Why on earth would any sane person want a job in Higher Education? Certainly not for an attractive salary or an easy life! So, there must be something about the calling to academia that fulfills a particular vocation. Academics, like universities, traditionally have two roles: to push back the frontiers of knowledge and to educate the next generation of academics and professionals. However, before you start to daydream about Ivory Towers and Academic Freedom, take a reality check and superimpose these lofty notions on the current overstretched and underfunded UK university system.
Thirty per-cent of the population now go to university, and the target is much higher, so there are a lot of bodies to teach. Grants are increasingly difficult to obtain. The British government can’t afford to fund research in most UK universities.
The recent decision by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to only fund departments rated 5* to 3a in the latest Research Assessment Exercise (and to guarantee the income only of the top-rated 5* ones) means that most universities face yet another cut! So, take off your rose-tinted specs, and find out what it is really like at the coal face. ?
My job, as a senior lecturer in biomedical sciences (specialising in immunology) at the University of Sunderland, can be subdivided into three areas: teaching, administration, and research.
In addition to supervising up to four project students in my lab, I am expected to stand up in front of students and teach for about 200 hours each year. For a new university, that is considered to be a light teaching load! I teach for up to 15 hours a week during term-time, though my current ‘average’ is just over 6 hours per week. However, there is no such thing as an ‘average’ week–and although the hours may not sound like many, don’t forget that teaching involves far more than simply talking at the front of a lecture theatre. Among other things, it encompasses preparing and giving lectures, generating student resources (e.g., on the Web), designing and delivering practicals, running workshops and seminars, setting and marking assignments and exams. ?
In truth, interacting with students can be fun. I have certainly learnt a lot of immunology, and I’ve been forced to lift my horizons from molecules and cells to take in the bigger picture. I am a more confident immunologist, and the process has reinforced why I think particular research areas are important. It can be extremely rewarding to introduce hungry minds to new horizons and influence the career paths of young people, particularly when former students present their work at national and international conferences. I have really quite enjoyed developing Web-based resources for my students, and interacting in doing so with the university’s learning developers. These people generally come from an arts or computing background and funnily enough, are nothing like immunologists. Their slant on life is refreshingly different!
However, teaching is very time consuming and can be very dispiriting (particularly after marking 120 exam scripts and wondering if any of the students had ever actually been in the same room as me!). Student culture is quite different compared to when I was an undergraduate. They pay their money, they want their education, and they want it NOW! They want resources (lots of lecture notes/handouts/staff time please) and to pass exams (what are the exam questions and how exactly do I answer them?), but no stress (hey, less coursework, I work every night in the student bar to make ends meet). The ideal situation is to balance the amount of teaching so that it is stimulating, but not completely overwhelming. My advice (after a certain point) is to just say no! If you teach 300 hours a year, then the chances that you’ll be able to write a coherent, well-referenced grant application become increasingly slim.
Everyone has to do it. I have to administer my courses and present marks to exam boards where 5% of difficult students take up 95% of the time. I have to discuss the course and how it is developing with my peers. We have to demonstrate that the students get a good education both internally (quality review) and externally (by working with accrediting bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency, the Institute for Biomedical Sciences, etc). QAA took 3 months of my life in 1999–but provided me with a real induction into Higher Education!
Academic life is about committees, and I am on a few–but I prefer to play an active role and influence my peers, rather than moan passively in a corner about how terrible everything is. I am the School of Sciences representative on the Academic Board–the central committee that determines the principles and regulations of academic awards, programmes of study, and all other university business. I sit on the University Research Committee (which approves and monitors research degrees) and am part of the Quality Review Pool (which approves and monitors programmes of study). All these things take time, but some of the machinations of university policy, process (and politics) can be interesting!
Well, this is the real reason that I am here. I have always been interested in science and have been completely selfish in following my particular interests. I blame my dad. He used to encourage us to play with oscilloscopes in the garage when we were kids, and he exposed me to New Scientist at an early age. I had actually realised my career ambitions when I was let loose ‘to play’ in a lab during my PhD. I still think it is marvellous–no-one knows the answers, and no-one can tell you what to do. There is a lot of satisfaction in an elegant experiment or a fascinating biological process.
I am expected to do research, and am ‘measured’ by the amount of grant income I generate and the number of papers I publish. I was appointed, in March 1996, on the basis of my publications and grant income after a postdoctoral career of nearly five and a half years. During this time I published eight papers and pulled in £250,000 worth of grant funding. I was lucky enough as a postdoc to have a mentor who not only encouraged me to write grant applications but gave me full authorship rights.
In the last 5 years, I have established a lab and started a small group (one postdoctoral researcher and one PhD student). Developing collaborations and helping ‘the team’ doesn’t leave much time for my own lab work, I can tell you. In addition, there is the constant battle for funds–after all, there is no academic freedom if there is no money! Since taking up my post at Sunderland I have written about 12 grants, of which three have been funded (to the tune of £100,000). Two more are in preparation. I have also written three papers (and collaborated on another) and co-authored a review and book chapter. The fact that my output in terms of papers, and income in terms of successful grants, have halved has certainly felt disappointing at times. However, given the other demands of the job, it’s hardly surprising!
In summary, I have absolutely no regrets about moving into an academic post. I have been lucky enough to get a permanent job doing something that I really enjoy (immunology). The job is completely different from that of a postdoc. I sometimes envy the carefree lifestyle I left behind, but I feel that I have developed many more skills in this position–and it is quite amazing just how much more seriously I have been taken after making the transition to a permanent post!
So, is this a career you would like? On the positive side, the job is interesting, varied, sociable, and you can still follow your interests in both teaching and research. On the negative side, there are workload pressures, tension between teaching and research, and quite a noticeable gender imbalance. Pay isn’t great and the sector is underfunded–voluntary severance and redundancy are now features of modern university life. If the thought of being relatively poorly paid, overworked, and underappreciated haven’t switched you off, then make yourself attractive for an RAE submission by getting yourself some high-quality papers on your CV. Write grants. If you have shown your ability to generate research income, you will be more attractive to your potential university employer. My final word of advice is to participate actively with your peers and enjoy it–if you think research is fun, and you like the type of people who do it, then maybe you too are cut out for an academic career!