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Career development in Universities: academic career trajectories

Published: 30 May 2024

Professor Yehuda Baruch, a global leader in career studies, brings a system perspective to exploring careers in various contexts. His recent study examined careers of university leaders, building on and expanding his Career Ecosystem Theory.

Rather than plan their career to reach the top, Professor Baruch’s findings showed that successful academics ‘just do it’. Career paths of university leaders were defined by a rising-star-start and rewarded for both their academic work and their service contribution. Universities should prioritise talent management to develop future leaders and optimise internal and external talent flow.

People start their career with certain ambitions, but only a few secure a major leadership position. Despite the growing significance of the higher education sector, there's limited literature on the career paths of university leaders. 

To learn about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of their career trajectories, interviews were conducted with over 50 leaders from the UK, France, and Vietnam. The findings support and expand multiple career theories by unveiling a multi-stage career trajectory. Progressing to a higher level depends on fulfilling criteria along the career path. The transition to an executive leadership is critical. Progress can be ‘accidental’, sponsored by influential colleagues. Both similarities and differences exist across national systems. 

Individual and institutional factors were identified which can explain career success and sustainability. However, there was an absence of involvement by Human Resource Management in talent management. 

I explore how academics navigate their career trajectories in this dynamic and challenging labour market.

Professor Yehuda Baruch

The impact of the study is theoretical: providing support and expanding the Career Ecosystem theory. 

At an institutional level, universities should create a supportive culture through openness, initiatives, and developmental training. They should offer opportunities to challenge, motivate, and inspire individuals as they advance to the top.

Importantly, HRM needs to be involved, for example, to create supportive interactions and produce conditions for the right people to be directed to the path to the top. 

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