In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, scholar-administrators are often facing increasing demands in their full-time positions while trying to keep their research and writing moving forward. In the current moment, it’s important to revisit our goals and motivations, be creative in how we balance our multiple roles, and give ourselves the space and time we need to avoid burnout.
That is particularly the case for women scholar-administrators who are shouldering heavier care loads during the pandemic as well as for Black scholar-administrators who are navigating the persistent exhaustion and terror of being Black in the academy in the midst of both the pandemic and increasing attention to anti-Blackness. Below, I share strategies and lessons from my own career as a scholar-administrator.
When I made the decision five years ago to move into full-time higher education administrative work, I was committed to keeping an active research agenda. But I often found myself struggling to find the time, energy and resources to make that a reality.
After experimenting with a productive but ultimately unsustainable practice of getting up to write from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. every weekday, I developed a number of strategies that have helped me continue and even expand my research agenda and publication record, while simultaneously moving deeper into my career path as an administrator.
Scholar-administrators working outside the support and resource system available to our colleagues in faculty positions face a range of challenges to being productive and flourishing in our research and writing projects. Many of us wrestle with the question of whether there is a place for our voices and work as scholars writing from nonfaculty locations. Those identity-related questions -- Am I still a chemist? Will my colleagues in art history still want to read my work? -- can challenge our ability to make progress even on the research we are most passionate about. Impostor syndrome amplifies such worries for many of us, especially those of us working, researching and writing who are of color, LGBTQ, first generation, women and/or trans, genderqueer or nonbinary.
In addition to struggling with wondering whether we -- and our scholarly work -- still belong in our academic fields, those of us pursuing scholarly agendas as full-time administrators face myriad challenges related to time, resources and institutional structures. How can we find time to write when the responsibilities of our full-time positions don’t include research or publishing? How do we keep up with the literatures in our area(s), much less find ways to make our own meaningful contributions to those literatures? How do we secure the support we need -- such as funding for conference travel, research assistance, software and lab space -- to pursue our scholarly agendas?
Identifying Your Motivations to Write
I’ve found that spending time reflecting on and clarifying your motivations to begin or move forward on new research projects -- and using those motivations to structure your research agenda -- is an important part of keeping your research agendas active. You might choose to sustain or develop an active research agenda for myriad reasons. You might be eager to stay intellectually engaged in your areas of scholarly expertise if your position doesn’t directly bring you into contact with those bodies of scholarship. You might be driven to contribute to an important scholarly question in your field. You might want to maintain your identity as a scholar, alongside your emerging or established professional identity in your career field. You might want to hold open the possibility of returning to a traditional faculty path and thus need to build or continue a strong publication record.
The clearer you can get about what draws you to research and publish, the more you can use those reasons to keep your scholarly agenda moving forward. In the absence of external motivators built into the structure of traditional faculty positions, finding and prioritizing your own internal writing motivators is especially important.
Collaborative research and writing can be an especially productive strategy for moving your work ahead. In particular, collaborating with other faculty members who may have access to research support and assistance can be enormously and mutually beneficial. For example, I have intentionally collaborated with faculty colleagues who are able to be more engaged in and deeply read than I am in our areas of expertise.
Collaborations, when carefully planned and structured, can also provide an opportunity to build research and writing schedules around your busiest professional times. They can introduce their own challenges, however, and starting small when entering a new collaboration is an important step in assessing the fit of your working styles before moving into a larger-scale one.
Negotiating for Research-Related Time and Resources
While your administrative position may not require or even encourage research or publication, you can build a strong case for why those are important parts of your work. You can make that case most easily if your research is explicitly linked to your professional work -- for instance, researching factors influencing the success of grant proposals if you work in development.
But even if your research is not at all related to your professional work, you can argue that your scholarly productivity helps you connect with faculty and students as well as heighten the visibility of your program or office. And you can cite myriad other contributions that such activity makes not only to your own success but also, more broadly, that of your program or office.
Whatever the logic of the case you make, your first ask should be small. Requesting to spend five hours a month or two days a semester on your research, for instance, is much more likely to be successful than asking to spend five hours a week. Similarly, rather than asking for full funding for travel to an academic conference, consider asking first for support for registration for a local conference. Once you’ve demonstrated that your research and publications have value for your program and that you can continue to meet the demands of your full-time position, you might consider making a request for a larger block of time.
It’s also always important to ask in a way that emphasizes that you are committed to your position and see your research and writing as supporting your work in that position, rather than as a launching pad away from it.
Thinking creatively about sources of research support is also vital. While you may not have the structured access to undergraduate or graduate research assistants that your faculty colleagues do, you might work with your institution’s office for undergraduate research to find a research assistant. Or you could reach out to the academic department of your specialization to inquire about providing research opportunities and experience for students.
While many institutional research support funds and resources are only available to faculty members, it’s worthwhile to ask whether you’re eligible to apply, particularly if you have a strong and compelling research project. Having a faculty collaborator may also open funding and resources you might otherwise not be eligible for. Additionally, you might inquire whether any professional development funds are available to you that could be used to support your research.
Again, when making these asks, you should clearly articulate the benefit of your work to the program providing the funding or resources. Many institutions are particularly interested in supporting proposals that provide opportunities for undergraduate students to engage in research, and crafting a proposal that provides those opportunities can also strengthen your request.
While you may not belong to a traditional academic department or have dedicated funding to attend conferences in your scholarly field, you can create opportunities to stay connected with and intellectually engaged with scholars in your discipline through virtual meetings, writing groups and collaborative projects. Finding or creating opportunities to connect with scholars who share institutional positions similar to your own, regardless of the area(s) of their research, can also be enormously beneficial. I have found it particularly important for my own process as a writer to be able to engage with other scholar-administrators who are writing without the demands and rewards of tenure and promotion processes and who face challenges and share motivations relevant to my own.
In my experience carving out a path as a scholar-administrator, burnout has been among the most significant challenges I have faced. In the first few years I was working on publications, I tried to keep up with the production pace that would have been expected of me in a traditional faculty position at the same time that I was learning my new professional field and continuing to teach as an adjunct. Getting up at 4 a.m. to write for two hours before I got ready for my full-time workday helped me keep up my publication agenda, but at a cost to my physical and mental health that was not sustainable over the long run. While I continue to believe that spending brief, intense periods dedicated to a specific project or goal can be both productive and beneficial, regularly throwing over one’s sleep, self-care and social time is a surefire route to burnout.
Being brutally realistic in setting writing goals that aligned with my calendar has helped me make adjustments so my research agenda is accomplishable. This year -- seven years post-Ph.D. and at the point when most of my colleagues who entered the tenure track were receiving posttenure sabbaticals -- I decided to give myself permission to have my own sabbatical and took three months off this summer from pursing new research projects. While those of us on administrator-scholar paths may not have the option of formal sabbaticals, we can create those opportunities for ourselves. Building in regular periods of rest and renewal is among the most vital steps you can take as a scholar-administrator to maintain a long-term research agenda.