“It is important to contribute to the world beyond academia!”

31. Juli 2021

What are the main ingredients for being a successful professor?

In my opinion, there are mainly three ingredients to be taken into consideration. First, research is key. Asking important and big questions and doing impactful research is crucial. It is a real privilege to have a great leeway to shape both academia and the real-world and to follow your curiosity! Second, teaching, mentoring, supervising, and taking responsibility for the next generation is amazing and one of the greatest joys of this job. Third, you have to ask yourself how you can contribute to your discipline as a whole and to your own institution. In this sense, taking on a leadership role in your institution or serving as a journal editor is a wonderful opportunity. As a journal editor you develop the focus of your discipline and help researchers communicate significant findings in the most interesting way to a general audience. In an institutional leadership role, your opportunity is to develop the mentoring, teaching, research and administrative culture in a way that better supports everyone – students, academic and administrative staff – to excel. All in all, this is a great job because it allows you to make contributions on so many dimensions!

Where do you get most of the inspiration for your research?

I am mainly inspired by the real-world and the important questions deriving from it. In my research I focus on political institutions, party competition, and political attitudes. My work often links questions across these domains, such as executive power and overreach, populism and its spread, and the political implications of xenophobic attitudes. I am particularly drawn to questions that have tangible real-world consequences. For instance, I am currently involved in a project that evaluates the effect of expanding fathers’ parental leave on attitudinal support for gender equality. In a general way, we know that countries with more generous parental leave policies also feature more progressive attitudes regarding gender equality. However, whether social policy can be a driver of these attitudinal changes, remains unexplored. We study a real-world policy reform in Estonia to examine this question. Social attitudes regarding gender equality really shape people’s life choices and have a major impact on lived experiences of gender-inequality. To me, it is important to address questions that are consequential and to find out how we can shape outcomes for the better.

You have a number of tasks and responsibilities: Apart from your job as a professor you are also the editor of British Journal of Political Science (a leading journal in political science) as well as head of your department. How do you tackle all these tasks? And how do you prioritise?

I am joint head of department and have a wonderful colleague with whom I share this job. If I had to do this on my own, I would not be editor of BJPS. This job share was a novelty in our department that we advocated for, but there is no doubt that the department benefits hugely from our respective expertise. Two heads are better than one! Often it is worth arguing for new ways of working even when solutions are unconventional. You should always ask yourself: What is it that interests you? What can you contribute, what do you want to achieve, and how can it be done? In terms of balancing the demands of different roles, you learn over time and become more efficient. But you need to be well-organised and it is hard work. Finding time for research can be challenging because I sometimes do not have good control over my own schedule. This is one of the reasons that I enjoy collaborations because you commit jointly to a project and you push each other.

How important is the impact beyond academia? How do you work it out?

It is important to contribute to the world beyond academia if your research allows. There are many ways to do that and I have colleagues who are wonderful at interacting with the media. Personally, I have been working in a more low-profile way with policy makers, i.e., providing expert advice to committees of the UK Parliament as well as the Irish Citizens’ Assembly. In navigating that environment, I learned from a colleague at UCL, who was well-versed at working in the policy arena. It is a challenging task because you have to translate your research for people that are not in experts in your field and we are not trained as policy advisors.

You are not only a professor, but also a mother of two. How do you manage family and academia?

This is a good question! The honest answer is that when our children were small, it was very hard work. I had my first child before I got tenure and it was challenging to manage both my early career and family life. It can feel pretty awful: There were many times when I felt that it was just impossible to do justice to my child and my research. Setting priorities in your personal as well as your academic life is crucial. Being clear with your partner and dividing childcare equally within the family is one major ingredient. Getting the childcare options in place that you need is another. In many countries, parental leave policies still place the main caring burden on mothers and it is therefore an issue that you have to discuss as a couple. You need to safeguard time for your academic work. That also involves letting go of inner preconceptions of what it means to be a mum that make this much more complicated for women than for men. But to end on a positive note: There are many excellent childcare options that we can make use of, and we know that you can be both a wonderful mother and a professor!