# 131: Blended Academics — Live Your Career Narrative
Story behind the Passage
Today I received an inquiry from a graduate center at a German university. It contains an introduction explaining why there is a need to provide career guidance for junior researchers, particularly postdocs. And then it ends with the question whether I would be willing to participate in an online event to share my experiences of how one can manage the switch from academia to practice.
I had to smile when I read it because this e-mail reached me just a little over twelve hours after my post about the “alt-/post-ac” discussion yesterday! I also had to smile because I am very tempted to say “no” to the invitation — at least in the present format.
What? Why would Silke say no to this?
Well, this is what I am going to talk about today. To make two things very clear at the outset: 1) I appreciate the work that the manager at the graduate center is doing and I thank her for reaching out to me because it tells me that they care about what happens to young academics. 2) I love helping people, so I am not saying “no” just for the sake of pretending to be busy or too expensive or whatever.
Now, that this is clear, let me move on to the topic of “Blended Academics.” I just invented this concept today before starting to write. I checked on Google but I do not find it. So, it seems to be my invention — congratulations to myself! I should immediately start thinking about writing a research paper and submit it to some journal, right? No! Far from it. It is less costly and less time-consuming if I just share what I have to say about this — right here, right now. Everybody who is interested will be able to read about it here on the blog. He/she just has to search for it or ask me and I will send the link.
Searching and the cost of finding information about certain topics, particularly career-related content, will also be a topic below. But let me go step by step now. By “blended academics,” I mean, similar to the concept of blended learning that you are all familiar with by now, i.e., the combination of on- and offline learning, someone who switches from academic work to non-academic work, to put it in general terms. What I mean: This is a modular way of thinking, not a linear one. Someone does academic work of some kind today or this year, and tomorrow or next year, he/she works outside academia. Or one does both permanently, e.g., three days research, two days somewhere else. Of course, this is a very vague definition of “academic” work and you will immediately shout out: “No, how could one do serious academic = scholarly work while also doing other work outside?”
Well, hold on for a second. What did you do while you studied? Did you never have a student job somewhere? And you still studied full time, right? Yes, you did not get paid for studying but the time you invested in university was probably equal to full-time employment, right? In addition, it is not even my goal in this post to neatly define what kind of work is ‘academic’ (either research, or teaching, or both) and what kind of work is strictly ‘non-academic’ (in the sense of practical). Let me just clarify once more that, what I want to talk about today is simply the possibility, the increasing likelihood, that blended academics in the sense of combined scholars and practitioners at least in the course of one’s lifetime will be a lot more common in the future. This will answer, at least I hope so, why I am struggling with the request of the graduate center and start by providing my perspective here.
“Experts agree that the era when workers could reasonably expect — or even desire — lifetime employment at a single job is a relic of the past.” This is just for the record again. I have written about this over and over again — the future, even the present already, is about non-linear career paths. You can find all kinds of different labels for the alternatives of linear careers in the literature; two-dimensional or multi-directional, horizontal, etc. What counts is this: Your career decision today says nothing about where you will be working in three or five years from now — at least, it does not have to.
Please read the last sentence again and let it sink in for a minute before reading on.
Alrighty — now, if this is true — which it is, according to the data you find in studies on the future of work and also read in the article by The Atlantic, you can already calm down because you know one important thing that any good coach will usually teach you: There are no life-time decisions when it comes to careers. The reason why I am stressing this is because this is exactly the reason why so many people practically freak out about their applications and job decisions. They think their life will be over if they pick the “wrong” path or the “wrong” job now. You know what? a) There is no universal right/wrong. What can work perfectly for someone else does not have to work for you. b) There is no permanent right/wrong because, as I also mentioned yesterday already, the world changes and you change with every position you hold (# 130: Beyond “Alt-Ac” and “Post-Ac”?). So, what is fun right now might not be fun anymore in a few years.
Consequently, the great message is: You can basically make no severe mistake and if your choice starts feeling like a mistake quite soon, then you can be happy that you have tried it. There is nothing — nothing, no internet stories or personal accounts — that can replace your personal experience. This is also why these alumni talks are somewhat more practical than just reading about jobs or going to some university job counselor. But the point is: Even the best and most authentic story by someone, including mine, cannot replace what you would experience if you actually did the job the person is talking about. Well, I know, I am a hardcore pragmatist and Dewey defender which is why I always insist that learning requires personal experience — but I do!
