Being an ‘early career’ lecturer

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve started thinking about this in the last few days – perhaps it’s the fact the department here has almost entirely disappeared given the start of the school holidays etc.; perhaps it is because I’ve been in Plymouth exactly a year and I’m getting close to being 2 years from my PhD submission; possibly it’s because I acted as an internal examiner for a PhD here in the past couple of weeks; or likely it’s because I’m being forced to be reflexive as part of a teaching course I’m doing (more below) – but I’ve been finding myself thinking about how I’ve ended up where I am and how my life has changed post-PhD.

I think one of the things I’ve really realised it that no matter how hard I work, no matter how many hours I seem to put in, there is always more (and more!!!) to do (more teaching, more admin, more applications to put in, and so on). I’m rapidly realising this is the base-line state of being an academic!

I’m also realising that I need to get better at accepting it and so doing what I can/not getting to caught up in it all. That said, I’ve also been telling myself ‘next year will be easier’ now that I’ve got the vast majority of my teaching prepared based on what I did last year and also that I’ll be free of PGCAP work (again, more below). I’m also thinking that might be horrendously naive, but I guess I’ll see…

I’m not sure I want to really get into the full on ‘advice post’ sort of thing here, but I’ve realised I was probably quite naive when it came to the transition from PhD to lecturer and that the PhD is actually a relatively poor preparation for a large part of being a lecturer! I know of some really useful posts on advice on doing a PhD/what to try to get out of it (see here for example), but I’ve not spotted much on what happens in life post-PhD. I guess then there’s a few hints I’d give that seem to make sense to me now, even if I wasn’t actively pursuing this at the time…

1) Publishing during the PhD

Okay, having said i didn’t want to give advice on what to do during a PhD as others have done this well, I just want to re-state a couple of things that are central to actually being able to make the transition into post-PhD academic life…This might seem obvious to some, but publishing during the PhD was ultimately how I ended up in the interview rooms that I ended up in. In the current job market, you simply need to have something at least forthcoming or else I doubt your application will spend long out of the bin (more on that below). I was really lucky that my PhD supervisor pushed this quite early on, along with *presenting* at conferences (and not just in post-grad sessions). In terms of the former, I know for a fact that at least one of my interviews came about from a rather systematic approach of the recruitment panel who sifted applications by 1) who had actually got the PhD (nope? – in the bin); 2) who had a publication or publications (nope? – in the bin); and 3) who had publications in geography journals (nope? – in the bin). It sounds harsh/might be discouraging, but ultimately that seems to be how it is. Also, I think the latter in particular gets you a lot further than the opportunistic networking that a lot of people advocate/engage in (I’m pretty certain that an interview panel member will be more swayed by an interesting paper they’ve seen you give than by having had you latch onto them and tried to steal away their drinking/socialising time on one of the few times a year they likely see all the people they did their PhD with etc.!).

2) Publishing after the PhD

This is something of a challenge if you end up in a short-term teaching-intensive job when a large part of your working week will be swallowed up with preparing teaching or actually teaching. The first reaction I had was to try to get all the papers out of the PhD as soon as possible so I could get onto something fresh/leave it behind! However, it will likely not be so simple (unless you have been really really strategic in the writing of the thesis….). To get round this, when I was at Keele at least, I set aside 1 day a week for research, though not in the first 2 months of the job as this simply wouldn’t have been possible. That day was spent working at home and staying away from email etc. as much as possible. This did mean the rest of my week had to stretch a bit to fit everything else in (incidentally, I took 0 days of my annual leave allowance while I was there – not something I would advocate as I’m feeling the effects of that still – and was generally the first in and last to leave), but it meant I could submit 2 papers during the time I was there. Interesting, others suggest a more fragmented approach of keep aside an hour here or there throughout the week, though I tend to find I need a bigger block to get into it properly. Increasingly though, finding that whole day hasn’t been easy, so I’m sensing I’ll find myself leaning toward shorter segments of time…

3) Moving

Unless you are lucky enough to find a job in your own department, you will likely end up having to work somewhere significantly distant from your PhD institution. In this case, especially when on a short-term contract, it is tempting to try to avoid moving. While there are cost implications/’life’ might get in the way, I’d advocate moving. As you’re only going to be there in a short time (which will pass before you even notice), if you move you’ll be able to be more of a proper member of that department/integrate to some extent/take the most from the experience.

