Career Success And Self Image Education Essay

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Whats the reality of academic careers in Tunisia? Do assistant professors in Tunisian universities feel successful. The aim of this paper is to better understand perceptions of career success among Tunisian academics. Concepts of identity and self image were mobilized in order to demonstrate that personal definitions of career success convey self-image. A qualitative study based on life-stories among 24 assistant professors from 4 universities reveals 5 career success definitions that convey five self-images: the good teacher, the brilliant researcher, the balance seeker, the rational administrator and the strategic-opportunist.

Key words: career success, Tunisian academics, self-image


During the two last decades, career researchers have paid a great deal of attention to the topic of career success (Gattiker end Larwood, 1986, Sturges, 1999) Several studies have been conducted in order to better understand how people in different contexts evaluate their career success…..researchers have used either quantitative methods or more qualitative investigations based on grounded theory (Svejenova, 2005, Hoover 2007), narrative methods, (Lucas and Buzzanell, 2004 ), card sorts (Dries, Hofmans and Carlier 2008) or metaphor (El-Sawad, 2005). Career success can be evaluated in reference to traditional criteria such as salary, salary growth and hierarchical advancement or more subjective criteria that reflect the individual's internal preferences, values and motives. Career success in academia is often evaluated in reference to a certain number of well known criteria such as scientific productivity, salary, promotions, quality of teaching...

The purpose of the current study is to better understand how assistant professors in Tunisian universities perceive their career success, and if these definitions of career success can convey a self image. Tunisian higher education is becoming more professionalized. Thus, it is very important to understand how current professors define career success so their contributions can be optimally managed and understood in the future.

The academic systems of developing countries are, without exception imported from the north. In many countries, the European model was imposed by colonial powers. Following independence, developing countries did not change the nature of university. "The European and increasingly the American academic models-based on departments, competition among academic staff, institutional hierarchy, and specific definitions of science and scholarship continue to prevail throughout the developing world and are increasingly influential everywhere." (Altbach, p.6).

Tunisian higher education has been undergoing a profound change in connection with the reform of the degree structure. The introducing of LMD (Licence-master-doctorat) system aims to professionalize doctoral studies. The creation of doctoral schools aims to provide young researchers with a structured doctoral training, to improve universities national ranking and quality, and to establish selection procedures based on equity.

We have conducted a longitudinal study based on life-stories among 24 young assistant professors in different Tunisian universities. To better understand the self image concept, we used the life-story interview. Through narrating their subjective careers, people interpret their objective careers and make sense of the unfolding of their subjective experiences across time and space (Hugues, 1937, Barley, 1989).

According to the psychologist Schein (1978) careers emerge from the concept of the self. People chose occupations that reflect their motives, values and beliefs. When speaking about their careers, people express how they see themselves and how they want others to see them. Thus, Career is about self definition 'I am a manager' I am an electricity engineer 'I am a blue collar worker' ….such definitions people try to convey identities or self-images to others. The link between career success and self-image can be especially in bureaucratic organizations as explained by Growler and Legge (1989):

"Careers are portrayed in a metaphorical fugue of socio-organic images woven in space and time. For example someone with a successful career is a 'high flyer' who has survived the 'rat race' and beaten competitors on the 'fast track', here the images are positive : of ascent, speed and 'winning'. In contrast those who have 'career failure' are often described negatively in terms of a 'dead wood', 'passed over', 'washed up' or ' burn out' these images are frequently of death, decay and destruction." (Growler and Legge, 1989).

In this paper, it is proposed that individuals by telling stories about their careers and by defining what career success means to them, they convey images of themselves. These images are characterized by instability and malleability.

Career success in academe

Career is a Janus-like concept. Its two-sidedness has been pointed out by Hugues (1937):"A career consists objectively of a series of statuses and clearly defined offices…Subjectively a career is the moving perspective in which the person sees his life as a whole and interprets the meaning of his various attributes, actions and the things that happen to him" (Hugues, 1937, p. 409-411). The duality of career can be understood by defining career success, The Oxford English Dictionary defines success as 'The attainment of an object according to one's desire' or 'the prosperous achievement of something attempted'. Judge and Bretz (1995) define career success as "the positive psychological or work-related outcomes or achievement one has accumulated as a result of one's work experiences." The study by Dries and al. (2008) showed that new generations evaluate their career satisfaction in reference to objective criteria and no difference exists between new and old generations concerning their career beliefs and attitudes.

