When you are looking for an academic job it is hard to imagine that you could get one and be unhappy, even miserable. And yet, I’ve met unhappy academics. Sometimes you’re just overwhelmed. It seems like there is so much to do that there will never be enough hours in the day to do it. You try, though, and end up exhausted. Sometimes the thing that really attracted you to an academic career seems to be a very small proportion of the job. Or, the parts of an academic career that you really value and where you feel you can make your best contribution do not seem to be valued by the institution or your colleagues.
The job you have and the job you want
An academic career incorporates a wide range of activities and uses a lot of different skills. Even those who love it, and are successful, love different things about it, or excel at different aspects. It is important to determine what is important to you. Your actual job may never match your ideal exactly, but knowing what your ideal looks like enables you to choose better compromises.
What is it that attracts you to an academic career?
When you look at what’s happening in higher education today, what really makes you angry or upset?
What aspects of your research energize you? What aspects drain you?
Think of an example of a teaching experience that felt really good. What were the characteristics of that class? What seemed to contribute to the positive feelings?
Do the same for one that felt negative. What was that class like? What made you feel like it hadn’t worked.
What kinds of service or administrative tasks have you found frustrating, or have made you feel incompetent, or seemed to take a lot of time and energy? Be specific about the nature of the task, not just the title. Was it the task itself? The people you had to work with? Something else?
Similarly, have you ever had service or administrative tasks that felt relatively easy, where you felt like you were making a valued contribution, and where the time and energy taken seemed appropriate? What were they like? Again, was it something about the type of task or the people you worked with?
You have choices within the job you have
You can shape your research program to play to your strengths and find collaborators or research assistants or administrative assistants to complement your skills. Just because you don’t like a particular task, doesn’t mean no one does.
You may have some flexibility about teaching, too. The balance between large and small groups in your overall teaching load, for example. Or the problem might be that you don’t know how to approach a particular teaching situation. Most of us haven’t been trained in teaching. We draw on our own experience, which is limited. The Learning and Teaching Centre at your institution may offer workshops or one-on-one help that could make a big difference to how much time and energy teaching is taking.
You definitely have choices about service and administration tasks. You have to do your share, but you can focus on tasks where you make your best contribution. Identify what you are good at and what skills or networks you would like to develop and use those as a baseline for responding to particular requests. You could even proactively seek out tasks that are a better fit for your skills.
Sometimes, the thing that is making you miserable can’t be changed in your current institution. Then you have to make some big decisions about changing jobs (should something more appropriate come up) or even leaving academia altogether.
Before you get there, take a good hard look at what you can change. And don’t make too many assumptions. Start with the questions above. Find a notebook. Make yourself a cup of tea. Sit in a comfy chair and really think about them. Identify what you are already doing that’s in line with your vision. Maybe identify one thing that you could tweak to make it better aligned. Or, one thing you can add to make your work better aligned with your vision.
If there is something that is really out of alignment with your vision for your ideal academic job, can you either stop doing it or change how you do it to make it align better? Assess the risks to determine whether they are worth taking and what steps are within your range of acceptable risk.
You don’t have to do this alone
Change is hard. It is even harder if you are feeling burnt out or overwhelmed. Even habits you don’t like and know aren’t productive can be hard to change. There may be real risks involved and it can be hard to assess the risks. You may have support available but you may need to work some things out first so that you can make good use of it without risking your reputation.
I can help you get clearer about what’s important to you, figure out how to get more of that in your current situation, work out what support you already have available and how to make good use of it, and get you pointed in the right direction. I call that service Wayfinding because there isn’t always a clear map but I can help you learn how to read the signs to make your way.
I also offer ongoing coaching to help you make the changes you want to make and set off with the support you need to establish this new direction and stick to your vision in the face of resistance and obstacles. I call this service Guide for the Journey.
Where does confidence come from? Part 1: meaningfulness, Part 2 (security) and Part 3 (support) are linked in this post.
An earlier version of this post was published 31 January 2011. It has been edited and updated.