From where I sit - Move up, move on or drop out

July 15, 2010

Having worked in the academy in various capacities and in three different countries, and having also taught and written on human resources management, I have found it painfully evident that motivational problems abound. These extend through research, teaching and administration, and seem to prevail everywhere.

Starting with research, people are often enthusiastic at the beginning of their careers and view publishing their findings as a stimulating challenge; they hope to make a real contribution. After a couple of decades, and in some cases a lot sooner, indifference and even aversion may set in. People get tired of working remarkably hard to produce articles that are not paid for directly and yield little feedback or satisfaction. This is both compounded by and inextricably linked to the lamentable reality that many professors put their names on the work of their doctoral students. Additionally, academic research abounds with joint publications for which there is little, if any, transparency as to who really did what.

What about teaching? After you trot out similar or even identical material for years or decades, there is little left of the original thrill felt when first moving from the body of students to the teaching elite. And marking, especially in large quantities, is so close to torture that a colleague of mine once commented that "we should alert Amnesty International" to our plight of correcting 800 scripts in a week.

Administration is surely intrinsically boring. Having to devote large tracts of time to meetings, rules and regulations, lists and spreadsheets can be excruciating.

However, wheeling and dealing in the upper echelons of the academy is another matter; deans, vice-chancellors and the like are well paid and often enjoy the work. Furthermore, that is their job, as opposed to being an annoying and time-consuming add-on. Indeed, one of my schoolmates rose from being a somewhat disillusioned literary academic to dean and then to vice-chancellor. He no longer has motivational problems.

Given the undoubted prevalence of academics who are more or less victim to the mid-life crisis situation described above, the question arises: what can be done?

One solution is to emulate my old school chum, who moved out of mainstream academia into high-level university administration. But clearly there is not room for everyone.

Another promising approach is to ensure that there is sufficient variation in the job yourself. If you can handle the inevitable marking and drudgery that always goes with the job, new, stimulating courses and genuinely interesting and useful research can work wonders for motivation. However, once again, this is not always possible.

Surely the most counterproductive and indeed sad "solution" is that of internal resignation. This is the fate of many who become unsalvageably demotivated, but who cannot or will not move out of the academy or into a more appealing role. These unfortunates become the classic "dead wood", who hang in there out of desperation or fear and do no one a favour.

Universities and academics themselves need to accept the prevalence and even rampant manifestations of these phenomena. It is possible to develop flexible systems that ensure variety and motivation themselves. Burnt-out academics must also look around to see what options there are, either within or beyond the profession, and move sideways, upwards and, if all else fails, outwards.

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