Posted tagged ‘academic careers’

The academic career?

August 29, 2016

Every so often someone asks me whether I would recommend academia as a career option, and to be honest I am never quite sure what to say. Of course the academy has been very good to me, but what can someone entering the profession today expect?

The answer to this question, at a technical level, is probably the same as, or at least very similar to, what it always was. Anyone interested can get useful information from a variety of sources, such as this graduate careers website. But whether an academic life is in its essence as attractive and rewarding today as it was when I embarked upon my own career is another matter. I am not here talking about the pressures, the insecurity that some experience, the fading resources, the bureaucratisation. I am talking about the experience that should lie at the heart of higher education: the celebration of scholarship, learning and innovation.

What I have observed in the course of my career is the shift of focus from educational substance to educational process. Evaluations of performance and quality, which are handed out like confetti from almost every street corner, are too often not about what is done, but how it is done. Too often we don’t recognise or reward the major scholarly breakthrough (or perhaps even more importantly, the attempt to achieve one), but rather the willingness to abide by the new rules of academic practice.

Of course performance does matter, in universities as much as anywhere else – but we need to ask more questions about what kind of performance we are trying to encourage, and in particular whether we are looking for and rewarding intellectual creativity; and indeed whether we’ll actually recognise it when we see it.

I still believe that an academic career is one of the most satisfying imaginable. I would still recommend it to anyone with intellectual inclinations. But I hope that we will find new and better ways to encourage, support and reward academics into the next generation; and celebrate them most of all when they expand knowledge, not just when they show dedication to tidy educational processes.


Just play the game, you’ll figure out the rules as you go along

March 16, 2014

Guest post by Dr Emily Beaumont, an early career academic at Plymouth University, UK.  You can find her also at or @EmilyFBeaumont (Twitter)

Anybody who has had the above statement (in the title of this post) thrown at them before a card game will know that despite the enjoyment of playing the game, they will have to spend a significant amount of time figuring out and understanding the rules.

This is my fourth year of working in academia as an early career academic. I’ve enjoyed every minute (well nearly every minute) of my experience so far yet I still feel I’m trying to figure out the rules of a well-established game. There are rules you learn early on such as ‘Don’t underestimate the value of the administrative staff’, ‘Don’t let your research slip as you become overwhelmed with teaching’ and ‘Don’t immediately say yes to taking over somebody’s place on a committee’. I didn’t know about this later rule until it was too late: I currently sit on six committees. Then there are those rules which creep in and surprise you, just as you think you’ve grasped them all; ‘Keep every email’, ‘Always take your external examiner out to a decent restaurant’ and ‘Network, network, network!’

Yet despite losing a round here and there to inexperience, when you’re playing a game you’re ultimately still smiling and having fun. Which in academia can’t be bad and in due course aids collegiality. However as I continue on my early career academic journey I take advice from no other than Albert Einstein:

‘You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.’

Equal status for all academics?

April 8, 2011

Here’s an innovation. A new university recently set up in China, the South University of Science and Technology of China, has decided not to have any kind of academic hierarchy, so that all faculty have the same status. According to the university, academics elsewhere spend too much time working on career development to the neglect of their teaching duties.

Should this catch on here? Are we too status oriented? Should we embrace a new academic egalitarianism?

Academic hierarchy

January 29, 2011

About a year ago I was at a dinner in another Irish university and sat next to a very distinguished senior academic from that institution. The conversation was lively and interesting, and amongst other things we talked about the changing circumstances of academic lives and careers. My friend expressed the view that one of the things that distressed him in the modern university was the erosion of what he called ‘the deep-rooted democracy of the academy’. I had to pause to think about that, and on reflection I told him I couldn’t agree that ‘democracy’ had ever been a real feature of university life; or not, as I suggested somewhat mischievously, unless you took the view that pre-liberation South Africa was a democracy.

