My last post about sharing hard truths in the academy seemed to really strike a chord, particularly with early career researchers who confirmed that hearing the truth was better than being placated with false assurances. People contributed some great comments: well considered and sometimes sad.
One of these comments, from Megan, included an interesting question:
I have one, maybe slightly odd, question. I did a PhD so I could work in research, not to scale the heights of academia. I love my job but I love other aspects of my life just as much (!) and am not keen to have to put my job above all else as it seems is necessary to progress (from what I have observed anyway). Basically I would be more than happy to keep working as a level B, say, on different projects and feel confident enough in my general skills (I had a career before academia) that I could do this. I also know that senior academics need good people at that level to actually deliver their projects.
However it seems to me that staying at the one level is not possible as a career path – the institution kind of forces you to look and move ‘upward’ because of the need / desire for high performing researchers. And while I know some projects have non-academic project managers I’m not as interested in that as would still like to use my academic skills / write a bit and so on. Just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on this.
This prompted so many thoughts that I had to write this post! My caveat for this is that it is drawn from my own experiences – I would be very interested to hear from anyone who knows of research into promotion patterns and aspirations in academia.
So, where to begin?
The short answer is that you could have a career as a Level B academic. If you manage to land a continuing Level B position (title of ‘lecturer’, 2nd step up from entry-level continuing academic appointments), you could – if you wanted to – stay at that level for as long as you like. That is, as long as you’re not made redundant by your institution, or ‘fail’ to do your basic job as an academic (in which case, you may then be ‘performance managed’ out of your role).
If you’re fulfilling the job of a lecturer (and probably beyond), and just don’t ever feel like applying for promotion, this becomes interesting. I’m writing a chapter for a book on ‘academic wellbeing’ that focuses on the very question: what it means when you know that fighting for your work/life balance means a direct compromise of promotion chances and track-record building opportunities.
For example, if you decide that doing international conferences isn’t the go for you right now, how does that affect your profile and relevance in the field? In this age of social connection and sustainable networking via different platforms, I would say it doesn’t have to affect your profile and field relevance at all. But others would beg to differ, sometimes quite vehemently. Personally, I haven’t presented at an international event for many, many years. The last time I went overseas was for research activity that didn’t include a conference because that trip’s priorities were to get other work done and to be home ASAP (my kids were 1.5 and 4 years old). Pre-kids, I would’ve aligned as many events as possible around the time overseas, weaving in conferences and multiple university visits to connect with colleagues in the field, even if this meant more side-trips and a longer time overseas.
While no-one may necessarily throw you out of the institution for being happy for a long time at Level B, I suspect the evaluation of you as a scholar and researcher could fast diminish. The academic sector is very much geared to the gold-star mentality, ladder-climbing, and endless hoop-jumping when it comes to the question of ‘are you good enough?’. We resent having to do these things. Yet when our colleagues aren’t doing them, it can lead to negative judgements about them. Is it a case of feeling like those who aren’t moving up the ladder aren’t pulling their weight in some way? Is not seeking promotion seen as a sign of not doing anything, or of being incapable of reaching the next level? Can it be accepted as a choice that someone has made?
Hand in hand with the endless striving for ill-defined excellence (here are my views on that score!) is the assumption of career ambition. It’s an interesting enmeshment of academic identity with limitless ambition. Where it gets messy is that ‘ambition’ is understood in narrow ways that mean applying for promotion, moving to higher level jobs, and always looking up. If your ambition is within your field of research and drives finding those social justice solutions, better health outcomes, or industry results, these don’t necessarily equate to climbing an academic ladder. Sometimes, not having a promotion can work better in your life.
That said, there are two things that I think can have a huge effect on whether someone stays happy at Level B, over the long term:
- Recognition for your experience. If you are fulfilling your role as a lecturer, chances are you’re doing teaching, research, and taking on service/engagement roles. Within the ‘doing research’ component, this would include publishing, applying for funding, working with collaborators, and supervising postgraduates. If you are doing all these things, gaining experience and wisdom as you go along, you may start to feel that those who are climbing the ladder are less qualified than you are but they are gaining more recognition and reward for the things they do (e.g. via promotion, higher level opportunities).
- The influence to enact change. You may not feel you want or need the monetary rewards of climbing the ladder. Keep in mind, though, that while academic promotion can equate to more responsibility and higher amounts of output (which puts more pressure on the scholar), it can also mean bigger, more exciting opportunities and more ability to influence the way things are done both within the institution and beyond. For example, sure you can get on a major grant as an early career researcher, but if your passion and drive to be in the field means you may need to lead a team at some point, rather than hope that someone will come along who will do so (in the direction you’d like and involve you significantly) you may need to be more senior.
Everyone’s situation is different, and Megan may well have considered all these elements already. In my view, if people are happy, interested, and feeling like they’re still learning/gaining knowledge at Level B, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to stay one for as long as they’d like. For many, having any kind of longer-term job in academe is reward enough, Level B or not.
What do you think? Can someone create a well-regarded, desirable career at Level B in academia? And should they?