Colin | Media, Film and English | University lecturing - film/media, literature and Irish-studies .

In this engaging discussion, Colin sheds light on the allure of pursuing an academic career, drawing from his personal experiences and observations. He delves into the origins of his doctoral journey, offering insights into the diverse responsibilities he juggles as an academic professional. From the evolution of his workspace to the motivations that propelled him towards academia, Colin candidly reflects on his path, including the challenges of securing suitable employment and navigating shifting hiring criteria.

Moreover, Colin provides a glimpse into his approach to job interviews within academia, touching upon the nuances of effective lecturing styles. He also offers a glimpse into his own research focus, coupled with a candid assessment of his dissatisfaction with the increasingly corporate atmosphere pervading his university administration.

Through his narrative, Colin not only shares the highs and lows of his academic trajectory but also provides valuable perspectives on the broader landscape of higher education today.

Explore Colin’s journey further by clicking the links below:

The background to Colin’s PhD
His PhD topic
University as an employer
The reasons for undertaking the PhD
Advice for those moving into an academic post
Finishing the PhD
Colin’s current role
Some advice

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Career Pathway

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Turning Points

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Audio Interview

The background to Colin’s PhD

Please, can you tell me how many years it took you, whether you did it full-time or part-time and how you were funded?

It took me four years going from, after I completed a one year, full-time, ma and the PhD, was undertaken in sort of a mixture of part-time and full-time mode.

The MA was funded, from an Irish and British government sources, but the PhD, was paid for by the part-time work that I did, in UCD in their English department.

Can you tell me what your undergraduate discipline was and then what your thesis topic was about?  

My undergraduate discipline was essentially literature, English and American literature at the University of Kent. my PhD was on, British television drama, so I'd moved from literature into broadly the media of television and film.

His PhD topic

Can you tell me something about your thesis?

The thesis for my PhD was, a box of troubles. The subtitle was probably more explanatory - British television drama, 1960 to 1990. So it was, it was looking at, television representations of Northern Ireland in that period. So a historical survey, I guess, and analysis of a particular mode of, analysing political violence, I guess.

University as an employer

What is the university like as an employer?

I have to say that in this institution, to use the northern vernacular, I'm not best pleased. I think increasingly, and this I'm sure is a common story now, I think the university has got its priorities wrong. It can, it it's increasingly a corporate environment which doesn't, despite what is rhetoric of staff wellbeing, doesn't actually place staff and students at the centre of what it's about.

A lot of money is being spent at this university to increase buildings, the facilities, but students, it seems to me, are increasingly being squeezed out of these environments. And as I've indicated before, staff decisions are made without proper consultation with staff about what it's like to work in particular, buildings and particular environments, in particular structures.

And I think it's, it's bad for morale. And I can't understand why people who manage, at a senior level in, at institutions like this. And I don't think, I don't think this is a particularly, unusual institution.

I think it's very common if you went to any other large urban new university, this is, this is what, this is what we find and it's, a particular invidious form of thinking, which doesn't appreciate what it actually means to research and to teach.

The reasons for undertaking the PhD

Did you embark on a PhD because you anticipated an academic career?

Ooh, I think I had kind of multiple reasons why I undertook a PhD. One was because somebody put it in my head that it would be a good idea to do one, and that was obviously during, during my MA maybe even back before that as an undergraduate, kind of admiring certain people who taught you as an undergraduate thinking, I quite like to do that.

But it became a more concrete idea once you are a, a graduate student, I think in a department that has other postgraduate and people who are further on than you are actually PhD students, when you are an MA student, I think you then see the possibilities that are, are, you know, might unfold. And as it was, I, after the, the one year MA or during that one year MA, when I was approached by a very kind of avuncular professor, of the department who asked me if I would be interested in doing a PhD and that he would see if, I wanted, was I interested in doing some teaching of, you know, undergraduate tutorials.

So there was clearly a system within the culture for, holding onto postgraduate students, and, and bringing them onto to PhDs.

Advice for those moving into an academic post

Can you tell me as someone who's interviewed people…

Mm-Hmm.

… for jobs, what sort of things you are looking for and the kind of questions you're expecting good and solid answers to?

Again, it, it depends on the, the nature of the post and the role description, obviously. Typically, in my own institution teaching on a, on a, on a media studies degree, you're looking for a, a rare combination. I think of somebody who, well, one as a PhD, but two, because of the institution we're in, you know, they've got to be able to teach.

