On the limbo years and academic job security

Yesterday, almost seven years after finishing my PhD, I finally had confirmation that I will be moved to an open-ended contract (the closest to a permanent contract that we get in UK universities). I have also been promoted, so from 1st August I will be a Senior Lecturer. There is therefore much to celebrate.

But I have also been reflecting on the process that got me here, and on the state of the job market that makes it possible to reach Senior Lecturer grade before you are even in secure employment. (My “Chancellor’s Fellowship”, which began in 2012, was secure in the sense of being “tenure track” and with the promise of a straightforward and non-competitive tenure process. Nonetheless it was a fixed-term contract, with all the feelings of insecurity that come with that.)

The “limbo years” between PhD and secure employment are becoming a well known problem. More and more often good quality scholars are trapped in a series of short term teaching jobs, in which they are expected to pick up an absurd amount of lecturing, often not even for full time pay, and with no employment over the summer. Continuing to research in such a job is pretty much impossible, yet without a good stream of publications there is no hope of a step up.

I was lucky. After one short-term teaching post (at the wonderful Lewis & Clark College, Portland) in which I honed my teaching skills and recovered from the PhD, I was able to spend three years as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow. It was this that really made my career possible. It gave me time to publish my doctorate as a book, and to enter a new area of research and prepare my next book. It also gave me more opportunities for teaching experience, as well as the chance to get a teaching qualification. In short, it readied me for a proper lectureship, and gave me a good competitive edge.

Realising the importance of such schemes for helping promising scholars navigate the limbo years, I have in recent years offered training sessions for advanced stage PhD students here in New College, outlining the schemes available and giving some advice about how to make a strong application. Unfortunately, these schemes are also becoming more and more difficult to get into, such that there are often limbo years between PhD and postdoctoral fellowship.

So as I celebrate my new employment status, I raise a glass to the British Academy, and hope that such schemes – that give folk like me a chance to build a career without having to worry where the next month’s salary is going to come from – remain a priority for funders and institutions.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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