The #ECRchat that I hosted last week started off with a poll full of options about professional development for the early career researcher, and it ended in a tie for topics, which I don’t think has ever happened before! As I’d done more thought about managing career expectations, we went with that; learning and developing leadership skills will be the topic of a future chat.
Managing career expectations was a topic I wanted to look at because there is often a tendency for ECRs to think about this as an internally-focused process, where one adjusts one’s own expectations of what might happen in the future. However, in the business world, managing expectations is all about how you relate to other people, both customers and colleagues, rather than some kind of self-policing mechanism. I wanted to see what happened if we applied this idea to the ECR sphere, whether it could be helpful for us to think with, and what insights considering the idea of managing expectations would generate.
We started the chat by thinking about what managing expectations is, and where those expectations come from. The idea of the disconnect between the ideal and the reality felt like a central part of this, as did the way that expectation gaps create disappointment. People felt there was a fine balance between aiming high and accepting the realities of one’s situation – including, perhaps, that certain things just wouldn’t work for you as an individual. Digging a bit deeper, we identified plenty of places where expectations come from – the job specification, your department, your university, disciplinary norms, ourselves, our families, the norms of (senior) colleagues, search committees, your PhD supervisor, funding bodies, and students. Being aware that expectations sometimes come from outside, and that this means we have the power to decide whether we want to sign up to them, seemed an important take-home point here.
After thinking about where expectations come from, we considered how we might find out what those expectations are before it’s too late to engage with them. There were lots of possibilities – considering the needs of the stakeholders in your projects, for example, or talking to colleagues to work out how the expectations of you on paper might play out in practice. The key message which came from this section of the chat was the importance of communication to make sure that you knew what people were after, and could adjust your behaviour accordingly. This also held true when we thought about how to go about managing those expectations – honesty, clarity, straightforwardness and a dose of humour seemed the sensible way to go! Participants also flagged up the importance of being willing to say ‘no’ if an expectation was genuinely at odds with other things which also needed doing. It felt as if some personal thought was needed here too, to work out what your career priorities were and how they fitted into the expectations of the institution, so you could balance the two accordingly – but it felt very difficult to make a satisfying plan without knowing the shape of all these jigsaw pieces.
We closed by thinking about how we might use expectations for our advantage rather than as coercion. Some suggestions including making sure that we know expectations so we can show how we are meeting them during performance reviews; using them to gain opportunities that might not otherwise be available; making them a tool to point out where your potential isn’t being fully developed or used; and using them as part of the networking process to discover more about your field and what’s going on in it.
If you’d like to read more from the chat, the Storified tweets are here.