“I have heard, in some institutions, that people have been asked: ‘Do you have an impact story yet for the next research excellence framework?’ That’s absolutely incredible. It’s like asking a five-year-old if they’re going to apply to Cambridge.”
As William Locke, reader in higher education studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, is talking about what questions academics may encounter in a job interview, one may conclude that they face almost insurmountable hurdles in progressing in their careers. This is not entirely the case, Dr Locke stresses, but the sector needs to “maintain the academic profession as one that people want to come into and see as a lifelong career”.
This is one of the conclusions he made in a Higher Education Academy-commissioned report, launched last week, titled Shifting Academic Careers: Implications for Enhancing Professionalism in Teaching and Supporting Learning.
Dr Locke said scholars have to reconceptualise the way they look at their careers.
“It’s very important that they start to think about their own employability,” he said, adding that they must consider “what kind of expertise and experience their prospective employer might be looking for, what future roles are going to help them develop their expertise and experiences, and how to keep their options open”.
Read the tracks carefully
Particularly challenging for academics, he notes, is the recent shift in the nature of the academic contract: the emergence of “teaching-track” and “research-track” careers, and the contracts that go with these.
“If you are looking for the conventional ‘gold standard’, if you like, of a full-time, permanent – as much as they are any more – contract where you’re expected to teach and research, then you need to be very careful about what routes you take,” Dr Locke said.
As universities are looking for myriad things from their employees, early career academics must be flexible in their career expectations.
“I’m arguing for an approach where people might move from concentrating on research in their early career to a teaching role later on; not going down one track to the exclusion of the other,” he said. Academics need “an ability to negotiate where your priorities will lie without preventing you from changing them in the future”, he added.
“Flexibility is going to be key to keeping in employment, but they need to try to manage that flexibility on their own terms and not simply give it away to their employer.”
Dr Locke said he understands that while this is not easy, the solution is to manage the process from an early stage. “I don’t think academics, in the past, have been particularly concerned about managing their careers,” he said.
“They’ve gone from one role to another and slipped into them – going for what they’re interested in, [rather than considering] what makes sense in terms of a longer term career.
“To keep a career, they’re going to have to be a bit more planning [oriented]; plan their time ruthlessly in terms of doing things that can help them develop their career. That’s a very different mindset. Most late-career academics will say that they’ve been almost accidental in the way that their career has developed. But I don’t think that’s a luxury people have any more.”
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