Gender and Getting Ahead in Academia

Summary: a blog in which I, an increasingly privileged, white, male Professor in the UK, give advice on how to get ahead in a profession that may have already changed since I started. My advice is to be lucky and/ or work until you are ill and alienate your family.

Two panel discussions at the UK Political Studies Association conference 2013 perhaps showed a great and enduring gender divide within the profession. One, focused directly on equality and diversity, largely discussed the barriers that women face when trying to combine a research-active career with taking primary responsibility for raising a family (there was also a man on the panel, discussing issues such as paternity leave and sleep deprivation (*and other things – I only walked in at the end of the session*). Another, focused on impact, saw a successful male professor advise people to follow their interests, only to be reminded by a female colleague that not everyone is in the position to take this advice (to be fair to him, he was answering my question and I am in that position). There is also the wider context of (a) the current REF mania which prompts many University managers to spend their money on high status professors, leaving little money to give permanent contracts to potential lecturers at the other end of the scale; (b) a continued gender and ethnic imbalance in professions like political science, where the profs tend to be white men; and (c) a general sense, often expressed in magazines such as the THE, that the people most likely to succeed in academic life are married men with families. I don’t have the evidence for (c) (but see this on the US), but it is the thing I on which I can comment most, so let’s proceed on the conditional basis (if it is true, what can I say?).
In this context, it may be difficult for me to give general advice that is applicable to most. I could give the excellent but frustrating advice – publish a tonne of books and articles in a very short space of time and generate millions of pounds in research income – but really the question is: how do you do it? Instead, I will raise some issues about being a relatively successful male academic and you can decide if you can, and want to, copy me. The best advice is to recognise that there will always be an element of luck to success, and that success may produce rotten unintended consequences.
1. Mentoring and Support.

I was championed by a large number of academics and almost all of them were white male professors. There are key points in my career trajectory that were influenced by decisions made by other people – to identify my UG potential, to employ me to fund my MSc, to push for my PhD scholarship, to supervise me well, to employ me as a research assistant after PhD graduation, to give me research jobs and to recommend me for a lectureship (and promotions). I guess you either have that support or you don’t. It is difficult to generate yourself.

2. Research, not Teaching.

There was a 5-year gap between the end of my PhD and the start of my lecturing career in 2004. This seemed, at the time, to be a lengthy gap, but not anymore. I spent the majority of that time in full and part time research posts (which cushioned a brief spell in which I thought I might become a full time parent). I now look back on that time as part-wasted because I arsed around too much. However, when I started to take things more seriously, I produced five or six decent articles in that period. This level of output, in journals rated by short-listers like me, is now almost mandatory for people looking for their first lectureship. So, if you are lucky enough to choose, choose a research, not a teaching intensive post. If you have the right sort of employers, they will encourage and help you to publish. In my experience, good teaching feedback is still an added bonus on your CV. The short-listing eyes still scan the CV for the publications (and, for me, published outputs still trump funding inputs).

3. Work Until You Make Yourself Ill.

I *now* tell myself not to work at nights or weekends and I normally take my advice (bar checking email, blogging and twitter because you can convince yourself that it is partly social and it helps you clear the decks for proper work the next morning). Indeed, I am increasingly convinced that my writing has improved after I have taken the time to get more exercise, enjoy family life and watch more TV. However, I did not take that advice when I was climbing the greasy pole. My promotion from lecturer to professor was really based on six years of intense research and writing (2006-12), in which I worked very long days and weekends. My favourite trick was to leave all of the urgent work until the last minute, so that I could write up to the wire, then be forced to do the other work to deadline. My best effort involved leaving the marking of 100+ essays until Christmas Eve, marking them on the sly around Christmas, working too much in the dark and becoming suitably ill a few days later. This took place before a family holiday to Florida, funded by my share of my dad’s will. I spent the first Disney day in bed swigging Nyquil while everyone else spent the day in the sun eating sweets.

4. Work Until You Alienate Your Family (if you have one – see (c) above)

The thing that people don’t tell men (much) is that, although you may have the time and space to work long hours and go on international conferences (the key to promotion and those big money moves), it comes at a cost to your family life and relationships. Looking after a family involves an unpredictable mix of stress, boredom and brilliance. I am increasingly convinced that you have to put in the stressful and boring hours to get the brilliance. Only occasionally can you nip in and see something brilliant your child has done. Perhaps more importantly, I know that my children don’t confide in me in the way that they confide in my partner. I am resigned to knowing that my partner will hear about any major event in our children’s lives before me (unless I get lucky). There is the rub – you get to be the brilliant academic but not the brilliant parent. Or, there is a clear trade off between the two. You can’t have it all.

