Being a faculty member is a great career path; you have the challenges of teaching, conducting research, and impacting your professional service. But no matter how great academia is, every academic I know has sometimes felt stuck. This feeling often happens to mid-career Associate Professors and sometimes Full Professors who have achieved tenure and promotion and settled into their new rank.
The mysterious part about feeling stuck is that it can either slowly seep into your bones over time or hit you quickly, leaving you with a sense of discord and unrest and often questioning why you chose academia in the first place. Regardless of how the feeling arrives and where you are in your career, you find you can't shake the sensation of going around in circles, or being stuck, in a rut.
If this speaks to you, there are three work habits that can contribute to keeping an academic from moving forward. I believe that with some self-reflection and honesty, it is possible to illuminate why you are not making the progress you expect.
See if one or all of these 3 habits are holding you back. Remember, no one is listening to your inner dialogue except you, so delusion is unnecessary.
Habit 1: You are disengaged from your academic community.
Every academic department, college, and University is its own community, with its own mores and rules, both written and unwritten, and filled with many members. An untenured faculty member can rightly focus solely on their research, teaching, and service to build the academic portfolio that will get them promotion and tenure. And this behavior is appropriate and necessary for the pre-tenure period.
However, once tenure and promotion have been achieved, you must shed some of the singular focus from yourself and become a more significant part of your academic community. Becoming more involved within the department and University while completing your required responsibilities isn't always easy. At times it can feel as if you are walking a tightrope. However, in the end, it's all about balance.
As a researcher, it's easy to shut oneself off in the lab and focus only on your research. But that attitude ignores the reality that the same academic department that has nourished you and given you space to establish your teaching and research agendas also needs your involvement and participation. If you're not serving or leading some aspect of your academic community, consider engaging more with your department community. Volunteer to lead a committee, take the initiative to develop a new course or program, or do something else that will enhance your unit or department. You'll find that your overall impact and career will shift from a "me, myself, and I" mentality to the greater academic community, which will support your efforts in moving forward.
Habit 2: You are too involved in your academic community.
Remember the fairy tale about Goldilocks and the three bears? The first bed was too hard, the second bed was too soft, and the last was just right! The Goldilock concept is what you need to think about with Habit 2.
As an administrator and now career coach, I have witnessed how people who are engaged and willing to contribute to their academic community are soon asked to take on multiple roles because, as Benjamin Franklin once stated, "If you want something done, find a busy person."
I witnessed this firsthand with a colleague who was a great teacher and scientist. He was personable, worked incredibly hard, and accomplished any leadership task. People loved working with this guy because he was easy to work with, well-organized, and got results. As a result, everyone in the University asked him to lead projects, committees, and other efforts to improve the academic community. This colleague was nice, too nice, and he never said 'no' to anything or anyone.
As a result, when he came up for promotion review, he was chairing 13 committees spread across the department, college, and University. So, while his service was excellent, his teaching and research suffered. This was a case where this colleague was too involved in his academic community. He was too soft and was being taken advantage of.
This work habit will hold you back more than any other. If you identify with this, ask yourself, are you too involved? If so, start paring back what you take on, and become a bit more "selfish" regarding your career. Remember, your most direct impact diminishes if you are not doing research and teaching, so consider trimming back your academic community involvement to focus more on your research and education. This may be hard because getting validated by working with people on various projects is gratifying. However, try to shift that validation to the impact you'll have with your increased research and improved teaching.
It may take some time to find your voice and be comfortable with what you say "yes" and "no" to; however, just like Goldilocks, you will find your sweet spot where things become "right" over time.
Habit 3: You have disconnected from your students.
As an undergraduate, I had a history professor who came into an 8:00am class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, opened his book, and read out of the book. I have never experienced a worse teaching style. I can vouch that not only was the class boring, but quickly all the students disengaged. His 'teaching method' was dull, ineffective, and he had no impact on his students or department. This Professor was stuck in what he had always done.
Is your 'stuck feeling' arising from the fact that you've done nothing differently in a while? If so, ask yourself what can you do differently to 'spice' up your career? Our March newsletter discussed doing something different to revitalize your research and the idea of doing 'something different' also applies to your teaching and service.
Perhaps you've taught the same courses semester after semester; maybe you've done the same research repeatedly with only minor tweaks. Possibly you haven't been engaged in your academic community, resulting in your work day being the same in and day out.
If you are stuck in a rut, consider teaching or developing a new class. Volunteer to lead or be on a committee outside your comfort zone.
Simple changes can help, like changing the format of your office hours; I once held 'walking' office hours, where I invited my students to walk with me on a specific day and time. We talked about class and other topics, with the end result being that I discovered more about my students which impacted my teaching. I was amazed at how many students took me up on the invitation.
Switch things up a bit and do something differently. You may feel out of your comfort zone, but you'll also find the challenge of doing things differently may provide the spark you need.
Recognize that sometimes you will feel like you're not moving forward in your career. Rather than putting your head down and grinding through the days, be proactive and think about things you may be doing that contribute to that feeling.
When you give time, attention, and work to be 'unstuck,' your colleagues, students, and administrators will appreciate your efforts. And so will your mental and physical health.
Keep Moving Forward