It’s this month…

A new milestone has been reached; in answer to the question ‘So when is it that you’re retiring?’ the answer is now, ‘At the end of this month’. However, while part of my brain is getting used to this interesting prospect, another part doesn’t seem to have caught up with it. This is a very odd feeling.

Several of the Christmas cards from academic friends of a similar age included a note about how they too are intending to retire soon; the thought of another REF (jolly training sessions on how to be ‘compliant’ with it are now being advertised) and changes to the pension scheme are motivating factors. What seemed ironic to me was that several friends whose paths have been very different from mine had written excited notes on their cards to say that they have finally got a job after years of not working. While there’s some obvious maths here, in that if some of us leave, that frees up posts for others, things are never that simple. The friends who’ve now got jobs after years without one haven’t moved into academic jobs.

My own job has now been taken, but not at professorial level, and not with a like-for-like match in terms of subject specialism, which is depressing for those who work on ancient medicine and whose hopes of a permanent post went up when they heard I was leaving. Current Open University policy is that if somebody goes, the first thing they do is try to advertise the post internally to any staff on fixed term contracts; a good way of giving some security to colleagues who have worked flat out for the university without any comparable commitment to their lives from that university, but meaning that the number of staff in the department is reduced overall and the percentage of senior staff goes down.

Even though I am going I can’t stop thinking about the job market, not least because I’m also writing references for other friends/colleagues who are trying to move to a permanent post rather than stay with their current temporary contract and/or trying to get one significant job rather than combining lots of small jobs for different institutions, as well as for those in a temporary post and applying for yet another such post. Writing references is something I wouldn’t stop doing, just as long as they are needed.

The hard and the soft

Currently, many people in the field of ancient medicine are on ‘soft money’: funded fixed-term projects. The outstanding example here is a Berlin-based project run, since 2010, by my colleague Philip van der Eijk; it’s an ambitious set of interlocking themes, which continues to employ many people as doctoral students, post-doctoral fellows, research associates and research assistants (the lines between some of these roles are very complicated, but some will involve more ‘doing your own project under the umbrella of a larger theme’ and others more ‘working on someone else’s project’). For many people, all this means moving cities or countries, because the job descriptions say things like ‘Ongoing presence in Berlin is expected as there will be an active scholarly exchange’.  There are some commendable intentions in the application process for this particular project: in particular, ‘The Humboldt-Universität actively seeks to foster career opportunities for female scholars and therefore strongly encourages qualified women to apply. Candidates with disabilities who are equally qualified for the position will receive special consideration.’ Even so, not everyone will be able to move so easily.

In my little bit of Classical Studies, this project plays an enormous role in keeping people employed in the academy. However, the logistics are terrifying. So far nearly 40 people have been employed on this project. Some have moved on from it to find other jobs in the field, but not all can do so.

In and out

I suspect that the longer you spend in the academy, the more difficult it is to find a job outside it; it would be interesting to bring together some stories of those who’ve made the leap, and find out when they did this. In one of the roles I’ve now handed over, co-convenor of the Classical Reception Studies Network, I’ve been involved in running occasional day events on the theme of careers, and we’ve always tried to include people who have moved out of the academy to do something else with their PhD. However, for those who make the move, there seem to be two issues: one is whether they simply stop doing research, writing, attending conferences in Classical Studies (seems a shame…), and the other is the emotional leap. The longer you’ve spent trying to make it in the academy, where the odds are stacked so that very few who get a PhD will go on to get a permanent academic job, the more you may feel cheated as you look at your life and wonder why you didn’t try another career path earlier on.

One of the solutions here is to make it even clearer to students embarking on a PhD that, for most of them, this doesn’t mean they will go on to become lecturers. The skills of managing an independent project which are essential to finishing a PhD thesis, plus the related skills of writing (not just academic writing, but also the sort of writing which engages those outside the academy) and presenting, are – to use the jargon – ‘transferable’. There are plenty of sites that will remind you of the skills you have – for example, this one – but unless you take the time to reflect on them while you’re writing the PhD you won’t always realize you have them!

But it’s too easy for me to say this: I’ve drifted through my working life without going outside the academy (if we leave out the Saturday job in a library, the gap year job in a bookshop, and a few vacation jobs, like working in a bread factory). If you disagree with what I’m saying, please let me know.

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6 thoughts on “It’s this month…

  1. I tell my students the ***only*** reason they should do a PhD is because they absolutely want to study their subject in depth for three(!) years — it won’t help their (industrial) job prospects, and it certainly won’t guarantee an academic career.

    I also think that the sequential fixed term RA post is a wonderful job, and a lousy career. And if you do get a permanent post — hardly any time for research!

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  2. Dr. King, are you planning to find another job after you retire from this one or are you going to take some OpenLearn and FutureLearn courses for general interest? Happy retirement, Dr. King!

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    1. I’ll be doing some consultancy work, Silvia, and a lot more writing, online and offline! I’m also looking at more opportunities for volunteer roles, and far more reading for pleasure! Thanks for your good wishes.

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  3. As one of the people who (almost but not quite) made the leap outside academia – at least outside a post in my discipline of study – I think this hits the nail on the head. it’s taken me ten years to feel it’s okay to say no when asked to give a paper, write a book chapter or review (both for free), or teach a sessional course (for less than minimum wage). I think that, as well as *wanting* to continue research and teaching in my field, I also felt that my identity was so wrapped up in my attaining a PhD that nothing else counted as success. I’ve led sessions in careers events that show alternative post-PhD paths, and agree that these need to be flagged up early in the process. But we also need to model the idea of alternative careers to students as an equal measure of success to academic tenure, otherwise they’ll always be framed as failure. And we must be conscious of the dangers of hiring bias in the Classics. I recently spoke to an excellent and potentially very high-achieving student from a non-traditional (failing state school, no previous family at university) background who told me he started his undergraduate degree determined to become an academic, but then noticed that everyone who taught him was from a small handful of elite universities. He said he realised he would never get a job so had adjusted his academic expectations and was now thinking about secondary school teaching. Which is a perfectly good career choice, but he could have been exactly the kind of new blood, fresh ways of looking at things that would invigorate research in the discipline, and we lost him before he even started.

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  4. I was recently recalling with an old friend the time when we were pretty well the only non-Oxbridge-trained ancient historians trying to get into the profession. We studied the age profile of those in post and worked out what sort of major disaster would be needed to free up jobs. It’s improved now, in terms of where people did their first degree and PhD, so hopefully the student you spoke to could find role models in other universities… But I was also aware that holding an Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowship made me look a bit more respectable to those who control our discipline. A bit…

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