On straddling the academic divide

Last time I wrote on this blog I was an academic. Well in reality I am still an academic, just one who has been displaced, but in being so I get a chance to reflect and reconsider the fringe benefits of being out of academia and on what I might take back, if I return to UK Higher Education.

The five-month hiatus in writing this blog is indicative of the challenges faced by precariously employed academics – with months taken up in the pursuit of a new post and then getting used to the new role. I do still work in education, albeit in a different capacity, and I am still precariously employed, in a role that is cover only and does not have a progression pathway. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose, as we say in French.

Yet, there are still positives to take from these experiences, which I focus on in this post. I promise there are also further blog posts in the pipeline, including ones in which I am in conversation with other experts talking about hypermobility, about economics and higher education, amongst other topics, but for now let’s focus on the topic for today – of the gains from straddling the academic divide.

In fact this isn’t the first time I’ve straddled the academic divide -doing a partly funded PhD meant that I had to seek work outside of academia – all of which, be it data entry, charity work writing funding bids or translation project management, have stood me in good stead, and there has been something to take from each that has enriched my knowledge and made me more grounded as an academic. I am still involved in learned societies, both in Women in German Studies and in the University Council of Modern Languages Early Career Academic Special Interest Group, so I still feel part of the communities that are important to me. But since starting on this fixed-term-contract merry-go-round this is the first time I find myself out of academic employment. Yet, it is not as bad as I feared it would be. Perhaps that is because I only work part-time so I am able to dedicate time to getting on with research, which I either previously simply couldn’t do or could only do slowly with a heavy teaching load and job hunting taking priority. Since finishing my last academic post in summer I have drafted two publications, both of which are at various stages of production. I’ve also recorded a podcast (due out in December – look out for further details soon). I am working on the long-anticipated exhibition and will move onto developing a new project on hypermobility and multilingualism as soon as I can. It takes dedication on my part – my Mondays and my Fridays being my research days, but I find I can think more clearly, and so as much as I would not have chosen to be out of academia, if I see this as a temporary break, I can see that it is bringing me far more in terms of intellectual stimulation than another temporary lectureship would have done.

If I’d stayed in academia this time around, I’d have been able to expand my teaching portfolio that little bit more than I already have but I have to ask myself, would further range really make me more employable long-term? I suspect not. Being outside of academia is bringing me the professional experience that my CV needs but few HE employers have been able to provide in part because of the very temporariness of my contract type. For one, leadership opportunities have been few and far between since I was made redundant from Leeds in 2019; yet my current role is bringing me plenty of leadership opportunities and I find myself relishing them. I’m also gaining in regulatory experience, all of which I could, in theory, bring back into academia one day.

The gains aren’t all one way of course. My employer is gaining from my knowledge and expertise – in fact it was those factors that made me attractive to my current employer; so in a way academia is giving back to education more broadly by my shift from Higher Education, but it does raise a question in my mind as to whether universities are sufficiently future-proofing themselves. Given the prevalence of short-termism seen in the proliferation of fixed-term contracts which result in academics effectively being forced out of the system, ground down by the multiple factors around precarious employment, and also replaceable by new staff who have only recently finished or are in the process of finishing their PhD, and thus cheaper. It is only right and proper that newly minted academics get a chance at employment, and as I’ve said, I’ve not really anything to gain from yet another short-term post, but in this staffing system at the early career stage, experienced academics only last for a few years before they become expendable, and all that experience departs with them, it finds new homes and is replaced by new potential, who will in just a short-time become as expendable as I have proven to be. So how can that system work long into the future as established academics retire? Who will replace them if the middle ground is not developed? I do not have an answer to the questions I have just posed. That is one for senior management at universities across the country to answer.

If I do return to academia, or even if I don’t, wherever I go from here, I’ll do so with more confidence than I departed academia with, a security that comes from knowing how flexible I can be, that I can not only survive change but thrive in it, and that I can pursue what matters to me -developing ideas, doing research, working collaboratively with others.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back again soon!

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