The Candidate and the Scholar

Valparaiso 12aAnd… breathe.

A decade after submitting my proposal to study for a PhD, I finally have the book showcasing that research out and I’m in a permanent academic job. The employment security is a big bonus, and increasingly hard to come by – but academics are hardly alone in this. The differences between a scholarly career and any other the same skills could bag in the ‘real world’ are, for the most part, heavily in academia’s favour. So, while I’m happy to be in a permanent post, I can look back on a lot of positives over the five-and-a-half years since I completed my PhD.

Yes, it was tiring moving around the country and getting to know the oddities of new institutions and departments. But in a short space of time I’ve worked in seven very different universities – working with a host of wonderful colleagues, seeing how they do things, learning from their strengths, spotting the traps to avoid, and coming to understand that every institution is bonkers in its own way. That experience has given me (I hope) a level-headed perspective that keeps me sane when jumping through some truly bizarre bureaucratic hoops.

Lately I’ve been prompted to look back on this hotch-potch early-career experience, not only by its coming to an end, but by being invited to speak at PhD/ECR events at Birmingham and Oxford Brookes Universities. Speaking from my own experience at each got me thinking about the professional and political tensions between being a good candidate and a good scholar.

My own early career had three distinct phases:

  1. A year with no core income – saying yes to the various pieces of work that would pay enough to cover their own costs. Freelance, but not by choice, so I spent a lot of time on job applications.
  2. A string of temporary teaching positions, with the odd part-time research job on the side – happily doing the job I wanted, but with an end date always in sight. Once again, this meant I was almost always working on at least one job application.
  3. Being one of a number of postdoctoral research fellows on a major project. Once I started that 3-year post, the only job I applied for was the permanent lectureship I moved to half-way through.

Combined with the second half of my PhD, that makes five years where I was almost constantly writing job applications. I stopped counting pretty early on, but I’m sure I applied for over 100 jobs. And I needed to. There were some I now realise I was never going to be competitive for, but there was a steady stream of jobs for which I was qualified and I needed a job.

Pulled in too many directions at once?

Something these two events made me think about is whether there might be a good rule for cutting done the number of jobs applied for, but it’s hard to think of one. You might focus on the jobs that appeal to you most, but then you might not be that fussy. I guess more junior candidates should focus on short-term teaching posts in their broad area or fixed-term research posts in their specific area. But in neither of my two teaching fellowships was I an exact fit, so I wouldn’t want to recommend being too strict about that.

It’s a well-known challenge of early-career academic life that you need to apply for lots of jobs, but to stand a decent chance you need to spend probably a week or two preparing it and tailoring it to the specific position at the specific institution. We tend to think of this as a challenge in terms of time management. But I also found it a challenge in a different way.

At some point, during the stream of job applications, I started to lose sight of ‘me’. I was constantly re-packaging, re-positioning and re-inventing myself, my work, my research plans and teaching ideas to what they were looking for. The trouble is that if what you do genuinely fits any position in your field, you’re probably not doing anything particularly interesting. If you become more familiar with the cardboard cut-out candidate than the real you, that makes it hard to sell yourself. Inevitably the feedback I got repeatedly was that I was solid and very hirable, but someone else stood out more.

The hardest sentence to pin down was the one that usually comes second in the opening paragraph of my cover letter or personal statement. It now runs along the lines of…

I am a social historian whose work explores broad questions of citizenship, consumerism and gender, primarily by focusing on medicine, charity and welfare in modern Britain.

That’s not necessarily the most impressive sentence in a job application, but it’s a highly functional one. Coming near the beginning it means a quick scan tells the reader what to expect from me, and it sets up everything that follows. Contributions to core team-taught modules might focus on social history approaches or gender themes. Research-led teaching will dig deeper into one or more of the specific topics highlighted. I’ve also set the stage for how I explain the significance of my work.

This also trickled over beyond writing job applications into my research and publication plans. I kept changing my mind on what journal I should write the next article for, how I should frame my doctoral research in a monograph, or how I should explain my ideas for future research projects.  And all the while I was being overly-influenced by the latest buzzword superficially used in job adverts. This, perhaps more than the number of job applications I was writing, held me back from landing that coveted permanent post.

As I learnt the hard (and slow) way: you can’t really be a good candidate unless you’re first a good scholar.

