Over the course of my career, I’ve given and received a lot of advice. Much of it was wrong. Sometimes it lacked the perspective that comes with age and experience. So now, as an official “oldster” at 65 (proof: thanks to my age, I just got $25 off upon joining a botanical society), I offer the following advice, from someone who has thought and written about academic careers for 40 years.
Put your family first. Academics often have trouble doing that. I know I did. Starting out in academe at age 25, I had so many career issues to worry about — getting hired, getting publications, getting grants, getting promoted, getting tenured, getting promoted again, getting (I hoped) awards. The crucial word there is “getting.”
Like many academics, I was more concerned about getting than about giving, and giving to my family always seemed as if it could wait another day. The trouble is, the family really can’t wait. Intimate relationships can grow rusty, and children just grow up. I’m lucky that my kids — so far! — have turned out well. But I’ve seen many academics wait too long to attend to their family relationships, only to discover there’s not much of their relationships left.
You can’t count on your publications and awards to take care of you. You need your family now, and you’ll need them more later. More important, they need you now.
Make your health a close second. When you are in your 20s and 30s, you often can get away with not eating well or exercising enough. In those years, your not-so-great health habits may not show themselves in any tangible way. But they will show, probably starting in your 40s, and certainly by your 50s. And then you’ll be well on your way to the “I should have taken care of myself sooner” phase.
You can’t always control your health. Some people have to stop working when they get older, while others can work in only a limited way. But you can help nudge things in the right direction with a lifetime of eating smart and exercising regularly.
Save as much money as you can. Years ago, I remember my faculty mentor retiring and blurting out to me, “I’m rich!” Chances are, you won’t be doing the same. If you think you will, that’s rich — and that’s about all the richness you are going to get.
There was a fairly prolonged period in which stocks kept an upward trajectory and interest rates were high enough to make bonds an attractive investment. Today the stock market goes up and down in fits and starts, and interest rates on bonds are at historic lows. The upshot is that many people reach an age at which they might want to retire but can’t. Fewer and fewer academics are on defined-benefit plans, while more and more are on defined- contribution plans — if they have any retirement savings at all. The latter usually don’t cover the full cost of what today is a much longer and more expensive retirement than was true in the past. So start saving early, and save as much as you can.
If you’re in the wrong place, get out. Most academics today have multiple jobs over the course of a career. At some point, there is a pretty good chance that you’ll land in a department (or even an entire institution) that feels dysfunctional.
In your 20s and 30s, you might somehow convince yourself that “things will work out.” As you get older, you realize that a bad match between an academic and an institution usually stays that way. If you really care about teaching and your university doesn’t, the university is probably not going to change. If you care about excellence and the people around you take pride in their mediocrity, chances are that will not change. Rather, they will perceive you as just a grand annoyance, or as a threat. So if you don’t fit, start looking before you’re told to start looking.
Stay away from jerks. Academe, like any other profession, attracts its fair share of creeps and dirtbags. You can waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to deal with them. The reason people are still trying to figure that out is because no one ever quite has.
The best thing you can do is to stay away from them, to the extent possible. You’ve got better things to do. The time you spend trying to deal with them, or avenge yourself against them, is time lost to far more productive endeavors.