Trapped in an academic dead end
February 11, 2021 9:02 PM   Subscribe

I don't hate my job, I hate the place I work, and I can't get work elsewhere because: a) the UK academic job mark is dead, b) the place I work has ruined me and my CV. I don't know what to do. The questions: have you been here? What did you do?

I joined University of X in the UK nearly 10 years ago thinking I'd stay for 3 or 4 years, but I'm still there and I'm stuck. I'm part of a healthy discipline (nationally, internationally), but its department at X is tiny, neglected, marginalized, shrinking. Our workloads have increased year-on-year, but we're told there'll only be new hires if we pull in some big numbers (student fees, grant capture) or do some Big Splashy Things to get noticed (launch new stuff), and no-one has any appetite or energy for that; morale has been in the dumps since before I arrived. There were warning signs at the interview, hindsight is a bitch.

When I joined I felt like I had things I could do and ambitions to do them, but the relentless hustle and grind here has taken a toll on me.I've taken on committee roles, I work hard at teaching and get good student evaluations, I do loads of service work for my discipline, I'm well connected, and I have significant leadership roles including a prominent position working on behalf of my discipline on a national (UK) level, but I feel washed up. I've not published much, my grants applications haven't been funded. I've applied for promotion to 'Senior Lecturer' twice and been turned down twice, so I've had a real-terms pay-freeze for about 5 years. I do the workload of people at 'Senior Lecturer' level and the people who made the decisions not to promote me are Senior people who sit on those same committees with me and contribute nothing to them. The feedback from the promotion panel: I didn't get promoted because I'm not ticking the boxes that can only be ticked by people in properly supported disciplines, so I to keep trying and try harder.

I've been applying for jobs when they come up at other universities (infrequently) but I think I look like old news and I never get anywhere – there are hundreds of qualified applicants for every post, I'm not competitive. To look competitive I'd have to have published more and won more grants in the last 10 years, but it's been a hard decade of being undersupported and overworked, and so I'm stuck.

We all have annual appraisals coming up. It's treated like a joke, a pointless paper exercise, but it fills me with real deep-seated dread, and a resentful and bitter anger. It doesn't matter to anyone what you say or write on the form, no-one reads them, but for the last few years all I can think about when I see that form coming around is telling them I'd rather be dead than work another year here. And yet here I am, still.

What do I want? Most minimally: at this point I just want to move, I'd like a change. If I was aiming higher, I'd say I'd like to work in a better-resourced department where there are more than single-digit academics working in our field, a place with sufficient critical mass people to generate some inertia so that trying-to-do-anything isn't just a face-grating grind. There are things I want to do in this subject, and in my research life, I haven't given up on it, but it's not going to happen here (I really have tried), and I'd like to have a shot at some of it before I'm truly washed up.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
One idea: make a very precise, thorough accounting of your time, how much you spend doing X, and make it clear what kind of support you need. To yourself, mainly, but you can also maybe use this to get help by having the impossibility of your situation laid out clearly.

It sounds like a bunch of you are in the same trap. Maybe you can work together somehow?

Other than that -- I'd try forming human relationships with any coworkers you like. As many as you can bear (and make time for). I think that might make things less horrible, which, in turn, might give you a touch more inspiration. Every little bit helps and is needed.
posted by amtho at 9:23 PM on February 11

Solidarity to you and with you. My only Rx is to make time for yourself: daily exercise helps. But basically, here to see what other people say. Ugh.
posted by athirstforsalt at 9:25 PM on February 11 [3 favorites]

To some extent these are sector-wide structural issues that will only shift with political change to the funding regime. That is cold comfort I know. You can join the UCU if you are not already a member and participate in strike action that will contribute to system-wide change.

In terms of the annual appraisals you need to embrace them as a Stalinist exercise. Allocate more time to them. Catalogue the smallest things you do. This may seem futile but see it as an annual opportunity to meticulously update your CV (so you are job search ready). On no account admit any self-criticism in these appraisals. Ever. From this point on you self-assess yourself as Outstanding in all areas. The whole system is set-up to promote narcissists; take pleasure in fulfilling the bullshit. Build up a narrative in these documents, then collude with your assessors to roadmap the route to promotion. Make sure your objectives are ones you will easily exceed and are aligned with the Senior Lecturer job description.

In terms of the rest of your work there are a few things you could do. It sounds like you have done your dues on committees and at discipline roles. It doesn't sound like you are interested in management. Dial all this back for the next three years, it's still there on your CV. Focus on the two things that will help you gain promotion: research funding and publication, with an emphasis on the former as a) we're at that point in the REF cycle and b) having it will help you move institution. Somehow you've got to reduce the amount of time you spend on teaching and increase the time you spend on applying for grants. Contact the research leads on funding bodies and network. Set yourself regular achievable goals (like working on grants for the hour when you get up for the next two weeks).

