Lost in Academia: 6 Tips for Creating Your Own Road Map

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Lost in Academia: 6 Tips for Creating Your Own Road Map

“You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”
— Yogi Berra

“We’re all pilgrims on the same journey-but some pilgrims have better road maps.”
— Nelson DeMille


  • image“My advisor is nice enough but non-directive.”
  • “They don’t name what you should be doing.  I get the feeling they know, but just don’t want to tell you.”
  • “I don’t know if I’ve published enough to get tenure.”

I’ve heard comments like these hundreds of times from academics at all levels, from grad students to professors.  Complaints about the lack of road maps, guidance and direction in academic departments don’t just come from the occasional uninformed person.  Such confusion is part and parcel of the ambiguous academic system.  And it results in stress and misery.

Why does it matter that academics are unclear about how to reach their academic goals?  Research by Barbara Lovitts (Leaving the Ivory Tower) shows that the quality of the “cognitive map” that graduate students have early in their career predicts whether they will persevere with their studies and indeed, whether they will leave academia altogether.

The more knowledge you have of the route ahead of you, including the main highways, the local routes and the dead ends, the farther you will get (and the more painlessly and quickly) in your academic career.

How do you create a road map when your advisor, mentor, department chair, or university doesn’t provide one for you?  Here are some tips to help you avoid getting lost.


Be Proactive

The main reason for this article is to remind you that there are things you must know and steps you must take.  If you haven’t been given clear guidance yet, you must go out and find the answers yourself.

The one or two orientation sessions sometimes provided to new graduate students or new professors are usually not enough to truly orient you.  You need help early on, and on an ongoing basis.  It’s unlikely that one source will provide this for you, so continue to be proactive throughout your career.  Furthermore, keep consulting these same sources as you reach different stages of your career, since information that seemed unimportant earlier may be vital later on.


Read Books and Articles

Part of the problem is that you don’t even know what you don’t know, so you don’t know what to ask.  There are some excellent books available that give you a large-scale cognitive map of academia.

For grad students:  I particularly like Getting What You Came For, by Robert Peters, which is useful reading for new graduate students.  He does not assume previous knowledge, and is quite specific in such areas as how to choose and manage your dissertation committee.  A new release is Destination Dissertation: A Traveler’s Guide to a Done Dissertation, by Sonja K. Foss and William Waters.  This book uses traveling as a metaphor for the dissertation-writing process, and gives detailed steps for every mile of the journey.  For example, the authors lay out what might be called the “piles, envelopes and sticky note technique” for coding qualitative data, a task that often stumps grad students.

For professors:  Although the latest edition is 1994, Mentor in a Manual: Climbing the Academic Ladder to Tenure, by Clay Schoenfeld and Robert Magnan remains an important book for new professors.  This comprehensive text covers everything from the politics of your institution and department, to teaching, research and publishing, to creating your dossier for the tenure decision.  Another useful book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for Success in Your Academic Career, by Paul Gray and David Drew.  See the authors’ series of 4 articles in Inside Higher Ed, for a good taste of their insider’s advice.


Use Online Resources

TaDa! is a CD combined with an online resource, developed by Wendy Carter, that walks graduate students through the dissertation process.  Wendy’s monthly newsletter also does a good job of pointing you in the right direction.

Of course, stay tuned to my newsletter and read articles from our archives. Also, our new Club Wiki in the Academic Writing Club contains a wealth of advice and online resources.


Connect with Others and Ask Questions

imageConnections are everything in academia.  Get to know people and ask them questions about the process.  Don’t be hampered by thinking that you’re the only one who doesn’t know the answers, or that others don’t want to be bothered.  Most people new to the process don’t know these things, and most seasoned graduate students or professors are glad to share their knowledge.

The most quoted and venerated article on networking is by Phil Agre, and is called “Networking on the Network.”  I highly recommend that you read it.  As Agre states in his artcle, “people who do not learn to network are less likely to succeed.”

You might like to see this thread from the listserv of one of my faculty coaching groups about the basics of how to organize your tenure material – it’s a good example of the kind of insights you can get from talking to colleagues about the process of succeeding in academia.


Read and Review Guidelines

Don’t take for granted the information supplied to you when you’re a new grad student or professor.   Orientation sessions often occur at a time when you’re completely overwhelmed with the newness of your situation, and thus unable to absorb it all.  Once you’ve settled in, make sure that you

  • Read the information
  • Keep it in a handy place
  • Review it from time to time

Don’t wait until your 3rd year as a professor before you take a serious look at the tenure and promotion guidelines!


Start Your Own “Road Map” File

These tips and resources will help you get started creating your own personal road map to academic success.  As you learn more about what it takes to succeed, create both an electronic and a physical file in which you can store it all for easy access.  Whether you label the files “Road Map” or “Career Advice,” reviewing these files should be a regular part of your academic life.


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