Is there room in academia for the not-very-ambitious?

(35 Posts)
dameednatheaverage Tue 25-Jul-17 11:38:04

I'm wondering what people think about this? I have busted a gut for a good few years (c. six years since my PhD) to make it as an academic. I've been successful in the medium range I guess - a lot of impact and some sort of public profile in my area, a few decent papers, but not nearly enough - my productivity is very low. I finally got promoted to SL recently though (I'm in a mid-ranking university).

I have come to the conclusion that I am just not sufficiently ambitious to go much faster, although I may go further, eventually. (I am probably also just not quite good/clever enough). And I am only prepared to work fairly standard hours (9ish-5.30ish), I just won't do endless evenings/weekends/etc. Essentially, I want to enjoy my life and my work and I have realised I regret spending my DC's early years in a fog of striving to achieve. I want to make sure I really enjoy what's left of their childhood.

Academics constantly complain of overwork, but I don't feel over-worked now - largely I think because I've decided to reduce the pressure on myself, and let my career just tick over. I would obviously never voice this to peers/colleagues, but admitting or experiencing a lack of ambition in academia seems quite unusual and perhaps a bit controversial.

What do you think? Is everyone here fired by ambition? Or are you ticking over too?

OP’s posts: |
user7214743615 Tue 25-Jul-17 13:48:48

Six years post PhD and "finally" getting promoted to SL?

In my field you need 3-5 years of postdoc experience internationally to even get a lecturer position. It would be remarkable to become SL within <8 years post PhD without getting a major grant such as an ERC.

Anyhow, I'm not sure it's going to be an option for much longer to just let your career tick over. There will be increasing pressure from the university hierarchy to publish, get grants, produce impact, teach well just to stand still in your current position.

Summerswallow Tue 25-Jul-17 14:42:31

It sounds like you have done just fine to date, as the above poster has said, 6 years post PhD is not a shoddy amount of time to make SL, many many people are still looking to make a lecturing post at that stage, it's hard to get a toe-hold which you have done and you should at the very least congratulate yourself for that.

It's also fine to have a bit of a lull after you just get promoted, I don't think you need to run around like a headless chicken for a bit, sit back and let the things you have done to get promoted (papers, grants presumably) happen and make the most of them- you don't have to immediately throw yourself into the next thing. I think academia has a natural ebb and flow about it, and I find I can only really concentrate on one type of writing on top of lecturing, so I have years where I write papers, and years where I write grants but I can't do both incessantly (social sciences).

There is pressure, but I don't find it too bad and I don't know anyone who is currently on a warning for not producing enough grant income, there's talk of it, but I don't know anyone, and if this were to come into my contract, I would pull my finger out at that stage, just as I did to get promoted. I don't over-work, and I don't over-produce, but I do enough to feel useful, work on interesting projects and to feel like I'm still moving forward, I don't work silly hours but I do work flexibly and often one day on weekends, then have a half day in the week.

Just let the natural ebb and flow occur and stop beating yourself up, you've done great so far, so rest on your laurels for a bit and your natural motivation will kick in later down the line. I very much doubt you are not ambitious, I think you are likely more worn-out and that's a different thing.

Summerswallow Tue 25-Jul-17 14:48:00

Also, I don't do a lot of 'extras' that other people do, so when people say 'hey would you like to write a chapter for this book/be on my new committee/attend this network event/lead a workshop/speak at our seminar series', if it's not part of my core projects, I don't do it. That stuff is fun, but that's what I would do if I were childless and/or had no other hobbies/caring responsibilities/life to live (some people really do work 12 hour days like that). That's not me, so I just do the core of my work, no extras, nice to haves, decorative stuff, the CV is less frilly than some other people but I can live with that.

Teenageromance Tue 25-Jul-17 14:48:15

I've lost the drive I used to have but am looking for moves to other areas as well. So I do think you have to. D ruthlessly ambitious and a workaholic but many of us are waking up and seeing it's all not worth it. I now do 9-5 and no weekends and am not prepared to do anything else while still on temporary contracts. So much is wasted time in academia (submitting to one journal and having to reformat when rejected, unsuccessful grant applications). I look around at those who are climbing the ladder and see people working from 5 in the morning and every weekend. Nope not for me.