Look out for international opportunities. A fellowship, a small grant, a conference fund, anything really to get you out of your local context. This will serve to enliven your work and make you feel alive. It will also help you make contacts which will be useful for applying for larger grants.

Finally, give yourself a long-term exit. If it hasn't worked out by this time in five years, give yourself permission to get out and look forward to planning your career change. Perhaps you will keep bees.

I am sure you are doing all of these things already. I am sorry that academia is so brutal and that there are very little opportunities for solidarity.

Remember you have done some incredible things and no one can take these away from you. Time now to focus all your strength on grants.
posted by einekleine at 10:34 PM on February 11 [16 favorites]

Write a blockbuster. I'm in the UK and have experience working to extract people from bad jobs. If I can help in a confidential way, please contact me.
posted by parmanparman at 12:10 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]

I could have written this, almost word for word. For a second I thought I had. Despite publications and grants and a huge international reputation it took me 7 years to get a senior lectureship in my current place because I am in a marginalised subject, in a role that doesn't get the support for the ticky boxes that others do. It nearly broke me, I won't lie. Even now I know that my career has been retarded by at least 10 years compared to my peers many of whom are Chairs, Readers or Professors.

Three things shifted stuff for me a bit.

One: Play the Game. Accept that you will never be rewarded never, ever, ever - for being a good citizen. No one cares about your committee work, no one cares about your undergraduate teaching once it's beyond 'hey, no student complaints and you mostly fill your recruitment targets'. No one will promote you because you volunteer to do stuff other people don't want to. So stop doing it. They've told you what they'll reward you for and if you want the reward that has to be the only thing you focus on and if that means you give half hearted feedback on essays rather than meticulous lists or notes, or you recycle last year's lecture without updating the readings, then that is *on them not on you*. They decided the priorities. (the one exception to this is to say yes to any committee or similar that will put you at a table with the VC, the Pro-VCs or extremely senior management; you want them to know who you are, that you're great, that you're keen).

Two: Leverage your good will. Outside of your toxic workplace people do admire and respect you, and now you need to get something back for that work. If your grants aren't being funded, start working with other people. Who is being funded in your field? Do you know them? Can you collaborate on a small scoping grant or an impact award or a PhD scholarship? Can you co-author something? Apply for everything: every grant, prize, award, visiting fellowship and hit up your contacts to make this happen. It's grim work and will make you feel dirty but it is the only way to get on. I frankly told people what I needed - I said 'they're not promoting me until I do X, I can't do X with my resources, I feel awful about this but I need your help' and 100% my academic peers rallied round.

Three: exit strategy. Find one, it really helps. I can only offer mine as an e.g and I'm going to be a bit cagey about it - I am Very Online and late 2019 grudingly took up a committee role as a Digital Lead. Hahaha well that turned out... interesting. But as a consequence I have immersed myself in all things Digital Teaching, had an opportunity to experiment with a lot of Digital Teaching methods, and have put myself out there on socials and via professional organisatons as a Digital Teaching Person. I am actively planning and thinking about creating a proper portfolio and other activities, maybe to leverage a better job, maybe to move university, maybe to strike out on my own as a private company offering some of these services. It may never happen but working towards it is a positive step that makes me feel I'm doing something active for my future rather than just stagnating in place.
posted by AFII at 12:47 AM on February 12 [15 favorites]

I was there in U NuponT in the 80s. I was hired as the Demonstrator - a sort of sub-assistant lecturer on about 2/3 the L salary but with exactly 2x the contact hours - to do the service teaching for massive 1st Year lab classes . . . and cover the lectures on my, then doldrummed, niche in the discipline. My HoD never once asked me how I was doing professionally and it was hard to get a dynamic research career going on my ownio. But research outputs were the only metric for success and I wasn't able to process the rejection slips from my submitted mss and lost my ooomph as these piled up.

As I came to the end of a 2nd 3 year contract, I found out that my pals who were post-doccing, without responsibilities in teaching or infrastructure were on a 1A pay-scale earning 5% more /yr than me on 1B. They merged my dept with a sister that year and my new HoD called me in to say that a) they really valued me b) they were prepared to bend the rules and give me another 3 year contract IF I took on the service teaching hours of my Oppo in the sister department [he'd left to become a computer programmer for British Aerospace]. I said No and went on the dole for 15 months, applied for meta-Science jobs like in Museums, for the British Council, wrote a [rejected] radio play, read a lot.
It was good because I could recover my self-esteem by not vesting it in the unsupportive workplace I'd been in.

