Academia is a wonderful profession, but being a PGR or ECR these days is tough. There are fewer jobs and the structures and demands are changing – great in terms of adding accountability to ‘old school’ models, but also creating a lot of pressure, especially for junior staff. I was an ECR in the mid-2000s and my experiences were pretty good – supportive colleagues, interesting students, fantastic city – but HE has really turned up the heat since then. I look at my junior colleagues and feel a combination of admiration at their achievements, and concern for their wellbeing. So here are my ten top tips to survive – and even thrive – in what can be a hothouse of an environment.
1. In terms of teaching, less can be more. Give your students lots of time and attention but don’t spoon-feed them – it will create unrealistic expectations and they will respect you less in the long run. Have the confidence to have expectations of them. Teaching is the most rewarding facet of academic life – even more so when you stop trying to please your students and concentrate on educating them.
2. Make sure you have time for research. Academic jobs should balance teaching, admin and research, and junior colleagues often get overloaded with the former. If you have a supportive line manager, discuss your workload with them. If not, go utilitarian – ask them how they expect you to produce world-class research if you never get time to think. Enlist the help of supportive senior colleagues.
3. Ask for a mentor. There’s nothing more helpful than an experienced eye over your writing and career plans. It will also help you to network and give you a sense of security. Look for other training opportunities your institution provides – they might be useful and you could meet colleagues from other departments.
4. Get into the habit of writing. If you’re still doing your Ph.D. you will need to be writing more often than not, and if you’ve just finished it you should be mining your thesis for publications before it goes off the boil. As a faculty member you will need to get used to writing in short bursts between doing other things – try the Pomodoro Technique. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish bit-by-bit.
5. Don’t take on too much. Be collegial but strategic in relation to your broader goals and your work/life balance. Although the current environment creates pressure to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity, remember that if you’re good at what you do another will come along. Don’t put your health in jeopardy – it’s not worth it. Look at the big picture.
6. Don’t see other junior colleagues as competition – they can be friends and potential collaborators if you let them. Academia can be a cut-throat world, especially for PGRs and ECRs – but you don’t have to carry those neoliberal structures and values into your working relationships. Refuse to play the game if it means pitting yourselves against each other.
7. Don’t check (or at least don’t answer) emails during evenings and weekends. It can create unrealistic expectations, especially for students (some of whom find it difficult to imagine their lecturers having a life), and wreaks havoc on your work/life balance.
8. Get a social life. Get to know people at work, but make sure you cultivate some interests and friends outside it. Academia can become all-consuming and we all tend to live inside our heads – do something sporty or creative to take the edge off. Don’t let your personal relationships stagnate.
9. Develop a sense of humour. The prevailing managerial culture will drive you nuts if you can’t laugh at it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for yourself or get involved in institutional politics, but you should try and find a way of lightening the load. Who amongst your colleagues seems to be having fun at work? Knock on their door for a chat.
10. Join a union. Do it soon if you haven’t already.