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John - deciding against an academic career
Name: John
PhD discipline: Classics
Area(s) of work: University teaching; information technology
Year of graduation: 2002
Date of Interview: 17/06/2008

Now Playing: John - deciding against an academic career
John explains how and why his aspirations about an academic career changed.

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Can you remember your career aspirations at the PhD stage? 

I'm not a good person to ask about this because  (again a bit like coming out of my undergraduate degree)  I hadn't given it a lot of thought, partly because I didn't feel I had to worry about it too much. I was well thought of in my department, there was a bit of a buzz around the thesis. People had responded well to the papers I had given. So part of me felt like there was going to be a job waiting for me, just because I had done a good job, which I was think was slightly naïve but not entirely unjustified. I just hadn't heard of things like post-docs, post doctorals, I didn't realise those sort of things existed. If I had, I think that would have been my aspiration, it would be to do another thesis. And so my aspiration was really just get a lectureship somewhere that was what I was aiming at.

And so did you start applying for lectureships? 

Yes, I did, I got a temporary lectureship before I had submitted by PhD and the thing that changed my aspirations a great deal, was the lecturing. The actual reality of lecturing fell completely short of what my expectations had been. I started thinking that maybe that aspiration was not the right one for me. I started thinking 'I am not sure the lecturing lifestyle is what I am aiming for.' 

Can we explore that in a bit more depth?  Was it to do with your expectations or the reality? Was there some conflict there?

There were two conflicts: the first one was a general lifestyle conflict in that I had to commute to work. I was living in London, it was a temporary lectureship, it was only going to last eight months and so it came down to 'do I want to live in the Midlands, where I don't know anyone?  Do I want to live in London and do this crazy commute?' Then I realised that this was pretty much standard;  a lot of people I knew were moving all over the country, sometimes to different countries, in order to pursue what were not very well paid jobs, that didn't last very long. I realised that lecturing was much, much more work than I had anticipated. I thought I had a good idea of what lecturing involved from the teaching I had been doing, but there was an exponential ramp up between teaching one or two courses and teaching four or five courses that I just hadn't taken into account. I started seeing more and more people who were on their third or fourth temporary lectureship and that didn't look like any fun to me. I was not that keen on Warwick (not as a university) but simply as a place to be. I felt marooned somewhere in the Midlands, somewhere I didn't have any connection to and so generally speaking it was something that didn't fit well with my life.  I had been living a pampered existence for the previous four years and so it was quite a jump off the cliff.

And the other part of it was the research; I hadn't realised what the research culture was like. I was quite committed to my research as a doctoral student; I enjoyed doing my research and I was completely uncynical about it. I wanted to get it done but I wanted it to be good. And then once I was lecturing, I started to see how the RAE worked and how frenetic people got about the RAE and how frenetic people got about trying to manipulate the RAE. I started thinking 'Well, what if I don't have any good ideas for a year?'  That was quite possible. I had just written a big thesis which was very ambitious, and I didn't have anything of that scope in my head. I felt fairly certain that a couple of years down the line I would have another grand project coming along, but I was told pretty bluntly by my head of department at the time (who liked me a lot)  that it is not about grand projects. You cannot afford to say 'I'm going to write a piece of staggering genius in two years but I have to think about it a bit first'. Then comparing this with the American situation, it is exactly the same thing with tenure. It is publish or perish and I felt that probably doesn't produce very good research a lot of the time.

I started thinking that if research is what I love and the contemporary research climate is such that you can't do the research that you like, I don't think I can stand to watch research becoming something I hate or something I'm going through the motions of. If it is going to be something that I have to do as a cynical putting in the hours thing, there are a lot more jobs that are more stable, that are more fun, that pay better. The rational choice started looking like it something besides lecturing. 

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