Instant Ideas and Collaboration

Feature #05: Moving to the Dark Side: Practitioner to Academic Practice

Our latest feature on #uklibchat links into our recent discussion on librarians and research. Barbara Sen, currently a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, tells us of her experiences in moving from LIS practice to academia. Thank you to Barbara for sharing her experiences and tips with us. 

Moving to the Dark Side: Practitioner to Academic Practice

I came into the LIS profession quite late, though I had been a library assistant when I was in my teens. I did my Masters at MMU when I was in my early forties and immediately after I graduated I managed to get three part time jobs! I was worried that being an older graduate it would be harder for me to get a permanent post but I really recommend it. You get a broad range of experience on your CV, it helps you to decide what you would like to do, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.
One of those jobs was with the Health & Safety Executive, one was as a part time Research Assistant on a project investigating flexible working, and one was teaching at MMU on the Database Design module. They all gave me valuable experience and set me off on a future path to being an academic. The down side of having so many part time jobs was that it was very tiring. Each job required different skills, and whilst I was learning so much, doing each one was exhausting, so I was pleased when after a year when a full time permanent post came along in the Health & Safety Executive.

I prefer some autonomy and found the Civil Service too restrictive so after a year I moved into the NHS managing a library service. I loved this role as there was plenty of opportunity for development within the NHS at that time, and I could shape the service how I wanted it. The health sector is very dynamic. I found health librarians, like other sectors, to be highly skilled, innovative, and always willing to push the boundaries. They love learning, and engage in research. I loved so much about my job, developing the collection, researching quite complex medical problems, and delivering training sessions to all kinds of health professionals – I really enjoyed the training aspect.

Whilst in the health service I had to write my first strategic plan for my service. I loved bringing stakeholders together, getting people involved in the planning, and setting a vision for my service for the future.
Shortly after this I saw a job advertised in CILIP Update for a part time Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) to work on the Strategic Management module and the Collection Development module. As I had been an Acquisitions Librarian at the Health & Safety Executive, I felt that I was really well suited to this role and I thought I could probably fit it around my health service job. We had extended opening hours, so I could do more of the late and weekend shifts to make up for the time I might be teaching.

Well I got the job, and the rest is history. I loved it so much that when a full-time post became available I moved into academia full-time. LJMU at that time did not have a strong research culture, and as I started to become more involved in the academic context I realised how much I enjoyed the research aspects of the position, so I knew that would have to move to develop this side of things.

A job came up at the University of Sheffield. I didn’t get it. I didn’t even get shortlisted. I spoke to a lecturer at another LIS Department and he suggested that I needed to publish much more, so I started to do small research projects related to my work, and my teaching areas. I managed to get a few things published and I also got invited to work on a number of small projects, one consultancy, and one a Knowledge Transfer Project working with a small business. I made sure that I published the outcomes from these so they would enhance my CV. I also embarked on a PhD part-time. Then a post for a Lecturer came up again at Sheffield, and this time the subject areas were more closely aligned to my areas of expertise. To my surprise, this time, I got the job.

I have been at Sheffield now for six years. Since then, so many opportunities have come up. I love the teaching, and the research – you can’t separate them, one feeds into another, and really I think that’s how it should be. In academia we have to remain relevant to LIS practice. Most of my research has practical applications.

It is much more difficult now to get a job in academia without a PhD -my advice to anyone who is thinking of making the move is to get the PhD. There are more opportunities now to do a PhD part-time, and also by publication. Instead of the usual 100,000 word full research project, you submit a 10,000- 15,000 word report based around previously published papers that you have written.
I must say, Sheffield is the most challenging job I have ever had. The up side is that you have autonomy, and flexibility. There is always something new, and something new to explore. The down side is that I have never worked so hard or such long hours. I find myself working every evening, and every weekend. It is very rewarding especially when you see students getting on and doing well, but the job is very demanding indeed.

If you thing you want to make the transition from practitioner to academic, then start to write and get published. Every article counts. Gain some experience at training, or teaching – make sure you can cope with that. A few people I know like the idea, but then cave in when they have to stand up in front of a group of people and deliver a talk or a lecture. Develop a specialism, something you are known for, and think how you can become an expert in that. A friend of mine started a blog, and soon became widely followed on that topic because of his blog. Go to conferences, and network, great to get known and great experience, of one aspect of academic life. Get researching! We work in an evidence based profession. Publish from your Masters. Supervisors are usually very happy to publish with you at this point. Research in the work place is valid. Don’t be shy of putting work based research out into academic journals. Find opportunities to work with others on joint projects to build confidence. Explore different research methods and approaches, it will build your confidence.

Join research groups such as the Library and Information Research Group LIRG  or the Library & Information Science Research Coalition At this point, I will also give a shameless plug for a book that I am co-editing with Maria Grant and Hannah Spring: Research, Evaluation and Audit, published by Facet. This book is designed for people who might be new to research.

About Sam (LibWig)

Chartered London law librarian

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This entry was posted on May 13, 2013 by in Feature and tagged , , , , , , .


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