Now they, they don't necessarily have to have a formal teaching qualification. That's another thing I would say that, you know, most of the, my colleagues both within my own subject field and also in the school, don't have teaching qualifications. Some do, but most don't. How do we know whether or not somebody can teach?

Well, usually the interviews will involve some kind of presentation of material. And so you are looking, when people are giving presentations at those days, you know, you might see four to six candidates, ah, you know, it would be good if you could get two or three that you felt communicated vitally to you what their enthusiasms were. And you are also trying to see, well, what would they be like in front of a hundred undergrads?

Have they got, can they command a group of people to listen to them?

So what characterises a good presentation?

I've kind of indicated already it's somebody who communicates their enthusiasm for the subject, their command, you know, they convince you they really know what they're talking about. And, and I guess clarity, you know, that that's what you're looking for, particularly with undergraduate students, maybe other qualities for if they're gonna be teaching mainly post grads.

But you know, the amount of postgraduate teaching at this institution is, is quite small. So you're looking for people who can communicate to a large undergraduate audience, about not just their own specialism, but do they also have the adaptability to teach on a kind of more generalist survey sort of course. So you're looking for a quite a rare, ability to operate at the general kind of level clarity, but at the same time enthusiasm.

And then, you know, what specialism have they got? You know, it, it will often be that you can give a fantastic presentation and you can, your CV presents very well, but you know, if you are, if you are, if your specialism is popular music, let's say, and we've already got somebody as a part-time posting popular music, you've gotta think very carefully how you present your specialism. Perfectly good on paper, but you don't actually fit the place.

You really need to show to the interviewers that you've done your homework and found out about the institution, and particularly the department that you are going into, and that, you know, whether you are coming in as a, a doctoral student into it, or if you're going at a a higher level, they're gonna want to see that you've shown some kind of intelligent reflection on where you think they're at, what you think, your role might be within this, this larger picture.

And I think a candidate that can show that sort of, sensibility to, you know, the, the, the place in which the, or the, the job in which they're gonna be placed and the context in which they're gonna be operating. So it's not totally idealistic, but it's not totally, kinda cynical.

What is gonna be expected of a newly qualified academic starting at an institution like this?  Who, who's been appointed as a junior lecturer?

Mm-Hmm. well, you could almost do a job description, PhD or some kind of equivalent, industrial experience in media. The ability to teach, largely undergraduate students, the ability to motivate student learning, as a junior lecturer to have evidence of publication already, with the potential for future, future publications, major publications as it were - books.

And also I think an openness and flexibility to different learning environments, different learning technologies.

Can you talk a bit more about that?

Again, this particular institution, and I know, you know, it is not unusual, other new universities are, maybe some older ones as well are increasingly trying to utilise, you know, extreme or, web-based learning, to, to stimulate students, across a variety of disciplines.

I have a qualified view on the use of, of it in, in higher education. You know, I use it to assess in a part of the assessment process of some of my students.

It's clearly a way of communicating with students, on a kind of day-to-day basis, basis, you know, through bulletin boards and such like, but my, my, I'm, I guess I'm showing my age and I, I think that students need to be present in a room listening to somebody talk and also reacting with other students of their class in the same space. I think they need to share that space.

Now, whether that's a lecture room or whether it's a, a seminar or a kind of a small group workshop setting, we, you know, and I, all of those I think, you know, have their place. I am worried that some students will, and some administrators want to decrease the amount of human contact time, for students. And it is, it's quite small now. I mean, I dunno what the typical amount is for, undergraduate students across art and humanities, but you know, it might be only eight hours a week of actual contact time.

So to diminish that with, you know, blogging, as a kind of main way of communicating with your peers seems to me bizarre.

What is a lecture like?

I think they can fall into two kinds.

Physically it is about 50 minutes of time in which one person stands at the front and addresses 60, 80, a hundred people. I don't think it has to be a one way communication. I think depending on the, the lecturer, it can actually be quite interactive. And again, interactive sounds fantastic. It sounds like a, a kind of technological buzzword.

It doesn't have to be interactive, could just be asking people a question, say you there, or Johnny or Mary or whatever it is, you know, asking questions, asking people to write things down, and then shouts out what their answers are. I mean, that's a very old fashioned kind of interaction. And when I increasingly use PowerPoint now, which I think is interesting, but to come back to the two main kinds of lecture, one is a kind of a survey of the field, whatever topic it might be.

