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Advice and support for your academic journey.

The stress and all-consuming nature of pursuing an academic career is often detailed in social media posts and anecdotal tales. Whilst it is useful for PhD students to understand the perils of careers in academia, this article provides further context for some of the issues surrounding progression in the academic profession. It runs through five factors that impact on how all-consuming academic careers can be, ultimately advising you to progress in academia at your own pace.

The demands and pressures of an academic career, semester after semester, can take its toll. But whether progressing in academia is as all-consuming as people say depends on several factors: the role and institution, your levels of experience, how much you want to work, your ability to say no, and how quickly you want to progress.  

1. It depends on the role and institution

Your workload can be dependent on the position you hold. A Teaching Fellow/Assistant Lecturer can find themselves busy with teaching and administration duties throughout the semester yet see their workload ease in the summer periods. Conversely, a lecturer or professor with comparatively heightened research expectations may be playing catch up with their projects once the teaching semesters are completed, creating a fuller work schedule throughout the calendar year. 
 
Each university will have varying staff volumes, available facilities, and working cultures. I have known some academics in small departments to be a ‘jack of all trades, picking up multiple tasks outside of their remit and subsequently placed under more frequent pressure. On the flip side, other universities with larger teams are more equipped to share workloads, thus easing individual responsibilities. From experience, institutions with a greater PhD cohort allows tasks to be split into more manageable chunks, both freeing up time for the fatigued academic, and allowing development for the PhD student through further experience. 
 
Your senior management team can also make or break your experience in that department. Being overworked and micromanaged is horrible in any industry, so be sure to scout different universities for their working culture before you consider applying.

2. It depends on your experience

Ever wondered how a senior academic can complete a task so effortlessly? It’s because they are experienced – not because they are a god! 
 
The early stage of your academic career can feel draining due to a perceived lack of efficiency in your duties. Creating module material, marking assessments, writing up manuscripts and completing administration tasks (to name a few) feel a lot more time consuming and complex in the beginning of your academic career. Soon you will be able to do a lot of these things in half the time, meaning you start to find yourself finishing work earlier as you become more experienced!

3. It depends on how much you want to work

When I speak to PhD students about my time as a lecturer, I highlight the additional tasks I completed to try to impress and stand out in my department. They included: 
 
– Creating additional resources uploaded to the student portal website. 
– Advertising appointment slots for students to discuss academic or employability related topics. 
– Managing a social media page dedicated to student employability. 
– Networking to develop new research pathways and project ideas. 
– Writing up more papers than I needed to. 
 
None of these tasks were in my probation terms, so I didn’t have to do them. In fact, if I chose to merely complete the expected requirements of my job, it would have mostly been a 9-5 role (and even less as I became more efficient). Therefore, in some cases your own personal choice to contribute more to your department (and your personal development) is what can make your role all-consuming. It can be difficult to balance ‘going above and beyond’ in order to stand out, whilst managing wellbeing and overwhelm, which brings me to my next point… 

4. It depends on your ability to say "no"

Whilst I advocate doing a bit more than your expected remit if you want to progress in academia, there are times you need to say no to requests from colleagues and management. 
 
Senior academics are often great at saying no, but the less experienced counterparts find it harder to decline additional responsibilities. I get it – you want to impress, and you fear a backlash from your colleagues so early into your career if you appear to be a poor team player. Some of these additional responsibilities include leading modules, providing pastoral support to students, joining meeting boards, organising and hosting events, or collaborating on further research projects. 
 
Remember that not all the opportunities presented to you are directly beneficial to your career. For example, if you prefer to excel in research, you shouldn’t feel a pressure to take on additional teaching duties (and vice versa if you want to build a strong teaching profile). Show your department you are open to additional responsibilities, but analyse each task presented to you and ask if it adequately matches your career goals, interests, and skillset. 

5. It depends on how quickly you want to progress

I have seen some PhD students hell-bent on becoming a professor at an early stage of their academic career. This has resulted in serious sacrifices over roughly ten years to publish articles in seemingly record time, and they are suddenly a professor before the age of 35.

Whilst it is extremely commendable to reach a prestigious title so early into an academic career, many of the people I know that achieved this failed to have much of a life outside of research pursuits. This is not a criticism (if it is your passion, who can knock it?), but it’s also not to everyone’s taste. From an outside view, this must be extremely tough if you have a family or wish to pursue other healthy avenues outside of academia (socialising, regular exercise, hobbies).

You can become a senior lecturer, assistant professor, and professor at any age. If you prefer to progress quickly, you can consistently devote evenings and weekends to get there. Otherwise, you can work at a steadier pace (hopefully maintaining some work-life balance!) and reach these milestones later in life.

Progress in academia at your own pace. Focus on yourself and try to block out the progression of others. Direct comparisons in academia can really sting you! You may also not want to move up from your current role. Your role may already fulfil you, and the opportunity to boost your salary may not be all that alluring when you see the responsibilities and pressures that come with it. Sometimes, a seemingly promising promotion in academia actually elicits a classic case of ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’, to quote American rapper The Notorious B.I.G.

Final Thoughts

It is hard to define how busy you are going to be in academic roles. This is because everyone you speak to has a different story, and this is based on numerous factors outlined in this blog (and a lot more I haven’t thought to write about).

For now, I would advise you to network with individuals residing at the institutions you aspire to work at after your PhD. Build professional relationships and learn more about their work culture, role expectations, and routes for progression. If it doesn’t fit with your expectations and/or values, keep networking until you find the right home for you!

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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