Objective career success is defined by external and observable attainments such as pay, promotions and occupational status, (O'Reilly and Chatman, 1994, Cox and Harquail, 1991) which have been considered the hallmarks of career success across a range wide of societies (Heslin, 2005). Many researchers have recognized the potential deficiency of objective measures of career success, receiving high pay and promotions do not necessarily make people feel successful and can lead to feelings of alienation and depression (Korman, Wittig-Berman and Lang, 1981). Heslin (2005) argues that using qualitative methods may reveal the neglected facets of subjective career success. Subjective career success is usually defined as career satisfaction or job satisfaction (Greenhaus, 1990), it refers to the individual's internal preferences, values, motives vis-à-vis his career. For example, subjective criteria for success can be sense of meaning (Juntunen and al. 2001), purpose (Wrzesniewski 2001)

The literature on career success shows that an increasing number of qualitative studies within many populations such as young musicians (Dobrow, 2004), not-for-profit organizations (Steinbereithner, 2003), part time workers (Lee, 2003) have revealed subjective criteria for success which are specific to each population. Subjective career success is often called 'psychological success' (Hall and Chandler, 2005). Baruch and Hall (2004) argue that academic careers are unique. According to these authors the professor can be considered as an 'autonomous professional' who takes the responsibility of the development of his or her career. Academic career can serve as a model for the new careers such as the protean career (Hall, 1976, 1986), the boundaryless career (Defilippi & Arthur, 1994) or the intelligent career framework (Arhtur, Claman &Defilippi).

According to Hennequin (2010) French professors evaluate their career success in reference to teaching, research, recognition, salary, promotions, and interpersonal relationships. Other studies argue that scientific productivity is the main hallmark of career success in academia (Long &al. 1979). In academia, people usually aim to fulfill their intellectual aspirations. They seek self accomplishment rather than financial .

Careers, narrative identity and self-image

Narrative identity is made up of emotionally significant experiences that define the self and interpret the life story as a coherent whole (McAdams, 2001, Ezzy, 1998). The theory of narrative identity developed by G.H Mead (1963) and completed by P. Ricoeur (1990) suggests that we make sense of ourselves and our lives by telling stories that are situated in time and space.

In postmodern societies, the adult should be someone who fits in and is unique . In other words, "the self should be defined so that it is both separate and connected, individualized and integrated at the same time." (McAdams, 1995, p. 381). McAdams argues that identity is an internalized and evolving life story or personal myth (1990). The topic of identity and image within contemporary organizations has been the object of many articles and qualitative critical studies (Gabriel, 1995). From a Symbolic interactionist view, individuals construct their identities by action and interactions with their social milieu. Goffman (1973), by introducing the concept of role, argues that social life is a theater where individuals have to enact their roles in order to convey an image to others.


In order to collect rich data I adopted the 'life-story interview' (Atkinson, 1998) Through telling stories about their careers and their working lives, participants give information about their career satisfaction and if they feel or not successful, participants were asked to describe many facets of their careers such as teaching, research , salary and salary growth, hierarchical advancement. Life stories can help the researcher to become more aware of the standards and roles that exist within a social context, they can provide the researcher with information about a social reality described by the story (Bertaux, 1981). "a life story can help the researcher define an individual's place in the social order of things and the process used to achieve that fit." (Atkinson, 1998, p.13).

In the current study we focus on assistant professors in early stages of their academic careers. We adopted 'snowball sampling', interviewees were asked to refer to other assistant professors they may know. The study was undertaken between 2008 and 2010. The sample consisted of 24 assistant professors, only 4 of them have finished their Doctorate), they are between 28 and 35 years old, from 8 universities and 3 main disciplines (management sciences, economic sciences, human sciences). We have chosen these branches because an increasing number of higher education institutions were created leading to the recruitment of a large assistant professors by the year 2000.

An interview guide with 6 questions has been established: Could you please tell me about your career and whether you chose to be an assistant professor? The words 'career' and 'success' what do they mean to you? Do you feel successful? Are you satisfied with your career? What are your main career goals? To succeed in academe what does it mean to you?

Data analysis

Data was gathered by using semi-strucutred and face-to-face interviews. In order to establish a climate of confidence, . By taking notes, we made a selection of what to write down and of what appears to be relevant in the interview situation.

All the interviews notes collected were transcribed We analyzed data by an open coding process. Concepts that rely to the same phenomenon were regrouped into the same category. 5 main categories emerged from the data: teaching, research, life/work balance, administrative positions, and salary.

Different 'career success trajectories' and different images for the self

Five different career success trajectories were identified: being a good teacher, being a brilliant researcher, seeking life-work balance, becoming an administrator and receiving high pay. These career success paths express self images: the good teacher, the brilliant researcher, the balance seeker, the rational administrator, and the strategic opportunist.

The good teacher

This career success path concerns 9 of the participants, it conveys an image for the self as a good teacher who invests essentially in teaching and building a good reputation in the university, and in being recognized by colleagues and students. Teaching includes the quality of teaching, the reputation as a good teacher, having good relationships with students, 12 participants evaluate their career success in reference to good teaching as demonstrated in the following quotes:

To feel successful is I think, being a good teacher, that means communicate easily the information to students, well if for example there are students from literary branches and do not understand what an organization, I must explain them with simple examples what is an organization, so I tell them : the hospital is a public organization, the 'Foundation K' is a not for profit organization, [assisatant professor, Male, Management]

When students say that I am the best teacher in the institute, that is for me a feeling of success [assistant professor, Female, Marketing]


The brilliant researcher

This career success path concerns 7 of the participants, it conveys an image for the self as an excellent researcher, who can publish in ranked journals, and who often participates in international conferences. Research as a hallmark for career success includes scientific productivity, quality of publications, finishing a research project …Although researchers from the developed countries have difficulties in getting their work published and recognized internationally perform in doing excellent research and publish in ranked journals.

