Now is an anxious time for new academics, with pressure arising from both the REF and the uncertainties introduced as a result of Government policies on Higher Education, all of which tends to add to the challenge of securing a permanent post. I have some understanding of this, having spent time on various fixed-term contracts between gaining my DPhil in 1997 and coming to Huddersfield in 2003. Some of the advice below might perhaps have helped me to gain that elusive permanent post sooner, had I adopted it. Mostly, though, these tips are just things that I have found make my professional life easier to manage and enjoy.
1. Keep your CV in mind when taking on fixed-term teaching. Gaining experience of a range of modules across different levels of study and outside of your immediate area of expertise will help to demonstrate flexibility and versatility when it comes to applying for a permanent post. You are most likely to be offered part-time seminar teaching but if you can get some experience of lecturing too it’s worth doing. This entails some extra work in preparing for new classes, but it is a good long-term strategy provided it doesn’t prevent you from getting on with research and publication.
2. Save yourself time by making your lectures more engaging. The most time-consuming way to prepare a lecture is to fully script it. Coincidentally, this also tends to make for stilted delivery and drifting student attention. Filling PowerPoint slides with lots of text is problematic for the same reason if you read it all out—or, worse, if you don’t read it out it competes with what you are saying for your audience’s attention. My own preference is to use just images and headings in slides and to use them as prompts for a semi-improvised delivery. It can be a bit nerve-wracking at first but once you develop confidence you may even find, as I did, that you enjoy it.
3. Aim to give the kind of feedback to students that you would have liked to receive yourself. Tell them what they did well in their assignment and why you liked it. Then tell them how they could make it even better. Students who produce work of a poor quality may already feel disengaged so aim to give feedback that will inspire them. It also makes marking a more positive and rewarding experience.
4. Make good use of learning technology expertise. There are ways of using VLEs to support learning that are a real enhancement to students’ experiences, and others that have little impact. Take advantage of staff development to help you to find the most effective and efficient ways of using ICT to support learning. It also helps to seek out colleagues who do this stuff well and ask for their advice.
5. Do your fair share of admin. It’s collegial and it is also another way to get noticed when you do a decent job. However, …
6. Learn how to say ‘no’. You are entitled to properly weigh up whether or not you want to take on a new task/ responsibility. I have on more than one occasion agreed to take something on when asked casually on the corridor, only to subsequently regret it.
7. Do research every day. Many Universities assign a day with no teaching or other duties so that academics can undertake research. In order to make the best use of this time it helps to keep your ideas ticking over throughout the rest of the week. It might just be thinking about a problem for twenty minutes on the train or bus, but it can really help to sustain the momentum of research.
8. Build good relationships with admin support staff. They deserve your respect as a matter of course, but having good administrators on your side can also save you a lot of time as they clear a passage through the bureaucratic mire.
9. Keep email messages short (for example, by adopting the protocol recommended at http://five.sentenc.es/). If the matter is too complicated to convey in the length of a text message or Twitter post it may be better to speak in person or on the phone. It’s better for professional relationships anyway, as well as cutting down on the volume of email.
10. Only take good things home. The joy of academic life arises from the opportunity to build a professional career on the basis of personal intellectual passions, so the work/life balance often involves a significant degree of overlap. But don’t allow that to extend to things that cause you stress. Leave them at work.