In and out of the university

A major challenge for younger academics is the increasing prevalence of both fixed-term contracts and institutional mobility.  A year ago I wrote about moving from a university to a business environment, and now I'm back in a university again, with another shift in my research area.  So I thought it might be helpful to share the story of these transitions and what I've learned through them. 

To begin with I was quite faithful to a pair of institutions.  One was the university where I took my PhD in ecology, where, after a couple of years overseas, I returned to take up a postdoc with the professor who had been my excellent supervisor.  When this contract ended, the department made me a visiting research fellow.  I was offered part-time teaching for a few months, and further small contracts came my way as I remained on site, working on writing up papers for the love of it (and, of course, to improve my CV).  But another institution was crucial for explaining my rootedness: Thinking Faith Network, with its Faith-in Scholarship project.  This was what really drew me back to the city where I'd done my PhD, and my sense of serving God with this charity kept me there in part-time employment when it would have made financial sense to try and move on.  With hindsight, I wish I'd also sought more of a calling in the life of the university department where I was.

Moving on eventually became necessary, especially once I'd got married – and an unexpected job offer came like a godsend.  Through the seemingly insignificant act of trying to contact a theologian–scientist through his web site, I was invited to apply for a research job in a business in a very different field (economics).  Statistics know-how turned out to be my most transferrable skill, and I ended up working for the man who managed that web site (after some prayer: I'd been offered a more mundane postdoc at the same time).  It was exhilarating to move from a large university to a small business team focused on the City of London.  There were benefits of conviviality, hospitality and high-calibre mentoring – but also the challenges, for me, of reduced independence, a focus on satisfying investors, and my lack of experience in the discipline.  I was on a fantastic learning curve in a world I previously knew nothing about, but it was with some regret that I realised I had to move on while a career as an independent researcher still looked achievable.

The path back into academia required patience and wasn't paved with gold!    I didn't regret taking up the London opportunity, but after failing to be shortlisted for various positions, I worried that I'd become a misfit: insufficiently 'cutting-edge' for a Russel Group institution; insufficiently experienced for a teaching-focused university.  But I was fascinated by the few universities in the latter group that had a Christian foundation and didn't hide this under a bushel.  I kept a close eye on the University of Winchester in particular, and was eventually offered a part-time temporary position to teach statistics.  It was with a leap of faith and much prayer that I abandoned my London job for this – but a year on, I've now been appointed to a permanent post (still part-time), for which I praise God.  The package might look paltry to some of my peers, but I sense tremendous calling here – with a surprisingly wide range of teaching and research directions to explore (more of that in a future post!).  The Lord's providence seemed to be confirmed when my wife was offered a job in the same city.

What would I say to other early-career researchers after all this?

  1. Reflect on how God guides you. For me, it's about seeking His wisdom rather than special words of guidance.  I've tried to seek a Christlike approach to working out whether something is a wise way forward or not.
  2. Financial stewardship is important: I'd been blessed with resources that enabled me to take some risks, as well as living frugally while I was single!  (I realise people have very different financial situations, so I don't know how helpful this is...)
  3. Take initiative in reaching out to people and organisations who might be interested in your ideas and skills.  Imagination is part of faith, and the infinite possibilities of God's creation that we're called to develop make it rewarding to propose new projects building on other people's work.  Remember that the Lord owns the cattle on a thousand hills!
  4. Take every opportunity to recount the story of God's goodness in your career.  I think this helps grow our faith and keeps us grounded in the story of His kingdom – which feeds back to #1 above.

This is all quite personal. I'm sure other people could tell very different stories... perhaps leave a comment about yours?

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