I popped into the cafeteria for a quick coffee this morning where I found Gus Johns already there. I got my coffee and sat down next to him. "How are you doing?" he said. "Not bad" I replied. After some general chit-chat he asked me how long I had been at USE now. "Nearly five years".
"Mmm. And what are your long term plans? Are you ambitious or are you content just to do what you enjoy doing? Do you want to stay on or get on?" He told me that when he had first arrived at USE he imagined that he would stay for a couple of years maximum and then move on somewhere else. But once you had been around here for a while it gets harder to move on. Of course family commitments come into the picture too. “But as a single man you have no ties.”
“Are you trying to push me out?” I asked. “Not at all” he replied “But if you remember when you first arrived here I was designated as your mentor, and I suppose I still have that role. I am just trying to get you to work out what your ambitions are."
Then he smiled and said that he had just recalled various lunchtime conversations from the 1970s. He asked me if he had ever told me the “Death Club” story. When I said “no” he explained that in the late 1970s he, together with some other economists and some people from the politics and sociology departments who used to lunch together, had observed that there were some other staff around who seemed to have been at the place forever, with upwards of thirty years’ service on average. One of the group from politics proposed what he called the Death Club. The idea was that each of us should put a pound a week into a pool and the last person to leave would collect the pot. He smiled again. “That would have been me” he said. “All the others are either dead, retired, or at a different university. In fact the chap who had the idea was ambitious and he moved on. He is now a Vice Chancellor up north.
“Of course what you could do if you don’t want to move around all over the place is to look to take a few terms out somewhere else on a sabbatical. We could keep your post open and you could go and work with someone in your field at a university in the States or Australia. That way you get some variety and new stimuli but you keep a strong foothold here.”
It’s a hard one to figure out. I like it here at USE. I really enjoy teaching the students which is still valued here as well as the research. There is pressure to publish but it is not as cut-throat here as at some other places. Most colleagues are friendly and are cooperative rather than competitive. And I like it here in the south. We are by the coast (not that I often go down to the sea) and within easy reach of London. But Gus is right. I do have to work out what I want to do for the rest of my career. Now why didn’t Mike Rowe ask me that in my annual appraisal?