You Don’t Have to be Wonderwoman to be an academic; but standing a bit like her sometimes helps…..

(Subtitle: Top 5 Things I’ve learned from 15 years as a Lecturer)

It’s been an interesting year on Twitter. As a comparative newbie one of the things that keeps me coming back is the function it serves as a global common room for mentoring, support and empathy across a variety of topics.

A rippling thread that erupts across my timeline again and again is the lot of female academics: not enough of them; glass ceiling at senior levels; presentation of impossible role models; more likely to suffer from Imposter syndrome (and have it reinforced by the thoughtless actions of others).

Tschuh! It’s enough to make you pack your pretty pink biros into your Barbie pencil case and seek employment elsewhere! Most depressing of all is the occasional whisperings I hear from early career academics that you can’t be successful unless you are prepared to sacrifice a family or ‘normal’ life on the side. Errrrrr……. no you don’t; pop your pyres in the dustbin of history…. please.

So, as a ‘normal’ (*) academic here is my contribution to the debate. It’s important to say here these are things I still wrestle with!

(1) Even if you don’t feel confident; train yourself to be confident and the world will come with you.

Not wonderwoman but 'hit girl' from the movie 'Kick Ass'. Showing off the wonder woman pose. Adopt this pose in secret just before entering a challenging situation. I like hit girl better because she is wearing a kilt instead of pants and looks like she could inspect any outcrop of even very glassy rocks at the moment's notice.
Not wonderwoman but ‘hit girl’ from the movie ‘Kick Ass’. Showing off the wonder woman pose. Adopt this pose in secret just before entering a challenging situation. I like hit girl better because she is wearing a kilt instead of pants and looks like she could inspect any outcrop of even very glassy rocks at a moment’s notice.
Dr Karen Kelsky's research proposal flowchart. Written using 'the hero narrative'
Dr Karen Kelsky’s research proposal flowchart. Written using ‘the hero narrative’

This TED Video featuring Amy Cuddy was recommended to me by a colleague. Click the words and Watch It. Its marvellous. As you wander up the career ladder of life you will find less and less women in the meeting rooms you walk into and sometimes those rooms can be ripe with alpha male bluster. That’s surprisingly tough; but even blokes find certain situations challenging. Amy Cuddy’s research demonstrates that just presenting positive body language can improve the way your mind reacts to and handles these situations; even inducing the long term benefit of self belief (KAPOW! ZOWEE! Imposter Syndrome).

The same is true for grant and paper writing. Lack of confidence in writing seems to result in muddy logic in sentences and unecessary verbosity (it does for me anyway). If you really don’t think you are brilliant, try to write as if you are channeling an academic you really admire. Related to that is some of the best advice I’ve seen for grant writing: ‘The Hero Narrative’ by Dr Karen Kelsky (

(2) Grant writing: yes, it is actually a bit personal. But, you need to get over it.

Writing grant proposals  takes a LOT of time. For a really good description of that take a look at Volcano01010’s blog (click these words!).

With the best will in the world this leaks into personal time; time you could have spent reading the Sunday Papers; conquering all the Munros or icing your daughter’s birthday cake to perfection etc etc. So, it’s extremely annoying when they get rejected. And they will get rejected. Plus, it is a bit like your peers saying your wonderful idea is ‘not quite good enough’.  So, pretending the process of grant writing is entirely impersonal seems a little bit nonsensical. BUT, even if that grant was going to fund your salary for the next few years,  you do need to dust yourself off, get back up, take the extremely good advice you will hopefully get in your feedback, and try again. And Again.

Do allow yourself a few moments of ill-contained and irrational fury though. Its cathartic given all that wasted time. This is coming from someone who has had a research proposal described as ‘fluffy’ by one reviewer (that took more than a few minutes to get over).

