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Career Advice

Hybrid academic careers that work

More and more scholars are intertwining their interests into fulfilling hybrid academic careers


Academic careers come in all shapes and sizes – and why shouldn’t this be the case?

There are plenty of scholars who love to teach but find research isolating. There are others who enjoy research but would rather avoid the distraction of teaching. Or, there are those who simply seek more practical applications to their work.

I recently interviewed three faculty members from York University in Toronto who have, for different reasons, built fulfilling hybrid academic careers – either through sessional contracts or even after tenure – and their stories are typical of faculty in virtually every university across Canada.

Building on a passion for teaching

Liz Farrell is a certified accountant who teaches accounting courses to undergraduates at York University.

She began teaching as a TA during her MBA, discovered she truly enjoyed directing the learning process, and gained great satisfaction from her students’ positive evaluations of her teaching.

After receiving her degree, Ms. Farrell, now an accountant with a Toronto firm, realized she simply did not enjoy research enough to pursue a PhD and leave her professional life behind. Nor did she want to give up teaching. Her solution: make room for both.

Working on contract provided an ideal venue for her to continue teaching while enjoying the stimulation of a non-academic career.

Ms. Farrell doesn’t see contract teaching as ancillary to her professional life, either: “If anything I consider teaching my core activity …[It’s] my greatest satisfaction and around which I build the rest of my career.”

Nurturing intellectual diversity

For many years, Chris Cavanagh, a passionate social activist, has taught courses in popular education on contract at York.

But all the while Mr. Cavanagh has been running a dynamic education-worker co-op, publishing several ‘zines and a blog, and pursuing other projects and interests.

For Mr. Cavanagh, the diversity of relationships he finds, especially in university classrooms, keeps him vital and thinking creatively. But now, with a family to consider, he is contemplating how to streamline the demands on his time by pursuing a more traditional academic position.

He is concerned this would require him to sacrifice the creative stimulation he now enjoys.

“Farmers know (or at least they used to) that a field with a variety of forms of wheat was resilient and stood a greater chance of long-term healthy survival than a field with only one variety,” Mr. Cavanagh tells me. “As we mono-crop our food, so we mono-crop our imaginations, as well.”

On the other hand, like many people who have considerable professional experience relevant to their fields of study, Mr. Cavanagh may well find his years as a social activist could give him a strategic advantage for some tenure-track positions.

Keeping current

Moshe Milevsky is a tenured associate professor of finance at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

Dr. Milevsky began consulting during his PhD to gain some practical business experience to supplement his exclusively academic career path.

He estimates that he now spends about 20 percent of his time consulting outside the university. But because many of his consulting jobs generate excellent data and case studies for his classes, he admits the boundaries between the two can become fuzzy.

Dr. Milevsky is convinced his professional consulting strengthens his role as an educator in a career-oriented field: “I personally believe it is absolutely critical instructors maintain exposure to the real world on an ongoing basis, at least if they want to teach something relevant to business students.”

He also offers this advice on how to keep a balance when deciding what extra-curricular endeavours to take on: “Before you accept or get involved with an outside consulting project,” he says, “ask yourself if this activity will end-up enhancing your research/teaching repertoire, or is it just a way to make some extra money.

“Be honest with yourself. If the answer ‘It’s just about the money,’ then you will end up harming your academic career in the long run.

“On the other hand, if you find that engaging in limited outside consulting work is yet another way to learn and interpret the world around you, then go for it!”

The hybrid academic

Too many scholars have felt they needed to choose between passions that seemed to pull them in conflicting directions. Successful hybrid academics find a way to reconcile their career interests into a single path.

Some, like Ms. Farrell, may pursue a career that puts teaching activities on equal footing with other private sector pursuits.

Other scholars, like Mr. Cavanagh, will practice in their fields, instead of abandoning such pursuits to keep strictly to a research-based, tenure-track path.

Even in a tenure-track position, as is the case with Dr. Milevsky, outside consulting can provide relevance to your teaching and research.

The structures of a hybrid academic career are as varied as the motivations people have for constructing them.

While this option is certainly not for everyone, for independent thinkers who feel trapped or limited in traditional positions, a hybrid career can provide a viable and satisfying alternative.

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