Exploring possibilities in academia: A discussion paper on professional development

I was invited recently by a group of young Nigerian entrepreneurs to give a talk on professional development, I supposed, aimed at providing a guide for the bright minds in their adventure and search for opportunities after graduation. I’d like to thank Maryam Abdullahi, the convener and founder of the discussion group (Personal Development Fridays) for giving me the opportunity to interact and learn a great deal from brilliant individuals across many disciplines and backgrounds. As an academic, I decided to share with them my journey – the prospects as well the challenges in the academia – also to present them with an alternative as they explore possibilities out there. This paper is a compilation of the discussion for anyone interested to discover further. I discussed six points: the fundamentals of academics, the primary responsibility of an academic, the qualifications required, development and ranking system in the profession, other opportunities and the challenges.

The fundamentals of academia

First, it’s important to note that it doesn’t require any special abilities to be an academic. You just need to have an open mind, ready to explore the wonders of whatever exists around you on this earth.

Because a greater part of the profession is about finding out how things work/behave and providing solutions to problems, you need to have a keen interest in observation, asking questions and not settling on anything until proven. Even if proven, you should try to see it as open-ended, with lots of possibilities.

You are free to explore whatever you like, but you can only be a specialist in one small area. (we will later discuss this in detail when we talk about ranking and development)

This is how I see life in academia. So, for a majority of people, it should be really fun because, by nature, human beings like exploring things.

The primary responsibility of an academic

As an academic, whether in the university or college, your primary responsibilities are three: teaching, research and community development.

Your teaching may involve undergraduate, postgraduate or both, depends on your rank, something that we are going to discuss later, too.

Research is intertwined with your teaching, or it could be separate. When you supervise students (undergrads or postgrads), you’re indirectly involved in their research. You could also carry out independent research, alone or together with colleagues to solve a problem.

It is necessary, as an academic, to be engaged actively in analysing situations in your field and finding solutions that could help foster development.

Most of the developments we see today – in business, technology, agriculture, health, etc. – were products of some think tank in educational and research institutions.

Community development is also closely related to the research you do. Every academic institute is expected to contribute to the development of its host community. That is why, for example, you find the Federal University of Agriculture in Benue state (for the development of farming, which Benue is well-known for). With the exception of a few, owing to personal and political interests, most higher institutions are sited based on this factor.

So, as an academic or aspiring academic, these three things should be your focus and what you are ready to pursue with passion and courage.

Qualifications required

Most universities these days prefer to hire people with a PhD. This is because they don’t want to go through the pain of training people. State institutions, however, based on the educational policy of the state, do invest in training their citizens.

You can start with a first degree, especially in your state or institutions (mostly federal) which are willing to train graduate assistants. One can easily have an advantage with a first class or second class upper degree.

Interviews and demonstration of a commitment to scholarship through writing and attending conferences play a significant role even without a second class upper degree. Second class lower should be the minimum.

The most commonly accepted level of education is a masters’ degree.

Development and ranking

Development in academia is mainly through the following:

Further studies/degrees: If you don’t already have a PhD, then your primary target is to obtain one in your field. In the recent past, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) has assisted a lot of federal and state institutions to train academic staff home and abroad.

You can also train yourself through access to foreign scholarships which are available in foreign academic institutions and multinational corporations. Nearly every academic session, departments announce awards they get from companies, foundations and governments. Most of them require candidates to work in a specific area of research. So, if that suits your field and interest, then you’re lucky. The good news is that such kind of scholarships is open to everyone.

The second factor for development is teaching. Depends on the institutions (as certain institutions are not teaching-based), you are required to teach courses relevant to your discipline and contribute to the development of the course. All courses in higher institutions are subject to continuous development suitable to the development happening in the society – local and global.

Then, you must be active an contribute to research development. You are expected within every step of your rank to conduct and publish research, present at conferences and participate in some community development.

For example, when you are employed as a graduate assistant, which most universities do to a candidate with a first degree, you won’t be able to move to the next level (Assistant Lecturer) unless you produce a second degree, plus assisting senior academics in teaching and other related activities. At this level, most universities don’t put emphasis on publication and conference, but having them will be a great advantage for promotion.

When you move from Assistant Lecturer to Lecturer II, you will definitely need research publications, conference attendance plus credits from your teaching and participation in other institutional administrative activities.

This is so when you move to Lecturer I, but the number of publications and conferences required, and the participation in university development will be higher. This continues until you reach a professorship position.

One thing about being a Professor, besides all that I mentioned, is you have to be a specialist in a specific area. You can’t be a professor without contributing significantly to a field. You must be seen as a member (if you like a cult member) in a small specific area, for example, digital marketing (not all marketing), computational linguistics (not overall linguistics), etc.

Climbing the ladder of academia is always from broad to a really narrowed area. You often hear renown professor saying, ‘this is not my area,’ when they are confronted with a question.

Academics is not about knowing everything; it’s about acknowledging what you don’t know and always trying to grasp that small thing.

The ranking varies from country to country, but there’s so much similarity. You can easily move from one country to another and fit well. Below is the ranking system in Nigerian university:

  • Emeritus Professor (retired)
  • Professor
  • Associate Professor / Reader
  • Senior Lecturer
  • Lecturer I
  • Lecturer II
  • Assistant Lecturer
  • Graduate Assistant

The ranking is slightly different from other higher institutions other than universities. For example, if you are in the 4th position of the ladder in a college of education or polytechnic, you are likely to be placed lower than that when you should transfer to a university. There is a lot of politics going on though in this regard.

Other opportunities within

One good thing about academics is you always have this opportunity to contribute to humanity – your impact is always a lasting one.

You always get to travel and know the world, whether through the work of others you read or through visiting countries and interacting different minds.

Academics gives you the freedom to work independently. Unlike many jobs that you have to work under people, receiving instructions that most times kill productivity, in academics, your senior is continuously keen to hear your versions of the story. If you are a person who is passionate and is always driven by ideas, exploration and independent thinking, academia might be the best place for you.

In the academics, the older you grow (as long as you are active in research), the more critical you become and enjoy societal respect. Also, you enjoy the retirement age of 75 years.

The downside

Personally, I see academia as a profession that when you start, you have to finish it. You can be a banker or a photographer, then retire in the mid of your career, after achieving something, and people will always see you as a banker or a photographer. It’s not the case when you are in academia; unless you reach the peak of your career or somewhere around there, you hardly feel fulfilled, and often when you leave or retire for another endeavour, people barely remember you achieved as an academic.

You will never start growing until you get a PhD, and you will never be seen as significant until you climb the rank of a Senior Lecturer, and that doesn’t come quickly and easily. But when you reach, you remain with your glory almost forever.

Overall, the academics is a very fulfilling profession that empowers (because knowledge is power) and gives ultimate freedom to explore whatever you want.

Thank you.

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