While the rewards of work can certainly outshine the challenges, sometimes the challenges take centre stage. This week, a normally calm, philosophical friend put a giant mock grin on her face and asked, in a game show host voice, “How many people am I disappointing right now?”
In her case, the real answer was probably that few people, if any, were disappointed. But her question is still a good one. Work/life balance is much talked and written about, but work/work balance ranks right up there in terms of difficulty. When my friend asked her question, the concern behind it felt so awfully familiar. But I wondered, in my own work life, how many times I’d taken the time to assess whether I could, in fact, cut back without letting anyone down.
When I started in a managerial job, I was desperate to be useful to the people who reported to me. In hindsight, some of the things I did were useful – but I bet that others were either neutral in terms of impact, or got in the way of people doing their work.
An extremely conscientious friend with an intimidating pile of marking is pondering whether to provide specific examples of how those research papers need to change or to just state, “the argument needs more evidence” beside the offending paragraphs. The latter feels to him like cutting corners. Some students might perceive it this way – others might not. It might even be useful to have the experience of struggling through without a ready-made solution.
It can feel strangely contrived to ask someone what their expectations are of you, and risky, because it might imply that their expectations should drive your behaviour. But at least the expectations will be out in the open, and can be discussed or negotiated.
Finally, I can’t help but think of advice a poet once offered me, between sips of whisky. After I grumbled about what I saw as someone’s unrealistic expectations, she paused and said, slowly, “If I were you, I’d establish myself early on as exactly the sort of person who disappoints expectations.”
If you’re lucky, you have mentors. They may have come into that role officially – as supervisors or dissertation committee members. They may be personal Yodas you’ve picked up unofficially – that grad student whose unflappability you’d like to cultivate, or the colleague who knows how to make meetings useful.
The balance of giving and receiving is pretty obviously tilted in mentor-mentee relationships. You get to bask in the sunny rays of your mentor’s time, energy and advice. So, what do you owe your mentors in return?
Thanks. It may seem obvious, but thanking your mentors on a regular basis is a nice touch. Specific thanks go a long way to showing that your appreciation is genuine and that the time that your mentors spent with you has been meaningful to you.
Respect for their time. Accommodating your schedule to theirs, and acknowledging when requests are last minute are among the basics.
Well-thought out and reasonable requests. Knowing what you’re hoping for – what situation you’d like advice on, limiting how much time you’re asking for, and keeping requests in line with what each mentor has offered in the past help ensure that your mentor will be comfortable with your requests. If your mentor has offered to put in a good word for you, that’s great – go ahead and accept their offer. If someone has offered a smaller favour, such as meeting with you once to give you advice, you’d be crossing a boundary if you asked that person to attach his or her reputation to yours by putting in that good word.
What’s not on the table. What you don’t owe your mentors is control over your career direction. Your mentors may come to feel invested in your career direction. After all, they’re probably mentoring you because they’re excited by the potential they see in you, and they can’t wait to see you achieve it.
But your mentor will not be the one doing your job. Whatever you sign on for, you’re the one who will experience it each work day. Your mentor may well believe that the direction they’d like you to move in will bring you satisfaction. If you believe otherwise, don’t do both of you a disservice by pursuing a career path you don’t want.
Mentorship relationships are less transactional than you’d expect: mentors usually pursue mentorship because they find it inherently rewarding. Chances are that your mentors wouldn’t take the time to support your career unless they also had an interest in you as a person. If you continue to enjoy what you do, or if you take steps to get closer to what you enjoy, your mentors will likely support you, no matter how wistful they feel for the future they envisioned for you.
Careers Café has recently had a fork-in-the-road theme, so – what the heck – I’m adding another fork and a personal post.
I recently had to ask myself the sorts of questions that I prefer asking clients: about what matters to me, what my definition of success is, how I’ll find meaning in work, and how I’ll shape my working life so that it allows me to make the impacts I want to make in other areas of my life. Nothing like a good health scare to prompt the bigger questions.
