This is the first of two posts about joys in academic careers. Here, we focus on what they might be. In the second post, we explore how we might nurture and spread them.
There are many reasons why you might want an academic career. In this post, I reflect on the kinds of joy you might experience over a career as an academic.
First, some caveats: academic careers are not joyful
The brief for this post was to be upbeat but realistic. To do this, I need to acknowledge that academic careers are not full of joy.
- There can be long, deep low periods where even the prospect of joy seems to disappear.
- It is not equally or equitably available to or experienced by people for many reasons, including job insecurity, and work-related stresses
- It might feel that the trend is towards less joy: Workloads, neoliberalism and suffocating compliance regimes, performativity, corporatisation, casualisation, competition for funding are some commonly referred to reasons for thinking this.
I would suggest in response to these:
- When the difficulties loom large hang in there and remember you can be doing things to cultivate joy – for yourself and others – even if that doesn’t translate to immediate fixes.
- It is important not to feel trapped. Many people leave academic careers and find fulfilment elsewhere. Others leave and come back. An academic career for a while is not a barrier to other options later.
- It’s helpful to remember than many people fight so hard for academic careers, and it remains in many ways a privilege to have one. Not because they are more joyful than others, but because of the particular kinds of opportunities and rewards they offer.
Asking for some help 🙂 I’ve been asked to write something about joys of #academic careers. What are the most important things I should be mentioning?
— Nick Hopwood (@NHopUTS) November 6, 2021
What does joy look like in an academic career?
I tweeted a question asking colleagues this question. The answers confirm that joys in academic careers are not only possible, but highly diverse. You can see the tweet and the many answers embedded here, clicking this link, you can add a new reply, too!
The image below is from an AnswerGarden I created based on what people tweeted in reply to my question. Some things were mentioned several times:
- Students – seeing and helping them grow, their kindness, seeing the impact they go on to have
- Colleagues – again relating to kindness (including as peer reviewers!)
- Autonomy and freedom – the degree of choice, ability to follow our interests, work on what matters to us
- Ideas – maybe this is something distinctive about academic careers, because of how central ideas are to research and the teaching we do.
Thinking about what is distinctively academic about academic careers, we might organise these diverse joys like this:
Joys of teaching.
Teaching can be incredibly rewarding. Generally, academics are teaching students who have chosen to be there, chosen their focus of study. Also, academics often get to determine what they are teaching – (sometimes) we create our own curriculum rather than having to deliver one decided by other people. We also have some very special, enduring and intimate forms of teaching, like in postgrad supervision.
Joys of research.
This is where autonomy really kicks in. We get to choose what we research, how we do so. We get paid to pursue things we are curious about, interested in, and which connect with things that matter to us and others. We get the thrill of discovery, of those a-ha moments when analysis falls into place or an idea emerges. We get to create things (like concepts) that can long outlive us and take on a life of their own. We also get to choose our research colleagues, who can be anywhere in the world. The feeling of walking into a room full of people who share your interests and values, people whose work you respect and who respect your work is hard to beat.
Joys of admin and service
This might sound odd, but the more institutional sides of academic work is not all boring, lifeless grind. For many years I had an admin role overseeing postgraduate research. Through it, I enjoyed influencing things, creating opportunities for others (giving out scholarships, for example), and developing relationships with a much wider set of people than I would have otherwise. I’ve also loved being on prize-judging panels: yes, the decisions were difficult, but how fabulous to dwell with others in the best of research and teaching!
Joys of development.
I think of academic careers as unusually expansive. By this I mean growth and development aren’t limited to getting better at the same thing, but that we can move outwards and sideways. I’ve shifted across research fields, taught things I never imagined I’d teach, studied sites I never thought I’d step into, supervised studies that brought me into ideas and contexts I would otherwise have known nothing about.
That’s it for this first of the pair of posts: joys in academic are varied and often distinctive. Reflecting on how much these might matter to you could help you figure out if the challenges of academic careers (of which there are many!) are worth it. However, it’s important to remember that they don’t simply happen to us: there is a role we can play in bringing more joy to our own work in academia, as well as making academic careers more joyful for others, too. That’s the focus of the second post.