Jobs before academia

I came across this article ages ago about jobs academics did before they became academics, and have been meaning to write something about it, but the semester has been so very very busy that I haven't had a chance. Having just handed in what I hope is my last lot of marking before I'm off on fieldwork next week, I thought I'd sit down and do some reminiscing.

My early adventures in the world of work. My very first job was as a assistant at an amusement arcade in my hometown of Newcastle. It was so monotonous and very depressing, spending the whole day handing out change to people that they would then just put into slot machines. I always knew I wanted to go to university, but that experience really reminded me that I would never be happy doing something 'normal'. It was the summer before I was about to head off to university, and I worked really hard at that job, saving up enough money to buy myself a desktop computer that I could take with me. I remember it well; it was the cheapest computer in the shop, and it cost my entire summer savings of about £800. I paid for it in cash! Ah, the wonderful Mac laptop that I could (almost) buy for that amount these days.

When I was at university I had two jobs, even though we were told we were not allowed jobs (I'm surprised to see this is still the case at Oxford even today, 'term time employment is not permitted except under exceptional circumstances'). But hey, I was poor and needed the money. I am proud of the fact that I never used a credit card my entire time as an undergraduate thanks to those jobs (that all went quickly downhill when I decided to do postgraduate degrees). My term time job was bar staff/cloakroom assistant at the Zodiac night club (now an O2 Academy). I can still pour a pint of Guinness and draw a shamrock in it. And I can pour shots and wine measures by eye. Valuable skills! I also got to see a lot of bands for free, which was fun. I much preferred being on cloakroom duty. After the initial rush of the evening, I could just sit there and get on with my reading and weekly essay assignments. It wasn't the most pleasant of jobs; I got threw up on once, and being sober around very drunk people all the time did not mesh well with my shyness.

St Hughs College Library (photo from website)
When it wasn't term time, I worked as a library assistant for my college library, which was much more pleasant. That was my favorite job ever. In fact, if I hadn't become an academic, I would have loved to be a librarian. There were hardly any students around as it was the holidays. Just me and the handful of other shy, quiet types who couldn't afford to go home, and stayed and worked in the library instead, under the instruction of then librarian Deborah Quare. Our main task was to do a stock take of the entire library. In the first year before everything was bar-coded, this meant going and checking every single shelf by hand. Later on, we got a barcode scanner which made it a bit quicker. Then there was the daily re-shelving. Running up and down stairs with piles of books, sorting them into subject categories, then re-shelving them, reading snippets here and there. It was bliss. Even the law library, where the books had incredibly dull names, there was something very soothing about putting them away in the right places. One year we had to accession a bequest of hundreds of books. At that point we still wrote out library cards as the library was still in the process of transitioning to a digital system. I got to keep loads of them as there were too many for us to keep. They remain some of my most prized book possessions.

Like the Times article says, one of the most important lessons from these 'other' jobs, is learning what it's like to be someone else, the many people who do these sorts of jobs everyday for their whole lives. Academia is an odd place really when you think about it, not at all like the real world is for most people. That is something that can be easy to forget, or to not realize at all, when you spend your whole life in that environment, transitioning straight from student to academic. I would argue that doing something else for a while, either as an undergraduate or between degrees, is important to enable you to empathize and understand the 'public' that we are so often asked to engage with as academics. It is also useful for experiencing life and gaining experience outside academia, which is important for seeking so called alt ac employment, which is something I'll write more about in a future blog post!


  1. Ooft, where do I start. I would agree that having a 'normal' job either prior to or, during academic life is the best way to develop inter-personnel skills that can be translated to research and dealing/disseminating information to non-academics. It not only provides experience but helps time management skills that can, with some academic, be sometime lacking.

    1. time management yes! I think this sort of experience is going to become more important as the emphasis on engagement and impact increases

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