A maverick in your midst?

Julie Hulme

By Dr Julie Hulme, OneHE Psychology Global Subject Centre Convenor and co-founder of the Profs in Prep network

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about career development. Firstly, I was privileged to speak at a couple of conferences for students about careers in psychology, which made me reflect on how ‘long and winding’ my career path had been (why take the straight road when the detour might be more interesting?). I also mentor several colleagues, especially those who are focused on education and scholarship careers, rather than the “traditional” research trajectory familiar to many academics.

Listening to people talk about their careers and aspirations is interesting. Amongst teaching-focused academics, like myself, there is a frequent narrative about “being different”, or not fitting in with the norms. For years, I’ve framed myself as a “bit of a maverick” because I’m passionate about learning, teaching, transforming student lives, whereas some colleagues see teaching as the distraction that takes them away from the important business of research. But the more I network with academics who have devoted their careers to education, the more I realise that I’m not that different at all…perhaps?

As a psychologist, I’m interested in this narrative of difference. It resonates with the psychological concept of social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1975), who claimed that we develop our identities by drawing comparisons between ourselves, people like us, in the groups to which we belong (in groups), and members of other groups (out groups). For the teaching-focused academic, who do we see as our ‘in’ group, and who is our ‘out’ group? To whom do we compare ourselves, so that we frequently define ourselves as ‘different’?

I suspect that many of us are surrounded by research-oriented colleagues, and by colleagues who teach lots, but don’t have the time in an overloaded timetable to dedicate to educational scholarship. As such, finding people who are similar to us, in our immediate surroundings, is not easy – and we feel like we might be unique, or maverick. University promotions criteria often reinforce this view, emphasising research outputs, while our teaching can seem taken for granted.

So why am I questioning my maverick status? Firstly, in 2016, I was promoted to Reader, the first person in my university to do so on a teaching-focused career pathway. That could have been luck, but later that year, I became a National Teaching Fellow – one of the pinnacles on my twisty journey, that brought me into contact with more people like me. I was amazed: many of these award-winning teachers felt undervalued in their own universities, and ‘different’. Then, this year, I’ve been contemplating applying for Chair. In fact, I started my application this time last year, suffered a disabling bout of chronic impostor syndrome, and abandoned it, thinking I might return to it in a few years when I’d done something “better” or perhaps a bit more conventional.

However, I resisted the temptation to hide in a corner and pretend I had no delusions about my ability to become a professor, and started to talk about it. The more I did so, the more I realised that those of us on teaching-focused contracts can feel isolated, unsupported, undervalued, and just not good enough. Being a practical person, my response to that was “Well, if nobody else seems to be paying attention to this, I’d better do something about it.” Fortuitously, I bumped into Dr Debbie Lock, and through a serendipitous chain of events (and a discovery that we shared a ridiculous number of common interests for two people who thought we were unusual), we agreed to set up a professional network, “Professors in Preparation”, for all the people just like us.

Profs in Prep, or PiP as it is affectionately known (because it’s quick to write in an email in a frenetic academic day), now lives here on OneHE, and is open to anyone who feels like they could use some support to move forwards in their ‘unusual’ career (to join the network click here). We have been joined by some professors, who are kindly offering mentoring, and we’re all there to offer peer support, guidance and encouragement. We meet up for networking and discussion about career progression; our next event will be a workshop in Sheffield on 19 March, and we’re attending the UK Association of National Teaching Fellows (ANTF) symposium 28-29 March, Birmingham UK – feel free to come to both! We are also conducting some research looking at promotion criteria in UK universities (and eventually internationally), to identify what it takes to become a teaching-focused professor, and to reflect on some of the discourse around the ways in which teaching is valued, rewarded and recognised in higher education.

To quote McHanwell and Robson (2018):

“There are relatively few teaching-focussed staff in more senior positions who can review, mentor and support teaching staff; act as role models for junior staff who are seeking to develop a teaching/education career; …help individuals to collate a mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence that provides a clear sense of their teaching achievements”.

We hope that Profs in Prep helps to address that gap, and that as some of us succeed in reaching our goals, we’ll go on to mentor others who come after to do the same.  

Of course, OneHE is here to provide an even larger scale network – a global forum, in which we can share our thoughts and reflections… Just don’t imagine that you’re a maverick – I absolutely guarantee there’s someone here with similar interests!

In reality, there is a massive in-group of ‘unusual’ academics, if we know how to find them. We can support each other to develop our own professional identities, to develop a sense of belonging, and of being valued, that matters to us all. Technology can help us to connect to our in-group whether we’re in the office next door, or half way around the globe – so let’s keep talking, and supporting each other.

>> Click here to join the Profs in Prep network <<