Keep Calm and Carry On Applying

Last month, I was offered one of 25 Birmingham Fellowships at the University of Birmingham. From 1 January, I will be based in the School of Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences and in the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation, and Security.

Differently from my previous academic posts, this is a permanent one. It consists of a 5-year Research Fellowship, leading to a full-time Lectureship, in which I will have the opportunity to become a “future academic leader”. I’ll be working on geographies of protest and urban resilience, looking particularly at the impacts of uprising on urban everyday life.

Having spent more than a year applying for all kinds of permanent and temporary academic jobs in the UK and abroad, it’s a fantastic outcome. Before 2012 finishes, I’d like to reflect on this particular moment before – with pleasure – relegating it to the past.

The process was lengthy and competitive, with more than 800 initial applications for roughly 25 posts. I went through 3 stages of increasingly detailed research proposal preparation across 3 months, followed by one rather intense interview, and a two-week wait for a decision.

Looking for a job and finding the mental space to finish my current research post as British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow hasn’t been an easy combination. In 20 months, I applied for jobs at the Universities of:

Liverpool, Royal Holloway, King’s College London, Queen Mary London, Cambridge, SOAS, Sheffield, Cardiff, Lund, Bristol, UCL, Edinburgh, Loughborough, Royal Holloway again, Birmingham, Oxford, Newcastle, Manchester,  Birmingham again, Open University, oh…and Royal Holloway again!

That is 22 applications in 20 months – Adam made 15 in a year around the same time. In addition to this, factor in constant CV updating, cover letter tweaking, contact making, reference requesting, form filling, interview preparation, travel, being interviewed, and overcoming post-rejection blues.

With the Research Excellence Framework (REF) looming, and the crucial publication record to complete, the last year and a bit took a toll also on my physical health. I’m on the mend, but from what I hear among my generation of academics, Iʼm not alone.

All too often, and increasingly in the UK, young academics battle for a succession of temporary posts. Teaching Fellows, Research Associates, Post-Doctoral Fellows, Temporary teaching Fellows, before (if at all) they move on to a permanent Lectureship/Tenure. These can last 3 years for the luckiest, 1 year to 18 months on average, sometimes a few months, and in the most exploitative of cases paid only in term-time. The times where you’d go from a PhD to a permanent Lectureship, perhaps via a year of Postdoc, seem to have gone.

Temporary posts are not bad per se: they give a gradual introduction into a highly competitive academic environment. I have advised other people to take up RA positions right after their PhD, working on someone elseʼs project, in order to get a break from their original topic, gather perspective and develop new networks. This is what happened to me 5 years ago, when I worked in Manchester as RA for Ralf Brand’s ESRC project on The Built Environment: Mirror and Mediator of Radicalisation. I learned a huge amount in that post.

After three years as a British Academy Post-Doc Fellow, Royal Holloway were unable to make me or another colleague permanent, even though there is an assumption in favour of retention on the part of the BA. I eventually managed to get myself an 18 months post at a top UK university. The first lines of my contract were not terribly welcoming, warning of the temporary nature of the post, and its non negotiable basis. This was one of several hundred such posts created to bring in promising researchers ahead of the REF, then spit them out again afterwards.

The Birmingham Fellowships – and other schemes like Sheffield’s  Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowships – seem to take the opposite approach: long term investment in people and this reassuring statement (from Birmingham):

“Our goal with the Birmingham Fellowships is to cultivate the next generation of Birmingham academics, rather than to work with outstanding post-docs for a few years and then lose them from our community.”

I have received several emails recently from early-career academics on the job market, sometimes slightly younger than me. It is unrealistic to warn them off temporary or REF-orientated posts when these are often the only options available. I found it more useful to share a few pragmatic steps on how to survive until the permanent job comes around:

  • Treat temporary positions the way they treat you: selfishly. Accumulate enough teaching hours to look good on your CV, and no more than you have to.
  • No taxation without representation. The level of inclusion of temporary staff members is often not the same as permanent members of a department. Don’t take it personally, because this can be a blessing: it means that you are free to say “no” to what you consider unreasonable workloads. It also exonerates you from long-term obligations to attend teaching administration meetings. Ultimately, it leaves you the mental space to get on with your own research – which is ultimately what will get you your next job.
  • Even if you are not religious, believe in afterlife. In temporary jobs, the ‘after’ is all that matters. So treat them merely as a transient moment for preparing the next step. Keep your eyes and ears open for jobs and useful contacts.
  • Be loyal while it lasts, but don’t buy the ring just yet. This job is most probably not ‘the one’. Give what is necessary to department duties, and your give best to your conference papers, your writing, and networking.
  • It’s not you, it’s them. Don’t get cross if your contract doesn’t get renewed. The object of the contract transaction is probably not you, it’s the REF. No offence.
  • You need a friend. Get a mentor (or even two), to turn to for different aspects of your job. This can be a brilliant senior member of staff in your department who can advise about the next steps, and also pick you up when you feel hopeless. It can be your former PhD supervisor, who knows you and has seen you grow up professionally; it can even be someone outside academia who is sensitive to this environment, to give you a reality check of your abilities, potential, and expectations.
  • Most people don’t get it. Be careful about people’s opinions – especially coming from non-academics who have no idea. Don’t listen relatives or friends when they say: “you are trying too hard”, “this job wasn’t meant to be”, “why don’t you find a normal job”, “you can do research in your spare time”, “it won’t make you any money”, and “what is it you do, anyway?”. You should show them the finance statement when you get a big research grant, and list the great places you get paid to go on fieldwork or conferences.
  • Finally, and most importantly, you need to get out more. Put your academic and personal relationships, private life, physical health and psychological well being first.

Good luck!

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18 thoughts on “Keep Calm and Carry On Applying

  1. […] which is probably my technical illiteracy shining through, but the link below should now work: Great blog by Sara Fregonese on the struggle to get a permanent (or tenured) position in academia. […]

  2. stuartelden says:

    Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Sara Fregonese on the challenges for early career researchers – but a good outcome at the end!

  3. Santino Regilme says:

    Reblogged this on The Political Cogito and commented:
    Must read: very insightful advice to all aspiring young academics

  4. Reblogged this on rhulgeopolitics and commented:
    Sara you will be missed at RHUL. Good Luck!!

  5. CR says:

    Congratulations on the new – proper – job! I happened to follow a link over from Stuart Elden’s blog – the image of your file of job applications was just so familiar my hand seemed to have moved the mouse before I had even really thought why. I guess I stand a step behind you by about a pace in this process – I’m breathing a sigh or relief at an albeit temporary post, but of more than a year, but do I ever recognise the process. I had to laugh too; I think I may recognise those chilly opening lines of that contract too… Cheery aren’t they!

    Good to know good things come to good people – good luck with the new post!

    • Thank you and congratulations on your post too. You’re not the only person to be familiar with that kind of job applications file. The more it grows, the more aware and wise we become though. I hope 2013 brings all that you wish for.

  6. Queen Elizabeth IV says:

    congrats on your job and your list makes a lot of sense, but i’d like to just emphasise that BEING A NICE PERSON who doesn’t always scheme ref to the usefulness of colleagues and events actually pays off too. maybe not with a job in the short-term scope of things, but in the long run. say nice things TO your colleagues’ faces or comment constructively on presentations, especially those junior to you. don’t talk behind colleagues’ backs and contribute to the bitchiness of academia – there are enough meanness to go around for centuries already, don’t take out frustrations on others. be aware of the systematic obstruction of certain academics to reach tenure or permanent jobs and systematic promotion of others. be the one who looks positively on difference, diversity and new perspectives, not just in the cover letter that gets you in position. with an academic world where competitiveness for dwindling resources is making selfish calculation and meanness an everyday currency toward survival, let’s be aware and conscious of how every individual, regardless of career stage, discipline and academic hotness, treat each other. best of luck to us all.

    • Thank you, and good luck to you too. Academia is indeed full of politics, swift change, and sometimes unfair moves, as in many other jobs. We need to be able to find humanity and cohesion within that environment. I hope 2013 brings you lots of good things!

  7. saskiawarren says:

    Congratulations, Sara! RHUL’s loss is Birmingham’s gain. I look forward to having you in our department. Saskia, Research Fellow, Birmingham

  8. Santa Claus says:

    Sara, where is the criticism of the academic institutions that exploited you? Where is the criticism of the funding system that constricts hiring? Where is the criticism of contemporary academia that values contact networks and buzzwords over intellectual rigor and originality? Where is the real dissent?

