by Gillian Sharp
Location is everything, or so we are told by estate agents and media pundits busy expounding the delights of property investment. But when it comes to academic posts, the L word can take on another dimension.
What happens if the location of your job necessitates a longer than usual journey to work? How do you deal with the inevitable problems that this poses? And, impossible though this may seem, does the situation offer any unexpected bonuses?
Let's look first at some of the reasons behind a long commute.
Sometimes it's a lifestyle choice: newspaper reports indicate that the rise of the second home or non UK domicile has led to business people basing themselves further and further afield - notably Eastern Europe - while still holding down a job in dear old Blighty.
Has this spread to academia? I hear of one academic who commutes from France to south east England, courtesy of car, ferry, train or occasionally budget airline, but on a freelance or consultancy basis rather than for dedicated teaching purposes. So although the age of the cross border commute may not yet be upon us, there is no doubt that many people will traverse (sometimes multiple) county boundaries in order to sustain both a work style and a life style that suits them.
Peter is a university administrator who commutes to central London from a very rural corner of Sussex. The drive to the station alone takes half an hour - delightful from spring to autumn, less entrancing in the depths of a bleak mid winter. But he reckons that it's worth it for the quality of life that he and his family can enjoy and "the train journey allows time to work, read or even sleep if I choose!" He realises that the story would be very different if he didn't embark at a point on the line where he can get a seat. Perhaps this is a factor worth hammering home: "too far" may not be measured in terms of mileage or station stops, but on prevailing local conditions.
The ubiquitous laptop has certainly made a difference as to how train commuters can utilise their time effectively: how many UCAS applicants, for instance, realise that their forms are being assessed on the 07.40 to Waterloo, rather than on campus? Even without technology, notes can be written, minutes, reports and papers scanned and lecture notes sketched out.
Obviously such zeal is impossible if your long distance journey is by car, but even here, time and task management, well deployed, is key. Deborah drives from the city to a more rural university. Going against the flow of traffic allows her to arrive at her desk and dispose of hefty chunks of admin before lectures start. Even for those in urban work settings there are ways to make the situation more bearable.
Depending on whether you're an owl or a lark, it's possible to set out early or leave work late in order to beat the worst of the rush hour. Either way, the extra time can (and should) be used to deal with priorities and clear routine tasks. End result? Your work is less likely to eat into your private life, you feel virtuous and - hopefully - come over as hugely efficient to your peers, managers and students.
So far it's all been relentlessly upbeat. Is there another side of the coin?
Herewith a tale of two lecturers in similar circumstances:
Andy and his wife were settled in one of London's leafier suburbs, but when their sons arrived, they wanted to raise them in a more rural setting.
The dilemma: Andy did not want to leave his lecturing job which he loved and where he was in line for promotion.
The solution: They downsized to a tiny flat on the London borders and put most of their equity into buying in the West Country - where the proceeds of the sale went a long way.
Andy did a three hour commute every Monday morning and the reverse journey every Friday. His wife took an office job in order to spend more time with the children and the flat meant that they could occasionally join him in the capital. As he became more senior, he was able to arrange his timetable to better suit his needs, often heading west on a Thursday. "It wasn't ideal, but we made it work," he reports, "and gradually it became a way of life."
For Derek, the decision to commute was more or less thrust upon him. He made a career change from accountancy to lecturing in business studies about ten years ago. He lives in a part of northern England where higher education institutions are plentiful, so when he was offered his first teaching post at the far end of a neighbouring county, he reasoned that he could move upwards and nearer home when he had some experience under his belt. For various reasons, his hoped for job at a more favourably sited university has never materialised.
Worn out by travelling, he took lodgings near the university during the week. But he barely saw his young daughters, his wife complained that she felt like a single parent and he saw that his family life was gradually being eroded. So he returned home. Derek has embraced the lengthy journey with reluctance: "It's the lesser of two evils as far as I'm concerned".
Perhaps the moral of these contrasting stories is two fold. First, look before you leap and think through how the decision to take a job some way from home will affect you in the medium and long term. Much will depend on individual circumstances and these can vary over the years. Secondly, your attitude to a long commute may be coloured by how far it has been your own choice to take the job in the first place. For Derek there is an underlying resentment about how things have panned out. Although he hopes that he has kept this hidden, he admits that sometimes it's hard to feel motivated by his current role. In turn, this may have a knock on effect on his confidence, making it even harder to access opportunities nearer home.
So what do you do if you are offered a dream job but it is a little further from your door than you would like?
At the point of accepting your new role, try to negotiate the best possible deal for yourself. Ideally, of course, this would include a relocation package, but if this is not on the cards or you don't want to uproot, there are other things that you can do. Discuss how much administrative work can be done at the other end of a home computer and how hours /days/holiday periods might be adapted.
Tread lightly but firmly here: don't miss out on any concessions that are in reach, but be wary of coming over as if you are demanding favourable treatment. Often it's necessary to labour a year or two at the chalk face before you can put more flexible arrangements in place! But at least have an idea of whether the culture in that particular department looks as if this will be well received.
The main message? Be realistic, think laterally and, as Andy did, make it work for you!
Tips if you are considering a lengthy commute:
- Consider any implications before signing on the dotted line. Have a best and worst case scenario in mind before you take any decisions. Partners and older children will also need to be consulted as it may impact on them.
- Look at your options from every angle. Would working longer hours over (say) three days not five, be feasible for instance?
- Commuting will eat into your day, but it need not be "dead" time. Organise it so that it frees you up to get some work out of the way.
- Don't use it as an excuse. Ever. Colleagues will not be interested in your deadly journey, but they do require you to pull your weight. Be prepared to turn up early for meetings if required or to work late. Always put in an appearance at evening events, even if it's a fleeting token presence.
- Whenever possible have an alternative method of transport in mind in case your car, or more likely, the train company, lets you down.
- Look on it as an adventure rather than a challenge.