Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time with cardboard. Mainly because I’m moving jobs, partly because that’s how the booze arrives.
As I walked back yesterday with another box of ‘stuff that will probably end up in the new office’, I bumped into a friend who was asking about the move. He reflected that 17 years was a very long time to be in a post, to which I could only agree.
That got me thinking about what I might learn from that experience and what might be worth sharing from it. True, it’s a much less common one than the precariat have to endure, moving every year and never settling, but it still comes with its challenges.
So, in no particular order, some thoughts:
1. Make the most of the opportunities your position offers. Yes, I’ve been at the same institution since 2003, but in that time I’ve held a slightly-ridiculous range of roles. Some years have been all about teaching, others about research, still others about managerial roles, and a couple about public engagement. I’ve been on pretty much every committee going, and done every single role within my Department bar one (we’ll come back to that).
In short, I’ve tried to explore what’s been available. Part of that is just my own curiousity: the breadth of my ignorance about how things work remains a key driver of my entire life. But also it’s about seeing what you can make of your situation and how you can tackle issues in different ways.
Certainly, if I’d not had so many opportunities here, I’d not have stuck it out so long.
2.Think about what comes after what you’re doing. This was possibly the only piece of good advice I got from a particular manager: their point was that if you take on a similar role to the one you’re doing now, then you start to bake in a trajectory for your career. In my particular case, it was a significant administrative post and I didn’t really fancy doing that for a job.
Of course, this is a counterpiece to the first point, in that if you’re keen to mix it up, then you have to keep mixing. Certainly, I’ve noticed how people’s views of me within the institution have shifted around over the years, as I take on new activities. So if you don’t want to become type-cast, don’t let yourself become type-case.
3.Lemons, lemonade. I could lie to you and pretend that the heart of my long stay here has been because it’s always been so hunky-dory, but I won’t. Yes, I have valued my immediate colleagues very much indeed throughout, but that hasn’t meant the wider environment hasn’t been difficult at times.
And by ‘difficult’ I’m being polite. Let’s just say that I’m still very grateful to colleagues across the discipline for their support six years ago when the institution had some very unfavourable plans for us.
That did knock us and we did suffer for it, but it also produced some opportunities to advance some agendas and move things along.
Hopefully you never have to go through such a thing, but the message here is just that no position is perfect and durable, so rolling with the punches (within reason) can be a way to getting more out of it all.
4.Use your leave. It turns out that in all my time there will have been only two years when I’ve used all my leave: the year after I joined (because I got married and had decent length honeymoon) and this year (because, well, because I’m leaving). That’s stupid.
I know we feel the pressure of our commitments, and we also often enjoy the work we do, but breaks matter. Doubtless your institution (like mine) offers the opportunity to roll over some days of leave, but I’d say it’s probably safe to assume that the mythical period of ‘a quiet time’ when you might take that leave will never arrive.
So use it.
If nothing else, some places are talking of cutting back leave allowances because they don’t get used.
5.Get out more. I’ve always had good cause to make connections outside my department and university, mainly because we’ve been a very small group and so the networking opportunities lay outside. But it’s also a good thing to be doing in any case.
External networks provide intellectual stimulus, useful correctives to institutional groupthink and a counterweight to your ‘day job’. Frankly, they’ll also remind you that everyone’s got some kind of problem with their work, so you’re not alone.
Again, a big reason for sticking here was that I got to benefit for building some great collaborations (like this one) while also getting a sense-check that the deal here was working for me. So even though I always kept half-an-eye on opportunities elsewhere, I’ve very rarely found something that looked clearly better.
6.Don’t become a cog. All of which leads me to this last point. I hope that throughout my time here, I’ve kept my priorities in sight. Yes, I’ve had to do some duties that haven’t been my first choice, but I’ve used those to help me get to where I want to be. And yes, I’ve had to toe the line on some decisions that I didn’t particularly agree with, but that was part of the trade-off for getting to move some other things on.
The big danger in staying somewhere, anywhere, for a long time is institutionalisation. Walking yesterday through the campus that I’ve know for so long I can see that it’ll be a process to move on (possibly one helped by the IT people’s efforts to help me migrate my account), but I look forward to something new and different at my new employers.
And with that, back to the cardboard.