Now, let us move on to the question if this really applies to the university/non-university career dichotomy. You might say, yes, outside in the ‘real’ world, you might be able to switch employers and positions quite flexibly. But as soon as you leave campus, there is no way back. Well, I would say, right now, this is still the case. As I also said yesterday, there is no logical reason, however, why the change I have explained above concerning the non-university career world would not apply to the university as well — in the near future. To give you some indication that I am not completely hallucinating when saying this. The current developments, including Open Science, Public Science Communication, Science Transfer, Smart Cities, etc., all signal that the change that I have always tried to push, the blending of research, business, and the public sphere is finally happening. This is also reflected in the resources that national and EU governments are providing to foster this collaboration (“Wir müssen Theorie und Praxis neu verzahnen” — BMBF).
To be very clear how this relates to my concept of the blended academic: I am assuming that more people might start their career in practice and then return to university or vice versa. Again, there are also numerous examples of people who have done this, and I am not talking about professors in universities of applied sciences, I am talking about professors in comprehensive (research) universities (no evaluation here). It is true that these people, however, were hired when the academic market was not so tight as it is now. Still, given the movement above, I strongly assume that things will change again (actually I have another book on this in my shelf and will read it soon and write about it as well). And I want to emphasize that quite a number of these professors with outside academic experience also had very non-linear careers. Just let me give you the names of two very fascinating and successful thinkers who both had what others would use “zigzag” careers before becoming international leaders in their academic fields:
- Frithjof Bergmann: The inventor of “New Work” worked as a dish washer, farmer, boxer, harbor worker… before becoming a professor of philosophy.
- Elinor Ostrom: She is known for her work on the “Tragedy of the Commons” and was the first woman to be awared the Nobel Prize of Economics in 2009. Before becoming a professor of economics, she studied political science and worked as a secretary and in other office jobs.
Of course, you might say, these are singular and rare examples, “I will never be able to come back and do research.” Well, could be, I am just saying, the chances and options of doing so might increase. Plus, and this is even more important for the specific job choice you make now: The job market is so fascinating and diverse, especially right now with digital technology bringing a real cultural paradigm shift to organizations, that there are so many fields in which you can apply your research skills and advance all the other skills that you simply could not use that much inside the university. This might make you change employers in the course of your career. But it might also mean that you explore different functions in only one large organization. This is exactly what the stories in The Atlantic article also teach you:
“You can have a number of different careers without ever having to leave the company.”
“Story” is actually a great keyword because it takes me to my last and most important point why I am writing all this and starting to have an ambilant take on career orientation events. To be honest, I am simply sick of seeing how resources are being wasted for this kind of stuff. Yes, I talked about this yesterday as well, but now let me make it even more tangible. Since my maths skills are worse than my storytelling skills, let me just sketch my point in an easy case study that contains numbers to explain what I mean:
Let us assume that a large university has on average 3 graduate career centers in three different disciplines. Let us further assume that each year, calculating very conservatively (in reality it is much more, I am assuming), each of these career centers offers 10 courses/events for postdocs on career-related counseling and training (e.g., soft-skills, basic business knowledge, communication, application-training, alumni talks…). Each trainer costs 500 EUR per training (in reality, it is usually more). More or less the same happens in at least 5 other units across campus in more or less the same way (e.g., graduate schools, personnel development, individual departments organizing their own events). Plus, you have at least one research manager per center who has a full-time position and several student aids or assistants or other part-time personnel planning these events. Let us add it up now, just to get an overview for the cost of one single year:
Alrighty, to make the horror story even worse, in pre-Covid times, you would have used additional money for hardcopy marketing stuff, rent rooms, etc. I am not even adding this here but, since we will at some time return to a more physical world again, it will get a bit more expensive. Again, I am aware that this is such a rough estimate and that so many things should be considered in more detail (by the way, if there is a university chancellor reading this, I am happy to see the real figures). But the message should be pretty clear: The university is spending close to 230 k on this. Now, since I know that figures alone — even if they are huge — do not tell you much. Here is the analogy in a picture, based on the staff appropriations list provided by the German Research Foundation.
I guess, the message is clear, right? In other words: This is insane! (As a side note: It is also interesting to compare the faculty/non-academic staff at U.S. universities with the one in Germany — to me it seems that our research management positions are significantly rising while professorships/faculty are not, at least not proportionally.) Now, you might intervene again by saying: “Well, you cannot calculate it this way and you have to consider that people are actually getting help by participating in these career orientation events. Furthermore, since there obviously is a need, i.e., demand, these people would otherwise go somewhere else to get help and many of them do not have money to pay for this. So, it is a very social thing for universities to organize this. You cannot simply compare apples and oranges.”
Yes and no.
The thing about the messy calculation and the questionable comparison thing I share. Of course, this is a provocative and in no way accurate example. But I do not accept the fact about the “people would have to go somewhere else.” No, we live in a digital world where people from all over the world are now increasingly participating in education because the internet allows them to have access to knowledge for little or even no personal cost. I expect that graduates in universities are also able to Google the words: “career orientation, practice talks, help with job applications, from academy to practice…”
“Yes, but this takes time and you cannot trust the sources?”
