Why I love my job

E.J. Milner-Gulland

It's best not talk to British academics about their job satisfaction at the moment; if you're lucky they will sigh and roll their eyes at you, if unlucky they will explain exactly how stressed and unhappy they are, what with preparing for the government's Research Excellence Framework, grant funding being more and more difficult to get, the exam season, a study, which shows that only 12% of women and 21% of men in the 3rd year of their PhD want to stay on in academia.

Given that these respondents have already invested significantly in this step towards an academic career, the report's authors find it rather disheartening that they are not keen to continue. The usual response to this kind of statistic is depressing talk about the barriers to academia - the competitiveness of grant funding and publishing, the lack of security for early career academics, the reliance on output metrics like impact factors to judge people's worth, the testosterone-fuelled interactions, the daily grind and under-valued nature of teaching and marking, poor pay and deteriorating infrastructure. Most of these downsides hit women with, or wanting, children particularly hard. But perhaps amongst all this negativity, one reason why people choose other career paths is the lack of positive signals from academics about why being a university lecturer is a good career choice.

So let me come into the open - I love my job! And I would recommend it to young researchers, even (perhaps especially) women. Even on the dark days when I've just had a grant turned down that I spent months preparing, and the pile of administrative tasks seems insurmountable, I still (just about!) have it in me  to remember how incredibly privileged and fortunate I am to be working as a university professor in the UK.

EJ in the forestSo here's some of the reasons why:

1. The freedom. What a luxury to have your salary paid from core funds and to be able to research what interests you, take on external jobs that you'd like to do, wear what you like (within reason!), develop and deliver interesting courses to passionate students, go to meetings and conferences about things that interest you, and plan your work time flexibly to address your work priorities. You're trusted to forge your own path, and judged according to whether your peers, students and wider society are excited by what you're offering.

2. The students. Teaching and mentoring the inspirational future leaders of the field, sharing exciting ideas and enthusiasm for the subject with students and researchers at different career stages, working with them to develop and carry out new research and gain new insights. I love being part of students' development as scientists, supporting them in honing their skills and ideas, and then seeing them succeed in the wider world.

3. The environment. It's exciting to collaborate with people who I admire, developing new ways of thinking, particularly interdisciplinary projects when I can be stretched by understanding their perspectives and analytical tools. I also think I'm well paid, well supported and that universities try hard to recognise the constraints of childcare and other barriers to success.

Being judged on outputs rather than inputs has its downsides but it does also mean you can step your research intensity up or down for a few months according to what else is going on in your life. Of course we have had erosion of many of these benefits of academic life, and this should be fought. Shifting baselines, whereby each generation rates their current situation relative to their own early experiences, without reference to the more distant past, leads to progressive erosion of standards. But perhaps the more relevant comparator is the options that a young researcher is faced with today as they finish their PhDs and look for jobs.

Yes, it's a long tough road, but in the longer run I think that being an academic measures up remarkably well against the alternatives. Just remind me of this in a few months, when I'm overwhelmed by the multiple conflicting demands of the job and wishing I was mucking out horses instead!


More about EJ here