In the interim, life and my health have worked out very nicely. While I’m slowly transitioning out of a job I love, I’ve started another job I love – one that doesn’t involve a commute, does involve lots of direct work with clients, and lets me be a more involved parent.
Since there were a good seven months between the phone call from my GP and the happy resolution, I’ve had a fair bit of time to bite my fingernails into nubs remind myself of some common career issues:
- Success: it’s a set of moving and moveable targets, not a goalpost anchored in concrete. For a time, for me, it was viable to think about career success as something discrete. I could move up the ladder, learn from a fantastic manager who’s more mentor than boss, and view my career as its own entity, separate from the rest of my life. The prospect of ill health reminded me that all the roles we play impact one another. Sometimes, achieving success in one role requires us to rethink – or even set aside – what counts as success in another.
- Status: it felt great to be promoted, partly because of the work I got to do, and partly because it was recognized as success by others. If you’re downwardly mobile, it sure helps to have a clear idea about how the move lets you live out values that are dear to you, because you may encounter a few raised eyebrows along the way. (Happily for me, the well of parental guilt runs deep, and coworkers felt my pain in wanting to spend more time with my daughter before she develops an allergy to parents.)
- We’re multi-potentialed: there is no “it” out there – there’s a whole bunch of things we can do, though it can take lots of effort and time to find them.
I’m looking forward to continuing to explore these topics with clients, in my own life and, of course, in Careers Café.
In my last post, I talked about beginnings, the importance of looking up at the road ahead and then taking the small steps to move forward in that direction.
Implicit in that post is the sense that as we walk down a road we come to crossroads, forks, and half-visible trails through the underbrush. At every junction, we make a new decision either to stay on this road or to fork off onto that other path.
I have been walking the path that is the Career’s Café blog since November 2010. It has been wonderful to blog here with Liz and Nicola. We have brought our different perspectives to the issues that you face as you walk your career path. I have enjoyed picking up on themes others have introduced as well as bringing my own perspective to this space.
However, it is now time for me to take another fork in the road. I will continue to write about the issues facing those who are pursuing academic careers on my own blog. And I hope to have other opportunities to write for University Affairs from time to time as I have in the past (on stress, on postdocs, and on your relationship with your supervisor).
The editors at University Affairs are taking a similar look at where things are going and Career’s Café will have new voices with new ideas. I am confident that it will continue to be an important resource for academics at all stages of their career in Canada.
Talking about career chaos usually doesn’t win you any points with people in the midst of career exploration. But thinking about how to make use of chaos is a smart idea.
You don’t need a robust, scholarly understanding of chaos theory in order to have a useful framework for thinking about careers. You just need the understanding that large events can have large impacts on your career – but so can small events. Those small events have the ability to shape your career and move it in new, unpredicted directions.
What does that mean for you? For one, it means that the activities that seem like they should have a big impact (like applying to 150 jobs in two months) might not end up being as important as activities that seem as though they ought to be less impactful. That includes activities like having coffee with an old mentor, writing a thank-you note after an interview, opting to use a business directory you never used before to find new organizations to apply to, taking a chance by telling that person you just met about your job search, or heading out to a professional association meeting even if you feel that you have nothing to contribute.
When I consider the activities that have shaped my career, luck and unpredictably large outcomes from small events do indeed play a role. The small activities that have reaped big rewards for me: having taken German in high school (really), taking on a low-paying and infrequent gig as a tutor for students with learning disabilities while wrapping up my PhD, and staying in touch with one person I did an informational interview with, who happens to be much more influential in the career advising field than I was initially aware of.
So, where’s the practicality for you? After all, you can’t plan a small event that will have an unpredictably large and positive impact. However, you can gain some form of control over your career. One way to control your career, to the degree that’s possible, is to actively seek out experiences that might pay off. Don’t seek out experiences tirelessly – you can exhaust yourself trying to create luck – but do seek them deliberately, knowing that activities that might seem fruitless to those around you are, at the very least, giving you useful information, and are quite possibly laying the groundwork for future opportunities.
