A recent article in the New York Times  suggests that rather than career ladders, we should be thinking of career “lattices,” with both vertical and horizontal moves possible in the long-term development of a career. It’s an appealing image to anyone who has ever wondered if they’re cut out for climbing a ladder all the way to the top. Myself, I have something of a fear of ladders (ask my husband, who climbs them routinely to work on our roof — I can’t be anywhere in the vicinity when he does) but I’m wondering if the metaphorical lattice is going to work for academics as well as — according to this piece — it does for accountants.
It’s an appealing metaphor. As the Times author puts it, “Like the literal lattices you see in gardens, these are living platforms for growth with upward momentum visible along many paths.” But do we really have many visible paths for growth in the academy? The dominant metaphor for us is, after all, the “track.” Once on the tenure track, some of us have the opportunity to pause briefly, perhaps, taking a leave of absence, but there’s little if any room — at least as I see it — for lateral growth. Maybe after tenure? Certainly some people move into administration while others focus on teaching, leaving still others to continue their steady climb up the research ladder (though the adminstrative ladder may actually be more lucrative). Still, I see little movement among the three areas, even though it’s theoretically possible.
I keep coming back to something Tedra Ossell said in a recent column : “No, you can’t just “take time off” between a PhD and applying for academic jobs. If you’re going to apply for research-based positions, you will need to have, up-to-date research activity going on. Period.” I didn’t see anyone disagree with her in the comments, and her advice extends beyond the post-degree period through, at least, tenure and perhaps promotion for most faculty members.
There are, certainly, places in an academic career when one can pause. Best, perhaps, is a gap between the undergraduate and the graduate degree. For myself and many of my colleagues, a breather at that point proved to us that we could support ourselves, and also that we didn’t really want to do so outside of the academy. It didn’t seem to hurt much in terms of applying to graduate school (though I hear differently from some of my former students, these days). One can also take a few extra years, at least in the humanities, towards the Ph.D. itself. Again I point only to my own experience: having a daughter in grad school certainly lengthened the time it took me to write my dissertation, but once it was finished I was competitive with peers who had been more speedy.
But both of those “gaps” are really before the ladder starts. Once you step onto it, it seems to me, it’s much less flexible. Can we imagine our careers following a “lattice” rather than a “ladder” model? I think it’s noteworthy that the nay-sayer in the Times article is a succesful man: can those who have climbed the ladder themselves imagine a lattice behind them, for their successors? I’m still waiting to see.