My own academic career began in 1980, and my early impressions were of an extraordinarily hierarchical setting. Most departments had one professor, and this professor was God. His (invariably ‘his’) word was the law. Departmental meetings involved discussion, but rarely decisions taken by a majority of those present. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unhappy, and as it happens my Professor and Head was actually an extremely civilised man whom I owe a lot. But it sure as hell wasn’t a democracy; nor was any other department of which I had any knowledge. In fact, having experienced life as a bank employee a few years earlier, I can say with some emphasis that it was far less hierarchical than life in the academy; which is saying something, as banks were notoriously old-fashioned back then.

I mention this because, in the latest issue of Times Higher Education, there is an article by John Warren, a lecturer in Aberystwyth University, in which he muses nostalgically about an bygone era when fewer people were professors and when this title was reserved for those somewhat older academics who had experienced ‘many years of scholarly endeavour’. The tendency to give the title now to ‘youthful high-flyers’ appears to be something he finds regrettable. I can’t say I agree.

In this blog I have on previous occasions drawn attention to the proliferation of professorial titles, and the decision by some universities to award them to all academics, whatever their precise grade. It still seems to me that, if this were done everywhere and across the board, it would not be such a bad thing. It would help overcome the sense of hierarchy that has been part of university life. It would still be possible to recognise exceptional academic achievement by having different grades of professors (such as Assistant, Associate and so forth), but it might bring to an end the kind of personal deference that was a traditional feature of the academy.

Should we abolish compulsory retirement for academics?

January 16, 2011

Here is a story from Australia. There are reports that the ageing academic population there is creating a time bomb for higher education. Over half of lecturing staff are over 50 years old, and as they move towards retirement there may be insufficient resources to replace them; and indeed the visible crisis in higher education is in any case prompting young people to look for other careers.

This is not a uniquely Australian problem. The age profile of academics in a number of countries and in several universities is a cause for concern, and I believe that it is true that lecturing is now a much less attractive career for those coming out of education. Of course we need to address this in a number of ways, but one option should be to look at the end of compulsory (as distinct from voluntary) retirement in universities. In the United States this has already been done, and the impact has been positive. Is it time to think again over here?

The casualisation of the academic profession

April 27, 2010

While searching for something completely different the other day I came across a fascinating internal document issued recently by another university, not in Ireland. The document is a guidance note for Faculty Deans, to be used by them when appointing casual academic staff. So for a start, what kind of appointments are we talking about here? The document notes that it applies where staff ‘are employed to perform work that is ad hoc, intermittent, unpredictable or involves hours that are irregular.’ You might think that this will be a fringe part of the employment portfolio of the institution. Not so, apparently, for it goes on to state that such appointments ‘now make up, at least in volume terms, the bulk of all recruitment activity’. Furthermore, the purpose of the guidance note is to ensure that the university concerned does not enter into legal commitments and responsibilities going beyond a casual and limited relationship, and that the termination of that relationship will not be subject to complexities or long notice periods.

Temporary, part-time and casual appointments are not of themselves new in academic life, and in some settings they are actually desirable. For example, they represent an effective way of bringing practitioners in as teachers on professional courses without having to turn those practitioners into permanent academics; but until now the assumption has been that such appointments are additional to and support the core work of professional academics. Also, casual appointments can provide part-time employment for people doing research degrees, or taking a sabbatical.

But right now in a number of countries the funding crisis affecting higher education is forcing institutions to alter their staffing structures fundamentally, not necessarily by design but nevertheless in an emphatic manner. The financial liability created by a permanent full-time appointment is often now unmanageable in terms of organisational risk assessment. In addition in Ireland, the ’employment control framework’ imposed on higher education by the government is actually at least for now prohibiting universities from making any permanent appointments at all; if you add to that the requirement to cuts jobs and the availability of funded early retirement, the entire structure of the academic profession is being changed, and not even in a long term process. It is almost instant, and within one academic generation universities will be quite different places unless there is a fundamental shift.

It is true that we need to be realistic. The idea of an academic profession consisting more or less entirely of long term employees in secure posts has gone and won’t return. This is not because of any malicious intent by university managements or the state, but because much more of a university’s portfolio of activities is now project-based (particularly in research) with a limited life span. Universities need to have the capacity to be much more flexible than they used to be. But on the other hand, the complete casualisation of the academic profession would have deadly consequences for both the student experience and the capacity of universities to have longer term strategic aims – quite apart from the fact that there will be, and there already is, a flight from the profession on the part of qualified younger people. Universities are not hubs of convenience that people can drift in and out of without much formality; there is no academy in that model.

