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[personal profile] liv
So I'm attending a careers course at the moment. It's designed by Vitae, who started out as a non-profit aimed at providing the career development that universities were totally failing to offer academics, and got gradually absorbed by official government bodies. I generally find their stuff well-planned and useful. This one is being delivered by some tremendously earnest people from the university careers service, because these days universities do in fact see staff development of academics as part of their remit, though it's still kind of patchy. There have been a couple of problems with the course; it was meant to be two days on two consecutive weeks with a group of ten to twelve. It ended up being four people and the two halves split across nearly two months, which is a lot less good.

The second part is due for tomorrow, so I wanted to bibble about some of the thinking they've been getting us to do in preparation. If I'm cynical, I could say that the course is kind of designed to give people psychological support for dealing with the fact that there are a whole lot more people who want jobs in academia than there are reasonable, stable careers in the sector. So a lot of discussion about how you don't necessarily have to do the thing you started out planning to do, and how it's more important to choose a career path that makes you happy than one that carries a lot of prestige. And lots of exercises aimed at challenging assumptions and getting you to think outside the box and so on. The first thing we did was a bonding exercise where we had to work together to complete a jigsaw that breaks many of the implicit rules of how jigsaw puzzles work, for example.

I'm the most academically senior participant, though also the youngest as all the others have got into academia as a second career. There are a couple of people finishing PhDs and wondering what to do next, and one who's worked as a technician and is considering whether he needs a PhD to progress career-wise. And there's me: five years ago I thought I'd made it, I got my dream first faculty job, and two years ago completed my probation period and had my tenure formally confirmed. But I haven't published anything since I came here, and although I have the support of my immediate colleagues and direct line managers, my job feels kind of threatened from more senior management within the university. And also from the political climate which is very much about concentrating research funding on a few big centres of excellence and squeezing out smaller institutions like mine. Yes, I have tenure, they can't just "fire" me, but there are plenty of outcomes short of that which would make it basically impossible for me to carry on doing the parts of my job that I find interesting, and you know, if the whole department is starved of funding then having a permanent position doesn't help much.

There's also the question of whether I want to continue as a traditional academic, whether or not I end up having the option. Both the idea of jumping out of the sinking ship, and the idea of getting thrown overboard, are pretty scary to me; I have in fact wanted to be an academic for most of my life, and certainly for all the latter half of it once I was old enough to actually have a well thought-out career plan. So on a meta level the course is very good for me because it's giving me a reasonably safe space to confront those fears so that I can think rationally about alternatives.

I'm generally best at thinking through these things with other people to bounce ideas off, so any comments you have would be much appreciated. I do explicitly want advice, if you have any; I'm trying to do things in the spirit of this course and be as open-minded as possible. So nothing is too obvious or too outrageous or too ill-informed, just thoughts would be very helpful to me. I am also happy to hear comments on what you perceive as my qualities; I'm pretty thick-skinned about that kind of thing. Or indeed if you feel like telling me about your own experiences of being at a career crossroads, even if it's in totally different circumstances from mine.

I'm not going to brain-dump the whole of everything on you, my lovely patient readers and friends. But to summarize my situation: a traditional academic career means getting grants, doing research and publishing it, and being promoted on that basis. I'm good at some aspects of research but not so good at others, and whatever the balance is between bad luck and lack of competence, I'm not attracting funding and not producing publications at the rate I'd need to to move further up this ladder.

Options I have: I could get lucky and magically discover and publish something so brilliant in the next couple of years that it'll cancel out the seven fallow years, which would remove much of the issue. This is increasingly unlikely, because the longer you go without meeting those milestones the harder it is to get support and the harder it is to be taken seriously even if you do manage to squeeze something out. I could continue basically as I am, in theory, except that the way academia works, if you don't climb the greasy pole you can't just stay where you are, you always slide back down. Plus all the stuff I am anxious about regarding either the university ceasing to support me or the government ceasing to support my university makes that prospect even less secure. I could focus on the aspects of my job I'm good at, and hope to build a career that way, which is the option I'm most leaning towards I think, but it's a somewhat difficult path to choose because academia in general has low regard for any achievements that are not getting grants and publishing research. Or I could bail altogether and do something else.

We did lots of those quizzes so familiar from the last decade on the internet, where you answer a bunch of questions and add up the scores and get back a summary of what you told the instrument. These exercises pointed to the not especially surprising conclusion that what I most need in a career / job is variety and meaningful challenge. I want to be learning something new all the time, both new skills and new knowledge, and ideally I want to be doing this in a context that has lots of people contact. Academia is the obvious situation where I can get my fill of variety and intellectual stimulation, but it's probably not the only possible way to achieve this. This came up both in the somewhat unstructured section, and when I played with an instrument based on Schein's career anchors. Mine is apparently technical / functional competence, which Vitae describe as applying to someone who
Likes being good at something and will work to become... an expert... Like[s] to be challenged and then use their skill to meet the challenge, doing the job properly and better than almost anyone else... If the work does not test their abilities and skills, they will... become bored.
Which yes, sounds a lot like me. I think I'm more scared of being bored at work than I am of being badly paid or in a stressful environment or lacking job security, though obviously I'd rather have a job that is stimulating as well as decently paid and pleasant.

