Pathways to prosperity in casual academia

The journey from adjunct to permanent requires adaptability, foresight and self-awareness. Here, Andrew Stapleton offers tips – such as diversifying skills, strategic branding and mobility – to enhance an academic career

Andrew Stapleton's avatar
Independent academic
30 Aug 2023
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Casual or adjunct academics have become an integral part of higher education systems worldwide. These positions, often characterised by short-term contracts and uncertain futures, can be challenging, but they can also provide unique opportunities. For many, the hope is to transition into a permanent role. Young academics, however, increasingly find themselves in casual roles and, if you are not careful, you could end up there for the rest of your career (as one of my friends found out).

In a landscape where permanent academic jobs are becoming scarce, how do you thrive or at least stay afloat? This article delves into common misconceptions surrounding casual academia and offers pragmatic advice to navigate this precarious journey, no matter where you find yourself working.

Diversify your skill set

Embarking on the unpredictable journey of casual academia necessitates more than just in-depth knowledge in your field. It’s a common misconception that narrowly specialised expertise guarantees success. But here’s the harsh truth: those who diversify their skills often find more doors open for them, both within and outside the academic sphere. As financial constraints tighten and interdisciplinary projects gain traction, the jack-of-all-trades often stands out.

This doesn’t undermine the value of specialisation; it emphasises the benefits of broadening horizons.

So what can you, a busy academic, do to diversify your skill set? Attend interdisciplinary workshops, actively participate in courses beyond your core expertise or even venture into soft-skills training. In today’s competitive academic landscape, versatility can be your strength.

By cultivating diverse skills, not only do you become a more adaptable and resilient academic, but you also enrich your portfolio, making yourself a more appealing candidate for various roles and collaborations.

Make the university notice you for all the right reasons

In a vast sea of academic brilliance, standing out requires more than producing excellent research; it’s about making strategic impressions.

Casual academics should harness modern tools, such as AI-driven platforms like MirrorThink, to identify overlooked grant funding opportunities. These cutting-edge technologies can provide an edge, spotlighting avenues that others might miss and showcasing your proactive approach to funding.

However, securing grants is only half the battle.

Your personal and professional brand should resonate with the broader vision of your affiliated institution. Understand and align with the university’s priorities. Look at your institution’s five-year plan and vision statements to align your work with where they see themselves over the coming years. This not only solidifies your value proposition but also positions you as an asset, ensuring you’re noticed, and remembered, for all the right reasons.

By combining tech savvy with strategic branding, you become an academic force who will be hard to overlook, setting yourself up for long-term recognition and success.

The mobility advantage

In academia, familiarity can be a double-edged sword. While the comforts of a known environment and established networks can be enticing, staying too long in one university can, paradoxically, tether your career progress.

Many academics observe an unwritten bias: institutions often favour recruiting fresh perspectives from outside rather than elevating those within. It’s a reflection of the value placed on diverse experiences and new viewpoints. If you find your career plateauing or opportunities becoming sparse, it might not be a reflection of your capabilities but rather of institutional inertia. The solution? Consider seeking horizons beyond your university.

Changing institutions can breathe fresh life into your career, offering a new set of challenges, collaborations and prospects. Reaching out to other academics that are well known in your field and have cited your work is a great way to find research groups that closely align with your expertise. In the intricate dance of academia, sometimes the boldest steps involve moving out of familiar territories. If upward movement feels restricted, remember that a lateral step to a new institution might be the upward push you need.

Embrace digital networking

The age-old image of the isolated scholar, engrossed in books and shunning the digital realm, is no longer sustainable in today’s hyper-connected academic landscape. Gone are the days when networking was limited to conferences and seminars. Today, thriving in academia requires a proactive online presence.

The digital world is brimming with platforms that facilitate academic interactions, from forums and webinars to scholarly social networks like LinkedIn and ResearchGate. Casual academics can harness these platforms to showcase their expertise, collaborate on global projects and even gain visibility among decision-makers.

The digital sphere offers opportunities for real-time feedback, allowing for dynamic discussions and collaborations. Engaging consistently and effectively online can not only elevate your research to global audiences but also carve a space for you in the academic community.

The key is to be authentic, curious and open to the myriad opportunities that digital networking presents.

Casual academics need adaptability

Casual academia, while challenging, is not a path devoid of opportunity. As the academic landscape evolves, so must our strategies to navigate it.

The journey from a casual to a permanent position requires adaptability, foresight and a blend of traditional and modern approaches. By diversifying skills, ensuring visibility through strategic branding, considering the benefits of mobility and leveraging the power of digital platforms, casual academics can use challenges to enhance their careers.

It’s not just about producing significant research, but about positioning yourself in an innovative way in an ever-competitive academic world. As you embark or continue on this journey, hold on to the conviction that every experience, whether transient or long-term, contributes to your academic narrative.

Embrace the fluidity, remain proactive and, most importantly, believe in the unique value you bring to the world of academia.

Andrew Stapleton is a former researcher who started his YouTube channel, which focuses on academic AI tools, PhD advice and productivity, in 2016, and he also founded Academia Insider.

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