By Catherine Armstrong
Could you describe your current role?
I’m a recently retired lecturer. I have just finished work at Liverpool Hope University. I am currently an Associate Lecturer in History at MMU and also a visiting lecturer at Chester University.
What was your first ever interview like?
The interview was very interesting. The Principal was there, the Deputy Principal was there, the former editor of the Manchester Evening News was there and a representative of the University of Manchester because all the degrees were awarded by the University of Manchester and so some of the most searching questions were about my research because the University of Manchester were very keen for their affiliated colleges should have people who were research active and who had gone beyond a first degree.
Was the job what you expected?
I think it was in many ways. It was very teaching-centred and mostly teacher training student and I ended up teaching virtually all the American history in the college. And when I became head of department there, which was quite early on, I was in my early thirties, I thought I might have the chance to branch out, because I had been interested in Tudor history and several other sorts of history. But one of the things you can’t do as head of department is please yourself. It’s one of the things that you expect will happen but it doesn’t. If anything you have an even greater sense of duty and responsibility. So I did manage to keep the American history going and run the department for the last few years I was in that post. I was there for quite a long time. I started in 1971 and finished there at De La Salle in 1987 and had been the Head of History for the last four of those years.
Why did you want to be Head of Department?
There were several reasons. I felt I probably had the ability to do it. But there’s another reason also. I was a bit worried about who would be appointed if I didn’t go for it, which is a self-centred reason but that was part of it. So it was a combination of reasons. It was an open competition, it was advertised nationally and some big names came to be interviewed, and I suppose I have to be thankful that they in the end didn’t want to take the job.
What was the interview like for the head of department role?
It wasn’t a very long interview. Perhaps this wasn’t because I was an internal, because I think the same thing happened to everybody. I think those were the days, it was the 1990s, just before the expectation that everyone would give presentations, certainly before psychometric testing. So things were a little bit more informal. A lot more was decided on what you had put on paper. It was quite tough while it lasted; it was a short, sharp shock.
What did you do as Head of Department?
I found it more difficult. It’s interesting to note how different things were in the nineties than the eighties, just as they are in the new millennium. Things have moved on, it was more difficult, it was much more challenging. It was a larger department, students were more demanding than they had been. There were one or two more complaints that had to be dealt with.
What were the managerial challenges you faced?
Also to be honest, one or two members of staff I found difficult. They always say that there is no such thing as difficult staff, just difficult managers – I am not sure about that one! But there were one or two people in the department who saw life in a different way. One person’s notion of what is fair and equitable is not the same as the next person’s. And I do find as a so-called manager that was one of the most difficult things.
What were your duties?
The other thing I found in the 1990s, there were far more committees than I had been used to. And part of the duty of a Head of Department, as it still is, is to represent that department on the larger committees, to ‘academic board’ or ‘senate’ or whatever the institution calls it. And there’s an expectation from your colleagues that you will know what the institution is doing. They expect you to tell them what the thinking is.
A word of warning!
There’s a great danger in being a head of department of being a shuttlecock. Your colleagues expect you to go ‘upstairs’ [i.e. university’s senior management] and tell those people what’s what, and the people ‘upstairs’ expect you to tell the ordinary lecturer why they have to do certain things. And you have to be quite tough I think to deal with that. I am not sure I was tough enough for it, but I think you’ve got to be tough because it’s a very difficult role. Top management and senior management see you in one light and your colleagues in the department see you in a different one and expect different things from you.
Why did you take early retirement?
I was asked to take on a management role in quality assurance and I didn’t want to spend my time doing that. I did that for a few years but teaching was what I really wanted to do. Then I found out that my American Studies department was closing down. When I got to 60 I decided that I wanted to retire from that role and I was fortunate enough to be able to take a pension. I was very fortunate that I have been able to do quite a bit of teaching since without the pressures of management responsibilities. It is a very pleasant postscript to my career.
What do you think are academics’ career options today?
In terms of progression I think there are broadly three routes. One is to pursue your research, to make sure that you have the best opportunities to do your research by putting in applications for external and internal funding. If you do go for it, make sure you don’t so annoy your colleagues that they feel they never see you and they think of you as just a researcher. The danger with research is that it can be perceived to be selfish. Under the system that replaces the RAE a good research record will still be a sure fire way
The second route would be through teaching. The problem is that teaching doesn’t have the same status attached to it as research. I think those who want to emphasise teaching have to think very hard about their interest in researching teaching methods and practices. The danger for the teaching-led person is they might find that they are overworked and that they are taken advantage of.
The third route, which is being increasingly closed off, is through administration. Now if anyone wants to move into the administration field they have to think about professional qualifications.
You need to work out fairly early in your career which of the three routes you are going to pursue. They all have pitfalls and they all have challenges.
What are your top tips for becoming a lecturer?
– Finish your PhD.
– Publish as soon as you can.
– If you get an interview, sound as though you want the job!