Since I graduated with my PhD in 2008, the landscape of Higher Education in the UK seems to have been continually shifting. As a academic job hunter you try your best to interpret what these changes mean for your career, but it’s difficult to find a path through the fog of acronyms and doom forecasters. Each week seems to bring a plethora of new articles on these developments, but if you’re not ‘in the know’ it can be difficult to interpret the consequences of each new initiative and indeed to keep up with who is making these decisions without making politician watching your second job. Also, you’re often isolated from the practical ways in which these developments are incorporated into departments. I recall after graduation having no clue about exactly what an impact case study was and poring over HEFCE documents to see exactly how many items I needed as an Early Career Researcher. There is no definitive information I can give you about how to manage TEF/REF or the recommendations of the recent Green Paper, but the only thing for sure is more change for the sector, whether gradual or whiplash-inducing.
Here’s a few tips for keeping cool when the acronyms start flying.
Find someone sound with a permanent job, and buy them cake.
If they are a good egg, obviously they’ll insist on buying the cake, but at least the general principle is there. Find someone who isn’t a nefarious power player or moans all the time, and ask them to speak honestly about how new developments in your field will affect you in interview. Some of the speak will be derided as cobblers, so good to know what’s a concept to be dropped and what is Nathan Barley rubbish. Also, it will vary at different institutions, depending on their reliance on teaching or research income. The only way to gauge this is ask people to speak off the record and, if there’s ranting with frosting involved, most will be candid.
Follow the Twitter debates but switch the thing off
Academic twitter, as with all subsections, loves a bit of apoplexy and it can be hard to suss out what’s something to worry about and what is world-weariness. It can be a really good place, however, to hear smart people you respect offer their thoughts on developments which can influence your profession. To avoid echo chamber vibes, though, I often step off social media the moment a big HE story progresses and leave it to simmer, then engage with blog posts and select people to make my own mind up. Don’t go chasing after every single thing when you’re job hunting: if there are things you want to change in an institution or your field, you have to get the gig first. At the University English Meeting this week, we heard enlightening talks on our changing picture, and events like this can be excellent for hearing people, from ECRs to Emeritus, thrash out hope and possibility in the face of some difficult times. Find your people, offline and on, who can help you chill when the threat alarms are going off.
When it’s important, do something
Join your subject association, write letters, tweet at your MP, write for THES or The Guardian. Get stuck in and pick your battles carefully. If there’s a HE policy you think is detrimental to students or academics, then take action. Sign every petition and try to make the changes for a sector we can all be proud to work in. There is hard work to be done to make sure education is accessible to all, and sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. But take action rather than scrolling, freaking yourself out that you’ll never get a job because Universities won’t exist. Have a word with yourself, plan action.
So, you’ve read the articles, scanned the tweets, worked out what is important to you and asked someone how you can incorporate this into your next job interview. Now is when you try to switch off. The landscape is always evolving, and what’s in a paper might look very different when you get briefed at a department meeting when you get that job. So, go for a walk, take a bath, see if you can improvise a routine to ‘Young Americans’. And, from experience: switch off social media and your email at weekends as there is no sharper buzzkill than a hot take on TEF when you’d rather be baking.