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Chris - deciding against an academic career
Name: Chris
PhD discipline: Languages - Russian
Area(s) of work: Audit; independent writing
Year of graduation: 2005
Date of Interview: 17/06/2008

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Chris reviews the factors, including his experience of teaching, which discouraged him from pursuing an academic career.

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Did you anticipate an academic career at the end of it?

When I started my undergraduate degree in 1996 I was certain that I didn't want an academic career. Obviously when I decided to do a Masters and then a PhD it became clear that I was on a trajectory which might lead to that and there were times when I thought, especially with regard to the research aspects of an academic career, that that was exactly what I wanted. The freedom it gives you, the ability to go into something in as much depth as you want and sometimes this was less – I felt this less strongly – to be part of a community of scholars who were motivated by those values. So yes, there were times when I thought of an academic career.

At what point during the PhD did you decide that you didn't want an academic career?

I'm not sure if this has changed since 2001, I suspect it hasn't but embarking on an academic career, embarking on a PhD we were told that there were a number of things we needed to check off – tick off on a checklist to be sure of even having a smidgen of a chance of ever being able to apply for an academic job and a hope of being successful. So one of them was doing your PhD but another one was making sure to publish early some article or several if possible. Never turning down a book review even if it involved more work than the book was worth and getting some teaching experience. it was the latter – sorry, and giving lots of papers at academic conferences – it was the penultimate one, the teaching experience that I found I had most difficulty with. I hadn't expected that because I've always been a confident public speaker and able to express myself relatively coherently and without nerves, but I found that all of that fled me when I tried to reproduce it in front of students and I'm still not entirely sure why. At first I had a great crisis of confidence about it and treated it like a challenge that I needed to overcome so I needed to do more teaching and expose myself to this more and then I would get better at. Then I had a bit of an epiphany where I realised that this feeling was unique to when I tried to teach and that probably it was best in the rest of my life to avoid a job where I was going to have to do this all the time because it was unlikely to go away. I think in looking back in retrospect I think the reason that I had these negatives feelings about teaching was because I found it very difficult to pitch, to understand who I was pitching – what I was teaching to – was it at the right level for the weakest student or the strongest student and what was fair? I probably found it easier to teach to the strongest student, not the weaker student and perhaps was somewhat impatient with weaker students. I don't think that's an uncommon feeling and in fact some of the worst teachers – people I was taught by are generally like me, and that was another consideration. I thought that in saving myself from a miserable life of teaching I was also saving many students.

So, that was really the crux of why I started to think 'I shouldn't have a career in academia' and of course once you think that it's easy to proceed on that basis 'cos it's always very difficult to get the job in academia and that was another motivating factor. Once I realised that this wasn't the be all and the end all and every aspect of teaching was – every aspect of being a university lecturer wasn't wonderful then it became much less attractive to put yourself through this job mill where you can expect, even if you're one of the best to get multiple rejections before you have one success – which may occur at a university very far from where the rest of your life is.
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