Take my advice, boy, forget scholarship if you want to get ahead

February 27, 2004

Dear Adam,

So you're considering a career in academia but are worried about the prospects. Don't be. So many good people have already been turned off that prospects for the less than good have never been better - provided, that is, you have a strategy and follow a few guidelines.

I know the pay is awful and the hours and stress can be massive in the early years. But stick to a strategy, follow guidelines and there's no reason why you shouldn't quickly achieve a senior position - if not a vice-chancellorship, then something close to it. In which case you'll set your own pay, like the fat cats in other industries.

First, an academic career doesn't mean being an academic. Quite the reverse. There's nothing wrong in aiming for achievement through scholarship if it really interests you. But it's not for the academic politician. It is time-consuming, leaves no space for serious politics and can merge into obsession.

Who hasn't seen those pitiful, broken-down, unrecognised academic hacks as they clutter up libraries, then post their exquisitely constructed manuscripts to unreceptive publishers?

Scholarship is a millstone on the long, uncertain road to academic achievement. So is teaching. You must avoid both: you're going to speed along the fast road to administration.

The first few years: building a reputation

Your strategy must be long term. For this, you'll need a managerial rhetoric. Learn the jargon of business schools and use it. With practice, the following phrases should trip off your tongue: "strategic management", "corporate planning", "customer base", "the management team" and, all powerfully, "the market". These are concepts unfit for academia but should be fielded as self-evident truths.

Whatever your academic background, adopt the gravitas of management. From the first day of your first appointment, wear a tie and be on the premises from nine to five. Before you realise it, you'll be "walking the walk and talking the talk". When sociology's rhetoric was in vogue, we called this "anticipatory socialisation".

Building reputation as a potential manager isn't difficult. But you'll also need an academic reputation - of sorts. Luckily, reputation and achievement are quite independent of each other, especially in academia. While the reputations of "deep scholars" are built painfully and incrementally over time, it's quite possible, with minimum effort, to quickly accumulate enough of an academic reputation through "thin scholarship". Here's how: Thin scholarship is gained by having your name on research applications and as many publications as your more gullible, deeper colleagues will allow.

So don't denigrate deep scholars, use them. Take an interest in their research. Ask ingenuous questions - and always take notes. Find out about funding bodies and their criteria. Raise funds with joint applications or even on your name alone. With funding come research assistants and access to their publications. Junior researchers are even more exploitable than deep scholars.

Thin academic reputations are at risk from deep scholars who are self-sufficient - and thus potentially dangerous. Disarm them. Luckily they have Achilles heels. It can take years to get an idea from conception to publication. Then it has to be chewed over and interminably discussed before it becomes "an achievement". During these uncertain years, a scholar's reputation is in limbo. No one knows whether they will ever amount to anything. Only the most naive follow this route. Only a similarly naive person will risk his or her own reputation by offering them public support. The emergent politician offers the reverse.

Reducing an academic's reputation is far easier than gaining one yourself.

Reputation is relative - indeed, it is a zero-sum game - so raise your reputation by putting down those of deep scholars. Remember, a gain in a colleague's reputation is at your expense: a reduction in their reputation is a gain in yours. This simple fact underpins academia's reputation for bitter infighting.

The middle years: consolidation for take-off

So you've built your reputations - both managerial and thin academic - and you have your first managerial post. Now, show your superiors that you run a department that appears calm and crisis-free. You will do so under three headings: resources, people and symbols.

Getting discretionary resources must be a first goal. You'll need funds for seed-corn research, conference-going and travel expenses - getting them will impress your staff. But you won't need much - in fact, the less the better. Your bosses will be impressed if early on you insist that these functions can be achieved at half the price. Since the purpose of all discretion is to discriminate, having only a little gives you an inarguable raison d'être to do just that.

With discretionary resources secured, you then use them to build a coterie.

Coteries have small cores - the grateful and obligated recipients - and larger peripheries - the perpetual hopefuls. Hopefuls give flexibility: they take up slack. Use them to cover teaching for absent colleagues at short or no notice or to take on the messy unscheduled jobs that arise in all departments. As their rewards are prospective, hopefuls can be kept patient for surprisingly long periods.

Holding office, in separating you from the rank and file, insulates you from gossip. But knowing the gossip about subordinates, their plans, alliances and vulnerabilities is indispensable. A well-run coterie will, however, supply informants eager to remedy this. A coterie is also a two-way conduit: use it to sow misinformation - without, of course, direct attribution.

People, as you must publicly and often insist, are your most vital resource. Give them special attention. Identify the cliques towards which they naturally turn - then destabilise them. The most obvious cliques are of women. Women are now adept at forming sororities by creating alliances and exploiting networks. Their unifying rhetoric is based on sensitivity to discrimination - and they have powerful evidence to prove it. You must therefore be ultra aware of feminist issues, not just their global concerns, though there's little you can do about those, but especially women's lesser concerns - from PMT to childcare.

Bring a token woman or two into your coterie core. If they need to cancel classes without notice or want more flexible hours, accommodate them. In short, their cliques are easily destabilised through petty partiality and preferment. This, of course, is why perpetual hopefuls are so necessary - as an ad hoc labour reserve.

Avoid teaching. It means keeping up with developments, makes you liable to comparisons with subordinates and ties you to a timetable. Again, use the free labour of hopefuls to do your teaching. Part-timers are possibly even more exploitable.

Finally, manipulate symbols to insulate you from subordinates. For this, you'll need a larger office with better furnishings than any of theirs, preferably with an outer office for a secretary - through whom you'll channel all contact. Get a reserved parking space away from the common herd and - if you're not yet eligible for the senior managers' Dining Room - eat in your office. And remember, using symbols is two-way. Reduce a subordinate's office space and you destroy a troublemaker's morale. It's faster and easier than any admin procedure. And it encourages the rest.

The final triumphant years: up - and out

Once at the top, you must build a new coterie and delegate all internal concerns to it. Bring in and promote people who lack any transferable talents so their dependence on you is fully understood. Give them fancy titles - "pro vice this" and "deputy vice pro that".

If necessary, change the criteria for promotion so you can give your acolytes "professorships" "for service to the university" rather than for research. You will, of course, give yourself the title and justify it by offering the odd lecture on "Adapting to change", "The relevance of modern universities" or "Strategic leadership". With your internal organisation settled, you are now free to build relationships with the outside world.

Becoming involved with significant political and business leaders will be easier when you appreciate how vain many of them are. Shower them with honorary doctorates and visiting professorships. Most important, get several of them onto senate.

With senate wrapped up, your next step must be to align the university's corporate image more closely to that of other corporate entities in the area. Call yourself "chief executive" and adopt a logo that is interchangeable with, say, a biscuit label. Draft a mission statement and build an extensive PR department. You will now be ready to launch yourself onto the wider stage - with all its wider opportunities. This, after all, is what the new academia is all about.

Wishing you all the best.

Yours, Gerry

With thanks to Francis Cornford's 1908 M icrocosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician . Gerald Mars, an applied anthropologist, has retired from full-time academia but holds visiting professorships. He would like to hear of any examples of crass managerialism. Confidentiality guaranteed. Send to: marsgerry@aol.com

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