Another way to maintain control of the game is to be aware of your options. In a non-chaotic world, being aware of only one career path that you want to pursue is fine. After all, if actions lead to predictable outcomes, planning works perfectly. In a chaotic world, things change quickly – Lehman Brothers goes under, people with MSW’s begin to replace registered psychologists in hospitals, and User Experience Librarian becomes a job title. Being aware of multiple options that appeal to you can help keep you from getting backed into a corner. (As an aside, if every profession you’re considering requires a unique degree that you don’t have, it’s worth becoming aware of even more options.)
Is it time to panic if you only have one option in mind right now? Nope – just go ahead and book that coffee date, browse through Career Cruising while your university gives you access, look up some skills you like on a LinkedIn people search, ask someone in an interesting job to tell you more about it. Start taking a few steps towards greater control of your future, knowing that perfect control isn’t needed to find something that makes you happy.
I’ve had a great time working on this blog for the last two years, but it’s finally time for me to say goodbye. My reason for leaving will probably resonate with many of you. One of my first posts was called “just say no”, and while that post was aimed at urging young profs not to take on too many administrative responsibilities, the underlying reason for that advice was to make sure we all avoid burn-out. I’ve decided that it’s finally time to take my own advice. So ultimately, this blog is about choices.
It’s seemed like every year since I started my faculty position, I’ve been less concerned about the stability of my job, and I’ve concurrently become busier and busier. There have been so many amazing opportunities that I just couldn’t say no to, which have just accumulated to the point where I need to step back and set some limits. I’ve taken on keen students, brilliant students, students who just needed a break. I’ve pounced on opportunities to work with professors all over the world. I’ve had opportunities to help marginalized communities make a better life for themselves, and help our environment at the same time. How could I say no to these opportunities? That’s the problem … I couldn’t. And while I don’t regret a single experience, I now simply have too much to do, and too little time to do it all. I need to jettison some responsibilities, and keep only those that make the best use of my skills and provide the greatest social benefits.
When I started working on this blog, I wanted to give readers the perspective of a young, early-career prof. I had learned so many new things about the inner workings of academia, grant writing, teaching, and tenure, and I wanted to share those discoveries with other young academics. Now I’ve been a faculty member for eight years (and counting), and I don’t feel quite so young anymore. As I reflect over those years, my lessons can be condensed into these: I love being an academic. It is a privilege to live this life. Sometimes the money for research is there, it’s just not where I thought it would be. And if I do a great job teaching one student at a time, I can make the world a better place even if no one chooses to follow my environmental management recommendations. So those are the thoughts I leave you with… and I look forward to learning about the insights of other faculty members who might take my place.
I love UA. Reading it feels like sitting down with a colleague over a cup of coffee and talking about problems and opportunities that we both face. It’s been a privilege to be a part of that. However, I know there are other people who can now fill that role, and who can bring in a new perspective and new ideas to this online world. It’s time for me to put down that coffee and get back to my other responsibilities, and make time, at the end of the day, to go home to my family.
This is a post for those readers who are starting something new this fall:
- a PhD program
- a tenure-track job
- a new role like director of graduate studies, head of department, etc.
Although you may have officially started already, it is the beginning of the fall semester that will feel like the real beginning.
Stop at the beginning of the journey to look at the road ahead.
(You might want to write these questions in a notebook and free write some answers.)
What is the destination on your horizon? Try to describe it in terms that are not fixed to one particular outcome but capture the important qualities of that outcome in enough detail that you will still recognize it even if the sign says something different than what you expect.
What do you want from this role / job / program?
- What skills do you want to develop?
- What networks do you want to cultivate?
- What knowledge will you gain or create?
You are prepared for this
Remind yourself of the things that have brought you to this point. You are taking this step because you are ready for it.
- What skills do you have that you think will serve you?
- What networks do you have to support you?
- What knowledge do you have to contribute?
