Three New Year Considerations for calibrating a career trajectory
Autumn Tooms Cyprès
The first few weeks of the new year is a natural time to reflect on one’s career trajectory and set goals for the upcoming months. For junior professors, the process of reflection and goal setting can be overwhelming because it is focused primarily on the quest for tenure and promotion. As a full professor, I can share that the thrill of tenure, once earned, fades quickly into a cycle of other quests that range from completion of projects or promotion to administrative roles. It is the rare academic who announces, “I have tenure now so I’m going to take it easy and find some balance in my life.” With this universal truth in mind, I begin again by offering three considerations for 2016 that help to calibrate career goals and a more focused trajectory.
Consideration one: Find an institution that matches your needs for time
Strategic investments of time make the difference between successful, balanced academics and unproductive scholars struggling to find a moment’s peace. A colleague during my first year at Kent State University said the key to being successful was, “ …getting from Point A to Point B”. The trick is deciding what constitutes Point B. For some it is lots of free time, for others it is a vita rich with publications. Once you have identified Point B, the second step is to ask yourself in the face of every request if investing in that request gets you closer to, or farther away from, Point B. It may also be helpful to avoid comparing your journey to others in your department as your goals may not be the same as others. In many circumstances, your goals may actually be in direct conflict with the goals of your colleagues’. For example, I had a colleague I really enjoyed thinking with over coffee. We enjoyed our weekly coffees so much that we decided to write together. Once our project was over, I realized that I would not be able to work with her again because we spent more time talking and processing than we did actually writing.
Consideration two: Find a mentor; be a mentor
A mentoring relationship is a mutually beneficial relationship between someone more experienced and someone less experienced. Such a relationship requires honest dialog, mutual trust, and the willingness of the mentee to reflect on the insights of the mentor. A great way to meet a mentor is through networking at national conferences such as NCPEA. Don’t be shy about networking; introduce yourself either in person or via email and ask for feedback about something you have written, or something that person has read. Volunteering to participate in projects is another great way to meet a mentor. Be prudent when considering where you invest your time. Do you networking at the local, state, or national level? If you are seeking tenure; building national networks can be helpful in terms of laying the foundation for finding the names of possible external reviewers. But if you are more focused on leveraging issues at the state level, you might save your travel funds for trips within your state. Serving as a mentor is another great way to extend and enliven networks within your sphere of influence. A caveat for mentors as well as those seeking to be mentored is that your word is the most important form of capital you have. If you promise to meet a deadline or follow through on a task; keep your promise.
Consideration three: Find a comfortable way to say no and use it often
One of the dangers of our profession is that we can be seduced by exciting opportunities and we do not know how to set a boundary. I have known many colleagues who worked through the “Point A to Point B” puzzle and realized that the opportunity in front of them was not going to help them get closer to Point B. Unfortunately, they did not have the courage or tools to say no and set a boundary. Junior professors are often asked to serve on all sorts of committees because senior professors know that their tenure allows refusal of such service without ramification. If you are a junior professor do not be afraid to invoke “no” when asked to serve on a committee by using your quest for tenure as the excuse. If you are a senior professor, it can be more difficult to say no because of professional expectations to serve. In most cases, when faculty are collegial, department chairs and deans make honest efforts to support faculty members’ refusal of a particularly duty for at least a semester.
Of all the suggestions above, reflection is perhaps the most important because it gives perspective. Place on your calendar time to step away from your duties and think about where your career is unfolding. Take yourself to lunch and consider if you are meeting your long and short-term goals. Map out the writing projects that you have yet to complete. Is there a mentor or a protégé that you have not checked in with? Typically I schedule these reflective exercises with the changes of the semester. Like all other end of the semester rituals, they help me to celebrate my successes, solidify my networks, and energize for the work of the coming months.