Getting the cold shoulder? Elbow your way in...

March 19, 2004

Young academics often feel isolated and ill treated in a new job.

The solution is to get connected, says Susan Bassnett

More than 30 years ago, just after my 21st birthday, I took up my first university post in Italy (in those days you didn't need a PhD to become an academic). Working conditions were dire: we were crammed into two rooms that also served as the departmental library, there was no secretarial help and the student-to-staff ratio was more than 100 to one.

When I took up a post in a UK university, with my own office and a ratio of eight to one, I thought I was on my way to paradise.

Instead, I encountered a different set of problems, the chief of which was isolation. Apart from a desultory half-day training session, there were no mechanisms for introducing new staff. I discovered where people ate thanks to the kindness of a mature student, though nobody spoke to me for at least a fortnight. Gradually, other problems emerged: I had been appointed to teach Anglo-Saxon to reluctant students, but though my attempts at popularisation through projects and field trips went down well, they led to accusations of dumbing down by a senior colleague. One day, I received a letter from another colleague, banning me from attending his lectures.

Since no such thought had ever entered my head, I was dumbfounded.

I remember that time not so much through nostalgia, but because so many young colleagues have given me their versions of similar experiences: isolation, an unwelcoming environment, spiteful older colleagues and jealousy. These days, the problems are compounded by short-term or part-time contracts, much lower salaries relative to the value of salaries 30 years ago, and an increased professionalisation of management that creates a rigid hierarchy where new recruits are at the bottom of the pile.

Add to that the heavy teaching loads, which in some institutions are aggravated by the practice of hiring research professors who don't teach at all, and the lot of young academics is not always a happy one.

What can you do about isolation and spite? You need to ensure that you meet other new people. Many universities offer training for new staff and this is an excellent opportunity to make friends and share experiences. Even if you think you have nothing to learn from an induction course, don't miss out. If, as a part-timer, you aren't offered such a course, go and see your section head and ask to be included.

An exchange of experiences with colleagues from other disciplines can be an eye-opener. Subject structures can be very different, even in the same institution. Different traditions create different cultures, so you may find chemistry in university A is a conservative department, while English is full of radical thinkers, whereas in university B it may be chemistry that promotes excellent teaching and equal opportunities, with English ruled by a tyrant. Laboratory-based subjects give academics the chance to collaborate, but those in other subjects may find research a more solitary experience, and contact between people from diverse fields can be mutually beneficial.

There should be a proper appraisal system in place, accompanied by a mentoring scheme. If there isn't, find out if they exist in other areas in the university, and go to the human resources officer. In fact, go and discuss anything that you don't feel comfortable with. My generation put up with too much. There is no reason for a young academic to endure harassment, put-downs and inadequate training. Make sure you understand your university's complaints procedures.

Another way to meet people from other parts of the university is to volunteer for an administrative task. Serving on a committee is a good way to understand more about the workings of your institution and to try to make a difference. Good citizenship is increasingly important in career development, so an early start helps.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Warwick.

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