Being a (female) academic

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This week I was invited to talk to the female postdocs at my university about my experience with creating an academic career path for myself, as a woman. This is what I told them.

Motivation: I love my job
I am a female academic. I am 40 years old. I have a research position at a wonderful university, paid to do what I love the most. I feel very privileged. Since I started studying philosophy in 1993, all I ever wanted was to become a professional philosopher. Nothing else ever appealed to me, and I never worked hard on anything up until then.

Attitude: My way or no way
Since my only motivation for being in academia is to do what I love, this has given me a certain attitude. I am only willing to do what I do in a way that I can continue to love. In other words: if it’s not fun anymore, I’m out. If I am going to be in a job that I don’t enjoy, I might as well do something easier and less competitive. So I am fairly uncompromising about what I want to do, professionally, and how I want to do it.

Default: Academia is not a nice place
I have come to learn this the hard way, but academia is not a nice place. It is competitive, conservative, unfair, undermining and ungenerous. People are not happy for you, and they will let you know it. And the more so academia is, the worse it gets. People who feel unappreciated will find it hard to be generous and encouraging towards others. So this is my default expectation. A completely different question is of course whether I want to be part of this negative spiral, which I don’t.

Network: Finding nice people
I want to work in a friendly, encouraging, inspiring and including environment. And even if academia is not in general like this, one can create groups that are. Surviving in academia is much about focusing on all those nice people who bring you something positive, workwise or social. This is why I try my best to avoid, or at least minimising my contact with, those who do the opposite. So when I invite people into my networks, I use two criteria: they must be interesting thinkers and they must be nice. I don’t want any clever assholes on my projects or workshops, undermining graduate students or scaring people from asking questions or participating in discussions.

Conflicts: Let it go
There is ample room for conflict in academia, and I have had my share. But when it happens, I choose to turn my back to it fairly quickly and get out. This does not mean that I forgive or forget, but I try to not waste my time and energy on it. I have seen enough people self-destruct from conflicts, and it always ends badly. This is what I try to avoid. So every big crisis I’ve had has forced me to rethink my situation and find new and better alternatives. If a door is clearly closed to me, I’m not going to stay there kicking and screaming until the bitter end.

Collaboration: Beats competition by far
Academic work, at least in the Humanities, is supposed to be an intellectual struggle that one takes on single-handedly. This does not sound attractive to me. I love working with other people. I have co-authored in philosophy since my first university essay and it is just so much fun and intellectually rewarding. Ideas are shared, developed and critically examined much faster together than sitting alone in the office. Genuine collaboration is when the outcome is something that is not just the sum of the parts, but an entirely new work that neither of us could have produced alone. It is hard work and not so little drama and heated discussions, but mainly it is inspiring and also great fun. It is also productive. I now have more than 30 published papers, two books with Oxford University Press, two book contracts with the same publisher and one book manuscript under review. This is why I always say that collaboration beats competition.

Stakes: Are they too high?
Although interdisciplinarity and networking is encouraged in academia, collaborations is in my discipline regarded as a sign of weakness and incompetence. Especially since I work a lot with someone more senior than me, people assume that I am a freeloader and lightweight. And they assume this even though I have been in research only positions all these years, while he has been almost a full time university manager. So many look at my CV with suspicion, wondering whether my contributions to books and papers is half or perhaps even less than half. I recently got a promotion application rejected, with the committee raising exactly these concerns. So although the rewards of collaboration are great, it seems that the stakes are high. Still, I am not going to stop doing philosophy the way I love doing it, just because people think that I am not able to work on my own.

Gender: Does it matter?
Philosophy is a male dominated discipline. That gender is an issue in academia is undeniable and the research is discouraging. I have had my share of unfair treatment in academia and lately I have started asking myself if I am a victim of sexism. – Or ageism. – Or racism. But I have come to the conclusion that for every injustice I experience, I can list at least 10 male colleagues who have experienced the same. It seems to me that we are all victims of the academic culture. And maybe being a woman makes it even harder. But if I am to work and thrive in this line of work, I cannot perceive myself as a victim. Victims make very poor colleagues. Instead I must count my blessings and try to be a positive resource in my field, academically and personally. I can do this by focusing on my work and by replicating the favours and kindness of so many wonderful and supportive people around me. And then I love my job.

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