Should you consider a career in academia?

Mike Pottenger


February 28th, 2014

Do you possess an insatiable thirst for knowledge? Mike Pottenger recounts his journey to becoming an academic and shares a few valuable pointers for anyone considering doing the same.

This article was featured as part of Equilibrium 2013, our annual print publication.

Consider the conventional pleasantry, so often delivered after exchanging names: “And what do you do?” I love my work, but this is not always a question that is easy to answer, particularly given the tendency for people to associate a person’s job with their identity and to perhaps expect an answer that categorises what someone is rather than an actual description of what they do. I can reasonably claim to be a teacher, a political economist, a researcher, a policy analyst – the list of things I do as part of (or that is associated with) my day-to-day work is long. The simplest, most general answer, I suppose, is that I’m an academic.

After conducting a longitudinal survey with an n of one, I’ve formulated a list of a range of common questions that people tend to follow up with (assuming they don’t quietly retreat into the crowd after hearing my first answer). In no particular order, here are my answers to them, along with some comments on how they may be of relevance to any of you considering postgraduate study or an academic career in research and/or teaching.

I’ve been thinking of doing a PhD myself. Do you think it’s worth it?

Fair warning: I really enjoyed doing my PhD and (were it not for the time involved and that fact that it could well be counterproductive to my career prospects at this stage) would even happily consider the idea of doing another. To someone who hasn’t done a PhD, this sounds weird. To someone who has, it often sounds suicidal. But the reasons why repeating the process doesn’t repel me might help shed some light on what a PhD can offer, for those considering doing one.

The opportunity to work with an academic that I respected and liked on a topic and with ideas that we both found interesting and important was fundamental in making my PhD, a genuinely enjoyable experience. The tip there, then, is to try and find a supervisor with a clear shared research interest and preferably one that you get along with (bearing in mind that neither of these bits of information are always easily obtained). I also know from the experiences of others that poor relationships with their supervisors have often been among the biggest problems they have faced.

Ultimately, I found the rigour and depth of analysis in a PhD satisfying, if often exhausting. Like any form of strenuous exercise, giving your brain a thorough workout would often leave me tired, but feeling like I was now prepared for a bigger challenge, and that I had achieved something important, testing my own limits. After tackling so many short essays and projects and reports throughout my undergraduate degree, the chance to really sink my teeth into a topic, to read both broadly and deeply, was incredibly satisfying. It’s a difficult balancing act – you need to be careful not to run off on too many tangents in your research, but it was rewarding. In my experience (again, small sample size!) I’d say that doing a PhD virtually requires that you like getting into the zone and focusing on one project at the exclusion of everything else.

While there are some fields and occupations in which doing a PhD is a big plus, if not a requirement (academia itself being an obvious example), I’d recommend regarding a PhD as something you should do out of interest in the topic first and foremost. If approached purely as a box to be checked on an academic transcript or a CV, it can very quickly become a really big grind.

What sort of research do you do, and how did you end up in that field?

As an undergrad I was fascinated by the links between economics and politics, but was simultaneously frustrated that there were so few subjects that focused on those. The opportunity to conduct my own research on a topic of my own choosing that combined the two was too good to pass up.

That topic ended up being the problems of corruption and organised crime and the nature of markets for illegal goods and services. It was an area which was relevant to the different majors I had developed as an undergraduate, and had the advantage of being a relatively interesting topic for other people, too, so it was usually easy enough to find other people to discuss ideas with or collaborate with. Given the scale and scope of the market and its consequences and the policy problems it presents, the market for illegal narcotics quickly became a focus for my research.

I also have a more broad interest in the methods and practices of the disciplines I spend my time reading and writing in. The importance of replication in science, for example, began as a general interest and concern before becoming central to some of my research projects.

Based on my experience, if anyone were asking for advice on how to identify or develop a research interest I’d recommend they start by reading widely about the topics and ideas they find challenging and engaging. Then, work to develop questions that you can attempt to answer using the skills and techniques you’ve developed. If it requires a new set of skills, dive in to learning those – there’s no better way to learn that when it’s motivated by an interest in solving a problem or answering a question.

What made you decide to be an academic?

Saccharine as it may sound, I’ve ended up doing what I do because I kept chasing the opportunity to do things that I enjoyed. Finding and discussing new ideas and theories, and working out how they can be used to make a difference in reality, for example. University had given me the opportunity to start seeing study as far more than just learning a specific fact or theory, and to see research for what it is – an ongoing process of trying to refine and question a particular approach to understanding the world. Once hooked, it was difficult to stop.

As far as the teaching goes, although statistics was to me a research tool rather than a potential discipline for my own research, as an undergraduate I had the chance to tutor an econometrics subject and leapt at it. Teaching gives you an opportunity to show others the things about an idea or topic that make it compelling or important – to find explanations and examples that make complex ideas more accessible, understandable, and usable. Statistics was a good field to cut my teeth in precisely because it is something students often expect won’t be accessible or interesting. Finding ways to change this is tough, but rewarding.

So for anyone contemplating a career as an academic I’d recommend considering whether those are things that will drive you. If the very process of learning and applying new concepts and ideas, and/or of helping others to see the power of those ideas, and pushing yourself to constantly find better ways to do both, then academia may well be an option for you. Making sure that you’re driven by something like this is vital given that – like all jobs – there are plenty of other, more mundane aspects to the work, and academia isn’t exactly a boom industry.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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