Sure, you can hardly ever trust any sources — this is called media competency! You have to invest some time to find what helps and then you need to check again whether or not this information is actually reliable. Remember: This is what you do with all your other daily media consumption as well. It is not different in this case. You do not stop using online news or social media just because much of the information provided there is bullshit, right? It is the same with learning about career perspectives and practical job skills. You find years of video material and texts for free about all these things on the web.
“But this is not for academics? Not for people like you? The post-doc flood is entirely new and therefore it takes completely new and tailor-made workshops for you?”
Oh, come on, please!
Just do this quick exercise: Google “Methods to find the right career for…” and then you just exchange the last word with a) academics, b) postdocs, c) researchers, d) humanities students… And then you compare the answers. Are these tipps and tricks so different for the different target groups? Even if they are — can you not find a lot of helpful information — for free?
So, we are finally getting to the core of the problem here — at least to part of it. Yes, it has taken many paragraphs today… Much of the money that universities spend on career-orientation is actually spent on search costs, i.e., the cost that you would have to invest when searching for all the info yourself. And this is very interesting because it is not a unique problem for this particular topic. Entire industries are now built on this. They function like mini-Googles— all they do is they filter relevant information for you. Just like the media or your favorite newsletter service. They do not offer new information that you would not find anywhere else — but they focus, narrow it down, and priotize data on just one page. This is (most of) what trainers nowadays do when they give workshops: They get money because you are not willing, too lazy, busy, or (hopefully not) stupid to search for yourself.
The problem is: The former assets are “real” in the sense that people (trainers, coaches…) are actually paid for this. The latter assets are not “real” because your salary probably at this stage is not so terrific that one hour of your time would equal the cost of hiring a trainer plus adding all this organizational infrastructure. This then takes us to the really exciting and interesting part: a solution. Of course, it is unrealistic that universities would stop to offer all this just because some crazy blogger like me writes about it (by the way, I also wrote about the coaching industry before and how universities are a big market for these services, it is the same rationale — # 57: The Coaching Market and the Liberal Arts | by Silke Schmidt | Medium). But I do see one simple solution to make it a bit more efficient and maybe save money for one additional professor at least: consolidate the existing offers, digitalize them, and integrate them in a network. If you consolidate all the redundant offers and provide wonderful information filters for your students/graduates, you can reduce the total cost and you can save search costs on the part of your students while still providing something target-specific. It is very simple — this is called plaform economy, our world is based on this now!
O.k., so, now, you might be suffering from information overkill already and you are still unhappy because I am not giving you any answer myself — i.e., help that you could only get from me, if there even is such a thing. What would I talk about if I did speak at the career event? How could I help you? Well, there is also an answer to this in the article, actually. Here is the story:
“The key, per Laitin, is helping people locate the narrative through lines of their own lives, the episodes that link disparate experiences and histories, while highlighting transferable skills. ‘Develop a clear, honest story about why this transition makes sense.” She says employers want to know two things: “That you’ll be able to do the job and that you are going to love it. The more your story can answer those questions, the less concerned an employer will be in saying yes, even if the transition is unconventional.’”
This is why I am saying in my title that the blended academic needs to find his/her narrative. I absolutely agree with this contribution and if there is anything unique about what I could offer you, it is this: Do not tell yourself an old tale of your grandparents’ careers and how they made one career decision and how you now run the risk of messing up your own life story. No! It works the other way around: Look at your life story right now and figure out what connects the different dots of your interests, fields of study, people you like, etc. This will guide you to your first job — one that you love or at least really enjoy doing. From this, everything else follows. You add chapter by chapter of your life narrative. There is no way that you can tell the plot of your career story in advance. Remember what Steve Jobs said:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” — Steve Jobs
The nice thing about this is that you will always find another job because the more you understand your own story and you trust that life writes the next one for you, the better you are able to explain it to others — no matter how often you switched from practice to theory or from one position to the next. The real story is important — for employers but mostly for yourself. The rest, all the facts and figures of how to apply and where is a piece of cake if you just follow where your gut feeling takes you. No trainer and no Silke can give universal advice. But the story matters. If there is any message I have, this is it.
Actually, I am just thinking, if people want me to talk about how you can make sense of your story — maybe I should say “yes” to the invitation at the career event?!
1) What is the line connecting the dots of your career/study path so far?
2) If you look at the careers of your parents or older friends/relatives — what do you notice?
3) If you were able to design the perfect job for you — what are the three things it needs to include?