5. Work Until You Alienate Your Partner.

I won’t say anything about my partner that she hasn’t put on the web (*UPDATE – I have removed the link to L’s website on her request*). All I will say is that, when things were bad, and my partner needed me at home, to help her deal with what she describes as “amazingly impressive post natal depression”, I was still trying to work out how to complete my research in London and Cardiff (mid-2000s, when my career was taking off). My selfishness often knew no bounds.  When I became more sensible, I learned two important lessons that could be more transferable than a lot of this blog: (i) phone interviews are not always the poor relation to face-to-face. I was surprised at how effective these things could be. (ii) When you have immense caring responsibilities, and very little time to work, you learn how to work in incredibly intense bursts. Indeed, the article of which I am most proud is in Regional and Federal Studies (2006), not so much because of the subject or journal, but because I completed the revise-and-resubmit over 5 nights, one hour per night, when everyone else was in bed. I then learned, more sensibly still, that one hour of work in the very early morning (6am seems doable) equals two or three hours during the day. It is more difficult to skive and check social media when you have gotten up early to do proper work. My recommendation, to maximise your promotion chances, is to keep this up until you have a Road-to-Damascus moment and realise how ridiculous and damaging it is. Hopefully, by that time, you will have been promoted.

6. Be Instrumental.

I am obsessed with every number out there, including my h, my m, my Klout score, and the number of hits on my blog. However, perhaps my best move was becoming a role analyst (the person who scores promotion applications according to UK-wide criteria) because it allowed me to work out (i) exactly what the criteria for promotion were; and (ii) what people say about each other on promotions panels (although some of it is predicable – being a good citizen may tip the balance, but is no substitute for a research record).

7. Publish Often – It is More of a Skill than a Craft.

Most people that I respect – and whose advice I seek and try to follow – tell me to slow down and focus more on quality rather than quantity. I would not give that advice, for two reasons. First, in my experience, a long CV with loads of publications has a bewitching effect on selectors and promoters (as long as it is not puffed up with book proposals under consideration and articles in preparation). Second, I agree with the argument that quality can result from quantity; that writing is a skill and constant writing/ publishing allows you to hone that skill (see

8. Publish in Packages.

It is now common advice to treat publishing in terms of communication packages – the same research may produce articles, blogs, news stories and other forms of communication. To that list, I would like to add the textbook. My best work has surrounded the production of textbooks. Scottish Politics (with Neil McGarvey) was based on, and inspired, several articles. Understanding Public Policy forced me to get on top of the policy literature, allowed me to write several theoretical articles and underpinned my monograph (with Donley Studlar and Hadii Mamudu) on Global Tobacco Control. Some people are snobby about textbooks, and you certainly should not write one if you don’t yet have a permanent lectureship. However, UPP remains (in my opinion) my best work. It also allows me to communicate with people whose first language is not English (if you ever meet me, ask to see my photo of a Japanese colleague’s notes on my book) or political science (such as colleagues in physics or psychology, who may want to collaborate but don’t know the jargon).

9. Don’t take too much advice from apparently successful colleagues.

People who are doing well may not know why they have done well. They may give contradictory or silly advice. As ever, accept the advice you agree with, and reject the advice you don’t like.

[Update – I forgot one.
10. Annoy your colleagues.
One point that stuck with me at the PSA talk was the advice to women to not feel tied to their offices; to emulate high profile men whose absences are tolerated because the assumption is that they are off doing research or at conferences. I think this is terrific advice if you are in the position to follow it. I used to be described by former colleagues as a ghost-like figure and people would make digs about not seeing me very often. However, it allowed me to be productive while working at home (which, when school is out, often requires me to wear ear muffs to block out the noise until 5pm). I then made sure that I was highly visible while in my office (and that I answered anyone’s emails remarkably quickly). The unintended consequence is that students will turn up at your door unannounced. Then, when they don’t find you, they will knock on the next available door and expect advice from that person. This outcome can create considerable resentment if you don’t deal with it well – which is why I became such a gunslinger emailist (although other descriptions and solutions may be available). However, in my experience, it is nothing compared to the ill-directed, implicit or explicit, resentment that people have for colleagues on maternity leave in Universities that don’t provide resources to cover the absence. That is an issue on which I can only report; not give any meaningful advice]