What are you feeling nervous or unsure about?
It is normal to feel nervous. This is a new path you are taking. There are things you don’t know about the institution, about the people, and about yourself.
Unexpected things will happen. What do you need to feel confident that you can handle the unexpected? What is your equivalent of a first aid kit in the glove compartment, a spare tire and jack in the trunk, and a CAA card?
Don’t worry if you haven’t thought about this. You are thinking about it now.
- Make a list of various sources of information and support, inside and outside your institution.
- Identify skills you think you will need and brainstorm ways to learn those skills.
- Put together a support team you will meet with regularly (though maybe not frequently) or who you can call on when needed.
What do you know about yourself?
- How do you recharge?
- In what conditions do you do your best work?
- What systems have been working for you so far?
Set yourself up for success by building in things you know work for you.
- Schedule time for the activities that give you energy (extroverts need regular social time; introverts need regular alone time; put your exercise routine in your calendar; etc).
- Set up your office appropriately.
- Communicate to others about how you like to receive information and how your process information.
You can do this!
Whatever journey you are embarking on, we wish you well. Pause occasionally to look up, remind yourself of the destination, check for alternate routes that weren’t visible when you started out, and adjust your emergency kit. Then carry on.
Ah, it had to happen sooner or later. Brazen Careerist founder, Penelope Trunk, was eventually going to take grad school down a peg. Given her typically provocative style, she was unlikely to say that it’s a wise investment.
She’s challenged the wisdom of pursuing grad school in the past on her blog, but using more measured arguments. That blog post (written in 2005) posed good questions about testing career options before signing up for more education, exploring whether a grad degree is necessary for your anticipated career, and evaluating whether you were sufficiently keen on your research topic. That blog post might not be sexy reading, but it warned against going into grad school just because it’s there, and it assumed that, for some people, grad school is a good option.
More recently, Trunk has suggested that, if you’re in grad school, you haven’t thought out your reasons for being there, whether you’re aiming for non-existent teaching jobs or shiftwork behind a cash register. Humanities graduates are especially doomed.
So, do you need to worry about her claims? By now, you’ve probably read through the endless parade of media claims that your degrees are useless (and hopefully Léo Charbonneau’s excellent rebuttals in Margin Notes). You can find information from Statistics Canada that does point to discrepancies in employment rates between PhD graduates from different faculties. Although such discrepancies exist, the situation is nowhere near as dire as Trunk claims.
Beyond the stats, there also simply isn’t a degree out there that can absolutely cement your success or your failure. There just isn’t. And, with any degree, at least part of what you get out of it will be the “extra” – perhaps even seemingly superfluous – stuff that you do. Heck, MBA programs typically haven’t hidden the fact that some of the degree’s value comes through the networking (PDF) opportunities it creates.
There’s no need to choose between Trunk’s cheerful scorn for grad degrees or the head-in-the-sand thinking she says emerges in response to her arguments.
- Assess the costs and whether you need grad work for your career plans. Then, if graduate work still feels important for your development, do it. (And if it doesn’t, do something else.)
- Deliberately choose how you’ll get the most out of it – which seems a relevant approach regardless of your educational path. Choose to think about what parts you like most and least. Choose to develop a plan B and a plan C.
- Choose to do some things that are appealing but feel superfluous.
- Choose to stay in contact with people who are doing things that seem interesting.
While you’re at it, choose to use your university’s career office to learn more about presenting your abilities to employers. Then, you can better disabuse any employers who might share in misconceptions about grad school.
Everyone knows that you have to publish. And yet, many academics struggle. Even if you don’t struggle with the actual writing, you may find it hard to submit your work. Sometimes your fears about submitting lead you to publish in not quite the right places, affecting your ability to secure a tenure-track job, a grant, or a promotion.
Why are you publishing?
I have noticed that many of the conversations about publishing are focused on those secondary outcomes: hiring, promotion, grants.
It’s as if publishing were like those cards the coffee shop gives you: 10 stamps and you get a free coffee; write articles for X number of publications and you’ll get a job/promotion/grant.
