If you ask most Early Career Researchers how it feels to get out into the academic world, with a PhD in hand and an impressive new title on their e-mail signatures, they’ll tell you that life is tough. With tens, sometimes, hundreds of applicants for one permanent job, lots of fixed-term contacts, and the need to keep lots of balls in the air including teaching, research, finishing a PhD, having a life, it’s not easy starting out in academia.
However, I’m not here to write about the downsides of academia – you can find enough of that on The Guardian’s “Academics Anoymous” feature, in which the trials, tribulations and triumphs (but mostly the trials and tribulations) of academic life are documented in a blog-style comment piece. In AA, scholars allow their spleen to flow onto the page, under the safe guise of anonymity, in a manner similar to the equally, if not more choleric “Secret Teacher” (of which I was once a regular reader and sympathiser).
I’m convinced, however, that despite the challenges, an academic career is still a privilege (as my sympathy with the Guardian’s “secret teacher” suggests, I feel that the grass is far greener for staff in HE than in secondary education). Naturally, just because we are lucky enough to work in an industry which allows us to pursue our intellectual passions doesn’t mean that the willingness and enthusiasm of Early Career Researchers should be abused by short-term contracts or low-paid teaching positions. However, I do feel that many of us Early Career Researchers (myself included) are too quick to become caught up in the negative side of the job and fail to see the many benefits of academic life.
For all the hard work that Early Career Researchers do – teaching, writing, publishing and living a life beholden to the job market – there’s still one thing that ECRs just aren’t doing enough of: positive thinking. To get ahead, we all need to embrace the kind of solutions-focussed thinking our academic training should have fostered within us. So often, I go to Early Career events – disciplinary and general, institutional or further afield – and the mood is the same. It’s one of “my university doesn’t offer X”, “I’m too busy to get training in this area”. This kind of approach is stopping us from getting ahead. If you think your university doesn’t offer the training you want, then ask about bringing it on board. Want more writing events? Ask your research office / your department etc. If what you’re looking for isn’t out there then why not see about kick-starting it yourself? Naturally, some things are easier to get going than others – a writing group for ECRs is probably easier to launch by yourself than an accredited mentoring programme or a teacher training qualification, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t lobby for the things that are important to your professional and personal development.
Some months ago, I was lucky enough to spend a week curating the @WeTheHumanities twitter account. It was fascinating to hear the testimonies of people in academic circles – not only those starting out, but those in established careers. However, I was saddened by just how dejected some of my contemporaries felt. I decided to use my curatorship to (attempt to) focus on the many great things which make us want to a career in academia. I invited ECRs and more established academics to talk about the positive aspects of their work. My plan fell flat – especially as far as Early Career Researchers were concerned. In fact, I felt that I had been totally shot down, because – for many – it was impossible to think positively after the rejections began to pile up, after trying to break into a career which didn’t support mental wellbeing and exacerbated existing health issues. Interestingly, too, people assumed that because I wanted to celebrate the good things in academia, that I must be in a permanent post, that I must be convinced that I couldn’t be touched by the problems of getting a permanent job, faced by most ECRs.
I have to admit, that in many ways, my week curating the WeTheHumanities twitter account really brought me down – firstly, knowing that my contemporaries felt bad about their situation, secondly feeling that they thought I was some kind of Pollyanna for wanting to focus on the good parts of the job (and for me, these outweigh any negatives). I absolutely love what I do – I work on a research project I believe in, and after only 18 months in the job, I have already benefitted from some amazing opportunities which I have really enjoyed and will be of real benefit to my career. I’ve done public engagement events, teaching and lecturing, taster sessions for sixth-formers and even given a lecture at 5 in the morning (for 24-Hour Inspire). I’m not saying it’s been easy – I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words and put in many hours in and outside the office. It’s all been worth it, because I’ve enjoyed it and because it’ll stand me in good stead for the future.
One of the things I felt that I came under fire for when curating the @WeTheHumanities accounts was my suggestion that we might have ‘fall-back careers’. I’m not sure how I feel about this myself, but it’s an idea I have to entertain. With an awareness that I might not get my dream lectureship immediately after my current post comes to an end, I know there may come a point where I have to do something different. On the one hand, this idea that I won’t be a lecturer in five years time is terribly disappointing, on the other hand, I sometimes wonder what I might do instead. I’m not sure, because an academic career is the one I want. But I do know that I have a PhD – hell, I’ve got three degrees! – I have experience of teaching. I’m a fast reader and a quick typist. I am pretty good at critical thinking and I’m quite creative. If I sound like I’m boasting, then, I’m sorry – but I’m not in the minority. Every Early Career Researcher should be able to boast these skills, and if they don’t make you a hot contender on any job market – academic or otherwise – then I don’t know what will.
Where do I see that future? I’d like to say in academia. Much as I love what I do, I know that it’s a fixed-term project and that it won’t last forever. I’ll do everything I can to secure an academic job. And if I can’t? Part of me says I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it; the other part of me says that I’m already a writer, teacher, mentor with gradually growing tech skills. Do I feel hard-done by that I don’t have a permanent job? Absolutely not – I’m happy in what I’m doing now and excited to see where the future will take me.