The pressures of life as an early career academic
I am an “early career academic” working at Imperial College. As an academic, I split my time between three major activities: research, teaching, and administration (service). Trying to keep these balanced and striving to excel – across the board – is a bit tricky at times. I’ll confess that some bits of my life are going reasonably well, but the pressure often keeps me awake at night.
On reflection, this “pressure” is both externally and internally applied. Neither of which are easy to tackle, but perhaps if I share aloud, it may help some good trickle out in the longer term.
Externally, I am working in a busy field with bright and talented people, and there are demands from my research team, collaborators, and colleagues to keep up with. This is compounded by a busy work-load of teaching, administration and growing external commitments.
Internally, “doing well” has led to an increased workload and I feel that I must continue to deliver at a similar pace; yet, with an increasing number and diversity of commitments. Furthermore, as I build my and my group’s reputation, the quality, and range of interesting projects pulling on my time increase with an almost reckless abandon.
With this greater range of interesting activities at your fingertips — it is often very difficult to say no, especially when you still feel vulnerable as an early career academic. Part of this vulnerability wanes with experience, as you get to know when (and which) people are just trying to take advantage of you. Yet, there is an increasing number of ‘strange’ requests that seem to draw at my time and the feeling of getting lost with the excitement of the “next great opportunity” is ever-present.
Internally, it is very difficult to know what people are ‘grading you on’ or ‘what connections you might miss.’ The goal posts for development, enjoyment, and success often feel like they are moving at an ever faster rate. Having the confidence to believe that ‘you are doing the right thing’ is a skill I am yet to master.
The strangeness of the “internal” pressure hit me like a forklift truck recently. A close colleague congratulated me on a recent promotion, with the additional kind note that I was likely to be “one of the youngest at my institution to achieve this rank” — this note of cheer made me wobble a little, as I jarred awake that night thinking – How can I keep this up?
I’m not sure what the long-term solution is — but trying to maintain a semblance of a “real life” seems like a reasonable start, even if at times, that may only be explored through a wee jog in the park.
Dr. Ben Britton (@BMatB) is a Senior Lecturer and Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow at Imperial College in London. This story was originally published on April 8, 2017 on Dr. Ben Brittion's Medium blog (available here) and has been republished here with permission.
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