Look before you leap (2): some things you might not know about academic work

Many students undertake a doctorate with at least the possibility of subsequent academic work in mind. Parking for now the issue that there are way more doctoral places given out each year than there are academic jobs, this post highlights a few things that have surprised me in my time since graduating with my PhD. I quite like the fact that my job remains an enigma to most of my friends, who have no clue what I do all day. But I reckon some transparency and clarity would be useful for those thinking of joining the ranks of academics. This isn’t exhaustive, and if you can add other bits, please do in the comments below!


I’m going to follow this up with a commentary on the ways in which academic work is both amazing and amazingly frustrating, which will touch on and develop some similar points.


You have to self-promote (I)

I had vague ideas that academics, with a few obvious exceptions, get on in their careers by doing good, solid research, teaching effectively, and making quiet contributions to institutional and disciplinary life. The quality of their ideas, discoveries, pedagogy and colleagueship would ensure that their recognition. If that was ever true (which it may not have been) it certainly isn’t now. You get, and get on in, an academic career by actively (perhaps aggressively at times) peddling your ideas, your effectiveness as a teacher, and your value to the uni or your field. You have to push. This comes from having the vision and courage to apply for grants when you’ll probably get rejected, to aim for top journals, to try out new teaching approaches, and to step up in working groups, push new ideas through committees, take on roles in your disciplinary organisation. But it also comes from capitalising on those achievements when you make them. An academic life is pretty much a constant sales pitch (see below). Here, I mean you’re selling your work to others.


You have to self-promote (II)

In many institutions, you’re not going to get promoted up the academic ladder (from postdoc or lecturer through whatever stages it is up to professor) automatically. It’s not even going to happen if you get on with what is expected and jump the right hurdles at the right time. Often now, promotion is something you have to seek yourself, and the slots for senior positions may be limited each year, so there can also be an element of competition. If you want to move up the ladder you have to be ready to self-promote. I have a somewhat cynical view that the system is geared up so that academics have to work above their level for a few years, in order to show they are worthy of promotion. Then they get their promotion, get paid and recognised for what they have been doing for ages, and are now expected to do more work at a higher level still, with the next promotion in mind. Back to the sales thing – to get promoted you have to sell yourself, but you also have to make sure there’s something to sell. And just doing your job at the expected level isn’t enough. (NB. Some people bypass all this promotion application kerfuffle by moving institutions and getting a new job at the next level up).


Did I mention sales?

I sit at home and watch ‘The Apprentice’ and think to myself how pleased I am I don’t work in sales. I’m not there trying to get people to buy things they don’t want or can’t afford. Or am I? Research councils in some ways read applications with a view to finding reasons to reject them because there isn’t enough money to go around. Journal editors have limited space each year and have to reject lots of papers. Yes they are looking for good quality research proposals or papers, but without the right sales pitch, you’re going to end up dead in the water. So in the proposals or papers themselves you’re selling your new idea and your credentials. In the letters to editors after revisions you’re selling your decisions to make some changes and not others.


You’re doing sales elsewhere too. When students get to choose modules or subjects, you’re writing summaries or blurbs essentially with the purpose of selling that option over others in a competitive marketplace. In many universities recruitment of students is as much an issue as selecting those for admission. Bums on seats. You’re out there selling the university brand, the quality of the course, the alumnus network, the great doctoral program. In many countries research output evaluations (such as the REF in the UK) require academics to write narratives about how good their work is: sales. So if sales isn’t for you, academic work isn’t either.


Helicopter parents

Parents ringing up tutors to ask why their son or daughter didn’t get a distinction on their assignment? Seriously?! At university level?! Yup. I haven’t experienced this myself, but colleagues are increasingly telling me of contact they have with students’ parents. Parents are becoming increasingly vocal and active in mediating their children’s university experience. You only have to look at my own university’s new web page to see how important parents have become: www.uts.edu.au – there on the top left – information for parents.


