Five strategies to generate a sense of satisfaction in your academic work

Academia is challenging so developing coping mechanisms and boosting satisfaction in your work can be instrumental in building a successful career. Houry Melkonian shares five approaches she has found useful

Houry Melkonian's avatar
16 Aug 2022
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Image representing the building of a career

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

University of Exeter

You may also like

Early career researchers can say no, too
Early career researchers must master the art of saying no and not be too eager to please

There are plenty of challenges to being an academic, but also plenty of rewards. When feeling overworked and stressed it is too easy to focus on the negatives. But one of the things that can carry us through the even longest and most gruelling of days is a sense of satisfaction in our academic work. So, here I share strategies that will help early career researchers maintain enthusiasm and pride in their work and protect their well-being, based on my own experience of building a career in higher education.

Strategy one: develop coping mechanisms to protect your well-being

We each have our own ways to cope with different and difficult circumstances in the workplace or in our personal lives. That is why it is important to identify techniques that align well with our personalities, interests, and work routines. For example, there are plenty of resources that “teach” us how to practice mindfulness, but we often try them without asking if the techniques presented really chime with our own perspectives. I never enjoyed meditation when guided by others so I decided to try meditation by narrowing my focus onto one phenomenon such as birdsong, and it worked for me.

When considering short-term and immediate interventions to help combat stress or distraction, it helps if they can be easily implemented in crowded spaces or on busy days. In my case, as a mathematics lecturer, I use maths and logic to practice mindfulness: Here are two examples:

  • Counting backwards in steps of three: Choose three and not two or five. The brain can easily perform counting in multiples of two or five, but to count in steps of three and backwards, more concentration is required. This forces an immediate switch to the logical side of the brain to focus on the task given, which helps one become more present in the current moment.
  • Switching left to right: Switching the functions of the left and right clicks on your computer touchpad or mouse brings your focus to the present. Actions as simple as having the mouse on your left, if you are right-handed, or vice versa, is another way to practise mindfulness.

Strategy two: prioritise then choose

The early stages of any profession can be a bumpy ride as you realise that you are in charge of your own destiny, starting with what job offers you accept and how you manage your time. This is the moment when you need to start analysing and prioritising before making important choices. During your academic career journey, you will find and accept different opportunities, some of which may be your “dream” job or project, or “not ideal but important role”, while others may simply provide opportunities to better understand what you do and don’t want to do. Learning how to navigate all this is key. Try to balance what you enjoy in the short term against what will help you reach your longer-term goals.

Strategy three: Choose the right kind of competition as a driver

Competition in any work sector is inevitable and can be a good motivator to achieve strong results, but it is not always a healthy approach to success and should not be allowed to dominate. Taking inspiration from the success and achievements of others is important and having role models acts as a great reminder of what can be achieved. There is a fine line between “being inspired by” and “competing with”. Competitions exist in many shapes and forms, but generally fall into one of two categories:

  • Competing with the old you
  • Competing with another person

The former will have a unique outcome, which is an improved authentic version of yourself, whereas the latter will force you to align your aims and vision with someone else’s, which risks repetition. The choice is yours – but choose wisely.

Strategy four: Celebrate even the tiniest achievement

Developing your own authentic career trajectory will enhance your sense of achievement and satisfaction. It should result in a chain of happy moments of self-acknowledgment and pride and will help you develop generative thinking skills such as creative thinking to solve problems or develop new strategies.

It helps build confidence that you can survive challenges that may lead to expected outcomes, remembering it will act as a stepping stone in that direction. Building your own trajectory is about learning to trust your intuition and creatively use your talents to serve your goals. This, in turn, will help you generate new research ideas, or innovative teaching models. Practise courage by taking non-conventional actions and testing new ideas.

Strategy five: Just start

This is where the magic lies. Just getting started is the key to all achievement, big and small. Do not wait for the “right moment” to write your article, instead just start by designing the structure and then the words will probably flow. Do not spend hours trying to find the perfect time to ask a question, just ask and you may be surprised by the answer. Do not spend days trying to search for the perfect book to read, just read the one you have already picked, and the reference list will help you find the next. The point is, just by starting, you free yourself from an unnecessary burden of disturbance and worry. So, whatever is on your to-do list, just start.

Houry Melkonian is senior lecturer in mathematics; director of the Foundation Year Programme of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences; and director of the Sustainability Summer School at the University of Exeter.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site