How to Have a 50-Year Academic Career

Learning Innovation

Much of the conversation swirling around academia this summer is about leaving academia. Amidst all this talk about higher ed and the Great Resignation, I’ve been thinking about the opposite. Call it “the Great Stay.”

What might be the conditions that encourage and enable us to remain in academia for decades and decades? I need to look no further than my dad to answer that question.

This summer, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies hosted a farewell dinner for my dad and three of his colleagues who also retired since the Covid summer of 2020. That dinner marked the end of my dad’s five-decade career teaching and researching topics of household and family demography, population dynamics, housing studies, and household forecasting.

What are the factors that contributed to his academic longevity? And what can we learn from his long higher education career that may help us join the Great Stay?

As I consider what the next 25 years of my academic career might look like, I’m hoping that writing this piece might help provide a roadmap for sticking around.

1 – Optimize for Curiosity over Careerism

Growing up, I never heard my dad talk about university and department politics. When he spoke about his work, it was about trends and ideas and how his research related to our lives. The organizational dysfunctions of academia are evergreen. There was never a golden age of the university, as each generation faces its own challenges.

A career-long focus on ideas and the creation and sharing of knowledge does not need to be confined to professors. Student insights and their research were always fundamental. Those working on the staff side of the faculty/staff divide enhance the opportunity to center our academic careers around learning and scholarship. Classrooms are not the only place where teaching happens, and peer-reviewed journals are not the only place where knowledge can be shared.

Throughout his career, my dad kept his curiosity about the interplay between demographic trends (migration, fertility, household formation, etc.) and housing dynamics. That curiosity was the throughline of his decades-long career, not titles, positions, or appointments. It is up to all of us to find and nurture our curiosities if we wish to sustain a lifetime spanning an academic career.

2 -Build Recognized Deep Expertise

Building nationally recognized expertise is a long-term proposition. It is the work year after year, decade after decade, that accumulates into domain knowledge valued by one’s academic peers and those outside of one’s discipline.

For my dad, that recognized deep expertise was in housing demography. Much of his academic career was spent collaborating with and training academics and non-academics in this area of research. His expertise was enhanced by a network of scholars at other institutions and organizations (such as the Census Bureau) and colleagues at his university with whom he could collaborate daily on shared research and writing.

The lesson here is building our own recognized expertise as a destination that does not come quickly. Plug away long enough at a set of questions and ideas; sooner or later, you’ve found that decades will have passed. View the job as developing deep expertise as a team sport rather than a sole endeavor, and you will seek out those who know more than you do at your institution and beyond.

3 – Embrace Non-Traditional Academic Roles

The second two-thirds of my dad’s academic career was not traditional. He shifted from a full-time faculty role to one as a research fellow. This change was partly brought upon by his desire to move from the Boston area to Montana and have a less frenetic and community-driven life.

Because of his recognized deep expertise and the network of close colleagues that he had developed, my dad could maintain his academic role at a distance from his university. Having helped build the Joint Center during his years at Harvard, he had a stable base from which to continue his research and writing. The fact that funders will underwrite the demographic housing research that my dad specialized in aided his ability to do that work from anywhere.

What I take away from my dad’s story is that there are many ways to have an academic career. Post-pandemic, there may be even more ways to constructively contribute to our institutions without needing to come to campus each day and outside of traditional academic titles and roles.

If you are at the point where you are thinking about leaving your current job, you may not need to leave academia — or even maybe your institution. Focus first on where you can make a difference in your recognized area of expertise, and then try to find a way to mold the role around the life you want to have.

4 – Work Less

Maybe the internet and email and laptops and smartphones and Zoom have ruined everything. As a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, I have no memories of my dad working in the evenings, on weekends, or when on vacation. When he was home, which was each night, he was present.

The fact that we all seem to work all the time nowadays may contribute to the academic Great Resignation. It is worth asking how much of our constant work is necessary and how much is self-imposed. If we knew that getting less done this week, this month, and this year would lead to years more of productive contributions, would we accept that trade-off?

Say that we only have thirty years in us of intense academic work. Do we work full-time for 30 years and call it quits? Do we cram those 30 years of work into 15 or 20 and then resign in exhaustion – as many academics seem to be doing now? Or do we do what my dad did and spread those 30 years of intense work over 50 years?

Do we consider working part-time at some parts of our career as a goal? Can we find the confidence to take some breaks, do something different for a while, and then come back to what motivated us to become academics in the first place?

5 – Connect Outside Your institution

When I think about how academia was the family business, I don’t think about a single university. Instead, I think about all my friends that my dad had at his university and others and our family friends that worked for the government, nonprofit organizations, and the housing industry.

Colleagues who become friends sustain long-term careers. Academia may be unique among knowledge industries in that we benefit the most from what we share outside of the place that we work. Disciplines are made up of people, and knowledge in an academic specialty grows by conversation and collaboration.

The lifetime friendships with a network of widely dispersed colleagues I watched my dad build over the decades have always seemed to me as my dad’s most important academic accomplishment. It is an example I seek to replicate.

What advice might you have for creating a 50-year academic career?

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Friday, August 12, 2022
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Friday, August 12, 2022