There was also a somewhat icky corporate thing from Target Jobs; if you give it your email address you can try it for yourself, but do be careful to tick the right combination of boxes to stop the site from spamming you forever after. This one again sensibly said that I am primarily motivated by challenge, seeking something that:
provides stretching challenges and demanding objectives, requires high standards of learning, and where success is important.
It also said, more dubiously, that I'm best suited to a social / caring domain, that I
value helping people, teamwork, a supportive culture, caring, co-operation, interpersonal skills, idealism, patience, understanding, warmth, generosity, tact, nurturing and empathy. But... having an overly subjective outlook, lacking a scientific approach.

I honestly don't quite know how I got this outcome, because yes, I do like teamwork, support and helping people, but I don't think those are anywhere near my top preferences. I very carefully didn't tell the website that I'm female, because although they swear blind they don't bias the results based on declared gender, everybody knows that psychometrics are sexist. Apparently it's vaguely based on Holland's types, but I can't quite see how the categories on the Target Jobs website match what's described in that Wikipedia article.

It said I'm either Analyst with a
problem-solving, conceptual and analytical style... likely to make decisions based on finding the 'best' overall solution using comprehensive information, analysis, concepts and theory... rational and most comfortable when using hard evidence and all the facts available... work well with others who understand and appreciate the need to think things through fully... can be obstructive if this analytical style is used to critique rather than construct solutions and... overly theoretical... need to understand the underlying principles and logic before being willing to buy in or support change.
Or else Advisor, with a
listening, consultative, advising style...likely to make decisions based on factors that make other people act or think in a way that produces a positive outcome... promote options that have both pros and cons... enjoy working with others where there are opportunities to influence and discuss ideas. They will often enjoy situations where relationships, processes and group dynamics need to be considered... Likely to be comfortable with change and may want to influence how it happens.

I don't take these things too too seriously, because those descriptions are so general they'd fit almost anyone where the two top results aren't actually contradictory. So I think it's all a bit Forer effect, really. Also, as usual I did so ridiculously well on the tests of various kinds of abilities that I couldn't get anything meaningful out of them. I've always been unreasonably good at IQ tests, but this lot kind of scared me if, as the site claimed, they are genuinely used in the corporate world as psychometric tests used to determine the abilities of potential employees. Verbal reasoning had no actual reasoning in it, it was just straight true or false based on information that was presented in somewhat convoluted language but in totally plain sight in a mock-up corporate about page. Numerical reasoning again had no reasoning, just reading numbers off pie charts and line graphs. Inductive reasoning was finding the odd one out in patterns of shapes and colours, which is more the kind of thing I'm used to, and deductive reasoning was extremely easy 5 X 5 sudokus.

Anyway, the top recommended careers based on filling in all this stuff were: special needs teacher or classroom assistant. Actual qualified teacher came quite a bit down, and university lecturer still gave 93% fit but was way below the site's top suggestions. That's partly because basically all the top 30 hits generated in the report were some variation of City-type corporate finance. Investment banker, financial manager, investment analyst, umpteen different variations on things that are basically "accountant". I have occasionally considered that if I left academia I might retrain in something financial. Probably something more towards the actuary side than the investment banking side, because I think the former would have an element of research and finding out new stuff, whereas I'm fundamentally not interested enough in the stock market to make a career of that. I am not at all sure I would actually thrive in a money-driven corporate environment, though it would fulfil my criterion of being intellectually challenging.

I think being a special needs teacher would possibly be challenging in the wrong way. I did repeatedly tell the quizzes that I'm not interested in a career that involves the physical side of caring for people. But it's posssssssibly worth adding to the list of alternative ways I might get teaching satisfaction, other than teaching university undergrads. I'm not going to be a classroom assistant, seriously, I can not imagine what possible aspect of that job would be more suitable for me than being a full-fledged teacher. I might also think of teaching in the kind of university where they kind of pay lip-service to research, or a further education college, or indeed something to do with adult literacy or access courses. I am not sure that the challenges of teaching diverse and complex students would outweigh the anti-challenge of teaching relatively elementary material, though. And in practice I don't know how one would go about jumping from higher ed to further ed.

The other thing that came out of the analysis in the first half of the course was something that I think my friends have been trying to point out to me for a while, especially [personal profile] hatam_soferet. There really is a clear pattern that whenever something has gone wrong in my career, it's because other people were being obstructive to me. Either management or peers. And I've constantly avoided conflict and put up with being disadvantaged, rather than actually tackling the issue. That's certainly a lot of the explanation for why I'm now at this awkward stage of my career and don't have enough publications. In contrast to my post where I said I generally have a masculine style of communication, I think this may be a case where I'm inclined to disadvantage myself by being basically too nice. I don't know quite what I can do about this, but it's something I'm pondering.

So, people, what shall I do with my liiiiiife? Should I try to continue in academia even though it's not looking like I'm going to get very far? Should I do something academic related but with more focus on teaching and / or management? Should I consider a totally new career, and if so what?
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