Over the past 15 years, I have interviewed, observed, shadowed, surveyed, conducted focus groups, implemented professional-development interventions with pre- and post-analysis and/or collected time diaries from approximately 250 people who are employed in academic, educational or research careers. In the process, I have noticed common themes among the majority of the participants on how they shaped and navigated their careers in meaningful ways.
Below, I briefly share 10 of the more common strategies they’ve employed. I also illustrate what the strategies look like in practice through the composite case of Linda, a biology professor.
Establish a purpose. Participants in my research actively reflected on and determined their professional and personal priorities that best used their talents, time and passions.
Practical case: After speaking to groups of parents with children affected by the disease that she studies, Linda recalibrated her purpose beyond conducting research for academic journals only. She decided to make her results more accessible to front-line medical professionals, families and community members.
Plan intentionally over the long term. With their purpose in mind, participants established and communicated long-term goals that grounded their career trajectories and decision making.
Practical case: For Linda to work more closely with medical professionals, families and communities, she realized she needed to establish and partner with local primary care doctors, government and health agencies, and parents. She also needed to learn new forms of communicating her results.
Plan intentionally over the short term. On a more practical level, participants established yearly, monthly, weekly and daily schedules that prioritized their long-term goals.
Practical case: Linda maintains goals and tasks divided into yearly, monthly and daily calendar lists. Each Sunday, she creates a weekly schedule with time increments allotted to tasks related to these lists. For example, she focuses on teaching tasks on Mondays, field or laboratory work on Tuesdays, networking or planning meetings with health agencies and medical professionals on Wednesdays, departmental and teaching tasks on Thursdays, and reading and writing for scholarly and community/practitioner-engaged journals on Fridays.
Honor the plan. Participants protected their plans by refusing to allow other people’s requests or agendas, except rare circumstances, intervene in their time use.
Practical case: One semester, Linda’s department chair tried to set up a weekly meeting on Wednesdays about an advising initiative for undergraduate field research. As Linda’s Wednesdays are devoted to networking and meeting with doctors and health agencies, Linda worked with her department chair to arrange a different day for the advising meetings.
Advocate in a mutually beneficial way. Commonly, participants highlighted that they learned to communicate in ways that not only stated their needs but also demonstrated the benefits for the person with decision-making power.
Practical case: When Linda became involved in community-based health agencies, she realized she needed an expanded field-collection program and requested a field course to count toward her teaching load. She approached her chair with this request by noting that her field course would assist him with recruiting undergraduate and graduate researchers.
Say yes. Participants countered the conventional approach of saying no by proactively filling up their plates with roles and responsibilities that they want to say yes to. By pursuing yes opportunities, participants had reasonable excuses to turn down requests that fall into their no categories.
Practical case: With her purpose in mind, Linda intentionally sought out and participated in projects and tasks found on her yes list (i.e., starting an initiative with medical students, developing an undergraduate research program) and relied on her heavy involvement in these areas to justify saying no to other areas.
Say less. Participants found that providing detailed excuses oftentimes backfired because others thought they could convince them to change their minds.
Practical case: Linda upholds a longstanding tradition of being prepared with short and simple statements when she receives invitations -- saying, for example, “Thank you for the invitation. I am unable to participate.” And she leaves it at that.
Elevate relationships with educative value. Ana Martinez Alemán, associate dean of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, introduced the concept of “educative value” or “cognitive power” of relationships. Often, mentoring and professional support for faculty members on today’s campuses assumes instrumental strategies for surviving the career, rather than on promoting relationships that enhance scholarly learning and support.
Practical case: As Linda became more involved in community-based health initiatives, she joined new networks of fellow scientists studying an array of diseases. In this network, she brainstormed fieldwork approaches, discussed interdisciplinary research and bounced intellectual ideas off other scientists.
Build the capacity of others. Initially, participants acknowledged that they fell into the mind-set of “It is just easier to do it myself!” Yet in time they realized that building the capacity of others resulted in long-term benefits for a short-term time investment.
Practical case: Part of Linda’s research requires labeling specimens in a complicated database system. After a few years of doing it herself, Linda started training her students on the database. Although it took time to train the students, once she built their capacity, they not only entirely took over the database, but they also trained their replacements.
Contain emails and meetings. Participants often asserted that emails (being available 24-7) and meetings could regularly monopolize their time. So they actively followed strategies to limit the impact of emails and meetings.
Practical case: Linda follows several key strategies to contain emails, including: 1) establishing and upholding certain times of the day to check email, 2) accomplishing more challenging tasks before turning to email, 3) waiting 12 to 24 hours before responding to an email, especially those from people who repeatedly make requests or fail to do their own initial research to solve the issue, and 4) only answering emails from set locations (i.e., her office, a coffee shop).
To limit meetings, she: 1) carves out meeting-free blocks of time, 2) asks the person requesting the meeting if the discussion can occur over the phone, 3) asks meeting attendees to submit agenda items or pre-reads before the meeting, 4) schedules meetings back to back so there is a set finishing time, and 5) when possible, turns meetings into walking meetings so she can get exercise, too.
Within a fast-changing context characterized by rising demands, strategies for navigating and thriving in institutions of higher education have become ever more important for faculty members. The 10 strategies and the case of Linda speak to what David T. Hansen, professor and director of the program in philosophy and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, refers to as the crossroads between personal fulfillment and public obligation -- namely how to align talents and passions with the mission and responsibilities of the academic career.