Considering a career in academia? Here are some (observed) realities

Thinking about becoming an academic? A graduate student and aspiring academic reflects on a semester-long internship shadowing an assistant professor. Anyone contemplating an academic career will find this reflection of particular interest.

During my master’s studies, I had the opportunity to shadow an assistant professor working within a faculty of education. This educational internship enabled me to observe first-hand the multifaceted roles and responsibilities associated with being a developing scholar on the tenure-track at a mid-sized university in Ontario. Although the observations and insights that I share can by no means be generalized to every institution, department, or professor, they inform my emerging understanding of academic work and bring me one step closer to determining whether this career path is right for me.

The internship context

I embarked upon an internship to shadow one professor over four months. My internship was facilitated by my master’s advisor, who creatively re-interpreted the formal curriculum (a for-credit internship course) in a way that provided the flexibility needed to align with my interests and career aspirations. Knowing that I was contemplating an academic career, she suggested that I spend some time shadowing a beginning professor in order to get a better sense of the nature of academic work. She approached a pre-tenured colleague whom she believed was actively engaged in teaching, research, and service, who could provide me with a realistic sense of a new scholar’s daily work life, and who would be willing to acknowledge openly both the opportunities as well as the challenges associated with being an emerging academic. “Rose” (a pseudonym) graciously agreed, and thus my internship experience began. Together, the three of us (Rose, my advisor, and me) negotiated a structure for the internship that involved my: (a) conducting weekly observations of Rose as she juggled a variety of work roles on and off campus, (b) participating in debriefing sessions to critically discuss my observations with her, (c) engaging in formal one-on-one conversations with Rose around select themes of interest to me (e.g., gender issues in academe, balancing personal and professional roles, academic identity), and (d) keeping a reflective journal to document my questions, insights, and sense-making. 

One professor’s work roles

Over the course of my semester-long internship, I observed Rose negotiate 22 distinct work roles. These roles included (but were not limited to): teacher, researcher, grader, thesis supervisor, advisor, mentor, committee member, colleague, communicator, presenter, independent learner, responder, writer, listener, chair, collaborator, decision maker, leader, team player, analyzer, activist, and inventor. Although some of these roles have been characterized as diametrically opposed (e.g., teacher versus researcher, or listener versus communicator), they often overlapped, complemented one another, and enhanced Rose’s understanding of, and performance within, her other roles. As she moved between different environments, she was able to draw upon her multiple skills, adapting herself to fit her surroundings and exhibiting the necessary characteristics to help her succeed in that moment. Below, I describe two of her roles in more detail, illustrating the responsibilities she negotiated, the characteristics she exhibited, and the challenges she faced while assuming these roles.

While taking on the role of chair in various contexts (e.g., in a committee meeting and for a thesis defence), Rose was responsible for demonstrating leadership, facilitating discussion, providing direction, keeping proceedings on track, taking notes, identifying central issues, knowing the process, understanding the language, following the agenda, embodying professionalism, setting a positive tone, anticipating issues or challenges, redirecting the conversation when necessary, clarifying concepts, asking questions, eliciting feedback, disseminating information, as well as understanding and following the institutional hierarchy. She easily referenced a host of terms and acronyms, which quickly led me to realize that mastering the terminology is a first step towards participating in academic discourse. While taking on this role, Rose embodied the following characteristics or behaviours: willing, inviting, leading, guiding, actively listening, welcoming, communicative, supportive, attentive, proactive, organized, interested, open-minded, focused, knowledgeable, professional, direct, clear, and realistic. Our de-briefing sessions opened my eyes to a variety of tensions that might arise for novice chairs. For instance, I learned about the apprehension that some pre-tenured professors might feel towards taking on leadership roles such as chairing meetings or committees, particularly when such roles involve taking a stand that is in direct opposition to the views of more experienced (and tenured) professors. I gathered that while performing the role of chair, pre-tenured professors might engage in self-censorship and approval-seeking as means to protect themselves from feelings of intense vulnerability and scrutiny. Furthermore, Rose noted that beginning academics might not yet be fully cognizant of the subtle subtexts operating within meetings (e.g., interpersonal dynamics, non-verbal communication, as well as hidden agendas and motivations), which can make it difficult to avert conflict. Our follow-up conversations shed new light on the complexities involved in negotiating this role, which I would not have surmised from my observations of Rose, who appeared to be a skilful, confident, and outspoken chair.

