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CAREER ADVICE

Balancing act: your career in mid-life

As with all professions, academe presents different issues at different stages - especially mid-career

By RAYMOND F. CURRIE | DEC 03 2007

“I feel like a racehorse attached to a plough.” This was just one of the responses received on a survey of associate professors I commissioned from Irene Karpiak of the department of higher education at the University of Oklahoma. As the dean of arts at the University of Manitoba, I considered faculty development to be among the most important of my tasks. Getting some feedback from a sample of mid-career academics would be useful, both to me and to the chairs of departments. What the report revealed was that the issues faced by mid-career academics differ from those being dealt with by newer – and usually younger – colleagues.

Health issues

Problems that arise mid-career – whether they’re related to the ill health of an aging parent, a spouse, or even oneself – can impact how much time and energy an academic can devote to his or her work. “After my husband had his heart attack,” a colleague told me recently, “I was touched by your several visits to the hospital.” The gesture did not take an enormous amount of time, but was deeply appreciated and demonstrated to the faculty member that her family responsibilities hold equal weight to her work.

Personal relationships

Complicated situations can arise when personal relationships change. Going through a divorce, dealing with a teenager who is demonstrating behavioural problems or coping with an infirm relative each can present monumental challenges. This is a delicate area where some wisdom is required of a chair or dean: Should you express concern ? Or would engaging in the situation appear to be a violation of privacy? Knowing how, if and when to respond is a matter of common sense, experience and empathy.

Academic issues

Success is something that everyone strives for, but getting ahead carries its own weighty issues. The survey respondent who felt “like a racehorse attached to a plough” was expressing his frustration at being burdened with too many teaching and administrative responsibilities, which prevented his career from advancing. Ignoring a real or perceived situation in your department can lead to the kind of dissatisfaction that might cause good people to leave for other institutions.

Faculty members at mid-career can also feel frustrated if their research endeavours have not met with the success they had expected. Several factors can contribute to this: a lack of balance between time spent preparing classes and time dedicated to research; a willingness to respond to too many demands at one time, and lacking enough discipline to set priorities; or habits that are hard to break, such as stashing rejected articles in a file folder and being too embarrassed to “revise and resubmit.”

Strategies to address these problems do exist. Balancing time spent on teaching and research is tough – each can be all-consuming. Annual activity reports, accompanied by a discussion with the departmental chair, can help identify areas that need improvement. Mid-career scholars who have stayed in a department for many years may have unreasonable demands made on their time simply because of their longevity. Chairs need to be fair when assigning responsibilities, and activities should be focused and productive. By the same token, younger academics should not be given responsibilities that might hinder their academic development.

One very successful professor I knew took positive action when one of his papers was rejected: he re-submitted the paper to another publication within a month of its initial rejection. Considering that months of work are invested in academic papers, filing it away and starting on something new before addressing the criticism can be a monumental error. More and more faculties now offer research assistance that can help refine proposals and articles prior to submission.

Individuals can be encouraged to team up with colleagues for a joint research endeavour. Every member of a team need not have the same skills. Collaborative, applied and interdisciplinary research can be fruitful. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that some departments aren’t yet ready to reward collaborations as much as individual achievement. Criteria for promotion should be clear with respect to these newer approaches.

A lack of research success in mid-career can lead a faculty member to redirect his or her energies to teaching, where feedback is more immediate and rewarding. In her report, Dr. Karpiak identified one such “academic type”, who felt abandoned by his university because teaching is not considered as important as research. (It’s interesting to note that the criticism was directed to the university rather than departmental leadership.) A greater focus on teaching may represent a preference rather than disillusionment with research. And while there has been more emphasis placed on the importance of teaching in recent years, the reward structure in universities has often been inflexible in terms of allowing variation from a departmental norm. Added to this is the fact that institutional and departmental policies are not consistent across the board.

Chairs need to pay attention to their mid-career faculty members. Identifying and addressing issues before a real crisis arises is key to maintaining a healthy balance all around.

Dr. Raymond Currie is a dean emeritus at the University of Manitoba.

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  1. Peter Reaburn / April 22, 2010 at 00:11

    Ray,

    Irene Karpiak suggested I read the “Balancing Act: your career at mid-life” post. A great read of a 55-yr old with many competing demands on time and energy – including two socially- and sporting-active teenage daughters.

    At my University, I have been tasked with developing a “Staff-Reinvigoration Program” for mid-career academics. I have been struggling to find any research on this topic as it relates to academics. Any help appreciated.

    Cheers, Peter Reaburn PhD

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