Skip navigation
Academic Achiever

The importance of having a professional mission statement

A mission statement helps remind us of where we should be spending our time.


You are probably tired of the idea of mission statements. We see them in businesses, universities, fast food joints – literally everywhere. As a result, I think we don’t take them very seriously, and some are so vague (“to offer the best customer service”, for example) that they fail to have any real meaning. Many of us also assume this kind of navel-gazing is too time-consuming and perhaps too personal. Why would we have a mission for our personal lives, or even for our academic lives?

There are many reasons why a mission statement is important, both professionally and personally. First, it helps us to identify our core values, which will be different for everyone. It elucidates what drives us, which also taps into our creativity and energy, and allows us to determine what things we do because we believe in them and what things we do because others expect them of us. This can be crucial to being able to say “no” when warranted and that this “no” has values-based reasoning. A mission statement allows us more easily to prioritize our actions, tasks and energy allocation to things that are purely core to who we are; and it helps us therefore to make some hard decisions as to when and where to put our attention and our most precious resource: our time. Our goals (and it is beneficial to develop them) flow from our mission, and on those tough days when it all seems pointless, we can look at that mission statement and remind ourselves why we are doing job in the first place.

We already have teaching philosophies and research statements. Isn’t this enough? No, because values clarification and self-identification comes from our own core; they must be defined before we move to the next step, which is usually to describe how and what we are doing. We must first figure out the “why”. In general, a mission is a series of guiding statements, a raison d’être for each one of us and our work. Sitting down in a coffee shop or a quiet place for a couple of hours can give you a really good sense of what you are about, which you probably haven’t thought about much before.  Here are some guiding questions you can ask yourself:

  • What legacy do I want to leave?
  • What do I want my students and departmental colleagues and disciplinary colleagues to say about me at the end of my career?
  • Starting with the end in mind, what do I want my most significant achievement to be over the course of my career?
  • What do I need to change or monitor about myself and what am I already good at?
  • Do my values (whether that is inclusivity, rigour, notoriety, compassion, etc.) correspond to how I teach and do scholarship and show up in the academic world?

A mission is not an extensive document, it should be short and to the point. This, apparently, was Ghandi’s mission:

Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:

  • I shall not fear anyone on Earth.
  • I shall fear only God.
  • I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
  • I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
  • I shall conquer untruth by truth.
  • And in resisting untruth, I shall put up with all suffering.

Now, we can’t all have something as grand as that, and maybe such lofty aspirations are a little too much for the PSYC 101 course I’m teaching, but really spend some time thinking about why you are doing this difficult job in the first place.

Here is my research mission:

To explore the intersections of human life and music and music-making in a way that enriches the world’s knowledge and appreciation of musical works and their context. Through mindful and important pieces of scholarship to reveal unknown or underappreciated musics or to shed new and thought-provoking light on others. It is my mission to continually improve my critical, analytical and writing skills to create scholarship on the highest level of relevance and interest.

This makes me determine my priorities; such a statement may make you decide to spend your time and focus differently. It may renew your enthusiasm for what you do. It may make you leave academe altogether. Either is fine. You might want to talk to your family and friends about what makes you tick; they often have a better idea about this than you do. You might hire an academic coach for a session to help you sort this out. In the end, you will have only spent a few of your many hard-won hours of time on this process, but it will help you enormously, and it will be very comforting to read it on those days when you really need it.

Elizabeth Wells is a professor of music history and musicology at Mount Allison University as well as author of the book The Organized Academic.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey