Things university career advisers are not telling you

compass, careers

The market for university sector career advisers seems to be on the rise. This trend suggests that the activities such as searching for a field of study, choosing a PhD program or pursuing a successful post-doc career have become more complex. The more uncertainty there is, the more advice is sought. The growing number of offers related to coaching and advice services for (prospective) academics also points in this direction. Following the sociologist Manfred Prisching, one could augment the societal self-descriptions of the organization or knowledge society with the councilor society.

With the increasing complexity of processes at universities and diverse, sometimes contradictory expectations of students and academic staff, the need for orientation is evidently increasing. For a successful university career, it seems no longer enough to just do good teaching or publish your research in acknowledged journals; negotiating skills and management skills are also required and considered equally important. The advisory literature provides a good amount of ideas on how to develop project strategies, lead a team or prepare negotiations with university management.

These well-intended tips, however, seldom provide support for the organizational everyday life. The reason for this is simple: the guidebooks focus too strictly on the formal aspects of universities. However, everyday life at universities is predominantly characterized by interpersonal contacts, abbreviations or compromises. Not to mention, a number of coincidences and opportunities – or one might call it fate – as some more or less successful careers prove. The formal order is always present in the background, but sticking to it blindly leads to nothing – which you quickly notice when you try.

Strategies in the art of university guerrilla warfare

Organizational research has shown for decades that day-to-day work cannot be managed without informal tactics, tricks and deviations from rules (e.g. Kühl 2014). Students develop an informal way of dealing with academic achievements and double bookings of seminars; teachers avoid fetching titles for their courses in order to not attract too many students or exchange good evaluations to avoid lengthy debriefings. These and other practices make it possible to deal with contradictory, if not paradoxical, and conflicting expectations: inspiring teaching, excellent research and committed self-administration are usually not all possible at the same time.

However, these practices are not found in dedicated guidebooks. Yet they are decisive in determining whether a course of study can be successfully mastered, or a book project can be completed on time. An exception that is irritating in its honesty is the booklet Professor für Anfänger (Professor for Beginners) written a few years ago by the German educational psychologist Thomas Götz. Some parts of the book are reminiscent of a kind of “Mao-Bible” for the newly appointed. In addition to advice on the everyday life, such as “How do I ride on the train properly (i.e. undisturbed)?” or “Which server is the right one for the working group?” (p.41f.), he provides some unusual and even unholy tips.

For example, Götz claims that it is advantageous to appear “gruelingly repetitive” in meetings and to have as much speech-time as possible. In doing so, one should make sure to “always say the same thing”. This can work wonders, especially in late sessions, because the fatigue of others can be used to one’s own advantage. Once the other participants are exhausted, your own interests can be better asserted. In the same line, the author argues, it is also helpful to be naïve as it is a quick way to be underestimated: “Being underestimated is often an excellent position” (p. 30f.). If no one is expecting you, you can shoot out and turn the session around in your own way.

Those informal and even subversive practices can bring you to your desired goal. Or at least it is promising to recognize them in your colleagues or superiors behavior. However, those tips have side effects, just like any informal practice: for example, collegiality can quickly be at stake if you appear in meetings, as described. Furthermore, if everyone in a meeting uses attrition and acts naïve, chaos is ensured.

Informal manners are usually learned through socialization. The counseling market could, however, open up a new segment if it is to devote itself to this “dark” side of organizational coexistence. Discussing both sides – the formal and the informal – would be truly helpful to help readers keep afloat in the daily organizational struggle.

Lukas Daubner is in his last year of his doctoral studies. His work concerns organizational change in higher education. In his doctoral work, Lukas is conducting an ethnography on what universities do when they are expected to adapt a new program. Besides hanging out in university administrations to find out what they do all day long, he is also teaching classes in Political Sociology at Bielefeld University. Tweet him pertinent evidence here.

The German version of the text has been published in DIE ZEIT Wissen³ newsletter

Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay

Leave a Reply