On Monday, Vitae ran an event called Advancing in Academia which, you may note, took place in a hotel in Birmingham. This, I thought to myself, was a good opportunity, and the geographic convenience meant it was too good to miss. (It didn’t stop me arriving half an hour later than I’d planned to, but that was more the result of blithely trusting the local buses.) I had a pretty straightforward agenda going in – I wanted to know whether my perceptions of the higher education environment were accurate, whether I had actually got as good a plan for career development as I thought I had, and more generally to touch base with an organisation which I’ve made great use of virtually over the last few years but haven’t really had a chance to engage with in person. (They’re the people, for instance, who put together the Researcher Development Framework.)
I have to say that I’m very glad that I decided to go, as it was a good example of what can come of taking up unexpected opportunities. The event had a couple of interactive discussion segments and a couple of personal narrative segments, where established academics talked about how their career paths had got them to where they were today. On the plus side, most of them said ‘it was all by chance, but it looks orderly now’, whilst also saying that there were some key bits of strategic thinking and planning you could do which would help with the inevitable chaotic reality of life. Having a sense of vision and purpose, for instance, helps you decide what you want to prioritise in your life, and thus influences decisions about what you agree or decide to do in your department. This was particularly clear in the Academic Promotions exercise, where each group got a character to shepherd through three years of their life in an attempt to gain promotion. There were dice. It was great. And I got mildly over-attached to our group’s junior career art historian, but that’s by the by.
So, what did I get out of the event? Most importantly, a host of ideas about how to prepare and contextualise myself that I wouldn’t have had on my own. For instance, it suddenly occured to me during the Academic Promotions exercise that it would be a really smart move for me to look at all the jobs I applied for last year (most of which had selection criteria very like the ones the Promotions exercise was using), and to see where the holes in my CV were. Doing that would mean I could actually spent the coming year trying to plug those holes, rather than coming around to the job hunt next year and finding the same holes in place.
I also had a very unexpected encounter with some people who work on female body image, one in the media and one in psychology, which sounds like an unlikely convergence of research interests until I explain that I have, on the back burner, a desire to write a survey article on fat studies in classics. (If you’ve not come across fat studies, I point you towards the Fat Studies Reader.) It seems like it’s very easy for classicists to carry over anachronstic concepts about moral values of physical size into ancient literature, and I quite fancy writing something that puts that discourse into the context of the work done in fat studies – and lo, here I found myself at lunch with two women who were perfectly set up to connect me to a pool of expertise on this work. This is the unexpected benefit of going outside your discipline and finding the touch-points your work has with others, and I have to say that I’m now quite excited about following this up.
So, I’ve come out with a confirmation that I’m on more or less the right track, that I’m doing more or less the right thing, some further ideas for things I might usefully do, and a general sense of comfort (for want of a better word) in knowing that I’m doing the best I can at the moment. I think my one comment on the whole event would be that it did assume people were in fixed positions and thus could do some long-term strategic planning. If you’re in a permanent job, or even a three-year fixed term position, you have a degree of stability that lets you think in the slightly longer term about goals and how you wish to achieve them. For me, in a one year position, I don’t have that kind of freedom. I’m doing what the department needs me to do, and there’s no point in me thinking what I’d like to do differently next year – because it’s unlikely I’ll be here next year. Knowing what I’d like to do and continue to do will help as I move from job to job, but it seems there’s an element of being hostage to fortune that prevents me doing effective strategic planning for the long term.