Reflections of an Accidental Academic
Updated: Nov 26, 2019
Thirty years ago this month as I started my undergraduate degree I entered a higher education institution for the first time. Thirty years later, I am still here, having never left. After my bachelor’s I went on to undertake a master’s degree, then a PhD and then, twenty years ago, I secured a faculty position. I am though, like many academics, an accidental one. This career was by no means the plan in the autumn of 1989, far from it. I had actually left school a year earlier but ended up having to delay going to university as I needed to re-take my A-levels. This was primarily because in the spring and summer of 1988 I was far more interested in being in a band and rehearsing than studying for exams. Well…..I say rehearsing, there was quite a bit of drinking and eating pizza going on as well. We did the social side of being in a band very well. Therefore, with my expectations moderated by the events of the previous year I started my degree in October 1989. Instead of following my father to Durham and studying Geography, the original plan, I was taking the far more practical route of travelling across the Pennines to Liverpool to start a degree in real estate.
The second accident along the way that led to my academic career was that my seemingly good Plan B ended up having woeful timing as the UK real estate market peaked just as I started my degree. Indeed, the resulting crash became the topic of my undergraduate dissertation. I therefore emerged in 1992 in the middle of the early nineties recession with no job to go to. Given my dissertation, I did though at least have the ‘consolation’ of understanding why there were no jobs in real estate! Given the climate I faced, I therefore did what unemployed undergraduates often do; I stayed in the closeted environment of higher education and applied for graduate school.
In two respects I was lucky to have that option at all. Firstly, the UK was in the middle of introducing a wide array of reforms to the funding structure of universities. During my three years in Liverpool student grants had been frozen and were starting to be phased out; student loans had been introduced; the ability to obtain benefits had been dramatically reduced and the dreaded poll tax had imposed an additional financial burden on the student population. However, in comparison to later generations I emerged with relatively little debt. Secondly, I was lucky in that I was applying for Master’s programmes before the rapid increase in tuition fees that occurred from the mid-nineties onwards. Today, my parents couldn’t have afforded to support me undertaking a Masters, never mind one in finance. However, back in 1992 I got a place on a great programme in Scotland at the University of Stirling for less than £3,000. Yes, less than £3,000 for an entire MSc programme….in Finance !!!
While I had written a thesis as part of my undergraduate degree it was during my MSc that I began to realise that I quite liked research and started to wonder whether an academic career may be a path worth pursuing. I ended up applying for PhD programmes and got offers from a few different institutions. For a variety of reasons, I accepted the offer from University College Dublin (UCD). After heading across the Irish Sea in the autumn of 1993, and despite the inevitable bumps along the way, I entered a period of rapid progression. I started my PhD at 23, defending my thesis at the age of 27. I stayed at UCD, obtaining a faculty position at 28. At 32 I was promoted to Senior Lecturer, the equivalent of obtaining tenure and being promoted to Associate Professor in a US style system.
In 2005, I moved back to the UK and a year later, a week after my 36th birthday I was promoted to full Professor. I went to the pub that evening with a few friends to celebrate. At one point in the evening, one of them noted, “you don’t seem that happy”. It was a fair question. After all, promotion to full Professor is supposedly the holy grail of academics, the point at which you can finally relax a little. It is also especially prestigious in a place like the UK where the title is reserved for Full Professors. Even considering that I can at times be a bit of a dour drinker, especially when Irish Whiskey or Scotch is involved, and while I wasn’t unhappy with the day’s events, I was hardly overjoyed. My reply to my friend was “…..there was a price to pay”. To be a full Professor at such a young age was undoubtedly a major achievement, but it hadn’t come out of nowhere. Over forty journal articles, half of which had been sole-authored, had backed up that promotion. There had been a few best paper and other awards as well, plus extensive teaching and administration experience. The cost had been an unrelenting treadmill since I had started my PhD 13 years before in 1993. Thirteen years of 12 to 14 hour days and six or seven day weeks. One of my saving graces was that we didn’t have 24-hour access to the business school building at UCD and, in particular, I’d get thrown out early on a weekend at 5pm. In the days before everyone had a laptop, this meant that I couldn’t put in my normal 12+ hour days on the weekend. I therefore had enforced downtime on Saturday and Sunday evenings. The fact that I had stayed at UCD for my first faculty position probably also contributed to me not adjusting my working habits post PhD. I didn’t have a change in scene or environment. Bar getting an office of my own it was business as usual.
Those years had led to a meteoric rise, but as I noted over drinks that evening in June 2006, an evening that was rapidly in danger of taking on the mood of a wake, there had been a price to pay, indeed not just one but multiple prices. At the top of the list was a failed marriage that hadn’t been helped by my relentless self-imposed workload. It wasn’t just the hours in the office but also the traveling for conferences and teaching on overseas programmes. In the early noughties I was averaging eight long haul trips a year to North America, Asia or Australia. That wasn’t factoring in any travel within Europe. In addition, my wife also undertook a doctorate during that period, she started while I was writing up my thesis. For six years, at least one of us was in middle of their doctorate. The result was that I had returned to the UK in my mid-thirties, after 12 years in Ireland, a single man and wouldn’t start a family until I remarried in my forties. However, despite my thirty-something self knowing what the cost of those 40+ papers had been, it would be a long time before I truly learnt the lesson.
