3 mistakes most people do in career transitions

Those of you following me in Twitter or LinkedIn already know that only last week I began a new job at my university, transitioning from research role to a role of lecturer in environmental policy where my job will consist of teaching, research and service.

Given many people have flagged to me how teaching often takes the biggest part of your time, especially the administrative tasks associated with answering to students’ emails, marking, actually teaching, and all of that, I have tried to also find out how I can perform in my new role the best I can.

Universities have naturally performance reviews and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that the university as a whole needs to tick but individuals as well.

I’ve spoken already with a range of people who have offered very interesting insights into how to navigate competing demands on my time.

3 helpful steps 

There are in particular 3 steps that I’m told people often fail to take when they transition to a new career. This is not university specific necessarily but I would think can apply across many career transitions.

Keep the right balance across the work profile 

 Many people who change roles often focus on those skill areas in the new role where they don’t feel confident.

This often leads to overemphasis of those areas where the person wants to be seen as excelling with the cost to other components of the job description.

This, although understandable, is not wise since most roles consist of a number of activities that all need to get done.

What this means for those transitioning from research roles is that often those with less teaching experience have a burning need to demonstrate that they can teach.

They start spending more and more of their time in improving their teaching, with the outcome that their own research and also service components of their job suffer.

When it comes to performance reviews however, each individual is rated in how well they have performed across all their tasks and not just how great they were in for example teaching.

Overly focusing on teaching then and not driving research outcomes will backfire as the review still requires even teaching staff to demonstrate new research outcomes such as scientific publications. 

 

Learn and contribute to the organisational big picture

People are very focused on their own careers.

We are told to go after our dreams, find jobs that empower us, and do things that we truly enjoy.

While this is obviously a great mindset to have, only focusing on our own career especially if we work in a large organisation can mean that we fail to link our own activities to the big picture stuff.

Each institution, universities included, has strategic goals and aspirations that they expect staff to be part of and to deliver.

It is the big picture stuff that makes the organisation what it is.

If you don’t make a strategic link in how your own work fits to the broader organisational framework or vision, you risk failing to demonstrate how your work is in fact advancing some of the big picture ideas and goals.

So when starting a new job, pay attention to company vision, strategic aims and goals, new emerging areas of interest, and find ways to contribute to those through your work.

In some cases this happens naturally but especially for academics, we need to keep in mind what the university’s big picture organisational vision is.

Linking our work at least to some extent to these will also enable us in career progression within the institution that we work in if we are seen to understand and support such aspirations.

 

Pay attention to leadership opportunities

The trick with developing leadership is not waiting until you have the title of a Professor or CEO but actually recognising which skills are needed in those roles and which areas you need to improve in order to land such a role in the future.

Even if you are not quite there yet career wise, any job is an opportunity to learn new skills but also to start tracking that skill development.

Being a professor or dean or CEO requires a vast set of skills, starting from managing staff and budgets, participating in committees, drafting strategic documents, public speaking at events and representing the university or company.

These are not skills that most people automatically have, or if they have them, they don’t necessarily know how to do each well.

Taking on budget management for example in a project, or volunteering to help in taking notes in committee meetings can start enabling you to acquire these skills.

Learning these skills is essential but also often forgotten: most people don’t put in their CVs many of the informally learned skills but often emphasise formal qualifications.

LinkedIn is an excellent way of promoting these more informal skill developments e.g. by explaining which roles you did in which projects, and what skills you learned in addition to the official tasks and job description.

 

What counts as an impact

Having said all that, what many companies and now universities in particular emphasise is science that has an “impact” in the real world.

But when we are asked what that impact actually looks like in practice, I think few of us can really pinpoint as to what that means.

So of course, I have asked this question from several people because I am also curious how universities measure impact.

One person in particular noted that often impact equals research income (how many grants you get): if you are making an impact, you get money.

The point here is that if your research is widely recognised as highly useful and impactful, you will have a track record of grant money coming through because of that recognition.

This of course can be debated: there is plenty of theoretical research that is highly necessary, and on which then applied research is built later on.

I think there is a blurred line here as to what makes research “useful”.

There are also a number of other metrics such as memberships in international committees, speaker invitations, and of course Higher Degree Research completions (how many students have you helped to finish their degree).

All of these together demonstrate different aspects of impact, yet all of them are based on numbers (things you can count) but not necessarily reflect always the quality of interaction.

There are also other things we cannot measure directly such as providing informal mentoring among other staff and students, and taking on additional leadership roles that are not necessarily always recognised such as forming informal support groups for students or helping particular students to find career direction.

But, again, the trick is to find the balance and make sure you don’t overcommit on lots of informal activities that don’t get the tick when it comes to KPIs and performance reviews.

(I have a lot to say about performance reviews and how these could be more relevant and nimbler, but I think for now this will suffice).

But to be fair, no one has claimed that research income is the one and only measure of impact.

There are many more obviously and universities in particular have began to expand their notions of impact in a way that does not just look at numbers of publications but rather they seek a more robust measures about real world impact.

Am sure those of you who have been in the university environment longer than I have are murmuring with insights of your own while reading this.

But as said, am just transitioning to the new role and would love to hear what your thoughts are or best tips how to move across roles even within the same institution.

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