The secret ingredient to achieving academic freedom

As a tenure tracker, if you look up at the professors at the top of your university, you might see how much they enjoy their academic freedom. They are free to do research on whatever interests them and finding funding for it doesn’t seem to be a problem. They seem to have all the time they need to write thought-provoking books and articles that are published in the best journals. They are often invited to speak at conferences around the world and are often asked for their opinions by the news media. All these successes earn them even more praise and attention, increasing their stature and success even more.

That’s what you want too.

Financing research and own publications

But from where you sit in the academic hierarchy, that may seem like a distant dream. If you reflect on your research, teaching, and supervisory workload, it probably requires significantly more time than there are hours in a day. On top of that, you need to find time to secure funding for your research and work on your own publications. Furthermore, you will likely be expected to participate in university-wide initiatives on topics such as diversity and inclusion.

You may feel that you must work faster and harder to avoid falling behind. If what you really want is to work on developing your subject matter expertise, then all these demands on your time will keep you away from academic freedom….

Whose fault is it?

When you find yourself in such a situation, it is tempting to blame external factors for your failure to progress. However, that would suggest that you are task-oriented, rather than goal-oriented. To accomplish tasks, you need to commit (limited) resources, whereas to achieve a goal, such as academic freedom, you need to be creative and resourceful.

If you pursue academic freedom, you need to think differently about how you use your time, as well as what you focus on. Instead of striving to be the smartest person in the room and always having all the answers, getting higher up is increasingly about achieving results through others. This means, for example, attracting new talent and building a team or group; teaching, coaching, and mentoring team members to develop their expertise; and creating a safe, stimulating, and motivating work environment where everyone can perform at their best. When you do that, you free yourself to develop and disseminate more and more specialized knowledge at a higher level within your field.


Achieving results…

As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Achieving results through others requires a different skill set than you may have used to date. For example, it requires:

  • advanced stakeholder management skills
  • collaboration skills
  • consulting skills
  • influencing skills
  • communication skills

In short, social skills.

Many academics don’t make the time to professionally develop their social skills because these are far removed from the technical content and subject matter with which they are familiar and comfortable. As a result, they don’t move forward and feel burned out.


…by doing less

When you learn to relate to that discomfort, you will develop the capacity to attract others and enable them to do the tasks you have mastered, but which are now holding you back from moving up the ladder. By doing less yourself, by encouraging the development and growth of others, you can do more of what interests you and enjoy more of the academic freedom you seek.

To explore, from academic to academic, what opportunities exist for you to do less and achieve more, contact me for a free consultation.


Arnoud Franken - Senior Consultant - InContext

Similar Blogs