Playing the academic game

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow in Water Engineering for Developing Countries at Cranfield University, and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland.

Her work focuses on water, s16anitation and hygiene (#WASH); check out a video of the cool “Reinvented Toilet” she’s working on nowadays.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.

Photo by Lou Levit |
Photo by Lou Levit |

I play the academic game.

Those of you who’ve read my previous posts know this.

Like many people at my career stage, I juggle contract research with papers with teaching with grant applications with public outreach and university service. As exhausting as it is, I love the fact that I get to do all of these things as part of my job (OK, grant writing is the pits, but getting together with like-minded colleagues to hash out the initial project idea is super exciting!).

But, over the last year, it has become clear to me that there is a part of the game to get ahead that I won’t play: compromising my own values and the wellbeing of others. 

Now, I am not suggesting that every other academic plays that part of the game, but a lot do. I know of people who have had their ideas stolen and published by more well-established academics without acknowledgement (let alone as a co-author). I have spoken to a PhD student who was trying to get out of her field for her postdoc because she felt it was like being stuck in “Mean Girls”.

Personally, I didn’t feel that there were a lot of women role models during my PhD. It felt like some successful women considered other successful women a threat to their unique selling point.

Thinking back on my own experiences resulted in a moral dilemma for me a few days ago: I realised that every Masters student I’ve supervised has been a young woman.

I worried that I was showing unconscious bias towards students who are women. But, in every case, the student had been the first one that year to approach me; I didn’t go out seeking to create a series of Mini-Me.

I have fought for these students. I have tried to show them that whatever experience they may have had in the past, not all women are trying to keep others down, and that you can take the high road and still succeed. I’m sure I still would have fought hard for men or older students, but I do think that in my head I see the success of these amazing young women as part of my crusade to make academia a fairer place for everyone. That sounds pretentious, so I have to put it out there that I have been actively seeking out women role models for myself – I don’t have all the answers!

I am 31, happily married and considering having children someday. I realised recently that, although for the past decade I have had mentors who are men (probably not because of a conscious choice but because, as we all know, women are underrepresented in higher level academic roles, particularly in engineering), it was time for me to get some advice from women I admire at all levels who had done the academic + wife + mother thing and who I consider to be awesome people. And I mean awesome not because they have the highest h-index or are in the most senior roles, but because they LIKE what they do and they LIKE having a family. They don’t see their family as getting in the way of their lofty professional ambitions. They don’t see everything as a competition. They just want to have a happy work-life balance where they get to be both a person and an academic.

Connecting with these amazing women the past year has helped me realise that although academia can take over your soul and sometimes actively enable you to stab colleagues in the back in the name of your own success, who you are as a person means so much more to your happiness than what level you are at on the academic pay scale. It’s true that I would like to be at a higher level by now – but I still love what I do, I make enough money to feed myself and my dog, and my colleagues genuinely seem to like me. People want to work with me, and I want to work with them – and it’s not just because of our track-records. It’s because being a nice person, a reliable team mate, a fair leader, is actually really important for both workplace culture and your own sanity.

So, my lesson of the past year has been that although I want to succeed in academia, I don’t want to do so “at any cost”. I’m not the only one, and I think it’s time that we started being more vocal about how you can have a research career without having to compromise your morals or give up on every non-academic aspect of your being.

We need to remember that no matter how many metrics employers like to throw at us, each academic is unique in their own way for the full package that they have to offer. And, yes, part of my package is the joy I get out of making toilet jokes and laughing with colleagues! Because taking life too seriously never made anyone happy, and if you share my sense of humour then we’re probably going to make an awesome academic team!

Many thanks to the fabulous Dr Evelyne Deplazes and Dr Maggie Hardy (@DrMaggieHardy) for the many conversations which led to this article.


EDITED TO ADD: Dani is living proof that you can make it and still be true to your values. She has just informed us that she’s been appointed to an ongoing lecturer position at the University of Leeds and will be working with one of her academic idols. Congratulations, Dani! And we think the Univesrity of Leeds are the lucky ones here.


  1. […] What I’m proposing is not a new idea. Clegg & Rowland in 2010 (BJSE 31(6):719-735) discussed the importance of kindness in academic life, noting that it has become undervalued given the focus on performance and outputs. Berg and Seeber discuss academic collegiality in their 2016 book The Slow Professor, arguing that kindness is necessary for the well-being of academics, as well as their institutions. Tseen Khoo’s post “What makes a good colleague” discusses the importance of being “a good critical friend to colleagues and students… supporting each other and providing encouragement, the social work of building connections between groups and individuals…” And these two very nice posts discuss giving and nurturing in academia and why “playing the academic game” does not have to mean compromising your morals. […]


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