WorkRemix: not the post I was going to write

I was all geared up to write something about the beginning of my career planning journey, how I was going to tackle the hunt, the transition from academia to a new field, and whether or not to keep the door open to go back.

The first step of the journey has come on me more suddenly than I thought – I have my first job interview tomorrow. A part-time, fairly basic role within my university. Having not had an interview for 3 years, and this being the first time I’ve tried to translate my academic skills into another role, the prospect finds me rather more nervous than I thought.

I’ll report on how it goes!

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WorkRemix: The illusion of control

This is the first post on the WorkRemix side of this blog (where I pursue the reasons why academia doesn’t seem to be working for me and look for what might).

There are a lot of places I could start. I need to (and probably will over the next few weeks) begin to dissect exactly what has gone wrong in my working life to bring me to this point of frustration and dissatisfaction. A lot is being written around the interwebs at the moment about the endemic problems in academia, from post-docs on short-term contracts unable to find positions, overworked professors struggling with too much to do and the REF making everyone’s life difficult. Those are discussions I will engage with, but it’s not where I want to start.

I just read Cal Newport‘s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore Youand that’s where I’m going to start. Because while I was reading it, I got an insight into what is potentially the biggest problem for me right now in the job I’m in.

So Good They Can't Ignore You, by Cal Newport, 2012, Business Plus

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport, 2012, Business Plus

Newport’s thesis is that to find work you love, ignore the advice to follow your passion, and instead, cultivate skills. Get really good at something, and you will have career capital, which you can then trade in for the three things make for satisfied workers: autonomy, competence and relatedness. In particular, autonomy or control is one of the defining traits of people who have work they love. They are able to exert control over their lives and make choices about their working life, for example by negotiating with their employer for more flexibility, or by starting their own company. In each case, achieving control is a product of having career capital. (I’ll talk more about relatedness another time.)

Now, academia could be seen to fit this thesis quite well. After all, academics can have some of the highest career capital going. We’re highly trained, with skills that have taken a long time to develop, are rare (in the grand scheme of things) and valuable to society. In return, academics typically have a lot of autonomy over how they structure their working day, which projects they work on, when they take leave, and how many hours they work. The autonomy and flexibility of academia is seen as one of the great perks of the job.

Except…that’s not really what it looks like from where I’m standing. Sure, I can exert control over my day-to-day work. I get to write my own to-do lists and (within reason) set my own priorities. I can choose to take a morning off if I have an appointment, and make up for it in the evening.

But at the moment, my control over my career is very limited. If I wanted to pursue a career in academia, I would be relying on getting some funding, or a position opening up, and those occurrences are totally out of my control. I could apply for funding, but getting that is pretty much a case of potluck in today’s competitive environment. I have plenty of currency, in the shape of papers and completed research projects, but the conditions of academia at the moment mean those things are not enough to buy me control. And if the researchers are right (and I think they are), this explains partly why I feel so unhappy in work.

Newport admits that this is the case in his introduction, where he describes his own feelings when he left graduate school and began looking for an academic post.

I was on track to become a professor, which at a graduate program like MITs, is considered the only respectable path….Tugging more insistently at my attention during this period was the very real possibility that I wouldn’t end up with a professorship after all…. I had set up a meeting with my advisor to discuss my academic job search. “How bad of a school are you willing to go to?” was his opening question. The academic job market is always brutal, but in 2010, with an economy still in recession, it was especially tough… Given that my wife and I wanted to stay in the United States, and preferably on the East Coast, a choice that drastically narrowed our options, I had to face the very real possibility that my academic job search would be a bust, forcing me to essentially start from scratch in figuring out what to do with my life.” (p. xvii-xviii)

How bad of a school are you willing to go to – that is, what are you prepared to sacrifice in pursuit of your goal. That sort of talk shows just how little of a choice there is when it comes to academic careers – you go where the opening is, wherever the opening is, regardless of the sacrifices.

In the conclusion to the book, Newport describes the (happy) outcome – his search works out, he gets several offers, and is able to pursue his research in a location he likes. But a number of circumstances came together to allow this to occur, and his career capital was only one of them. I’m not denying that he did the right things – pursued the right research, got himself noticed by the right people – but a lot of post-grads do those things, and the job hunt doesn’t work out for them. Career capital clearly isn’t always enough by itself.

And even once you get to be an academic, I’m not sure that the control you have is anything more than an illusion. Sure, you have the option to work at any time of day that suits you – but what good is that when the amount of work you have dictates that you work every available hour? What good is the ability to determine your own research agenda when you are reliant on the inexplicable decision-making of an external agency to fund it, and the REF to grade it highly in order to continue? What kind of control is it when you know that, in order to progress your career, you have to move to a different country or continent, and that’s your only choice other than leaving? That’s not autonomy, not in any meaningful sense of the word.

I suppose my point would be that I think control comes it different forms. It’s certainly possible, once you’re a settled professor, to exert some control over these issues. But as an early career academic without a permanent position, I’m reliant on so many other factors to come together to allow my career to work out. I can build as much career capital as I like, but if the market for those skills is totally saturated, is it actually any good to me? After all, Newport’s theory hinges on the idea that the career capital you build is valuable to someone. What happens if the things you have been taught to believe are valuable turn out to be nowhere near enough?

Despite this, I am actually a fan of Newport’s approach, and I think it will help me going forward. I can be liberated from the pervasive idea that my next step should be to find out what I’m passionate about, and focus on where my career capital can take me next, outside of the academic world. I just wish this book had existed a few years ago. If you’re a post-grad, or post-doc (or in fact anyone who wants a career they enjoy), read it right now.