New Year’s resolutions for women in academia

penny-oxford-250pxPenny Oxford had a number of organisational learning roles in the corporate and government sectors before joining the staff development team of a university in 2006. Since then, she has left the higher education sector and returned so many times that she’s lost count.

Penny has worked in faculties and central research offices in research support, project management, and researcher development roles. She’s most proud of her contributions to the WiSci (Women in Science) and SPAM (Strategic Promotions Advice and Mentoring) programs at the University of Sydney. SPAM could not have happened without the wisdom, guidance and inspirational brilliance of Professors Daniela Traini and Fiona White, and Professor Emerita Robyn Overall. It succeeds because of the outstanding generosity of all its mentors, including Professor Mike Thompson (winner of the inaugural Golden SPAM award for mentoring) and Judy Black, super-mentor and astonishing thespian talent.

Penny tweets from @Penny_O_.

Time to reflect. Photo courtesy of Penny Oxford.
Time to reflect. Photo courtesy of Penny Oxford.

January is traditionally a time to reflect, plan, and – if you’re that kind of person – come up with some New Year’s resolutions!

As we move into another academic year, I’d like to suggest some career development resolutions for female researchers, particularly women in the STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) disciplines.

I’ve worked with many of you on career planning, mentoring and promotion support programs over the years and I am in awe of your brilliance, tenacity, resilience and generosity.

I’m also saddened by the scarcity of women in leadership roles and frustrated by a culture that’s not always completely fantastic when it comes to embracing diversity, so I thought I would distil what I’ve learned from many wise mentors into a list of promises that you can make to yourself, to help you take charge of your career in 2017.

Resolution 1: I will tell people what I want and ask for help to get it.

Lots of the women I’ve worked with aren’t very good at talking about their career goals and are even worse at asking for mentoring advice or support. I don’t know why – might it be because we’ve been raised to ‘not be a bother’? Are we worried about failure or being laughed at for dreaming the impossible? (Go and google “imposter syndrome” if this last statement rings a bell – we’ll wait here for you).

Whatever it is, we need to stop expecting to be tapped on the shoulder. It’s highly unlikely that some senior leader will come over and beg us to chair a high-profile committee, lead a project team, or take on a prestigious role. For starters, our colleagues and leaders aren’t mind readers, so how can they know which committee, project or role would interest us if we haven’t been clear about our next steps? Universities don’t hire psychics; there simply isn’t the budget.

In 2017, let’s get over this reticence. Talk to your managers, heads of school or mentors about where you’re heading and ask for their advice about the best way to get there. Let’s set ourselves up for success: make a time to meet with senior people. Don’t just accost them in a corridor or in the kitchen. (Although, if you do bump into someone you’d like to talk to, take the opportunity to ask if you can have a chat with them at a later time.)

If you don’t have a mentor, look around you. Find someone you think is good at things and ask them if you can buy them a coffee and talk to them about whatever it is that you would like to be better at. Most people are kind and are happy to have a chat for half an hour or so, especially if you give them a bit of notice. I’m a firm believer in the power of coffee to change the world, one latte at a time.

Resolution 2: I will be myself AND ALSO challenge the boundaries of my comfort zone.

Academia has a reputation as a culture in which ruthless self-promoters tend to get more than their fair share of the oxygen in a room. Many women have told me that they don’t feel comfortable talking up their own successes, pushing back on unreasonable requests, or fighting for resources in a competitive and extraverted work group.

This resolution is all about finding a way to do these things without compromising our sense of self. If you don’t want to proclaim loudly in a meeting that you just had a paper accepted in a prestigious journal, then don’t – but find another way to make it known. Can you tweet about it? Or email the link to the online version of the paper to a group of colleagues, your research support or media people? If you aren’t great at saying no to extra tasks when you are already at full capacity, or you feel awkward asking for more lab space, learn to be better at it by observing a colleague who does it well. (This would make a great topic for a coffee chat with said colleague.)

While I’m on the subject, so many women hide their successes behind a wall of “we”. It’s great that you can work as part of a team but make sure that you own your particular contributions when you’re talking about the group’s achievements.

Resolution 3: I will spend time with positive people.

I’m a big fan of the therapeutic vent session – in fact, I was a founding member of the Wine and Whine Club at my previous campus, a group that got together on a Friday afternoon a couple of times a semester for a restorative beverage and a comforting chat with People Who Just Get It. The thing about venting, though, is that nothing changes.

Balance all that eye-rolling and character assassination by actively seeking out people who will encourage you to take some positive steps. I had a great peer mentoring relationship with a former colleague where we’d meet up every few weeks for (another) coffee and discuss options for our next roles. We would review each other’s draft job applications, suggest people to speak to and share details of opportunities we’d heard about. It was brilliant to have someone to keep me focused and provide another perspective on skills or achievements that I hadn’t considered to be terribly important and I hope I provided similar support for her.

Resolution 4: I will celebrate the elements of my career that I can control.

Let’s take time to celebrate our own and others’ efforts instead of focusing on outcomes. Acknowledge the aspects of your career development that you can control and celebrate the fact that you applied for that promotion or funding scheme, or sent that paper off for review. Your job was to step up to the start line; the rest is out of your hands, so hit Send or Submit or whatever, then get some people together for a coffee, lunch, drink or bracing walk in the park. Make it something that feels like a treat for you, and celebrate all over again once the results are in!

Resolution 5: I will listen to that little voice in my head that says I’m really good at what I do.

It’s so easy to become dismissive of our skills and abilities in a work context that’s all about competition and isn’t very good at acknowledging failures.

Take time to recall the good moments: a paper or conference presentation that attracted interest; the satisfaction felt in solving a messy problem; or some unsolicited, positive feedback from a senior colleague or mentor. Focus on the stuff that you do better than anyone else, take a deep breath and do some more of it. At the risk of sounding like one of those annoying motivational speakers, this is the sort of activity to do before Important Events, like presenting at a conference, fronting up to an interview panel, or sitting down to write a grant application.

So, there we have it! The Women in Academia 2017 New Year’s Resolutions! I hope they’ve helped you start thinking about getting out there and being the best and most fantastic version of yourself that you can be.

And, yes, I would love to have a coffee next time you’re in town.


  1. Would you believe it: planning my goals for 2017 was on today’s todo list. Shall take a leave out of your book.


    • Great idea, Christa! I’m a true believer when it comes to writing things down – so much easier to track your progress and keep focused, especially when everyday work and life gets busy. Good luck with it!


  2. I live on the edge of academia in that I am no longer a “student” and don’t have any employment yet I am waiting on my Ph D to be read. No-(wo)man’s land really. Resolution 5 resonates with me and I need to get into Resolution 2.


    • Good luck with the PhD, Julie, and well done on taking charge of the next chapter of your life. Resolution 2 is a tricky one but I think it’s easier if you are consciously aware of challenging the limits of your comfort zone.


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