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Q&A with Rena Seltzer: Women Professors Balancing Work, Life, and Academia

There is a pressing need for supportive literature for women professors.

Academics are hungry for models and advice, especially:

  • Parents and others with family caregiving responsibilities
  • Professors whose institutions have upped the bar to achieve tenure
  • Women facing conscious or unconscious biases related to their gender, race, or ethnicity; and
  • Women who hold endowed chairs or serve as deans or department chairs who have “made it” by every external measure, but who are overwhelmed by their overflowing calendars.

Women in academia are under intense pressure to write, publish, and bring in external funding while maintaining strong course evaluations and serving their departments and professional organizations. Outside of the academic sphere, they are often caring for children, aging parents, or other family members. Today’s professors are not willing to give up a vibrant personal life in order to have a successful career, they want it all – a robust and meaningful career, interpersonal connections, and even time to exercise and relax.

In her new book, The Coach’s Guide for Women Professors, Rena Seltzer covers topics including work/life balance, networking and navigating the academic landscape.

In this interview, she shares her experience in higher education and explains how she got into coaching other female academics.


Q: How did you get started coaching academics?

A: I happened into a coach-training course for mental health professionals. Shortly after finishing the training, I attended a fundraiser where I met a professor who was very stressed about how she was going to finish her book in time to get tenure. As we spoke, I became excited because I realized that with my new coaching skills, I could help her to reach her goal. She became one of my first coaching clients.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: Several clients told me that they were excited to find something that would speak to their lives, but then were discouraged that there were not more examples of women succeeding on the tenure track. I concluded that the women succeeding in those careers did not have time to write about it – but I did.

Q: Were there any lessons or realizations in the writing process?

A: The wonderful thing about writing this book was that I had the benefit of years of talking with academic writers, and hearing what worked for them. I was grateful to know all the strategies that worked for my clients, and I used every one of them. My friends frequently commented, “Isn’t that ironic that you are dealing with the same issues that you help others with?” After my initial inclination to tell my friends, “Ef You – I know that,” I realized how valuable it was to experience this process from the other side, and really “get” – right down to my bones, what my clients are experiencing. I reminded myself that an imperfect book that people can use is better than a perfect “castle-in-the air” book that never comes out. And it worked!

Q: A June New York Times Op-ed urged women to stop apologizing. What other advice do you have for women who want to be taken seriously?

A: There are some situations in which apologies function effectively to soften the tone and increase cooperation. The problem is when women don’t also have practice with more authoritative speech conventions. Hedges (perhaps we might) and questions (I wonder if maybe we should) imply that one is open to feedback, but convey less authority. I invite women to role-play situations such as holding one’s ground through an interruption, and find the methods that work best for each person.

Q: Is it easier for men to find mentors?

A: Women are often given a great deal of mentoring in terms of career advice, but men are more likely to have sponsors, people with real power within the organization who recommend them for promotions or otherwise advocate on their behalf. I encourage women to stretch themselves to connect with people who may be less approachable, but have real power to support their careers. It also helps to think broadly about a support network, because one person cannot offer everything you need.

Q: What do you hope women in academia can take away from the book?

A: I hope that my readers will take heart in reading the stories of academics just like themselves, and realize that they don’t need to waste their time feeling guilty or embarrassed, because these struggles are very normal and human even for the most successful academics.


Rena Seltzer is the founder of the coaching and training business, Leader Academic. Over the past decade, Leader Academic has specialized in coaching and workshops for professors and academic leaders. Follow her on Twitter at @renacoaches. For more about The Coach’s Guide for Women Professors contact Stylus Publishing .

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