‘So what are you doing now? . . . Oh so you have moved to the dark side then!’
This is the typical response that I get from former colleagues (in jest I might add!) about my switch from a postdoctoral research role to administration of the Research Technology Platforms (RTPs) at Warwick. They often wonder why I have made the switch from the ‘pure’ pursuits of academia to the ‘dirty oppositions’ side of university administration. As a football analogy, they see this as I would one of my beloved Wolves players moving to the terrible team from Sandwell, West Bromwich Albion.
The dark side!
But in order to understand my decision to switch to the ‘dark side’, let me rewind a little, to explain how this change came about. Many of you might be interested in making the move but are unsure, or are just curious as to the alternative career paths available!
I enjoyed life as a postdoctoral researcher, having been given the chance to supervise and design projects for students. I visited many foreign lands for the first time through conferences and visits to collaborators, whilst also maintaining a healthy publication record. I wouldn’t have swapped the two years after passing my PhD for any other position. So why did I leave the academic career ladder? Several things influenced my choice to do so and it was a move I had been ’planning’ since before the end of my PhD.
Towards the end of my PhD I started to weigh up future options and possible career paths. The first of the factors I considered when determining if I should stay in academia were what the necessary steps towards progression in academia are. When considering academia I soon realised that in order to guarantee success you must be:
- able to change scientific direction
- have achieved enough within 5 years of the PhD to get an academic fellowship position.
There are always exceptions, where highly sought-after personnel are able to stay in one institution, however this type of academic is certainly now becoming an anomaly (in Britain at least). Thus, in chasing the fabled ‘initial academic fellowship’, a researcher is expected to move a couple of times to new locations to gain experience. The ability to change direction is also desirable: a young researcher with knowledge of several fields and perhaps experience in the new ‘big thing’ is highly sought after (a current example is research related to graphene). The third point is a key one, the researcher is expected to have a successful application typically 2 – 5 years after finishing their PhD. This means:
- a strong publication and citation record
- experience writing successful grants
- to be ‘known’ within the field as one of the up and coming researchers.
Oh, and of course teaching experience is also desirable!
Having considered these factors and how they matched with what I wanted in life, I realised that maintaining an academic career would be difficult. I had a long-term partner (now my wife) who had a permanent position teaching at primary level, and our families live within an hour away, plus we were living in an area that we both liked. This made ‘mobility’ difficult and was likely the key influence on my decision. Whilst I was not also against changing fields, it would have meant I had to learn a lot to catch up to others and the timeframe issue adds a great deal of pressure to those who want to be successful.
Therefore, I decided to look at alternative career paths that would make use of my skills that I had built during my research career, but that better suited the lifestyle that I wanted. I realised that I still wanted to work at a higher education institution if possible, as I liked the atmosphere, the ethos of the institutions and the variety of roles available. Indeed, when I spoke to several people who had made the switch from the academic career either directly or shortly after their PhD they seemed to have had the same thought process about their career that I did. Those that had made the switch to the ‘dark side’ were happy that they had, and enjoyed the variety of roles that they had moved between to gain experience, whilst having still managed to stay in a single location.
So, whilst still accepting a postdoctoral position to finish some of the work from my PhD, I always had the career switch in mind. My supervisor agreed to help me gain experience where possible and soon after I volunteered to organise ‘the Journey’ summer school alongside Frederik Dahlmann in Warwick Business School (WBS) and Andy Roadnight in the Research Support Services (RSS, also one of the ‘dark siders!’). Organising the content and logistics of the summer school gave me a great deal of experience with project management and balancing workloads, as well as dealing with issues that I would normally have asked others to help with when in academia. The success we have had in organising this course since 2013, and the enjoyment I have personally had in doing so, suggested that the switch to the ‘dark side’ of university administration was the right path for me.
Time to hang up my gloves.
So the decision was made, but how easy would it be to transfer? What type of roles did I consider? Find out soon in part 2, leaving academia behind.
What else do you think is relevant when considering a switch from an academic career to an academic support role? Have you considered moving away from academia? Please do share in the comments field, below.
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