Legal stuff

Maybe I was naïve but I never really imagined academic work bringing me into much contact with laws and lawyers – unless I said or wrote something outrageous and got sued, and as long as I avoided misconduct at work, I should be free of all that. Well maybe not. As I look to the horizon and at my colleagues, I see working with legal teams as increasingly likely. When more than one university is involved in a research grant, there will be lots of legal to-ing and fro-ing about who does and owns what, particularly in relation to intellectual property (IP). Another thing I’ve realised is that universities are just like any other institution and they have their run-ins with people who trigger all sorts of long, messy, potentially dirty and highly stressful legal battles – students who appeal when they’ve been failed, staff who don’t behave appropriately, tribunals about employment or dismissal. An academic life seems unlikely to be devoid of these things.


Teaching and research do not a whole academic pie make

The everyday understanding of an academic is someone who does research and lectures university students. It’s not that this isn’t true, it’s that this is by far not all the picture. Academics also spend lots of their time doing other stuff, such as: admissions administration, internal examination of doctoral students, external examination for other institutions, committee work, working groups for university committees, responding to helicopter parents (see above), scanning receipts and entering minute amounts into expenses claims systems, managing budgets, managing other people, being managed by others, planning workload, measuring workload, reviewing papers, editing journals, examining theses, organising conferences, sitting on boards of disciplinary associations, maybe a bit of reading now and then, monitoring the job market, collecting evidence needed for promotion, nominating colleagues for awards (or applying oneself), moving offices from one building to another, moving back again, pulling hair out at broken photocopiers and printers, deleting useless emails, deleting useful emails you haven’t got time to respond to, managing online presence, checking twitter, meeting informally with students who want advice, asking others to meet with you to get advice, attending or running stuff like library workshops and software training, dealing with lawyers (see above), reading the detail of copyright statements, submitting word versions of papers to archives, entering details of publications into databases, filling in annual leave forms. You get the idea.

Early academic careers are messy

You finish your PhD and slip into a tenure-track lectureship with a nice balance of teaching and research, and then provided you don’t fuck up, you retire at 65 as a Professor with a nice pension. Right? Wrong. You finish your PhD and probably slip right into medium term unemployment, or at best a series of casual, short-term contracts. Many students end up taking teaching contracts in more than one university, trying to publish in their own time. The early career end of academic work is increasingly casualised (by which I mean fixed term, often less than a year and not full time contracts, usually without decent pension schemes attached). Want job security? I suggest you look elsewhere.


Even when you get a full job at a uni, chances are initially it will be for two, maybe three or four years if you are lucky. The balance between the teaching and research emphasis in these jobs varies greatly. In some countries, the standard is 100% teaching, and you use your free time to get research grants that buy you out of lectures. In others it can be 100% research (as with some postdocs or research officer jobs). Elsewhere it can be a mix. And there are some teaching-focused and some research-focused career paths now, too. I may have a rant about casualisation in a future post – for now the point is to make it clear that there’s a very messy beginning to academic careers – this mess has some flexibility in it, but doctoral life can seem like a simple, secure dream compared to what many face in their first few years Dr so-and-so.


Like I said, there’s probably heaps more hidden elements of academic life that aren’t obvious to many of those who aspire to be, or are at least flirting with the idea of becoming an academic. Please add your own comments and illuminate the shadows I’ve left.


4 thoughts on “Look before you leap (2): some things you might not know about academic work

  1. Alex (AlShares)

    “Pulling hair out of broken photocopiers”! Ha! Brilliant!

    Seriously, all grad students should read your post and be thankful of it. The excitement/ trepidation/ confusion of PhD’ing obscures much of the career realities, which may end up being so far out of line from students’ expectation that they drift out at the end.

    If I may suggest that the “self-promotion” advice is especially important if the student is embarking on professional activities beyond uni (as I did). Many professional networks vaguely know a PhD is useful, but not much beyond that (like what you said about your friends). Increased transparency also helps landing a job outside academia should the occasion arise.

  2. Pingback: » Open research and ‘self-promotion’ The Sociological Imagination

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