Well, success means for me when my paper is accepted in an international conference, or when I publish in a review, ranked B or C , that is very important because other external scientific personalities have already evaluated my paper and had accepted it…The last month, I have participated in an international congress, there were be people from over the world, I really enjoyed it, It was really an other world [assistant professor, Female, Management ]

When I find a call for papers, I submit, even when they don't accept it, feed-back from reviewers are quite useful, you might receive critiques, or negative remarks about certain details, but this means you should improve your work…the paper rejection should encourage you to reexamine carefully your work…so you should always try to publish and do not desesperate, journals ranked B or C, or nonreferred journals, this is a good step [assistant professor, Female, Economics]

The balance seeker

Our study shows that private life was not an important issue for most participants. Only 3 of participants, all women consider that their private life is more important than their professional.

I teach 2 days per week, so I have more time to my passions and activities, in our life there is not only work , we must enjoy every day we live, [assistant professor, Female, English]

When my child wasn't able to speak at the age of 1 year, I became anxious, I wanted just to be a real mother who looked after her child [assistant professor, Female, English]

The rational administrator

Although most academics have no ambitions to be involved in administration, they may accept administrative roles and perform them well. The path of an academic administrator includes many activities and daily administrative tasks. During the study, 2 of the 24 participants have become department chair, this administrative position is seen as a hallmark of success, and department chairs feel proud and successful, they speak openly and humorously about their new administrative roles:

"I had finished my Phd, and after few months, they wanted me to be chair department, so I accepted, in fact I don't know why he has chosen me and not my colleagues .. .It's an enormous work, you have to organize and to manage a lot of things, and I have to discuss with all professors concerning the repartition of exams , because many of them come from other cities to teach , so there must be flexibility "[assistant professor, Male, Finance]

"A professor in a university is not just a professor that teach students , he can get to an administrative position, for example being a head of a department, or a dean of a faculty, managing a research center…"[assistant professor, Male, Finance]

"According to me, in universities, there are two kinds of professors, those who can't do anything else , but only teaching, they teach students and they go home…they haven't any sociability or integration in their institutions, and there are professors who are very sociable , and these will be able to manage and to succeed in administrative positions" [assistant professor, Male, Marketing]

The strategic opportunist

Generally researchers and professors in higher education do not seek financial rewards. The results of our study show that some assistant professors are actively seeking for opportunities in private sector. They consider that salary in higher education is insufficient. Some young assistant professors could make transitions from university to other sectors, especially when they find good opportunities in a big company with a high pay.

"in comparison with private sector, my salary is nothing, I spend half of it to buy books, journals and sometimes I have to participate in a conference with my proper money, sometimes I regret having made this choice, a manager with just a 4 years diploma working in a private sector, is twice more paid than me " [assistant professor, Male, Economic sciences, ]

"in higher education, we have more autonomy, this is the good side of being an assistant professor, but salary is really low in comparison with private sector," [assistant professor, Male, Economic sciences ]

Career success path activities self image

quality of teaching . having good relationships with students The good • Being a good teacher being a good supervisor teacher . 9{3M 6F}

• Being a brilliant researcher getting published The brilliant . cooperate with foreign researchers researcher . working hard in research 7{3F 4F}

•Seeking work/Life balance having extra professional activities The balance . balance work, family and leisure seeker . 3F

• Becoming an administrator accepting an administrative position The rational . having managerial ambitions administrator . 2M

• Receiving high pay looking for job opportunities in other sectors The strategic . being connected with industry opportunist . 3M


The main objective of this exploratory study was to illuminate how Tunisian assistant professors, perceive their career success. The results demonstrate that Tunisian academics evaluate their career success in different ways.

Criteria used are traditional ones such as publications, quality of teaching, administrative positions, which are criteria cited in several studies on academic careers. By adopting a constructivist perspective and in depth interviews we showed that narratives about academic careers convey different career success perceptions and different careers expectations. These results can help institutions in order to better understand aspiration and goals of Tunisian academics and so they can be optimally managed and understood.

Our study shows five portraits: the good teacher, the brilliant researcher, the balance seeker, the modern administrator and the strategic-opportunist, that different career success trajectories and different images for the self. These images are in fact self-identities that express how individuals see themselves and how they hope to be seen by others. Conceptualizing career success with identity and images is quite useful and allow us to better understand what matters most for academics, how they see themselves and how others see them.

Tunisian academics may have great expectations and high intellectual aspirations that are misunderstood by their institutions. Universities must pay more attention to the expectations of researchers and professors in order to attract them and to limit the turn over.