A Machiavellian guide to getting ahead in academia

Rogier Creemers advises early career academics to be ruthless and put themselves first to move up the ladder

December 21, 2017
Machiavelli jumping over a horse
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So you’ve passed your PhD viva. Take a moment to feel good about yourself. Then listen up. This is where it gets really tough – and chances are that you are not well prepared for it.

You are about to be thrown into the whirlwind of short-term postdoctoral contracts, casual “adjunct” positions, frequent house moves, low salaries, fiercely competitive grant programmes and job applications. You may be an intellectual thoroughbred, but you will very likely not feel like that in the coming years.

On top of this, you will discover that the academic dream – intellectual freedom, creativity, personal fulfilment and social contribution – is often an illusion, used to lure you into the sect (why do you think we wear funny hats and gowns?). Most of all, you will notice that academia seems to work best for its senior incumbents, and that the odds of your becoming one of them are small. There are many fewer academic positions – let alone worthwhile academic positions – than there are PhD graduates. To succeed, you will need stamina, determination – and just a little ruthlessness. Here is Professor Machiavelli’s advice to those lining up for the postdoctoral novice stakes.

1. Listen to the starter’s orders

Until you have a secure post at an institution where you want to work, obtaining such a position must be your overriding goal. Your first task, therefore, is to figure out how to achieve this. If you haven’t already, now is the time to have extensive conversations with people you respect in your chosen field about hiring, tenure and promotion requirements. Be strategic in your questioning. Don’t ask, for instance, what constitutes good research: seek inside information on how decisions are made about appointments or funding. Many seniors might agree with you that the impact factor and journal ranking systems cause academic corruption. Come selection committee day, however, these points will probably be at the forefront of their minds.

2. Keep the blinkers on

Perhaps the most pernicious characteristic of academic life is workload fragmentation. In theory, you should be spending 45 per cent of your time on teaching and another 45 per cent on research, with a bit of administrative and support work on top. In reality, not only will you spend a lot of time writing the grant proposals to keep your budding career in the air, you will receive a flood of emails and requests to peer-review articles, write blog posts, contribute to edited volumes, present at conferences, sit on committees and give press interviews. All these will make you feel great. They signify that people not only notice that you exist but recognise you as an expert in your field. Sometimes, the emails will be sent by people you know and like, adding a little social pressure to the mix.

But taking up such offers will cost you valuable time and leave you with the feeling of having been extremely busy for months but not having accomplished anything tangible. Therefore, your standard answer must be “no”. You should consider a positive response only if (1) it involves association with an undisputed leader in your field, such as writing a chapter for a book they are editing; (2) it provides you with transferable skills or networks that might be of use to you in academia or elsewhere; or (3) you get paid for doing it. In fact, you should have applied these three conditions during your doctorate, too. Saying “no” can often be a wrench. However, generosity is something you’ll be able to afford much better once you have a proper job.

Horse racing fall
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3. Don’t pull anyone else’s wagon

There are few fields where professional feuds and pettiness can thrive in the way that they do in academia. A sizeable ego is, after all, a job requirement, and many of your colleagues will see their line of research as an extension of the very essence of their being. Perceived slights and injuries are, therefore, taken very seriously, and antisocial behaviour is rife (it doesn’t help that the academic reward structure militates against the sociable and the well adjusted). Try as you might, you will not be able to avoid this. As a doctoral candidate, you were the privileged member of a protected class. Now, prepare for the lions. People will try to abuse you in various ways: by making you teach more than agreed, by trying to snaffle some of your funding or resources, by hijacking your research agenda or by sidetracking you for their own purposes.

On top of that, there is the unceasing pressure to always do more . That mindset didn’t do Animal Farm ’s Boxer a lot of good: it won’t for you either. Instead, try to find those enlightened individuals who recognise that the best way for them to realise their interests is to enable you to realise yours. You will also find that an assertive stance boosts the respect you get from your peers and makes those seeking to misuse and manipulate you think twice before trying to take advantage.

