25 Mar Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: On International Legal Academia in the UK (Part II) – Navigating the Expectations Placed on ECRs
In my first post I introduced you to various aspects of academia in the UK, including the types of positions and the Research Excellence Framework, as well as suggestions for how to lay the groundwork to be competitive in the job market. This post will shift the discussion towards the situations you will encounter once you take up a position at a UK institution, and some nuances for international lawyers. I will mainly focus on academic probation, managing workload, and coping with the rejection you will encounter while chasing the targets and pressures placed on you in your new role.
Academic Probation in the UK
When appointed to a Lecturer position you will be set a number of probationary targets to be met in a defined period. The length of probation and exact targets depend on the institution but will normally include a necessary number of publications, the submission of grant applications, satisfactory student or peer evaluations of teaching, and the completion of other collegiate activities. A senior colleague, not necessarily an international law academic, may be allocated as your probation adviser to help guide you in meeting your probationary targets or you may meet with the Dean or Head of School to monitor progress.
Planning is critical during the probationary period but so is coping with rejection and finding confidence in your work. As you try to publish pieces that have stemmed from your PhD, work on a monograph proposal, and apply for grants, I guarantee you will face rejection. Unfortunately for us, rejection is a necessary corollary of trying to meet the targets set by your institution. One of my articles was particularly difficult to place and was rejected by three journals before finding its home. Another was desk rejected and reworked before being accepted, subject to minor revisions, at another journal. But would you be able to identify which articles faced these hurdles? Likely not!
Not having success in all areas of your research activity also does not mean you are not making progress. I have had many grant applications rejected since beginning my academic career and I am yet to secure a substantial grant from a major funder. But that is okay. Most Heads of School will have realistic expectations and understand it takes time to make it onto the funding ladder, publish a monograph etc. All our paths are different.
The probationary objectives I have encountered have not dictated that I must publish in a specific journal during my probationary period or that I must successfully secure x amount of funding. Instead, in my case they were phrased as requiring a certain number of peer-reviewed articles or equivalent (which may include book chapters or US law review articles not subject to peer-review) and grant applications totalling a specific amount, that do not need to be successful.
Not meeting these targets does not necessarily mean you are dismissed from your post as institutions will often have mechanisms in place for extending probation or allowing for flexibility where, for example, a book chapter has not yet appeared due to delays with the editors or publisher. Nevertheless, for some, probation can be difficult due to encountering internal political differences with colleagues. You need to strike a balance in how you approach such issues but just to be safe ensure you protect yourself and document all of your activities, such as article acceptances, invitations to speak etc.
A nuance I have encountered is that some in UK academia will encourage ECRs to publish to generalist law journals, such as the Modern Law Review and the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. This may not always be appropriate for international lawyers but highlights the importance of a carefully considered publication strategy to justify the choices you have made for your specialism.
Managing your Workload and Coping with Rejection
A concurrent challenge is that of managing your new workload alongside satisfying your probationary objectives. Institutions vary greatly but many will operate on the expectation that your workload is divided into roughly the following split for those on contracts which include both research and teaching: Research (40%), Teaching (40%), Administration (20%).
With regards to teaching, such a contract will often result in contact hours of between 100-160 per year depending on the teaching intensity of the institution and reduction received while on probation. Academia is also famous for assigning staff with tasks we are not in fact trained for. For example, you will undoubtedly have many questions when you begin supervising your first PhD student or you are allocated a complex administrative role, such as serving as Exams Officer for your School that necessitates chairing the Exam Board, coordinating the preparation of assessments, liaising with external examiners and much more.
An academic role is a multifaceted beast so don’t be surprised if you have less time to immerse yourself in international law than you perhaps first envisaged! You will need to block your calendar with research days and carefully schedule meetings so as not to undermine your efforts to cordon off time for research. During the first term especially, you may find it difficult to take forward research while you are adjusting to institutional practices, an unfamiliar admin role, and of course preparing your teaching activities. It is important to learn that it is acceptable to say no to additional duties when you are overwhelmed and try not to immediately burden yourself with external responsibilities (as I have done before). Take time to adjust during your first year and find the balance that works for you.
What we do not always acknowledge is the impact the PhD and early career struggles have on mental health. Working in a competitive environment where rejection is part of navigating the system can leave you feeling defeated. I have no problem with saying that the PhD process had a detrimental effect on my mental health that impacted my personal life. The effect of the pressures placed on ECRs will be no different for many of you reading this post.
It can be a relief once you find ‘your people’ in the discipline who will form your wider network and also contribute to guiding you through institutional processes that come hand in hand with a career in academia. Confide in trusted colleagues and peers because many others will be facing similar challenges. Talking through article or grant rejections with your friends in academia can be an excellent way to process the outcome and find ways to tackle the issues and positively take the work forward. The more we recognise how difficult rejection can be in academia the more comfortable colleagues will be to discuss and support others.
A CV of failures is included here to show that no pathway in early career academia will be completely clean sailing and that we all face rejection.