Establishing a Sustainable Career by Breaking the Academic Mold

Alex Hope is not your typical academic. Although today he is a lecturer in environmental sustainability and project management at Northumbria University, Newcastle in the United Kingdom, Hope first dedicated himself to a career in the music industry. “I had two great loves in life: music and environmental issues. I chose the music route first and spent most of my teens and early 20s trying to make it as a rock star, playing in bands touring around the U.K.,” says Hope, who plays guitar and bass. Hope spent much of the ensuing decade managing a large music store and working as a nightclub DJ.

“[M]any shared this feeling: We were caught in the treadmill of trying to make a name for ourselves in academia and progress up the ladder, rather than enjoy our research and teaching for the sake of it.” —Alex Hope

Entering higher education

As a musician, Hope managed to get by, partly by supplementing his income with DJ’ing. But in 1998 he decided to try a different route and began studying music production at Newcastle College. In his final year of that program, to pay off his student loan, he took a part-time job at music retailer HMV. Soon he was a full-time employee, and he quickly made his way up to store manager. Through in-house management training and on-the-job experiences, Hope learned how to get the best from a team, deal with the demands of customers, and manage finances.

After 7 years at HMV, Hope felt the time had come to pursue “the environmental side of my interests.” He wanted to start a family with his partner and thought this might be incompatible with the long hours he was working. So in 2005 he enrolled in a full-time, 3-year B.Sc. degree program in environmental management at Northumbria University, studying human and physical geography, environmental science, applied ecology and conservation, sustainable development, waste management, and environmental policy and regulation.

His son was born halfway through the program. After that, “I spent a lot of time at home being the primary carer while my partner went back to work,” he explains. His university was supportive, allowing him to study from home. While writing his dissertation, which examined the potential benefits of using small-scale renewable energy systems in sheltered housing for elderly people provided by the city council in North Tyneside, he decided to continue with a Ph.D.

Hope started his doctoral work in August 2008 as part of a 2-year position in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership between Northumbria University and North Tyneside Council. Established by Phil O’Keefe, his B.Sc. dissertation supervisor, and colleagues, the partnership explored how renewable energy technologies could best be incorporated during the building and refurbishing of accommodations for older people.

During his Ph.D., Hope was based mostly at North Tyneside Council, where he acted as a sustainable energy systems officer. Hope’s skills in people management, coupled with his scientific and technical knowledge of sustainable design, helped the council greatly, says Phillip Jensen, lead technical procurement manager for North Tyneside Homes, who was Hope’s boss at the time. In an email to Science Careers, Jensen writes that Hope’s greatest strength is his ability to see the bigger picture of what sustainability is. Hope also “has a way of explaining things that makes you question and understand his reasoning, whilst also being prepared to listen,” he adds.

Once a week, Hope would go into the university to work under the cosupervision of Phil O’Keefe (professor emeritus of geography), Geoff O’Brien (senior lecturer specializing in energy policy and climate change adaptation), and Nicola Pearsall (professor of renewable energy). “The work entailed not simply drawing up [plans and] schedules to reduce the carbon footprint of council housing but … [also] exploring new ways that North Tyneside Council could interact with private contractors who bid for the work. It was … a ‘people and data’ problem that required maturity and commercial confidence,” which Hope had plenty of even back when he was an undergraduate, writes O’Keefe, who today supervises postgraduate research students jointly with Hope, in an email to Science Careers.

Becoming a lecturer

When a permanent lectureship in project management became available at Northumbria University, Hope applied, encouraged by his partner and motivated by a desire to teach the people-centered skills he had learned from his private and public sector management experiences. He got the lectureship, starting in February 2011. He completed his Ph.D. that November.

Hope teaches business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and how to weave environmental sustainability into projects, in a range of master’s degree programs. He also teaches how to contribute to sustainable development goals via alternative building techniques, renewable energy systems, and methods of evaluating buildings for sustainability in Northumbria’s Construction Project Management and Architectural Technology B.Sc. programs.

Some of the first skills Hope developed outside academia—as a professional musician—have proved especially helpful in his current position. “I think lecturing is performance, pure and simple,” he explains. Hope says that giving “a good lecture is a bit like writing a song. You have the hooks and the bridges and chorus. The key points you want to get across are like the chorus. You want the students to have them rattling around their heads when they leave.” At the request of Northumbria University’s human resources department, Hope teaches a course on how to lecture as a performance to colleagues.

Hope’s personal style sometimes raises eyebrows, but it, too, is proving useful. “An academic that looks like one of their students … helps break down boundaries,” he argues. At conferences, he believes, his look makes his presentations more memorable and can provide an icebreaker at networking events.

He spends about a third of his time carrying out research into how the values and goals of environmental sustainability can be integrated into business and management decisions in construction and other industries. “I came into academia to try to make a difference to society and improve people’s well-being, and conserve nature, through environmental sustainability. After working at the local authority, I felt the most important thing I could do was educate project managers.” Incorporating environmental sustainability into practice was an emerging field at the time, Hope says.

A new style of academic

At times, Hope feels trapped by the pressures and politics of the academic system. While speaking to other early-career researchers, he realized that “many shared this feeling: We were caught in the treadmill of trying to make a name for ourselves in academia and progress up the ladder, rather than enjoy our research and teaching for the sake of it.” This led him to speculate that if academic careers were less linear, defined less by narrow metrics such as citation counts and grants and more by wider societal benefits such as outreach activities and teaching quality, “there would be more diversity and thus innovation in the system.”

Hope envisions a future that would free academics of such pressures, letting them develop a portfolio career where they would only be employed part time by an academic institution and complement their working lives and incomes as freelance writers, consultants, industry-based researchers, or entrepreneurs. When, last year, Hope expressed these views in a blog post for the national newspaper The Guardian, he was the target of hostile comments from readers, some seeing his vision as a threat to job security or academic freedom, or maintaining that it is only applicable to a few fields. Hope was shocked by the number of “unhelpful, unconstructive, and personal attacks,” he says, but he is determined to contribute to further debate, believing that discussing the future of academic careers is important, not least because “some colleagues suggested they felt the same way but were too afraid to speak out.” 

Hope insists that the cross-fertilization of ideas between research, teaching, and business benefits all worlds. “I find my consultancy business helps … because I get to work with companies, and can then bring that learning back into the classroom,” he says.

None of this—Hope’s transition into research and lecturing from a music and retail background or the expansion of his roles outside the academic sphere—was planned. But this is precisely what has made his unusual career successful so far, he believes. “You’ve got to follow your interests and instincts rather than thinking about a career. Any successes will be because you are following your true path.”

Top Image: Alex Hope CREDIT: Simon Veit-Wilson

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