Teenageromance Tue 25-Jul-17 14:49:26

Should also add though that I am ruthlessly efficient in those hours and regularly say no to things e.g. Presentations, paper reviews,

geekaMaxima Tue 25-Jul-17 17:07:21

As pp have said, getting to SL within 6 years of PhD is good going (assuming it's traditional SL and not post-92 SL where principal lecturer is actually the senior role).

However - and I realise I might be unusual on this front - I don't work crazy hours either and it hasn't harmed my productivity.

When I was a lecturer, I had no kids, and would often work evenings, plus some weekends around deadlines. I probably worked an average of 45-50 hours a week and rarely took my full holiday allowance. However, I also spent a lot of social time at work because I had friends in my dept, so I used to have aimless chats in people's offices, go for long coffee breaks, get lunch with people, etc. I also, admittedly, faffed about on Facebook etc. a bit in my office if I had a writing block on a paper or got fed up marking. I went into the office most days, even though I knew I'd be interrupted by colleagues dropping by about various things, as I sort of felt it wasn't the done thing to work from home too much. I got grants and papers enough to be promoted to SL in a moderate time frame (more than 6 years!).

Then, at SL to R, I have kids. I don't ever work evenings or weekends unless it's a rare research emergency (such as a grant deadline where I'm running late), and I refuse to treat anything teaching- or admin-related as emergencies. I probably work ~35 hours a week and I try to take all my holiday allowance. Despite working fewer hours, I'm more productive than I was as a lecturer because every second at work is laser-focused. I'm in a different dept now where I have friendly colleagues but not friends as such, so I never just chat in people's offices, I drink coffee and eat lunch at my desk and occasionally in the lunch room. I don't acknowledge writer's block any more and just write anyway (maybe move to a different part of the paper) and make myself plough through the most boring marking with the promise of chocolate at the end. I also ignore a latent culture of presenteeism in my dept and work from home (thus saving commuting time!) in uninterrupted bliss as much as possible. I got enough grants and papers at SL to be promoted to R relatively quickly.

Basically, I've ditched work social time (and break time!) for family social time. The downsides are that it's stressful juggling a constant, urgent to-do list as I never feel fully on top of it, but things do get done to an acceptable standard in an acceptable time frame. I'm probably considered a boring or distant colleague but I can live with that if it means I spend more time with my kids and partner.

I'm not saying any of this to stealth boast, but just to put it out there that sometimes it is possible to do "well" in academia without crazy hours or a SAH spouse. I wasn't aware of the possibility when I started out and just assumed that 50 hour weeks came with the territory... but it's not necessarily true. I would have liked it if someone had let me know earlier in my career, before I took the chance of making it up as I went along, that (in my field at least, in a dept where the workload model at least makes an effort to avoid unfair loads) ambition and a personal life are not mutually exclusive.

PiratePanda Wed 26-Jul-17 20:12:21

I think as long as you're basically doing your job -- teaching and getting decent student evaluations, producing enough research to be REF-able in your field, and pulling your weight administratively, then they're probably not going to sack you, and you can trundle along being unambitious.

As long as you're OK financially I guess; the USS pension fund is in deficit again and they're almost certainly going to dilute the terms and conditions again. Currently, the slower you get promoted, the less money you'll end up with in retirement, and it could get worse. If that's not an issue for you, then no reason you shouldn't trundle along :-)

TheMasterNotMargarita Wed 26-Jul-17 20:15:56

Absolutely what geekaMaxima said.

user1494149444 Sat 29-Jul-17 11:09:50

I think you are probably selling yourself short and suffering from some imposter syndrome. You've made SL in 6 years after all.

In terms of pressure, a lot of it is institution-dependent, but in general, the pressures are not going away. I think higher ed has reached the end of a long-term expansion cycle, and the sector is going to look very different in 10, maybe just 5, years time.
Most academics are either very ambitious, and therefore force themselves to do the long hours, or are workaholics, in which case they find work more relaxing than leisure.
I left because I realised I didn't fit either description.
The solution is excellent time-management. If you can be laser-focused like one of the commentators above, then you can in theory keep up.

WeyHay Sat 29-Jul-17 12:18:58

teaching and getting decent student evaluations, producing enough research to be REF-able in your field, and pulling your weight administratively

This. But there's really got to be a sense of "pulling your weight." If the department needs grant income, you need to be part of that. And so on ...

