The insecure scholar: Experience – just not the right kind

Failure to make the running exposes the problem of having an unconventional background

January 26, 2010

The last flicker of possibility that I would not have to leave my current place of work was extinguished this week. I had applied for a temporary lectureship that had unexpectedly opened up in my department. I knew that the odds of getting it were not massively in my favour, yet the fact that I was in the department already should have counted for something. I still haven’t heard formally that I have not made the shortlist, but I managed to see it anyway and I wasn’t on it.

I knew a couple of the people on the shortlist and the rest I googled. On examining their bios, my first feeling was outrage because they are all at a pretty similar stage in their careers as I am – indeed, I completed my PhD before one of them. My publication record was as good as, if not better than, all of theirs.

But looking closer, I reluctantly came to understand why I was not on the shortlist: all the other candidates have much more teaching experience than I do. They had all held positions that required them to teach, to devise and administer courses. They could all hit the ground running on the lecturing position.

Now, I have experience of most of the constituent parts of a lectureship. I’ve tutored for The Open University for years; I’ve been a visiting lecturer at foreign universities; I’ve examined PhDs; I’ve given guest lectures. In some ways, I am even more qualified than many other academics in that I’ve taught in a diverse range of community settings – I’ve worked in youth clubs, for example. But let’s face it: few employers will take a chance on someone who has all the notional experience, acquired through an unconventional route, if there are others available who have exactly the right experience, acquired the conventional way.

I’m not too disappointed because this particular job was in many ways far from ideal. What does worry me, though, is that my failure to make the shortlist – as well as not that of another similar job I applied for before Christmas – has ominous implications for my employability. I am no longer early career. I have a good deal of research experience, and my PhD was awarded a decade ago. I am no longer a plausible candidate for lectureships designed for post-PhDs. While in research terms I am well placed to apply for mid-career positions, my teaching experience is still – on paper at least – little better than that of an early-career academic. Although I can compete for positions where research profile is more important than teaching experience, in the competition for conventional lectureship posts I am in real danger of becoming unemployable.

In so far as I had a career plan when I finished my PhD, I was not too worried about conventional career paths. I chose to take on interesting research work in a number of settings and I picked up bits of teaching wherever I could. This strategy worked well in building up a research and publication portfolio, but it means that my accumulated teaching experience appears to be less than the sum of its parts.

So what to do now? In my hustling for work, I am still trying to pick up bits of teaching here and there, but with ever less confidence in what it will do for my CV. This lack of confidence was one of the reasons I decided to turn down an offer to teach a one-off lecture course at a university a couple of hours from where I lived – the inconvenience and expense of the work didn’t seem to be worth it.

One of the options I am considering is to take a Certificate in Higher Education that would lead to my becoming a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. This isn’t yet a requirement for most jobs, but as academia becomes ever more managerial, the status of such pieces of paper can only rise. However, getting recognised as a fellow isn’t a simple matter. Only certain institutions offer the requisite courses, and many of them are open only to their own staff. In any case, as I understand it, the idea behind these qualifications is that they are based on reflection on current teaching practice, and it is unclear to me whether my current spasmodic and fragmented teaching work counts as sufficient. In any case, taking a course will require money, which is in short supply, and time, which might be better spent applying for grants.

So there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here: I can’t teach because I don’t have the experience, and I can’t get the experience because I don’t teach. This impossible situation may well be what finally puts to rest any chance of getting on to a conventional career ladder.

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