The ten year anniversary

Dalcash Dvinsky
Astronomy Without Stars
5 min readJun 19, 2023

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Exactly ten years ago I started my first and hopefully last faculty position. Or, as it is called in the UK, ‘teaching staff’, an academic position that includes research, teaching, and administration. It is what most people in academia dream of, the most coveted job one can get after ten years of being a student and another ten years or thereabouts of being on short-term contracts, without any safety or prospects. (What a strange career path.) For me it was first a Lecturer position over four years, with a promise for a permanent position (an open-ended contract) beyond that, assuming satisfactory performance. Another four years later I successfully applied for Reader, the next level on the step ladder. That’s where I am right now, exactly ten years later.

It was a complicated decade. Four weeks into that position I disappeared into the hills, with an introductory textbook on astrophysics and a bottle of whisky in my pack to figure out how this all works. A lot of stuff happened after that, not just in my professional life, but in the UK overall. I won’t go into all that. But here are a few things that do seem noticeable, with hindsight — things that I wish I had known ten years ago. Advice for my younger self, an early career researcher, then in his late 30s.

View from my office window. The first office I have for myself.

First, this is something entirely different — not just the continuation of previous jobs. I had teaching experience, a bit, but the grind of the full teaching load over a semester is an entirely new level. There is nothing that can prepare you for that. The research life is also very different. It is focused on managing, supervising, and funding, and it has to happen in a very efficient manner — because there is really almost no time for it. The admin side, the politics, the strategy, is again completely new. This is a new job, a new career, a new life, and it’s a hard transition. The only common denominator is that it’s still astronomy — but sometimes that is kind of hard to see.

Second, learn to say no to things, quickly. Say no even to things that are cool and interesting, and even to your own ideas, sometimes. Refuse to do things. At first, this is very hard to do. You have this opportunity now, you have unprecedented powers, and you are on probation, so, you want to be a ‘good citizen’. Of course you say yes to everything. And you don’t know yet what is actually important and what isn’t. Plus, you have so many ideas. Finally this is the permanent job, the place where I can start building long-term projects, correct? So, let’s do all of it, right? But this is the direct path towards burnout, or at the minimum towards insanity. Say no to things, and focus on the things you really should be doing.

But what are those things? A lot of the stuff that people say you should be doing, is actually completely irrelevant or at least not time-critical. But of course nobody is going to tell you that. And so you fill the days and evenings and weekends, you clutter your schedule, you brain scatters into pieces, and you drown in work without having any level of control. Just as a basic rule: Everything that directly, really directly, contributes to the core business of the university is important. Everything that keeps the machine going is important. Everything that comes directly from the line manager is important. Do the things that others are really waiting for — this isn’t that much. Everything else can wait, in particular if it doesn’t cause work for anyone else. Wait, or be postponed, or be forgotten. If not sure, ignore the task until someone comes and asks again, with more urgency. And then the same procedure again. Often that never happens. Then you know how important it was. And you stay in control.

Speaking of control, find an island, a small part of the academic world where you are in control and can do the things that you like doing, an island that is at the margins or entirely outside the machinery of the university. This could be a solo research project, or a course that is fun to teach but largely irrelevant, or a bit of equipment that you maintain, or a place off campus that you organise. Use this island to escape from the academic doldrums, from the steady beat of the machine, from the priorities and pressures of the university. Spend some time to deliberately establish that island, to camouflage it, and to preserve it.

With the island in place, try to maintain a level of independence from the system. That’s not easy to do, and it usually comes at a price. You surrender opportunities and promotions, because, ultimately, the system prefers to have people who are functioning seamlessly as part of the system. This is, by the way, why they like you, because you are a functioning part of the machine, not because of your individual brilliance. Of course they don’t call it ‘machine’ or ‘system’, they call it ‘family’ or ‘community’. Don’t fall for that, at least not entirely. Make sure you are not just a part of the machine. Don’t become a cog.

Along the same lines, find friends in the academy. Try to find people in the system who have managed to stay out of the system, to some degree, without being all around jerks. Or cranks. Those can be fun too, for a moment, but this is a long-term position and a long-term grind. Find people who understand your problems and your conflicts.

One way to do this, is to join the union. Apart from finding friends, it’s the place where the relevant fights to improve the job happen. Some people think this is better done from the inside, but those are small-scale struggles. On larger scales, the system can only be improved through a systemic force, which is, in this case, the union. Unions are not perfect, and they have their issues, like every large organisation. But they offer a lever, and levers are important, once you realise how powerless you really are. They also offer an escape route from the machine, an island on its own.

And finally, students are, by and large, the best part of the job. Don’t be scared of them, don’t feel like they are the enemy, or like they are an obstacle. Students are the university, this is why you are here. This is the fun part. And they should be first priority, once the essentials (see above) are done.

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