Unusual Career Paths into Lecturing in Higher Education

     
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By Catherine Armstrong

It is easy to think that the only route into teaching in the Higher Education sector is to go straight from a bachelor's degree to a masters and a PhD and then on into the world of work. While this career path is common and is frequently discussed on the pages of this website, it is certainly not the only way of becoming a lecturer. It is important not to dismiss the idea of making a career change later in life as many university departments are willing to hire someone who has had years of experience in other fields and only come to teaching later on. This progression is very common in Further Education where teachers who have dedicated their careers to different fields are welcomed. However, lecturing at HE is sometimes thought of as more specialist and exclusive. And it certainly does take a lot of commitment, it is a highly competitive environment in which you have to work at the very top of your intellectual game, while balancing the needs of undergraduate students and institutional initiatives.

It is thought by many that unless you have a faultless education record you have no chance of becoming a lecturer. This applies to those changing career as well as those hoping to enter academia through the more traditional route. Some people say that unless you get a first class degree you might as well forget it. Earlier academic performance has also been thought to blight applicants' chances, but this simply is not the case. For example, Jason Toynbee is now a Lecturer in Media Studies at the Open University. By his own confession, his A levels were ‘mediocre' and he did not complete his undergraduate degree the first time round. However, he went back to university in the 1990s and was awarded a BA and then a PhD in Communication Studies from Coventry University. Another example is of a scholar with no A level qualifications who was awarded a place at university after doing an access course, and has now gone on to achieve a PhD and a teaching position. So do not be put off by a less than perfect academic record. If you prove your commitment and intellectual quality later on in life by gaining a doctorate then past performance will be overlooked.

Jason's career change was a dramatic one; he had worked mostly in the building trade after dropping out of university in the 1970s, and his decision to go back twenty years later was driven by a personal interest in the media and cultural studies. During his undergraduate and postgraduate studies it became clear that he wanted to take this further as an interest had developed into a real passion. He enjoyed teaching too, and was attracted by the idea of being, as he puts it, ‘a public intellectual', whose knowledge and expertise would be widely recognised. However, getting the lecturing job itself was very challenging. For people entering academia after years in another profession it can be daunting learning how to sell yourself as an academic in formal interviews. Jason found the help he received from friends and colleagues was invaluable in getting the lectureship at the Open University. They coached him on interview technique and how to interpret particular questions, but also explored what the university might be looking for. Jason's own experience as a consultant for the Open University also stood him in good stead, showing that breadth of experience is very important. When looking for an academic job in later life, make sure you do all you can to ‘think outside the box' and build up your CV in all sorts of unusual ways.

The experience of working at the Open University is different to that of many institutions and is worth exploring in more detail here. It is a way of learning that will become more prevalent in the future as other universities expand into online learning. Jason spends most of the week working from home and only goes into the department a couple of times a week. The responsibility to be self-driven when working from home is high and it can feel isolated too. There is no central campus with students based there, and personal contact between students and lecturers is rare, so the skills needed to work at the Open University are very different from those required at other institutions. Working there presents its own challenges, because the OU is seen as different, and sees itself as different from other universities, and so can feel apart from the rest of the sector.

The courses Jason runs are either ‘in production', which means materials are being written, produced and edited for the courses, or ‘in presentation' meaning there is a cohort of students currently taking the course. The ‘in production' stage is gruelling with a large volume of writing taking place to tight deadlines. An individual lecturer will not work in isolation, rather within a larger team, so the ‘production' aspect is not isolating for the lecturer. During the ‘presentation' stage, a lecturer's tasks are similar to those in other universities, they write exam papers, mark exams and assessed coursework and attend exam boards. According to Jason, the key skill he needs every day at work is the ability to communicate successfully by writing. Because he does not see his students face-to-face, he needs to be able to convey the course entirely through the written medium. It is also important to be up to date with the latest technological developments as multi-media resources are being more commonly incorporated into courses. For example, Jason produced an award-winning DVD-ROM for one of his courses.

The Open University also encourages its staff to go on research leave, by seeking research funding. This is a challenging aspect for those who have come into academic life from elsewhere because the autonomy and self-defined targets are unusual in the world of work and can take some getting used to if you have not been able to hone strong time-management skills elsewhere. Those who have entered academia via an unusual route will have gained research experience doing a PhD but might still find the pressures to maintain a research profile while teaching difficult to manage. Unfortunately this pressure seems to be a part of every lecturer's life in the current climate and is something that you need to work on. Although it varies from department to department and institution to institution, many places now have strong research frameworks and support to assist academics in achieving their goals.

If you are considering changing your career and retraining as a lecturer, the autonomy is very attractive to those unused to taking decisions or managing their time in their current working life. However, the opportunity to collaborate with other academics is also extremely rewarding and exciting. Acquiring help from PhD supervisors and colleagues is vital as they will help you to navigate the difficult waters until you secure a teaching job. Good luck!

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