(3) Saying ‘no’ is a double-headed beast

There is saying 'no' to things you don't want to do but ought to but then there is saying 'no' to things you quite fancy doing because of existing commitments!
There is saying ‘no’ to things you don’t want to do but ought to; but then there is ALSO saying ‘no’ to things you quite fancy doing BUT ought not to do because of existing commitments!

Time management is my Achilles Heel and I am still working on it. There are lots of really helpful guides out there about how to say ‘no’ in all sorts of situations. The starting assumption often seems to be that you are trying to say ‘no’ to jobs you don’t really want to do anyway (aaaaadmin…). That’s the relatively easy bit, just get your Wonderwoman pose on and get on with it. The really tricky stuff is saying ‘no’ to things you actually quite like the sound of. It all comes back to confidence; learning that another equally exciting opportunity will come along when you have more time; believing that the person who asked will come back and ask again….it all takes a lot of effort to get right and if you are in a bad place with (1) its even harder.

If you get it wrong your work life balance goes up the river, and its often your family and those involved in existing work who suffer which is not good. Saying ‘no’ has been and continues to be the cause of the largest amount of stress in my working life. Definitely worth taking the time to get right; even harder once you take the plunge and work part-time so;

(4) Working part-time is really hard, but it can be done and its rewarding.

Having kids as an academic is a bit like jumping of a cliff into a great big pool of water; you’ve just got to hold your nose, close your eyes and jump when you want to. The water is great. There is no ‘good time’ but there is no ‘bad time’ either. I was the first Faculty Member in my department to take Maternity Leave; in 2002 (yup). After leave 2 I worked part-time for 8 years, all sorts of % trying to get it right. I wouldn’t change it ever but at one point I almost had to ‘step off’ from work as a whole because stress was bubbling up. For me working half-days really didn’t work; especially ones with a 5pm lecture after an afternoon being mum. Switching Mum-academic-mum-academic-mum-academic in a single day was way too brutal.  I needed whole days; and don’t get me started on the ‘to travel or not to travel’ dilemma around conferences vs fieldwork! Again the courage in saying ‘no’ to these things all leads back to (1).

Rapid switching between hats can leave you dizzy and stressed out!
Rapid switching between hats can leave you dizzy and stressed out!

The single most imporant thing that made it work for our family was the belief that someone working part-time was a joint responsibility (having a partner who is also an academic brings a lot of flexibility to reinforce that). However, it is really important to know that there is no one solution that fits all (part-time working is not compulsory) which brings me onto point (5).

(5) Mentors and praise. Little splashes of inspiration that can help you change track.

I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from the advice and mentoring from a really strong senior female academic at a really critical stage (see 4 above). Properly rescued from myself. She was generous with advice, action and the sharing of horror stories, which helped a lot. Anyone can get in a muddle. I’m lucky enough that one of my PhD supervisors still takes an interest in my c.v. and career and that interest and encouragement means a lot. I’m also lucky enough to have some brilliant peers who share experiences and advice freely, that helps a lot too. If you don’t have this kind of support, get out there and find some supporters quick, its not weak its collegial. In turn, take time to help out others where you can.

If you are not in the medal-winning category praise and reinforcement can be quite tricky to find. At home, we mark the publication of every paper and the winning of every grant with a bit of a celebration. I share a joke with a friend about keeping little nuggets of praise in the bottom desk drawer to get out and stare at when times are tough. Actually, we’re not joking that much, save them, and get them out when you need to…. (cool paper or grant reviews; references; nice emails). Quite probably, these will work even better if you adopt the Superwoman pose while reading them……

(*)I’m not super-extra marvellous; e.g. I’ve never had a paper in Nature or invented anything really spectacular (unless you count Volcanoes Top Trumps) BUT I do have active research grants and a fantastic (but small) group of talented researchers and research students. I love research, teaching and outreach (but struggle a bit with admin). See. Normal (for an academic). Decide for yourself whether you want to listen to the ramblings of someone who occasionally walks on the wild side of stress management!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s