Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Onwards and upwards

Warning, this post is going to be a long one. Well, relatively long as far as my blog posts go. It's the post I thought I'd never write, the one that so many others before me have written - it's the 'alt ac' career post! For those of you not familiar with the term 'alt-ac' is used to describe a career outside academia, specifically for those who were once, or aspired to be, on the academic career ladder. I myself am a bit of an odd case - on the one hand you could say I've had an extremely successful academic career so far. I've worked on some very high profile research projects, I've published over 30 peer-reviewed papers, some of which have been highly cited, giving me a h-index of 7 (apparently good for an early career reseearcher in archaeology, if you take notice of these sorts of metrics). I've won over £100k in grants to fund my research, despite being in a position where I have been limited in the type of grants I can apply for. My teaching has received excellent feedback, and my students even nominated me for an award this year. There's just one problem - I have never had a job for more than two years. Since finishing my PhD in 2008 I was first employed on an ad hoc basis for two years as a research assistant, followed by two research associate positions, each of which were two years or less, followed by a Fellowship of two years, and a 10 month teaching position. I've got more experience and credentials than most, yet I'm not much better off than a new PhD in terms of (permanent) academic job prospects. Successful, yet sort of not at the same time.

1. There are no jobs!
I have been applying for academic jobs  for about four years now, focusing on the UK with occasional dabbles in the US market. Within that time there have been only a handful of jobs advertised in my area in the UK (archaeological science), and even fewer (two) in my specific specialism, geoarchaeology. Even fewer of these have been open, rather than fixed term contracts. I've been fortunate enough to be short-listed for some of the most prestigious positions, just enough to keep on trying, and I was assured that my current job would be the one that turned into a permanent post (however....this article sums that up nicely). There comes a time in life when it's just not worth moving again for another two year position. It takes the best part of a year to set up a new lab, establish a network across university facilities, at which point you get very little actual research done before you have to start applying for the next job. Two years for me is also the time it takes to establish a new social circle and make friends, and that upheaval is also one which has started to get wearisome.

2. Being an archaeologist
Whilst my early frustration has been with the simple lack of jobs to apply for, and having to move every two years, I have also become increasingly uncomfortable with 'selling' archaeology to my students. A big part of my current job, as a personal tutor, has been working with students and advising them on career options in archaeology. The sad truth is that in the UK, you will earn more working in Tesco than in an entry level archaeology position. And even with a Masters degree you will be earning less than most other graduate jobs that require just an undergraduate degree. I see my students working hard in the classroom, working harder in the field to get as much experience as  they can, dreaming of being an archaeologist, without really understanding what an unsustainable career it is, and it makes me sad and frustrated. Especially so if you come from a less well off background and don't have the family support to help you do things like buy a house (imagine trying to save a deposit, or even getting a mortgage, on a salary of £16k), or pay the rent while you do a poorly/un paid internship that might give your CV and edge. Academia is one of the few routes where you can expect to earn a decent living doing archaeology, but see the first point above. It's hard selling that to students, especially now that the cost of going to university is so high.

3. Being an academic
I love research, and I love teaching, which for me has always been research-led. I get to talk about all the cool stuff I'm working on, and the insights you get from student discussions can be fantastic. I also enjoy doing outreach work - again, it's great to talk about all the science that I find exciting, and convincing other people how fascinating it is. I enjoy writing papers and applying for grants. Seriously, there is something really satisfying about constructing an argument for why someone should give you money. I enjoy the challenge of impact. I do believe that research should have a broader purpose than simple academic interest, and although many grumble at having to write impact statements, it makes you realise that your research can make a real difference. BUT - I've come to realise that even if I did get a 'permanent' position in the next year or so, the only step forward for me is to expand my work through building a team of researchers. I have started this recently, bringing together a great team of microfossil people, and we have even got our first PhD studentship funding. But whilst this  prospect used to excite me, it now really worries me that in order to build my own career, I would have to essentially use researchers like myself, who will be employed on fixed term contracts, with uncertain futures. Again, it's not something that is easy to sell.

4. NOT being an academic
So, that brings us to the last part of this post. Like many others, I believed for a long time that academia (as in, a permanent lectureship) was the only choice for me. Ironically, as I have moved up the ranks, essentially working for the past two years as a lecturer in everything but job title, it has become clear that there are actually many ways for me to do the work that I love, without actually being a lecturer. I am really excited about my new job, which I will post more about at a later date. It will let me focus on the aspects of my career that I have enjoyed the most, in a department that puts employability at the centre of the student experience, and where post-doctoral researchers develop skills which are easily transferable to the professional sector (with real salaries), rather than being narrowly focused on academia. What's even better is that I will have the chance to spend more time doing social media, as a central part of my job, and to learn new things about marketing analytics. When it comes down to it, I've realised that my real passion is learning new things, being challenged, and becoming very good at something.

5. But still being a geoarchaeologist
Over the next few months you will see some changes in the blog layout. I will continue my usual features on micromorphology, microfossils and archaeological science. I will be expanding the blog pages to include details on my new consultancy work, which will include thin section analysis, as well as editorial, content and social media services. I may even start a new linked blog to focus on those things, to avoid boring those of you who are just here for the cool archaeology stuff (though I doubt any of you have read this far!). Onwards and upwards! Or slightly southwards geographically....

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