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Calling all academics...

(9 Posts)
stripeyjimjams Mon 15-Apr-13 12:52:12

I've noticed there are quite a few MNers on here who work in academia, or used to, and I was hoping I might pick your brains for some advice smile.

I'm a final year PhD in a modern languages/cultures department. I'm due to submit in October this year and should manage to do so. I'm at the stage now where I'm looking for academic jobs, but there are very few out there. I'm wondering, though, if academia is even right for me. I love teaching, but not so much research. I really enjoy the small bits of research I need to do to teach, but would always rather be working with students than alone, researching. I would rather spend an hour with a student, helping them with their essay, or even marking, than doing my own research. From most of the academics in my department, I gather that they'd rather be doing research all the time, and see teaching as an unwelcome necessity.

I work in the arts (film, specifically) and have yet to see any teaching-only contracts advertised, ever. I have worked as employability adviser for undergrads and absolutely loved the work, so an advisory role in Careers might be something I'd like to do.I think I'm naturally a helper, and I just like working with people in way that's useful to them.

Obviously, it might come down to a question of not continuing in academia because I don't find a job, but I worry that if I were to choose to leave , I'd be letting people down. As I'm sure is the case for lots of people in academia, I've always been a high acheiver. I thought about doing a PGCE to go into school teaching a few years back but my mum, a retired teacher, always said it would be a 'waste' of my intelligence. I've been funded for my PhD and my supervisors have always been very supportive.

I also suffer with anxiety and depression. This got really bad in year 1 of my PhD, as I was on my own all the time. In year 2, I moved into a shared office with other PGRs, and this has helped a lot. But I know I'd be alone a lot if I were a lecturer.

I'm 27, but DH is 38, and we'd like to have a DC before he's 40. I know this is a dilemma women have always faced, but I don't know how DCs would fit into the academic life. So few of the women in my dept have children.

DH works in finance, and has a stressful job. Part of me thinks I should turn my attention to work that is more suited to me, but part of me thinks I should just accept that life is hard, and it's normal to feel dreadful before going into work on a Monday morning, as he does.

I'm so sorry this has turned into a ramble, but for those of you who work/worked in academia, could I ask you a few questions?

1. Did you get into your field for research or because you wanted to teach?
2. How is your work/life balance, if you have DCs?
3. If you have left academia, why? And how did you get on afterwards?

Thank you so much, ladies, any advice is welcome.

allicator Mon 15-Apr-13 15:36:44

Hello Stripey, Not sure if I can help as I am fairly early career myself, and also I am not really in your area. Re: jobs though, I get the impression that the academic job market had a flurry during the previous year or so, but colleagues say it is likely to quiet now until after the next RAE.

Re: your questions, I got into my field for research and would be happy not to deal with students at all. Although, I don't mind teaching, as long as there is not too much of it!

I don't want to over generalize, but I think academics (especially female) often do fit a certain profile, ie high achiever, perfectionist, probably quite hard on themselves, don't take criticism that well. Those latter two traits in particular can make one quite unsuited to academia in a way. I fit that profile and I find aspects of the job very hard. For example, I've just had my confidence eroded (decimated) by a series of events including job rejections, and I started from quite a low base confidence wise. My field is highly competitive (like most in academia) and in my experience other academics can be total bastards. I can't put it any other way!

The work/life balance is not great in terms of the number of hours you need to put in to publish and teach. My DH also has a very stressful job and I can say that having two stressed people in the house with kids as well is far from ideal. I had my first child when I finished my Phd and again, speaking honestly, have found launching an academic career with two small children and no practical support from the DH in terms of help with childcare etc is quite hard!

BUT (really big but) the job is extraordinarily flexible in terms of where you do the work especially, lectures and contact hours notwithstanding. I can't think of any other job that would afford the same level of flexibility and freedom. I wouldn't want to do any other job (and I've tried a few) but that's mainly because I do love the research.

If you don't enjoy research and can't find a teaching only contract, I am not sure, honestly, whether it would be worth it putting yourself through it? I hope that doesn't sound negative. Who would you be letting down? Maybe you feel your Mum? I do understand that but I think you have to make the right decision for you.

