Expectations & Building Resilience

Updated: Sep 27, 2019

How can individual academics respond to the changing pressures of higher education? Increasing expectations means that we need new skills to future-proof our careers in academia. Is leveraging our strengths a method by which to build resilience and combat some of the pressures of academic life?

State of Play

The state of play with the HE sector at present is challenging. We are on the verge of Brexit, student recruitment is down and we are seeing greater use of metrics as a means by which to measure the performance of educational institutions through REF, TEF and KEF. While changes are needed to shape the sector there is also a need to explore and build resilience among early career academics so that they are able to acclimatise to this new modus operandi.

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Expectations of Excellence

As an early career academic there is a somewhat implied expectation that you should be good, great, perhaps even perfect at everything you do all of the time you do it within the academic sphere. Whether that is a self imposed expectation, perfectionism, how you are measured in your role or just a desire to do things well all of this can create pressure. Whether that’s delivering outstanding teaching materials, working on ground-breaking research or getting everything done on tighter deadlines.


The idea of excellence is compounded by the fact that universities are themselves establishments founded upon the principle of achieving or striving for excellence. Therefore we are in an environment where expectations are inherently high. Just as we expect high performance from our students we also expect this from ourselves. So what is the solution if you are starting out in academia?


The Importance of Resilience


"Academic resilience is defined as the ability to effectively deal with setback, stress or pressure in the academic setting. Although there is a large body of research focusing on general or life resilience, there has been little research into the issue of academic resilience" (Martin and Marsh, 2003).


Where research on resilience does exist within higher education it is largely focused upon the student rather than staff experience. We are now faced with a different environment with new pressures and for those of us at the early stages of their career trajectory in academia are grasping with these expectations with varying degrees of success. Resilience experienced by an early career academic can take many forms. For example, bouncing back from research paper rejection, being adaptable to change within your immediate working environment, handling criticism, having the confidence to challenge or change something when you are new in post.


Professor Kamal Bechkoum did a recent interview on LinkedIn sharing his tips around his own professional resilience here. He defined resilience as "coping with adversity, difficulty and challenges and coming out of those challenges in a way that is positive and that can add value to your environment".

Key behaviours and habits of resilience from Professor Beckhoum:

  1. Being calm in times of turbulence to deal with what is going on around you. There is no point being calm on the surface and not underneath - as this isn't doing you any favours in terms of your health and wellbeing.

  2. Train yourself to be calm and to think about things not in isolation. Realise that things are connected to other matters, so take a holistic view. How will you look back on the issue in six weeks time - will it have the same importance? Realise that things may not be as big an issue as they may immediately appear to be.

  3. Give yourself me-time: time to relax, space to think, being kind to yourself, allow yourself time to rest and to recharge

  4. Nurture resilience in those around you also: observe your peers and others who do this well and also consider the impact of your own resilience on your community of colleagues/family/friends/students

  5. Resilience needs to become a habit rather than as a one-off thing.

A few more tips from me...

The advice above is sound. Here are a couple of things and from my own perspective that I also want to throw into the mix in case they might be helpful for those of us who are still learning how to navigate academia.


Prioritising Your Health and Wellbeing

As an early career'er neglecting your health and wellbeing in some academic and most definitely in postgraduate student circles can almost seem like a badge of honour. However, it is important to be in the right mind-set to perform at your most optimum and there is most certainly a need for further studies on health and wellbeing of early career academics in response to coping with the pressures of academia. I think this expectation and mindset needs to change, so that we are able to work smarter not harder.

  1. Therefore make time to prioritise your wellbeing

  2. Understand the things from your lifestyle that help you to perform at your most optimum

  3. Understand how you recalibrate during a busy season at work

Leveraging your Strengths

I think another way in which to build resilience is to leverage your strengths. However you have ended up in academia you do have your own you unique journey, viewpoints and skills to contribute to the educational setting. So, that story you told to your class about a challenging client or the day that you had to choose between two professional crunch-points are both little golden nuggets of experience. So it's about recognising your value and what you have to bring to the table. So rather than give yourself a hard time about what you are not doing or have yet to achieve, take stock of what you can contribute to the academic table and remind yourself of these.  

  1. What is it that you are good at?

  2. What are you known for being good at?

  3. What unique experiences or skills do you bring to the table?

  4. In what sphere do you have a contribution to make or have an opinion?

Perhaps recognising the positives in what you are already contributing and doing will help you be more resilient and seek more enjoyment in responding to the challenges of an academic role.


If you have any tips on resilience please tweet me @drsamlynch #resilience #ecrchat #academiclife #academicresilience

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