Career advice: how to survive your first year as a lecturer

Gavin Buckingham offers new lecturers tips on how to thrive in the pressurised first few months in the job

August 30, 2018
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Negotiate before you start
Congratulations! You’ve just been offered your first permanent academic job as a lecturer. While it may be tempting to reply with an immediate and enthusiastic “yes”, it’s worth asking for some time to confirm that you want the job. Asking for at least 24 hours to give a firm answer is reasonable and wise. It is also a moment when you may be able to negotiate on some key parts of the job.

One obvious area is salary. Most academics will not dare to ask for a higher starting salary, but many who do ask receive it. Your start-up package is also something that you shouldn’t take lightly – this will likely be the last “no-strings-attached” money you see in your career. Thus, if you need some cash to purchase equipment, conduct your research or attend conferences, this is probably your only chance to raise it. Finally, if you’re already in a postdoctoral position that isn't about to end, delay your start date. This will give you more time to collect more data in your (comparatively easy) life as a postdoc.

A word of caution – don’t turn well-justified requests into ultimatums. These early interactions will set the tone for your relationship with your new boss.

Prepare for your teaching
While research and administrative duties will take up some of your time, it’s the teaching that’s going to come as the real shock. So it’s important to find out quickly what, exactly, will be your duties  – in the life sciences, you will be teaching between 10 and 20 hours of lectures a year at least, alongside some small group tutorial-style or practical work.

Obtaining the materials taught the previous year is a good starting point, but teaching someone else’s content is always challenging. Spend some time developing your own narrative over the content. This can take an astonishing amount of time to complete – often up to a week per lecture on a new course – so start preparations early.

Managing your undergraduate dissertation students
This will probably be the toughest management challenge of your first year. With many UK universities asking students to undertake some form of academic research, you will probably be directed to guide between five and 15 final-year students through an empirical research project. Do not give students free rein over their project design – it’s not a creativity exercise, and you have a duty to ensure that projects are feasible for the timescale.

But remember that it is primarily part of a student’s learning. I made this error in my first year when I encouraged all eight of my students to pursue an ambitious, seemingly publishable project that stretched me incredibly thin. It would be a good idea to come up with a bank of “easy”, achievable projects that will require minimal effort to set up.

Research is no longer what you think it is
As a postdoc, you are likely to have spent a lot of time collecting data in the lab. Those days are probably over. In your first year as a lecturer, “research” will primarily consist of setting up your lab and ordering equipment, and – the big task – writing grant applications. Writing applications will be a headache at first because, with many research council success rates falling below 15 per cent, rejection is inevitable. Once you get past this fact and reframe grant writing as part of your job, you’ll find that it’s a pleasant enough intellectual exercise.

Keep an eye out for opportunities that don’t require much time – be it short word limits or things you can easily recycle from postdoctoral fellowship applications. Beware internal funding opportunities – they can be helpful to get things done, but they typically won’t count towards your promotion case (and yes, you’ll almost certainly need to bring in upwards of £100,000 if you want to be promoted in less than five years).

Bang your own drum
The focus once you hit the world as a lecturer is less on quantity and more on quality, as the 2021 research excellence framework is on the horizon. Your department will probably already be running internal exercises to assess the state of play in your department. For these, you will have to put forward your “best” publications to work out your internal score, which will be crucial for your eventual promotion case. When you publish something you’re proud of, bang the drum hard – engage with the university press office and have them send out a press release. If your internal reviewers see the work in a different context, they might be impressed.

Finally, the job can be a great one. Even though it will seem overwhelming at first, it gets a lot easier in year two; accept that building your new identity as an independent researcher will take time. Try not to compare yourself to more successful colleagues – share in the celebration of their successes and embrace your new role as an educator. Work to be a good colleague.

Gavin Buckingham is a senior lecturer in sport and health sciences at the University of Exeter. He writes about careers on his blog, Making it as an early career academic.

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Reader's comments (1)

the teaching load mentioned in this article must be a typo

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