[Update 5.4.13 How could I forget this one? It’s often the most important

11. Develop a Thick Skin.

The process of seeking article publication and grant income is often immensely dispiriting. Indeed, I have seen one or two people stumble in their careers because they are no longer willing to subject themselves to the often-harsh (and generally anonymous) criticism from their peers. For most, the criticisms and the mix of acceptance, revision and rejection is a regular part of professional life. It does not stop when you reach a particular status in the profession either (perhaps unless you are subverting the process and schmoozing editors on the sly, but few people have that ability). Indeed, my respect for my former Head of School, Steve Bruce, rose further when he sent round an email telling colleagues that he had just received a straight rejection from Sociology.  If you can put up with the criticism, it is worth aiming high for each article submission. If you then get a ‘major revision’ or other ‘revise and resubmit’, you have done well (a straight acceptance with minor revisions is uncommon). If you get a rejection, you can use the comments to make a stronger article to send elsewhere. My experience has been a mix of satisfying acceptances, rotten rejections and somewhere in between. For example, one of my highest status articles (in JEPP) was an acceptance after R&R. One of the articles that gives me the most satisfaction (in PSJ) followed the same positive-criticism process, but after a desktop rejection from Political Studies (largely my fault – I was playing the game instead of seeking the best fit). One article I have in Parliamentary Affairs was made stronger after an initial rejection, with comments, from the BJPS.]

See also: Journal Article Acceptance After 5 Rejections and 18+ months


Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Gender and Getting Ahead in Academia

  1. Hello, all the advice I did not get at the right time. (1) Moved countries at the end of a PhD(which thus involves a significant learning curve in my chosen area of public policy), took a research fellow-type job to work for (good) people who were not really interested in academic publishing. I had(and have) a backlog of writing from previous roles that I could not get to finish and get out to journals due to new demands.(2) Got heavily involved in teaching and administration and became known for excellent delivery, top-notch programme organising skills, and willingness to help other people out! You know what happened next.(3) Received poor advice about where and when to publish and then when I got some good advice it was too late, possibly.(4) Had a child at 40, during at the beginning of a 5 year probationary period at a top university. Nuff said.(5) Child had health problems.(6) Institution I worked for under review and then deleted. Literally.(7) Work in interdisciplinary field such that it's difficult to place articles in traditional journals. Great piece of work came out in non-ranked journal and I was told 'wow, that really should have come out in a highly ranked journal'. But no one advised me at the outset and I had a lot to learn.(8) Some personal health problems based on all of the above. No wonder.(9) Left said institution as organisation no longer interested in my area. Could have morphed myself into something else, but love my field.I love academia…and I am very good at what I do, but will I be able to get back in to a lecturer/senior lecturer role? Perhaps post REF there will be some changes. Once institutions realize they have hired an army of mercenaries leaving for the next best offer, with all the salaries having been pushed up!Lessons learned….

  2. Yes, it is a profession which often has perverse incentives to publish research at the expense of teaching (although not all Universities are the same). It is also a profession with high barriers to entry and unusually high barriers to re-entry following any sort of break that takes you away from publishing. I'm not sure I should comment on mercenaries – maybe I will be increasingly seen as one.

  3. Well, will my articles or my son be more important in the long-run? Anyways, there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat. I'm determined and I will get there in the end. Interestingly, the majority of the successful female academics I know have no children or are gay. You might want to add this to your advice…..

  4. Very interesting blog. You've put the frighteners on me. I'll be fine with just my masters.

  5. Give me strength… I have a reasonably good article that is now about to be submitted to a fourth journal. The first two tries were playing the game pretty much – and failed (but that was the pressure to be seen to be submitting to the 'right' journals), the third was definitely dispiriting and hopefully we will get it right this time although I am not convinced. I would be okay with lesser ranked journals but my senior colleague(second author) wants to try again. I really do not think we will be successful without major re-writing. What do I do? I just want to get it out there. I have recently decided to put everything I've ever written, and there is a fair amount, out on, google scholar and the SSRN. I am getting a lot of hits and getting people looking at the work is better than having it on a shelf. To the previous responder, you really need a calling from a higher power to go in to academia these days, or a banker's mentality (sorry Professor!) Had I known what I know now, I might not have. Then again, what other profession can you be paid to learn, and that's what I was after.

  6. Wanted to let you know I've reblogged this at the Women and Politics page., K.

  7. Hi, just an fyi that I've reblogged this on the Women and Politics page., Kristi

  8. AD

    Thanks so much; fantastic and honest blog!

  9. Reblogged this on Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy and commented:

    One from the archives, which still seems relevant.

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