Long Term Academic Career Planning

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

Many of the articles on this website are concerned with getting your first academic job or the transition from student to member of staff. But it's important to remember that career development does not end there. If you have got a permanent position you need to work out where you see yourself in the longer term and making training and strategic provisions to ensure you get there. I recently covered this issue in a blog entry too: It’s official, I’m no longer a probationer!

Below are some points to consider when making your long-term career plan and how to maximise your chances of achieving your goals.

One-Year Ahead

This sort of planning is fairly straightforward although it's vital not to sit back thinking that you can relax for a year without doing much to build up your career. In today's competitive climate you have to constantly work to increase your chances of promotion. In many institutions you will achieve automatic promotion to the next grade if you simply do your job well and stay in the institution for a suitably lengthy period. But this is not a guarantee in these current times of economic uncertainty and should not be relied on as the only means of progressing. Also, if you wish to go for a job at another institution you would not have many selling points with which to market yourself.

So, what are the sorts of things you should aim to achieve in one year?

Try to develop both your skills and competencies. New skills you might acquire may be in the field of IT, such as learning to utilise the new technologies of podcasting or video casting, or using other online teaching methods.

External funding is increasingly important so make sure you regularly try to seek some sort of external award, whether for conference attendance or a larger research project. These are very competitive, but simply learning how the system works and improving your financial project management skills will help you to move up the career ladder.

In terms of competencies, volunteer yourself for a new role in your department, ask to join a committee that makes decisions in an area that interests you, develop new courses that relates to your research and interests, volunteer to be a postgraduate mentor or supervisor (and take the appropriate training courses that will allow you to do all these things well).

Make sure you keep an up to date CV, even if you are not actively job seeking as it will help you to focus on the little ways you are developing your career in your day to day activities.

Five Years Ahead

This timeframe is where career planning becomes more challenging. In addition to considering the possibility of applying for promotion there may be other issues on the horizon such as opportunities to move to other institutions and personal matters such as having a family. For this reason it's important to be as flexible as possible when looking at your medium term future.

Invent several possible scenarios rather than rigidly chasing one dream. If you are ambitious and wish to get promoted quickly then you ought to have made a step up the career ladder within five years. If you haven't then it's time to consider what you could do to make the next move.

To apply for promotion you need to know the official job description of the role you wish to take on, and then you have to prove that you are doing as many of those roles as possible. This is where the early career CV building comes in; you will have the information to prove your case at your fingertips.

It is also a good time to think about changing institution. There are mixed feelings on this: some people stay at one university for their entire career and make good progress in achieving their goals, whereas others move several times.

Being unhappy in your job is not the only reason to consider moving; sometimes it can be beneficial to your career too. Perhaps you could move to an institution more suited to your subject specialty or one with a different calibre of student. Don't be closed off to the idea of moving to another university, but at the same time try to develop career plans that would see you progress within your own department too.

If you do hope to have a family in the future, a university's maternity or paternity arrangements and your own work-life balance are to be considered here.

Ten Years Ahead

In the longer term it is important to decide what sort of academic you want to be. The two main ways of progressing to the top of the career ladder are the managerial and research routes. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive and in fact it would be foolish to pursue one while entirely neglecting the other.

Managerial Routes

Few people enter academic life with a love of management but it may be that you discover you have a flare for it and enjoy representing your colleagues and the students to the authorities in your institution. Many scholars perform roles, such as Head of Department, that allow them to do some teaching and research.

Managerial positions within a department also sometimes come with a professorship, but if you wished to pursue more ‘full time' managerial roles, such as anything from dean to vice chancellor, then you need to make sure you gain experience in departmental roles during early to mid career.

Research Routes

Going down the route of research needs to be built on foundations constructed early on in your career. You cannot simply decide after 10 years in the job, having done little research work and having only a few publications, that you are going to aim to become a Reader or a researching Professor. Institutions will look to you to have an international and public research reputation by this stage in your career and a number of books and articles with reputable publishers.

Bringing in external funding is vital and current trends show that this will be increasingly important in the future. Again, consider the possibility of moving to other institutions, perhaps to other countries in order to further your goals. Visiting lectureships and professorships are often taken up by those well established in their career who wish to broaden their horizons in ways their own institutions simply cannot offer.

End of Career

It may seem a little frivolous to imagine where you wish to be at retirement while you are still at the start of your career, but by setting yourself an achievable goal you can begin to plan the steps by which you will reach that goal:

  • What sort of institution would you like to be working at?
  • What role would you like to be in?
  • Will you be a leader, or working alone on your latest piece of research?
  • Do you hope to be serving your colleagues, or have someone else to represent you?
  • Do you hope to be doing less teaching, or less administration?

Perhaps you plan to take early retirement and do something entirely different, following a dream outside academia. Or you may wish to continue your connection to university life well into your retirement.

Your current head of department, mentor or line manager can guide you through the minefield of the academic career. Of course, you should also ask colleagues whose work and experience you admire how they did achieved what they did. Everyone's path is different but start by thinking about what path you will take and ask as many people as possible for help along the way.

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