Lessons from Three and a Half Years in Academia

I am in the middle of my third year in academia and I continue to learn things about the profession, the field of Public Administration (PA), and myself. So what have I learned?

First off, academia is a place where rejection and failure is an everyday occurrence. Journal articles, job applications, grant proposals, fellowships, book proposals…you name it, I’ve been rejected for it. This is not a bad thing. Many a project of mine has improved because of a rejection. I’ve also dodged a few bullets, in hindsight, due to rejection. It is something that is part of academia, and if you are not being rejected for things, you are probably not trying hard enough. During my first class in my doctoral program a great professor of mine told the class that you need thick skin to survive in academia. She was right, and it is advice I pass on to my students.

Second, academia is not always a meritocracy, pedigree often matters a great deal more than production. Though I have seen this play out indirectly here and there, it really hit me directly when I experienced a phony interview. I admit the triumph of pedigree over production frustrates me, especially given my satisfaction with the quality of the Ph.D. program from which I graduated. But, it also makes me appreciate organizations like ASPA and AEI/Fordham who gave me a shot based on my record when it would have been easy to dismiss me based on my non-R1 affiliation. It also makes me appreciate my institution, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, which has always made me feel wanted. It is also great to have my work welcomed in international journals, some of the pieces I am most proud of were published across the pond.

Which brings me to my third observation; the grass is not always greener. Academics job hop, it is how you get raises, prestige, and additional resources. For those of us with families, or those whose research is focused on making a local impact, this can be problematic. I’ve been tempted, admittedly, but I think a rule is your situation is never as bad as you think, and that other place is never as great as it appears (Easy for me to say I know, seeing as I have never switched academic jobs).

Fourth, the academy, and PA, loves to pigeonhole scholars. People have looked at my record and asked me, are you urban, nonprofit, public management, or education? My answer is, yes, I am a governance scholar. Governance is changing, and to truly make sense of it we need to study the nonprofit sector, we need to study local and state government, and yes, that includes the most expensive function of state and local government: Education. This answer has failed to impress more than a few hiring committees and journal editors (see second paragraph), but it is what I am and I am good with it (At ASPA this year I have a paper that connects all these pieces, come see me present!). Frankly, I think keeping our field relevant demands more of us take a broader approach…but I am heavily influenced by my practitioner experience, which is not always welcomed in the academy.

Lastly, I do miss my practitioner days. I miss having a daily impact on state and local government. Some of my most satisfying work in the academy has been things that will not help me obtain tenure or prestige, and will never show up on a CV. Helping MPA graduates with a work problem, answering a school funding question, crunching data for a practitioner, and helping my mid-service students advance their careers (which in turn aids the public good), brings me immense satisfaction.

I am sure I will continue to learn as my experience in the academy grows. All said, the experience has been professionally and personally rewarding, it is hard to imagine doing anything else.


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