So you're trying to introduce people to the broad range of debates, issues, topics within this field. A second kind, a slightly different kind would be a more, here is an argument sort of lecture where, you know, you are going to argue for the, the idea of postmodernism. And you don't put too many, too many kind of contrasts to that.

So you actually, you actually argue with the students and, and persuade them. And you go into that kind of mode where you are talking about, you know, this is what pro and here's an example of that, and here's an example. And so you don't actually give them too much of the, of the counterargument that might come then in the seminar that that follows later in the week when they've done a bit more reading, hopefully. So one, you are kind of, even if I don't personally believe in a particular argument that I'm making, is actually to try and force them to, to, to listen to an argument and see how it's put together.

Whereas the other one, the other form, the kind of survey discursive one is a bit more, you're trying to perhaps pros and cons and you are, you're trying to introduce them to something that they might wanna go off and watch another film that you, you know, another one you mentioned, you might show them a clip from a film or two and then say, but you know, you could see this in, explore this idea in these two other films and hope that they might go and view it.

So I always that, that's, that's what I try to, I mean, you try to stimulate people in, in a topic. That's what a lecture is. Unfortunately, the interesting thing is would be to ask “What do students think are lecture is?” Because they don't often see in, in those terms, and it actually takes you a while to get them to, to think about what you are doing in that fashion rather than simply, you know, what are, you know, what things do I need to know.

Finishing the PhD

Please, will you tell me about your transition from graduate studies to work in academia and talk about it in light of current, current climate in academia?

I think in some ways there are both continuities but also quite sharp differences. The continuities are that, interestingly though I've talked earlier on in my interview about how, how I was glowingly brought on by my, department in, in UCD, after four years, five years with quite a considerable amount of teaching, working up from tutorials to actually running lecture courses, when a full-time post came up, me and other postgraduates who've been doing this work, were not even shortlisted for the permanent post.

So that kind of smacked a bit hard. And so I looked back across, the water and I applied for, and got, a job, back in, in Britain, which was a one year, no, I, sorry, I've, I've jumped a thing there.

I got, I got a, a part-time post in my field teaching Irish studies. But it was part-time. So for me it was a question of both. A move back to my home country with my doctorate, luckily teaching a subject about, which I knew quite a lot and felt confident about, with some experience of actually lecturing and teaching, but though not though not much, in to a course that, there was a lot of expansion going on 'cause it only just started.

So in a sense, I was, I've been lucky, haven't I? My career arc, I, I seemed to have been at the right place at the right time.

Can you unpack that? Because, you know, is it really luck?  

Well, I don't know. It's how you've actually now, now thinking about it. Is it, is it luck or, or was I planning it? I, no, I planned, I, at that point, clearly, some, at some point during my PhD studies, I thought, I want to be an academic. I want to be a lecturer at a university. And so therefore, I was looking for jobs and I was hoping, which didn't happen, a job would come up in UCD, so I could conceivably have stayed in UCD, had a, had a full-time post come up.

But this goes back to the point about flexibility, about why you, you have to take a job where you can get one. And this was only half a job. I was stuck for six months, seven months in a, in a halftime job, teaching in London, which was expensive. And I had to go and live back at home to do this, which was like phenomenally problematic,

It wasn't nearby then?

Well, it was commutable, but I was, I mean, for the record, you know, I was literally spending as much money commuting to my place of work as almost as much as money as I was earning from doing the part-time lecturing.

How did you reconcile yourself with that?

I reconciled myself by thinking it's half a job, it's experience, and I, I like doing it, you know, it's, it's actually what I want to do. It did rely on, it did rely on, you know, being to live cheaply at home with my parents.

But it was, it was difficult to do that after having been independent, you know, undergraduate for three years and a postgrad for five years. Bit difficult to go back and live at home. And actual fact, I then got a job, a full-time post, in the midlands of, of, England, teaching, not in Irish studies, but on, film and broadcasting.

Now, the, the joy of this post was that it was full-time and permanent, so I thought I'd hit the jackpot. Again, an expanding degree course in media, in a cheap place to live. I lived in as a, as a, a student's accommodation warden, therefore cutting down my living costs again there. and I was very flush with money, but I was hard pushed 'cause I was teaching a full-time load of student about, I don't know, 12 hours a week of teaching, you know, writing fresh lectures.

And I was also teaching beyond my by knowledge field, so I was, you know, one week ahead of the students in some cases. And that's scary and that's very tiring.

How do you think the culture has changed now from your qualified academics?

