Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Goal Setting, Research Productivity, and the Associate Professor Survey

A friend asked me yesterday if I had goals. Not just "things I'd like to do some day," but articulated, specified goals. With a timeline.

In short, no.

All the career advice I've ever read suggests that goal-setting is an essential part of an integrated, successful career. And I do have "things I'd like to do some day," don't get me wrong. But writing down goals...well, for whatever reason, I haven't done it. One reason, I suspect, is that I'm a little uncomfortable with taking myself quite that seriously, with putting myself forward, in the way that goal-setting suggests. When I write it down here it sounds ludicrous, but there it is.

But here's the thing. I spent some time yesterday with the MLA's Associate Professor Survey, and I wonder if I'm not alone. The key finding for me, that women in private independent institutions (like my own) spend on average 9.6 years at associate professor before advancing to full, was sobering. (Especially since I'm already right at that mark, if not a little beyond it.) But even more telling was the paired statistic that in the same institutions, men are advancing on average three years more rapidly. (That's the largest gap between men's and women's advancement that the survey found.)

I wonder if women are less willing to label themselves career-focused than men are. I wonder if those women aren't articulating their goals, aren't naming them, and are therefore falling behind on them. I think in institutions like mine this could be a particularly insidious trap, as we are sought after and rewarded (up to a point) for our service and our teaching, and can make a pretty good career on them alone. So I wonder if when women like me say, "I'm too busy for my research," they really mean, "I haven't made it a priority." I wonder if they haven't made it a priority because they see that it's not really that highly valued, or because they truly prefer their teaching or service work, or because they have trouble carving out time for it at home. I am not at all ready to discount institutional and/or systemic discrimination against women, either--I know that the research work I do is, on occasion, measured and found wanting, at least in part because my field (children's literature--a female-dominated field) is not taken as seriously as, say, Renaissance literature. But such discrimination may fall into a larger pattern of discounting women's work that women themselves participate in. What would it take for us to claim our own work, our own value?

Or, on the other hand, are we choosing the saner course by pursuing more integrated lives? Sometimes that's what I think, and it does make sense. I have great autonomy in the classroom already; I do the research that interests me in the time frame that I can make work for my family, and that means an emphasis on conference papers and articles rather than on a monograph. (Psst--I prefer to read articles anyway, and suspect that they're more influential in most cases. But that's another story...maybe.) In my essay for Mama, PhD I call for us all to insist on the value of our work, to hold our senior colleagues and administrators to account when they pay lip service to teaching and service and then reward only original scholarship. I do think the work I do is valuable, but a small voice inside me also says, "you're not doing enough research." Maybe if I put some goals in writing I could measure my work against them and silence that voice. Maybe.

We think of these things when the semester ends and the research program hasn't quite ramped up again--or I do. Here's what I wrote yesterday about that survey, taking things in a slightly different direction:

Mothering at Mid-Career: The Associate Professor Survey - Mama PhD - Inside Higher Ed

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Note: when I went to post this, I wanted to tag it for future reference and discovered that I have never used a tag for either "research" or "scholarship" before. Hmm.


  1. What a thoughtful post, Libby. I hadn't heard about that survey and am looking forward to reading it. I remember hearing similar results about a graduate survey that suggested that it took women longer to complete their PhDs as well. Sigh.

    Your point about "carving out time for it at home" is so right does take tremendous effort to be a Dr. Mom and somehow also perform the research on top of parenting.

    And I'm also interested in hearing more about your thoughts on articles vs. books.

  2. Ok, those findings are so interesting...the amount of time spent on grading, too.

    Did you see the faculty salary thing at the Chronicle this week? We're not even close to those numbers. Depressing.

  3. Setting goals do play a huge part in determining our career success. Goals are essential for growth and developing. More on "Choosing a Career, and completing successful goals at

  4. You go, Libby! My thought: For some people a process is a means to the goal-- for others the goal is a means to the process; the end result can be the same. I think many women are process people -- it is more natural to reflect on the process of our goals than to merely list trophies we want on our walls at the end of the hunt. It doesn't mean we can't hold our own in the hunt, but it is going to look different.