The task for us now is to set out much more clearly and much more publicly what this process is and what it entails, and then plan and campaign for something more viable and offering more effective academic outputs. What we are now drifting into, without much of a fuss, is neither sustainable nor desirable. We cannot just get on with it.

Balancing teaching and research

January 27, 2010

On my first day as a Lecturer in a particular Dublin university in October 1980, I was called to the office of my Head of Department, Professor Charles McCarthy, and he gave me the following advice which stayed with me throughout my professional life. The only way to have a satisfying and successful academic career, he suggested, was to be both a passionate teacher and a dedicated researcher. ‘Go and teach your students as if the country’s future depended on it – which it does – and then go and publish as much research as possible. And never lose sight of either of those tasks.’ It was excellent advice.

Of course in those days it was also quite unusual advice. Research had not become the essential academic activity it now is, and I would guess that in my Faculty back then barely a quarter of staff would have been doing anything we would count as research, and the proportion of those whose research output would have made an impact in today’s research assessment culture would have been even smaller. Nowadays it is all different, and research has become a core activity in universities, and individual academic performance in this context is key to a number of things, including career progression.

So has all this gone too far? The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) think so. In their submission to the steering group undertaking the higher education strategic review, the union suggested the following.

‘The evidence that the teaching role of academics has been undermined is incontrovertible. Academics are increasingly diverted away from the teaching of undergraduates towards the pursuit of research grants and the knowledge economy. There is no doubt that academic teaching benefits from research and we are not arguing for teaching-only academics. However, it is easy to demonstrate how the universities discourage engagement with teaching. This can be seen in the patterns of appointments, the terms of promotion schemes, the rewards and recognition systems. It is made abundantly clear to young staff that teaching is a necessary but somewhat irrelevant activity: not worthy of investment. Older staff, with a commitment to teaching, find themselves increasingly harassed for a failure to join the new world of high level research. Naturally, this view will never appear in an official document from any university. However, we work in the universities and we know.’

I would have to say that while there are issues raised in this extract that merit attention, the argument is over-stated to an extent that weakens its impact. I do not believe that any university officer (including a Department Head) has ever suggested to a young lecturer that teaching is ‘irrelevant’, or ‘not worthy of investment’. Such advice if given would not only be objectionable but also extremely silly, as teaching is crucial to a university’s funding and this is well recognised. I imagine that ‘older’ staff do get reminded (where that is necessary) of the importance of research as part of the portfolio of academic activities, and this will be done not least because all the empirical evidence suggests that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, good researchers are good teachers in higher education. Encouraging those whose careers may have begun before there were as many expectations regarding research is important not least as a way of raising the game when it comes to teaching.

But for all that, it is right to ask whether we always get the balance right. In particular, we need to ask whether we always manage to hold on successfully to what I regard as a critical principle of academic life: that all academics should be teachers and researchers, and that neither activity should be taking place in a ghetto untouched by the other. The academic vocation is about scholarship, which involves the discovery, critical assessment and dissemination of knowledge. Separating these aspects is hugely undesirable.

It will probably always be the case that there will be some – post-docs, for example, or teaching assistants – who will typically at the start of their careers for a while focus on one aspect only. But for those who become lecturers and who enter upon the full-time academic career, there should be no doubt that they should be both teachers and researchers, and they should allow each of these activities to fertilise the other. Universities in turn should organise themselvcs accordingly, so as to ensure that the balance of teaching and research is recognised and protected; NUI Galway, for example, have adopted a learning, teaching and assessment strategy which is interesting in this context. Perhaps the trickiest issue to get right here is how to reward and recognise teaching excellence in a way that encourages academics to plan their teaching as a component of career development and promotion. Some universities have put significant effort into addressing this.

Not every academic needs to pursue teaching and research in exactly equal measure, but every academic should do some of each. I still believe that the advice I was given as I began my career was correct.

