Starting an academic career

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About the authors: Lea Reiss and Marco Rapp are doctoral students and research associates at the Interdisciplinary Institute for Management and Organisational Behaviour at WU Vienna (Austria). You can contact them at lea.reiss@wu.ac.at and marco.leander.rapp@wu.ac.at 

Every career start goes along with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. In this blog post, we intend to outline ours for academia. While reflecting on our own motives and expectations for starting academic careers, we want to remind more senior scholars about struggles, hopes, and dreams that accompany the beginning of academic careers and show other young scholars that they are not alone. Furthermore, we are curious about what career researchers tell us about academic careers.

Personal expectations

As we – Lea and Marco – are writing this blog post, we are both in the first year of our doctoral studies. We are just starting to find out about the research fields that fascinate us and experience many first times: conducting our first own research projects, doing first presentations at conferences and teaching bachelor students for the first time. In the following, we start by highlighting what brought us to this position in particular.

Lea: My expectations towards academic careers are deeply ingrained as I have witnessed my father’s academic career with all the ups and downs at first hand. When I was a child, my father was busy writing his dissertation and habilitation beside the jobs he did for a living. I learned that academia is stressful and never finished because even during our holidays, my father laid at the beach reading scientific books. When I was a teenager, my perspective towards academia changed as my father got a position at the University of Vienna. An academic career now meant traveling around the world, being recognized as an expert, and being paid for following one’s passion. Since I have started my own doctorate, my perspective has evolved rather optimistic. So far, I really enjoy teaching, doing my research, being drawn into exciting projects and going to interesting conferences. However, at the same time, I feel uncertain about my future in academia, as it seems that one needs a lot of luck and right timing to be successful in this profession.

Marco: After talking to a handful of scholars, I noticed that my way into academia is not as unusual as I expected it to be – it all happened by chance. After writing my bachelor’s thesis, my supervisor offered me to work with her on a similar topic and since I really was drawn into it, I thought I might take a leap. As a student, I felt like the professors in front of me were able to explain the world and, since my parents did not attend any higher education, I thought, “this is how scholars look like prototypically”. So basically my initial expectation, that scholars are geniuses that are somewhat born for this privileged job, were shaped by my perception in the auditorium. Starting to work as a research assistant adjusted this opinion, especially when working with young academics who were barely older than I was back then. I noticed that they do not know “everything” and that, despite an obvious imbalance of expertise, they wanted to hear my opinion on the research projects we discussed. Experiences like these really shaped my expectations and in the end, fostered my optimism towards a career in academia. Therefore, I am still very grateful because, without the initial nudge by my former supervisor, the academic profession would have always been as far away as the ivory tower metaphor implies.

As our personal stories suggest, the experience of starting an academic career can vary considerably between individuals as where we come and start from influences our attitudes and expectations. However, while discussing our views, we also found great consensus and commonalities about some particularities of academic careers that shape our experiences and, as research suggests, also those of other young scholars around the world. In the following, we will elaborate on the decision of choosing academia as a career path, first insights we gained when entering the academic cosmos, the major challenges we face in academic careers and the associated labor market.

Hindsight: Choosing academia

It seems like in most cases, starting an academic career happens by unsuspectingly “stumbling in”. Most people around us have started their doctorates not because that is what they had always wanted or planned to do, but because they already worked at university besides their studies or some professor brought up the option during their master’s program. This impression of “just staying” at university after your masters, instead of doing the next expected step and entering the “real world labor market” adheres to many of us. Especially after studying business administration, you are often considered a lunatic when telling fellow students that you chose to stick to academia and at family gatherings, you might be confronted with questions such as “when are you getting yourself a real job?”. While you are paid less but work the same amount as friends who chose consulting, for instance, the essential difference is that you put all your efforts into developing yourself, neither a business pricing model nor a hedge fund. The related tasks include plenty of intellectual stimulation and demand which we agreed to be a major factor that drove us into academia. Furthermore, while the idea of creating an impact on society and “making a difference” is becoming a trending topic in the business world, in academia this has always been an essence of the profession. Moreover, according to self-determination theory (e.g. Deci & Ryan, 2000), scholarly tasks should provide you with a certain degree of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Lindholm (2004), who interviewed 36 US-professors, concludes that intellectual challenge and flexible scheduling are the most compelling factors of academic careers. Also Roach and Sauerman (2010) observed that, compared to other professions, academics typically have high intrinsic work motivation and are therefore more willing to accept relatively lower salaries while gaining independence and flexible working conditions in return. Indeed, while we were both obviously not attracted by financial rewards but the intellectual challenge, a general movement towards more flexible and autonomous working as well as the seeking of fulfillment through “making a difference” might have played important roles in choosing academia. In sum, while the extrinsic rewards are in favor of business careers, for us the intrinsic motivators outweigh by far. So despite some ups and downs, we both go to work with a smile on our faces (most days).