You can be unambitious, but you still need to do what is required of the job.

In my experience as an academic leader/manager, my female colleagues with young children have almost all gone through this kind of feeling. It's OK - you'll come out of it, renewed and ready to spread out a bit more, I hope. So just trundle along for now, and maybe see it as a germination/feeding stage - or what's a caterpillar doing before it becomes a butterfly? - that. So you're ready to fly when the children are older.

I've seen colleagues do this, and it's wonderful what creative ideas they come up with after a bit of treading water.

Indeed, we all need to tread water sometimes. All of us. Research & teaching are emotionally & physically intense.

PiratePanda Sat 29-Jul-17 12:28:43

I've actually had some very enlightened male HoDs (I've not yet experienced a female one hmm but that will be me in the not too distant future I expect -- we operate on buggins turn). The ones with kids have recognised that people have seasons in their lives, times when they're less obviously productive (aka churning out the papers), and times when they're firing on all cylinders. Sometimes those periods can last years.

I got a massive 5-year grant a week after DS was born. When he was small, I found that I could run the grant, do the research and the little bit of teaching I had to do, and look after him. But I couldn't write (much). So there is quite a long lull in my publication record, and at one point I nearly decided to pack it all in because it was just too hard.

But lo and behold, in the last 18 months I've got my mojo back. I would not have thought it was possible 2 years ago. So hang on in there.

WeyHay Sat 29-Jul-17 12:49:10

I am one of those awful childless not by choice academics who make it so hard for the rest of you, apparently. But we fill in the gaps. And as an HoD, the thing that irritates me (and upsets me tbh) is the assumption that I don't understand about the impact of having children. We are human too even if we're barren.

WeyHay Sat 29-Jul-17 12:50:33

And PiratePanda that's great to hear you're getting through that tunnel of early years babies/children. I've seen it happen to colleagues, and it's magic: you have the lovely lovely children, and new energy at work. It's great.

user7214743615 Sat 29-Jul-17 18:49:34

But we fill in the gaps

Um. No, childless people don't fill in gaps for me, a parent of a young child, because I don't leave any - I am the highest producing member of the department. Don't make sweeping assumptions that all parents of young children are the same.

WeyHay Sat 29-Jul-17 19:57:02

I was responding to generalising assumptions about childkess people in this thread:

That stuff is fun, but that's what I would do if I were childless and/or had no other hobbies/caring responsibilities/life to live (some people really do work 12 hour days like that)

A statement like that makes a lot of assumptions about those of us who do all those extra things. Often the extras which facilitate other people's research. And if we didn't do them, who would?

WeyHay Sat 29-Jul-17 19:59:12

Or rather, if some people don't do these "fun" extras, then how would journals be edited, scholarly associations set up & run, conferences organised and so on. How would most other people's careers be facilitated by all this extra "fun" work that some people seem to think is not important enough to do?

PiratePanda Sat 29-Jul-17 20:53:32

I'm sorry WeyHay if you felt my comment was a dig at the childless -- it really wasn't meant to be. My experience is that all the women in my department have been really supportive, and they're all (apart from me) childless; and the men with kids have been really supportive. I only specified the HoDs with kids because the childless men...hmmm....not so much. Maybe it's just my department.

What I really meant was that everyone, children or not, has fallow periods for a range of reasons. One of my childless male colleagues had a long fallow period and took ages to get his first monograph out, for not very clear reasons; he was in fact not submitted to the last REF because of it. I know he was seriously in the doldrums about it. And then when it was published, he won a HUGE prize for it.

None of us should beat ourselves up for the times in which it's not happening, for whatever reason. And there are plenty -- elderly parents, marital problems, financial trouble, serious ill health, bullying or harrassment or overloading at work, just plain old writer's block.

It's a hard thing sustaining the life of the mind in the face of, well, life.

WeyHay Sat 29-Jul-17 21:46:15

Thanks for explaining that @PiratePanda - your point is much clearer. I get so sick of assumptions about those of us with "no family." I've been treated on the one hand as if I have no private life but on the other, as if I have no idea about how tough it is for mothers in academia. And sadly, that treatment has generally been from female colleagues with children. When I've taken on their duties, or ensure that meetings never begin before 9:30 and end by 4pm, taken on Saturday Open Days for them because of family etc etc. It grates sometimes.

