Moving sideways (again) in academia: back to class

It’s been nearly three years since I’ve taken on the role as Researcher Development Officer and I sometimes I still feel like I’m in a kind of transition period. Recently I was part of a panel of speakers discussing our views of what employers look for in PhDs. The discussion made me think about how I got into the role I’m in, and I’d like to share my views with you.

At the end of my PhD I didn’t go searching for researcher development roles. In fact, I had no idea what to do next after my PhD. At the time, I was on a part-time, temporary  lecturer’s contract that that wasn’t guaranteed to be renewed. This made it really difficult to plan ahead and the prospect of working contract to contract was not appealing. I already had 10+ years of fixed-term contract work as an English language teacher (amongst other temporary contracts) and at this point in my life I was looking for job security.

In a strange, yet timely fashion, the Researcher Development Officer role came up. I applied and the rest is history – but I should back up and explain how I managed to be at the right place at the right time. I don’t believe you have to be lucky to get a job in academia. It demeans the hard work I’ve put in and the tenacity I’ve developed over the years.  This role certainly didn’t fall into my lap nor was it something that came out of nowhere! Another way to put it is that I was ready – with the right skills and the right experience – when the opportunity came.

Not looking for that four leaf clover.

During my time as a doctoral student I was able to find opportunities to expand my teaching skills. I started off by contacting people and offered to be part of their workshop as a guest speaker or to teach part of the workshop. At this stage, most of these opportunities were unpaid but these experiences put me in touch with others. So when they needed someone to cover a class or do a workshop, I was someone they could consider. This led to being asked to design and teach the occasional workshop to which I was paid.

This all happened during the last two years of PhD, and even in the final few months I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. My main source of income was lecturing part-time so leading these workshops was a financial lifeline. I was so focussed on finding a lecturing role that I didn’t really recognise the area of researcher development as a career option.

So when the role of Researcher Development Officer came up I was encouraged to apply for the role. It was then that I realised that I could continue to work in higher education but not as a lecturer, yet still use the skills I learned during my PhD. At the time, I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to do – part of me still thought I *should* be a lecturer (another topic for another post). However this was an opportunity that came about and I would have been a fool not to at least put in an application.

To my delight, I was offered the position and was introduced into the world of academic support services, which is an industrial complex in and of itself. There is a whole industry working behind the scenes that keeps the university running. In a university as big as Manchester, with over 10,000 staff, you can imagine the complexity. I was inducted into this world of systems, policies, and politics and learned that there is much more to an academic career than research!

Yet, the winds of change do continue to blow! As of September 2017, I’ll be moving back into academia as a Teaching Fellow in English Language Teaching at The University of Sussex. In many ways I haven’t really left the classroom because as a trainer I’m in front of a group of students in a classroom. Training isn’t teaching and while I utilise similar skills, this new role is quite different.

If I’m honest with myself, moving back into full time teaching is daunting and old uncertainties seem to resurface: Am I good enough? Do I know enough? What will my students think of me? Will I have to justify my position as a teacher? What if..what if…what if…

I spent my PhD exploring this idea of teacher identity and my own story of becoming a teacher, so you’d think I’d have more confidence. The truth is that I’m much more self-assured now that I’m older (ahem) and am an experienced teacher, but that doesn’t mean that I feel altogether comfortable as a teacher. I’m usually on edge, not in a nervous kind of way (though I have plenty of those moments) but I feel in flux, changing, moving. This can be an incredibly creative and productive space, but it is exhausting to be on edge. So I suppose this is why I’m feeling a little nervous returning to a full time teaching role.

Have you changed roles in your post-PhD life? Moved sideways between departments / disciplines / role? Please share your experiences below!

Images by Dayne Topkin (crab) and Sydney Zentz (boots) via Unsplash



Booklist 2017: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

There’s a reason why this was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize 2007 – it’s a cracking read. It is no small technical feat to write a story in first person whose protagonist you can sympathise with despite holding some offensive views. The way in which Hamid writes positions the reader in the point of view of ‘The American’ who is the listener to Changez, the narrator. It’s not exactly a comfortable position to be placed because as the reader I was never quite sure who is the hunter and who is the hunted. I was always on my toes, turning the pages, wondering what’s going to happen next. The author is able to simultaneously bring together cultural ideologies, global politics and intensely personal experiences into an engaging and thrilling narrative

This book stood out to me because the narrator struggles with his growing resentment at the country he tried to call home. As a man of Pakistani origins he would always be considered a foreigner in the US, pre- and especially post 9/11, and the character is inwardly torn trying to reconcile his feelings with society’s perceptions of who they think he is.

In my own journey of trying to belong in the UK, I could really relate to the identity struggles faced by the main protagonist. I’ve lived in the UK for over a decade now, and I’ve never felt I’ve truly belonged. Having to reapply for a visa every few years is a tangible reminder that I’m on borrowed time. I suppose, like the protagonist, I feel like an outsider for the most part – always a foreigner, despite all my efforts to integrate.

This story stayed with me and it’s one that I will probably read again someday.


First winter race was cold (duh)

Manchester (UK) has a special kind of winter. It arrives early in June for a day or so, realises it’s early, then comes back around November and stays until March. It starts to think about leaving April-May and sometimes actually leaves between June-September to make room for Spring / Summer, only to take turns arriving/leaving/arriving for a week or so before it comes back. As a cooler weather person, Manchester is my kind of city. Usually. Then it rains. It’s the bloody sideways rain (e.g. Umbrella? Fool!) with wind that blows against you no matter which way you turn. It was that kind of day that I found myself running my first winter race. This year I signed up to Cancer Research UK Manchester Winter Run 2017 and entered the 10k event. I figured I needed a running goal to keep me moving during the winter. When it gets cold I like to hibernate, stay in, eat – drink- and be merry kind of deal. Having a goal like this in the middle of winters gets me out and about.

It’s been mild the last few weeks but last weekend the temperature dropped to below freezing. So here I was on the morning of the run thinking I could just not do the race (and stay warm and cosy). Then I remember I paid for this privilege and have been training the last few weeks for this run so, damn it, get out here.

img_3451Y’know I’m glad I did. I much prefer running in cooler weather than in the heat. The actual race was surprisingly fun. The enthusiasm of the crowd and the organisers really made the day. Cancer Research UK really know how to organise a good running event: loads of signage, tons of marshals and entertaining cheerleaders all throughout the course, like the Samba Drum Choir and the folks dressed up fancy dress winter animals (polar bears, huskies, and penguins) looking for high-fives from passing runners. OK, the latter is a little cheesy but when you’re running against 15 mph winds, uphill, every cheer counts! I loved it!

Also, I got a new PB at 58:12 (!!!), finishing 996th place our of 1634 finishers. I usually finish around 1:02-1:06 so this was a surprise. Not bad for running in heavy wind and sideways rain! You can count on Manchester skies to deliver a proper winter setting.

Image my own selfie, about 5 minutes after I crosse the finish line. Could still feel my finger at that point!