I think before I, before a generation ago, I think people could get a job without a PhD.  They would take you on if you didn't have a PhD in your hand. Now I think that would be very difficult. And in my own experiences, having been on panels both at my own institution and, acting as an external panellist on employment panels for lectures, you know, not to have a, a PhD frankly, is, you know, you've got to have some incredible other experience to bring to a post if you don't have a PhD, simple as that.

Other than the not having a PhD, what might be the other differences that people with PhDs would, would encounter now?

I, I just, well, again, it would, it would, it's all subjects specific, but, you know, if you were in English, if you were in film, or increasingly even in, certainly in media, PhDs in these areas are, you know, there's a lot of people in the market with those qualifications.

And so you are surprised if people don't have publications. So you've got to be that more advanced, before you get to that applying for your, for, you know, at least a one year temporary job. So I think that's the difference as well.

I mean, people are probably better qualified in academic terms and also in public publishing terms, than, than probably I was, I wonder if I would get taken on with my own qualifications now - I'd like to think would.

Colin’s current role

Can you talk to me about the institution that you work in and your current role?

My current role/post is reader in Media and Popular Culture. I'm also the course convener of a new, as yet to run MA in screen media cultures prior to this. And the reason that I came to this, institution, which is, a new university, a former, city based polytechnic in the northeast of England, as I came for a promotion from a London based HE college, part of, London University, for promotion to a principal lectureship.

So I've been here five years. Yes, five years. So my role now, because of that particular contract for the readership, my teaching has gone down from quite a heavy teaching and administrative load, to perhaps more specialised teaching, but more research and research mentoring.

I would put it like that.

Could you give me an idea of what your daily activities are?

I think the luck of an academic is very varied. I mean, that's one of the, dare I say, pleasures of it, it that some days you are in your office and all you seem to be doing is doing, you know, paperwork, filling in forms and…

What forms?

…basically to, to keep the kind of fabric of largely, undergraduate programs ticking over.

I mean, on my desk at the moment, I've got about four, references to do.

Some of them are very straightforward, kind of tick box type references, but others are from former graduates from a little while back who were asking for kind of longer form sorts of references. So there's that sort of administration. I have a, I have a, because I'm kind of senior now, I have a role, an administrative role on a thing called the, the senior management team for the school, because of the MA involvement, I'm involved in planning a, a one day conference for November.

So people need to be, invited rooms need to be booked. So that all sounds very kind of mundane and, but that's actually all, all part of the kind of academic work. Last week, on a, on one day I was down in London and I spent the day in a film archive viewing old films, for a piece of research. So there are, there are days when you feel that you are just doing research, but you're never that disconnected, I don't think from essentially in this institution, your primary role is, is as a teacher and as a a person who develops, I mean, I've done much more, you know, in the last five years I've done much more in terms of curriculum development.

That is to say concrete examples, you know, revalidating an undergraduate degree, devising and coordinating the validation of a master's degree. So that's, that's what I mean by kind of curriculum development.

Does this institution place a great deal of pressure on you in terms of research?

Explicitly, no. To be frank, there are, outside institutional pressures. for example, the last research assessment exercise, which creates a kind of external, and I would say, professional pressure on one to, to research and to publish.

But the institution seems to me going through a transition period that, you know, a significant number of people here do not publish, have not published. They see their focus entirely in, in terms of teaching. but I think that's increasingly becoming very difficult to, to sustain. And a younger generation are coming through who I, I think clearly need see the need to, to publish, you know, from early on.

And by that I mean before they've even got their PhD, which is a difference I think from my generation where, you know, I gave conference papers as, as a, as a post grad, at the right professional, forum. But, I don't think I published anything, particularly one of maybe one or two short articles, journal articles.

Would you describe your work environment?

If in terms of bricks and mortar, let's start with the material as it were, and then look at other dimensions. I am based on, an urban city based campus, a large thriving city. I'm in a building that's probably seen better days. It isn't a fantastic physical environment to be in.

I, I, ever since I've been here, I've been in a shared office, which is fine. I don't have a problem with that, although it's different to what I was used to in my previous job. But the, the culture of the place is shared offices, two or three, or possibly four. Now, that's a new point because again, in line with what seems to be happening, a lot of other institutions in higher education at this time, a number are going to open plan offices, which is being resisted by, by academics.

