Much of the conversation swirling in academia this summer is about leaving academia. In the midst of all this talk about higher education and the Great Resignation, I thought the opposite. Call it “the big living room”.
What might be the conditions that encourage us and allow us to stay in academia for decades and decades? I need look no further than my father to answer this question.
This summer, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies hosted a farewell dinner for my dad and three of his colleagues who have also retired since Covid summer 2020. That dinner marked the end of my father’s five-decade career teaching and researching the subjects of household and family demography, population dynamics, housing studies, and household forecasting.
What are the factors that have contributed to his academic longevity? And what can we learn from his long career in higher education that could help us join the Grand Séjour?
As I reflect on what the next 25 years of my college career might look like, I hope writing this article might help provide a roadmap for sticking around.
1 – Optimize curiosity rather than careerism
Growing up, I never heard my father talk about university and departmental politics. When he talked about his work, it was about trends and ideas and how his research relates to our lives. The organizational dysfunctions of the university environment are persistent. There has never been a golden age of college, as each generation faces its own challenges.
The career-long focus on ideas and creating and sharing knowledge should not be limited to professors. The ideas of the students and their research have always been fundamental. Those who work on the staff side of the faculty/staff division enhance the possibility of centering our academic careers on learning and scholarship. Classrooms aren’t the only place where teaching takes place, and peer-reviewed journals aren’t the only place where knowledge can be shared.
Throughout his career, my father kept his curiosity for the interaction between demographic trends (migration, fertility, household formation, etc.) and housing dynamics. This curiosity was the guideline of his decades-long career, not titles, positions or appointments. It is up to each of us to find and nurture our curiosities if we wish to pursue a lifelong academic career.
2 -Build recognized in-depth expertise
Building nationally recognized expertise is a long-term endeavour. It is the work year after year, decade after decade, that accumulates in the field of knowledge appreciated by his academic peers and those outside his discipline.
For my father, this recognized in-depth expertise was in housing demographics. Much of his academic career has been devoted to collaborating and training academics and non-academics in this area of research. His expertise was enhanced by a network of scholars from other institutions and organizations (such as the Census Bureau) and colleagues from his university with whom he could collaborate daily on joint research and writing.
The lesson here is to build our own recognized expertise as a destination that does not come quickly. Tune in long enough to a set of questions and ideas; sooner or later you have found that decades will have passed. Think of the job as developing deep expertise as a team sport rather than a single effort, and you’ll seek out those who know more than you do at your institution and beyond.
3 – Adopt non-traditional academic roles
The last two-thirds of my father’s college career were non-traditional. He went from being a full-time professor to being a researcher. This change was partly prompted by his desire to move from the Boston area to Montana and have a less frenetic, community-oriented life.
Because of his recognized in-depth expertise and the network of close colleagues he had developed, my father was able to maintain his academic role at a distance from his university. Having helped build the Joint Center during his years at Harvard, he had a stable base from which to continue his research and writing. The fact that funders subscribe to the housing demographic research that my father specialized in helped his ability to do this work from anywhere.
What I take away from my father’s story is that there are many ways to have an academic career. Post-pandemic, there may be even more ways to contribute constructively to our institutions without needing to come to campus every day and outside of traditional academic titles and roles.
If you’re about to think about quitting your current job, you may not need to leave academia – or maybe even your institution. Focus first on areas where you can make a difference in your recognized area of expertise, then try to find a way to shape the role around the life you want to have.
4 – Work less
Maybe the internet, email, laptops, smartphones and Zoom ruined everything. As a child in the 1970s and 1980s, I have no memory of my father working evenings, weekends, or vacations. When he was at home, that is to say every night, he was present.
The fact that we all seem to be working all the time these days may contribute to the great academic dropout. It is worth asking how much of our constant work is necessary and how much is self-imposed. If we knew that doing less this week, this month, and this year would lead to years of more productive contributions, would we accept that trade-off?
Let’s say that we only have thirty years of intense academic work in us. Do we work full time for 30 years and quit? Are we going to cram those 30 years of work into 15 or 20 and then resign from exhaustion – as many academics seem to be doing now? Or do we do what my dad did and spread those 30 years of hard work over 50 years?
Do we consider part-time work at certain parts of our career as a goal? Can we find the confidence to take breaks, do something different for a while, and then get back to what motivated us to become academics in the first place?
5 – Connect outside your establishment
When I think of how academia was a family business, I don’t think of just one university. Instead, I think of all my friends my dad had at his college and others and our family friends who worked for government, nonprofits, and the housing industry.
Colleagues who become friends pursue long-term careers. Academia may be unique among knowledge industries in that we benefit most from what we share outside of where we work. Disciplines are made up of people, and knowledge in an academic specialty develops through conversation and collaboration.
The lifelong friendships with a network of widely dispersed colleagues that I watched my father build over the decades always seemed to me to be my father’s most important academic achievement. This is an example that I seek to reproduce.
What advice would you have for creating a 50-year college career?