The insecure scholar: A faint whiff of security

A positive start at a new university makes the possibility of finding the dream job more believable

February 9, 2010

I am now institutionalised again. Following the end of my research contract at one university, I now have an honorary position at another one. It’s a relief to know that I will not need to suffer the awkwardness of being unaffiliated and describing myself as an “independent (ie, unemployed) scholar”. The position doesn’t come with a salary of course, but it does make it more likely that I will at some point be gainfully employed again.

Last week I had lunch with senior figures in my new department and it was a very positive experience. When I joined my previous university, nothing like this happened. As I explained in last week’s column, they were happy to have me there but they didn’t show any particular interest in me and in integrating me into departmental life. At my new home though, there seems to be a real enthusiasm for me to contribute to the university beyond simply applying for grants.

So I’m pleased to say that I now have some teaching lined up. It’s not much – some postgraduate seminars and a lecture – and one of the sessions will be unpaid, but it is something. Teaching will allow me to get my feet under the table, demonstrate what I can do and be useful. The head of department is also happy for me to take courses for free from the higher education teaching course and this will enable me to become a fellow of the Higher Education Academy should I wish to.

We also had a productive conversation about research grant applications. It looks like I will be developing a proposal with a senior member of the department. I’ve also been introduced to other department members with whom I could potentially hook up regarding ongoing research bids.

I am thrilled at the interest in me and my work that senior members of the department have demonstrated. Again, this is in marked contrast to my previous department where I mostly worked with much more junior figures who were unable to give me the support I needed.

I am conscious, though, that I shouldn’t belittle my old university, which did, after all, agree to house me and my research for a considerable period. The point is that it wasn’t really cut out to accommodate me; the department was large, highly successful in research assessment exercise terms and stuffed with internationally known professors. The truth is that it didn’t really need me and even when I brought in some money, it was a drop in the ocean compared with the large grants the department routinely attracts.

In contrast, my new home is in a relatively small university. The department has some notable names but it has also been through a certain amount of restructuring and turmoil. It has plenty of other honorary fellows and ambiguously employed staff members. They are used to working and teaching unconventionally. In short, the department seems to be well set up to accommodate an insecure scholar.

I’ll leave it to participants in the comment thread to debate whether all universities should be structured this way. It is true though that for all the flexibility and openness of my new home, many of the fundamental problems of insecure scholarship remain: I have no steady income and all the supportiveness doesn’t remove the fact that I will be dependent on success in research grant applications to earn a living.

All that said, my first week in my new post has given me the confidence to dare to articulate to myself what it is that I really want. It’s strange but I don’t think that I’ve shared it yet in these columns, so here goes: given my poor health, what I want is a flexible yet permanent position with the full range of academic responsibilities that is not 100 per cent full time.

Over the past few months I’d given up on this dream. I’ve veered wildly between gritting my teeth and applying for full-time jobs (hoping that I’d be able to negotiate something that would take into account my disability), accepting that I will always be insecurely employed and trying to find work outside the academy. Now I am wondering whether the dream of a secure job that takes into account my health may be possible after all.

Maybe, just maybe, if I can prove to be an asset to my new department, then somewhere down the line I may be able to live a more secure life.

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