Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Turning the corner

Posted by Jean Adams

In university research there are two sorts of jobs: research jobs and academic jobs.

Research jobs are all about getting a particular research project done. Contracts are time-limited and you do research – collect data, analyse results, write reports. Academic jobs tend to be permanent and involve the classic triad of research, teaching and administration. The research bit is more about leadership than in research jobs – submitting grant applications, and supervising researchers employed on your projects. But there is also classroom teaching and student supervision. And let’s just not talk about the admin.

You can see why many people might aspire to an academic position - for the job security if nothing else.
Turning the academic corner
I wouldn’t be an academic if I didn’t now say “well, that’s actually a bit of an oversimplification, really – but it gives you an idea, doesn’t it?”.

Even before I finished my PhD I wanted an academic position. I wanted to ‘lead’. I wanted to teach. And after all those years as a full-time student (n=9), you betcha I wanted a nice, healthy pay-check every month forever.

I spent four years as a post-doctoral researcher before getting my first academic position. Less time than many, and for this I am very grateful. Now, a further four years on, it occurred to me recently that only now am I actually doing the job.

Although I knew all that stuff about the difference between research and academic jobs, when I first made the transition myself it seemed like nothing changed. Yes it was nice to stop getting those letters telling me that my contract was due to expire in three months. Yes it was nice to get a little bump in my salary with promises of more in due course. Yes it was nice to put “Lecturer in Public Health” in my email footer. But that was about it. My day-to-day job was pretty much the same. I analysed data, wrote papers, suggested ideas for projects to senior colleagues, shied away from any real responsibility.

And then I got scared. I wouldn’t be the “new lecturer” able to hang on the coat-tails of more senior colleagues forever.

And then I got more scared. I knew I had to get some grant funding, make sure my post-grad students flourished, and deliver good teaching. I tried to do all these things. But I didn’t seem very good at any of them. My grant applications were rejected. My post-grads seemed unable to tie down their research questions, let alone do some research. The big lecture theatre petrified me.

But, you know, it does seem true what they say. Once you’ve started, it gets easier; you just have to start. I got a little grant funded. Then I got another, bigger one. Then I got another. My post-grads are making their own, individual, journeys towards completion. I look forward to teaching seminars (although not preparing them) and whilst the big lecture theatre still scares me, I don't think it shows so much anymore.

So here I am just starting to think that I have finally turned the corner and might truly be doing the job I’m paid to do. And guess what? From August, they've promoted me.

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