From the perspective of the outside, we academics live our lives in hallowed cloisters, spending lifetimes pondering issues that are often perceived not to impact the man, woman and child on the street. The public’s perception of what academics do can be seen in the everyday meaning attached to the word ‘academic’; often referring to a lack of practical relevance and being only of interest in a theoretical sense. How stressful can all of that thinking be? It is though being increasingly acknowledged, by none more so than those of us in the eye of the storm, that academia is facing a mental health crisis and one that extends across the spectrum. From undergraduate and graduate students through post-docs, adjunct and tenure-track faculty right through to tenured professors. This isn’t just concerned with stress related to the desire to academically perform, which can play a role with faculty as well as students. There is far more to it than that, hence in part my motivation behind starting this blog.
To begin with though, if an academic career is as bad as I’m about to make out, then why do we all do it? For most of us the answer is incredibly simple. We love it. We are passionate about either teaching or research and if we’re lucky, as I am, both. I love being sat in front of a computer running statistical models for my research just as much as I love being in a lecture theatre. I come from an educational family. My father was a Chemistry teacher and Deputy Headmaster and virtually everyone on his side of the family is, or has been, a teacher or involved in education in some way. Education dominated the discussion at any family gathering when I was growing up, exasperating my mother at times.
I think though that the thing that defines academics more than anything is their intellectual curiosity. My mother loves telling a story about how I would come home from school every day and inevitably start with the phrase “Did you know………”, and proceed to tell her something that had blown my mind at school that day. An academic career allows you to continually explore new issues, concepts and ideas, and hopefully advance the field you are working in. That can come across either in the classroom, passing on that knowledge to your students, or in your research. We also have that much-vaunted principle of academic freedom, meaning that we can research what we wish to, at least most of the time. This is core to what we do and why many of us have chosen the path we have. This is a profession with incredible freedom, although some do hide behind that at times. Academics are in many respects effectively self-employed, especially when it comes to research. Our careers are our CV’s and they, and our work, are transferable. But that freedom and flexibility is in part the beginning of many of our problems.
Academia is a bizarre profession, for many reasons, but most pertinent here is that it encourages ‘bad’ behaviour. It encourages you to work too hard. This is because you are judged by your output. The ultimate arbiters of success are how many books you have written, research grants obtained, and journal papers published. If you work longer and harder you will, in all likelihood, get ahead faster than your peers. However, success can often arrive at a price; in terms of relationships, friendships and other aspects of your personal life as well as your physical and mental health. Of course, academia is not alone in this, many careers are stressful. Many people in many jobs suffer from stress and anxiety. Academia though is different from many in that there is no such thing as your work being complete. You can’t just clock off at 5pm. You can always do more. You can always write one more journal paper or secure more funding. There is no end, no time when you have finished, when your work is done. If only you would work those extra hours, not take holidays and work harder, you could produce even more or get your work published in even better journals. Over the ten years from 2000 to 2009, I managed to take a grand total of two holidays plus 3 or 4 weekend breaks. Any other vacation time involved short visits to see family or maybe fitting in a couple of days around conferences.
Good researchers will always have a backlog of ideas that they would love to work on. If only they had the time. Indeed, typically, while this may be the first of these blogs, I have a long list of topics that I want to write about. Even if I manage to write one a month my existing list will keep me going for at least a couple of years. That curiosity and internal drive, so important in what we do, does however run the risk of turning inwards on itself. It is for so many academics their Achilles Heal. Faculty hope that the next move may reduce the stress and the strain. We assume that if we just go that extra mile, spend those few extra hours in the office, the lab or the library, that at some point things will settle down and that we will get our evenings and our weekends back. However, the danger is that we never do, and that is because the underlying pressures never disappear. In 2014 The Guardian surveyed over 2,500 UK based academics and found that over 80% had suffered from anxiety and over 70% from depression. I am one of the 80%, I am one of the 70%.
A major element here that contributes to that internal drive and desire to push yourself harder is that academics operate in an inherently judgmental and competitive environment. This comes across in a wide variety of ways. To begin with academics are constantly being judged; by your peers at conferences, by journal editors and referee’s, by your Head of Department and Dean and by your students. Much of this is essential, for example, the concept of peer-review and its role in the advancement of knowledge. However, it helps if you develop a thick skin early on in your career. For some young academics, especially ones who have progressed through school and university being fated, it may be the first time that their academic worth has been questioned, and that can be hard to adjust to.
