We’ve been talking a lot lately about the parlous state of the academic workplace. Just for a change, I thought it would be nice to do a hopeful post about the employment situation.

The usual advice boils down to one statement: “publish early, publish often”. However, after reading Jen’s post last week I think we should approach this advice with caution. Jen’s figures showed most academics in permanent positions do teaching and research. Being ‘one dimensional’, i.e. just a researcher or just a teacher, is the surest road to marginal employment.

Publishing will never be enough because academia is not a meritocracy. It is a workplace like any other, but perhaps with more than your average number of delicate egos and competing interests. Some people will tell you there is an element of luck involved and that you don’t have much control.

Do you want to know what I think?

Screw Luck.

I’m a firm believer in making your own. After years in the trenches as a casual lecturer and numerous unsuccessful job interviews I finally achieved my ambition. Here are the five most important things I learned along the way. I offer these in the hope that many of you who have managed to find that elusive job will write in and share yours.

1) Get the right kind of teaching experience

We saw in Jen’s post that over 80% of undergraduate teaching is done by casuals, so there’s plenty of work around. This should allow you to have choice in the classes you teach, so be strategic. Diversify: show you can teach across a range of subjects and year levels. Try not to get stuck in a specialist role, but, if you, do make sure it’s a technical side of the discipline – these are usually the hardest roles to fill.

Be generous to other casual lecturers. Have a list of names to recommend if you can’t fill a role. You will find other casuals generally return the favour – next semester or even later in your career. This is one way of building your professional network (you just never know where people will end up).

Your role as ‘finder’ is valuable to permanent staff members too, who may pass on your details to other staff members who are looking for warm bodies. I felt like a bit of a pimp sometimes, but I did get know many people within my institution this way. And I found out it’s true what they say: who you know really is more important than what you know.

2) Get ‘back stage’ whenever possible

Try to gain administrative experience, this counts in interviews. Volunteer to take a leading role, like a head tutor and attend all the staff meetings you can. Offer to join the ethics committee or, even better, the research committee. Watching academics in these ‘back stage’ activities is very instructive, but keep your mouth shut until you get a sense of how it all works.

Being seen ‘back stage’ helps the academics in the school to view you as a colleague, not a student. It puts you in a position to ask for job references or career advice. If you are lucky, you may get advance notice of upcoming positions, either at your institution or at others.

3) if you can, work the ‘coat-tails’ method

A couple of times I was shortlisted for a position but beaten by people – ok, men – who were less qualified than me, but had been research assistants at one time for powerful professors in the department. I didn’t take this route, so I’m not too clear on how the research assistant to fulltime staff member transition works, but clearly it does.

I do hope someone will write in to the comments and tell us if there’s a magic formula to cultivating the favour of powerful professors. The relationships I’ve seen are deep; often they go back to undergraduate years. Perhaps the powerful professor sees in the protege a version of their younger self? Since most of the powerful are still ‘pale and male’ it’s going to be harder for those of us who aren’t… or maybe I am just being cynical? I have met plenty of people who are ‘stuck’ in the role of protege and unable to escape so perhaps it’s a risky strategy too.

4) Look for the ‘adjacent possible’

I taught casually while I worked as an architect, so I had a lot of teaching experience before I developed a serious ambition to be an academic. Although I was very successful at getting jobs when I was an architect, clearly the criteria for becoming an architecture academic was different. After a series of unsuccessful and demoralising job interviews I had to face facts:

Architecture departments were just not that into me.

I liked the university lifestyle too much too leave, so I started to look for what Steven Johnson calls “The adjacent possible”. In my case this meant the so called ‘professional roles’ which were available in the central administrative units. To my surprise I had the skill set and background to be a contender, so when a job came up I had a go, not really caring if I got it or not.

I didn’t get it, but I came very close, which inspired me to continue looking for non architecture opportunities. When my current job came up, initially as a six week, casual contract for two days a week, I figured: what have I got to lose? It was academic, but it wasn’t architecture, therefore I might learn something different which would tip me over the line next time a professional role came up. 6 years later here I am, happy as a clam.

The lesson from this is, as the Rolling Stones so famously said: “You don’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might just get what you need”. If it’s just not working, broaden your horizons about what ‘being an academic’ might mean. Look for an adjacent discipline or even country, if you don’t mind moving. Have a look at some of those ‘quasi academic’ roles: many are well paid and allow you use your research skills without the pressure to publish.

5) Remember – it’s co-operitition, not co-operation…

Great – you were shortlisted for an interview. Half the battle is won, but remember what I said about fragile egos? Your researcher talents can be an asset, but they are also a potential threat to your future colleagues. Read the CVs of all the permanent staff members carefully and download a selection of papers. Ask yourself: where do I fit in? Who can I work with? What can I offer that’s slightly different to what is already here, but clearly useful? Find ways to present yourself as filling a gap in the current staff profile, not overlapping.

So – what do you think? Have you any advice to offer? Love to hear it in the comments!

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