I recently had the opportunity to cover an event at the University of Cape Town, where Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng (aka Fab Academic on Twitter and Instagram) shared some career advice with postgraduate students.
While I long ago closed the chapter on pursuing any kind of academic career, I found a wealth of wisdom in the VC’s address, which can be applied to any professional path you choose to follow.
Here are my top five takeaways:
Invest in relationships
We’ve all heard the old adage: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
People often tend to use this phrase with a slightly negative spin, suggesting that you’ll never get ahead unless you’re super well-connected. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate.
Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s really more about nurturing the key relationships you’ll inevitably build throughout your career – from the teacher who invested time and energy to help you excel at school to the boss’s boss at your current job.
Phakeng confirmed this when she said: “Relationships are the biggest thing that you need in your career and sometimes we neglect that.”
“You can always wage a war, by the way. There is always a reason for war. ALWAYS. But you’ve got to decide which battles you are going to pick and which not.
Because no one succeeds on their own.”
I’ve found this to be true many times throughout my writing career – while there are certain things I’ll fight tooth-and-nail for no matter what, causing drama over other things (especially when they’re informed by a hurt ego more than a moral compass or breach of integrity), is simply not worth the potential damage it may cause to the relationship in question.
Another important tip Phakeng shared in this regard is to find a mentor – or maybe even a team of mentors – to help navigate the ups and downs of your career.
As someone who is often approached by potential mentees, the VC also had some good advice on how to make sure that these super important relationships flourish instead of dwindle:
“Find a mentor and make that relationship work. It’s not your mentor that’s going to make it work. You’ve got to make it work.
You’ve got to support your mentor as much as they support you. People always treat mentors as if they’re tools. But they are human beings and they have feelings and need ego stroking as much as you do.
You want a good outcome of your mentor-mentee relationship? You decide on the agenda. You must set up the appointments, the agenda. You must drive it and you must make me miss you!”
Embrace your naivety
Most of us really hate not knowing things. Right? Like nobody wants to be the dumb-dumb in the room. The airhead everyone snickers about by the watercooler.
That’s understandable and, of course, we should make it our aim to know as much as possible about whatever the field is we are working in.
However, we don’t need to know everything. I repeat: IT’S OKAY NOT TO KNOW EVERYTHING.
I loved this one story Phakeng shared about a conference she attended as a postgraduate student:
“Naivety can be a beautiful thing.
Before I started my PhD, I was once invited to an international conference where they invited me to give a plenary in which I had to respond to a paper who – at the time was considered to be the guru of his field, eethnomathematics. The GOD of the discipline, so to speak.
Since I didn’t really work in this field, I didn’t realise that this guy held this elevated status. They gave me the papers and said you are going to give a plenary response on the first day of the conference.
I took this job so seriously. I broke it down, offered a critique, offered recommendations. People were so shocked and thought WOW! Who could dare to do that?
But it was naivety. I didn’t have anyone to bow down to, because I didn’t know that they needed bowing down to.”
Since hearing this story, I’ve changed my attitude towards my own ignorance and now choose to see it as naivety instead. A small shift in terms, but a hugely positive one nonetheless.
Especially in my journalistic work – interviewing people about topics that go way over my head or writing profiles – I’ve found that ‘leaning into’ the things I don’t know much about and asking the questions I might have been afraid to ask before can lead to some really great answers, which in turn lead to much more interesting articles.
Set critical benchmarks for yourself
I’ve never been much of a planner or strategist. Instead, I’ve always relied heavily on intuition, key relationships (see point one) and strokes of good luck to guide me along my career path.
While it seems a reckless approach to take, it’s really served pretty well so far.
However, as I’ve been transitioning from ‘just starting out’ to what I guess would be termed as a ‘mid-career professional’, new opportunities don’t come a-knocking as hard and fast as they used to, which means I run the risk of falling into comfort zones or stagnating in certain roles.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to keep tabs on myself to ensure that I keep growing. This can be rather challenging when, like me, you’ve rejected the idea of the corporate ladder and need to find other ways in which to measure your success.
In her address to UCT’s postgraduate students, Phakeng used the term ‘critical benchmarks’, which immediately resonated.
For those pursuing an academic career, critical benchmarks would be things like getting a PhD, having work published in high-quality journals, finding a select number of conferences to contribute to on an annual basis and supervising postgraduate students.
I haven’t quite figured out what the critical benchmarks will be for my writing career going forward, but I sure am glad Prof Phakeng focused my attention on their importance.
As she said in her conclusion:
“Success is not a destination. We never get there. We keep working at it, hard. Keep going. Because the minute you think you’ve arrived, mediocrity sets in.”
Find a way to be socially responsive
One of the critical benchmarks the VC mentioned for those pursuing an academic career was: Having an impact on community education.
“You figure out in your field what that means. Don’t ignore it.
In my view, it invigorated my research. That’s how I got to know what are the problems on the ground. It lead to the next question and the next question in my research.
I don’t think my research would have grown as it did, if I didn’t keep in contact with the community on the ground.”
Living in a society as complex and troubled as South Africa, I feel like this rings true for all of us, no matter where or how we ply our trade.
If we are lucky enough to have a successful career, we should be investing in some kind of community initiative – even if it’s only vaguely related.
For my fellow writers, this could be seeking out projects/stories that have some kind of social impact, offering your services free of charge to organisations whose work aligns with your own values or even volunteering your time at one of the amazing literacy organisations at work in our country.
I used to volunteer with Help2Read for a short while a few years ago but then had to stop when I started a full-time job again. Now that I am in charge of managing my own time again, I should really pick up where I left off.
Never underestimate the impression you make
Finally, Phakeng advised the postgraduates not to shrink back from opportunities and not to dim their own shine – even when they’re the least experienced person in the room.
As someone who regularly suffers from imposter syndrome in almost every aspect of my life, that struck quite the chord.
“I got my first international keynote invitation before I graduated with a PhD and it was simply because people were seeing me at conferences and I was asking questions.
Plus, still today, I’ll always sit in front, never at the back, because I’m always scared they won’t see me.
Make the most of the opportunities you have, because you just never know when other people might recognise you and your talents.”
She also recalled how one of the groundbreaking opportunities in her career came about due to the impression her Master’s thesis made on the external moderator who marked it.
He was a professor based in New Zealand and made contact with Phakeng with an offer to spend some time doing research at Auckland University.
“So, never underestimate the work that you do, whether it’s your Masters, a presentation, in a conference when you’re not presenting. But if you do it well, you just never know!
None of these opportunities come because of favour, it comes from the work that you do, if you do it honestly and well and show up.”
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever received?