The insecure scholar: Charting the imbalance between reputation and career

A guest lectureship treat can’t compensate for job uncertainties

December 8, 2009

I’ve had a strange week. I just got back from a short holiday in the US to visit relatives for Thanksgiving. A fellow academic working in the same field as me knows that I visit the US a lot and a while back gave me an open invitation to speak at his university, a large and reputable institution located not too far from where my relatives live.

So before I went this time, I managed to arrange with my friend to deliver a guest lecture in his faculty. Just after the Thanksgiving break I turned up at the college town to give my lecture. I was met not just by my friend, but also by several senior colleagues in his faculty. We all went off to lunch at a very nice restaurant and our meal was accompanied by the kind of urbane, intellectual conversation that I have always associated with academia.

Thus fortified, we walked to the hall for my lecture. Although a number of academics attended, my talk had been scheduled as part of a popular course. It turned out that there were nearly 400 students in the theatre, the most I had ever spoken to. They listened politely and asked some pretty incisive questions. After coffee and a short debrief, I was sent on my way clutching a surprisingly large cheque that will pay for a sizeable proportion of my family’s travel costs to the US.

On my return to the UK a couple of days later, I was met with an email from a Scandinavian university that needed someone to conduct a thesis defence within the week (the person who was due to do it had flu). It would also be paid surprisingly well and would be a fun opportunity to see another part of the world. Sadly I couldn’t make it owing to other commitments, but it was very nice to be asked.

I am recounting these experiences not to boast – if I wanted to do that I’d do it in a forum in which I wasn’t writing anonymously – but on the contrary, to emphasise how strange it all feels. My main preoccupation before, during and after my visit to the States has been my tenuous employment situation. My contract runs out in the new year and, as I’ve talked about in previous columns, I am caught in an impossibly complicated situation whose probable outcome is likely to be an open-ended period of unemployment following the end of the contract.

Following my visit to the US I have spent the past couple of days filling in a depressingly lengthy application form for a job that I don’t really want, that’s inconveniently located, that offers only a one-year contract and that I probably won’t get (I’ll write more about it in next week’s column).

What my guest lecture in the US and the thesis defence invitation demonstrated, is that I have achieved a good reputation in my field of research and that fellow academics want to hear what I have to say. That’s all enormously gratifying but my reputation appears to be decoupled from my actual career situation.

It’s wonderful to get occasional “treats” such as a nice lunch and a nice cheque from an American university, but ultimately it doesn’t pay the bills on any kind of regular basis. The question is how far “the work” compensates for the lack of money or job security. Maybe I’d forgo my academic treats in return for never having to fill in a demeaningly pointless job application ever again, but maybe if I did have a secure position I’d also need these tokens of esteem to get me through the endless bureaucracy and meetings.

What I find particularly hard to get my head round is envisaging where all this is going to end. Is my reputation going to grow but my career stay stalled indefinitely? Does this mean that I will end up a distinguished scholar with an embarrassingly trivial job title? I don’t think I’ve ever met a distinguished scholar who didn’t have an equally distinguished title. Maybe once the disjunction between career and reputation becomes too pronounced other academics will suspect that there is something fishy about me, that there must be a reason why I never progressed as I should.

A strange week, then: perhaps one auguring future glories or perhaps one that is as good as it will ever get...

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