In more than 20 years of working in academe, I have seen innumerable people sabotage their own careers through terrible mistakes. A bad outcome is sometimes due to chance or forces beyond your control, but the single most important factor determining whether you achieve your career goals, including tenure and promotion, is you.
Of course you do not stand alone: In a series of columns I’ve identified the people who play critical roles in your academic career: the department chair, the head of the P&T committee, the faculty factions, the senior campus administrators, the external evaluators, the university P&T committee, and your graduate-school or tenure-track peers.
Now let us turn the spotlight inward to look at the thinking and attitudes that can inhibit your success or lead to career catastrophe.
It’s not just a matter of staying positive. In fact, research on the effects of thinking positively is, to put it charitably, in a state of flux. Furthermore, insistent optimism can be dysfunctional when it deludes you about reality. And I have seen many examples of gloomy academics who nonetheless get their work done and achieve promotion and tenure.
So what mental outlooks are (mostly) helpful in getting you through your graduate education, procuring a tenure-track job, achieving tenure and promotion, and continuing to succeed afterward?
Know how to read the room. Robert Burns summed up a failing of human nature that leads to the collapse of many an academic career: "O, wad some Power the giftie gie us; To see oursels as ithers see us!; It wad frae mony a blunder free us; An’ foolish notion." Perhaps because scholars are often intensely focused on their own subfield and passionately devoted to proving its value, we don’t always score high on sensing how we come off to others.
Witness the silverback professor who, extolling feverishly at faculty meetings in favor of a curriculum proposal, manages to alienate even those who were originally favorably disposed toward the idea. Or the professor who, asked to speak to a local civic group, offers up an incomprehensible two-hour PowerPoint crammed into a 20-minute time slot. And so on.
You can learn awareness skills early. For example, after you give a research presentation for a campus job interview, ask yourself: Were you so caught up in your own brilliance that you couldn’t read the room to see how others were reacting to you? Did you design the presentation with the audience in mind, or just what made you impressed with yourself? Making an effort to notice the reaction around you will spare you immeasurable problems.
Be a little selfish. I have written several times in this column that giving trees don’t get tenure. The dictum is both logical and cruel. The vast majority of people who became college teachers and researchers want to help others. But the basic problem with being selfless is that it’s your "self" that needs to earn tenure. If you sacrifice too much for others (your students, discipline, or society in general), it is unlikely that you will be expending enough time on the other parts of the job that will win you promotion.
I witnessed a near train wreck of this kind early in my career. The symptoms were classic: A new assistant professor came in as an exciting, charismatic teacher. His goal was to win over every student, Dead Poets Society-style. He spent long hours preparing for class, and held unlimited office hours. He certainly was popular with students. He was also doomed, because his post was at a research university. Teaching was 40 percent of his allocation of effort, and he was falling behind on research productivity.
Luckily, an intervention of well-wishing senior professors convinced him that he could be a really good teacher without spending 100 percent of his time at it. He ended up managing and balancing all the parts of the job and even found the time to have a personal life as well.
It’s not long hours that count, it’s the intensity of effort. Cal Newport is a computer scientist who also does research on the factors that affect human achievement, via books and his blog, Study Hacks. He shares my antipathy toward the movie trope that I think has done more damage to America’s youth than any other: A lazy, unengaged loser suddenly learns to "believe in himself" and transforms overnight into a champion. Rather, Newport contends, "Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity."
"This formula," he argues, "helps explain why some students can spend all night in the library and still struggle, while others never seem to crack a book but continually bust the curve. The time you spend ‘studying’ is meaningless outside of the context of intensity. A small number of highly intense hours, for example, can potentially produce more results than a night of low-intensity highlighting."
In relation to today’s aspiring scholar-teachers, I’m concerned that increased expectations for research productivity come at a time when the administrative demands on faculty members are heavier than ever before. In short, our system is creating ways to distract their focus and sap their research intensity while we are asking them to perform at higher levels than at any time in the history of the academy. To wit, my father was a professor from the 50s through the 1990s; I recall his musing, "There would be entire years when I never had to fill out a form." Indeed, the bureaucratic burden of being a college professor today is significantly higher than it was for me when I began my career on the tenure track in 1995.
To succeed in academe, you must carve out time to focus, intensely, on the work you need to do.
Build your resilience. Have you noticed how some people seem to recover from a professional failure, while others seem to stumble from one to another, or never recover at all? Obviously some career blows are more devastating than others—a rejected paper versus, say, a tenure denial. But in the academic world, everyone I know has suffered small and big reversals of fortune. The ones who bounce back adopt one or more of the following attitudes:
- They learn from their mistakes. Academics who climb back in the saddle are often folks who can analytically examine the causes of their fall, including their own missteps. They aren’t afraid to hear criticism. As a consequence, they never suffer the same reversal twice, because they know what to do next time.
- They have a sense of humor. You don’t have to be jocular by nature to succeed in academe, but a degree of joviality can help. A chemist friend recalled a series of failed experiments about which he joked that the measuring device they were using was haunted by a malevolent spirit. The shared humor sustained him through a bad time in his research. He noted that his co-investigator fell off track for years because of unshakable frustration and his own dourness.
- It’s OK to quit something. I have written before that the "winners never quit" philosophy has hurt more academic careers than it has helped. When you encounter failure, do you keep on, out of ego or pride, repeating the same acts that led to failure? Or do you try something different? Wise scholars tend to have a good sense of when it’s time to drop a particular line of study and move on to another.
Be realistic about the rewards and the risks. On any given work day, you have a mix of choices of what you can do. Design a new course. Finish a book chapter. Agree to serve on a committee. Objectively, everyone knows that if you try to accomplish too many things at once, you will end up failing at most of them. Yet time management in general and saying "no" in particular are tough skills for most of us to attain.
Wisdom in an academic career begins with the ability to gauge if something is really, really worth doing. A mental checklist may help:
- What is the best-case outcome of this project? The worst? The most likely?
- How much time and money will this require?
- What would be the signs that the project is failing and you should cut your losses?
- How dependable/competent/trustworthy are your partners?
- Would it be a problem to delay the project?
- What would you need to sacrifice in your other projects to complete this one?
Above all, don’t let sentiment interfere with discernment. You have a long career ahead of you in academe (you hope). Sometimes the moment is just not right and saying "no" to others or to yourself is the best policy.
Academics come in many different flavors. I have met accomplished, well-regarded scholars who hold endowed chairs yet have so many personality eccentricities that they would probably be unemployable in any other industry. Among us are the friendly and collegial as well as the dour and standoffish, sociopaths along with saints. The variety suggests that there is no simple checklist of mind-sets and attitudes that in any way guarantee anything about the academic career track.
On the other hand, certain mental traits are surely vital to self-cultivate. Luck happens, but fortune favors the thoughtful, reflective, and shrewd.
The next column in this series will move beyond attitudes to actions. What can you do concretely to move your career forward?
David D. Perlmutter is a professor and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.