This is also a highly competitive environment. It is far too easy to compare oneself to other academics, both within your institution and externally. As I noted above, your CV is your career. But this applies to everyone and unfortunately too many academics view it as a zero-sum game and begrudge the success of others. This can often be worse internally within a university as direct comparisons are more likely to occur. It can unfortunately also spill over into other aspects of a department or schools’ operations, contributing to the notorious politics that can consume academia. Especially while you are working your way up the greasy pole it is hard to ignore these issues and to not compare yourself to others. One thing that I intend to return to in future blogs is how some academics display what I refer to as the “Arrogance of Insecurity”. They are often the noisy and vocal people at conferences, the ones who feel the need to make clear to the world how brilliant they are, and they attempt to do this by running others down. However, in many cases they are doing it because of an inherent underlying insecurity and the perceived competition with their peers.
This competitive environment has been made worse in recent years by the increased availability of statistics about research. There has always been an element of this; the number of papers you’ve published, the amount of research funding you’ve brought in etc. However, it has got worse. In part this is because data is more easily available today. But if you were to ask any academic, they will also tell you that universities have become increasingly focused on quantifiable measures of output and/or quality. Today you can very easily check not only the number of papers that an author has published but how many citations those papers have produced. It is also possible, though often very contentiously, to examine the relative rankings of the journals an author has published in.
The result is that no matter how well established you are, it is hard to stop comparing yourself to others. It takes a lot to be comfortable in who you are to the extent that you can honestly assess your own work and your standing in the field. For a long time, the person that stared back at me from the bathroom mirror every morning was my biggest critic, far more so than any vocal criticism I may receive at a conference. However, it wasn’t until around 2010 when that person in the bathroom mirror would also be honest in their assessment of what I was good at. It was around the time I co-authored a non-real estate, mainstream finance paper that was published in a leading management journal. By doing that I proved to myself I could deliver outside of my specialist field. I had nothing left to prove to anyone, and most importantly, I had nothing else to prove to myself. I carry on doing what I do because of my intellectual curiosity and because I love the job.
When you combine all of these things; the internal drive, external pressure to deliver, the competitive nature of academia and academic politics, well you end up with a heady cocktail. These issues often collide around the (unsuccessful) management of work-life balance and can particularly result in issues with respect to depression, stress and anxiety. It can also make academics reluctant to be fully open about the challenges they may face. Universities must share some of the blame concerning the culture we work in as they are the ones who set the rules on hiring, tenure and promotion. Therefore, they implicitly, indeed explicitly, encourage this bad behaviour. While they often wax lyrical about the need for faculty, and students, to maintain a healthy work-life balance, they will at the same time reward those who ignore that advice. They will promote those faculty members who work harder and longer to get those extra and/or better publications, to receive more research funding and who do all of that while maintaining a full teaching load and taking on administrative roles.
Female faculty have the added challenge of managing this environment and work culture while possibly also wishing to have children. The challenges that female academics face is enormous. While a university may say that they will take into account gaps in a CV due to time on maternity leave, it is incredibly hard to exactly quantify this. Bluntly, how many papers is a child worth? I know of friends who have tried to time pregnancies in order to minimise the impact on research and try to have maternity leave coincide with teaching. The ideal time to give birth is the start of the academic year, or at least during the first term/semester. This means you get out of a lot of your teaching and admin but minimise the impact on research as you will be returning from maternity leave at the end of the teaching year. What you absolutely want to avoid is giving birth in the spring. You won’t get out of much teaching and you lose the research friendly summer months. I am guessing that I am by no means alone in knowing friends who have done this. Since moving to the US in 2016 the challenges that women academics face has been brought into even starker reality as it would be rare that a US based academic would have the level of support and maternity leave common in many other countries around the world. The impact can also be seen with men, although by no means to the same extent. I have seen it myself, especially given my late introduction to fatherhood in my forties. I know that there was one position I applied for where concerns about whether I would be able to maintain my research output given my new family commitments was a factor in me not receiving an offer.
No matter how much I was aware that evening in June 2006 of the consequences of devoting so much to my career it would be another decade before I took stock. Initially after my promotion to full professor, nothing really changed. I was still putting in ridiculous hours and there has been another 40 papers since 2006. In 2009 I suffered from, amongst other things, a stress related skin condition. I also damaged my vocal cords due to the amount of teaching I was doing. I ended up having to use a microphone even in medium sized classrooms. It has really only been in the last two years that I have truly taken on board the sacrifices I have made over the quarter of a century since I started my PhD in 1993. I was seriously ill in 2017 and that has meant that I have begun to re-evaluate a lot of things, especially as I now have four amazing children to also consider.
However, the drive never fully disappears. Even today, the internal pressure is there. I want to come back fighting and prove to myself, if no one else, that I can still deliver at the highest level after my illness. I know that there really shouldn’t be any need. My record is there for anyone and everyone to see, but that internal pressure remains, pushing me to deliver again. This is what has motivated me to start this blog. This is an incredible career, it is a privilege to be an academic, but too often we are terrible at openly discussing the nature of what we do. I hope that these pieces can help junior faculty in particular enter the profession with their eyes at least a little bit more open and more aware as to what they are about to get themselves into.