Doctor Who and the portfolio career

Kevin Fong advises academics to scale the silo walls occasionally to regenerate their careers

October 23, 2014

I’m back from my adventures, once again secure within the walls of the university after a six-month sabbatical with Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance Trust. It’s neither the most nor the least random career segue I’ve ever made although it is the first time any employer has required me to wear fireproof underwear.

It used to trouble me greatly, this itinerant existence. As time went by my career looked less and less like any of those I’d earlier coveted. None of it had any of the traditional structure, none of it had the checks, balances and benchmarks by which any conventional career could be measured.

But I’ve come to accept that this is how my shtick works: I pop up in random locations, never quite sure of what the next destination might be, with no one more surprised than me when I finally do arrive. It’s what I imagine being Doctor Who must be like. (Minus the bow ties, sonic screwdriver, brilliant assistants or intellectual capacity.) I do of course travel in time, in one direction, at a rate of one second per second. And while I have no Tardis, my base of operations is a university building whose external facade cunningly misrepresents the extent of its internal volume (it’s smaller on the inside than it looks like it should be from the outside). But the main attribute I’d like to think I share with the Doctor is his approach to the portfolio career: the idea that you need to keep moving and learning, occasionally regenerating completely, but always carrying something of your past forward with you.

Abandoning everything you know and taking a leap into the unknown is not for the faint-hearted. But the hardest move is the first one

Portfolio careers have been all the rage for nearly a decade now. They were at first simply a product of the Great Recession, a way of future-proofing yourself against job insecurity. If one job fell through you could always fall back on one of the other three. But for many people they have now become a way of life.

Americans call these people “the slashers” because they’re the folk who, in response to the question “What do you do?” might say “I’m a primary school teacher/baker/farmer” or in more metropolitan locations “I’m a politician/comedian/celebrity sociopath”.

Perhaps “slashers” is also a nod to the fact that they are tearing up the old concept of what a career ladder should look like. (Or perhaps it’s because, unless they’re very careful, “slashers” run the risk of looking like they’re just peeing about with lots of different things.)

There was a time when a job for life meant you’d made it, when companies could snare undergraduates in the milk round with an outside chance of keeping them for the whole of their working existence. But all that’s changed. Recently we’ve come to accept that in a lifetime of work a person might experience several evolutions. More than that, we’ve realised that there are distinct advantages to moving between disciplines. We’ve spent so long specialising and sub-specialising in every walk of life that there is probably as much to be gained from going across as there is in continuing deeper.

For me it’s just what happens to work. My university and hospital periodically release me, on the end of a long but high tension bungee cord, and when it snaps me back I bring a little bit of wherever I’ve been back with me.

I was recently asked to give a talk to a room full of postdocs about the merits of a portfolio career. I was surprised. I had always assumed that academia proper would be the last sanctuary for wannabe lifers. But it appears even higher education has begun to shred the rulebook. I did my best to oblige. The organisers wanted to imbue this particular crop of research scientists with a sense of the possibilities that lie in wait within and without the walls of the academy.

It’s hard not to make the whole escapade sound utterly terrifying. Abandoning everything you know and taking a leap into the unknown is not for the fainthearted. But the hardest move is the first one. After that first transition nothing is ever quite so unknown again. And of course you don’t really leave everything you once knew behind.

One of the major drawbacks is that it is extremely difficult trying to get people to understand precisely what it is that you do or have done for a living. Even those close to you. I was trying to explain my meandering career path to one of my oldest friends. He frowned for most of the conversation but after a while I was sure that he was beginning to understand. “I see,” he said, “you kind of lollop around randomly through events in modern history. Rather like that bloke…”

“Yes! Yes!” I exclaimed, pleased that he got it and quietly proud that he, too, saw the same canny parallels.

“Yes,” he continued, “running from place to place, with no design for life, never knowing where you’re going to end up next…”

“Yes! Yes! I thought so too!” I agreed.

“…Just like Forrest Gump,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly like him.”

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