There was a time, not so long ago, when academic contracts contained no formal job descriptions, other than a vague injunction to ‘perform the wishes of the Head of Department’.
This may no longer be the case, but reading a job description, or ticking a few boxes at annual performance review is not the same as understanding your role in HE.
Three jobs in one—or more
It is often said that to be an academic is to have three jobs in one: you have to be a teacher, a researcher, and an administrator. You may have a research-led position (usually a lectureship), or a teaching-led position, but in all cases you will need to have many different competencies—including being highly analytical, having outstanding written and spoken communication skills, and being excellent at time-management.
For those with traditional research-led lectureship jobs in particular it is sometimes hard to get the balance right. All too often external factors have meant that people end up concentrating their energies on one aspect of the job to the detriment of others. Over the past two decades, for instance, the REF (Research Excellence Framework) has incentivized staff to focus on research outputs and grant income rather than teaching. Now, in the new fees regime, the pendulum may be swinging back towards teaching, as a key part of the student experience.
And what about the third component—admin? Many people believe that admin is an irritating, optional extra that interferes with their ‘real’ job, and think that others can shoulder the burden. Apart from the fact that this creates tensions within a unit or institution, such an attitude also overlooks the fact that both research- and teaching-led jobs carry with them responsibilities for a range of administrative matters, from ensuring that standards and assessment targets are met, to contributing to strategic planning.
The degree to which you are required to contribute to such administration may vary according to your circumstances, but remember that a major administrative role is rarely optional after a certain point in your career. An administrative role can also be a valuable element in your career progression, as well as allowing you to think about your place in the institution more broadly.
Your values and your institution
Another way of thinking about your role is to look beyond your local circumstances and to consider the way in which the institution operates.
Some questions you might ask include: what sort of institution is my university? Is it research-led or teaching-led? What are its key objectives? What are its operational structures? Where does my school and/or department fit in the institution as a whole? Is it well represented at senior levels? What is its financial standing in the broader institution?
Now consider your professional values. To whom or to what do you have responsibilities as an academic: to your students? Your research? The wider community? How do you prioritize those responsibilities? How do your values fit with those of your institution? Finally, is there a clear career progression for you to follow which would allow you to perform in a way that meets those values?
Spend time on these questions. You might find answers to them by using publicly available university documents. Don’t overlook your colleagues as an excellent source of information and advice. Consider taking on a role outside your department, if possible: this is often a good way of gaining a wider overview of the institution at large and expanding your perspective on your role.
Of course, the answers to some of these questions may not always be comfortable ones, or ones you expected. But if you make an effort to understand your position in the larger context of the university, you will be more able to make sensible and well-founded decisions about your next steps as an academic.
Broadening your horizons
You might also consider your role as an academic not just within the institution itself, but in terms of your role in society.
Nowadays universities are increasingly turning outwards to share knowledge, not protect it, whether through modern social media, broadcast media and print publications, and other forms of community engagement, as well as through new forms of open access publication. Consider the many ways in which you might seek to disseminate your ideas and share your practice.
Lastly, it may seem obvious, but as an academic you are part of a complex and multi-faceted organization, which itself is host to a multitude of communities. It takes time to understand your role properly in the institution more broadly. But if you make the effort to look beyond your individual teaching and research, then the rewards may be great – and you will have a greater understanding of not just your job, but of your profession.