Today I had a conversation with a young Irish academic who was troubled by the choice he had made of planning his career in the academic world. He had made this choice believing that he would be able to lead a life of intellectual challenge, good conversation and stimulating debates. He would see students develop their skills and would find his feet with his own research.
What was troubling him was that the reality was, in some sense, as he had hoped it would be, but there was in his words a ‘constant dark under-current’. He loved his work, he found himself being stimulated by some very bright students, and he had managed to publish his first two articles in refereed journals (the gold standard of university research output). But beyond that he felt there was doom and gloom, a sense that what he did was not appreciated by society, and the constant threat of the next bureaucratic hurdle.
I have some sympathy with this colleague. But more importantly, I think that we need to do better in motivating and supporting people like him, particularly as they embark on their careers. No matter how hostile the environment may seem to be, we must give people a sense of optimism and hope,m and we must give them the assistance of a supportive community.
I suspect that many people still believe that academic life is rather easy. As in any profession, we do have some under-performers. But the overwhelming majority of academics are dedicated and idealistic people (although we sometimes manage to beat the idealism out of them), who want to live up to and who do live up to the expectations we have of them, and who work exceptionally hard. Their concern is that the rewards (and I don’t mean money) are scarce.
Academic communities have historically often struggled not to let ideals be smothered by cynicism. Right now we are facing challenges that some may think threaten to defeat us altogether. We must not be mesmerised by these – right now is the time to plan boldly and to act decisively, and to convey a sense of purpose. We must also allow ourselves the occasional celebration and fun.
Nobody can pretend that an academic career is going to be all plain sailing, nor should we become too defensive when external stakeholders raise questions about how we teach and research; but we can work together to ensure that it remains a uniquely satisfying career.