Prompted by a tweet by Jennifer Polk the other day I started thinking about what I miss about working in an academic environment. Strictly speaking, she asked, ‘What aspects of non-academic employment did you have to learn/ get used to when you moved beyond the professoriate?’ – and I honestly did not have to think long.
One thing I am still finding hard four years after transitioning from a senior lectureship in History at a UK university to an editorial post at a press agency in Berlin is that I no longer have my own office. I like having people around, even though I am a rather private person, and journalism is all about team work.
But working in an open-plan newsroom is something else. Technically speaking I no longer even have my own desk, even though I try to sit in the same place most days. We usually move around desks wherever we are needed, and people around you talk all the time – on the phone, to each other and to you – while you are trying to focus on whatever you are currently researching, writing or editing.
There is a certain buzz in the office that can be very uplifting. It makes you want to write and play your part in the big orchestra of keyboards, accompanied by a cacophony of ringtones and vocals. But it is very hard to concentrate and you cannot tell people to shut up all the time just because you are trying to focus on your work. So your multitasking skills are seriously challenged.
I had worked in journalism before I became an academic, so I more or less knew what I was letting myself in for. But you also forget, and most shared office spaces I had worked in before were significantly smaller. Besides, in the past, in my times as a freelancer, I had also spent a lot of time working from home, only occasionally drifting in and out of offices.
Now it is harder to get thinking time. And you cannot just put on your head phones or blank out the background noise, as you need to hear what everyone else is saying because it might relate to what you are doing. It is not uncommon to see a colleague with their headphones half on and half off, listening into a presser broadcast on the web and typing away while talking on the phone. It takes getting used to.
On the upside, there is also no danger of you isolating yourself by keeping that office door shut and putting the ‘Do-not-disturb’ sign up. If the writing is not going well there is always a colleague at the next desk who might have a bright idea, and when you finish your shift someone else will take up where you left off. So you do not feel obliged to stay on tortured by guilt that you have not done enough. If you go home the work will still get done.
Yet, there are other things I miss about my past academic life. And here I have to point out that I still do academic work. I just shifted the focus of my paid work from history to journalism when before it had been the other way around.
I miss being able to talk about my historical research with my colleagues and to have people around who care about what is going on in the academic world.
There are a few people in the office who occasionally take an interest in my history writing, but they are few and far between, and I do not want to get on everyone’s nerves by going on and on about my pet projects. There are only so many people who will get excited about seventeenth-century English republican exiles in Europe.
It is also difficult to keep up with my history friends and colleagues as my schedule works quite differently from theirs. I sometimes get invited to academic seminars and conferences, but I often have to decline because the event is during a busy time at work or I cannot take time off at short notice. I also have to pay for my own conference travel and research trips, which suck up much of my holiday time. So sometimes an event might look very interesting, but I just cannot fit it in or justify going.
Finally, I also miss teaching. Seeing one of my former PhD students publish his first book recently, really got me very emotional. There is something very special about being involved in someone’s education and seeing them develop and progress. There are few things that will make you feel that proud.
Over the past four years, I have been trying to get the best out of both worlds: following my passion for news and current affairs in my day job, while maintaining my passion for academic research and writing in my spare time. Only one thing has remained the same: there are never enough hours in the day.