Reflections 2: the journey from PhD studentship to lectureship (there and back again)

Author photo – Dr. Greta Kaluževičiūtė

For those of you who found me via Twitter – hello, or as we say in Lithuania, labas! I’m Dr. Greta Kaluževičiūtė, and I’m a psychotherapy and mental health researcher working in the United Kingdom and Lithuania. I love cats (especially my own, Momo and Zuko) and coffee, have a strong admiration for well-written and produced anime, I am passionate about making mental health interventions as widely accessible and as common knowledge as possible, and I also happen to be an academic.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post reflecting on my PhD journey and processing its final moments. Since then, I did a post-doc at University of Cambridge (and wrote a blog post about that too!), went back to my homeland, Lithuania, earlier this March, and embarked on a journey of lectureship (or professorship – which, let’s face it, sounds nicer) at Vilnius University, Institute of Psychology. I am technically now on my second post – I began as Assistant Professor (Lecturer) in September 2021 and had my debut as Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) this September. Many things have changed since I graduated with my PhD in May 2021 – good and bad – and, naturally, there have been some transitional processes between being a doctoral student and being a lecturer.  This blog post will reflect on the continuation of my transitional journey as academic, with hopes that some of this may be of help or interest to fellow PhD students and early career researchers, just starting out in the world of academic lectureship. Or, if you’re just here to learn about academia and how it works – that’s good with me too.

The Fellowship

Academia is a lot like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Dave Pritchard makes this excellent comparison: Frodo, a young hobbit, quite bright but a bit dissatisfied with his current life and state of knowledge, is very much in awe of his tutor and mentor, senior professor Gandalf. Gandalf suggests he takes a short project (carrying the Ring to Rivendell). In his journey, Frodo meets several other colleagues: Gandalf’s post-doc Aragorn, visiting students Gimli and Legolas, the foreign post-doc Boromir. At some point, Gandalf disappears, leaving Frodo with the entire research project, which has now become far more complex and difficult to manage, given that the destination of the Ring has been switched to Mordor. Meanwhile, Frodo is cross-questioned by terrifying senior academics, such as Galadriel, at a conference in Lorien, and is eventually betrayed by the foreign post-doc Boromir, who wants to be the first author in the project.

As Pritchard aptly points out, the project does not end even when the ring is destroyed. In fact, while Frodo’s undergraduate friends settle down finding jobs and starting families, Frodo experiences a restless limbo, and eventually joins Gandalf, Elrond, and other senior academics, in a brain drain across the Western Ocean.

I, too, thought I have surely destroyed the ring during my PhD viva/defence in May 2021. But here I am, pondering similar thoughts and experiences that I have felt back then in September 2022. The only difference is that I am pondering this as a qualified Dr. and Associate Professor. Moral of the story: just like Frodo’s venture to Mordor, academia, too, appears endless.

My current workplace – Vilnius University

When my doctoral colleagues tell me that they cannot wait to be done with their PhDs, I respond, very unpopularly, that they might miss it in the future. Don’t get me wrong: obtaining a PhD is a hard, strenuous process, a real Tolkien-esque journey that will challenge one’s mental and physical health. But one thing that a PhD journey has (unless things have gone astray) is a clear end-goal. Your life, for the better or worse, revolves around one specific topic, one specific research project, one specific research question. One Ring, in a nutshell.

Becoming a lecturer after obtaining a PhD is a little weird because… well, it feels like you have several rings. Again, following Tolkien’s canon, nine rings were given to mortal men. These men were then corrupted and became the Nazgûl, also known as the Black Riders. You can easily identify them by their black cloaks, and deadly looking horses. Well, becoming a lecturer at a university can feel a little bit like being a Nazgûl: you’re supposedly a powerful and mighty king, sorcerer or warrior, but you’re also kind of a wraith, slaving away at the wishes of Sauron. In the PhD journey, power of any kind can appear distant and remote – in the academic food chain, PhD students typically rank at the bottom, as teaching/research assistants, but, let’s face it, also as the folk that do the bulk of the research and marking (and, unfortunately, this work is often not sufficiently acknowledged). In the lectureship journey, there is a certain level of power and apparent freedom – you can join/create labs, research teams, supervise students whose work appears interesting, create module outlines, finally go to those conferences that you always wanted to go but couldn’t get the funding, and so on. But, what no one tells you is… You won’t have time for most of that. In academia, time evades us. As an avid Tolkien fan, I’m sure: time is directly linked with those rings of power for us lecturers. Don’t ask me to back this up with science; it is just how things are.

Before any teaching can commence, the first Professor Nazgûl’s task is admin. Yes, faculties, of course, have admins to do, well, admin things. But guess what: that does not include all of the admin-y things, and you will have to admin your own admin. Somehow, there is a universal rule between all academic establishments that they must have some form of impaired IT system that will not help with managing student lists, lectures, classes or module content. Something will go wrong. You will likely not get a guide or tutorial (or at least not one that you need, or not one that is comprehensive enough). There are common sense things, but these are only common for academic colleagues who have already experienced the perplexing IT system failures previously. Even as a Nazgûl (i.e., whether you are a lecturer, senior lecturer, a visiting scholar or even a professor), you will still feel shy or at least a little silly asking for help with what seems to be easy admin tasks (but they really are not).

