Intellect and Discipline: The Keys to a Successful Academic Career

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

From: http://diverseeducation.wordpress.com/2009/06/09/intellect-and-discipline-the-keys-to-a-successful-academic-career/ (accessed 9 November 2011)

I have a good friend who is the most brilliant individual I know.  He has a mind that most of us would kill for — at least most academics would.  He is well-read, possessing a deep, almost stunning, knowledge of diverse subjects.  He thinks in innovative and refreshing ways.  He also has the “proper” educational background to succeed as a professor.  In fact, given what is often valued in society, he could go just about anywhere with his three Ivy League degrees.  What is the problem you might ask?  He lacks discipline!  He is fascinated by everything, yet easily bored.

I typically feel confident in my intellect.  However, I did have a professor in graduate school once tell me, “Marybeth, you may not be the smartest person, but you work harder than anyone I know.”  Of course, he was probably right no matter how much the comment stung.  He had a point now that I think about it.  One can be wonderfully, almost beautifully intelligent, but it doesn’t amount to much unless you are disciplined. 

Often students and faculty members will ask me — “How on earth can you be so productive?”  The secret is discipline.  As an academic, you must find time to write and I have learned over the course of my career that you need to compartmentalize your days.  There is always something to do — ideas to explore — and your work will spill over into every aspect of your life if you let it.

Work expands (read that in a book once and firmly believe it).  So, what do I do?  I write every day but Saturday.  During the week, I usually begin at 9 a.m. and write (and do research) until roughly 2 p.m.  I schedule all meetings and teaching after 2 p.m. unless absolutely necessary. On Sundays, I write in the evenings after my daughter goes to sleep.  I’m not saying everyone needs to do this — but you need a routine, you need discipline.

Why this writing schedule and why this discipline?  As I explained to another good friend the other day, most academics have a mission that they work toward fulfilling — they live life for a bigger reason than themselves.  I am one of these folks.  I don’t live merely for material possessions, but instead I thrive on the exploration of ideas and the solving of problems.  I consider research a mystery and writing the pathway to solving a mystery.  I am not a dreamer but a doer!  Without this kind of passion and discipline, intellect will get you and more importantly, society nowhere. 

I tell my doctoral students, as well as those masters and undergraduate students interested in a faculty career, that crafting a workable routine that is rooted in discipline will help them succeed.  Having a sense of discipline also means knowing when to say “no” — this is especially important for women and people of color who tend to be asked more than others to do service-related work in the academy.  Having discipline also means learning how much time to spend on teaching and advising.  These areas are probably my favorite part of my job, but I realized long ago that being productive in terms of publications gives you a stronger voice in the academy — a voice that leads to more freedom in the classroom and a greater ability to take care of and advocate for your students.

Lastly, discipline means knowing what you are good at and focusing on that area.  Too often academics try to be good at everything — becoming a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.  We forget that as professors we have a lifetime ahead of us to explore new ideas.  Focusing on a few ideas at a time — becoming an expert in one or two areas — works to our advantage.  Plus, no one likes a “know it all”!

So back to my friend mentioned at the beginning of this post.  I am working diligently to help him increase his level of discipline.  I’m modeling good behavior.  Hoping that the issue is nurture not nature at play because “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008). (emphasis added).

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