On being a (nearly) senior academic
October 10, 2014 Leave a comment
Two weeks ago we heard from a Honours student in the School of History about getting the most out of the first undergraduate year at St Andrews, and last week John Condren shared his ten top tips for getting through the PhD years. This week, continuing the theme of reflections on life at St Andrews at all levels, we hear from Dr Aileen Fyfe on the challenges of being a (nearly) senior academic. First published as “The academic life” in Issue 3 of the Campaign Magazine published by the Development Office, and reproduced here with kind permission.
Ping! The university conference office says I can’t fit any more people into the gala dinner for the conference I’m organising.
Ping! Another potential postgraduate wants to know about language courses.
Ping! The Dean’s secretary wants to know if I could sit on an interview panel next month.
Ping! Manchester University Press wants to know if I could referee an entire book manuscript in the next six weeks. No.
Ping! A learned journal wants to know when it can expect my (overdue) report on a paper. Oops.
Ping! A different learned journal informs me that the paper I revised and submitted last August is going through the final editorial stages. At last.
Ping! The Young Academy of Scotland wants to know when I’m available for a meeting at the Scottish Parliament.
Ping! One of my postdocs sends me the agenda for our upcoming team meeting.
Ping! Another press would like me to referee a book proposal. At least that’s quite short, so I’ll do that one…
To be fair, those emails did not all arrive in the same afternoon, but it’s a realistic sample from the past fortnight. And that’s not to mention the many teaching-related emails.
Flashback fifteen years, and I was finishing my PhD thesis and applying for jobs. To complement my research expertise, I composed carefully-crafted paragraphs making the most of my limited teaching and administrative experience. The letter worked; and I spent the next few years struggling to maintain a research profile while designing, delivering and assessing my new modules. That transition from full-time research to the research / teaching / admin load of a lecturer was hard at the time; but looking back, it seems to me now that it at least had the advantage of being not unexpected.
Far more unexpected has been the more gradual but no less real experience of gaining seniority. At heart, I don’t feel I’m yet a senior academic, but there’s no doubt that my current tasks and responsibilities are far removed from life as a new lecturer. I often feel torn by the demands of this newly challenging phase of my career. For instance, I’ve spent a lot of time recently worrying about funding, especially for our graduate students, and coordinating funding applications for PhD studentships for my School, as well as for future research projects of my own. I don’t doubt that this is a valuable activity that will be crucial for the next generation of St Andrews historians, but it takes me away from my own research and writing.
One of my colleagues recently commented that there has been ‘an inflation of expectations’ for academics, as we’re now expected to do far more types of things than academics two or three generations ago. The constant string of requests are, in their own small way, markers of my professional status, and thus a source of pride. But I’m constantly wondering how I’m going to find the time to do everything. Nothing has prepared me for management responsibilities, or, more precisely, for adding such responsibilities to my existing roles as lecturer and researcher. Workshops on networking and time management suddenly seem more relevant than they once did. I’ve learned to block out time in my calendar for important non-urgent tasks; I’m trying not to let email rule me; and I’m attempting to say ‘no’ more often.
I feel I am still trying to work out what sort of senior academic I want to become. In the meantime, I’ve switched off the ‘ping’ on my email programme.