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Careers Café

Are academic careers what you think they are?


I have to admit that I was somewhat baffled by the way that others promoted my post on Relevance and Employability as being about non-academic careers.

Being able to articulate how your research is relevant is going to matter more and more to academic careers.

Already, grant applications for major funding bodies require plans to communicate your research beyond the narrow circle of your specialist peers. And some sources of funding require that you collaborate with non-academic partners to achieve objectives that extend beyond the advancement of scholarly knowledge to practical impacts in the world.

Students want clearer direction on how, specifically, the things you teach them are going to serve them once they graduate. The university needs this information to market their degree programs, to persuade donors to support their activities, and to report to government funders.

This is not an either/or even within academic careers.

Balancing the production of new scholarly knowledge with the potential wider impacts is an increasingly important aspect of academic careers. Having a strand of your research program that focuses on those wider impacts, perhaps through collaboration with partners beyond the university, will provide you with more opportunities.

It’s not that no one values scholarly knowledge for it’s own sake. They do. But it is not enough.

It always takes more time to do something you are not good at and know less about. Developing knowledge of the specific ways in which your research is relevant to others, and building the relationships that enable you to communicate to those audiences, will mean that it will be easier for you to balance the purely scholarly aspects of your research agenda with those that have wider relevance.

Universities are NOT ivory towers.

They are of the world. Even small universities are large organizations which necessitate bureaucratic structures to keep them functioning.

They have management structures, even if no one likes calling them that. They have policies and procedures to ensure that the work that needs doing gets done and done properly.

You may have considerable autonomy but tenured professors are not self-employed and entirely self-directed.

Reality check

Think about what really attracts you to an academic career. Then do some research to find out if that’s really what the job is like. Talk to people in a range of institutions. You might learn that what academic careers are really like is really attractive to you. Or you might save yourself a lot of grief.

Do the same for non-academic careers. You might be surprised. I meant it when I said that this isn’t about a Plan B.

You have a range of career options that will use your research knowledge and research skills in meaningful ways, provide you with the challenge you need, and enable you to make a positive contribution. It is up to you to figure out what those specific options are.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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