A Scholarly Approach to Your Career

Written by: Elizabeth Simmons

Primary Source: Mend the Gap

During graduate school, many of us received the impression that our experiences, such as serving as a graduate teaching assistant or writing a dissertation, would fully prepare us for an academic career.

Those of us who have, subsequently, passed through the trials of assistant professorship can testify that this is not remotely the case. Even with your degree in hand, there are still many things you have yet to learn.

Nonetheless, the coursework and research you undertook in your post-graduate training have equipped you with general academic skills and approaches that will serve you well in mastering the mysteries of faculty life. I advise you to deliberately apply the principles you learned in graduate school and adopt a scholarly approach to your career.

In teaching students how to complete assignments, you instruct them to use the most reliable and well-documented evidence available. You illuminate the different information one gains from primary and secondary sources and discuss how to judge the quality of a given source. You talk about building arguments on the basis of evidence.

In brief, you impel them to take a scholarly approach to the assignment. Likewise, in your own research, you strive to use the most primary and reliable sources, the most efficient and accurate methods, the cleanest derivations. In other words, you seek the best and most transparent ways to produce, create and transmit knowledge

This is also a valuable way to manage your academic career trajectory. Whether you have already joined the faculty ranks or aspire to do so, take a step back, look at the topics you need to master, and outline how to get there, just as you would outline a lesson plan or manuscript.

In this article, I review several steps that you have probably taken in learning to be a scholar that will stand you in good stead when applied systematically to building your academic career: finding a variety of mentors, acquiring skills and local resources, integrating with your professional community, and establishing productive work habits.

Find a career mentor to help you get started, someone who is willing to discuss your professional skills and provide advice on how to improve them. This might be a mentor who is also offering assistance with specific teaching or research projects, or a different individual altogether. It might even be someone external to your department if you would prefer to ensure that he or she is a confidential advisor who will not be asked to contribute to your performance or tenure evaluations.  In a sense, this is like finding a tutor. If you knew you needed to brush up on a (foreign or computer) language, but were not sure exactly what you needed to study, a tutor could help evaluate your deficiencies and make a plan for remedying them.

A mentor (or professional career coach) can play a similar role as you build your identity as a faculty member: helping you determine what skills you need to add to your repertoire and how to acquire them.  If an appropriate career mentor is not available locally, you could enroll in an online mentoring program like the Faculty Success Program offered by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

Acquire the skills you need. If pursuing a scholarly or teaching objective demanded that you learn a new language or master a new statistical technique you would enroll in a class or read a book. Apply a similar approach to vital academic career skills. Nowadays, much of what you need may be available for little or now cost locally or online.

Read a book on negotiation before your next job interview or presentation to the lab space review board (e.g. Getting to Yes or Ask For It). Attend a campus workshop on preparing a strong tenure dossier or being an effective member of a search committee. Read academic publications like Inside Higher Ed to familiarize yourself with national trends and issues. Take a webinar on lab management or theories of leadership. Listen to TED talks to glean tips about structuring effective presentations or learning to project confidence even when you feel nervous. Over time the range of skills needed for your career stage will shift, so continuing education of this kind will be essential.

Use the full value of professional associations.  While disciplinary-based professional societies are best known for the scholarly conferences, prizes and journals they sponsor, many also provide general career-building opportunities for faculty members. For instance, the American Physical Society offers annual workshops on career skills for junior and senior women physicists, which are held in conjunction with its national scientific meetings. Likewise, a number of higher-education organizations that are well known for policy papers and workshops also assist faculty with developing career skills.

For example, the American Council on Education offers a range of workshops for aspiring academic leaders, while the Association of American Colleges and Universities runs conferences and summer institutes where faculty teams learn about educational innovations and draw up plans for applying them at their home campuses. A little online research will likely reveal opportunities for you to attend an academic conference where you can both present a scholarly paper and attend a career-enhancing event.

Find local resources.  When you join a new institution, it seems natural to familiarize yourself with facilities that will help your scholarship, such as the archives, the high-performance computing cluster, or the microscopy center. A university also has facilities that may become relevant to your developing career, especially as life intersects your work along the way. So attend the campus information fair or browse the institutional website to learn about offices and centers that can help you project a more assertive presence in the classroom, handle emergency child- or elder-care needs, write better-targeted grant proposals, stay fit even in bad weather, and advise students about responsible conduct of research. These local resources were created with you in mind – so do not hesitate to avail yourself of them.

Determine what makes you productive. If you were running laboratory experiments, you would optimize the processes and environment to ensure that contamination or lack of consistency did not invalidate the results. Similarly, establishing a reliable schedule and picking appropriate locations for undertaking the varied tasks in your faculty workday may make you more efficient. Some faculty at my institution have established a “writing boot camp” to help them complete grant proposals and manuscripts on time; they find that committing to write silently in the company of others has boosted their productivity. If you notice that certain kinds of work are best done at certain times of day, in a hushed library or a humming coffee shop, in short bursts or sustained blocks of time, make this part of your routine and reap the benefits.

Seek specialized mentoring as warranted. Two elements of faculty life for which graduate training provides little practice are writing books and preparing grant proposals.  If either of these will be important for your career, it is worth finding expert mentors who can help you develop the necessary skills while moving a particular project toward its deadline. Just as you obtained guidance from your dissertation committee during the writing of your thesis, use a professional editor as a sounding board for writing your first book. After all, a dissertation composed for a specialized academic audience may need substantial reworking to appeal to a publisher’s envisioned national market; the nature of the required changes may not be obvious to a neophyte. A good editor will put you through the equivalent of a rigorous writing critique and a crash course in the realities of modern publishing. My colleagues who have worked with an editor report that it is incredibly helpful.

Similarly, a grant-writing expert can help you learn how to glean the key information from a call for proposals, structure your proposal to convey the required details appropriately, and describe your work succinctly for general audiences. This expertise may come in many forms: a colleague with multiple grants, someone who has served as a program officer for a funding agency, workshops offered by your institutions’ research support office, or even a professional writer who is available to help faculty write proposals. As a side note, when a funding agency requires you to include public outreach in your project, offices at your institution that deal with extension, community engagement, or pre-college programs are good sources of advice on designing feasible and effective outreach initiatives.

Summary. While your studies have not necessarily helped you practice all of the activities faculty members are expected to undertake, graduate coursework and research do provide essential experience as a scholar. Applying that familiar approach to your career can help you map out your goals, get appropriate advice, learn the new skills you need, and advance toward a desired position or promotion.

Along the way, you will encounter situations where career meets life. Requesting a sabbatical, a parental leave, a dual-career accommodation, or an award nomination are all examples of routine professional matters that can, mistakenly, feel akin to asking for personal favors or special treatment. These work-related issues will actually benefit from the same scholarly approach discussed here. However, because they raise special questions about where to seek the most reliable information about your options, I will address them them in a forthcoming follow-up article.

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Elizabeth Simmons
Dr. Elizabeth H. Simmons is Dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics in the Michigan State University Department of Physics and Astronomy.