Mileage may vary*

I hadn’t meant to write this post.  I wanted (still want) to write one about laughter and its uses in understanding historical power structures.  But yesterday I found myself drawn into the debate sparked by Mathew Lyons’ article on the experience of Early Careers Research in history and as my position on the subject needs far more than 140 characters to express fully, this seemed the most logical venue to articulate it.

Before I start, I need to make clear the position from which I am writing. As regular readers of this blog will know, I now hold a ‘tenure-track’ position at the University of Leeds.  This means that I have a five-year probationary period to go through but, all things being equal, at the end of that five years I will hold a permanent position. This is not an entirely secure post, and some of the probationary requirements have a whiff of requiring more luck than judgement to fulfill.  Nonetheless, it is considerably more secure than either the 3-year fixed-term contract I had immediately preceding this appointment, or the sort of very short-term fixed-term contract described in Lyons’ article.

A bit more background. Although I have only just stopped being officially an ECR (as I have explained here), I actually completed my PhD in 2005.  Between 2003 and 2006 I held a series of exactly this sort of short-term contract at four different universities. In many ways these jobs echo the description in the article – no training, poor pay, few if any resources to support career development activities. They all differed in one highly significant aspect.  In every institution, I was able to get and maintain these jobs, jobs which gave me important experience for my CV as well as a small income, due to the support of more senior academics who held permanent positions. They advocated for me, mentored me, advised me in ways that still inform and shape my academic practice.  They were, and are, my allies, not my enemies.

What they couldn’t do, despite huge amounts of support including sponsoring grant applications and writing letters of recommendation, is get me a full-time academic job. Despite hundreds of applications over a three-plus year period, the summer of 2006 saw me facing the possibility of no work at all the following term.  So I took the decision to explore other options and moved into publishing.  In other words, I left academia.  As it happens, publishing didn’t work out for me either, but it provided me with employment and a (very small) income while I undertook various academic-related projects – organising a conference, editing a collection of essays, writing a book chapter, completing my monograph.  Throughout this I was hugely privileged by the fact that my partner (now husband) was able to support me as the primary wage earner in our family, a privilege I am fully aware is not available to all or even most. But what does not necessarily require the advantage of family and financial support is the realisation that taking time out from academia, either temporarily or permanently, does not make you a failure.  This is hugely difficult to come to terms with, on a personal as much as a social level, but given the number of scholars across all disciplines who I know who have either taken time out or left the academy entirely, the time is well past where we need to challenge a limited definition of what a successful post-PhD career looks like.

If we are to accept that less established academics are highly unlikely to move seamlessly from PhD through postdoc to permanent position, how to we ensure that, for those like me who want to find a way back get the support they need to do so? More by accident than design throughout my ‘career break’ I was able to maintain a network of contacts in the field, if a somewhat limited one. It was one of these contacts who encouraged me to apply for funding and the generosity and support of a range of established academics and administrators who advised me as I wrote my grant application. Helping to support and maintain networks for post-PhDs, whatever direction their career takes them, is undoubtedly something established academics could do more of, although my experience has been that many do this already.

It is worth, at this point, pointing out that my way back into academia was not via an advertised teaching role, but rather through a research position that I managed to create for myself (with a great deal of support and good will from others within what has become my institution, as well as the luck of being in the right place at the right time). Working towards a research-focussed role made sense to me as I love research and communicating research through writing.  As with many if not most academics, research is the primary element of what I do and my motivation for doing it. This is not to say, however, that I do not see teaching as a very important facet of the academic role, in part as it is another way of communicating research.  But for me undergraduate teaching is not my first choice of communicating my passion for my subject. I do it because I know it is important. I believe I do it conscientiously; I hope I do it well. But I do not approach teaching with the passion I approach my research and writing. It does not inspire me in the same way and I am therefore less likely to invest the time and energy required to constantly reflect and innovate.  That being said, I do not ‘disdain’ teaching or the creative approaches that so many of my colleagues (both established and more junior) develop and practice.  I simply find it less rewarding (my lack of self-confidence possibly having something to do with lack of early training in the discipline) and am therefore inclined to focus what energy I have on the equally difficult challenges of public engagement, research innovation and writing for publication.  This is a personal preference, not a politically motivated calculation to improve my employment prospects and I am very aware of the need to ensure that teaching and research are equally valued within academia, something which I would argue involves challenging the divisiveness of the language used by so many politicians in their statements on university funding.

Which brings me back to Lyons’ article, where that accusation of established academics’ supposed ‘disdain’ for teaching has touched a very raw nerve.  It highlights the principle problem with the argument being put forward, that is the dichotomy being set between ECRs and permanent staff.  This dichotomy implies that both groups are monolithic, with all permanent staff failing to offer support to their more junior colleagues on whom they pile all the teaching, and that all young academics have identical aspirations and definitions of what makes academic success.  By generalising anecdotal evidence to make an argument about a huge range of experiences, it fails to acknowledge the diversity across institutions, disciplines and, above all, individuals.**  In doing so, it undermines the very solidarity that many commentators have been calling for as a way to challenge the very real problems of the exploitation of ECR labour which undoubtedly exist. It serves to silence those of us who have only recently achieved permanent positions, and therefore still wield very little power within our institutions. We worry about being accused of being ‘smug’ because we speak from a position of ‘success’, however much experience we may have of exploitation and ways in which we challenged it. Many established scholars worry even more about the security of their jobs, particularly if they are seen to speak out against university administrations. And it silences those of us who seek to challenge the oppositionality of research and teaching that the REF and the (rumoured) TEF imply.  Being research-focussed, and using that as a way to gain a job, does not make you an enemy of teaching staff, but nor does it give you the power, within a system which has drained so much direct power from academics, to challenge single-handedly the exploitation of fixed-term teaching staff.  We need to work together, making use of experience, providing support, advice and mentorship.  Yes, we need to be more honest about the competition of the job market, but we also need to be challenging a narrow vision of academic success, for ECRs and established academics alike.

*With thanks to Cath Feely and Victoria Stiles for the inspiration behind this post and its title.

** I am fully aware that I have used my personal experience here to call for a more nuanced view, something which may ultimately not be entirely helpful.  But as has been pointed out, much of the commentary has been based on individual experiences, such as those described here, and including narratives which present an alternative view on how to forge a fulfilling career from a PhD in the discussion may be helpful in providing said nuance.

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