ and how to achieve success on its terms. A good mentor will give you time to reflect on what you want to be and do, and how to be and do it most effectively given your current circumstances. I think everyone should have a mentor, no matter how senior and experienced you are, actually. There are always decisions to make, paths that divide, roles that are offered or not. Having a mentor might also make it easier to say ‘no’ to some things (if you can), and being clear (to yourself and to the refusee) why you have to say that.

3 learn to say no, politely. Of course, there are some things you won’t be able to say ‘no’ to. But not all things are compulsory.

4 think about the difference between ‘excellent’ and ‘good enough’. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do, hence point 3. But also, some things you will want to put  your heart and soul into: they are core to your sense of yourself as an academic and you’ll want to be excellent at them. Other things are still important, but for a lot of tasks, ‘good enough’ is, well, ‘good enough’. Do those tasks thoroughly and competently but do them in a sensible timeframe.

5 make the time to plan and manage your time and your self. Pause every six months, and review your commitments. Do this with your mentor, don’t overcommit, allocate appropriate time to each task (see 2, 3 and 4 above). Use citation management software and notemaking software to organise stuff (and make your stuff searchable). If you need help to do anything, get help: your mentor, software, training.

6 find or make networks that enable you to do what you want to do. Networks can also be very effective ways of dealing with the sh*t that can happen in academic life, particularly to women and minorities. One complaint might be taken as a moan. Several, documented, from diverse sources (aka the network) might initiate some change. Also, networks can be fun, they can be friends, they can be incredibly supportive, and they can get you invited places…

7 do something else that isn’t academic. When you’re not working, don’t check work emails, do immerse yourself in that other thing. Lots of academics I know do something physical or tactile in their downtime: gardening, the gym. Or they read trashy novels (sci fi seems the guilty pleasure du jour), or watch box sets. Or they parent really hands on. If you need to justify this to yourself, remember that you’ll be far more efficient at work if you’re rested, healthy and happy.

If this all sounds very instrumental – it is. But when times are tough – as they are now – I think caring for the self is really important. It’s not something women in particular are encouraged to be very good at. And to be clear, this is not an excuse for individualistic gung-ho ego-tripping. (Who could I possibly be thinking of…) A lot of non-academic time will be spent by some people caring for others – and reflecting on who you are as an academic will mean, in all but psychopathic cases, also reflecting on your relations with others, your necessary relations, with colleagues and managers and students, as well as who you care for outside of academia.

So there you are. Just a few thoughts. The discussion at Maynooth ranged far wider… and do feel free to extend the list in the comments box below.