How do we make the ‘right’ career decisions in academia, and build our overall academic identity? I received an email from a colleague and this quote got me thinking:
“all [ECRs she once worked with] would have benefitted from… support which provided them with sense of independence and value of self; knowing what rules were in place constraining choices; as well as other structural forms of support.”*
This struck me as important because we don’t always understand when we should be saying yes or no. What are the rules that constrain our choices? What support is there? We have to strike a balance that is not only good for our wellbeing but also good for our career prospects. Yes, it helps to have courage, and it helps to have people to guide us and to guard us but is there anything that could be done to the “system”, to take away some of the fear that you might be making the wrong decisions?
REF rules, ok?
In the UK at least, people look to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) for clues about what is a sign of quality in research (see our key points from the Stern Review). Yet this focus on the REF has the sad side-effect of making researchers whose work is not included in an institution’s REF return feel diminished. Where there is an expectation that a researcher will take part in the REF, there is often room for improvement in terms of allowances for time and provision of guidance from the University department itself. This varies from one institution to the next, of course.
Furthermore, for the uninitiated, the REF can feel like an abstract set of requirements which are rather removed from the realities of the daily to-do list. ECRs may be looking for something more tangible to guide them through the maze of choices. Something which can explain how to join the dots between where they are now and where they need to be.
All you need is funding
Another “rule maker” would be the granting bodies, and the ways in which they award research grants or require reporting back. Some funding bodies have been reviewing their processes to make them more ECR friendly, recognising the unique challenges and requirements of ECR led research. But like the REF, funding rules take time to learn and maybe what is missing is a structural middle-ground which allows brave and courageous fledgling researchers to practice and experiment, whilst also offering advice about how to do it and a shoulder to cry on if it fails (this is normal). Chris Ferguson offers good advice in his post about facing your worst (funding) fears and there are more practical tips from guest blogger Andrew Derrington.
Should I stay or should I go…?
Perhaps the ultimate “choice” for the early career researcher, is whether or not to stay in academia, whether to keep on applying for posts at Universities. For some, that probably isn’t really a choice: after so many rejections and so many reminders from the bank manager, perhaps the only option is to seek a job in a different sector.
But what if remaining academic in your attitude and applying your PhD-gained skills meant that you were still an academic, regardless of whether or not you work in “academia”?
Maybe this is where the ‘rules’ are made to be broken. The world of academia is constantly changing, yet the academic identity remains unhelpfully rigid. As we tentatively take the first steps into proper academia as PhD candidates, many of us don’t know about the alternatives because the system doesn’t tell us. Unless we seek out something different for ourselves, we can find ourselves meandering down the same path our supervisors took because neither us or they know any different.
But let us for a moment consider the alternative academic (the #altac) – maybe this academic identity could help answer the crisis of the European doctorates as described by Lynn Kamerlin & Gareth O’Neill and illustrated in another guest post about the number of academic jobs advertised, from Dough Rocks-Macqueen. This in turn could relieve some of the pressure and improve whilst also reminding researchers of their unique skills and value within the wider economy.
If research is your passion you could consider consulting and working as an ‘indy researcher’ with a portfolio career. Or if teaching was what got you through, then you consider tutoring or training jobs, particularly if you have gathered some recognised qualifications along the way such as becoming a Associate Fellow of the HEA in the UK.
Of course, the alternative academic career may mean leaving research behind but staying in higher education. Many people #withaPhd work in student training and engagement, university administration, or even in the library. These jobs use many of the skills gained during the PhD process, but can offer opportunities and securities that are lacking in many research career trajectories.
So, reconstructing the academic identity will mean conforming to some rules while breaking others. To get a flavour of what an alternative academic career actually is, or to find out what those around you are really doing, keep reading our blog to hear about the results from our latest survey on Academic Career Paths, coming soon!
* ECR = Early Career Researcher.
Image credits: All images CC0, from Pixabay.