This week’s post is the result of a period of reflection that I undertook over the Christmas holidays, when I celebrated the end of my first year as a fully-fledged academic member of staff at a University. It focuses on the challenges and opportunities the shift from graduate student (or postdoc) to lecturer throws up and explains some of the adaptations that I've made in my approach to work while dealing with this transition.
While PhD students and postdocs devote considerable energy to thinking about how to develop research and teaching profiles that will result in a lectureship appointment, the topic of how to make a success of your early career once appointed tends to receive rather less attention. I hope that the subject is of interest to the readership of judicalis.
Academia is a strange profession. Fundamentally, it requires an ability to immerse yourself in the minutiae of technical, intellectual problems for weeks and months on end. Your early career is particularly devoted to building this capacity, and, if you develop exceptional single-mindedness and focus, you will be rewarded with a permanent post. I can still recall the elation that I felt when I was offered my current job, a feeling that long years of training, sacrifice and effort had finally paid off.
When you begin working as a member of staff, however, you find that the nature of your work day changes dramatically. The extended periods of reading and introspection that characterised the post doc period fade away to a distant memory as the prosaic demands of teaching, mentoring and administrative duties come to take up the lion’s share of your time.
All of a sudden, time management becomes a vital skill. If, like me, you require a sustained run to seriously address any substantial intellectual problem, you need to be able to clear at least a day a week solely for research. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done –as deadlines amass during term that empty day on your schedule becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. Furthermore, on any given weekday there is a good chance that an email will pop into your inbox requiring more or less immediate attention, or that a colleague or student will call into your office.
As a consequence, more often than not my weekends are reserved for catching up with research. I can’t say that I’ve found an entirely adequate solution to this problem to date, apart from being far more selective in the research collaborations and side projects that I take up.
One innovation that I made was to ask my head of department whether I could teach a course that focused solely on my area of research expertise – electoral studies. Thankfully, he agreed and this means that there is now at least a degree of overlap between my teaching and my research (indeed, I’ve found that preparing this course has led to my catching up with some literature that I missed the first time around). A second was to schedule the submission of conference papers, funding applications and journal articles for the ‘summer term’ – a strategy that involves selective targeting and (in the case of co-authored project) clear communication about workflow.
More important than dealing with time constraints, however, is the art of people management. All junior staff are required to take up some administrative duties – I was assigned admissions. Here, I found myself a complete fish out of water, struggling to understand the UK admissions system and all of the responsibilities that my post entailed. I derived two key principles from adapting to this role: firstly, to seek mentorship from fellow colleagues who had previously occupied the position – here I was very lucky in having patient and friendly colleagues who were willing to talk me through their experiences. Secondly, it is vital to spend time and effort getting to know the full-time administrative staff who work with you. These staff have the skills and experience in administration that I so demonstrably lack, so regularly checking in with them and making sure that to ask whether there was anything I could be doing better helped me to avoid potential slip-ups.
In terms of seeking research funding I also found these two principles to be vitally important – identifying senior colleagues with whom you can discuss funding ideas and building a strong relationship with specialised administrative staff. In my case, Professor Jonathan Bradbury was able to connect me with a research network within the university that provided seed funding for a successful AHRC funding bid, while the University’s permanent research funding staff were incredibly helpful – especially in negotiating the technicalities of devising a project budget.
Finally, an unavoidable truth is that in your early career you need to dedicate a considerable proportion of your time to thinking about teaching. This is partly due to an obligation that is now placed on nearly all new lecturers to complete a postgraduate qualification in higher education. However, more generally, a growing emphasis on student experience as well as rising demands from undergraduate students paying substantial fees means that teaching excellence is now a must. For me, teaching involves changing the way that you think about your chosen discipline, a sort of reversion has to take place where you abandon your perspective as a researcher seeking to add knowledge at the cutting edge of an established field and instead try to remember what it felt like when you first began to study it. Furthermore, you have to think about teaching approaches and assignment designs that will engage students, all of which involves extensive planning and preparation.
In summary, transitioning from postgraduate or postdoc to being a member of staff is a challenging experience, involving a substantial inflation of roles and responsibilities. It is important to be aware of this when planning your career, and to factor in time for a period of adjustment and adaptation.