NAME: Peter G. Knight
CURRENT TITLE: Reader in Geography
AREA OF EXPERTISE: It’s a little hard to pin down, but for this exercise, let’s say glaciers.
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 30 years as a lecturer at Keele University
EDUCATION: Undergraduate degree in Geography at Oxford University (1980-83), and a PhD on Glaciers in the Geography Department at Aberdeen University (1984-1987)
What’s your job like?
My job is very varied. Like most academics, my roles and activities vary day by day, season by season, year by year and even decade by decade. At some points in my career, I have been chasing off at every opportunity to far-flung corners of the globe to hit glaciers with sticks, while at other points, life has been very much filled with Quality Assurance Committees, Programme Validation Panels and workload allocation models. One consistent theme throughout the last 30 years for me has been undergraduate teaching, so I guess I would say that the core of my job involves trying to understand the world better and encouraging students to try and understand it better as well.
What’s a typical day like?
In geography, as in most things, what you see depends on the timescale over which you look. Looking back at the last 30 years or so, over what a geomorphologist might call “cyclic time,” there is no such thing as a typical day. A day at work could involve running around teaching, traveling to a remote wilderness environment to measure something, sitting at home marking exams, attending administrative meetings, negotiating with a publisher, or trying to make supercooled ice crystals in the low-temperature laboratory. Zooming in to look at the right now, day-to-day, the same sort of variability persists at a smaller scale. Hour by hour in a typical day, I find myself working on a book-writing project, then emailing back and forth with a student who is having a crisis, then putting together some material for a lecture, then meeting with a postgraduate to discuss glaciers, or mud, or thesis-writing, and then setting up the agenda for a staff meeting. A few years ago, I blogged about a “typical” week at work as a “reflective diary” exercise. You can see that at: https://petergknight.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/lecturer-diary-exercise/
I typically get up at 5.30 a.m. and do an hour of work before breakfast. Ideally, this will be work on a major long-term project such as a book, but often I am distracted by having to fire-fight some short-term issue with a student, or a colleague, or a module. And then there’s Facebook… and Twitter… and the emails that came in overnight from colleagues in different time zones. A well-disciplined academic would set aside these precious early-morning sessions to focus on a key project and to avoid distractions. I am not so well disciplined.
One of the great things about my job is that on many days there are only a few fixed appointment times, so I can largely come and go as I please: working from home or in the office, sticking to “office hours” or working randomly late at night and into the weekend. It’s a gift… and a curse. The trick is to make it work for you. It suits me to do little bits and pieces of email or writing at random times overnight or on weekends and take long coffee-mornings in town during “working hours”, so that’s how I work. Other academics think it best to stick to a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. routine. Good luck to them. Me, I’m all over the place!
One of the fun things about my job is having time to develop ideas and activities that I want to play with, whether that is in teaching or in research or in publishing. I have been lucky over the years that nobody really has ever tried to tell me what to do. I like writing books, so I have done a bit of that. I like mixing geography and art, so I made up an undergraduate module that lets me explore that. I like visiting glaciers and wilderness areas, so when it suited my lifestyle early in my career, I was able to do exactly that. Part of the fun of this career is having that freedom and flexibility.
Another of the fun things about my job is that they keep sending through a fresh supply of interested, curious, imaginative youngsters to keep me on my toes! Of course, not every student lives up to that dream specification, but a lot of them do: certainly a sufficient number to keep things interesting. If there was an interminable supply of identically dull students year after year, the job would be less fun, but the teaching side of the job is kept fresh and fun by the fresh and fun students who keep coming through the door. This is especially true for my Inspirational Landscapes module, where students get to develop a project based on their personal interests outside of geography. The amazing range of ideas that students come up with is itself inspirational. The most fun thing for me is getting new ideas by listening to and talking with my students.
As a geographer, I have to confess that I do actually enjoy coloring, and I do think maps are fun. Camping out in glaciated wilderness is fun (up to a point). Writing lectures and talking to students about things both they and I find interesting is fun. Seeing your name in print on a freshly published book or paper is fun. If you are doing it right, most of the job can be fun.
Time management in an environment where there are no fixed hours and an unending supply of work can be challenging. For the unwary, this is the potential downside of this career. Your work is never finished. Nobody will tell you when to stop. You need to manage yourself effectively and make sure that you are doing the job in a way that works for you. This is not a well-paid job, relative to the training and qualifications that it demands, so there is not much point doing it if you are not enjoying it. The job has many different elements (teaching, research, administration, etc.), and there is a danger of being drawn into part of the job that is not what you enjoy. A serious weakness in the whole academic system is that it’s based on promoting talented individuals from roles where they excel into roles for which they have no training and may have no aptitude. If you do a brilliant research PhD, you can then get a job teaching as a lecturer. If your teaching turns out to be brilliant as well, they will promote you to a senior position and tell you that you are somebody’s line manager. Suddenly, the great teachers and researchers become bogged down as managers in career paths that they never wanted. If I had wanted to be a manager, I could have gotten a better-paying job managing something in industry or finance. That’s why I am happy to spend time teaching, writing, and thinking about glaciers, and to try and minimise the time I have to spend allocating workloads and reviewing specifications. Getting the balance right is the challenge.
Another big challenge, especially for younger colleagues, but even when you get to my great age, is maintaining a level of self-confidence in the face of the constant criticism that academic life seems to involve. Every time you apply for a grant, submit a paper, or even give a lecture, you get referees, reviewers, peer-observers and students filling in forms to report back on everything that you did wrong! I wrote a blog post here https://petergknight.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/advice-for-a-young-academic-imposter-syndrome/ about something called “imposter syndrome”, which is where we feel that perhaps we are not really up to the job we have been given and that we will in due course be exposed as a fraud. That’s a common feeling amongst a lot of academics, partly because of the constant scrutiny to which we are subjected and the high standard that many of us expect of ourselves. It’s another example of how self-management, and management of our own expectations, is an important challenge to address in this job.
What’s your advice to students?
The more you read, and the more you think about what you read, the better you will do. Ask for advice, and if the advice comes from somebody who knows what they are talking about, follow most of it. Remember that you can see only a tiny part of what is actually there. Be brave; it’s ok to learn by trial and error. Always provide detail and evidence. The first year does matter. Be careful and correct in your writing: good grammar is important. Always turn up on time and be properly prepared. Be polite. Do things that you enjoy. If you are not enjoying your geography, then you must be doing it wrong.