The wrong kind of academic

Happy New Year peeps!

This is my first new post in a while, after taking a year long career break to be a full time parent carer. During my year off I came out as being autistic and having ADHD. Identifying as being neurodivergent is a topical issue at the moment and lots of people are sharing similar stories to mine. Having open and honest discussions around the impact of neurodivergence is the first step towards improving the lives of those who need support or simply acceptance and understanding.

Over the coming months, I am going to post about neuroinclusion and accessibility in academia. My aim is to engage with others who feel similar to me, and have positive discussions around how we can improve support and career retention, and remove barriers to progression that stem from being neurodivergent.

This week I have been thinking about aspects of research (and academia) that I find the most challenging and trying to drill down into the specifics of where I need support. And if I had an academic mentor to guide me through my career, how could they help? The criteria for promotion through the academic ranks are grouped into three broad categories that cover an academics professional standing in the research community, academic outputs (impact, publications, grants etc) and contribution to leadership in academia. Its sensible to assume that these are the main achievements that are deemed necessary to be a successful academic.

Reading through the criteria I realised that there isn’t necessarily one area that I find difficult to achieve. It is the intrinsic need to collaborate for success in all of the activities. And I find collaboration hard – it is the one aspect of autism and ADHD that really challenge me in my role.

Academic collaboration frequently involves working in a team environment with ill defined roles, leadership and boundaries and many invested individuals with no clear workload allocation. Some people will thrive in this flexible working space and will naturally lead the pack and ensure their ideas are heard. Being autistic makes this situation incredibly challenging for me. I thrive with clear and transparent communication, fair division of work and well defined tasks. My natural response is to withdraw, from conversations, from meetings, and eventually from projects. Many times I have left fantastic projects where I had been central to their development because I felt an overwhelming need to run away and hide from the complexities of the collaboration that eventually built up around me.

The impact on my career has been significant in so many ways. Surprisingly, colleagues never ask why, just assume I lost interest and go on without me. I lose publications, I lose the time that I spent building a project where I didn’t benefit academically, and I lose confidence in myself every time this happens. My natural default is now to focus on small scale projects, maybe where I see a gap in the provision, or usually just something that I find exciting and fun. Almost always projects that I can run independently with my amazing students. And this is where the benefits of ADHD can really help because I have an uncanny ability to generate ideas and combine existing stuff into new and exciting better stuff. This is where I thrive and when I am most productive. So it seems I get to be a happy academic, but just not a successful one.

Does this resonate with any other academics? And if so how do you break that glass ceiling and manage the complexities of research collaborations? Please get in touch or comment below if you want to chat!

I’m going to sign off with a bit of crochet. I made the piece below when I was having a spectacularly low day… and feeling like a bit of a misfit, hence its called the wrong kind of leaf. But Homer Simpson always cheers me up so its a fab piece in all.

A flat piece of crochet that depicts a brown tree branch, with six different coloured leaves hanging from the branch. On one of the branches a crochet emblem of the cartoon character Homer Simpson is hanging in place of a leaf. The image is called 'the wrong kind of leaf'
The wrong kind of leaf

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