Of course it’s not just any publication, it’s “high impact journals” or “respected university presses” but that’s a bit like saying you only get a stamp for buying a cappuccino.
Making a contribution to knowledge
The real reason academics publish is to make a contribution to knowledge. Publishing is a formal way of engaging in conversation with other scholars.
That means you want to publish your work in a journal (or with a press) that the scholars you want to engage with are likely to read and respect. Sometimes those are called “high impact.” Sometimes they are just called “good journals” or “good presses.”
You also want to publish in a journal that is publishing other contributions to the same conversation. Journals don’t just publish high quality articles. They publish high quality articles that fit the overall direction of the journal.
Who needs the knowledge you have?
The first step is to identify who you want to engage in conversation with.
You may have multiple audiences. Those audiences are likely interested in different aspects of your work, or interested in your work for different reasons. You may be talking about the same findings, but their importance depends on the context of the ongoing scholarly conversation.
Once you have identified the audiences, you can identify journals that serve those specific audiences. You can write your article to address the ongoing conversation amongst that specific group of scholars.
If there are non-academic audiences who would benefit from this knowledge, you may need a different strategy to reach them. Again, specify the audience. What is important about your research in their context. Then consider how they typically learn about new things so you can figure out how to reach them effectively.
Collecting stamps, too
Of course, you also need to get stamps on your card to get hired, promoted, or funded. Just like the coffee shop that won’t honour a card full of stamps from it’s rival, the committees making those decisions value some audiences more than others. It is worth considering their priorities when setting your own publishing priorities.
The real benefit of thinking this way is that you are likely to be more motivated to publish and to speak to others who are excited about similar questions. The fact that you get stamps on your card is gravy.
If you’ve read anything about job searching, you’ve heard the truisms about taking an assertive approach, selling yourself to employers, and treating the job search like a full-time job. The overall gist is that you need to be assertive.
And that’s true. You do need to be able and willing to express what you can do. And you’ll probably need to express it more than once. So, you’ll need to follow up with networking contacts, potential job leads and with employers to whom you’ve applied. But (at the risk of sounding like a Sex in the City segue) where is the line between assertive and creepy?
Of course, creepy is partly in the eye of the beholder. Job seekers often worry about being overbearing, but employers wonder why someone would call them once and expect all initiative for future contact to come from the employer.
Contacting people more than once if you want to network with or work for them is probably a good idea. It shows that you’re not expecting the other person to do the heavy lifting. So, go ahead and send an email asking for an informational interview and follow it up with a phone call (which the person will expect, if you noted in your email when you’d phone). And go ahead and call one more time if you haven’t heard back from them. If you’ve applied to an employer who’s not posting a vacancy, ask them if they’ve had a chance to review your application and if you can meet. And, of course, you can let them know in your letter when you’re going to follow up.
What’s too much? That’s tricky. It’s partly individual, and partly unique to the industry or even the organization. If you’re pursuing roles that require plenty of stick-to-itiveness when it comes to pursuing conversations with people, then you can expect to be more assertive when it comes to initiating meetings with potential employers. But a decent rule of thumb is that, once you’ve shown your enthusiasm, don’t say anything unless you have something new to say.
So, if you’ve interviewed for a role and discover something new about it afterwards, and that you’d like to address, by all means, follow up with the hiring manager. If you’ve already thanked them for the interview once and don’t have anything new to add, it might be better to concentrate on other parts of your job search while you wait to hear back. And if you’ve applied to a posting that specifically requests that you don’t follow up with the recruiter, then don’t follow up with the recruiter. Mind you, if you know someone else in the organization, they may be able to give you an idea of the pace of recruiting.
And know that it can take some time for employers to make hiring decisions, whether due to organizational recruiting processes, hiring committee workload, vacation time, or the slow process of budgetary approval. If an employer hasn’t contacted you, go about the rest of your job search, and know that you may hear from them long after you expected to.