On Academia and Acting - Career Parallels

So, it's 2014. I'm not really sure how that happened. If I look back to 10 years ago, I am actually where I wanted to be - this time in 2014 I definitely wanted to work in research - though my ambitions were perhaps not that I'd get a permanent position quite so fast.

January is the time of year that a lot of our final year project students start to also want to work in research and this leads to a lot of discussions about "What's it like?" "Is it a secure career?" and so on and over the years of pondering the answers to such questions, I've read what a lot of other people think the answers are. A lot of people describe being an academic as being much like a teacher for some insane reason - we're not teachers and the faster people (inside and outwith the field) get this into their heads, the better. We're researchers, we're educators, we're administrators. We are not teachers. Academics have never been "teachers" in the sense that school teachers are - we don't tell people what to learn and help them (directly) to learn it - we enthuse them about a subject, introduce them to a field and act as a springboard, propelling them into the research literature, from which they learn the subject for themselves, by themselves - remember, 10 UK university credits require 100h of study, of which only 10-20h would be timetabled - that's 80-90% self-directed learning. Something that seems to be coming as more of a surprise to first year students over the years as I think they way they are taught in schools has slowly changed and perhaps their expectations aren't as aligned to university education as perhaps they should be? 

So, what do I think academia is most like? Acting. Why? Lots of reasons!

  1. Lecturing is a performance art. You walk onto an empty stage in front of 50-500 people and, using a minimal amount of props or visual aids, take them on a journey over the course of a few hours. To do that, you have to grab their attention and then hold it and that isn't teaching - there's no pedagogic theory involved in holding a room, believe it for not - it's pure theatre. Actors and comedians learning their craft are trained in how to hold an audience for hours at a time and we use identical techniques.
  2. There's no job security in either field, compared to other fields. Actors in the theatre in their early career live from one fixed-term contract to the next, often with gaps in between - and that's exactly what we do as postdocs. A lot of people in academia grow bitter that they've "been a postdoc for years" and so "should" get a permanent position, but that isn't how it works - just like acting, some people live on short-term contracts for their whole career - some people in academia do too. It's not ideal - far from it (and it's something I don't agree with - I don't think it's reasonable to expect it of people) - but it's what happens. IF you're lucky in acting, you can land a long-term role in a soap, for example, but it's rare, and that's the case with permanent academic positions too - they're scarce.
  3. Both fields rely on funding that's hard to get and hard to keep. How is research funded? Grant income usually - grants that are applied for and won about 10% of the time, statistically, in the UK - that's a bloody site higher than how many films or TV shows or plays make it from script to getting funded but it's the same principle - you have the best idea in the world but no one wants to fund it.

here are other reasons - lots of them in fact - but I want to keep something to elaborate on a bit more later this month - I'm going to cover the parallels a bit more and look at some tips from the acting world that apply to careers in academia that perhaps aren't that obvious but of which we need to be taking note!