    I would like to make you a friendly wager. I bet that this is as far as you go in condemning the exploitation you and so many like you/us have experienced. I bet that in 5 years, when you take up your permanent post, you will be satisfied with being “nice” to the desperate, indebted academic proles you stand over. I bet that you will be happy not angry every time you see an article you researched using public funds for sale at exorbitant prices on a publishing corporation’s website. I bet that you never tell a PhD student, especially one with kids to support, that your success was a statistical anomaly, and that ‘keeping calm and carrying on applying’ is far more likely to lead to exploitation, frustration, and near-poverty than a permanent job.

    I googled you and I find it very entertaining that your research deals with protest and resistance. You probably think your success is some kind of evidence of resistance against a corrupt system. But the joke is that you are an indentured servant of that very system. I wager your “space of protest” will narrow indeed – encompassing Beirut and Gaza apparently but I predict never Birmingham!

    My advice to aspiring academics: Stop participating in your own enslavement. Once you do that, you’re smart enough to figure out what to do.

  9. Reblogged this on deleuzianexcursus and commented:
    seems like a nice extension to the larger conversation, as well as my previous post, lamenting the difficulties of being interdisciplinary and applying for positions

  10. Simon B says:

    Interesting discussion. I published a paper on related areas, here.

    I appreciate the comment above about being ‘nice’. This is actually a truly radical response in academia, since is subverts what the neoliberal British university is trying to turn you into – a grant-getting, teaching machine that will produce financial returns and perform well in the REF or whatever comes after it. In my view, being radical or progressive means doing your share of teaching and service in the university, alongside more obvious social and environmental justice commitments elsewhere. It does not mean just producing articles that a few people, mainly peers, read – attractive as this may seem at the time.

    The author clearly wasn’t looking to move overseas, from the job apps file! One response ot the REF is to get out of the country, like I did. I have worked equally in the US, UK and Australia (and Denmark). Australia and Canada have long research-only jobs funded federally, which are attractive. Often these also lead to permanent posts, unless you screw up in a major way.

    It is probably about time to re-visit career issues in geography in some sort of collection- my own journal, the JPE, is probably not the best place, but maybe ACME for the internal geography audience, and available online for all? I am a few years out of date on what has been going on.

  11. dustette says:

    Congratulations Sara! This is inspirational and very helpful. I’m going to face a similar situation very soon now and I’m particularly unsure about one thing — hope to hear what you think about it. The thing is, for example, you did 22 applications in less than 2 years, and obviously they all require references — do you always go to the same people and request their reference letters? I think I’ll need to go through lots of applications for sure, but I’m scared of the idea that I’ll have to ask again and again and again for references from the same persons… Please let me know how you managed that, i’d appreciate it a lot!

    • Thank you.
      I relied on a core of 4-5 referees that I would combine depending on the job: my PhD supervisors, PhD viva external examiner, former employer, and post-doc mentor. I turned to a couple of other people only when I applied for jobs outside Geography.
      In the majority of applications, the referees will only be contacted by the employer if and when you are short listed for an interview, so your referees won’t have to write letters all the time (unless you get short listed often, which would be great). To give you an idea, I was only short listed 3 times out of 22.
      What I suggest is that when you are starting to look for jobs, you identify a likely core of 3 referees (thats usually the number most application forms request) and ask them if they’d mind being among your ‘default’ referees for a number of applications you’ll be submitting in the near future. You might want to mention which job or jobs you are thinking of at that point. Chances are your referees will also be the ones you might want to comment on your application before you send it in. After you apply, if you get short listed it’s all between the referees and the potential employer so you won’t have to do anything at that point. So the referees won’t be writing you letters all the time and you won’t need to ask them every time, as long as they agree to be your referees at the start and as long as you keep them regularly updated about how it is going and what applications you have lined up. For me, it became part of our normal catch-up conversations. Remember that once a referee agrees to it, his/her professionalism is also in the game, and once they are contacted by the potential employers, they won’t hesitate to send in their letters promptly. At least this is how I feel when I am asked to write references from my students.
      I hope this helps!

      • dustette says:

        Thank you! This definitely helps a lot. I was worried cause I saw some application guidelines that require not only name/contact of referees but also a letter at the time of submission. But you’ve clarified a lot and given very practical tips. Thanks and my best wishes!

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