June 1, 2020

Research note 3: Lessons from academic careers

Research note

A successful career can take many forms, and there are always lessons to be learned through studying people’s achievements. For successful academics, obituaries are revealing about what counts as success and how to achieve it. In the obituaries featured weekly in The Times Higher in the five years from January 2015 (256 obituaries in total, mostly written by Matthew Reisz) there are Nobel Prize winners recognised for their scientific discoveries, such as Sir Charles Kuen Kao, ‘the grandfather of broadband’. There are authors noted for their prolific output, such as the development studies scholar Calestous Juma of whom it was said by a contemporary that he ‘could write faster than most of us could read’. There are much-loved teachers who inspired generations of students; Patrick O’Donnell delivered his introductory psychology lectures to 45 academic cohorts, long enough for his students to include members of three generations of the same family. There are people whose talent for administration and team-building include the physicist James Stirling who made it look easy to lead what was described (with implied understatement) as ‘a large department of occasionally fractious academics’. There are pioneers of organizational change, for example the health scientist Mary Edmonds, famous for promoting widening participation among women from minority ethnic backgrounds. Then there are quirky figures whose nicknames convey their personalities: the engineer Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya was ‘known as “Lord Battery Charger” for his fast-paced enthusiasm’, and Steve Redhead’s research engagement with contemporary dance culture earned him the moniker ‘Professor Rave’.
In some cases, success came despite inauspicious beginnings. Several of the obituaries relate stories of early lives scarred by displacement and persecution during the Second World War. Among these, the Dutch physicist Clemens Roothaan survived a concentration camp and went on to be described as ‘probably the person who most deserved but never received the Nobel Prize’. Another physicist, Ursula Franklin, survived a forced labour camp and went on to become the first female professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Engineering; she also won Canada’s Pearson Peace Medal for her humanitarian work. Others also took contrasting paths to that of smooth progression following conventional academic milestones. The archaeologist Mark Pluciennik completed his undergraduate degree at the second attempt in his thirties, but despite this ‘late start’ he became ‘a scholar of international repute’. The anthropologist Paul Clough took 19 years to complete his PhD, but perseverance with this and related research paid off as it ‘transformed our understanding of African peasant economies and societies’. And without the work of the transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres (who transitioned mid-career and reflected on how male and female scientists are received differently), it is said that ‘there would be no field’ of glial studies at all.
There are of course also plenty of cases of favourable beginnings (such as having academic parents) and of steady career progression, but even here chance events feature in life stories. The psychologist John Krumboltz was introduced to his discipline by his tennis coach. Carl Weber’s route to becoming Professor of Drama at Stanford followed both working with Bertolt Brecht and being forced into exile by Cold War politics. The literary scholar Pascale Casanova had Pierre Bourdieu as her PhD supervisor, but never held a permanent academic post in France. For the humanities scholar Annette Kolodny, her early education and career took her to several prestigious North American institutions but the hostile reception given to her ideas led her to liken academic life to dancing through a minefield. Her legacy is framed in terms of both her scholarship and her inspirational personal characteristics, including graciousness.
Other obituaries also remember their subjects for a set of positive qualities, including attention to detail, boundless energy, charisma, commitment, compassion, congeniality, diplomacy, empathy, encyclopaedic knowledge, fearless forensic intelligence, genius, humility, humour, integrity, kindness, modesty, natural aptitude for communication, open-mindedness, prodigious energy, rigour, and scholarly temperament. They are described variously as astonishingly wide-ranging, committed, dedicated, delighted when others succeeded, distinguished, exuberant, fair-minded, generous, good-humoured, highly-influential, humble, infectiously brilliant, much-admired, outstanding, passionate, pioneering, spellbinding, stimulating, tireless, and versatile team players. One wonders how ‘a great scholar of the old school’ (the description applied to the expert on culture and politics Joseph Buttegieg) would fare if starting out in to-day’s more competitive academic environment. That said, competitiveness overshadowing collegiality is the gist of a minority of obituaries, framed as the forthrightness of combative and provocative characters unafraid of confrontation. Such figures are remembered wryly as having attracted ‘as many critics as admirers’. Other minorities include those described as ‘scatter-brained’ and ‘maverick’. Paul Clough’s reported capacity ‘to connect with any argument’ also suggests unusualness. On another plane, the scholar of literature and religion William Gray is perhaps unique among academics in having been ‘completely free of the wish to impress’; we may not see his like again.
Two decades ago Barbara Tizard and Charlie Owen’s survey of retired academics in the UK found a strikingly diverse pattern of career trajectories. At that time, however, fixed retirement ages had forced an ending which has now become more optional, and the prospect beckons of some academics keeping their jobs into their seventies and beyond. In the UK, at least, changed pension arrangements are another variation from the fixed points of earlier generations’ calculations about when and how to retire from a fulfilling academic career. This limits the extent to which iconic members of those earlier generations can provide to-day’s academics with realistic role models. For these and other reasons, including the feminisation of the workforce and the precariousness of much employment in universities, the time is ripe for a new study of academics’ later careers and retirement. The Leverhulme Trust are funding me to undertake this, and data are being collected through two surveys of UK-based academics, one for current staff contemplating retirement and another for those already retired.
This note was first published in Discover Society  and permission to reproduce it here is gratefully acknowledged.

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