Early Career Academics in English Studies discussion day

On Thursday 2nd June I attended Early Career Academics in English Studies discussion day at King’s College London, hosted by the English Association and University English, looking ahead to the English Shared Futures conference in Newcastle next year. I was pleased to be invited to introduce a session on “Balancing Teaching and Research”, in which I focused on the challenges, strategies, and benefits of balancing teaching and research, with a few thoughts looking ahead to the next few years. I post these notes below and would be interested to hear others’ thoughts on these issues.

As I see it, the core issue that ECRs face in the current environment is that of building up a profile of publications that makes them competitive for permanent Research & Teaching lectureships, while working on teaching-only/teaching-heavy contracts (often balancing multiple jobs).

The challenges of these contracts are well-known: heavy teaching-loads; career mobility (time spent moving; start-up investment in teaching new courses and/or teaching across 2+ institutions); lack of research time, as well as access to funding for research and conferences, and mentoring; and the difficulties of long-term research planning while on fixed-term contracts. This can quite easily lead to a vicious cycle of getting stuck on T-only contracts because the research profile can’t be given the time and attention needed to break into the permanent posts.

Strategies: even small improvements can aid this. At institutional level there are small but significant steps that can vastly improve a T-only contract: speaking from my own experience this year at Newcastle University, having a research day, access to a research budget, participating in professional development and research progress reviews, and the guidance of a mentor, have all meant that in my 10-month post I’ve been able to advance my research profile in very beneficial ways.

At an individual level, ECRs can help themselves: creating a sound publication strategy and some degree of long-term planning, i.e. making sure that what is published is of the highest quality, will have maximum effect in REF cycles, and keeps a 5-year goal in sight in order to ensure that there is a clear trajectory to and rationale behind publications. I say “ECRs can help themselves”, but mentoring, be it formal or informal, is absolutely crucial here to advise and support ECRs on how best to focus and achieve these goals. For me, mentoring was especially beneficial in keeping the long-term view in sight (not easy when you’re caught up in the whirlwind of new modules) and made sure that I could really strategise my energies in the best possible way.

Benefits: it’s easy to focus on the negatives, but balancing teaching and research can be hugely beneficial; the best teaching is informed by being research-active and, I think, the opposite is also true. Having moved from a public engagement (admin-heavy) and research role to my current teaching and research role, I have found it much easier to switch between the two in the latter: teaching keeps my mind in the same intellectual zone, stimulates new thoughts about research, in a way that I didn’t find with my admin post, which required more of a mental switch between the two.

Challenges going forward: the situation isn’t getting any easier with increasing casualisation and my work on the impact of the REF 2014 on ECRs showed that the teaching-and-research balancing act became particularly acute for many around the time of the last REF. There have been recent proposals that all staff including T-only should be submitted to REF. I am in two minds about this. In some respects this is excellent: it prevents the two-tier structure that can keep ECRs trapped in the t-only cycle, it encourages beneficial links between T and R in ways that are beneficial for both staff and students, and if done well it would ensure that all ECRs are supported in being active researchers. At the same time I truly worry that for those on unsupported T-only contracts this will be yet another pressure in an already highly pressurized system, that it will create unrealistic standards and expectations for those already at breaking point. I think this is a real and pressing danger that needs to be well thought out before any such proposals are seen through.

Further thoughts reflecting on the day

In light of this, it was especially interesting to hear Professor Clare Lees address the issue of the REF, speaking from her experience as a panel member and how this differs to much of the perception of how the REF peer review process works. Hearing more about this is really reassuring and helpful for ECRs (and I imagine others in the system); as I mentioned today, the key issue my work on the REF raised was that of communication, or the lack thereof, about the REF to ECRs and how this creates much anxiety and misperception. Hopefully the issue of communicating to and with ECRs can be better addressed in the next cycle.

I also wanted to add a further point about the long-term plan noted above; there was a lot of agreement with the idea that this is impossible on fixed term contracts, while I had (briefly) suggested the opposite can be true. To qualify that: I agree that it is impossible to make a plan in terms of where or what type of job one will be on in several years time, and a largely pointless exercise to try and strategise in this way; much is luck and right place, right time.

I do, however, think that it is possible to forge a plan of where you want to be intellectually- your ambitions for where you see yourself positioned in the field, what kind of critical advances you want to be making – and to strategise about how you might get there through publications, funding grants,  and so on. Of course this will change and evolve over time. But I think that doing so helps create a clear sense of direction and ensures best use of your time: making sure that you focus your energies on going to the right conferences, writing the best articles, and applying for the most relevant grants. Not only is this strategic but, I think, can be hugely important to your sense of identity as an ECR, helping to keep in view an idea of who you are and what you want to achieve as a researcher – something so easily lost within the flux of short-term contracts, but so integral to keeping focused on the end goal that will make the fixed-term years worth it.