RESEARCH TALK ▼
STRATEGIC CAREER PLANNING.
BY ANSGAR HUDDE AND KATRIN BERNSDORFF
A DISCUSSION ROUND HOSTED BY ANSGAR HUDDE
DURING THE 04. ANNUAL BAGSS CONFERENCE
Joscha Legewie, Yale University, United States. Field: Sociology
Samuel R. Lucas, University of California-Berkeley, United States. Field: Sociology and Social Justice
Ruud Luijkx, Tilburg University, Netherlands. Field: Sociology esp. Social and Behavioural Science
Thomas Saalfeld, University of Bamberg, Germany. Field: Political Science
Stefani Scherer, University of Trento, Italy. Field: Sociology
Ansgar Hudde, University of Bamberg, Doctoral Fellow at the Bambeg Graduate School of Social Sciences. Field Socioloy
+ visit Ansgar's profile
▐ Good strategy in academic career planning is a skill that we can – like most other skills – learn by: first trial and error, second observing successful people and trying to understand what made them successful, or third chat with as many successful people as possible, and ask them about their personal experiences and observations. With this discussion round we want to do the third: bring together a number of successful academics, and have them talk about their experiences in academia; about which factors contributed to their own success and also which (strategic) errors they have made, and how they learned out of them.
On the question whether career planning should really be strategic…
Stefani Scherer: If you go to the mountains and you’re going to climb up, you know where you are heading to, more or less, but you’re not completely certain. You simply walk and step by step you proceed. I knew where I wanted to arrive, I didn’t take any decisions in the strategic context and I’m not so much convinced about the idea that you can have that much of a strategy.
Samuel R. Lucas: My way might not work for somebody else, I know. For me, I am trying to get through a series of questions because I have curiosities about the world. I ask how can I get answers to those questions in the time I have. That’s what I’m trying to do.
On different factors that influence the recruitment process…
Stefani Scherer: Trento hired me because I had competencies which I acquired outside of Italy that they simply lacked. Of course these were also political decisions to invest in quantitative research.
Joscha Legewie: I guess that publications played a role but more importantly there was a person at Yale who pushed for me throughout the recruitment. I didn’t know that he was one of the anonymous reviewers of my papers and got very interested in my work through that. So this wasn’t a network connection, but still people that know of you through your work can help. They probably wouldn’t have hired me without him. So these kind of things come together at a specific point and time.
On deciding if the manuscript meets one's expectations…
Samuel R. Lucas: I’m confused about the idea that I have this paper that I don’t think is very interesting. If I have a comment in my head in a conversation and I don’t think it’s very good, then I don’t say it. So it should be that way for papers. If you have a paper and you think it makes a contribution, then you submit it. If you don’t think it makes a contribution, then you decide whether it is close to making a contribution by putting a little more work into it, such as reading some literature, then you do that and afterwards submit it. If you don’t think it’s ever going to contribute, you leave it.
Joscha Legewie: I could have made my life easier for some of these papers by saying I send them somewhere else and don’t go through such a long period, but I think if it works out you get the reward for it in the end.
Samuel R. Lucas: I give my students what I think is a humanly doable standard to meet and when it comes back they’ve got something that you have to be a superhero to meet. Obviously it’s because they are committed to doing good work, but I’m afraid that nothing ever gets submitted because you can always do better. So you have to get to this place where you can be pretty vigorous questioning the quality of your work, but not so vigorous so that you never submit. It’s a tricky thing and ideally you have supervisors who can help you say “yes this is ready”. Ultimately the goal is to be able to decide for yourself if the paper is something that would further the discussion.
On making the right decisions at the right point in your career…
Thomas Saalfeld: As a shorter term strategy for getting things published you have to make the judgement what is possible and opportune at the time. Published articles will almost inevitably have a narrow focus. In the longer term I’m not sure whether it is possible to build a career that is both professionally gratifying and competitively successful, because at one point, when applying for senior jobs, appointing committees will ask: ‘What is this person known for? What is their distinctive profile?’ And this is not just about the number of publications, but possibly also about a focus on a substantively interesting research and teaching agenda. There are now so many graduates leaving graduate schools with three, four or even more decent publications. So appointing committees will inevitably fall back on the additional distinguishing features to make judgements. So, yes, I think in the short term you need to secure your first proper job – and for that a certain amount of pragmatism is probably necessary, but at some point you want to be known as an expert in a broader area that is perceived to be interesting in the academic community. You shouldn’t forget that.
Joscha Legewie: It is important to think about the stage of your career. When I know this is the last year of my PhD and I know I have to apply for jobs then I’m less likely to do something risky such as submitting to a journal that has a reputation of taking a year for the review to get back to me. So it plays an important role at what stage you are.
[...] People fall in two kinds of traps. They either sit on things for too long and do not make the experience of sending papers out, or they are too quick without putting in the proper work. People continue to have these problems later in their career and I don’t think that it’s something unique to PhD students.
On managing efficiency and motivation over time…
Thomas Saalfeld: In the beginning of your career you can afford to be very single-minded, and I think this leads to really efficient work as far as written output is concerned. You get the maximum out of the energy that you are investing. The paradox is this: The more secure you get and the more help you seem to receive from support staff, the more inefficient you may get. This is because there are so many different jobs you have to do at the same time – teaching, research, administration, public dissemination –, and very often you’re not trained to do them. Today I sometimes feel I’m completely inefficient. Although I know what to tell my graduate students on this topic, for me there are just so many competing demands on my time.
[...] In the long run our ‘business’ works, because we are intrinsically highly motivated, and we need to be driven to an extent by a certain amount of passion for our field of study. Universities are necessarily bureaucratic organizations that sometimes seem to be intent on limiting that space for us, but fundamentally, if you want to maintain a motivation for a long time then you need to be passionate about your subject.
On differences in generations…
Thomas Saalfeld: Single-authored work used to be very important; but when I speak to my young colleagues now, I advise them to think with whom to collaborate in co-authorships. This includes finding out what complementary skills potential co-researchers and co-authors can bring to the collaboration, as well as in what way you can combine them, so that you produce something jointly which you couldn’t do on your own.
Ruud Luijkx: I finished my PhD after I was an assistant professor, which was quite typical in Tilburg then and I think also in Germany. Usually it is not possible nowadays because you have to go to graduate school et cetera. I mean in England there are still many people of the older generation without a PhD.
On finding your personal career path…
Joscha Legewie: One problem with the academic world is that academic jobs are often seen as the only successful career path. Many attractive jobs are not academic and don’t force you to move around the world. The geographical flexibility, that is often required, is a pain for family life. Yes, many people end up being lucky and it works out, but for others it continues to be a problem because mobility is forced into the system and at the same time the system tells you that only certain career paths are defined as success. That’s a big issue for a lot of people. If we would help PhD students to find non-academic jobs as much as academic jobs, this becomes less of a problem. It also requires us to think about and train our students skills that are valued both inside and outside of academic jobs.
Samuel R. Lucas: Life is too short to force yourself into a career path. Different things work for different people. Yes, this sounds very much like the world is a perfect place and everything works out, but I do have hope that people find their path.
// Interview: Ansgar Hudde / Editorial Concept: Katrin Bernsdorff / Transscript: Mareike Bartels / Editing: Mareike Bartels, Amanda Ngin, Photography: Amanda Ngin
Image Credits: © Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences