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Bill Sedlacek

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What is It Like to Have Been an Academic?

cf1012.f3_defaultWhen I finished graduate school I had an interest in doing research, but was not sure I wanted to be a full-time professor. To be honest, my grades were not the highest and I was not considered the hottest prospect to come out of my program in industrial psychology at Kansas State, although I came up with my master’s thesis topic at Iowa State and doctoral thesis topic at K-State on my own. In 1964 (as an ABD at 25) I began doing research for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Evanston Illinois, near my home town of Chicago. By teaching part-time in the evenings at The National College of Education and Roosevelt University I realized that higher education is where I wanted to be. Jobs were plentiful in 1967 when I began looking, so I took one that combined student affairs research out of a counseling center and an assistant professorship in the Measurement and Statistics Department at the University of Maryland in College Park. Note that I was following a path of nonconformity by not doing what an industrial psychologist was supposed to do. Early on I was pursuing my own interests and beginning a long-term trend to do and study what interested me and what would make a difference in the world, not what the traditional advice was from most professors. Almost all my professors and later my colleagues advised sticking to research topics that were of interest to what they felt were the top journals in their field. My advice to my students was study what interested you, what you felt was important, and then we would find a journal for it.

The late 1960’s and early 1970s were a time of great unrest in the United States. A study I did indicated that more than half of the University of Maryland students had participated in a riot or demonstration during the 1971-72 school year. I had my grad students out assessing crowd behavior to attempt to predict the stages leading to a riot. Some of my students loved it, others were nervous about being arrested. Over the years I attracted a wide variety of grad students from many fields and departments including statistics, industrial psychology, counseling psychology, higher education, learning theory, human development, sociology, student affairs, geography, recreation, multicultural studies, women’s studies, Spanish, landscape architecture, and urban planning among others. I drew students who were looking for something that their fields were not offering them, and I encouraged them to let their imaginations fly and we would study what interested them.

As we proposed a study we would always identify an audience and a journal at which we were aiming. We would also identify a conference at which to present the results and practice and critique one another’s presentations as part of the research program. I was able to develop their research skills at all phases of a study and for most, keep their interest up. For me the key concept has always been “What would keep you up in the middle of the night mulling over and writing up a manuscript for publication?” Also, I would encourage students to be first author where possible, thus developing their ownership of the study to a high level. My critics would say I let the students do the work and I would take the credit. There is some truth in that, but the result was lots of interesting published work in many different journals.

Someone counted the number of different journals in which I published and the total was more than 50. In getting a start by publishing while they were in grad school, many of my students sought academic careers, and those that did not were more apt to appreciate the role of research in their areas of interest. Because of this research I have been able to initiate new courses and work with students at other institutions in the U S. and other countries. Also, the research has allowed me to affect admissions, scholarship, and student development programs at schools (secondary, baccalaureate, graduate, professional) and foundations.

I ended up studying things that were unusual for someone with my background. I am White and grew up in working class all-White environments. Neither of my parents finished high school, and the words that were used to describe people of other races and cultures are best not noted here. Women were sex-objects and mothers. I was a successful athlete in high school and started college at Iowa State playing football and shot-putting. I got hurt and gave up both before I became a good enough student to stay in school. But I used my self- concept from sports to assume I could do or be anything that I wished. The perspective I got from my background helped me understand the sources of forms of racism, sexism and related variables. The perspective that I got from my industrial psych training was to examine institutional variables. But when I started studying institutional variables in racism, sexism, and many other issues in which I had no apparent background, my colleagues advised against it. My department head said I was doing some relevant research but that I should drop the racial and sexual topics because I would not get promoted to a full professor doing such research. I was an associate professor using the strategy that I was doing enough to please my academic department and the other publications would be tolerated.

I was publishing more than anyone in the department and I felt I deserved to be a full professor. The most important judge of my work has always been me. What did I do? I went to my dean and said I wanted to change departments to Counseling and Personnel Services. Realize that I had had no coursework in either area. I was working in a counseling center, but as a researcher. Over the objections of some profs in the new department, the new department head took me in and eventually I made full prof, but it took a dean to override the promotion committee decision based on my range of odd-topic publications. I was prepared never to be promoted rather than to study what interested others.

So basically I have prospered in higher education by following my interests and making them fit the system. I was always prepared not to be rewarded by the system, but I assumed I could make a living doing something. This freed me up not to worry about it. As I got better and better at my job people published my work, paid me to consult, and most would say I have been successful. I realize that I was lucky to have been where I was at a time when I could act the way I did and succeed. Would such a stance work now? I am not sure, but I would be willing to try if I were to start over.

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One Response to “What is It Like to Have Been an Academic?”

  1. This essay is a joy to read. It is honest and human. It nicely points to the unspoken rules of tenure and promotion then and possibly today.

    09/13/2013 at 5:59 pm