One reason I started doing what I’m doing is that I could see all of these brilliant, interesting people not really enjoying their academic jobs. For various reasons you were discouraged, frustrated, or just plain overworked.
As I’ve worked with clients I have noticed that one of the key elements in shifting that negative stuff is a vision of what you want your career to be.
It has to be your vision.
- Not “the things I need to do to get tenure”.
- Not “the university wants us to do this now”.
- Not “my colleagues only respect this kind of work”.
- Not “this is what [insert funding agency here] wants to fund”
That vision will be unique to you though it will share elements with things that other academics do. It will be firmly grounded in your values.
You will still work hard. You will still have to grapple with the bureaucracy of your institution. Your colleagues may not get it.
Grounded in your vision, your work is meaningful.
- You know why you are doing this particular task.
- You are motivated to do things, even when they are difficult or mundane or unpleasant.
- Doing the work is fulfilling in itself.
Your relationship to external recognition shifts. Getting a job. Getting tenure. Getting a promotion. Getting a grant. Having your colleagues speak positively about your work. These things still matter. But they matter differently. They are no longer necessary to confirm that your work is valuable, meaningful or worthwhile. They are no longer necessary to confirm your identity as a scholar, a writer, a teacher.
They are gravy. Not the kind of gravy that makes overcooked tasteless meat just about edible. The kind of gravy that enhances already good quality food and makes it even better. The kind of gravy that adds complexity to your already tasty meal.
When you don’t succeed, especially in a particularly stiff competition, you will still be disappointed. However, you won’t be questioning your core values and identity. You will be more able to pick yourself up, make a new plan, and carry on, proud of what you’ve accomplished even if it wasn’t enough for this particular externally awarded thing.
Articulating your vision may be difficult
This is normal. You have people all around you telling you what you should want. Or making assumptions about what you want. Some of which you do want but maybe not in the way they think you do. It’s hard to sort out what you really want from what you think you should want.
If any of your vision is not validated by those shoulds and assumptions, it can be hard to figure out if you are even allowed to want what you want. Your own gremlins may be adding to the cacophony.
(Spoiler alert: You are allowed to want what you want, though it is best to heed the words of the prophet Mick Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want but if you try, sometimes, I think you’ll find, you get what you need.”)
In his convocation address to the University of the Arts in 2012, Neil Gaiman talks about the vision for your career as a mountain. Not a mountain you are climbing but a mountain in the distance. When opportunities arise you ask yourself “Does this take me closer to the mountain?” He tells us that he never really had a career plan but rather a list of things he wanted to do. He talks about turning down “good jobs that paid well” because they wouldn’t enable him to do the things on his list. What would it look like to take this kind of approach to defining your career vision?
What do you want to do?
You can start with a job title and institution if you like, just don’t stop there. If you imagine yourself as a securely employed academic at a particular (kind of) institution, what would you be doing on a day to day basis? Break that down even further. If teaching, what kinds of students? How do you imagine what teaching is like? If research, what kind of research? What does that activity look like?
Importantly, consider what makes those tasks meaningful. Why do you want to teach? or do research? or whatever else you imagine yourself doing as an academic? Who will benefit from you doing them? How will they benefit. An academic job involves a lot of different things, and there are lots of different academic jobs with different configurations of those things. In your vision, what proportion of your time and effort are put into different aspects of the job? What happens if you change that? What if you took some of the tasks away altogether?
For example, one of my clients has been forced to consider this because her fixed term position, balanced between teaching and research, is coming to an end and she has been offered a teaching intensive position. I have clients for whom a teaching intensive position is a good fit and the thing they really wanted. This particular client, when faced with this option, realised that research is crucial to why she wants to be an academic. She doesn’t hate teaching, but she would hate a job that was only teaching. That is not the right balance for her. I am helping her figure out other options. Interestingly, the idea of only research, even doing data collection and analysis for other people, is not as unattractive to her as a teaching intensive position.
Another example, I once gave a talk about research funding to academics in a small teaching intensive institution. Because funding is competitive and you are competing with people with different amounts of time and energy available for research and publishing, we got talking about those constraints. In the process, one person said that he much preferred working at this smaller institution with a higher teaching load. He’d had a position at a big, research intensive, university and every time he walked into a lecture theatre with over 100 students in it he felt like he’d already failed. Teaching was very important to him but not any kind of teaching. It was important to him to be able to connect with the students in the room. He might have more contact hours at the smaller institution but the classes were much smaller. This made a big difference to him; a difference worth the trade off in terms of time (and possibly funding) for research.
Your vision will not be someone else’s vision. It is important to be specific about what you want to do.
How do you want to feel?
Another way to think about vision focuses more on identity and feeling. In a world of SMART goals, this seems unhelpfully abstract but it can be very useful. A workshop participant set herself the goal of “feeling like an intellectual”. She has tenure at a research focused institution so this goal is more about how to do the job she has. Like Gaiman’s mountain, it is a way of making decisions about how to spend her time and what opportunities to say yes to. It also gets her out of the productivity mindset and creates a context in which activities like spending an afternoon reading, or going to talks about things not directly related to her own research, are highly valued rather than treated as optional extras.
You might argue that “intellectual” isn’t really a feeling but an identity. Having a broad sense of the question might be a good thing. If “I want to feel like a _______” works for you, fill in that blank and then figure out what kinds of activities might make you feel that way. This can be a helpful way to think about possible jobs: are there opportunities to feel like this in this job?
You don’t have to decide what to do with your life
Your life will sort itself out. If you are struggling to secure the job you’d like, or if the job you have doesn’t satisfy you in one or more ways, these questions also help you notice other opportunities. As you evaluate opportunities ask yourself “Does this get me closer to the mountain?” That might mean that it allows you to do some of the things you want to do. It might mean that it gives you knowledge, skills, or connections that will make it more possible to do the things you want to do. It might mean that it will help you feel the way you want to feel at least some of the time.
You don’t have to get all of your needs met in your job. Another client is seriously considering the possibility of a radical career change. But she isn’t quite sure to what. And she does have tenure. She’s started doing a few things that she was thinking of as unrelated to her academic work to explore possibilities. I suggested that she also consider those things in relation to her research questions. There is no reason not to focus on how to make her current job meet more of her intellectual needs while also opening up opportunities to meet those needs differently.
The red flags to watch out for are opportunities that look like they might be okay on the outside, but on further inspection will take you away from your vision, perhaps in ways that make it harder to get back on the path towards it.
Earlier versions of this post were published in my client newsletter in June 2013 and on the website 9 July 2013. An updated version was published on 14 April 2014, and edited & recategorized on 21 Sept 2015. The most recent edits incorporate material shared with my newsletter on 21 June 2019. Sign up for the newsletter.