#20: 4 Profound Career Mistakes That Academic Faculty Should Avoid In Their Careers

I’ve worked with a lot of academic staff over the past two decades. As a manager I have discussions about personal development, performance, individual ambitions and how I can support colleagues to achieve their goals.

I encourage colleagues to reflect on their progress at regular stages in their careers. And one staple question is:

“Given your time again, what would you do differently?”

As staff become more experienced their responses become simpler.

The question they tend to provide an answer for is:

“What early career mistake will you never make again?”

What I have ended up with is a collection of many different conversations that all seemed to be saying similar things.

So, here are the 4 profound mistakes that academic faculty should avoid in their careers.

Mistake #1: Not prioritising writing

Not understanding the impact that writing can make on career progression as an academic is the number one mistake I hear.

It’s understandable as academics write a lot as part of their work. It’s easy to think that the writing bit of the job description is being satisfied.

But writing has much more to offer than the promise of some research articles. Writing promotes orderly thinking and it is a superb vehicle for reflection. You can have a conversation with your thoughts and explore topics in complete privacy.

Our minds are fallible and we don’t usually have the capability to remember the detail of our thoughts in the long-term. Writing that detail down means that you can revisit the the experience at a later date and develop new insight on a situation.

To get this benefit you need to write regularly. And that means making time to write.

Establish a writing schedule that you commit to. Select tools that will help you write in different environments – on the bus, in a coffee shop, in the doctor’s reception lounge, etc. Develop your own system that enables to review what you have written, and supports you to chart your own progress.

The sooner that you commit to writing, the sooner that your writing quality shall improve. Better quality writing leads to better quality thinking, and this drives better quality research.

Mistake #2: Not being strategic when networking

It can be frustrating when trying to find partners for funding applications. First you have to drum-up interest. Then you have to ‘court’ potential partners to gauge interest. Then you might have to manage political sensitivities between different stakeholders.

This all takes a considerable amount of time. And most academics I have spoken to wish that they had not dedicated as much time to networking. Given their time again, they would have invested more in the relationships.

As humans we prioritise working with people who we trust. Which means that even though you have honourable intentions, if the other party doesn’t know you, it is unlikely that they can trust you. And even more unlikely that they will partner with you.

On the other hand, look at how many opportunities seem to be available to certain networks. People who work together, who know each other, who can get to work quickly. The trust has already been established, saving time and making that process more efficient.

Try not to be too transactional with your time. Choose to help people who have the same interests as you. As you work together the mutual trust will build, and you can then work on joint projects such as journal articles, funding bids, etc.

Mistake #3: Not teaching your research

Plenty of staff have told me that they spent far too much time on research in their early years as an academic. And by this they mean writing papers, writing funding bids (that usually were unsuccessful) and taking on as many PhD students as they could find.

The teaching component of their job became secondary, and in many cases it became a chore. The administration always bunched-up at the wrong time. Their marks were late. Professional services colleagues became exasperated with them.

This was mainly due to fear-mongering from senior academic figures, who offered the advice that papers and funding were the priority over everything else.

In some ways there is some truth that research needs an investment of time for it to flourish. And success in funding applications is often correlated with academics who have an established track record of scholarly outputs.

But it does assume that ‘the basics’ are in place. Your teaching needs to be under control; don’t be in the situation where you are at the mercy of organisational demands, slave to inefficient ways of working that are dictated by people who do not have to service academic demands. Look critically at yourself and your teaching. Organise and optimise it. And this means teaching your research.

The outputs from your research will serve as solid content that engages students and makes the learning experience unique to you. It reinforces your authority in the subject.

But using the process of research as a teaching approach can be extremely powerful. Set assignments that require the students to conduct peer-review. Have them evaluate your writing. Include them as co-investigators in your day-to-day scholarly activities.

Using your research is one of the best ways to optimise your teaching workload, while maximising the value of the learning experience for your students.

Get your teaching under control!

Mistake #4: Not being focused

When you are young, energetic, enthusiastic and hungry for opportunity, it can be hard to just say “no”.

The academic environment is rich with opportunities. It is also a collegiate environment in the main and this means that there are lots of times when colleagues ask for help.

Bearing in mind Mistake #2 (Not being strategic when networking), choose your collaborations with care. Take the investment mindset and evaluate your options.

How aligned with your own agenda is the proposed work?

Will the collaboration help you advance? If not right now, can you see it helping in the medium term?

Traditional wisdom says publish widely.

Get known. Solicit citations. Look prolific.

After many years of assessing academic CVs for promotion or recruitment, I can tell you hands-down that I would rather see evidence of a focused theme in an academic’s scholarly record, than a large volume of disparate, disconnected research articles.

External funders want to ensure that their money goes to the people who can extract the most value from the money. They want academics who are focused and who can demonstrate authority.

As you mature as an academic you can afford to ‘spread your wings’ a bit. But if you want to optimise your route to Professor, you need to focus.

Focus on who you work with.

Focus your research so it’s clear what your expertise is.

Focus on optimising your teaching.

I’ve had variants of this conversation with lots of junior academics. Sometimes it works straight away – the story resonates and the academic can get to work implementing the advice.

Sometimes some adjustments need to be made, often to the research focus. I generally advise academics to think about how they can establish a core component of their research that has a perennial demand for activity.

This is really quite important in technology-based research such as Computer Science. And while topics such as cloud computing, big data, the Internet of Things, blockchain and myriad other trends can be lucrative (academically), don’t forget the value of demonstrating performance in core topics such as performance, quality of service, and validation, to mention but a few.

I wish that somebody had written this article for me 20 years ago.

I am sure that I could have made good use of the advice!