It was never perfect, but it was my dream job

June 22, 2007

Since taking up my chair at Leicester University in 1977, I have had three invitations to consider offers of senior management positions in multinational companies. Although I knew and admired colleagues in these businesses, I had no hesitation in rejecting the offers. I preferred the challenge of continuing to build a first-class research environment in my university.

We read regularly about the drawbacks and frustrations of modern academic life. My bêtes noires include the decline in English and mathematics skills associated with changes in secondary education; the funding council’s ill-judged downgrading of the funding ratio between laboratory-based and classroom-based disciplines (now temporarily patched by the support for “very high-cost and vulnerable science subjects”); and the features of our heavy-duty research assessment system that are stimulating the transfer market.

With retirement imminent, I can reflect on 40 years in the academy. I have experienced many aspects of academic life. After an inspirational postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University in the 1960s, I spent ten exciting years as a lecturer in the UK’s first department of molecular biology at Edinburgh University, when genetic engineering was emerging as a new approach to biological problems. I then joined Leicester as professor of biochemistry, subsequently head of department, head of school, dean of science and pro vice-chancellor, among other positions. I found each stage of the whole experience challenging, rewarding and enjoyable.

What is so appealing about working as an academic? First, it is a constant source of pleasure to work with bright, constructive and innovative people, whether colleagues or students. In general, they understand the key issues readily, grasp the arguments quickly and solve problems creatively, making interaction and collaboration effective and enjoyable. Higher education does not have a monopoly on intellectual ability, but it does attract and concentrate people of high academic calibre.

Another attraction of academic life is the collegiate spirit that pervades the best departments and universities. Colleagues take pride in one another’s successes and in the achievements of their students and show great generosity of spirit in supporting each other without seeking tangible reward. Academics generally value the unusual freedom they have to control their working lives. They can decide what to include in a course, how to deliver the material and how to assess students’ understanding. They can also set and pursue their own research agenda. Those able to attract external funding can select and build their own team and lead it in whatever style suits them.

These privileges necessarily carry concomitant responsibilities. The undergraduates must be instructed, educated and enthused, which is not always easy after their night’s clubbing or their shift in the fast-food factory. Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers have to be advised and nurtured towards their next career steps. Meeting these challenges and others, such as helping a talented tutee obtain a desired position or a postdoctoral associate obtain her own independent fellowship, is a source of enduring satisfaction.

It is not an easy task. The funding councils have extraordinary power to influence and direct higher education, a responsibility that they have not always exercised with appropriate wisdom and vision. In general, the corollary is that we have to be robust and resolute enough to resist the more adverse influences and pursue our strategies to ensure quality teaching and research. There is every indication from student satisfaction surveys and research impact data that UK universities are proving remarkably successful in achieving these aims.

What might there be to show for 40 years of academic endeavour? There are two out-of-date books and about 100 peer-reviewed papers, a few of which are highly cited, while several of my former PhD students are now professors in research-intensive universities. I had a large role in attracting funding for two of our research buildings and in persuading the university to merge biological sciences and medical sciences into a single budget centre. And I was once fortunate enough to be offered, without application, the money to re-equip the entire department “to international standards”.

The offers from industry were flattering, but I have no regrets. I might have been richer, but I know I would not have been happier or more fulfilled working in a different sector.

William Brammar is senior pro vice-chancellor at Leicester University.
He retires in July.

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