Being based near to your actual employing institution and actually coming into your department to work will mean you can dive in head first and be an active member of the department. Of course, you don’t want to go to far/make sure you keep you CV ticking over, but the best case scenario will be that you make such an impression they won’t want to lose you so will keep you on/do all they can to try to keep you, or at worst you end up with a great reference for your next employer and some fledgling collaborations with the colleagues you’ve impressed to move your research forward.

I’m sure some will disagree here and argue that you need to be blinkered toward doing only what you want, forsaking all else (or at least as much as you can get away with) unless it will directly fit your master plan, but I do think there is merit in ‘trying to make yourself indispensable’ as a wizened geography professor advised my when I told him I’d got the job at Keele/there is a balance to be struck…

4) TLHE/PGCAP (basically, a teaching qualification you will have to complete)

Sooner or later, more likely when you get into a slightly longer term post given the time implications and actual time taken to complete it, you will encounter the burden that is your institution’s internally run masters level course that they require you to do as part of your probation/that teaches you how to teach (something a PhD really doesn’t do). I believe that these can vary in workload quite widely depending on your institution, but my sense is that these are becoming more extensive (particularly in light of the forthcoming fee-climate).

At Plymouth this worked out to 3 hours in a class room every term-time week and other preparatory work to the equivalent of the rest of that working day (so, basically 1 day a week for something like 24 weeks!). Your line manager will have been told to compensate your workload accordingly, but this may well (to put it politely) not happen. So, the day I mentioned above for research is already gone! There’s not a lot of escaping this, but it’s an obstacle that you might not expect to encounter, but will just have to grin and bear it (and, if you are inclined, there is the option to try to engineer the assignment(s) you produce toward something publishable or more generally useful to your department, either of which will pad your CV and/or keep you in your line manager’s good books). I guess the reason I’m mentioning this is primarily in terms of managing your own expectations of what you should be achieving in terms of productivity.

5) Goals

Leading on from the last point, and in many ways coming back to the publishing front, there will no doubt be a whole load of things you want to achieve in your new job/in terms of your research output etc. One thing I’d say here is that it is dangerous to start looking at what your peers are doing too closely. This is tempting – you’ve just come out of a very competitive job market which can sometimes feel like a bit of an arms race (X has 2 papers, therefore I need 3 to get a job! What, Y has 3, okay, I need 4!! etc.). While you want to try to be productive (especially if you are still on a longer fixed-term contract and still have a wandering eye on the job market), you need to be realistic. There are obviously a few frighteningly productive people out there, but you need to think about your work and what you want to do (and also remember different jobs will land you with different teaching/admin commitments). This might tie into having an REF submission (something your employer will be interested in!) and to an extent this will be a case of QUALITY not QUANTITY. For a full submission here, you obviously need 4 papers, but ONLY 4 are submitted to that. Therefore, you are arguably better off spending a little more time in getting 4 good ones together than trying for 6, 7, 8 or whatever, that are less good/more finely ‘sliced’.

Obviously, having your name very visible through lots of articles can really help your profile, but equally other things might work in your favour also/make your name visible (for example, organising conference sessions, editing journal special issues, getting grant money/being a part of large-scale collaborative project, and so on). That said, on a personal note, spamming CRIT-GEOG is NOT the way to do this!!!

That’s about all I can think of for now. I might add more if it comes to me, but I’d be interesting to hear anyone else’s thoughts on this who might be in a similar position/been through this recently…

About Paul Simpson

I am currently a lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Physical and Geographical Sciences at Keele University. I've previously lectured at Plymouth University, and again at Keele before that. I completed my PhD (titled 'Ecologies of Street Performance: Bodies, Affects, Politics') at the University of Bristol in 2009.
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5 Responses to Being an ‘early career’ lecturer

  1. Pingback: A little more on writing | Progressive Geographies

  2. Great post. I completed my PhD in March and have been teaching full time since December and finding the teach/research balance tough! I want to get some papers published as soon as I can with one eye on the REF but I am also starting the PGCertTLHE this year so not sure when this will happen! Plus I also need to get back onto my own blog which was meant to be the place I process my thoughts….not even had time to do that!

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