Career Advice from Academia's Bravest

Here’s the advice that most academics won’t touch.

Posted Aug 31, 2018

Working in academia, within colleges and universities, can be a pretty strange experience. Academia can be excessively competitive and politicized. It can be unpleasant. People sometimes try to block the initiatives of others for all kinds of nefarious reasons.

And then there is that whole tenure thing. Most people see it as a gift. But not everyone realizes that it comes with what is often seen as a seven-year gag order. A typical untenured faculty member at a university will have seven years to demonstrate to his or her colleagues that he or she is worthy of getting tenure (which is essentially long-term job security). During those seven years (approximately 1/4 of a typical academic career), senior faculty often encourage untenured faculty to “lay low.” Many senior faculty members encourage them to not take on leadership roles, lest they may find themselves in political quagmires. Untenured faculty members are discouraged from conducting risky research projects - projects that might not fit in with prevailing narratives within or outside their departments. Untenured faculty are, in short, kind of encouraged to sit there and smile for seven years.

I’ve never been much of a fan of all this, as you can perhaps surmise. And I like to think that my career advice to young academics has been a little bit against the grain.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to attend a career panel at the recent Heterodox Psychology Workshop held in Southern California a few weeks ago. By definition, “heterodox researchers” are researchers who are, in spite of any and all political pressures, conducting research that they believe is important to conduct - even when the research cuts against the grain of prevailing narratives. I was surrounded by other heterodox researchers and it was awesome!

The career panel, including three academic luminaries - Leda Cosmides (Distinguished Professor of Psychology, UC Santa Barbara), Todd Kashdan (Professor of Psychology, George Mason University), and Robert Maranto (21st Century Chair in Educational Leadership, University of Arkansas) - spoke to an audience largely comprised of aspiring graduate students and junior academics from across the United States and parts of Canada and Europe. Not surprisingly, the advice given by these scholars in this context cut against the grain in many ways. It was refreshing. I’ve been in the same academic position since 2000 and even I felt like I got a ton out of this event.

Below are highlights from this unique career panel.

Leda Cosmides: Do Great Science and Don’t Ever Compromise Your Principles

Lonnise Magallanez
Leda Cosmides
Source: Lonnise Magallanez

Leda’s stories about her early career were truly inspiring. Leda’s work is in the field of cognitive psychology. And she does all of her research within an evolutionary framework. And she has been doing things this way since she was a graduate student at Harvard several decades ago.

Leda talked about giving “job talks” early on when she was trying to get her first academic job. She described a situation in which someone talked with her after one such talk. This senior faculty member gave her what he thought was helpful advice. The advice was to “take the evolution out of the talk” so that she could get a job. Well if you know Leda, then you know that she is principled and was, in no way, going to do this.

Her advice to aspiring academics was, in fact, to never compromise your principles. You don’t want a job where you are surrounded by people who reject a core part of your intellectual identity. Stand your ground. But also, do great work. The best way to convince others in the field of psychology is with data. Be the best scientific researcher that you can be and let data do the talking. High-profile and high-quality scientific publications, at the end of the day, are pretty hard for search committees to ignore.

Todd Kashdan: Go with the 80% Rule - Don’t Try to Please Everyone

Lonnise Magallanez
Todd Kashdan
Source: Lonnise Magallanez

Todd Kashdan is famous for doing work in the field of positive psychology that cuts against the grain a bit. He’s all about harnessing your dark emotions, for instance. Not everyone in the field of positive psychology loves that. But if you know Todd, then you know that he’s not all about just trying to please everyone. Todd is a mountain of a guy with a booming voice - with Long Island written all over him. And he’s a heck of a public speaker.

In his talk at this career panel, Todd proposed the 80% rule. That rule is essentially this: In a work context, you want to be well-liked, of course. But if you are too well-liked, then you are probably doing something wrong. As Todd puts it, if you are too well-liked, you are probably not pushing the boundaries sufficiently. Todd suggests (as a rule of thumb!) to shoot to be liked by about 80% of your colleagues. If you are getting under the skin of about 20% of the folks that you work with, that is a signal that you are standing up and speaking your mind. And, as a heterodox researcher, of course, Todd is all about standing up and speaking your mind.

Todd’s Psychology Today Blog, Curious?, is one of the most widely read psychology blogs across the world and his book, The Upside to your Dark Side, is a huge best seller. It’s probably not a bad idea to listen to what this guy has to say.

Robert Maranto: Never Feel Locked into a Job - Do Great Work and Opportunities Will Follow

Lonnise Magallanez
Robert Maranto
Source: Lonnise Magallanez

Robert Maranto is a respectful and gentle guy. He’s pretty soft spoken. But what he does say packs quite a punch. A political scientist by training, Bob has made a career within academia while being out as interested in exploring questions connected with a politically conservative agenda. If you know academia, then you know that there is perhaps nothing braver than this! Political conservatives are famously under-represented within the academy - especially among academic faculty.

He has published several high-profile pieces, including more than 10 books, often addressing important societal issues from a conservative perspective. Issues such as political correctness in society and education. As someone who has been around academia for more than half my life, let me say this: NOBODY does this! Understated and courteous as he may be, Bob may well be the bravest academic I have ever met!

Bob holds an endowed chairship at a major flagship state university. In academia, you don’t really get any higher than that.

Bob’s advice was essentially this: Do your best work, and don’t be afraid to keep your eyes out for other job opportunities. In Bob’s career, he actually moved around quite a bit. With his elite publication record and a strong record of effectively working with students, Bob had what he needed to be able to make some job moves.

Academics often feel locked into one place. After all, the field is so competitive and the lion’s share of senior academics will readily advise junior faculty to plan to stay where you are under most circumstances. Not Bob! Even with a clear record of conducting research connected to conservatism peppered all over his academic vita, this guy got himself several academic jobs at some very impressive institutions across his career. Do great work and be respectful of others, and you’ll go far - that is the lesson that I took from Bob!

Bottom Line

Academia is a famously difficult place to get a job and a famously difficult place to work. Given how politicized academia can be, most senior faculty advise up-and-coming academics to keep a low profile for several years. Heterodox researchers, researchers whose work cuts against the grain of some prevailing narrative, have something else to say to aspiring young academics. Leda, Todd, and Bob are among the most successful academics that you’ll find anywhere. So if you’re looking for career advice in academia, realize that there are multiple narratives on this issue. And be sure to at least know and consider the advice of academics who have spent their careers cutting against the grain. You just might learn something new.