Perhaps the most striking and interesting experience to me personally is the aspect of workplace culture and integration. Certainly not something that is classed as part of our job description in academia, and most definitely not something that we are paid for, but it can be time consuming (and, beyond time, require some social and psychological resources too). Each academic institution has its own work and communication culture, and it can take some time to understand it. For example: I used to work in a small department with a relatively linear (as linear as can be in academia) theoretical and research approach that was ‘agreed’ by everyone in the department. Because of the small number of academic staff, you become kind of known for the things you do or the research areas you investigate. This is nice, as it creates a more interactive and cosier atmosphere within the department. At the same time, however, this type of work culture can limit one’s individual freedom when it comes to research, and often, major decisions are made by a select number of ‘top’ staff, which can leave the remaining staff unmotivated, uninspired, and, simply, uninvolved.

As mentioned earlier, I moved back home to Lithuania earlier this year. I worked in the UK for 8 years – the entirety of my professional life. So, while it might seem that I am moving back home (and with that, I get a lovely bonus of seeing my family regularly and getting in touch with my Baltic culture again), there is a transition into a professional life here for me. There are some broader differences between continental Europe and the UK (for one, using the term ‘Associate Professor’ rather than Senior Lecturer, but on a more serious note – wage differences, health and social insurance differences, the way modules are set up, the start date for academic year…), but there are also some specific nuances that one would only know after working in Lithuania (or any other specific country). One of which is knowing who’s-who: I get an interesting fresh perspective as a Lithuanian native educated abroad who lacks the knowledge of ‘big names’ in the national academia. Sure, I’ve read some psychology and psychotherapy books in Lithuanian, and recognise some of the names. But, by and large, I treat everyone with the same level of respect: doctoral student or professor. It’s some form of egalitarian Nazgûlism. But, reflecting on my PhD journey, when I was very closely tied to my Alma Matter, I knew the ‘big names’ first-hand, and likely felt more intimated by the great professors. This, I feel, is a big change in my transitional academic identity: as a recent PhD graduate and now lecturer, I particularly want to give a warm and supportive environment to my doctoral colleagues, partly because I remember all too well what it feels like to do a PhD when you lack this type of support from more senior academics.

So, what other things consume us, Nazgûl-lecturers, you might ask. Well, the rest of the items on the agenda are a bit blurry because… It’s virtually everything you can imagine. To recount my current state of modus operandi:

  1. I am currently submitting two projects for different funding schemes with colleagues from different countries and institutions;
  2. I am currently writing up two manuscripts;
  3. …writing up articles for the Lithuanian National Encyclopaedia on a variety of psychological topics;
  4. …conducting online teaching as Associate Academic at another institution;
  5. …supervising student dissertations at two different institutions (approx. 20 students in total in continuous consultation);
  6. …prepping for two invited talks in Lithuania and Belgium;
  7. …reviewing manuscripts for journals;
  8. Bonus points: planning a wedding and adopting a new kitten from the shelter.

Not going to lie, writing down this list kind of helped me organise! But, yes, in a nutshell, each point is a ring to be carried. And when carrying all these rings, all those dreamt of conferences and free time and research lab liberties can be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. I should add that this current list of tasks (consisting of only my immediate tasks) is not a unique example – all my colleagues are similarly loaded with heavy-duty tasks, working long hours, at times, nights. I suspect that this is a reflection of the broader state in which academia exists, which could be an entirely separate topic: academics are often overworked, underpaid, overstretched.

But – and this is to make Frodo’s journey to Mordor worthwhile as well – I also feel extremely privileged to work in institutions on topics that are dear to my heart (psychotherapy and psychology). Despite these challenges, I do think that there is a lot of work to do in educating the upcoming generations of psychology students about the variety of complex issues in mental health treatment. Even when doing unfunded research projects, I do think the work we put in with colleagues can help, if not the people suffering from distress, then at the very list practitioners at public and private levels who wish to improve and develop their interventions. I do genuinely enjoy writing and talking about these subjects with like-minded people and creating something with them. And I couldn’t really imagine myself doing anything else, despite it being an arduous, Tolkien-esque journey there and back again.

However, I do think we could improve the pressures of academia at all levels: students, lecturers, senior staff. The less Nazgûls in academia, after all, the better: we want powerful and motivated characters that can still do things not only for Sauron (or your local Head of Department, or, if you’re a Head of Department, your Dean – and so on) but also use their own motivation and skills. Perhaps this is a topic for another time, although I think #AcademicTwitter covers most of these issues fairly well.

In my own confusion of becoming an Associate Professor this year, I often like to calm myself down by citing Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost”. I am most certain this applies to all of my academic colleagues, doing their utmost even when that seems to be impossible.

As always, if you have any questions about this blog entry, wish to chat about academic chaos or grab a coffee if you’re ever in Vilnius, you can reach me at: g.kaluzeviciute@derby.ac.uk or greta.kaluzeviciute@fsf.vu.lt

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