The Joy of Tweed: Creating a Career as a Teaching Academic
After I finally received confirmation I was being awarded a PhD a friend asked me, "So, now that you're all doctored up have you given in to a strange yearning to buy tweed?"
My response that I had not, though I had recently procured a wax jacket left him nonplussed. I think he wondered if I had confused the stereotypical image of the absent-minded professor complete with pipe and elbow patches with some vision of agrarian life in the nearby Devon countryside. After all, I am an American and prone to misunderstand these things. I never cleared the matter up for him.
This particular anecdote may seem to shed little, if any, light on the process of moving from life as a student into full-time employment within the academy, a transition which, I should note, I am still in the midst of. Without realising that he had done so my friend had, however, put his finger on a significant aspect of what happens when your PhD thesis has been accepted and it is finally time to begin the full-time job of finding permanent, full-time employment.
I suspect that anyone who has ever seriously considered studying for a PhD will be familiar with the idea that along with the relief and elation of achieving that goal there tends to be a strong element of anticlimax. I had been warned of this fact so many times that the notion was almost as clichéd as the tweed and elbow patches of an Oxbridge don. Being repeatedly forewarned, I reasoned, I was prepared. While I avoided some of the depths of listlessness and lethargy that others reported, eventually the anticlimax caught up with me. I didn't and still don't feel any different even though I can use the title doctor. I suspect that in most settings people would never guess that I am a fully qualified member of the academy searching for my own parapet among the ivory towers.
This bothered me for a while. At one point I even ordered a pizza online for delivery to Dr Stites. The delivery person showed no interest even after receiving a substantial tip. I'm not suggesting that I suffer from feelings of fraudulence, or that in my dealings with fellow lecturers, both social and professional, being awarded my degree hasn't given me a new measure of confidence and ease. Instead, whether I'm writing a lecture, thinking about an article I need to write or completing a job application, the day to day mechanics of trying to become a professional academic can be just as isolating and anonymous as the daily grind of researching and writing my thesis was. Some days that's a blessing. On others it is harder to bear.
It would be nice if leaving the library or my house or giving a lecture I could don some sartorial symbol of the fact that I have completed my degree: a pink-banded bowler hat, a superman-inspired costume or even a nice tweed coat. Maybe this is why those of us who attend a graduation ceremony have to wear absurd caps and medieval robes for the occasion; they're psychological mechanisms meant to impart a sense of climax and provide a fitting end to years of study. I have yet to walk through the formality of my graduation ceremony but, if anyone is interested, I'll let you know if it works.
Obviously there's more to finishing a PhD course and pursuing a career as an academic than tweedy stereotypes and feelings of anticlimax.
I've been lucky in that other lecturers in the department where I've worked on a part-time basis for the past two years have been very supportive in terms of offering me advice and support as I search for a job. Despite all the horror stories of departmental politics and infighting that many of us are familiar with I've found that other lecturers will go out of their way to help budding academics. It is important, if possible, to find some part-time teaching and lecturing work while you study. Personally, I was very cautious about the kind and amount of work I took on, but that work can pay important dividends after completion not just in terms of your CV but, more importantly, in terms of already being a small part of a school or department making not only references, but, with a bit of luck, additional work easier to come by. At the very least you'll know if you could ever work on a full-time basis in a particular department with specific people.
Working while you study also provides a small taste of just what life can be like as an academic. The impossibility of finding a satisfactory balance between research and teaching never, as far as I can tell, disappears. For a long time I wondered if I would ever reach the point where I could make sufficient progress with my research while also writing lectures and preparing for seminars. When a full professor told me that after decades as an academic with an international reputation as an important critic and fantastic teacher she cannot teach and maintain a full research schedule I worried a bit less about my own frantic oscillations between teaching and researching.
I have also found that the time demands of certain elements of teaching at the university level shrink over time and with practice. For example, the first lecture I ever wrote took me nearly a solid week of work to compose and was a complete script for everything I was going to say. These days I can usually write a lecture in a day and while I suspect I'll never be someone who speaks from a tersely worded list of important, bulleted points as some lecturers do, I no longer have to plan every word in advance.
While there is still plenty of work involved, teaching on a course that you've previously taught on also lessens the amount of time necessary for preparation meaning you can devote more time to other things like research, job applications or even additional teaching. The latter is equally important and difficult when you're being paid according to the hourly contracts that most of us start on.
On paper these contracts look good and, to be fair, the pay is decent, but the hours associate lecturers are paid for a course and the hours they actually work are two very different numbers. I don't know anyone who can write a lecture and prepare for four hours worth of seminars each week in the space of a single hour. Being able to prepare more quickly does, however, mean the possibility of teaching more classes which in turn adds an often well-needed boost to a dwindling bank balance.
Of course, obtaining a permanent, salaried position is an obvious way to avoid the inequities of the usual hourly pay arrangements. These positions do exist, but most of us have to serve a bit of time as hourly-waged journeymen and women before we can hope to obtain such a post.
It helps (as it does with any academic position) to have a strong publication record but, as I've mentioned finding the time to write and research can be tricky, especially when teaching for an hourly wage. It helps to have a few articles published during the course of your PhD study especially near the end. A good publication record can help you stand out from other newly qualified academics, although with the RAE being conducted recently those of us who had just finished were often at a disadvantage in applying for jobs.
I even saw some normally entry level vacancies advertised that required applicants to contribute a minimum number of points to the RAE that, essentially, necessitated having a monograph published. Luckily this is a temporary state of affairs.
There's more that I could say about trying to find a career in academia much of it so often repeated as to verge on cliché. Jobs openings can be few, especially at certain times a year, far between and even farther afield. It helps to be flexible, but it also helps to be clear about what you want from a job and where you want to live. I saw a near-perfect opening in my discipline listed the other day. The pay was great, the posting was permanent, housing was provided, I met the qualifications and there was even a possibility of research leave in the first eighteen months.
It was also in Saudi Arabia, a place well outside my personal search radius.
Maybe I need to be more flexible. I'm not sure. For now, however, I think I might take the rest of the afternoon off and go shopping for something in the way of a nice tweed coat.
Max D. Stites is a strange American pilgrim in a fine British land. He completed his BA at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California before pursuing a course of study at the University of Exeter. After completing an MA in English (Victorian Studies) he embarked upon the pursuit of a PhD that, eventually, bore the title 'Journeys in the Land of Fear and Loathing: Dickens, Thompson and the American Dream.'
He has taught at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, has a few publications to his name and enjoys more happiness that one person deserves with his wife, Helen, and dogs Jack and Phoebe. He likes cooking, surfing and has a ridiculous penchant for cowboy boots and inappropriately ornate clothing.