I’ve successfully climbed the academic career ladder − now what?
Having spent my entire career trying to get to where I am now, I’m working out how to slow down and seize the opportunities ahead, says Lucas Lixinski
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In many respects, the academic career path is full of surprises: we never know what the next vice-chancellor is going to do with their grand new plan for the university; the regulatory environment is fickle; and pandemics can fundamentally change how we work at the drop of a hat. But there is one fairly predictable element: its linearity. Once those of us lucky enough to land a continuing or tenure-track position get started, we know what the next steps up the ladder are.
My career so far has been spent climbing said ladder. It was a slog at times, very rewarding in many respects and induced a great deal of stress-eating. I recently made it to the top of the ladder and, while I’m certainly delighted at making it, I’ve also had a small, panicky voice asking: “Now what?”
Yes, I’m terribly aware that many would not consider this much of a problem. People on temporary contracts, people still climbing the ladder, the world at large. It’s an incredibly privileged position, for which I’m very grateful, so no need to cue the violins. Still, it’s something I’ve been dealing with over the past year, and I know many other academics have dealt with as well.
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The way I think of my career so far is that I spent it all on a treadmill, trying to get here. Now I don’t really know how to slow down, how to get off or where to go. So, what have I done to cope so far and try to get off the academic treadmill?
The first thing I figured out was that I needed some “palate cleansers” to help me imagine a reality without my career and to think where I wanted my research to go without the need to prove an established reputation in a field (a requirement for promotion). I chose to focus on small (and collaborative) projects to help me refresh my ideas and think about where I might want to go next.
These projects have helped me assess the things in which I’m still interested and have something to say about. I’m also trying to read more scholarship without a specific aim − reading books that don’t need to fit a project on which I’m working, just fun stuff that’s come up in the field recently that I hadn’t got around to reading.
I also made a list of all my service/administrative positions and decided which ones I’m happy to let lapse. I’ve genuinely enjoyed most (if not all) of these positions (or at least certain aspects of them) and still firmly believe it’s my duty to make these contributions in the future. But now I don’t need to do them because they will help showcase me as an established scholar (again, a requirement for promotion) and can instead focus on the places where I can contribute − and where I get to work with people I want to work with because I like them, and because they will challenge me in productive ways. So, the “make myself look bright” motivation, which is important for promotion, is now totally out of the window, and I get to do things only because I genuinely care for them.
That is a big lesson now moving forward − doing service, and even teaching, without an agenda. Actually, there is still an agenda, but it is a different one. To whatever extent “how it will look on my next promotion application” was a consideration before, now it really doesn’t need to be.
For instance, I can mentor a lot more. I did mentor before, but I lacked the gravitas of the title. And now I can mentor people not only to help them get started but, with the benefit of hindsight, throughout the entire climb.
Finally, from a research perspective, I can think more about my “legacy” as a scholar. Yes, it sounds hugely pretentious but, hey, the premise of being promoted to this level is that people believe there is a legacy to be built on the back of my influence as a scholar, so I’m going with it. Now I get to think purposefully about that legacy, however I want it to be, regardless of the need to be promoted. I get to choose not the projects that will satisfy my ego and the promotion process, but the projects that will, if successful, get me out of a job.
So, hooray to getting to the top. Good luck to all those still working towards it; I hope I can help you. The top of the ladder is not another step, it’s a nice (if sometimes wobbly) little platform, from where there’s very little chance I will tumble and fall all the way down. Being on this firm-ish platform I can afford to take more risks than before. And I can use this platform to be the academic I wanted to be when I first set foot upon the ladder, with the added wisdom of the journey up.
Lucas Lixinski is a professor at the Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW Sydney.