Monday, April 05, 2010

Taking the Leap

My friend and erstwhile colleague Lesboprof has a wonderful, thought-provoking post up about deciding not to take a shot at a job she wanted for fear that she wasn't ready, only to discover that her record would have stacked up well against the finalists. It's worth reading, and it got me thinking about the whole "I'm not ready" kind of hesitation.

LP characterizes that kind of humility as gendered, which I'd say is mostly right, but it strikes me as easier to address than many other gendered issues.

Part of it, I'm guessing, comes from long-ingrained habits in academia. If you entered the faculty ranks in the last twenty or thirty years, you probably had to run a really nasty gauntlet to get there. Graduate school teaches self-doubt so effectively that some people never recover, and the faculty job market reinforces the lesson. Depending on institutional context, going up for tenure can also involve some pretty serious self-doubt, so by that point you've been inculcated.

On top of that, add the academic cultural taboo against "crossing over to the dark side," the cultural baggage of expectations on women (the "good girl" syndrome), and relative ignorance of what it is that jobs higher on the food chain actually entail, and you have a pretty strong recipe for avoidance.

A few thoughts on taking the leap:

First, if you can, try to get some exposure to the people in the jobs you're thinking about. The last time I made a leap in levels, it happened after my previous boss let me pinch-hit for him at some statewide meetings of his counterparts. Participating in the discussions, I couldn't help but notice that most of the folks in that role were no sharper than I was. While that was depressing at one level, it was encouraging at another: it suddenly didn't seem weird to imagine myself in that role. I really can't recommend this method enough.

Second, for the first time in most of our careers, our generation will finally have the wind at its back. LP notes correctly that the pool for senior administrative hires is relatively thin, which is largely a consequence of the failure to hire meaningful numbers of full-time faculty for the last couple of decades. Neglecting the farm team has led, gradually but predictably, to a shortage of hot prospects. Since the Gen X and Gen Y cohorts have been fighting for scraps for so long, it may take a while to make the attitudinal adjustment to suddenly being in relative demand.

Part of the subtext of this blog has been to help develop the next generation of academic leadership by giving it reports from the front lines, in hopes of demystifying the profession and encouraging bright people to step up. Folks like LP -- smart, humane, genuinely concerned about the social mission of higher ed -- are exactly the ones I hope will step up.

(I expect to see this accelerate quickly, now that retirement portfolios have substantially recovered from the drubbing of late 2008-early 2009.)

Third, there's no shame in taking a shot and missing. In my own case, I can share that I had plenty of interviews that didn't result in offers, but those interviews helped me anyway. You learn a lot about a college during administrative interviews: some of it from the questions they choose to ask, some of it from asides that people make under their breath, and some just by being there and noticing what you see. You bring that knowledge back with you. You also become a better interviewee, which is a skill unto itself. I've actually heard people say that they won't apply for a position unless they're guaranteed to win it; to my mind, that's insanity. If you know the kind of job you want, and you have some basis to believe that you could do it well, go for it. Accept some no's as the price of the eventual yes.

Admittedly, rejection as an internal candidate is worse, but it can still get people used to seeing you in a new light. Making an unexpectedly strong run -- even if unsuccessfully -- can make a very positive impression.

Finally, it's relatively rare that someone will give you the tap on the shoulder. It's nice when it happens, but if you wait for it, you may wait forever. You have to decide to put yourself out there.

Thanks, LP, for a thought-provoking post. Sooner rather than later, you're gonna knock it out of the park.

Wise and worldly readers -- any thoughts on knowing when to take the leap?