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.