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The Happy Academic

Why we’re radically wrong about how we equip ourselves for academic work

Exercise your core skills to clear the hurdles of a growing workload.


Academic work has never been more diverse or more challenging.

Today, academics are expected to:

  • Teach, research, and do service proficiently
  • Not only publish, but also to generate social impact, patents or commercialization
  • Work well with colleagues and students, but also with those from government agencies, the public, and private sector
  • Present across disciplines to peers, partners and the public
  • Engage not just in scholarly writing, but also in writing for social and mass media
  • Work well alone, but also harmoniously with academic and non-academic colleagues
  • Manage projects and manage people
  • Read at high speed and in forensic detail
  • Be a good colleague, mentor, coach and counsellor
  • Oversee budgets, supervise students and understand human resources
  • Have a viable career strategy, self-promote, make key career decisions, work in teams, as well as lead them
  • Organize, participate in, and chair meetings
  • Answer seemingly limitless emails, and all the while ensuring these don’t detract from the “real” work
  • Practice self-care and care for others
  • Promote equity, diversity and inclusion through all of this work in a changed and changing world

Indeed, as we have concluded, academic work is extreme knowledge work. And must always be handled as such.

Some cling to the notion that a doctorate denotes proficiency in academic work, but more people now thankfully recognize that this entry-level qualification is exactly that: a vital door opener but not a problem-solver. Yet, in response, how should academics learn the skills needed for their jobs?

Mostly, academics deal with learning needs as they arise: like hurdles. Need to write your first grant? Talk to mentors, read a book on writing research grants, get some successful examples. The dogged determination you need to actually get the money will become more obvious in time.

Next up: how to manage your grant…

This task-focused grappling with the next hurdle, established early in the career, provides ready satisfaction. It is intuitively responsive, pragmatic and rewarding. For those who need help, countless books on key topics, like writing for publication or grants, are available. Social media spews tricks and tips while institutions offer workshops to those in need.

As ubiquitous as this task-approach is, it is also inefficient and constrained. Like ice cream, a task-focused approach to our development may be immediately satisfying to our palate but too much of it damages us over the long term. No wonder, given the bewildering demands and expectations of today’s academia, this task-focused approach with its problem-by-problem hurdling consumes vast swathes of scarce time and energy.

Given the complexity and diversity of academic work as extreme knowledge work, we must instead focus on deep skills — the core skills that transcend all manner of superficially different yet deeply similar academic work. We suggest these core skills include:

  • learning to learn better
  • working well with others and yourself
  • being influential
  • developing habits and systems
  • writing better
  • being – and staying – creative

The need to be influential, for example, transcends not only teaching, but also academic writing to any and all audiences across all types of media, meetings and emails. Skills to inform and be influential are useful in virtually any situation with any audience. By increasing your core skills around influence, you can learn to be more persuasive in any situation irrespective of the nature of the academic work.

Similarly, being creative is central not only to teaching and research, but to career decisions, managing any resource (from your own time to a pool of research assistants), and to countless different kinds of academic writing and daily problem-solving. By protecting and growing your creativity on a daily basis, you can learn to make creativity less elusive, and become better placed to do the right thing, not the obvious thing, across work situations.

While endlessly tackling hurdles via task-based approaches allows the development of discrete abilities for discrete purposes, focusing on developing deeper skills — what we call your “core” — builds your versatility to meet every kind of academic work challenge. Just like an athlete who strengthens their core muscles, this core-focus builds what matters most across your work, not just in one task. By developing this core, you can become better at not just one part of your work, but the whole challenging and massively diverse terrain of academe.

So, how can you incorporate a core-skills based approach in your work?

1. See your work through the lens of skills not tasks

Change the way you frame academic work, from being hurdle-focused and task-based to a skills-based approach. This helps you recognize the underlying core skills that transcend seemingly different kinds of academic work. This allows you to appreciate the deeper skills that are common across different parts of your work and this is the basis for understanding how improving skills for one part of your work can improve other parts too.

2. Seek core-skills growth over task-based solutions

The world offers a bewildering array of task-based solutions for your immediate problem. Avoid the temptation to rush towards your next hurdle with domain-specific task-based solutions and instead try focusing on developing your deeper skills and apply these across a variety of work situations. There are fantastic resources from outside of academia on the core skills of academia — such as creativity, and persuasion. Don’t dismiss the usefulness of non-academia focused resources as these are often written by subject matter experts on knowledge work and have ready application to your core skills.

3. Join the dots

As you grow in this core-skills approach, make a conscious effort to apply skills learned in certain parts of your work to others. What have you learned from how you approach persuading grant reviewers that could be applied to persuading the public through a knowledge-mobilization initiative? From writing for publication to writing better emails? Reflection and imagination are central to using core skills well. In time, your core skills can be further leveraged to add value to each other — for example, how to more creatively persuade or work with your team.

4. Spend one hour per week developing your core skills

There’s never enough time – and that’s not about you but about the nature of academic work as extreme knowledge work. Academic work is too complex and challenging to not spend at least one hour a week on developing your core skills. Our time and energy are a lot more scarce than we think. Focusing on your core skills, even for less than one per cent of your waking hours, provides the most value-added means to fully realize the benefits of your time and efforts for your vision of your academic work. You’re too busy not to.

Alexander Clark & Bailey Sousa
Alex is president of Athabasca University. Bailey is associate vice-president of planning, quality and assessment at Athabasca University. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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  1. Tom Worthington / October 23, 2022 at 18:41

    Most academics today are primarily concerned with training people for professions via first and masters degrees. Research is only a small part of what is done at universities. So you should first ensure you are a qualified professional in your field, preferably with experience working outside a university. If you want to work at a university, then undertake some teacher training, while doing introductory teaching. If you find that okay, then, and only then, undertake research training. This approach will reduce the frustration many PhD graduates feel, having done years of training, only to find they spend most of their time casual teaching and hunting up grants, while trapped in the university system because they are not qualified to work outside.