By Neil Harris
You've been in your current job for two years or more. Do you feel that your career is moving steadily forward or does it seem static? How can you progress it, give it some momentum? As the new academic year beckons this coming autumn do you feel that you will learn more in your present job, develop your skills, find new avenues to explore? Will you be more employable after another university year than you are now? Which employers will buy your expertise? Alternatively do you expect the next academic merry-go-round to be much the same as the last one? Are you stuck in a rut? Would you prefer to do something different or do the same thing somewhere else?
Every couple of years it is wise to ask yourself these questions. Do a career audit and check that you are happy with the direction it is going in. Consider the pros and cons of moving job. Think hard about the opportunities that may present themselves in your current role. People progress their careers by moving into jobs where new skills can be added to their current portfolio, different contacts made, a new set of challenges met.
Analysing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that arise from different courses of action is a good tool that will help you compare and decide which to choose.
Strengths could include promotion and a higher salary, working with a team that attracts you, interesting work, the opportunity to develop your skills.
Weaknesses may be a short term contract, moving away from friends and people you enjoy working with.
Opportunities can include changing career or getting into a developing area of work.
Among the threats might be the cost of moving house, the possibility that your new department might close or reduce staff. Each person has their own personal lists and every situation is different.
In university life opportunities frequently present themselves to seek out situations that will provide personal development. Some may feel that these are reduced by their own particular circumstances and the manager they report to. Yet it is often possible, especially in administrative roles, to seek out other managers with more positive attitudes to your work. If necessary you could move to another department or a different institution, though the latter may have implication for moving families and the cost of house moves.
Academics can enhance their skills by looking for a different set of responsibilities. Lecturing on different courses; inventing new ones that keep their department's teaching up with the latest developments; considering cross-discipline opportunities that could lead to novel breakthroughs. History is littered with these, especially in science and engineering- robotics, bioinformatics, remote sensing and many more are subjects that have been created by inter-departmental activity.
Roles such as director of studies, organiser of a specific course, responsibility for tutors that serve a year group, organiser of student projects, manager of health and safety issues, admissions tutor, organisers of seminars or conferences all have to be filled. It is wise to consider which of these would suit you best and provide a springboard for your personal development. Make clear to colleagues your willingness to take on the roles you aspire to.
Although many academics feel these extra roles take their valuable time away from research, unfortunately they are often a mandatory part of the role so don't wait to be asked, or worse be forced into a role you don't want.
Work in administration roles
Careers for people other than academics are available in administrative roles such as registry, estates, conferences and hospitality, human resources and finance can sometimes be developed by moving between these service departments. A move to an academic department which needs these kinds of administrative expertise and a focal point for each of these activities is also a possibility.
Only occasionally an academic will move to this sort of role perhaps when the stability of a permanent role is desired. New environments present novel challenges, stretch our abilities to the full, may provide increased job satisfaction and opportunities for personal development. You could be organising timetables and room bookings; responsible for contractual matters with suppliers, clients and funding bodies; managing databases; organising events; liaising with external speakers; supervising the financial records.
Much can be done to enhance an academic career. As a researcher it is always possible to seek new directions for your investigation. How quickly do you see your research progressing? Where do you expect it to be in one or two year's time? What new areas might you explore? Partners in different institutions at home or abroad can make it easier to generate a reputation in your field.
Concentrating on generating funding proposals and developing the skills that lead to financial success will help your department to continue developing, even expanding your area of interest. Communicating what you do with others through publications and conferences can enhance your standing but needs to be followed up by pro-actively networking those who have an interest in your specialism.
Some academics get involved with their professional body. This is another avenue for career development. Such institutions need active academics to provide leadership. It may involve running interest groups, being chairperson or secretary to a committee, organising conferences, getting involved in editing their journals or mounting events to attract new members. All of these activities can be used to enhance your skills and reputation making more people aware of what you have to offer.
In many disciplines there is room for consultancy work. It may add to the coffers of the department and also provide additional income for you to supplement your university salary. Acting as a consultant develops quite a different set of skills that can be extremely valuable. It brings a strong focus on the needs of clients, demands a high level of listening and strong communication of ideas in terms that non-academics can relate to. This too can be a springboard for future career progress.
Whatever your own situation a regular analysis of the options for your future career will be beneficial. After giving it some thought you may decide that it is best to stay where you are but at least you will have a clear idea why, having decided to do so instead of simply drifting on regardless.