This post reflects on some of the emotional and personal struggles I have experienced during my somewhat precarious and unexpected career path through academia. I reflect on my motivation behind contributing my career story to Vitae and link to what is a great resource for any researcher that is unsure about what to do next in their career.
Since achieving my doctorate in 2011, my career path has been anything but what I had anticipated. I didn’t just walk into a permanent, secure career as I had expected I might. Instead, I have held several short term, fixed term contracts, no longer an uncommon experience in academic as this Guardian article attests; ‘Why are many academics on short term contracts for years?. I have held two 10 month teaching positions (with a two month gap in between in which I worked in Market Research) and then a two and half year Research Associate position. Every time, the end of the contract has loomed and I have been filled with fear, panic, worry, anxiety and lots of questions. What do I do next? What if I can’t get another job in academia? What jobs am I qualified to do outside of academia? Will the next job be permanent? If not, can I really afford to uproot my husband and daughter for another short term option? Despite the passage of time these questions kept on coming up and the anxiety increased. Even though I really wanted to stay in academia, I decided I’d had enough. I decided to get a job outside of academia. It had never been my plan or intention but I knew that there must be options; I just hadn’t tried them yet. So, for three months, I worked for a charity in my local area. It was not as well paid as I was used to but it was a permanent job, it involved “research” (although not he kind I wanted to do) and I didn’t have to move my family.
Throughout that time however, I missed my academic career and the questioning started again; have I done the right thing? Would I have done this differently if I had had more support? Have I chosen a good career starter here?
Around about this time, I took part in a survey conducted by Vitae that posed the simple question; “What do researchers do next?”. This question really attracted me and still does. I wanted to know what other researchers were doing and I wanted to share my story, as a personal sort of therapy but also as a potential resource for others. I filled in the survey and then some weeks later, was invited to write about my career story for a project whose aim was to collect career stories of researchers, covering a wide range of career paths.
Around about the time this invite arrived, I had been informed that I had won the Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship, which I had all but given up hope about. I couldn’t believe it! I knew I had to take the opportunity but I also knew it meant that the contract would again end and I may again be faced with the same questions, fears and emotions.
The main points in this post are this; 1) the insecurity and fixed term nature of a lot of academic contracts has an emotional toll. I come across people regularly who find this increasingly stressful. They want to stay in academia but they can’t find the jobs or are tied to a certain location or institution because of family or other responsibilities; 2) researchers need more support when thinking about their career options, both in academia and out. Academic jobs are becoming more difficult to secure, especially permanent ones, and they are more likely to be fixed term and insecure. So what are the options? Is it OK to try something new and start on a new career path elsewhere? How do you know where to look? Can you get back into academia if you leave?
As a starting point, Vitae’s website is a good port of call. There are now some fantastic resources on their website including the career stories of over 100 researchers (here), some who have stayed working in academia and some who have moved onto pastures new. So if, like me, you have felt or feel all at sea, abandoned and terrified every time a contract has come to an end and the precariousness of a research career is getting you down, I hope the resources on the site give you some ideas.
You can view my full career story (so far!) here.