Hope that helps! Long I'm afraid!

TenthMuse Mon 15-Apr-13 17:18:44

Hi there Stripey,

I'm afraid I can't really offer much direct advice - I'm not an academic myself - but was wondering if you'd seen this thread? Might put you in touch with some Mumsnetters who are a bit more clued up about the realities of working in academia - as you say, there do seem to be a fair few academics around!

While I can't give you much in the way of practical help, I just wanted to add that I completely understand and empathise with much of what you've written. I'm now 32, DP is rapidly heading towards 40, and we are starting to think seriously about starting a family - the only problem being that I'm no closer to working out what I want to do career-wise than I was straight out of university. I'm one of those self-critical academic high achievers that you mention in your post, and also have some anxiety-related issues; like you, I'm not great with criticism or knockbacks, to the extent that I do worry that, for all my academic achievements, I'm not cut out for the world of work! Having now tried out two careers and done a PGCE, I'm currently studying again (an MA this time) and am halfway through writing a novel. I've toyed with the idea of doing a PhD, as studying/research has always come naturally to me, but at this stage I can't really afford it, and also worry about trying to combine further study with a family.

You are absolutely doing the right thing by thinking very carefully before leaping into an academic career. You're still only 27, and even though your DH is older you still have time to weigh up your options. Part of the reason I'm now back studying again is that I jumped into doing a PGCE without considering whether or not teaching is something I'd enjoy - I thought it would be a practical, stable option, but it turned out that my perfectionism and compulsion to do everything 'properly' made me fundamentally unsuited to primary teaching! Don't base your decision on whether or not you are letting others down. I chose my first degree (also Modern Languages, as it happens) and did a PGCE on the basis that both options met with parents' approval. Since then I've often wished that I'd studied something I was passionate about, rather than something that ticked my parents' 'employability' boxes. Also be aware than teaching in a school will differ considerably from teaching undergraduates; I have several close friends who are secondary school teachers, and much of their time is devoted to non-academic/pastoral matters (bullying etc) and dealing with disaffected students; unless it's a particularly high-achieving school, the subject you teach can often be secondary to this.

You do sound like someone who would thrive on work that involved helping others, so perhaps looking more seriously into careers advice might be an option, especially as it's something you already know you enjoy. Is there someone at your current university who you could speak to/shadow to give you more idea of what would be involved?

Apologies for the long post, but hope it's vaguely helpful. Best of luck!

stripeyjimjams Mon 15-Apr-13 19:29:50

Thank you both so much for such considered replies - it's so good to get other women's perspective on this. I reckon we do all fall into a similar type - high achiever, take criticism hard. Oh to be a bit more easygoing!

Allicator, thank you for giving me some realistic insight. I can see you're passionate about your research. I totally agree with you re: the amount of bastards in academia! I know you find them everywhere, but seriously! Got a pile of criticisms back from reviewers for an article I'd submitted the other day, and I just wished they'd be more constructive and less catty, "why should anyone still care about this subject?" etc. And the (both genders) bitchfights at conferences! Massive respect to you for everything you've achieved, especially with young DCs.

Tenth, thank you for pointing out that thread, it looks like helpful reading. I can totally identify with what you're saying. I think when you've been academically bright from a young age, you put a LOT of pressure on yourself. And it's like people just expect you to know how to sort your life out because you're "clever" and shouldn't need help. Gah! I wish you well in whatever you do next - I think it's helpful to remember that the old concept of a lifelong career as it was in our parents' day isn't for everyone, and so many people take a more meandering path, and that works for them.

allicator Mon 15-Apr-13 20:04:58

I came into academia after working in the 'real world' and being disastrously bad at it. I think I am marginally less bad at this career than others I have tried! But I had to ask myself first, what would I do if I wasn't scared? And that led me to the thing I had wanted to do all along but least wanted to fail at.

I definitely had periods before that when I felt that I simply wasn't cut out for working life. If I had stayed in my previous job and married my DH who very fortunately could support us both if necessary, I think I would have chucked it all in and become a SAHM. It would have felt like a blessed relief! However, now that I am a Mum and doing a job I mostly enjoy, I realise I would have hated being at home full time. Anyway, what I am really trying to say is that it IS worth persevering to find what you do want to do, in my experience, even if it feels like it takes a while to get there.