Academics: the next generation

July 10, 2009

As readers of this blog will know, I believe that universities may over the next few years turn out to be very different places from what they were when I embarked on an academic career. Not all of the changes to date have been bad: when I started as a lecturer in Trinity College in 1980, most staff, in most departments, were by today’s standards entirely research inactive; students were predominantly from an upper middle class background; there was very little opportunity for anyone who was not very senior to discover what was going on, never mind have a say in it; a surprising number of professors were on second name terms only with junior staff; assessment of students was by exams only; and so forth. I was lucky, as I had a Head of Department in the late Professor Charles McCarthy who was really very enlightened, and who in particular pressed me to publish and gave me the time and space – but that was not the norm.

On the other hand, there was a spirit of inquiry amongst colleagues: in my Department we used to meet at 11 am every day for coffee and would have a discussion around an intellectual theme (not always related to the subject of the Department); everyone was on a permanent contract; pay wasn’t great, but academics were respected and sought out for their opinions; academic bureaucracy was almost unheard of; small group teaching was a realistic prospect; and so forth. As a young lecturer, I was nowhere near the levers of decision-making, but I was not an outcast either, and my career seemed on a clear trajectory (mind you, the assumption was that you couldn’t get promoted to the really serious posts until you showed the first signs of senility).

But now I sometimes wonder what we are offering the new generation of academics just beginning in higher education. It is not so much that the certainties have changed, there just don’t seem to be any at all. We have full-time researchers now, and quite a few of them, but with no real framework for their careers. All too often, people are appointed on fixed term contracts with no commitment as to what happens at the end of the term – and paradoxically, the Fixed Term Workers Act has made it less likely that they will get new contracts. The academic profession seems to be held in low esteem by the public at large, but maddeningly there seem to be no obvious reasons for this, as academics have not sold loans excessively, or fiddled expenses, or over-valued properties. And on top of that, I suspect we have still managed to keep the traditional sense of hierarchy intact, so that when academics get on the warpath, it is often to protect the acquired benefits of the traditional system, rather than the interests of the younger colleagues.

Of course academics of my generation deserve support and protection, but we may need to look more closely at the conditions experienced by the new generation: we need to ensure that the academic profession is attractive to those starting out now, so that they can make their contribution and ensure the sustainability of the academy. I suspect that people like me need to listen more to those whom, perhaps, we don’t always see as often. And we need to communicate what we hear to those involved in institutional and national decision-making.

Can we still enjoy university life?

February 12, 2009

Today I had a conversation with a young Irish academic who was troubled by the choice he had made of planning his career in the academic world. He had made this choice believing that he would be able to lead a life of intellectual challenge, good conversation and stimulating debates. He would see students develop their skills and would find his feet with his own research.

What was troubling him was that the reality was, in some sense, as he had hoped it would be, but there was in his words a ‘constant dark under-current’. He loved his work, he found himself being stimulated by some very bright students, and he had managed to publish his first two articles in refereed journals (the gold standard of university research output). But beyond that he felt there was doom and gloom, a sense that what he did was not appreciated by society, and the constant threat of the next bureaucratic hurdle.

I have some sympathy with this colleague. But more importantly, I think that we need to do better in motivating and supporting people like him, particularly as they embark on their careers. No matter how hostile the environment may seem to be, we must give people a sense of optimism and hope,m and we must give them the assistance of a supportive community.

I suspect that many people still believe that academic life is rather easy. As in any profession, we do have some under-performers. But the overwhelming majority of academics are dedicated and idealistic people (although we sometimes manage to beat the idealism out of them), who want to live up to and who do live up to the expectations we have of them, and who work exceptionally hard. Their concern is that the rewards (and I don’t mean money) are scarce.

Academic communities have historically often struggled not to let ideals be smothered by cynicism. Right now we are facing challenges that some may think threaten to defeat us altogether. We must not be mesmerised by these – right now is the time to plan boldly and to act decisively, and to convey a sense of purpose. We must also allow ourselves the occasional celebration and fun.

Nobody can pretend that an academic career is going to be all plain sailing, nor should we become too defensive when external stakeholders raise questions about how we teach and research; but we can work together to ensure that it remains a uniquely satisfying career.