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UK Academia and War Studies at King’s College London

After leaving Oxford, I’ve been fielding questions about my lectureship (equivalent to a North American tenure-track assistant professorship) in War Studies at King’s College London. Here is a summary of my experience, along with a few unvarnished truths. Overall, it has been fantastic and I would strongly encourage junior scholars to apply for a lectureship here. If you work on conflict, this is the place to be.

Disclosure: I created this page to convince early career researchers to apply for this 3-year fixed-term lectureship in Conflict, Security, and Development.

Research (War Studies, King’s College London)
With respect to sheer critical mass, I believe we have the largest concentration of politics scholars in the UK (100+), though we are spread across several different departments (War Studies, Defence Studies, Political Economy, European Studies, Global Institutes). You can also add another 100+ colleagues across the street at LSE. We have a huge number of PhD and MA students. War Studies alone has one of the largest PhD program in the UK with about 270 students (though some of these are part-time). And if you’re willing to walk 20 minutes or so, there is another wonderful set of scholars at nearby University College London. The Foreign Office is a 20-minute walk away, the Ministry of Defence is a 10-minute walk, and the Prime Minister’s Office is a 15-minute walk.

Teaching

The students are strong and a pleasure to teach. The undergraduates are mostly British, with some Europeans. At the MA level, it is predominantly international with people from around the globe. I only teach at the MA level and about 20% have been British. Our best students are as good as any I’ve ever taught from Oxford, Williams College, and Princeton.

For those who are unfamiliar with the UK system, it seems important to mention that the teaching load is different from the typical 2-2 load in North American universities. There are some UK idiosyncrasies (e.g., double marking) that change the teaching experience quite substantially, and the composition of an overall teaching “load” can vary significantly from one institution to the next, and even within a given department. For example, in some cases, you may end up with a lighter lecturing load, but wind up with more thesis supervision work, or more administrative responsibilities (e.g., admissions).

Terms here are shorter than in North America (10-11 weeks) so you will get a much longer period for uninterrupted research. Term time is admittedly intense though.

North American concerns
North American friends, I realize that salary and visas might be a concern. (My passport is somewhere in the bowels of the UK Border Agency as I write this post.) For permanent jobs, the visa process is usually straightforward but still painful as long as the institution has set out to recruit internationally from the beginning. To do this, there is a labour market test that needs to be satisfied: the employer needs to prove that there are no other qualified candidates in Europe, which is a tough bar to meet. This is often easier to do with senior hires than junior ones. Pay close attention to the section on eligibility to work. (More here on how this policy ends up hurting the UK.) Provided you get a visa, then spouses (not sure about domestic partners) can work in the UK.

Admittedly, academic salaries for living in London will be challenging as compared to other places in the UK. Unfortunately, London universities haven’t invested in faculty housing the way that NYU and Columbia have, nor do they provide a housing allowance like Hong Kong University. If you have children, the other consideration is schooling. The public school system is fine, but many professional parents opt to go private as soon as they can afford to do so. This gets very expensive. BUT if you’re willing to stick with the state school system, it is absolutely doable for those with two incomes. I live in Surbiton (Zone 6), a lovely, affordable area outside central London with great schools. My door-to-door commute is 40 minutes. During term time, I’m on campus for 2-3 days. The rest of the week, I work from home. Outside of term, I go in about once a week.

Living in London

So here comes the sales pitch: Did I mention that King’s is in the heart of London’s West End, next to Covent Garden, amazing museums, Soho, a serious concentration of gelato bars, handpulled noodles, and the theatre district? The South Bank and its vibrant cultural scene is a five-minute walk from my office. If you love to eat, you could not be happier with the selection of restaurants and eateries within spitting distance of campus. In short, King’s has got the best of London at its fingertips.

What they don’t tell you

1. If you have a family or are planning to start a family, work-life balance in the UK is much better than it is in North America. There is a lot of flexibility in managing your work load. People don’t care about face time since there are clear ways to measure performance for teaching (course evaluations, peer evaluation), research (publications and grants), and administration. In practice, this means that you can organize your time as you wish.

2. One of the most remarkable things about the War Studies department is its collegiality. My colleagues are really friendly- that is not in itself surprising- academics are generally a friendly lot. But what is remarkable is that the collegiality extends across the department. There are no deep-seated ideological battles or departmental rifts.

3. The biggest problem is definitely pay and housing because of the London factor. There is no getting around this. London is expensive. But having said that, the big plus is that you get to live in London, one of the most amazing cities in the world. It is easy for partners to find work in London. And for those who are single, it will be easy to find partners….

4. Learn about the 2013 Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise. It is very important.

5. If you apply for a permanent lectureship, you should know that the probation process is unlikely to result in having you fired (unlike many institutions in North America). There is a probationary period (three years at King’s), but in practice, people who are hired on permanent contracts are rarely fired. This is not to say that it doesn’t happen, but it is not a matter of practice like it is in the US. Note however that passing probation does not provide the same kind of job security as tenure, but it’s as good as you can get in the UK system.

6. Temporary lectureships and teaching positions will increase your chances of getting a permanent job at that institution. That said, fixed-term positions are usually just that: when the contract is over, you are done.

7. In contrast to North American norms where people take on temporary teaching if they can’t get a tenure-track job, the norm in the UK is to have a 2-3 year gap of assorted postdoc teaching/research fellowships to build up a publication record so that you can compete for a permanent lectureship. It is unusual to be given a job without having first finished your PhD (unlike in the US), then scraping together a few teaching jobs to pay the bills, and also doing your own research on the side- before you finally land a permanent (=tenure-track) position.

I think the difference in practice is that these temporary teaching and research positions end up serving the function of a test run for a potential colleagues because a permanent hire is much riskier in the UK. (Once hired, people are rarely ever fired.) This gives institutions a chance to try people out on a temporary basis with little risk.

What does all of this mean in practice? Apply for the temporary positions! They have a hidden upside of introducing you to the UK academic community, which then gives you more credibility in applying for somethign permanent.

On a related note, there will be two (or more?) IR jobs coming up in War Studies in 2013-14 to meet the demand for our new BA in IR program, though I don’t exactly what the focus will be and whether they will be senior or junior.

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