Take Ownership and Build Your Tribe: Overcoming the Myth of Guaranteed Acceptance in your Career Path

“Some days, doing ‘the best we can’ may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect on any front and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else.” – Fred Rogers

Since I can remember, I have been surrounded by people who encouraged my academic and career pursuits. Often, encouragement came in the form of well wishes that offered hope without any true knowledge of what lay ahead. Being the child of immigrant parents and one of the first in my family to pursue graduate degrees, my family knew enough to say “you’ve got this, keep going” and “the world is yours, follow your dreams.” However, when it came to giving advice on career choices, pushing through barriers, and building my network – that was a different story.

I’ll tell you the end before getting into the journey – in order to succeed, I had to give up on the myth of guaranteed acceptance in my career path. Instead, I had to do the best I could with what I had. My mentors, peers, and supporters resounded that I had all the makings of a high quality, tenure-track faculty person. With a bit of false hope I applied for assistant professor positions at top schools when really I should have cast a wide net. Beginning at a small college and working my way up may have been the best option for me. I had to relinquish pride, and instead take ownership and responsibility for my future. Above all, I needed to build a tribe of people to support me in realistic ways, that I could also support, and learn from their experiential wisdom. I am grateful for the many shifts and adjustments I’ve made along the way and it all worked out in the end. This is how I did it, and how you can too.

My educative experiences began in the sciences. I completed a B.S. in Biotechnology and a M.S. in Molecular Genetics at Big 10 schools. I quickly realized that science communication was captivating to me. I moved from the bench to the classroom and completed a Ph.D. in Education – with an emphasis in genetics education. Mine was a non-conventional route. Many of my peers completed a B.A. in Education and taught in K-12 classrooms for a time before returning to graduate school, or continued teaching while completing their degrees. At the time, I was the only Ph.D. candidate in my program to come from a non-teaching background.

As an Education Ph.D. candidate, I was called a “rising star” by my faculty mentors and applied to several R1 university assistant professor positions. Interviews were plentiful, but I always came in second place. I had a stellar publication record, presented at the right conferences, and knew the right people. I even won an award for the quality of my dissertation. However, unlike my peers, I did not possess the practical experience of being a K-12 teacher. The jobs I wanted required that the candidate teach pre-service teachers – and who better to do that then someone who had already been in the classroom. Lacking this experience reduced my credibility even though I taught for five years in higher education – not the same kind of teaching. Being “new” to the field of education, I was a bit short on street credit to compete with other candidates at the R1 level despite having the same scholarly achievements.

At the time, I was feeling frustrated because I had experienced the positive and glowing feedback of my mentors and peers and knew that I had what it took to work at the top tier of faculty positions. The side dish of rejection from one interview after another shook my foundation and confidence. Being knocked down a rung or two made me reevaluate where I stood and what path was laid out ahead of me – I was ready for change. I began to search for whatever ways I could apply what I had learned up to that point that made me feel empowered and strong. I wanted to share my resilience. So after a short stint as a research assistant, at another nearby R1 university, I chose an alternative academic career path – science curriculum writer.

In this new role, I found I could easily utilize my training in educational research in meaningful ways. One of the major challenges was the culture shock I experienced moving from academia to industry. I had generally pursued research from the point of personal interest and altruism, and then moved into the realm of monetization. Making research decisions based on a culture of profit was new territory for me. However, in the end many of the goals aligned with my inner compass and I was generating tangible results quicker than I ever had in academia. It felt amazing to get traction in my career after being so unsure of the future during my graduate years. What sunk and floated in the market quickly became a litmus test for my own professional capacity.

My alt-ac career as a curriculum writer worked well for a time and then life happened. I became the primary care giver to my husband, a disabled veteran, and had a child; both required that I stay home. I felt grateful for my ability to be home and to spend time with my family. I was again able to make space within myself and reconsider my path going forward. Everything I experienced up to this point led me to my current role (and dream job). I took ownership of my circumstances, focused on the positive, and began doing what I do best – I started my own business as an academic writing mentor to support the very people I worked alongside for many years. Looking back, I realize my tribe of peers and colleagues had nudged me in this direction – I informally mentored many of them to improve their academic writing over the past decade. My expertise was further substantiated by my own efforts to write, publish, and present during my graduate years and career as a curriculum writer. The stage was set.

