13 things I wish someone had told me when I was an early career scholar

Member: Kristen S. Slack (University of Wisconsin - Madison)

I’m in my 21st year as a professor at a research-intensive public university in the U.S. Despite the fact that I have decades of experience inside academia, knowledge about “how things work” did not come easy. The following is a list of things I wish I’d known but no one ever told me about academia when I was a doctoral student or early career scholar:

(1) 9 times out of 10 a journal rejection is not about you or your research but about journal fit — resubmit somewhere else!;

(2) Men nominate themselves and nominate each other and ask to be nominated more than women. Women and nonbinary academics — NOMINATE YOURSELVES AND EACH OTHER!;

(3) Chairing dissertation committees matters. Too many times I agreed to let a colleague be “chair” when we co-advised a doctoral student, because I didn’t think it really mattered if I was a chair or committee member;

(4) You can push back on a journal editor’s decision if the reviewers are flat out wrong about something or there are other red flags;

(5) You have to nearly complete the study before certain federal agencies will give you the funds to complete the study (a little tongue in cheek, but not entirely);

(6) Tenure track faculty should care about the increasing “adjunctification” of higher ed, not just because it is shrinking the number of tenure track faculty positions with higher pay and more job security, but because higher ed shouldn’t be exploiting its highly qualified instructional workforce;

(7) On a similar note, we should care that much of our research is paywalled, and make different decisions about where to publish our research if we really want our work to have broad impact;

(8) Even though I think they are a lazy measure of “scholarly impact,” citation counts matter, and there are some people who self-promote and push out their research more than others;

(9) “Shared faculty governance” often just means that the leadership chronically understaffs the university/college and shifts an increasing share of operations to faculty;

(10) DE&I work is touted as critical, but it is only symbolically funded by leadership;

(11) Students often have clearer insights than faculty and staff about the problems inside academia and have innovative ideas about solutions to these problems. We should listen to them;

(12) “Academic freedom” is whatever the corporate- and donor-influenced leadership says it is;

(13) Tenured faculty are blissfully (willfully?) unaware of or indifferent to many of the largest problems we face in academia. We need to wake the hell up.

I have many friends and colleagues, some junior, some senior, and some in leadership positions who haven’t thought through these and other issues in academia, or have thought about them but are more or less apathetic about addressing them. I sometimes wonder what different choices I would have made earlier on if my eyes had been open to the things that need to change. I can’t ever know what my counterfactual career would have looked like, but I do believe I would have had a healthier skepticism of the status quo, and perhaps have felt like less of an imposter in this space. I share this list now in the hopes that those entering or relatively new to academia will know that change is possible, and that you can create a path for your academic career that is better aligned with your values if you possess better information.

Woman pensively holding her hand to her chin with a large question mark floating next to her.