Recent conversations with professionals made me realise that there are many misconceptions about the opportunities within academia as well as the hard work required
I recently made calls to professionals to create awareness about vacancies for lecturers at university and had the most interesting conversations. Various CAs(SA) I spoke to did not consider academia ‘a career’. They either romanticised academia to be their own private version of Dead Poets Society or considered academia a half-day job for those that cannot ‘do’.
There are various misconceptions about academia. To name but a few: lecturers spend most of their time lecturing; lecturers are teachers; lecturers quickly update slides and then they are done for the day; lecturers have lots of leave and only work half days.
I am frequently asked, ‘Prof, do you love lecturing?’ Three thoughts then come to mind. First, I don’t ‘lecturing’ that much. Second, what does ‘lecturing’ mean? Delivering a 50-minute lecture is a separate act from developing learning material and other responsibilities. Giving a lecture is probably the least time-consuming part of a lecturer’s job. Third, Do I love ‘lecturing?’ or Do I love ‘my job’? These are two distinctly different questions. A lecturer’s role evolves and although lecturers indeed start off lecturing a lot, over time they get involved in research-related activities, their administrative responsibilities increase, etc. Each lecturer’s journey is different, and each institution is different.
Lecturers are generally evaluated in three primary areas: teaching and learning, research, and social impact and transformation, with administrative responsibilities forming part of each area. As an academic’s vocation progresses from a new lecturer to institutional management, the focus (and related weightings) shifts between these areas. Academia can be a career.
Academia is sometimes romanticised, with new lecturers believing they will inspire all their students. That belief only holds until the lecturer realises that his or her impact on students’ learning and worldview lies far more in the realm of relativism than universalism. Each class is made up of individuals with divergent personalities, different cultural frames of reference, expectations, objectives and reasons for being in a class or doing a course, as well as different natural strengths and levels of self-motivation. Furthermore, most South African classrooms are a tapestry of racial, religious, language and socio-economic backgrounds. The unromantic truth is that despite their best efforts, whether lecturers have a meaningful impact depends largely on the student himself/herself and how they choose to embrace the learning experience.
The question then arises − why consider a career in academia? Despite all of the above, as a lecturer, it is rewarding to see many of your students learn and succeed or build lasting relationships with future business leaders. Lecturers have the pleasure of seeing students evolve in class as they grasp concepts and learn new ideas, and now and then lecturers enjoy the satisfaction of seeing what their students become in their professional lives and what they do in their careers.
Lecturers also have the privilege of directing students’ career paths and opening doors for some students. These include leadership development, business ideas, creating exposure to new skills, cultivating areas of future interest, or engaging students to make a social impact. I still get calls from former students who are qualified CAs(SA) for advice, input and even to assist on technical queries. To a greater or lesser extent, a lecturer does influence students’ views on the profession, the business world and their future careers.
Being researchers affords lecturers the time to spend work hours researching topical and future matters and the freedom to explore interesting research areas of their choice. They also get paid to learn and enrich their knowledge, informally or formally. Should they want to obtain a postgraduate qualification, most universities give rebates on fees and offer bursaries and research grants. There are also many fully-funded international bursary opportunities, which often include travel and subsistence allowances. With research come short-term travel opportunities to conferences or longer-term international exchanges to work and study at a foreign institution.
Through articles published, conference presentations, keynote speeches or public presentations, lecturers can present new ideas and trending topics. In their capacity as researchers, they can contribute to the body of knowledge in their field of research, which ultimately informs the professional practices of those in that field.
The status afforded lecturers by the institutional brand of the university allows them to contribute to the discourse around disciplines and comment on the social issues of the day. They are exposed to some of the leading thought leaders and industry experts in their field, in academia as well as in practice − business leaders and experts that other people would have to pay to listen to.
Making an impact in society is not limited to contributing to the discourse. Social impact is one of the strategic priorities of a higher education institution, and a lecturer can become involved in many existing social impact projects at a university. Moreover, getting new social impact passion projects off the ground is arguably easier for lecturers due to the financial backing and gravitas offered by their affiliation with the institution. Since a university is like any business, there is also an opportunity to get involved within the structures of the university to use their CA(SA) skills.
Universities offer competitive salaries, but 13th cheques or bonuses are not included. Salaries can be supplemented by doing private work such as consulting – most universities permit lecturers to serve in the profession, on boards and in an advisory capacity in the private and public sector, often during office hours. Being in academia allows lecturers the flexibility to pursue these and other non-academic interests. Flexible working conditions are priceless to lecturers who are parents or have other family commitments.
THE REALITY OF HARD WORK
There is also the reality of a career in academia. The corporate environment is more glamorous and there is greater access to resources. If lecturers want to carve out a career in academia, they have to put in the hours. Flexible working hours do not mean fewer working hours. The myth of lecturers only working half-days should have been busted ages ago. Long gone are the days when lecturers teach in the manner in which they were taught. Students’ realities, personal needs and expectations have changed. Responsive teaching in the face of lofty expectations means ensuring cultural inclusivity when designing syllabi and implementing teaching techniques, which takes time. Preparing comprehensive teaching and learning material that accommodates a multitude of students’ learning styles and the broad spectrum of students’ learnings needs takes time. An effective lecturer must continuously dedicate time to upskilling him- or herself in different teaching methods. Setting and marking assessments for a large number of students requires an equally sizeable time investment.
Learning how to do methodologically sound research takes time and requires the lecturer (in his/her capacity as a researcher) not only to be a subject expert in his field but also be to be an expert in research design, plagiarism, copyright, and much more. It takes time to realise the opportunities of private work, promotions and international travel, and often stringent hurdles have to be overcome.
For example, it takes time to build a reputation and research track record before being invited to speaking engagements. Approval for private outside work usually comes with performance-related prerequisites. Although there are possibilities for horizontal and vertical movement, given the flat organisational structures of most departments, lecturers have limited opportunities for promotion.
The objective of this article was neither to ‘sell’ a career in academia nor convince others to avoid it. Rather than romanticising academia, the purpose was simply to reflect on my own and others’ experience as CAs(SA) in academia and give a balanced insight into academia to aspirant lecturers who are willing to work hard and build a rewarding career.
Professor Riaan Rudman, CA(SA)
Deputy Director: Social Impact and Transformation in the School of Accountancy at Stellenbosch University