Today, I support academic professionals at all levels with their writing and editing needs and offer guidance to those striving for greatness in academia. My clients range from pre-graduate students to faculty to independent scholars and academic job seekers. I offer guidance and support to improve the organization and flow of academic writing on things like journal papers, book chapters, grant applications, and the like. My model of business seeks to support those in academia that struggle the way I struggled to find their footing. I work to lower the hurdles by improving the clarity and quality of their writing and encourage them by offering resources and connections. In a sense, I work to be the experienced and knowledgeable sounding board I needed growing up in academia. I feel overjoyed in this role, especially when I see my clients and mentees succeed by publishing papers, getting job offers, and being accepted into programs.

One piece of advice I can offer those struggling in academia is to build your tribe of peers, mentors, and models (those a bit further down the career road that you can emulate). Many of us think we must go it alone (why is this so true of academic writing?), but the truth is that those that do may find a dead end quicker than expected. Seeking support, such as partnering with a writing mentor, on a regular basis inside and outside one’s area of expertise is a requirement for success in academia. If you decide on a different career path than when you started out, its not failure. There is an enormous constellation of factors that play into our successes. Staying open and accepting of curves in the road is required as is ignoring myths like guaranteed acceptance in your chosen career. Focusing instead on what feels good as a career move, regardless of title or position, is imperative because without passion for the work you are likely to experience burnout. Leaning on your tribe by asking for advice, opinions, and feedback can be the means by which you achieve your next goal. Offering the same in return to those who support you builds the strength, validity, and inter-connectedness of your tribe.

As I started my business, my client pool was small – many were scholars I’ve worked with in past years. Lately, however, my reach has become international. I currently mentor six academic professionals (graduate students and faculty) on a regular basis and have a steady stream of incoming project-based work as well. I thank Academic Twitter for helping me build an engaged and supportive network. Running ideas past my Twitter followers is an invaluable way to check my understanding of their needs and recast my offerings. It’s also a reality check when I think my ideas are grand and only hear crickets when I share them with the Twitter-verse. My mentors come in the form of clients – I learn so much about their needs and how to best support each one personally. My peers and mentees teach me invaluable lessons to perfect my craft, and provide me with examples to draw from as I welcome new clients into my practice. My models are those out ahead of me who’ve seen it all and persist despite the changing academic climates. From them, I learn how to generate new and exciting offerings, such as a blog about balancing life and writing, academic writing retreats to engage academics in a community of writing, generating and engaging in social media events, and the like. Stay tuned!

For those of you who hear the familiar sound of truth ringing in these words and still feel alone, I’ll be in your tribe. Everything you’ve achieved so far matters and is useful. Building and utilizing your tribe, taking ownership of where you’re at, and ignoring the myths will help lift the veil on what’s coming next for you.


content photoshoot by Permanent Glimpse Photography

About our guest columnist

Dr. Nicole Shea is the Business Owner and Academic Writing Mentor behind Nicole Shea Writes.

She received her undergraduate degree from Penn State University, M.S. from Rutgers Medical School, and Ph.D. from Rutgers University, Graduate School of Education. Before starting her business, she completed post-doctoral research at the University of Delaware and worked as a science curriculum writer at the University of California – Berkeley and Bio Rad Laboratories in California. With 15 years of academic writing experience, Dr. Shea aims support students, faculty, independent scholars, and job seekers across multiple disciplines to improve the quality and clarity of their writing. With an international following, she offers writing consultation and editing services for journal papers, dissertation and thesis, grant applications, scholarly books, job applications, and the like.

Dr. Shea has published in a range of peer-reviewed journals, presented at U.S.-based and international conferences, and hosts writing workshops and social media events on a regular basis. More information about her scholarly outreach and events can be found on her business website.

Most recently, Dr. Shea launched a blog to share community stories of resilience while doing academic writing. To participate as a guest blogger and to contact Dr. Shea regarding her writing consultation and editing services, email her at nicolesheawrites@gmail.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @NicSheaWrites and Instagram @nicolesheawrites.

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