Top Tips by Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham)

I’m a second-career academic. I had another entire life in schools and did my Ph.D. when I finally worked out that I didn’t want to be a headteacher forever. I was very lucky to be offered a position jointly funded by the state education department I worked for and one of the local universities; I was to design and run a professional doctorate for educational leaders.

It’s not uncommon for people to enter universities as professors if they have a strong track record in a professional area. I entered at Associate Professor level – I was paid about half what I had been getting as a headteacher, but it was also because the university was buying my school knowledge, street cred and national and international networks.

However, I still had to make a second career for myself in the new environment. So this is my experience and my suggestions …

iStock_000017070486XSmall_MeetingMinds1. Look at people whose work you rate – and who behave well. When I was trying to sort out how to be an academic, I ‘studied‘ university colleagues whose work I admired to see how they’d done it. I chose people not simply on the basis of their being well known, but also on the basis of them being good colleagues who clearly hadn’t got where they were by behaving badly and/or ruthlessly. I asked them to tell me what they thought was a key to establishing yourself. What I ‘saw’ was actually more useful than what they said.

Checklist2. Develop an agenda. I ‘saw’ that you needed to write a lot and publish in international journals. But you also needed to do work which addressed a nationally/internationally recognized agenda and where you were able to show that you were a serious and original thinker. One of my two people was very good at coming up with interesting angles and terminology – her work was always memorable. The other had written a book which summed up a key issue and which became a benchmark in the field. While I didn’t think I could do either of these things as well as they did, these examples provided me with something to aim for. I knew that I needed to develop an agenda which mattered to me and also to the wider world. I sorted out for myself that the question I needed to ask myself was “What do you want to be known for?”

3. Build networks, but not any old networks. Both of these people were well networked, and so I knew that getting onto the conference circuit and working with others was important.  I gathered that getting into symposiums with well-known scholars who did the kind of work I wanted to do was a way to find friends and to position myself at the same time. I made very sure I started with a network of people who were friendly and also keen to support new people.

card catalog or cabinet with opened drawer and files4. Offer to do academic housework. I quickly gathered that there were things that were difficult to get people to do. I volunteered to do an essay review for the top journal in my field and worked hard to make it memorable. I volunteered to help out as a Book Review Editor. Even as a new academic I also tried to involve and support other early career researchers who weren’t as old and bolshie as I was. I also worked for a learned society – all these things showed that I was not just in it for myself, but was also prepared to be part of a collegial gift economy.

RISK photo5. Consider taking a sensible risk. One day I got a phone call asking whether I wanted a job in the UK. I wasn’t sure but said I’d call in on my way from a conference in South Africa – well you do that if you’re Australian. I was more interested in the move than the fact that it was a promotion to Chair. I felt ready for a big change instead of drifting quietly into retirement. It was a real headache moving myself, my partner, two dogs and a house full of stuff to the other side of the world. It wasn’t financially advantageous either, because of the currency exchange rates. However it’s been a great move in terms of work and networks, and it’s even been good for me to have to start over somewhere where I couldn’t fall back on memory, old contacts and street cred. I wouldn’t have the kinds of experiences I have had if I hadn’t been prepared to take a chance on moving half way around the world. I’ve learned loads. However, risk taking is also all about the timing. I moved when I had already done quite a bit of work – I had two books in print and another in press, plus a load of papers. I had no children at home and my partner is self employed. This is qualitatively different risk taking than moving because you have no other choice.

I’ve had a particularly lucky two careers where there are strong elements of chance and serendipity. But they’ve also been about working out what’s going on, making decisions about and resolving tensions between what you need to do, what you are expected to do , what you want to do and what you think is right and good.