Here and now: First insights of the inside perspective

Once we started our doctorate, our perspectives fundamentally changed and we got to know and understand academia from the inside. Suddenly, we are not considered students anymore and the people who stood in front of us lecturing about the world are our colleagues now. Ever since, hierarchies are sometimes difficult to grasp. On the one hand, there is an obvious strong dependence from the dissertation supervisor, but apart from that, it seems to be more about research quality and networks than seniority. Somehow, everything revolves around publishing. It becomes obvious quite quickly that the journals that you get in, the reputation and the influence as a researcher that you build is an academic’s most important capital. During our studies, we had practically no insights into this essential and challenging part of academia. Yet, when entering the profession, you quickly notice how little is visible and conscious for outsiders, even for students who are an important part of the academic system. Most parts of the profession that are related to research aspects are not particularly visible and tangible to the broader public. In fact, the most important academic journals that we aim for publishing are almost exclusively read by academic peers. Hence, when entering academia, some essential aspects of the career are deliberately not visible for those who choose it (us included), bringing us to some of the major challenges of academic careers.

Major challenges

In our opinion, one major challenge young scholars face is finding a topic one wants to work on for at least three years, but which at the same time needs to be “publishable”. For instance, some topics appear to be especially appealing at first glance but might be covered entirely by existing research or offside current research trends. Furthermore, there are countless fruitful research topics, but especially as a young scholar, you often only see the tip of the iceberg and not what is below the surface. In this process, as we experienced it, it is crucial that your supervisor provides you with gentle guidance while equally important also giving you your own head. Depending on your way into academia, there might not be a real choice on what topic you want to work on, which involves the challenge of investing sweat and lifetime into something one is not passionate about. However, as we are in the lucky position to be able to choose by ourselves, we rather have to ponder about what that should be rather than dealing with a topic that is “not ours”. A second challenge we experienced is to find your place within the department, the university, and the academic field. In tackling this challenge, talking to other researchers was extremely helpful for us. With this in mind, we would like to thank the 5C network for providing us with ideas, a very welcoming environment and with role models showing us diverse ways how to go about academic careers. Moreover, we noticed that time is the essence in figuring out where you belong, who you fit with, and what kind of researcher you want to be. Another challenge most academics might face at some point, but especially at the beginning of an academic career, has been recently outlined by Clancy Martin (2020) in the Economist – the imposter syndrome. It is described as the irrational fear of being exposed as fraud, which originates from self-doubt concerning one’s credibility. Even though we certainly learned a lot in our studies and, compared with our peers, we felt quite knowledgeable, once we started to work in academia, our frame of reference shifted towards senior scientists, making us experience the so-called imposter syndrome at first hand (see Bothello & Roulet, 2018). At this point, we started to ask ourselves if we are really capable of lecturing in front of an audience that is barley younger than we are; and, during discussions with people that have dedicated a majority of their lifetime to a certain subject, we might feel like there is nothing intelligent one could contribute. To overcome such fears, two practices appeared to be especially helpful for us – talking to peers and, even more important, jumping in at the deep end.

Outlook: Academic labor market situation

Thoughts about the academic labor market and our chances and hurdles within it are constantly in the back of our heads and topic of frequent debates among colleagues. Similarly, in research challenges and opportunities around the academic labor market are discussed ambiguously. On the one hand, there seems to be an intensifying “war for talent” in academia (van den Brink, Fruytier, & Thunnissen, 2013). On the other hand, compared to other occupations, levels of uncertainty and competition associated with the pursuit of academic careers are high (Zacher, Rudolph, Todorovic & Ammann, 2019). In addition, the increased use of fixed-term contracts, as opposed to permanent employment in many countries, is not only stressful for academics’ inner peace, but also has negative effects on publications and development of collaborations (Broadbent & Strachan, 2016). Indeed, we are experiencing all of those aspects. While at international conferences, we occasionally are asked whether we are “on the market”, we sense the competition in the field and the pressures to publish in highly ranked journals as soon as possible. We also feel the urge to find out early whether we have the potential to succeed in this profession or not, as spending too many years in academia may be risky if we end up quitting on academia and pursuing a career in business anyway. For those who chose this path unintentionally, because they were just not ambitious, competitive or lucky enough, the years in research could be seen as almost “lost years” in other labor markets. However, if you belong to those who just fell in love with academia and cannot imagine doing anything else, the uncertainty can gnaw on the nerves.

Concluding remarks

Starting an academic career bears plenty of diverse expectations. Still, there are some commonalities among early scholars that include reasons for choosing academia such as intellectual challenge and flexible work. In addition, there are also common challenges along the way, for instance, pressures to publishing and career uncertainty. Overall, we try to embrace this period of freshly starting our academic careers and not overthink or excessively plan the future because most likely, the next exciting project is just waiting around the corner.

 

References

Bothello, J. & Roulet, T.J. (2019). The Imposter Syndrome, or the Mis‐Representation of Self in Academic Life. Journal of Management Studies, 56(4): 854-861.

Broadbent, K., & Strachan, G. (2016). It’s difficult to forecast your longer term career milestone: Career development and insecure employment for research academics in Australian universities. Labour & Industry, 26, 251-265.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227–268. 

Martin, C. (2020, January). Do you sometimes feel like a fraud? 1843 Magazine, Retrieved from: https://www.1843magazine.com/features/do-you-sometimes-feel-like-a-fraud

Roach, M., & Sauermann, H. (2010). A taste for science? PhD scientists’ academic orientation and self-selection into research careers in industry. Research Policy, 39, 422-434.

Van den Brink, M., Fruytier, B., & Thunnissen, M. (2013). Talent management in academia: Performance systems and HRM policies. Human Resource Management Journal, 23, 180-195.

Zacher, H., Rudolph, C. W., Todorovic, T., & Ammann, D. (2019). Academic career development: A review and research agenda. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 110, 357-373.

 

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