Intellect and Discipline: The Keys to a Successful Academic Career

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

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).

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5 responses to “Intellect and Discipline: The Keys to a Successful Academic Career

  1. Good article. It’s so hard to write, prepare for classes and have a life. Sometimes I’m paralyzed by all the classwork, publishing and administrative duties I have on my plate. Thanks Dr. Gasman.

  2. Good article. I resonate with these comments because this summer I have wondered if I lacked discipline but I know that is not the case. I am tired, want respect, and need to be reminded of my purpose. That is why I am at the Association of Black Psychologists’ convention in Atlanta.

    I am starting my 3rd year as an assistant professor and will go for retention this fall. I find that the schedule of academic is deceptive in the amount of down time compared to my work for 10 years as a school psychologist. For example, I took up surfing and go 1 time a week during the AM. Your comment, “most academics have a mission that they work toward fulfilling — they live life for a bigger reason than themselves” resonated with me because without that purpose “discipline” can too often turn into oppression. In the sense a new professor can easily ask, “why am I subjecting myself to this?” At a presentation today by Drs. John Queener, Juanita K. Martin, and Pamela Farer-Singleton from the University of Ohio, we discussed the experiences of Black female graduate students. Interestingly enough the presenters also found that Black male graduate students in psychology were leaving their university and were often so angry with the process due to ego issues such as “respect”. Black men, I am one, have a strong an ego response. I could go on for a whole book about things I perceive as an assault to my ego in academia as a student and academic, however I might quit if I start cataloging my challenges. Words like “discipline” and “motivation” are meaningless without purpose. Perhaps, rather than discipline, your friend needs clarity in his purpose. Once I found that I began writing an article a month. Prior to that I was a master of none.

    Also, you can not underestimate direct support from the department and dean in increasing productivity. A lack of discipline for a minority man who is an academic is not likely the issue. A catalog of success that brought to his position as a professor may help him gain momentum. I call my mama or look at my 7th grade report card when I flunked out of math, and I remember the young people I am there to help. Again, a lack of purpose as well as perceived lack of support can look like lack of discipline but it is deeper than that. As I heard one person say it today at the Association of Black Psychologists’ convention, “we get all these degrees and think we get the respect we deserve but there are more hoops… GRE, qualifying exams, licenses, retention, tenure… Will we ever get respect.” Ask Dr. Gates about that respect piece. For the male ego sometimes that never ending climb is too much without clarity of purpose to take one step at a time. The summit of respect in academia for Black folks is too often an illusion. As “minorities” our communities should be our barometer of respect, they are our purpose. If I don’t earn tenure then I am can’t help my people gain access to higher ed. I have to succeed. Without the purpose we appear to others as lacking discipline when it is our soul that is letting us know that something is misaligned in our purpose. The productivity must increase for your friend, however without purpose that will be meaningless.

    Hope this helps. I know I felt a bit of catharsis articulating my situation.

    Peace & Health,
    Brandon E. Gamble, Ed.D.
    Long Beach, CA

  3. Correction: If I don’t earn tenure then I can’t help my people gain access to higher ed.

  4. Michael Dumas

    Marybeth, thanks for this article. It is the summertime, which is also often the time that we anticipate getting more writing done, and reflect on our progress on a range of projects. I have to second Brandon’s point: the cornerstone for discipline is clarity of purpose. And as Brandon makes clear, this isn’t simply a call for a bulleted list of professional objectives, but a sense of one’s vocation–that is, one’s life calling. Inherent in discipline must be joy. If we are not joyful, we should not just hunker down and do the work. We must search for the source of our joy. Then we can develop what we might call “joyful intention,” which will be the spiritual or emotional energy to power our action.

    In my experience as a new Black male assistant professor, I found my colleagues all too willing to tell me what I ought to be doing, what I ought to be researching, how I ought to conceptualize what it means to be in the academy. I thought the task was to sit and strategize my way to tenure, as they had done.

    Strategizing has its place, but for me, the breakthrough happens when I start claiming the power of my words to transform everyday discourses, practices, policies, lives. Black people can be freer, happier–we all can be freer and happier–because of something I am meant to create and share. How exciting is that?! How joyous is that?!

    The world needs our words. How blessed we are to have this opportunity…

    Peace and Joy,

    Michael J. Dumas, Ph.D.
    Long Beach, CA

  5. Joy! Thank you Michael for the reminder.

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