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How academics can ‘stay put’ without ‘staying still’

Moving universities for career advancement is a common practice in academia. But what happens if you want to remain in the same institution? Here, Doune Macdonald shares how to keep progressing into new roles and responsibilities

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5 Feb 2024
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Moving universities to take on new roles for career advancement is a common – and increasingly expected – practice. I have not done this. Rather, I have “stayed put” at a large research-intensive university. However, “staying put” does not necessarily mean “staying still” in terms of roles and responsibilities.

Across 36 years, I have been a teaching and research academic (promoted through five levels), a head of school (known to some as dean), a research network coordinator, director of a teaching and learning institute, a pro vice-chancellor and an acting deputy vice-chancellor.

Like many women, I have felt tied to living in my home city for different reasons at various life stages, so seeking other roles within the one institution was important to “compensate” for what could be misread as a lack of ambition, energy, curiosity or commitment. Indeed, in many respects, moving institutions, and usually cities, is an easier path for career advancement, but it can come at a cost that might not be right for you. For the many women who want to “accelerate progress” – borrowed from the 2024 International Women’s Day (IWD) theme – regardless of their institutional affiliations, I offer the following reflections from someone who has stayed put.

1. Stay stimulated

Universities are exciting places, located within ever-changing social, economic, technological and policy contexts. We all need to keep abreast of these. As contexts change, so do the priorities universities manifest in aspects such as their strategic plans, internal structures or criteria for performance and promotion. It is the responsibility of all university staff to invest time in understanding what your university values and why. What are the spoken and unspoken rules of your university? Without these contextual insights, you can become adrift from, and alienated by, what is expected of your contribution.

2. Say ‘yes’

My advice to colleagues has been to say “yes” to tasks or roles suggested to them. Say “yes” to joining a committee, “yes” to lecturing in a new course, “yes” to speaking at a community event. My most difficult “yes” option was an offer to write a national curriculum document at a time when I was a head of school, our school’s buildings (and our home) were flooded, and my father had received a cancer diagnosis. Agreeing to take on the curriculum-writing task, despite the difficult circumstances, proved to be a positive career legacy in ways that solving the immediate crises could not.

That said, there are caveats, as are so clearly articulated by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart in their 2022 book, The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work. Their argument is that women say “yes” too often to non-promotable tasks that eat into their time, leading to “career stagnation, questioning your professional identity and competence, emotional exhaustion”, job dissatisfaction and, I would add, an undermining of personal health. I enjoyed their quote from Elizabeth Blackburn’s interview that “a ton of feathers still weighs a ton”. Strategic “yeses” are where we agree.

3. Reflect regularly on your work

While formal annual reviews can seem laborious, they can prompt critical reflection on what you’ve achieved, enjoyed and learned as a basis for what you would like to undertake next. Leadership expert Kirstin Ferguson, in her 2023 book Head and Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership, writes about the four Ls: What did I love? What do I long for? What did I loathe? What did I learn? As the demands of your work and non-work contexts change, so too might your priorities and what makes you satisfied at work. Subtle and not-so-subtle transitions in roles/contexts occur constantly (such as the arrival of a new vice-chancellor or president, a promotion, the transition of a solo project to a team, moving from committee member to chair), and all warrant reflection on the implications and time to adjust.

4. Empty the dishwasher

Who empties the dishwasher in your unit’s kitchen tells a story. Professional and academic staff? All genders? All levels of seniority? Too frequently, it is only professional and junior academic women who are the good citizens, and in my view, this pattern reflects a work culture that needs attention. Is emptying the dishwasher – metaphorically – a non-promotable task, following Babcock et al? “Yes” if this is what you do repeatedly. “No” if it’s a contribution to a team that is mutually respectful, non-hierarchical, non-gendered, collaborative and affable – a workplace that can be enjoyed by all.

“Staying put” means your skills, strengths and ways of working (emptying the dishwasher?) are largely known to the organisation as you seek different roles. That makes it particularly important to undertake professional learning opportunities that are valued by your university to grow, shift and reinvent. Returning to the IWD 2024 theme, to be “counted in” at a university where you’ve been a longstanding staff member, invest in your health, look for and accept new challenges and remain collegial and curious.

Doune Macdonald is professor and pro vice-chancellor (teaching and learning) at the University of Queensland.

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A Leadership Guide for Women in Higher Education, by Marjorie Hass (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021), offers further reading on this topic.

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