More Than Merit

July 31, 2009

Academia is a very particular and peculiar enterprise that requires professionalization well beyond what gets covered in the classroom. One can be brilliant and productive, but still not necessarily end up in the most desirable position, whether that concerns the optimal graduate program or the perfect job. One may work all hours of the day and yet still not be on track with finishing the dissertation in a timely fashion or have any guarantee of landing an attractive job. Even if many things go well throughout the process leading to a job, getting tenure poses numerous challenges in its own right. This is not simply because getting promoted is the result of a complex process, but also due to the fact that many inner workings of academic life are rarely discussed explicitly. It is such unspoken mysteries of academic professionalization that I will address in this column. Although there are not often overt discussions or acknowledgments of certain academic conventions, many such practices do exist, and being aware of and familiar with them as early as possible in one’s career can mean the difference between missed opportunities and exhilarating success.

The pieces I will be writing here in the Ph.Do series are built on the premise that understanding the many implicit practices of academia can be extremely valuable in navigating various stages of the system well. Rather than focusing on a particular stage of the career process (e.g., addressing graduate students or junior faculty in particular), much of the advice presented here will be applicable to people at various stages of their professional development. Since junior scholars tend to have the least experience, however, they are the ones who likely stand to gain the most from this column. By “junior scholars," I refer to a wide range of people, from students starting in their first year of graduate school to faculty at the point of hearing about the glorious news of tenure.

Few people realize that the path to tenure begins in the first year of graduate school. Yes, that is not a typo, I indeed meant to write first year of graduate school. From applying to a graduate program to receiving tenure, one is engaged in one long interrelated process. Yet few graduate students recognize just how many of their actions and decisions during their time in a Ph.D. program will have relatively direct effects on outcomes during their junior faculty years and even beyond. The point of this column is to make those connections explicit and offer advice on how to navigate them optimally. This is not to suggest that it is too late to start thinking about these matters after one’s dissertation defense, or even a few years into one's faculty years. It is never too late to gather and act upon tips about professionalization. But the earlier one starts the more opportunities one will have to contemplate and put strategies into action.

From submitting a well-received conference abstract to making the most out of attending the annual professional meetings in one's field, from positive experiences with publishing to winning awards for one’s work, from having a good relationship with one's peers and colleagues to succeeding in a rewarding job, understanding how the system works is an important component of success. In contrast, ignoring the many unwritten rules of the enterprise is bound to pose significant challenges, lead to missed opportunities and result in lots of frustration along the way. The point is not to dismiss the importance of hard work and original contributions, as those are essential, of course. Rather, what is crucial to understand is that academic success is not based solely on such achievements.

Too often I have had people ask me for advice on how to approach a situation too late in the process. For example, the year you are on the job market is not the right time to start wondering about how to make yourself a competitive candidate. Similarly, the year you are coming up for tenure is too late for plans that will help maximize your chances of a successful tenure and promotion review. The relevant strategies often take years of investment and work, so it is rare that they can be willed into existence last-minute. To give just one example, having a group of colleagues – both locally and afar – who support you and your work and truly care about how you do is imperative for several reasons at many important steps of the academic career ladder (e.g., while working on your dissertation, going on the job market or under consideration for promotion). Trying to build this type of support network, however, is not going to happen overnight. Rather, it is important to cultivate good relationships with peers as well as senior scholars at your own institution and elsewhere continuously.

This may sound trivial, but I see students ignoring this point and missing opportunities to cultivate good relationships all the time. Of course, knowing what one should do is not the same as being able to do it well. In the pieces of this column, I will start by pointing out areas in which thinking, planning and acting ahead can be beneficial (as you will learn, that would include most aspects of academia) and then I will proceed by offering concrete suggestions on how to approach, pursue, implement and achieve them.

I am starting this column with lots of topics in mind for pieces ahead. That said, I also welcome suggestions and requests in the comments below or on email. Although I cannot promise to address specific questions in my writing – nor will I be able to respond to queries individually, I am afraid – I will do my best to incorporate responses into future pieces.

I will end on a positive note. The fact that you are reading this is already a step in the right direction. Reading advice pieces only takes a few minutes, yet considering the points conveyed in them can really give you a leg up in the process. It will also help put things into perspective as you come to realize that you are not the only one confused, caught off guard or frustrated by a particular situation. Reading such short pieces regularly will not distract from your academic work, rather, it will give you preparation and ammunition to handle issues that are bound to come up. It will also help you identify how to be proactive about approaching situations in a thoughtful way that will serve you well in the future.

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