Hope that rambling post makes some sense and really good luck whatever you decide to do.

PS: The bitch fights at conference are indeed incredible as are reviewer comments. The cloak of anonymity in the latter allows some really appalling things to be said - although having said that, they don't really hold back at conferences either. I have had to work hard at developing a very thick skin and a sense of humour!!! Not quite there yet.

wearymum200 Mon 15-Apr-13 20:12:54

I know absolutely nothing about your field, but am (about to be; take up post in September) an early career researcher in (biomedical) sciences. The RAE has unquestionably made employability about how many 3 and 4 star publications you have and nothing else, really. While teaching is clearly integral to the functioning of a university, it is ime, often dumped squarely on the most junior members of staff, meaning you, just when you are also expected to get grant applications etc up and off the ground.
I have 2 dc , had both during my PhD and a DH who is also in finance and never home, so no practical help with childcare. I have made numerous compromises with regards to conferences, work taken on etc to try and maintain work-life balance; but had an understanding PhD supervisor so worked PT throughout.
I can honestly say I would not be contemplating the job I am about to take on if it were not for the fact that we will be moving literally round the corner from my PILs, who are lovely, supportive, retired and very keen to help with the dc who are now both school age.
I am also the academic over achieving anxious type, but have found dc provide me with more perspective; for instance, before dc, I would never have contemplated "failing" in a job, but am going into this one with the calm (ish) foreknowledge that I may be unable to make a go of it and accepting that resignation may be a reasonable outcome.
I think there are no easy answers ,but you will not in any way be failing if you don't take the academic career path.

MagratGarlik Tue 16-Apr-13 13:12:00

I was a lecturer at a RG university for many years, but recently left, though I'm a scientist, so completely different field to you.

My contract was mainly research focused and the university had a pretty poor attitude to teaching IMHO. Noone was likely to get promoted on the basis of good teaching.

The post-92 universities tend to focus more on teaching, but even there promotion prospects are limited is you are not a research star.

Tbh, if teaching is what you want to do why would you be letting anyone down by following that path and doing a PGCE? Many secondary teachers have PhD's and I know some who have had well established previous careers before going into teaching.

If you are not a researcher, I'd really think hard about whether you really want to be an academic. It can be a lonely career and as others have said, the competition can make it quite vicious. There is not a lot of collaborative spirit in it, really and it sounds like you need that.

I do think from what you've said, you should seriously consider a pgce though.

Sorry it isn't more positive.

stripeyjimjams Tue 16-Apr-13 14:17:30

Hi all, thank you again for telling me about your own experiences - it's really helpful!

Allicator, I agree completely about needing a thick skin and a sense of humour! I find the PhD candidates and the ECRs to be so much less bitchy than the more seasoned academics (can we blame them?!).

Weary - wow, you have done so well. Congratulations on your new post. I hope it goes well for you, and I really appreciate your advice about re-evaluating my idea of 'failure.'

Margrat - don't worry about your post not being positive. It's just confirming a lot of what I already know. I agree that doing a PGCE would be ideal for me, but my savings have dwindled so much now that when my stipend ends I will definitely have to look for an income instead of continuing to study. One thing I've thought of is seeing where the nest couple of years take me. We do want to have DCs, and I could always go back and do a PGCE after that, if it still seems the best way.

Thanks everyone smile.

bigkidsdidit Tue 16-Apr-13 19:45:26

I'm another academic scientist, 3 years post PhD now and doing very well. I fit the descriptin above to a tee! I'm pregnant with DC2 now, had DC1 in my first post doc.

What jumps out at me from your post is nothing to do with academia, it is that you just don't seem to want to do it! It's ok you know, not to do what your mum wants you to do. If you really want to teach then that would be great (although I know academic lecturing is much more family-friendly than school teaching).

I don't know where you are, but I have a mate who teaches on the pre-sessional courses for foreign students, they need to do a year's study before their degree if they are from a country wihtout direct related qualifications. It is teaching only, and she works 3 days a week, and loves it. Perhaps research that sort of thing?

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