Patterns across an academic career

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This year marks 21 years of me working at the Open University. I hope (as does my mortgage provider) I’ve got another 15 years or so left, but I’m edging “old timer” status now, so I was reflecting the other day about the difficulty of applying management to an academic career, if they’re all as wriggly and messy as mine.

Senior managers in higher education have my sympathy. There is increasing pressure to be efficient and cut costs, which means getting the most you can out of employees, combined with demands for transparency and accountability. Academia isn’t the ivory tower that people who post in newspaper comments section still believe it to be. I understand this, students are paying money and taking on debt, taxpayers are contributing via loans or research grants, and so on. Academia is not exempt from the pressures that every other career faces. So this is not a “why can’t they leave us alone to do magic” type post. Rather it is about the difficult of applying conventional management methods to academic careers.

At my institution we have a specified split between teaching and research activities, and are expected to plan work accordingly on an annual basis. This makes perfect sense as that represents the type of activity and funding the university as a whole realises. But it becomes problematic at both the individual and temporal level. I am currently in a research phase of my career, but previously, I was very teaching focused, and other times working on strategic projects. So across my career this split might be true, but during any one year it may not. Similarly, a Department may want to achieve this split overall, but it is unlikely every individual can. Some people are good at getting research grants in, others are excellent at teaching. It is probably better to let people pursue the aspect they are better suited to than force everyone to have the same profile. I ought to say, in the OU management is flexible, and what counts under each category can be adapted, but it highlights the problem of trying to manage this.

Other universities are focused on outputs, so for example, Senior Lecturers are expected to bring in £30K research money, publish 2 papers, and supervise 2 PhD students per year. I was thinking about this over my career. When I was Chair of T171, it was an unexpected success, with around 12,000 students per year. It probably brought in around £100M over its lifetime (is it too late to ask for a 1% dividend?). So if I did nothing else, they’d be in profit from me over my career. But other years I have been tasked with actively spending money, eg when I was VLE Director or SocialLearn Director. So viewing on an annual or individual basis is again problematic. Similarly, some years I have written quite a bit, other years, I’ve hardly published at all.

Another approach is to break it down by career path. But, you’ve guessed it, this is problematic. For instance, I spent a period in mid to late 2000s developing my online identity, blogging, playing with tools etc, as part of an informal OU community that was exploring this stuff (with Tony Hirst for example). I did a lot of internal workshops around this time, encouraging others to develop online identities also. But I couldn’t point to any of this and say “it brought in this amount of money” or “it had this type of impact”. When I was developing T171 that was my “start-up” phase – working weekends, staying uo until 3am tackling issues, thriving on the stress of numerous deadlines. I could only do this because I was a) young b) naive and c) didn’t have children. I definitely would not be able to do it now. But then as you get older you have other roles you can take on, and things you can contribute that you couldn’t have done before. Others have taken more directly focused management paths through their careers. Unlike many professions there is not one, or maybe two, clearly defined paths in academia, that you can then easily plot people’s progression against.

Employment gurus tell us that in the future everyone will have 6 career changes, or hold 5 different jobs concurrently, one of which is shared with a robot. While the academic employment world has changed a lot (there is a lot more job insecurity around now than when I started), it is still a place where people can stay with the same institution for long periods. And trying to manage people at different stages in this process, with different skill sets and different paths, is a thankless and possibly fruitless task. But it might be useful to develop a set of patterns that people can be matched to, and then ensure that across an institution or department you have the appropriate mix of patterns.

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