Research fellows should try a stint at the coalface, reckons Tim Birkhead
Judging from the correspondence that followed a recent Times Higher article about "grumpy old staff", several other readers must have experienced the same rise in corticosterone level that I did when I read the piece.
To whinge is human. In a Darwinian sense, whingeing may even be adaptive; it is therapeutic and if it increases the chances of things improving even a little, then individuals who whinge will leave more descendants (genetic or intellectual) than those who don't.
If academics went round saying how fantastic their jobs were, we might never get another pay rise. (Indeed, aware of the bleating content of many Times Higher articles, I was going to write about how wonderful my job is, but changed my mind when I read the grumpy young fellow's article.) There are several issues. First, the reason some older academics whinge is that they have suffered a decline in job satisfaction and reward: whingeing is inevitable under these circumstances. If you move from a five-bedroom to a two-bedroom house, incur a pay cut or experience a decline in health, you feel worse. Anything but stasis or upward progress is stressful. Second, the writer criticises from a privileged position. Research fellowships are wonderful if you have one; they offer a convenient vantage point from which to snipe at all beneath. They're not so wonderful for everyone else.
The research fellowship system has created a two-tier society. Those finishing a PhD or postdoctoral fellowship eventually encounter a career bifurcation: a lectureship or a more prestigious fellowship. It is a lottery which of these turns up first, but it can make a huge difference to your quality of life. A lectureship means almost instant engulfment in the department's teaching, administration and research: life at the coal-face.
A fellowship means privilege, unparalleled freedom - and the potential to develop into a fully fledged prima donna.
In the relentless research assessment exercise transfer market, self-funded fellows hold all the aces. They can hold their heads of department to ransom, threatening to take their precious fellowship to the University of Poppleton, where they would have to give only two lectures a year instead of the four they have been "made" to do. Through no fault of their own, research fellows can be disruptive in other ways, too. For example, in the promotion race by leapfrogging over less fortunate colleagues who entered the system through the lectureship route.
Of course research fellows have a better CV; they haven't had to act as a postgraduate tutor or exams officer, deal with admissions, tutorials, lectures, field courses and all those things lecturers do. Research fellowships are fabulous for establishing a research programme and providing that crucial link between a postdoc and becoming a real academic, but once installed somewhere, fellows should be assimilated as quickly as possible - provided0 they meet all the requirements. The deal often offered is a permanent position once the fellowship ends. It sounds perfect, but it isn't without difficulties. Those individuals who excel only at research are not necessarily those who would have been chosen at a regular interview for a lecturer position, where teaching, personality and some administrative skill are essential. Like old dogs, prima donnas learn new tricks slowly - if at all.
I have caricatured the system; some of my best colleagues are research fellows and some know how lucky they are and contribute to their department in all sorts of ways. But criticising older academics for bemoaning the reduced quality of undergraduate education smacks of complacency or ignorance. I think we should put research fellows at the coalface - and then see who's whingeing.
Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.