The politics of it

Staying sane through all this is important. But it’s also worth remembering that you’re not the only one. At the Birmingham session, we discussed the fact that increasingly casualised academic employment pits us against each other, as we all chase the next gig. So how do we make sure this competition doesn’t crowd out solidarity?

That’s something especially important when these same hiring practices raise serious questions about working conditions and who can afford to enter the academic professions. Of course, those most aware of the problems are those whose positions are most precarious. While some modest improvements can be made (I know) from individuals raising concerns within departments, we cannot leave it to those in the weakest positions to kick up a fuss.

The campaign at Warwick University against the deeply worrying Teach Higher proposals showed what can be achieved when we get organised and go on the offensive. But it shouldn’t be up to ad hoc campaigns. There should be a sector-wide, formal network in place for colleagues across various disciplines to share their experiences and concerns, to organise opposition when necessary and formulate positive alternatives where possible. Sounds rather like a union, doesn’t it?

It would be good to see UCU taking a stronger lead on this. Talking as much about the nature of academic employment as pay deals. Making a positive case for the pedagogical value, as well as career development necessity, of early-career teaching that is not divorced research activities. Either within or beyond (perhaps in partnership with) the union, we need to think about what formal networks of solidarity we have in place and those we’re going to need in the near future.

Academic kindness

We may sometimes fail in big ways. But rarely a day goes by when I don’t see acts of academic kindness, usually being taken for granted. It’s one of the three things that made me so sure I wanted an academic career. (The other two being the chance to work on issues I’m passionate about and the high degree of intellectual freedom.)

Whether it’s reading over each other’s job applications or supporting colleagues over-worked in exploitative short-term posts, academic kindness is something we seem to have in no short supply. And that’s as much about informal networks of support as the formal ones that so often disappoint.

As we struggle to put together a powerful and positive resistance to the changes underway in higher education, perhaps it’s worth remembering that we are working with the grain.

Photograph taken by the author in Valparaiso, Chile in 2015.
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7 Replies to “The Candidate and the Scholar”

  1. Completely agree with you George. I wish UCU would focus more on academic working conditions across the board and pay and security at early career stage. It would be good too if universities could agree a standard application form which could then be tailored for specific jobs in letter of application. It’s good to hear you had good colleagues everywhere you went. There’s a lot of academic kindness about and it’s good to acknowledge it!

    Congratulations on the book, George, and the job and release from endless applications! I’m sure your scholarship and teaching will be enriched by the long slog over last decade. Helen

    1. Thanks Helen. There are plenty of things it would be great to see change. While we’re waiting, it’s important to keep supporting each other along the way. You’re a great role model for that, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. See you in London. George.

  2. Really good post, George. I definitely agree that sometimes ECRs have to think carefully about how many jobs they are applying for – as I think you’ve written about before, getting into a cycle of spending all your time on job applications and yet still not getting anywhere with jobs means you can’t progress with anything else either. (Obviously this is impossible advice to follow for those with 1-year or even more temporary contracts, but worth thinking about if you have anything longer!)

    Also, in case there are any worried new ECRs reading this, I’ll admit that I’ve never spent anywhere near a week on a job application and it doesn’t seem to have done me any harm. (The exception is the postdoc apps like Leverhulme etc, which do take longer, especially if you’re starting from scratch.)

    1. Thanks Laura. You’re right, of course, that some applications are quicker than others. But the ones I’ve got interviews from haven’t generally been the best fit, but the ones where I’ve invested most time and thought into it. Module outlines, research strategies, etc. geared to the institution. Though I spent a lot of time of plenty that went nowhere as well.

      That’s why I tried to think about what rule there might be for selecting more carefully which ones to go for – but none mapped clearly onto what I’ve seen work for myself and others. Which is why we need to think more about how we support each other through the nonsense of early career employment roulette.

      1. It sounds like your experiences have been quite different to mine. Sadly, I’ve noticed little correlation between the effort I put into the application and whether or not I get shortlisted, but the fit of the job has always been important. (Hence I spent last year only applying for jobs that were a closer fit, with better results – reflecting your point about not trying to twist my work to fit any niche…) Not in any way suggesting that there’s a wrong or right way to go about this though – just sharing contrasting experiences!

        1. Yep – I’m sure there’s a tiny overlapping bit where more focus on the best fit allows for not twisting etc. If only academic hiring was less random then we’d totally be able to nail it!

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