Tips & Tricks in Academia: Do They Work?


Many of us are finding helpful distraction in music, close family, self-growth and self-care during this difficult time. Of course – the work challenges keep coming thick and fast.

This month we take time to reflect on how we often try to solve academic work challenges.

Our own approach, as readers of ‘How to be a Happy Academic’ will know, is quite different to the tricks ‘n’ tips approaches that dominate.

We don’t seek to provide ready but wrong answers but instead encourage continued reflection on key aspects of academic work: What do you stand for? What is success for you? How can you better align your success indicators with those of your department and discipline?  An approach grounded in very challenging questions but not easy answers.

Tricks ‘n’ tips, by nature, write us out. And in this way, are fundamentally at odds with the complexity of academic work and us as academic workers.

We both had the opportunity to participate in fantastic coaching education over the past couple of years from the Roy Group. During these sessions we saw first hand the power that devoting time and opening space to grapple with challenging questions has for releasing personal potentiality in the face of the most challenging problems. Grappling with deep questions about our values, what success for is, and how these align with the external world can be transformative. This is what we seek to do via our integrated and value-centred approach to academic work.

The magic happens when we face the hard work challenges through a process that puts and keep us firmly at the centre. Your unique background, hope, dreams and fears for your work.

The BIG problems with tricks ‘n’ tips for academic work challenges

The umpteenth blog on how to write better as academic? The twitter chain on writing better grants? The keynote on how to present like a pro? Develop killer career strategy?

Simple solutions to complex problems are alluring but seldom effective.

Whether in 2021 you’re in a bind over a particular piece of writing, a challenging relationship, or your entire career strategy – books, social media, podcasts, and workshops proliferate with tricks and tips galore for your success.

They will also, almost all, be plain wrong.

The ease with which such tips roll off the tongue or the tweets connect readily to our hunger for hope in our plight. Suddenly that scarily intimidating task or goal is tamed. We get a warm fuzzy feeling – and go forward anew. Re-energized and hopeful again.  If only life and work were that simple!

Why don’t tricks ‘n’ tips work for academic work?

Academic work is always situated amidst scholarly communities of reviewers, peers, gatekeepers and funders. It is always highly context and language bound.  What’s expected in one discipline as a sign of success simply does not transfer. Norms, expectations, and conventions are not only different by discipline or field but often by the groups involved. What holds in scholarly communities across medicine in North America is not identical to those of sociology in South Asia. In Canada alone: good grant writing and even good science looks very different in bench research to behavioural science.  A single shared transcending and triumphant set of norms, expectations, and lenses on academic work does not exist. Unfortunately, tricks ‘n’ tips approaches to academic work are blind to this fundamental. 

Is hope then lost?
Are all approaches to solving your particular problem equally good or bad?

We don’t think so. Instead approaches to solving academic work problems are needed that respect and respond to the recognition that academic work is extreme knowledge work. Work characterized by being value-laden and having deep epistemological and social complexity. This is why our own distinctive integrated approach to academic work is necessarily grounded in each scholar’s personal values. Why we encourage you to develop your Core in order to understand and incorporate the genres, expectations and norms of the scholarly communities you are each involved with and see where that takes you. Why even what success looks for you in your academic work cannot be assumed.  This, like good coaching, opens space for your reflection and questions without providing the allure of false answers.

During this month

Think about why or when you turn to quick fixes or tricks ‘n’ tips solutions to your own complex problems. Do you find these alluring on your social media feed? Think deeper about what the issue you need to solve is truly, and what reflection and questions you can ask yourself to get to the heart of it.

Don’t forget about your values and where they also fit in this self-discovery.