Don's Diary: a week of self-employment

March 1, 2002

A self-employed academic needs project management skills. I am my own secretary, too, and the morning is spent arranging research meetings and coping with the gale-disrupted travels of an external examiner and a PhD viva candidate. With the viva under way, I advise a university team on academic governance. As this was in essence the matter over which I left my last university, I get carried away and give too much for the fee. The PhD candidate does well but the required revisions will continue my now unpaid commitment.

My plans for paid work include taking non-executive public appointments. This morning's interview is for just such a post in the National Health Service. Its stipend is minimal. But I regard the five days a month almost as voluntary work and value the grounding of my academic interests.

The afternoon is spent supervising a part-time MBA public- sector student. Such students are a joy - bright and reflective. Today's dissertation topic is the reduction of health inequalities through service partnerships. Few MBA students from the private sector have the bottle to meet such a complex challenge.

Unpaid work today, mostly drafting the conclusion to a collection of essays by academics and officials in Europe and Canada. The project began when I was salaried; I am anxious to complete it to free up earning time. I note with concern a shift in my decision rule for accepting projects: fees are now as important as knowledge gain. Something similar (financial return over public need) seems to have afflicted the choice of capital projects in the private finance initiative.

I draft a contribution to a paper by the 2001 research assessment exercise business and management panel on the state of management research. The public management research community is improving and well regarded internationally.

Later I take our new puppy for a walk. With some trepidation I let it off the lead. It returns as I call - despite its youth and inexperience it seems a lot more dependable than university senior management.

There follows a pleasing meeting of the new Durham Forum for Health that brings together professionals, academics and others with health interests. We have a programme on social deprivation, ageing, prisons and children. I dash home for food and then join a rehearsal of Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony : "Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only" seems apt for my choice of employment.

Conduct another MBA dissertation supervision (entrepreneurship in the public sector - no, don't laugh). But I miss a visit from the Prison Health Task Force. The region has a significant prison population but has neglected the health of inmates and the communities to which they return, often with communicable diseases. I have been part of a group highlighting the issues and seeking investment into the required research.

Much of the day is devoted to reading a student's draft on corporate governance. He is a chief executive of a health trust and makes me feel inadequate. He has onerous responsibilities and still makes time to undertake a PhD. My feelings of inadequacy are reinforced when swimming en famille . My eight-year-old outdistances me in every stroke. Thanks to their schools, all my children are excellent swimmers. Well done, the public sector!

Paid projects today: editing a journal, planning a workshop for managers at the interface of the local economy and health services and contributing to a video on clinical governance.

The day ends with an MBA elective in public management. These full-time students are very different from the part-time ones, mainly because they represent countries (China, Japan, Ivory Coast, Greece and the US) that do not share the assumptions of UK service delivery. So out goes Winnie the Pooh and in comes One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - still the best coping-strategy text. Unfortunately, it has not yet taught me to avoid working weekends. But at least I get paid for it now.

Andrew Gray, formerly professor of public sector management, University of Durham, is a self-employed academic.

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