How to be “Serially” Successful in Academia

by | Feb 1, 2018 | academic writing, time management

I just read an excellent article in Inside Higher Ed about a panel at the Association of American Colleges and Universities discussing changes that university administrators were implementing in order to reduce faculty workload. The idea (which is a very good one) is to unburden faculty so that they can have the time and energy to invest in their best work.

The author of the article recounted the report of Harvey Mudd College’s Dean of Faculty, Dr. Lisa Sullivan:

“Harvey Mudd’s professors — most of whom have science Ph.D.s and active research agendas — … feel they must be ‘triathletes,’ excelling in teaching, research and service at all times, rather than excelling ‘serially’ in different areas throughout their careers, Sullivan added.”

The concept of excelling “serially” in different areas of one’s career at different times made me want to jump up and say “YES!”

This concept is what I mean when I say that academia ebbs and flows. In fact, in the bonus module of The Academic Woman’s Writing Roadmap I teach exactly this: how to choose which area of your career you’ll excel in year by year for the next five years.

Because here’s the hard truth: You cannot be awesome at teaching, research, and service at the same time all the time. The fact that you not only think you can but you think you should is driving you to burnout.

You have a finite amount of energy to give to your career. If you have your foot hard on the gas of every aspect of your career at once, you will run out of gas. The result is that you will excel in none of the areas.

Academia is a long game. The pressure to publish #allthethings right now is real. But you are also human. The way to win at the long game of academia is to pace yourself and plan. And let me guess: nobody taught you how to do strategic planning in grad school. So let’s remedy that right now.

Use strategic planning to be serially successful in academia

Follow these steps to write your five year strategic plan:

  1. Everything starts with your academic mission statement, so if you haven’t written on yet, start by reading this blog post and writing your statement (if you want feedback, please post your mission statement in my free Facebook group, I Should Be Writing!).
  2. You’ll need 1-2 hours of uninterrupted you time. Finding it, blocking it on your calendar, and hoping that your kids don’t screw it up by getting sick is the hardest part. (I write as I’m editing this post with all three of mine sick at home.)
  3. On any piece of paper, write down the next five or so academic years. Under each year write “Area of excellence:” and “Activity focus:”. Then leave space to write.
  4. Think of where you are now, and where you want to be. Do you want to do a new project? Or complete an in-progress one? Map out the stages of the project, keeping in mind the goal of being serially successful.

Let’s look at an example:

Imagine I want to start a new research project which will help me produce a few articles and a book. Let’s reverse engineer that. I’ll need both funding and time to actually collect the data. Keep in mind that this timeline works for my field of educational linguistics, but in different fields timelines will be different. So my next five years might look like this:


Area of excellence: Project design and funding

Activity focus: Grant writing (in the process of grant writing I’ll hone my research design)

During this year I’ll try to back off of starting new writing projects. I’ll want to clear my pipeline of old projects the best I can, strategically focusing on publications that will help me get the grants I’m applying for.


Area of excellence: Data collection and analysis

Activity focus: Complete the study

During this year I’ll want to be sure not to take on new teaching preps so that I can focus all my intellectual energy on data collection and processing for the new project. My pipeline should have been cleared the previous year so that I can focus on the kernels of new publications.


Area of excellence: Write-up

Activity focus: Write articles and book prospectus

During this year I’ll try to get a teaching schedule that allows me to do “stacking,” so I can have all my teaching duties on two days a week and keep the other three for writing. Alternatively, I’ll make sure my teaching schedule does not interfere with my tiger time and I’ll block off 1-2 hours per day of tiger time for writing.


Area of excellence: Write-up

Activity focus: Revise and re-submits, write and publish book

During this year I will also prioritize writing, but focus on the book. I’ll keep up my good writing schedule from the previous year in order to get my book out.


Area of excellence: Teaching

Activity focus: Create and deliver new courses aligned with my academic mission

This year I’ll have publications coming out, so I can back off of writing and ramp up teaching. I’ll create a new course aligned with my academic mission and put extra time into developing materials and lessons for new preps.

Now you have a strategic plan to be “serially” successful

The plan you made outlines your focus for the next five years. Unfortunately, the reality is that we can’t just quit doing everything else. There will be ongoing activities that are not our strategic focus. That’s ok. The idea here is to plan where most of your energy will go.

The flip side is that you will need to deliberately withhold energy from other projects and activities. You can do this because everything that you do you do well. You don’t have to do it perfectly. You don’t have to do it with your foot all the way on the gas. You just have to do it well. Very good is good enough. Save your excellence for your serially-selected focus project.

What do you think of the idea of being serially successful? Comment below and let me know!


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