Assuming the role of researcher, Rose was responsible for carving out a program of research, adhering to research ethics policies, networking with others, finding collaborators, protecting participants, seeking out and applying for funding, identifying venues to disseminate her research, presenting research findings, publishing, asking questions, knowing the literature in her field, providing strong rationales, upholding ethical obligations, documenting her research productivity, as well as maintaining personal and professional integrity. As she took on this role, Rose was: innovative, informative, adaptive, protective, evaluative, flexible, ethical, professional, careful, social, analytical, knowledgeable, organized, detailed, focused, future oriented, observant, driven, passionate, and inquiring. Professors are constantly required to display an ethical consciousness in their research work within and outside their institution. I learned from our follow-up conversations that negotiating between discrepant conceptualizations of “ethical research practices” across contexts can prove difficult. In particular, Rose noted that challenges exist when the general public does not subscribe to the same ethical requirements that are upheld by university research ethics boards. Helping communities and citizens more fully appreciate the need for ethical practice is essential. Rose alluded to other challenges facing ethical researchers including: (a) mixed messages regarding the value of collaborative research and publishing, (b) increasing awareness that different kinds of “impact” are given different currency within the institution (e.g., growing reliance on impact factors and a push towards international publications, perhaps at the expense of valuing contributions to local, community, and governmental agencies), and (c) negotiating between multi-site ethics clearance procedures.

Is this career path right for me?

Could I envision myself working as an academic? To answer this question, I contemplated both the deterring and alluring aspects of the profession that I discovered from my observations of Rose. I will share some of the drawbacks from my perspective. First, being an academic will mean spending long periods of the day in meetings. I will have to be prepared for the slow pace of institutional decision making and the need for long-range thinking (e.g., visioning exercises, and five-year plans). At times, I may have to struggle to negotiate between my personal “values” and entrenched institutional practices (Winkelman, 2005). I will have to account for the arduous processes involved in writing proposals. While envisioning grand research plans, it will be important to anticipate delays, as I seek out funding sources, respond to Research Ethics Boards’ requests for clarifications, and encounter challenges recruiting participants. Finally, I will face rejection, including declined grant applications and manuscripts for publication, which constitute months of work.

Yet, in my opinion, there are many advantages to an academic career. For instance, the diversity of roles and responsibilities will provide me with ongoing mental stimulation. As Rose states, each day brings with it new challenges and opportunities. Furthermore, I will experience variability and flexibility within my daily work. I can take advantage of extensive opportunities for professional development, including an array of workshops, colloquia, retreats, and institutes. Continuous learning of new concepts and acquisition of new skills is supported. In addition, travel is inevitable. There are chances to teach at satellite campuses, attend conferences and symposia, guest lecture at other universities, conduct research in diverse geographical regions, and collaborate with others in my field. I believe that it is extremely exciting to be able to network, share current work, and gain inspiration for future projects. Rose indicates that seeing ideas and initiatives that are materializing in other parts of the world will bring a global perspective to my own projects. She says that, “In this profession, if you can dream it up, it becomes possible.” I need to wake up every morning and feel passionate about whatever it is that I do. Being a professor will nurture my passions and interests. Finally, I hope to give back. Through research, teaching, and service, professors are able to have a positive impact on others (various communities, students, and the university). Despite the deterrents such as the high-pressured, politically charged climate common in many universities, including my own (e.g., Polster, 2007), I am confident that the inviting aspects of this profession prevail. For those of you such as myself, who are seriously considering an academic career, I will leave you with some useful tips that I acquired over the course of my internship.

Advice for aspiring academics

  1. Know yourself. Be sure of who you are and what you stand for and be able to articulate this clearly to others (Rose).
  2. Start investigating job opportunities early. Determine the type of academic position that interests you and identify where such jobs exist. Ask professors to share bulletins, postings, and their insider knowledge regarding available and upcoming positions (Rose).
  3. Come to your interview well prepared. An academic interview may span two days. It is an intense process that typically includes: meals, meetings, tours, a formal interview with an advisory committee, and a public presentation. Do your homework. If you identify a prospective match, be able to articulate how you envision yourself to fit within the department and the institution. Investigate the research interests of potential colleagues. Show that you are knowledgeable about their work and willing to form partnerships with them. Equip yourself with information about the average starting salaries for similar academic positions in the province. Consider negotiation skills as integral to the contract signing process (Rose). “Use your time on campus to find out whether the position is a good fit; consider this when deciding whether to decline an offer or specify conditions during negotiations that would make it an acceptable choice for you” (M. McGinn, personal communication, March 23, 2010).
  4. Actively seek out mentorship. The first year will be intense (Perlmutter, 2004). “Find a mentor; someone whom you can learn from, collaborate with, and question, in order to get a sense of how everything works” (Rose).
  5. Develop creative problem-solving skills. Perlmutter (2004) advises: “Don’t bother your dean with any problem that you can solve for yourself. Don’t ‘vent’ to her: She’s not the therapist in chief. Save direct appeals for the tough issues. And then walk in with a realistic plan for a solution. Let your name on an e-mail announce something important and proactive. Be a solver, not a sobber.
  6. Be fully committed to each project you undertake. Put 100 percent into everything that you do (Perlmutter, 2004). Furthermore, never compromise your morals and values (Rose), because character matters (Donnert, 2004).
  7. Avoid overextending yourself. Know your limitations (Perlmutter, 2004) and when to say no (Rose).
  8. Be punctual. Always arrive on time. Being late leaves a poor impression and means that you will likely miss out on key pieces of information.
  9. Be flexible. Write in pencil, as it is easier to erase (Rose). You will find yourself amending appointments and obligations in your ever-changing schedule.
  10. Be organized. Develop a good system of organization, and be able to locate things at a moment’s notice (Rose). Find the approach that works best for you (e.g., colour-coded files, labeled binders, hardcover notebooks, accordion style organizers, desktop folders).
  11. Familiarize yourself with the faculty handbook. This document is your bible. Know it inside out and always have a copy on hand for quick reference (Rose).
  12. Research matters. Compose a clear, specific, and realistic program of research (Perlmutter, 2004). With respect to dissemination, “Be strategic and engage in a three-step process: after conducting research, do a poster session, a paper presentation, and follow up with the publication” (Rose).
  13. Ensure that your teaching is practical and relevant to students. Rose advised, “Be explicit in your teaching, think things through and justify what you do.”
  14. Adhere to workload requirements. Do not neglect or compromise any of the three dimensions of your workload (i.e., teaching, research, or service), as this can be detrimental to your academic career (Rose).
  15. Find balance. Maintain outlets for relaxation and creativity that extend outside your work (Rose).

