Advice for those starting short term teaching contracts

By Lucinda Matthews-Jones

I hope the advice below helps all those about to start short term teaching contracts. I’m no expert but I have had three temporary lectureships and what I offer below has been learnt in hindsight and through experience.

Teaching

You’ve been appointed because you’ve convinced an interview panel that you’re the best person to teach their students. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve been dazzled by your proposed module options but rather that you’ve persuaded them you can cope with lectures, seminars, marking assessments and helping students with academic/personal problems.

Doing a good job with your teaching is therefore essential. You should commit yourself to this area. But let it work in your favour. Adapt your teaching to your research interests, especially if you’ve inherited modules. If you have to do a string of teaching contracts like I did then you should re-teach modules/topic areas. Avoid always having to write new material. Be cheeky and ask a colleague or friend if they have a lecture or two that you could use or adapt.

Research

While teaching is important, don’t forget that you need to remain research active. However, realistically, you may not be able to publish as much as you want while doing temporary teaching contracts. I think early career researchers should stop trying to be ‘super-academics’ ready to fix the REF for a prospective university department. Adapting yourself to the demands of a new institution and to new teaching is difficult enough and future employers should appreciate the fact that while on temporary contracts you have demonstrated your ability to adapt to new situations. Temporary teaching contracts are stressful. We are usually looking for the next job, finding somewhere to live, moving, worrying about money or travelling. Sometimes we are emotionally and physically removed from our partners, friends and family.

Nevertheless, being research active is still important. I would like to encourage you to

  • give papers in the departmental seminar series.
  • network beyond your institution(s). Make sure you give research papers and attend conferences/seminars. If you can’t do this then I strongly believe in the power of social media. Get your name known on Twitter and your research through blogs.
  • do one thing a day that helps you to remain connected to your research. Block an hour or two hours a day that is just for your research. This could be used to read an article or writing.
  • ask for a research mentor. In my experience this has never been offered to me but in hindsight I think we should be offered a mentor that also helps us to raise our research profile.

However, remember to be realistic. When you’re new to university teaching you’re not always fully aware of how the academic calendar can extend and eat into time that you thought you could use for research.

Additional extras

You must prioritise yourself. Ask yourself what will strengthen your CV and your chances of getting a job. For this reason, you should ask your Head of Department if there any admin roles you can assist with.

But you also need to learn to say ‘No’ with a smile. It’s easy to become a people pleaser in these temporary jobs but you should avoid being that person who does things simply because permanent members of staff won’t. After all, why should you be the person who loses an afternoon to student employability because there is no one willing to participate in this exercise?

At Home in the Department

For those of you who might be away from your ‘home’. These temporary jobs can be lonely and isolating. For this reason alone you should hang around the kettle and stalk corridors. You are more likely to see people when you’re making a cup of tea or coffee than simply seating in your office.

  • Open your door: keeping your door open encourages people to pop their heads in and say hello.
  • Make lunch and coffee dates: it’s easy to assume that people will be knocking on your door with invitations for you to join them for coffee or lunch. However, this rarely happened to me and for this reason you should invite people to join you. Remember that people might mean to be friendly but teaching and admin can put people’s best laid plans aside.
  • Go to departmental papers and seminars. Make sure you attend the social afterwards.
  • Find someone in the department/ university who is experiencing the same situation as you and go for coffee/ dinner/ drinks on a weekly basis. Give yourself licence with this person to ‘moan, moan, moan’ about your shared experiences, the job market, and being an ECR. It really helps but avoid doing this on public platforms like twitter and Facebook.
  • Visit friends and family: this is a must and one that is easy to ignore. Your friends and family are always around. Colleagues are not. It’s easy to get trapped into the vortex of university life when you don’t set time aside to hang out with your family and friends. Before term starts think about when you will have time to do something that isn’t about work. Work-life balance is a must and one that it is too easily forgotten.

Saying Goodbye

This might sound harsh but be realistic about the relationships you create in these jobs. It is unlikely that you will receive a Christmas card from colleagues once you’ve left. You might, if you’re lucky, find that there are a few individuals that you run into at conferences or share research interests with, but for the majority of people you’re just one of many they will see taking on temporary contracts.

For that reason you need to remember that this is just a temporary job. It might lead to a permanent contract but my overall experience has been that it does not. So go in, do your job well and be prepared to leave when your contract’s up. They’re quick enough to revoke your library card and email privileges, so at the end of the day simply smile and wave goodbye.

Lucinda Matthews-Jones is Lecturer in History at Liverpool John Moores University. She held temporary lectureships at the University of Manchester, Queen’s University Belfast and Swansea University. She researches religion and the role of domesticity in the late nineteenth-century university settlement movement. She edits and blogs for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. Her personal blog can be found at www.lucindamatthewsjones.com. She tweets as @luciejones83.

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