#15: One Mistake I Made As A Junior Academic That You Must Avoid

I used to believe my colleagues’ stories.

I’d just moved from the manufacturing industry into academia. I was an engineer that used a lot of technology in my job. I wanted a change and became a computer science academic.

I was 30 years of age and had some life experience. But I was a new entrant into academia, and I was in listening mode.

I was soaking up all of the advice and stories that my new coworkers were telling me.

Because listening is good isn’t it?

  • I was present.
  • I paid attention.
  • I started to believe their stories.

After all, they had much more experience of academia than me.

This felt great. Everyone was giving me the benefit of their experience for free.

After a while, some of their stories didn’t give me the results that I expected.

  • Some of their advice didn’t work.
  • Some of their ‘suggestions’ seemed just wrong, especially when I compared it with my own experience.
  • And I shouldn’t have written off my previous work experience as having no use in a new environment.

This is what I think now:

To get ahead as an academic, you need to audit your environment.

Take a critical look at your peers, your managers, your subordinates.

Evaluate every stakeholder you interact with.

If you don’t, your outcomes are entirely determined by other people.

This is absolutely fundamental if you have ambition.

  • If you adopt the lessons and mindset of your colleagues without question, you will find it difficult to be promoted.
  • If you listen to their stories about how the institution does not support them, you will start to think the same.
  • If you believe that you can’t progress, you won’t progress.

But if you audit your environment, you’ll find that you are:

  • Clear about your routes to success.
  • Empowered to build a successful network of contacts.
  • Able to select genuine opportunities, rejecting activities that drain your energy to fulfil the agendas of others.

After making this mistake, here is my advice.

#1. Understand What You Want

So many people limit their ambitions. They see an organisational hierarchy and accept that there is only one route for progression.

They work hard at their jobs and wait for the next promotion opportunity.

  • Sometimes they get the promotion.
  • Sometimes they don’t.

Time passes, and feelings of underachievement creep in. They conclude that it must be the fault of the institution.

But let’s face facts.

Our environments have their own agendas.

And employees have their agendas too. Generally, most people focus on the objectives that the institution sets for them.

So, their agenda is the institution’s agenda. 

Full stop.

Accept this, and you shall be completely at the mercy of your environment.

If you want to progress, you need to identify what you want to achieve.

  • Professor? You had better start building your scholarly network of contacts.
  • Institutional leader? You might focus on inspiring and motivating individuals and groups of staff.
  • Manager? You would focus on developing your people skills.

Once you know what you want, you can then start to work out what skills and experience you need to develop.

Instead of your annual appraisal being led by your line manager, why not take your agenda to them? Ask them for support.

Show how you can take the initiative.

#2. Understand Your Role

It’s important to understand your place in the organisation.

  • What does the institution ask of you?
  • What does the institution support you to achieve?
  • What do different stakeholders expect from you?

Read the official job description for your role. Think about the things that you do, that are *not* part of your job description.

  • Can these activities help you achieve what you want?
  • Does your role afford you the opportunity to engage in activities that support your agenda?

One common misconception that I encounter during staff development sessions with junior academics is that they are not paid to engage in research.

In the main, academic staff are employed using student fee income to teach. As part of their academic responsibilities to teach, they must engage in scholarship.

Scholarship is “the acquisition of knowledge”.

But many institutions require academics to conduct research.

Research is “creating knowledge”. Research is funded externally.

So, you are not paid to conduct research.

You are paid to be a scholarly teacher.

But you must deliver research to progress your career. And research requires external funding.

To advance your career, you must invest time in soliciting external funding for research.

Once junior academics understand this, they can decide how they want to realise their ambition.

Take the time to understand what is expected from you.

#3. Understand Your Surroundings

This final piece of advice is crucial to avoid long-term dissatisfaction.

  • You should now have an idea of what you want.
  • You should now understand what is expected of you in your role.

Now you need to examine your environment with a critical eye:

  • Are you surrounded by successful people?
  • Do you have access to the facilities that support you to prosper?
  • Are you inspired to achieve more?

Don’t give up if you cannot answer “yes” to all of the above. These questions might direct you to ask:

  • How can I work with a successful academic team in my institution?
  • What connections do I need to make, to gain access to the equipment that will help me succeed?
  • How can I re-frame poor performance as a challenge for me to improve my environment?

But of course, the time may come when you feel that opportunities are not available in your current environment.

And if you can’t change your environment, you need to change the environment that you work in. 

But at least you will know what to look for in a different institution.

Back in my early days as a junior academic, I lost ground by listening too much. I believed my colleagues and the stories they told.

I trusted their judgement.

After a while, I realised that their perspective, although it was shared and true to them, was not for me.

My environment was inhibiting what I could achieve, by constraining my ambition.

By telling me what couldn’t be done.

Don’t make my mistake.

Audit your environment. Invest the time so that you can:

1. Work out what you want.

2. Understand your role.

3. Understand your surroundings.

That’s how you will realise your ambition.