Category Archives: New academics

Using the Career T to review your academic strategy


Source: Debowski, S. (2012). The New Academic: A Strategic Handbook, Open University Press.

Academics at any stage of their career benefit from thinking about how well they are positioned for success.

Academic success can be reviewed using a very easy tool: The Career T.  This little model suggests that academics must perform across two broad domains of activity: by building and expanding expertise  in their chosen field of knowledge (Depth); and, by sharing that expertise in various ways, or contributing to its broader use by others  (Breadth).

The Career T is a very quick reviewing tool to assess  your effectiveness and the suitability of your current career strategy.  First, take a  sheet of paper and draw a fat, large T-shape on the page.  Start with the base of the T and note down all the area of expertise, core knowledge and talents that you possess. You can do this as a broad review of every area of your academic work, or focus more specifically on a particular part of your activities, such as teaching or research. Now, move to the horizontal space and note down all of the ways you have applied that expertise.  This might include work roles, committees, projects, your publications… any other ways that you have translated your knowledge or contributed to the broader development of your community.

Once you have mapped your profile, take a good look at how it appears.  You might consider:

  • Do you have good evidence of roles and activities?  Or have you kept beavering away on your depth without considering its translation?  If your horizontal space is very limited, it is a clear signal that you need to act as a high priority.
  • Are your activities diverse, showing how versatile you are? Or have you stuck too long on one role that does not demonstrate your many talents?
  • Is there evidence of leadership i.e. taking ownership of projects?
  • Can you show that you can work well with other people e.g. on committees or projects?
  • Have you been setting stretch goals?  Is it time to aspire to higher targets?

You can now use the Career T to help you plan your next steps by looking at the gaps in your profile. Then identify how you might address those gaps. Are there new roles or activities that you feel will supplement the profile that you have mapped? Identify the most beneficial and consider how you will segue to these new opportunities.  Mentors, sponsors and models can help with ideas on how to achieve these goals.

Importantly, if you have been doing the same thing for more than two years (e.g. course coordination), it is time to think about handing over to another colleague and moving into a different role that showcases your skills in other ways.  Building a balanced and challenging portfolio to show your depth and breadth is a useful way of ensuring you remain competitive and remarkable.

You can read more on career strategy in Debowski, S. (2012) The New Academic: A Strategic Handbook, Open University Press.

It’s not about you, Jacob! Supervisors as mentors

Mentorship is a word that is regularly used as a catchphrase to describe the provision of guidance to a more junior colleague. Unfortunately, it is often greatly misused. Many universities are assigning mentors to new academics in an effort to assist their career development. This is a laudable intention, but does it work in practice? Possibly, but only if the mentor is truly engaged with the real work of mentoring.

A mentor can assist an individual in their consideration of life and career choices by offering unbiased insights and richer assessments of the options that might be available. In some cases, they may suggest new and unconsidered perspectives that encourage the mentee to think more laterally about how their skills might be deployed. It is sometimes the case that the mentor will also suggest it is time to move on from the existing situation.

In my visits to universities across many nations, there has been a strong push to appoint academic heads or senior discipline colleagues as mentors. The assumption is that they can offer good advice to get the mentee on track. Unfortunately, this assumption can be very wrong. Take Jacob, for example, who attended one of my workshops last year. He had been given very clear guidance by his “mentor” that he should not bother with focusing on his academic writing, despite the fact that he was pre-tenure. Instead, his professor was encouraging him to focus on administration, arguing that his responsibility was to support the department’s immediate needs. In fact, he had tersely instructed his protege that “It’s not about you, Jacob!” indicating that focusing on one’s career was selfish and self-serving. Jacob felt highly conflicted and confused. He could see that he was losing traction and was worried about his competitiveness – with good reason. My advice? Get a real mentor! Someone who will help you identify your long term priorities and assist you in opening up career opportunities.

Can heads, senior colleagues or supervisors also be mentors? Of course they can. But they must be aware of the need to step away from immediate pragmatic management concerns and think more clearly about their protege’s profile, ambitions, capabilities and potential. This may lead to very different advice on possible choices to consider.

(For more information on academic mentoring, see Debowski, S. (2012). The New Academic: A Strategic Handbook, Open University Press: Chapter 5.)