Wednesday, 27 June 2012
Not quite leaving the Ivory Tower but…
This post tells a story about trying to leave the Ivory Tower of academia and managing to achieve this aim to some degree. It’s about getting out, but still remaining in the space in another capacity.
Well, so much has been happening since my last post and the previous one that mentions the process of applying for a non-academic job at the university where I studied for my PhD. If this job spec appeared a year and a half ago when I was first thinking about getting out of academia I probably wouldn’t have given it a serious look. The thought of working in a non-teaching role at the same university where my old department could ‘spot’ me and drill me about why I gave up on worthy scholarship etc., was just too much to ponder. I wanted to get as far away from them as possible. This anxiety also arose when I was contracting teaching for a long time at another local university. I looked at job openings there regularly (applied for one but didn’t get the job) but always feared bumping into other academics I knew in my network and then having to explain everything.
But that was then and this is now and the reality of circumstances, as well as the wonderful therapeutic nature of ‘time’ perhaps has been helpful in narrowing down what I am willing to do and what I am not willing to do. The narrowing list (always in process) isn’t perfect, but it has got more refined and containable I guess.
So, I think I’ll leave exact details about the job out (still have fears about being found out through a google search!), but will indicate a bit. The role involves developing student representation and engagement in the university with a specific focus on a certain student cohort (of which I have personal and professional experience!). When I read the spec I was intrigued to see that it involved both primary and secondary research as part of this initiative to develop the area. It also includes recruiting and training, so the teaching background I have is helpful. My earlier post mentions sending off the application and reveals some of my anxieties around the health section, not to mention age, so I kind of left things as though it would not go anywhere. Mentally preparing myself I guess. But last week I did get invited to interview and candidates were given instructions about what they had to do to prepare for the ‘task’, which involved quite a lot of creative vision and organisational thinking. Of course, this meant presentation with Q and A, and an additional round of a first ‘informal interview’, another ‘task’ and if candidates passed that, they went through for a ‘formal’ interview. So, here is where I shall cut to the chase. After the morning tasks I made it through to the afternoon. I guess I felt pretty positive about how things were going and there seemed to be positive nods from the panel. There were a few moments where I thought I might have gone off on a tangent waffle speech but then made focused attempt to get back. Clarifications – one or two – then back on track and good nods in sight. I got a phone call in the evening and was told they wanted to offer me the job. I had decided by that point that I would accept if it was offered but I’ve had some nagging anxiety (oh dear, readers must see my patterns of anxieties by now) about working the full-time load. Ideally, I have wanted to find part-time work but the possibilities for permanent part-time jobs are so slim. Anyway, the very strange thing is that this prospective boss/manager then said he’d like to ask me if I would consider the possibility of working a four day not a five day week, as they see the potential to use some of the funds to put into a research pot for the development initiatives in mind (maybe thinking about my response to their ‘task’ that I presented). Well, what a strange moment indeed. I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. He said, I’m sure you may want to take a few days to really think about that before you accept, etc. This was a pretty straight forward moment for me at that point so I just accepted.
What is really weird about this whole process is this feeling that it has all happened so quickly, even though, I realise too that the job-seeking process for me has been a very long one indeed. I am left this morning reflecting on how my experience of academia at PhD level and contract teaching has informed my ability to get this job. Has it been helpful? Absolutely yes, but for a specific range of reasons. In the morning all five candidates waited in the same area for proceedings to start (we were arranged separately in fixed time slots for the different tasks and informal interview). After a bit of chat on this and that, what I discovered was that they all had Master degrees - not sure about one other person but she had higher diploma to teach English as a second language. The criteria for the role did not specify Masters Level qualification, but it seemed obvious to me that candidates with at that level found the role interesting with a lot of potential for growth.
I think my research experience during PhD and then the later short-term, practical paid research projects I’ve been involved in (doing fieldwork, interviews) also made me a strong candidate. Of course the other important aspect is my work experience and knowledge of UK Higher Education. I think the department could see the value in the background and gave me a shot to show them what I could offer. I think all of this is very promising for potential post-academics who may think about pursuing other professional areas in Higher Education, which can also involve research and work with students. The pay scale for this role does not equal that of a first permanent UK Senior Lecturer’s post. I’ve accepted that in starting somewhere else in a new area this is the way it is, but there is much room for growth and opportunity to apply for future posts internally. The universities are now advertising many jobs to internal applicants only out of loyalty. So less competition - not fighting alongside one hundred other well-qualified applicants.
Admittedly, I am just feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing this morning. I worked hard on the brief and in selling myself for a job spec that was about three pages long. Will I be able to live up to my claims? Will I have the energy required? These are questions many candidates and job winners ask themselves I assume. All I can say for the moment is that with that fear is a also a sense of newly acquired confidence and pleasure that my efforts paid off and that other people recognised and valued them. I forgot to mention that during my interview I was never drilled about why would I dream of leaving teaching/academia. That territory was framed in the general question, ‘Tell us what has led you to apply for this job, why now, what kinds of things have brought you to this point?’ I also haven’t mentioned that the team of people I will be working with, including a person who holds a parallel position with whom I can work closely to develop ideas, were all really friendly, warm and welcoming. It’s all looking good. Aside from having to sort out logistical matters like what to do with my younger daughter when both my partner and I are out all day working over some of the school holidays, it’s feeling manageable. I’m going to work hard to remain sensible about this job, taking it slowly, step by step as a process. It’s not a fixed contract run so there is time to grow with it. Lots to think about. I am thinking also that the post-academic bloggers here, by sharing their job seeking stories and experiences, have really helped me get to this stage and I want to say a very big thanks to you all for the encouraging blogs you are writing and for the comments you’ve been leaving here regularly.
In my last post I mentioned my intentions to write about the experience of working in academia with young children in tow. This aim is still on my list. With these new developments it will be interesting to think about how I'll manage in this kind of role with kids. It's nice that my older son who will be sixteen in July, will be less to worry about in that sense (although I have my other worries as he is the risk-taker, accident prone one - see my Easter/Passover post on his skateboarding accident...). Watch this space. So much to think about!