4. Don’t get trapped in the shafts

It is easier to herd cats than to do anything that involves coordinating more than three academics – they are solitary creatures who do not take well to working in teams. Nevertheless, teamwork is a skill that you must hone to further your interests. Joint research and writing may speed up your publication rate, increase the quality of your work and expand your academic networks. Teaching in teams can introduce you to new ideas that raise your students’ satisfaction and, thereby, their assessment of you. Joining administrative or project teams will teach you skills that are eminently transferable.

However, you must at all times maintain your vigilance. Collective minds can wander, and you may have incorrectly gauged the work ethic of other group members. If the team isn’t going anywhere, bail. Also, recognise that karma plays a much smaller role in academia than you might hope. It is, of course, not a good idea to unnecessarily flip people off just because you can. However, you will be shocked by the extent to which some colleagues can behave like utter bastards and still thrive. Being a nice person, therefore, is secondary to not getting shafted.

5. Look out for the gift horse and the kick in the mouth

Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you alone control your destiny in the early career Game of Thrones. Forces far greater than you also have a bearing. But fortune favours the prepared mind. Create options for yourself, and ensure that for every plan you make, you have at least one back-up. One journal doesn’t accept your paper? Send it to another one immediately. Editors and reviewers can be fickle, and a paper that one journal declines even to send out for review might be accepted without revisions at another. Didn’t get that grant you applied for? There are many other donors out there, and if a bid fails, the work you put into the application might form the basis of a short publication in its own right.

Conversely, luck might also throw up unexpected options and possibilities. A new job becomes available; a funding call lands bang in your field of interest; someone you’ve always wanted to work with asks for a collaboration. At that point, it actually helps if you aren’t flat out with prior commitments. So you should spend a small proportion of your time building either your personal skill set (through professional training, for instance) or your personal brand (write blogs, tweet, do media interviews or any other sort of outreach in your field). If a new and exciting occasion presents itself, you can easily dial these activities back and exploit the opportunity while still meeting all your other obligations.

6. Don’t be afraid to bolt

Academia, like the Hotel California, ideologically conditions you against departure. This is not a job, it’s a religious calling. You do what you love; you fight the good fight; you contribute to society; you haven’t sold your soul to a corporate overlord. But this conditioning serves to keep you inside, scared of the world beyond the doors. When someone leaves for pastures greener, it is often discussed by colleagues in hushed tones more suited to a bereavement. You have been inculcated with a worldview that tends to look down on practitioners, people holding “ordinary” jobs and anyone else with a better work-life balance, a bigger pay cheque, or both.

The simple point, however, is the following: any perk that academic life has to offer, other career paths provide as well – often with better conditions. Intellectual satisfaction, creativity, originality, professional freedom and social contribution are not the exclusive preserve of our hallowed institutions. Also, time works against you. As you embark on your umpteenth postdoc, remember that, every year, another cohort joins the ranks and will be chasing exactly the same positions, grants and journal slots as you are. If good things haven’t happened for you by now, the chances that they will do so in the future tend to decrease.

This is particularly important because, unless you are very unusual, a whole lot of other stuff will be happening to you in these years, too. You will want to settle down with your loved one, start a family, join a band, play in a sports team or otherwise establish roots and connections in the way that sane, well-adjusted individuals do.

It is perfectly fine for you to decide that you are done with the nomadic, badly paid and insecure life of the early career academic. Fly away, genius, and be free. 

Rogier Creemers is a postdoctoral researcher in the Leiden Institute for Area Studies at the University of Leiden.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Generosity is something you’ll be able to afford once you have a proper job’

Reader's comments (4)

Good advice. I especially thought that the following sentence is amazingly close to reality: "you will be shocked by the extent to which some colleagues can behave like utter bastards and still thrive" With a sufficiently big grant income you can do whatever you like and get away with it! I have seen that over and over again.
Sadly, the above comment in true.
And I cannot type! Sadly, the above comment is true of course!
Great article.

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