Business school academics: where is your career going?

Four archetypal career tracks exist for business school academics − management, research, academic entrepreneurship and teaching − and you probably need to choose one

October 16, 2020
Harvard business school
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You know what they say about careers? They’re what you had when you reflect on what you’ve done. Only the gifted know how their career will pan out from the outset. It’s the difference between going with the flow or charting the rapids. Think of when Alice, of Wonderland fame, arrives a crossroads and, seeing the Cheshire Cat in a tree, asks: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” He asks her where she wants to go, and she says she doesn’t care, so long as she gets somewhere. His answer is priceless: “Oh, you’re sure to do that.”

But just how easy is it to plot one’s career steps from beginning to end when − let’s face it − you might have become more than a little jaded given all the hurdles you’ve had to jump over in between? Academic careers in business schools are that bit harder again to plan, given that the knowledge industry, which universities are a central part of, is constantly changing. Consider, for example, that the requirements to gain a chair now are very different from those of 30 years ago.

How you might plan depends on what kind of business academic you want to be. Not everyone needs to aim for the Nobel Prize (not that there is one for business) or be the next business school dean.

Here, we have four main career choices. We can pursue the management pathway and become a dean, usually via middle-management roles; the researcher pathway culminating in a professorship and head of a research centre; the enterprise route, which might end in the development of a spin-out business, serving a fractional academic appointment and working in a business or working with businesses on government-funded enterprise grants; or there is the teaching-only route, culminating in a senior learning and teaching role or a deanship in a teaching-dominant school. All pathways have merits; all can be rewarding.

To get some idea of how to succeed in each area, I did what all good academics would: distilled case study examples of archetypal people operating in each pathway and interviewed them.

First up, Phil Harris, the Westminster chair of public affairs and former executive director of the University of Chester’s Business Research Institute. He encapsulates the modern dean. For him, the trick to thriving in this pathway is to “develop people and organisations that plan for the future, manage change and deliver the goods for all”. To become a dean often means becoming an inclusive leader. It’s not enough to strive for personal excellence; one needs to strive for the collective’s excellence.

The researcher pathway is the one with which most academics are familiar. Jagdish Sheth, the Charles H. Kellstadt chair in marketing at Goizueta Business School at Emory University, is the archetype. Having dedicated his life to marketing research, and along the way co-inventing the concept of consumer behaviour, he believes dedicating one’s life to research isn’t easy. “As you gain experience, everyone wants to burden you with university admin! The trick is to stay focused on winning funding, designing innovative research and tailoring the output to the most appropriate and high-quality publications.” Pursuing this pathway clearly requires focus.

Tensie Whelan, clinical professor of business and society at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University, typifies the enterprise academic. For her, the secret to being a successful academic entrepreneur came from setting up and scaling several successful non-profit organisations. Leveraging her experience helped her develop the Center for Sustainable Business, run a variety of academic and executive programmes and support the 12 staff employed in her centre, paid for by the $2 million (£1.5 million) that she raises annually.

Other routes are possible for the enterprise academic, including secondments to business, running executive education and consultancy programmes or spinning out new venture companies. This route is not for the faint-hearted. As bureaucratic institutions, universities move slowly. The enterprise academic needs resilience, tenacity, zeal and an inveterate networking ability.

Melvyn Peters, professor of supply chain practice at Cranfield University School of Management, encapsulates success on the teaching-only pathway. His academic career started in research but shifted into learning and teaching. He explains how “my contribution in course design, teaching innovation and mentoring were well recognised by my university but were insufficient on their own. Career leverage came from delivering on the university’s educational metrics and on delivering student numbers, quality standards and financial contribution.” Success in this route, then, comes from successive major programme innovations.

All in all, food for thought, then. None of these pathways are mutually exclusive, but there comes a time when you have to choose between them. There are many roads to get to your career destination, but if you meet the Cheshire Cat at a crossroads, perhaps you’ll now have a better idea of which road to take.

Paul Baines is professor of political marketing and associate dean (business and civic engagement) at the University of Leicester.

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