This article is more than 1 year old

Why an identity clash means practitioners can struggle as academics

Great practitioners can struggle to fit in as academics. Jacqueline Baxter explores what the research says can help them
This article is more than 1 year old

Jacqueline Baxter is Professor of Public Policy and Management at the Open University Business School.

For most universities employing good practitioners to teach on vocational courses such as business, social work, nursing or teaching, is part of business as usual.

But are we taking for granted their ability to settle in and make sense of their new environment?

There are huge difficulties faced in the shift from practitioner to academic/pracademic and there are things we can do that will affect that transition in a more coherent way, avoiding academic staff attrition.

Practice made perfect

The emphasis on knowledge exchange and impact in academia means that it is more vital than ever that our vocational courses are delivered by recent or current practitioners. Law, business, social work, nursing, teaching and policing, are just some of the fields HE draws upon when staffing vocational modules.

But research illustrates that this is not unproblematic and that many of these practitioners leave after a short while, unable to effectively make the transition. So why do they leave and is there anything we can do to make their transition from practice to academia, any easier ?

All practitioners have certain assumptions about entering academia, feelings and ideas about what it means to be an academic in higher education today. But academia is not an easy job to explain to those outside of its hallowed halls. In addition, there are many different ways to be an academic, as Bruce McFarlane’s research illustrates.

Values that were core to someone’s professional career may not be in alignment with an academic role and research indicates that whilst some practitioners have the ability to carve out an academic career that more or less satisfies their core values and purpose, others fail to do so. This, over time, leads to feelings of anomie and professional isolation and unless resolved; attrition.

Not how we do things around here

Many professionals come to academia as a last hurrah in a glittering career. Envisaging it as a less stressful place to end their working lives, away from the hurly-burly and fire-fighting of the working environment. But as we know , this is far from reality. Most UK universities are high pressure environments with a whole raft of cultural norms that remain hidden to outsiders. “How we do things around here” can be culturally alienating , and not many academic inductions address the hidden elements of the cultural landscape that can prove barriers to the uninitiated.

One of the key challenges is that, after having been a highly effective practitioner and built a professional identity around this, transitioning individuals find it challenging to attain the same level of competence and respect in the new role. This is even more challenging when the new role engenders new skills and competencies. Research I carried out with lecturers transitioning to online working, found similar issues, one particularly memorable quote, sums up the challenges very effectively:

I felt like I was skipping before, now I feel I am plodding….I am no longer the driver, but a bit of a passenger.

Mentoring and coaching are powerful ways to address this often painful transition. Mentoring that is done well, can help practitioners to find their place within the organisation giving a sense of the cultural landscape as well as the hints and tips that help to oil the wheels of working life. Whilst coaching, particularly team coaching can offer a safe space for individuals to explore their new identities and feelings, away from business as usual, as research into new NHS doctors supports.

The value of coaching

Coaching has been found to aid sensemaking frameworks, and revisioning individuals sometimes unhelpful personal understandings of the situation. It has also been revealed to be effective in integrating multiple identities, helping individuals to feel more agency in their work and personal lives. Links between coaching and successful transition from practitioner to leader are well documented, whilst the world of sport offers some interesting insights from transitions from player to coach

The cost of identity failure, for higher education, is high, leading to demotivation, high levels of stress and eventual attrition which is problematic for both students and providers alike, so finding a practical solution to help overcome these issues is key.

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