The best of both worlds

August 29, 1997

A few academics manage to combine the benefits associated with full-time work with the freedom to 'have a life' - by job-sharing. Simon Midgley reports

On Mondays and Tuesdays Leslie Brubaker teaches Byzantine studies at the University of Birmingham. On Tuesday evening her colleague Ruth Macrides travels to Birmingham by train from St Andrews in Scotland. She stays in Dr Brubaker's house in Birmingham and teaches Byzantine studies on Wednesdays and Thursdays while Brubaker resumes her research. On Fridays one or other may teach at the university, depending on the timetable. Then Dr Macrides returns by train to her ten-year-old daughter and her two-day-a-week fellowship in medieval studies at St Andrews University.

Macrides and Brubaker are a rare hybrid in British academe - they job-share a lectureship. In the 1980s, job-sharing in Britain appeared increasingly fashionable in universities. It tended to be on the administrative side, however, rather than in research and teaching. This is still the case. But the handful of research and teaching job-shares that do exist offer a glimpse of one way in which academics can organise their lives to create time for research or young children while retaining the employment and pension rights of full-timers.

The advantage for a university is that it can get two people with separate specialisms and can thus offer four specialist options instead of two. Yet an email trawl unearthed examples of academic shares at only a handful of universities - Birmingham (Byzantine studies), Manchester (linguistics), North London (psychology), Edinburgh (social anthropology) and East London (art and design).

Brubaker, 46, has split a lectureship in Byzantine studies with Macrides, 47, since 1994. The appointment came about after Brubaker saw an advert for a full-time post and asked Macrides whether she would like to make a combined application. Brubaker, an American who was head of a large art history department at Wharton College, near Boston, in the US, was fed up with administration and wanted to teach, do research and "have a life". She was also tired of commuting between Boston and Birmingham, where her English husband is professor of medieval history.

She knew her specialist interest, Byzantine material culture, was probably not broad enough to secure the job but that Macrides's academic interests - Byzantine history, culture, Byzantine Greek and modern Greek - would complement her own. Macrides, another American, lecturing on an annually renewable fellowship at St Andrews, at first thought a joint application "pretty crazy" because she lived so far away. However, she knew St Andrews was unlikely to want to appoint another Byzantist - her husband is the department's Byzantine specialist - and was aware that the last Byzantine lectureship advertised in Britain was in 1985. "I thought it worth a try since I might never see another job advertised," she said.

Brubaker worked out a potential contract with the university before being offered the job. She wanted to ensure that they both had job security if something happened to the other person. "You need to have it defined as a full-time job to get the employee benefits, but each person needs to be on their own promotions and salary track after the first year."

Kirsty Borjars shared a temporary lectureship in linguistics with Susan Barry at Manchester University for two years up until autumn 1996. She now has a permanent lectureship of her own, while Mrs Barry has 60 per cent of the formerly shared lectureship and still enjoys the rights associated with full-time employment. Dr Borjars suggested to Barry that they apply for the shared post when she was a research assistant at the university completing a Phd and Barry was teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University on 0.5 of a lectureship. Both women had young children and wanted to spend time with them. Neither, however, wished to give up work completely or forgo the chance of keeping their careers alive.

Borjars is a phonetician while Barry is a syntactician and morphologist, so their specialisms are complementary. Borjars did four days a week and spent one day at home with the children, while Barry taught two days a week. Borjars thinks there ought to be more job-shares. "There must be loads of women who hold down a full-time job and try to squeeze everything else in because the full-time job is the only option available. Then they probably feel guilty about not doing their jobs quite well enough and not seeing their children enough.

"If you are out of academic life until the children start school at five, most subjects move on quickly, and it would be virtually impossible to get back. I know a lot of women in the university who have taken time out. If they are lucky they get temporary research jobs but never make it back to senior lecturer."

Tim Walpole, 31, shares a senior lectureship in psychology with his wife, Manjit Bola, also 31, at the University of North London. They began teaching part-time at the university in 1991 while continuing to work on their PhDs at Brunel University. They started job-sharing a lectureship three years ago. Neither Mr Walpole, a cognitive psychologist, nor his wife, a health psychologist, wanted a full-time post until they had completed their doctorates, so the university offered them the job-share.

Job shares, Walpole feels, can work but it depends on the circumstances of the sharers. For he and his wife, needing time to complete their PhDs, it was ideal at the time. Now they are both looking for separate full-time posts.

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