The next 20 years [moving to Ireland, working as a serial post-doc and infrastructure guy] probably won't apply to you but I spent the last 7-8 years of my career working in a Tech Institute [~= what they used to call Polys in England] where the contact hours were mental but research was seen as a bonus rather than The metric. Turns out that I loved being super-busy in classes and labs in a not Elite institute of higher ed. You seem to be good at that: would a PGCE and going to 2ndry school work for you? Or your admin skills would be valuable in many non-academic sectors. Is there a PhD on your CV? That carries weight outside of academia. If you want help on focusing on what really matters in your life What Color is My Parachute? has many ideas/tools.
posted by BobTheScientist at 3:07 AM on February 12 [3 favorites]

Some good advice & practical steps already above. Just wanted to add - it might be helpful to work with a coach to really understand where you are vs where you want to be, and to break it down into achievable steps.

If you ever wanted a recommendation, I know someone who works with people in exactly this situation. Memail me if you're interested.
posted by rd45 at 3:14 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

Depending on your field, leaving academia may be a good option. There are jobs in research groups, think tanks, museums, libraries, industry, etc. that may be more satisfying.
posted by metasarah at 5:02 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]

I am a UK academic/academic-adjacent, and really feel you on this question. Especially relating to committees and teaching etc. AFII has it - you have to play the game.

I finally got promoted to senior lecturer equivalent a couple of years ago and it was a huge slog - very stressful, and also later to see my colleagues going through the same thing when we are the ones volunteering for roles that more senior people never seem to bother with. Things have changed in academia, and, certainly in my field, you can't just 'do science' anymore - you have to get involved with mangement/project management/committees etc. Then you can't publish as much and you're stuck being evaluated by those who could. Arg, i've been there.

But, again I agree with AFII who said to maybe step back from those roles now. You've done them, and you can put them on your CV for promotion. If you drop some of that, people will still remember you, and you can hopefully lever the connections you made for potential future collaborations or funding opportunities. Grants are a slog, publishing is tough, but if you can free up some of your time to focus on these it might get easier.

Perhaps I'm cynical, but if you can partner with some folks in the universities your are interested in, or in currently high-profile fields (AI/machine learning etc) might that help? Use the work you've done on committees etc. to work on your contacts.

Also, can you apply for a sabbatical (Covid-excepting?)? I know quite a few folk who used that to get through burn-out and came back refreshed. Even if it's delayed because of Covid, it's something to look forward to.

For the appraisal, I would recommend going in strong on your strengths and being as positive as you can be. Even if you feel like you have to pretend it's a game or you're an alien studying humans. Play the game and then do something fun if you can.

Personally, I think if you have a permanent academic job in the UK, it's probably not greener on the other side (may vary if you are really in demand?). But you need a game plan to drop some of the most soul-destroying stuff and perhaps a timeline for how long you're willing to try for in terms of publication/moving.

Hopefully some of that is helpful - you can do it!
posted by sedimentary_deer at 6:09 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

I’m more junior than you, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but can you be more aggressive about forming connections at other universities? One weird effect of the pandemic I’ve noticed is that we’ve been having more trouble filling outside speaker slots for our weekly seminars, so I wonder if that’s true at other universities as well. The silver lining is that now is a particularly easy time to give talks at places that might ordinarily be kind of a pain to travel to. Just a thought that struck me.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:54 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]

Sympathies to you for what sounds like a a shit situation.

Post this question to r/askacademiauk as well for more advice.
posted by lalochezia at 12:06 PM on February 12 [4 favorites]

I'm an academic but not in the UK - from the other answers it sounds like my advice can still apply. The thing about academia is that you have much more freedom to define what your job looks like compared to many other professions.

So use the freedom. You want to get a different job and maybe a promotion. What matters for hiring and promotion is mostly publications and grants. Restructure your focus around that. Fuck service. Fuck committees. Fuck being a good citizen. Be selfish. Protect your research and writing time, and try whatever strategies you need to get that working. Writing group? Research collaborations? And then for the funding piece - can you do a grantwriting course? Get more feedback from a program manager?

I also have a potential coaching/support suggestion if you want to memail me.
posted by medusa at 2:08 PM on February 13

I don't really have much to add to the advice above, but I work in academic librarianship and am in very similar circumstances in the US. I feel like I could have written an almost identical version of your question. You have my sympathy and solidarity - you're far from alone, for whatever comfort that is.
posted by mostly vowels at 9:12 AM on February 16

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