No Good Advice

When I began to write for this blog, I had just started my first permanent academic job and the advice given came from that limited perspective. Academic advice is a curious beast: there are, of course, broad rules (don’t drunkenly rant at a plenary speaker over canapes) but there is also a changing landscape given Brexit, Stern, REF/TEF and whatever the next few years will throw at us. This is not unique to our field, and I am wary of any kind of academic exceptionalism, especially given the changes to labour practices and conditions. Advice is always deeply personal, and carries with it the taint of either ‘Be like me’ or ‘Don’t do what I did’ and can involve a coded Yeatsian list of the folks who done you wrong. This is particularly intoxicating when you get your first permanent job, as your advice is now sought with a scary regularity despite you being the academic equivalent of Bambi’s wobbly legs. The question of ‘How did you do it?’ is on the tongue of everyone stuck in academic limbo with its temporary contracts contracts and personal insecurity. You may have no idea how you did it, and why that one chat with some strangers led to your gainful employment and ability to plan a life. The hindsight of ‘academic fit’ is sharp. To promise the recently doctored that there is a way, a plan, a ‘just do this and a salary with a pile of admin is yours!’ is disingenuous and misleading. Not least because the ask keeps changing, the goalposts will be moved again.

To that end, here are some deeply personal things that I would say to a person embarking on their first permanent job. I’ve now been in post 3 years, after 5 years of temporary and part-time contracts that ranged from helpful opportunities to penny-scrounging penury. I’ve made a variety of mistakes but also began to establish a research and teaching career. Much like you all, I am not at the dizzy heights of a Judith Butler (bow down) but neither am I a David Lodge caricature. Remember that nearly everyone you meet is trying their best despite often challenging circumstances so they can teach and write about the thing they love. The measuring, metrics and balance sheet will not tell you that. Remember that you’ve got a job but you’re not ‘done’: no one ever is if they keep learning, refining and getting better.

1. Be sensitive to your precariously employed friends

This should be self-evident but if you want a whinge about an aspect of your job, for goodness sake, don’t do it to someone deep in the throes of their own job hunt. Remember what it is like to be on the market and that insecurity over your personal and professional life. There is a wider question about the nature of academic labour to be had: just not with someone who’d sacrifice anything to have a stable monthly salary.

2. Try your best to slow down a bit

There is nothing like that impulse to *do all the things* before you get a job. We’ve all been slightly wild-eyed, amassing academic achievement like trading cards, desperate for that full set to unlock the happy ever after. I’m not saying stop everything (especially if anyone from work is reading) but take the time to take stock of where you are going next. You have time now to focus on quality not quantity and formulate long-term plans and goals. Putting the brakes on will be hard (I likened myself to a crash test dummy who couldn’t stop the velocitude) but for your own sake, find a way of working that is more sustainable.

3. Wine, cake, pizza: choose your weapon

Mentors are great, colleagues are fab, but to get into the headspace to make sense of your new situation, you need a friend who works at another institution. You need an evening surrounded by carbs and laughter. You need to see how those things you thought were your place’s quirks are small fry compared to somewhere else: you need to hear about how your friend negotiated their first funding app or PhD supervision. But mostly you need to laugh like a drain with a friend, in confidence, often.

4. Go back to the work

Many years ago, when you were bright eyed and starting your PhD, you felt like you could commit to three years on one topic because of how interesting it was. You were nervous, sure, but dying to get going. Since then, you’ve sold your precious research to publishers and interview boards. Getting a job is a prime motivator to go back to the things which motivated you. In my case, it’s bringing lesser know Northern Irish texts into discussions about contemporary fiction and ensuring women’s voices are heard. In the midst of making sure I had a roof over my head, I forgot that a little, and now am beginning to ask that most important question again: Why is this so important? Remind yourself of why you believe in your work.

5. Ask for help

Sure you’re the fully fledged article, aren’t you done? You’ve a job, sure why would you have any doubts? Obviously, that sort of thinking is utterly redundant: if you’re applying for opportunities at all, some rejection will fall in your lap. Unless you’re Beyonce, in which case you grapple with how to submit Lemonade under the REF (4*, obv). When that happens, don’t over-dramatise the universal experience but instead be thoughtful about how you approach friends and colleagues for their advice. Full disclosure: I had a minor setback last week and was pulled out of stomping around like an angry T-Rex by mates who set it in a context and colleagues who offered me clear, practical solutions. I made sure not to mither any one person too much and to ensure I was able to support them in kind when the need arose.

I might be out of the advice racket as my words seem to espouse the same thing over and over again: Remember what’s important to you, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable to trusted friends and eat cake. Things will change, but some things will remain the same: ideas that are worth fighting for and students who see ideas afresh.

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About Caroline Magennis

Caroline Magennis is a Lecturer in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature at the University of Salford. She teaches courses on Modernism, Fiction, Irish literature and Literary Theory. Her research focuses on contemporary Northern Irish literature and culture and is kept updated at https://salford.academia.edu/CarolineMagennis

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