What I really meant was that everyone, children or not, has fallow periods for a range of reasons

Yes - I've seen examples of this & it's what I was talking about upthread. Indeed a colleague once said that she thought everyone needed - not sabbatical - but maternity leave - a period when there were no expectations and the pressure was off & you got to look after a squishy baby! She enjoyed all her maternity leaves & is a shining example of a woman with children, a brilliant career, and someone who is always taking on work she doesn't have to do. She's the least ambivalent about children & academic careers that I've ever worked with & it's refreshing.

geekaMaxima Sun 30-Jul-17 17:00:18

And sadly, that treatment has generally been from female colleagues with children. When I've taken on their duties, or ensure that meetings never begin before 9:30 and end by 4pm, taken on Saturday Open Days for them because of family etc etc. It grates sometimes.

Sorry to hear that, WeyHay. I have probably been one of those female academics with children who has pushed against things like Saturday open days, not only because it sucks to lose family time (it sucks for anyone to lose personal time) but because it incurs a huge financial cost for me to get weekend childcare and it's often not possible to arrange it. I hate having my colleagues do them instead, but it's the lesser of two evils. sad

My current HoD is female and childless (no idea if it's by choice or not; I would never assume) and is generally very good about all things concerning work and pregnancy / children. She occasionally has blind spots, like wondering why calling early morning meetings at short notice causes problems for people who have the school run schedule worked out weeks in advance to coordinate own and partner's diary, but is immensely better than the male academic with children who preceded her!

Tilapia Sun 30-Jul-17 17:10:17

I'm a not-very-ambitious lecturer. However, I have a teaching-only contract and am not research active, which may not be a path that appeals to you.

Summerswallow Sun 30-Jul-17 18:28:58

I deliberately said childless (should have said childfree, many people chose childreedom!) AND no other caring responsibilities/hobbies/things they want to do on purpose- I have many colleagues who don't have children but have caring duties towards elderly parents or have to look after their spouses or all kinds of configurations that mean they can't work 12-14 hour days, or they just like sailing or other lifestyle choice.

But, that 12-14 hour day schedule, the only people I know who do that are those who are childfree or who have wives who pick up the slack completely and don't have competitive/similar careers themselves, and want to focus on that type of lifstyle. It certainly isn't all childfree academics at all.

As for the question of who would run the conferences, edit the journals etc- I do those things only if very focused and very tied into my main projects/grants, no deviation from that. I do open days inc weekends as that ties in with my admin role. Nothing else. If that makes me less collegiate, so be it. I don't mind, I simply don't have 12 hours a day to spend on this stuff, my workload has increased since I started at the university so I teach at least 50% more students for the same allocation of hours and marking time as I used to and have to produce higher grant incomes etc, so the only rational way to deal with this is to say no to more things and focus on the core of the work.

Summerswallow Sun 30-Jul-17 18:34:28

Plus, when my friend sneaked a look at our workload model, what do you know, it was all the L and SL women who had the highest workloads and were doing the grunt work in terms of admin roles/teaching the stuff no-one else wanted to teach. Many of the male professors felt 'too important' to do their own seminars/had very important admin roles in which they did nothing conspicuous at all. It is not the women in their 30's and 40's who aren't pulling their weight in our department. We have male professors who are sitting it out waiting for retirement who haven't got a grant/book in years, but no-one is calling them on it...(we do have some great ones who are really productive and have a good network around them though).

PiratePanda Sun 30-Jul-17 19:32:25

it incurs a huge financial cost for me to get weekend childcare and it's often not possible to arrange it.

As Admissions Tutor, I never slough these off – if necessary, I drag my DS along with me to out-of-hours events and pay a student to help keep an eye on him (DH travels a lot, no relatives locally). If I have absolutely no other option, in almost always unnecessary out-of-term meetings I sit him at the back of the room plugged into headphones and a movie.

I have always been very assertive on this front – if my institution insist on bums on seats at out-of-hours events and meetings, then they occasionally have to put up with the attendance of my offspring.

PiratePanda Sun 30-Jul-17 19:35:20

and yes, I am aware that I am either very lucky in my institution, or they are so stunned by my behaviour that they haven't said anything, and now it's way too late for them to do so ;-)

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