University life has many benefits. The current funding system ensures that you will be working with intelligent people from all over the globe. It’s a diverse cultural experience in which you can continually deepen your knowledge of a subject you love. While funding is an issue that is never far away, you usually have the freedom to investigate your subject without the need to consider financial gain. Salaries may be lower in comparison to commercial opportunities but for some there are opportunities to earn consultancy fees, write books, and attend conferences abroad. There is also a much more flexible attitude to hours of work and holidays.
When we have worked in universities for long we tend to assume that our values are identical to those espoused by people employed in other walks of life. In truth, they are quite different. There is more autonomy and less team working than in business. The profit motive, that made people like Richard Branson so successful without a degree, is generally not so high on the academic agenda. Intelligent people, it is said, spend too long thinking up ideas and considering the risks to be commercially successful.
Academic life is based on critical analysis and evaluation, and can be a difficult place for those who cannot bear criticism. Those who care for their reputation tend to think hard before they speak, rather than testing out their ideas by talking too much about them. Talk about an idea and soon you find others developing it. Write an academic paper and several colleagues might want to share your authorship. An element of secrecy may develop, yet in commerce keeping your developments secret from competitors is often of paramount importance.
As with every organisation there can be ‘unwritten rules’ and codes of behaviour which can have an impact on your ways of working and career development. Meeting others for coffee can be important. This may be when you have the chance to influence decisions. Understanding your institution’s culture and structure and their potential influences on your working life and career can leave you prepared (forewarned is forearmed) with strategies to make the most of opportunities that arise.
The more successful your department, the more secure your job and the greater chance of career opportunities being created. If everyone has an eye for the broad strategies required success should come. There is danger in focusing so closely on your own activities that you miss the broader picture.
Develop your understanding of how your department is judged by others- its teaching quality and research assessments. Think how you could contribute to an increase in its rating. Consider each research group and every course in the prospectus. Where do you have something additional to offer?
Commerce tends to favour ‘matrix management’ structures in which specialists from different disciplines work together in teams on projects. Do you see any opportunities for interdepartmental collaboration in your situation? It can often be fruitful.
In the past, and maybe still in some places, people working in administration, who dot the Is and cross the Ts, were undervalued in some quarters. Yet universities could not function without departments to deal with registry, finance and human resources. Those who organise conferences, accommodation, catering, manage the estate, and bring in vital revenue are absolutely essential to the smooth running of the establishment.
If you organise a conference, seminar or other event many of these people will be essential to its success. Get to know the movers and shakers in these key roles.
Progress in an academic career now depends much more on an ability to raise funds from research councils, industry, European bodies or charitable trusts. While communication between departments may be limited, an ability to communicate with those working in the same field, but in different countries, will definitely help an academic reputation. Networking and liaising with those outside your own institution can bring major benefits.
Offer to assist your manager and colleagues when they are under pressure and try to understand their point of view. Think hard about developments that may benefit your department, not least how they might be funded. Keep an up to date knowledge of all sources of finance and how to apply for them.
If there is a mentoring scheme, seek out a mentor and ask your manager for an appraisal of your work if there isn’t a formal scheme for this. Alternatively offer to be a mentor to new staff. Develop external links that may be useful to others as well as yourself.
And finally, continually update yourself on developments in the higher educational sector. As a researcher there is always a danger of being so focused on what you do that you lose sight of the big picture.
The political situation can also affect your job. The government may decide that it only needs so many departments like yours (remember Chemistry!) and that their regional spread needs to be even across the country. The quality of your courses and research may only marginally enter into the decision. Your department may be deemed too small and uneconomic by your institution, so recruiting more students is vital. School visits and positive public relations can become important activities. With over 100 UK universities more rationalisation of the industry must be expected.
Higher education works though a hierarchical management structure. It is often difficult for those at the bottom end to know what is going on in senior management and those at the top seem only to have a vague idea what is happening lower down the chain of responsibility. Departments value their autonomy and so do specialist groups within departments. This can hinders effective communication. Get to know, if you can, the person your manager reports to. Identify their concerns and consider what you can do to assist.
Universities often have value systems which seem strange to outsiders. I once knew a chemistry department in which organic chemistry was considered to be the tops, physical chemistry less prestigious and analytical chemistry even less so. Departments often consider themselves to be superior to others. In some universities the medical school has its own students’ union and they do not mix with the rest. Business schools also often set themselves apart .
Lecturers who used to be appointed for their prowess in research must now also have the skill of imparting their knowledge to others. Staff training on the campuses has improved. Although many staff still have their career prospects diminished by short term contracts or part-time working, conditions of employment have improved. Contract researchers now have the benefit of redundancy payments and maternity leave.
How to succeed
So how do you succeed? First develop good relationships with those who can help you. When the chips are down the maintenance staff, cleaners and caterers can be of major assistance. If your job involves running a course get to know those working in the registry. Visit people and get to be known, not simply as an e-mail address or phone number in their eyes. If you’re on a committee get to know everyone else involved. If not, volunteer and demonstrate your initiative, flexibility and willingness to help.