Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Turn Yourself into Citizen Can

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Turn Yourself into Citizen Can

Article excerpt

'Academic citizenship' is surprisingly useful in moving up the career ladder, says Richard J. Williams. Here are his tips for success

T he academic business is a peculiar one, never more so than when it comes to seeking promotion. For people from the so-called real world, the process must seem like The Lord of the Rings: an epic quest, at glacial speeds, for uncertain ends. Those of us on the inside know that it is, if anything, even worse. But bizarre as the process may seem, it does actually permit career advancement.

The key is "academic citizenship" - a set of fuzzy rights and responsibilities that are nowhere written down. And to make citizenship work for you, you need the pragmatic acceptance that universities are organisations like any other. This means that they pay individuals money, in return for which they expect those individuals from time to time to help with the housekeeping. This arrangement will be familiar to non-academics. It is called work.

There's a popular view that you get promoted for research alone. But in my reasonably wide experience, I can think of just one academic colleague promoted solely on grounds of research. The rest were promoted for various forms of alchemy, but in large part they'd proved themselves as heads of department, directors of student organisations, directors of research and so on. They had, in other words, proved themselves as citizens.

Of course, citizenship has its rules, which vary according to where and how they arise. But I doubt they vary all that much. Here are mine:

1. Learn the language. Look in the mirror and say the word "citizenship" to yourself. If you can do this without sneering, you are on your way. If you can't (and at first, most academics can't), you must practise until you can.

2. Guess what the vice-chancellor is thinking. This is surprisingly easy. Remember the university's annual report? Get it out of the bin, make a cup of coffee - and read it.

3. Find something in the report that you can plausibly do (paraphrasing JFK's January 1961 address may help: "Ask not what the university can do for you, but what you can do for the university..."). Again, this is surprisingly easy. If the report puts international recruitment at the top of the list for the year, it may not be a bad idea to develop an interest in the Singaporean school system. By the same token, if the report makes clear that the university has lost interest in master's programmes, don't, whatever you do, base a promotion campaign around your new MSc. …

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