Since the University of Salford shut down the School of English, Sociology, Politics, and Contemporary History as part of a series of layoffs that hit many British universities, he moved to Japan where he is currently a visiting research fellow at the Japanese Ministry of Defense. In August 2015 he will start a new job as a lecturer in military history and strategic planning at the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia.The essay that follows describes his experiences following the budget cuts at Salford:
In today’s climate of financial austerity, long-term employment as a university professor can no longer be taken for granted. Even for us mid-career academics with over a decade of teaching experience and a respectable list of publications and research activities, the prospect of being denied tenure, and even having our employment terminated has become more real than ever. And for those who face the axe, it is often game over – they end up having to make a fresh start in a new profession, oftentimes in a line of work that has little or no relation to their education and qualification.
But things don’t have to end on such a grim note. The following essay is intended to provide guidance and inspiration for academics who either face the prospect of losing their jobs, or have recently lost their jobs and are trying to get their foot back into the profession.
In the spring of 2012, my academic career faced a potential cataclysm. After months of hearing speculation and rumors that the university’s ever-worsening financial difficulties would eventually result in staff cutbacks, we heard the Vice Chancellor confirm that there would be lay-offs in several sectors, including the humanities. The next day, my colleagues and I were summoned to a consultation meeting, where our head of department announced that almost one-third of the historians would be made redundant. No decisions had been made on who was to face the axe, but we were all to reapply for our jobs. We were to be assessed on a points-based merit system, and the ones whose scores fell in the bottom one-third were to have their employment terminated.
For many of us, the announcement had not come as a surprise, given that our department had been languishing in deficit for well over a year.
But many of us could not help but to consider the possibility that the writing was on the wall for our academic career. And while there was the option of seeking employment at other universities, all of us knew that our quest was not guaranteed to succeed in the highly competitive market of the present day, where higher education institutions face a regime of austerity, and can only afford to only the stellar candidates.
Fortunately for myself, in the following September, I was able to secure a new job at one of the most prestigious universities in the U.K., where the history department ran a well-developed war studies program, and the faculty seemed to value my skills and expertise.
Unfortunately, it was not a permanent solution. The post was a two-year fixed-term contract with no guarantee of extension. And all hopes of extension vanished in the spring of 2013, when my head of department called me in for a special meeting, to inform that my publications would not be submitted for the upcoming national research audit, after the committee decided that my work was not of sufficient quality. To this day, the reasoning behind the decision remains confidential, but no matter how I added the numbers, there could be only one logical conclusion – once again, I was working at an institution where senior management was not prepared to retain me on a long-term basis.
The 2013-14 academic year was spent frantically looking for a job that could tide me over after my contract expired. By spring, I was faced with the scenario I had feared all along. I had not been even shortlisted for any of the positions which I had applied for, but instead, received a raft of politely-worded emails to the effect that I had not been deemed to be one of the ideal candidates. Short of a miracle, I needed to prepare an emergency lifeboat that could navigate me through the stormy waters of unemployment.
By July, I had accepted the fact that I would not be employed at a university for the coming academic year. But I could not help but to hold deep reservations about my long-term prospects. Does this signify the end of my career as an academic? What went wrong? Did I fail to work to a standard that is deemed adequate within the profession? Where did I fall short where many of my colleagues had succeeded? And most importantly, am I still employable? What chances do I have of reentering the profession as a full-time employee? And if I was to leave academia, what other lines of work can I try out? Life did seem daunting indeed.
Fortunately again, my story ended happily. After applying for dozens of jobs, I was invited to an interview at the Baltic Defence College in Estonia last month, where they were looking for a civilian academic who could teach courses on military history and strategic planning for their officer training programs. A few days later, I received the call which all applicants hope to hear, informing that they were prepared to offer me the position. At long last, the breakthrough which I had been seeking for over three years has materialized.
I cannot claim to have any magic solution to the problem of academic unemployment, and because everyone’s dilemma is different, there is no set formula. But the following steps should enhance one’s prospects of getting back on their feet:
1. Stay positive – life as you know it may appear to be over, but it need not be that way: brooding over your misfortune and questioning your own skills is often the first reaction for those of us who fall off the conveyor belt, but it is in fact the least productive way to cope with your dilemma. As difficult as it may seem, you need to forget about the unfavorable turn of events that got you to where you are now, and think clearly about how you are going to turn things around in the long run.
2. Tap into your professional network: you may also feel like the academic profession has ostracized you, and deemed you inadequate. Again, such attitudes are bound to be self-destructive.