So there is a, a changing physical environment. This building I'm in now will be knocked down next year, and they are building a replacement building, about 300 yards away from here. So the idea by behind the university is to keep us city based, but because the, the price of rental space is, is higher in the city, it means they're trying to cram more, well, the same number of people in the small space.

Are you office based? I mean, how, can you tell me how much of your time would you need to spend in the office? Do you work, do you, do your, do you write conference papers from the office or?

Again, it, it depends on what time of the year you are talking about. for, you know, the, essentially the kind of 10 week part of the term. I am, I would say, you know, here four days a week.

So I would, I would be in my office not every day, but I would, you know, I would be in my office at some point every day, with the use of the internet. One can be virtually present by dealing with emails and, and what, and inquiries and what have you. But you know, if I'm teaching clearly I have to be, in, in this building or associated buildings.

And obviously I, I do quite a bit of, seeing students, postgraduate students increasingly as well, in this office though, that may or may, that may change in the future that might be forced to change.

Do you think it's fair to say that if you want an academic career, you have to be prepared for certain amount of geographic mobility?

Yes, that's a very good point because, current, for the last five years I've lived with my partner in London and worked, in this northern city.

Now, transport links are good, it's only two and a half hours away, but it doesn't mean that I have had to rent, accommodation, in this city. Which again, relatively speaking compared to London is, is cheap. and with my current salary, I can accommodate that, excuse the pun. You know, I can do that, but, maybe for younger people, that mobility, to, to go and find the job somewhere where it was offered, you know, would, would be costly to them.

It's also costly in psychological social terms as well.

And a certain degree of personal sacrifice involved?

Yes, there is, it does affect your social life, your relationships, I guess. But the upside of that is that, you know, as an academic, or relatively speaking, not paid, perhaps as other professions are paid, the flexibility, the independence of working in some respects, helps to compensate for that.

'cause I do, I, you know, within certain constraints, I do have a lot of flexibility about, you know, my day. you know, I have, if I, if I have an nine o'clock lecture, I have to be here at nine o'clock, but on another day when I don't have any, formal classes, I can arrange my meetings or I can come into work at half or seven in the morning, or I could be working, in the evening, which I do quite a lot in the office.

So there's a, you know, you know, which means in the afternoon I might go and play sport or go to the pictures, you know, which I do. I do these things. That's again, still kind of work related, going to the pictures, given that I'm a media person. But it's that kind of flexibility to organise things, you like to think, organise things in your own fashion.

Do you have much contact time with students?

Outside of formal teaching?

And including formal teaching.

Yeah. It's decreased over the years. I mean, I still teach a large undergraduate cohort in first year of over a hundred students. So for the record, that might be a two hour lecture slot and then four repeat seminar, four one hour repeat seminars.

So, I mean, that's, that's quite a lot of contact with lots of people, and that can actually be quite a, an experience. 'cause I used to learn people's names, but I find, find that increasingly difficult. Now, it's actually quite hard work to relate to 102 or 106 people and know when they come to your door as an individual to know who they're, to know who they are, you know, when they come, if they come and see you, you know, students, some students, a significant number of students will want to contact me by email and they kind of resist until, particularly in the, in the early years, but later on, obviously when you see 'em for dissertations and third year work, they're more likely I think, to come and see you.

But they're still in that the student, the first year students are still in that transition stage. So the amount of contact you have them can be kind of quite formalised.

You know, we, we used to have, a much stronger culture as well of, of, of socialising with students, of organising extracurricular events of, of, of, of literally saying, of going down a bar or a pub. You know, usually you're around a kind of a film screening or some other kind of event. But I do think that's, for me as an academic, I've, I've noted that change over five years.

What the reasons are for that, I don't know. But, you know, if people are thinking about a job in academia, you know, it isn't all about kind of cosy chats with a glass of sherry in, in your office. 'cause you might not have, you might not have your own office now. You might be in a, an office with 20 people at a workstation.

Some advice

Can you think of any advice that you'd give to people who are thinking about going into academia?

Think about why you really, really want to do it - by nature, I'm an optimist, so I think that people will continue to want to work in a, in a university environment, however that university is configured because it is extremely, satisfying and pleasurable to talk to, to spend your life talking to people about ideas and things that essentially you, you are interested in.

And also that then puts you in the environment where you are invited to and required to write about those things. And that's what gives a satisfaction. For me, it's teaching and writing. And I think if you want to do that and you don't want to become a journalist or work in the kind of broader media, and you enjoy communicating with, usually with younger people, then it's probably still quite a good job and quite a satisfying career.

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