Remaining questions

The internship course remains one of the most valuable learning experiences of my graduate education thus far. My weekly observations and one-on-one conversations enabled me to appreciate the complexity of one professor’s multiple roles and responsibilities and to understand some of her experiences, anxieties and ambitions as a newer, pre-tenured academic trying to build a solid reputation while making a recognized “contribution” to her field (Ovington, Diamantes, Roby, & Ryan, 2003). I gained awareness of the amount of time she spent attending meetings, responding to e-mails, and conferencing with students. Furthermore, I saw the conflicts that arose for her in trying to balance her teaching, research, and service work. I left this experience with a new-found appreciation for the work that academics do and for the complexities of juggling work roles, their own expectations, the demands of others, institutional politics, pressures, and complicated hierarchies.  

I have since moved on to doctoral studies, undeterred from pursuing an academic career. Reflecting back on the internship from this new vantage point, having had opportunities to be more fully engaged in academic life, I continue to contemplate some important questions. For instance, what kinds of spaces and conversations might have been off limits to me during the internship? What did I not see? What was missing from the picture that was painted for me of Rose’s academic work life? Why might certain dimensions have been omitted? Did my presence change Rose’s behaviour or daily schedule in any way? Moreover, what is missing from my own reconstruction of this experience? How do my recollections coincide with what I observed? In shadowing one professor, I am unable to draw comparisons to others. I wonder how closely her experiences parallel those of other early-career, pre-tenured faculty. Would my early impressions of academic work be quite different if I had shadowed a white, male, tenured faculty member? I have begun to answer some of these questions for myself and examine academic work from multiple perspectives through active participation in university affairs. For me, this has meant: sitting on departmental and institutional committees, becoming involved in broader disciplinary conversations carried out within special interest groups, engaging in formal and informal mentorship opportunities, and building a program of research around academic identity and role negotiation.

To aspiring academics, I say I hope that you will start to question some of your own assumptions about this diverse profession, as I have begun to do, and that you, too, will critically evaluate multiple sources of information in your quest to determine whether this profession is right for you. Perhaps one day some of our paths will cross, in the bustling hallways of the “ivory tower.”

Christina Skorobohacz is a PhD student in educational studies at Brock University. She is co-investigator on a research project entitled “Faculty Service Workload and Quality of Life”. Her doctoral dissertation will explore the opportunities and challenges of women employee-graduate students as they simultaneously study and work at one university.

Acknowledgements

To “Rose”, the professor I interned with: Thank you for your candour during our many conversations, for your wisdom and sage advice, for your infectious enthusiasm and, most of all, for your willingness to share your personal journey with me. I would also like to extend my sincere appreciation to Alice Schutz and Michelle McGinn for their feedback on a previous draft of this manuscript.

Note

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 35th Annual Conference of the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on May 26, 2007.

References

Donnert, H, J. (2004). The professorship: Just a job – or a higher calling? Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 84(4), 40.

Ovington, J., Diamantes, T., Roby, D., & Ryan, C. (2003). An analysis of prevailing myths regarding tenure and promotion. Education, 123(3), 635-637.

Perlmutter, D. D. (2004). When the honeymoon is over [Electronic version]. Chronicle of Higher Education, 50(44), C3.

Polster, C. (2007). The nature and implications of the growing importance of research grants to Canadian universities and academics. Higher Education, 53(5), 599-622.

Winkelman, M. A. (2005). Myths and realities for today’s college professors; or, et in arcadia ego. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 5(2), 175-194.

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