Identify the colleagues at your former workplace, and within the wider profession, who respect your abilities. Ask them for feedback on how you can forge ahead in your particular area of expertise. They may not know of job openings that are up in the market, but they can be an valuable source of information on vacancies that come up somewhere along the road. Some of them can probably even recommend your name to that judicious selection committee when the hiring process begins.
Make sure that you have enough reasonably high-profile friends who can write a reference on your behalf. Every job advert these days demands at least two letters, quite often, three are needed. And, instead of burdening the same ones over and over again, have a list of around six (6) referees who you can approach on a rotating basis. Send updated versions of your CV regularly, along with copies of your publications and course syllabi. That way, your referees will be able to write a letter that is based on a sound knowledge of what you have to offer.
Before waiting for vacancies to arise, you may even want to send speculative letters, detailing your qualifications and experience, to the Head of Department or the Dean at a selection of universities that offer programs in your area of expertise. You may not receive an enthusiastic ‘so when can you start working for us?’ response, but by being proactive, you are letting people know that you are on the market, and willing to offer your skills to prospective employers.
Maintaining your professional network will immeasurably enhance your prospects of getting back on the academic ladder.
3. Plan your finances: Virtually all have adopted the practice of placing aside a part of our monthly wages to fund our retirement pensions. Fewer people, however, take the precaution of taking out any type of ‘unemployment insurance’. Of course, when one has an endless list of financial obligations ranging from mortgages, student loan repayments, childcare, etc., it is not easy to find surplus funds that can be used to prepare for contingencies whereby we may lose our jobs.
But investing a modest amount every month, into a savings account or a mutual fund, can pay handsome dividends. It means that once the monthly paychecks stop coming in, you do not need to read through the classified ads to see if your local gas stations or fast food franchises are hiring.
4. Make good use of your period of unemployment – it actually offers opportunities to do things which you do not have time for when you are burdened with a busy work schedule: Not having a full teaching load, with administrative duties to boot, means that in effect, you get an unpaid sabbatical, where you can catch up on your research and writing. This is actually a rare opportunity to write a few chapters for that book project which you had been holding off for years, or submitting those journal articles which you have been trying to complete.
Spending extra time with friends and family, or pursuing your hobbies, is priceless. Depending on your financial situation, this is also your chance to go on that vacation you had been yearning for. Being unemployed can actually feel quite liberating, and provide a rare opportunity to get your life back. Take advantage of it in whatever way you can.
5. Stay active in the profession: in addition to forging ahead with your research, you also need to stay in practice in the realm of teaching. If you know some academics at your local university or community college, ask them if they need an adjunct instructor to teach one of their survey courses. Oftentimes, universities will offer a part-time, one-semester contract to experienced academics – they are reliable, and likely to offer students a rewarding experience.
And in this era of online courses, you do not have to physically be at a particular institution in order to teach for them. If you know colleagues at a department which offers a distance-learning program, let them know that you are available to offer a course or two. Online teaching is the new cutting edge of higher education, and gaining experience in this growing field can only enhance your employability.
In terms of research, make sure that you can present yourself as someone who is connected with the wider profession. If you hold a position on the editorial board of a journal or the executive committee of a professional organization, let them know well in advance of your situation, and try to negotiate a set-up whereby you can remain onboard an active member. This not only helps your CV, but it also helps your morale. You will feel like you are still an asset to your profession. You can also use your period of unemployment as an opportunity to take up a short-term research fellowship. This will further deepen your connections with the academic profession.
6. Be flexible on where you end up: in regard to the most pressing issue, namely finding long-term and full-time employment, there is only one rule – do not limit your choices.
This does not mean that you should apply for every vacancy that appears – everyone knows that is time-consuming, with few tangible benefits likely to emerge.
But you can enhance your prospects by broadening your search to include regions of the world which may seem alien and unfamiliar. This is especially important in the current climate, where universities in the developed world (including the US, Great Britain, and western Europe) face mounting financial obstacles to hiring new staff.
Consider the possibility of relocating to one of the emerging economies, including Asia or the Middle East. To provide just one of many examples of good opportunities, many western universities are now opening up campuses in countries like China and India. They are seeking English-speaking staff to teach and administer their degree programs, and oftentimes the pay and benefits are considerably more generous than they are for similar jobs in the West. Why not take advantage of this opportunity to start a new and exciting life in a foreign land?Readers who wish to seek further professional advice on the issues raised in the essay are welcome to contact Ford via e-mail, drdeford at aol dot com.