The three life stages of an academic author

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Chris Smith

Chris Smith explains why they matter, and how publishers and universities can benefit 

Academic authors are more than just content creators. They’re people with values, personal drivers, blocks and pressures. Understanding why academics write and how they do it is critical to publishing productivity – and that’s something that researchers, universities and publishers all have a vested interest in.

In 2018 we surveyed 600 academic authors and asked them questions about their writing process: how they write, what pressures and blocks they face, and how satisfied they are with their writing and publishing productivity. We did this to inform the development our coaching services for academic writers and to gain a better insight into how scholars write and publish at different stages of their careers. 

Designed and analysed in collaboration with academic and publishing partners, our findings indicate that scholarly authors go through three different stages throughout a career – think of them like turning points where people experience similar motivators and barriers to writing and publishing productivity. 

Publishers and scholarly institutions do an amazing job at supporting authors but it’s only by understanding these stages that they can design better, more tailored author services which not only improve support for individuals but help them attract the best research talent and improve ranking, student engagement and retention.    

Three areas really stood out:

Early career researchers (ECRs) need help tackling the psychological barriers they have to writing and publishing – not just the technical ones 

ECRs experience the most acute and stressful writing blocks and barriers of their careers. Academics with up to five years’ scholarly writing experience struggle most with ‘psychological’ barriers such as procrastination, negative emotions, feelings of self-doubt, low self-esteem and overwhelm and these blocks are linked strongly to high levels of dissatisfaction. Whilst many at early career stage also struggle with the more technical aspects of writing (such as a lack of familiarity with the peer-review system) these barriers are nowhere near as anxiety-inducing as the psychological blockers they face.  

While the research finds that productivity systems and effective writing practices can be learned at any age, it understandably found that ECRs are far less likely to have developed them than those with more experience. Many ECRs struggle to adopt a regular writing pattern and feel isolated and alone in a scholarly system that offers little help beyond technical writing assistance.  

With half of doctoral students in the US dropping out of college before they graduate (it’s 85% for some UK PhD programs) and a reported 53% of UK academics suffering with stress-induced mental illness, this is a troubling finding and one that should make those involved with researcher development stop and think. Whilst many universities and academic publishers support ECRs to navigate the technical aspects of writing – could they do more to help them with the more challenging psychological aspects too.  

Mid-career scholarly authors need more holistic support to manage their time better – inside and outside of the university

Academics in the middle stages of their careers – those with between six to 15 years of scholarly writing experience – feel the most burdened by the growing and broadening pressures of academic life. Whilst ECRs’ anxiety and dissatisfaction is acute, it’s often very focused on learning the ropes of a particular discipline or around a specific research project. As academics progress in their careers, the source of their anxiety dissipates and becomes generalised in nature, appearing to originate from multiple sources – inside and outside the institution. 

We find that at mid-career, academic authors are often challenged most by time-management barriers and by getting stuck on a particular project. Often, the tactics authors have used in the past (at ECR stage) no longer work perhaps due to job changes, new management responsibilities or teaching/marking workload. Whilst psychological blockers to writing are still experienced, these are less intense and become replaced by feelings of being ‘constantly interrupted’ and ‘having no time’. At this stage, academics know what they want to write – they just don’t have the space to do it and this causes stress. 

Also, people at mid-career stage start to experience demands from outside the workplace. ‘Family responsibilities’ feature highly as a barrier to writing and publishing suggesting that publishers and institutions might wish to consider a more holistic response to researcher development and work-life balance policies. Mid-career academics rarely need technical writing support, but they do need the space, time-management and prioritisation techniques to help them achieve a better balance between writing, their day job and their life.  

Late-career academics want to leave a legacy and want more freedom to write books

The majority of writing pressures and barriers drop away from academics at the later stages of a career – but many still have needs that institutions and publishers would benefit from being attuned to. Between 16 to 25 years’ academic writing experience, authors ease-off writing and publishing any form of content that they don’t personally gain from. 

While mid-career is dominated by writing things linked to career progression like journal articles, conference papers and grant-reports, late-career scholars decrease their focus on producing this type of content. In late career, the focus turns to writing books, monographs, book chapters and creative fiction – all forms of writing linked to high levels of satisfaction. We also find that at late career, academics place a higher emphasis on writing blogs, trade journalism, op-ed style pieces. All of which suggests that legacy and thought leadership is becoming increasingly important to them. 

Understanding the motivations of highly cited scholars and giving them more freedom to write long-form whilst at the same time, leveraging their wish to leave a legacy might better equip publishers to attract their talents. Perhaps publishers can sell them on the enjoyment, professional freedom and profile they will gain through working with them? And once an author is part of your stable, how could you leverage their desire to be considered a ‘thought leader’?

Understand the ‘why’ of writing

Our findings should matter to universities, libraries and publishers because by understanding how and why academics’ motivations and barriers change throughout a career, they can be targeted, incentivised and supported more effectively – and this can bring benefits all round. 

Now we know ECRS struggle most acutely with psychological barriers to writing, author services can be adapted and widened to prevent early career burn out. By understanding that mid-career scholars feel under intense pressures from workplace overload and family responsibilities, support services can be broadened to be more holistic in nature. And by appreciating that late career scholars have different motivations from earlier on in their career, publishers and institutions can be smarter about how they attract and retain the top talent.  

Chris Smith is co-founder of Prolifiko