How I became a professor

Photo taken by Steve Mirfin

An old “blog”, originally not written as a blog. Recently someone (Gauthier de Beco ,whom I don’t even know yet, but with whom I hope to be collaborating soon, emailed to say he had found it encouraging. So I thought it was worth sharing here:

How I became a professor

Tamara Hervey, Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law, School of Law University of Sheffield (

Even as an undergraduate, I knew that I would value autonomy over my work more highly than salary. I didn’t want to have a boss, or work as part of a much bigger team, without any control over what work I was doing, or the hours during which I did it. I wanted to do a professional job, but one over which I had some say over the direction of my work. I also wanted to have some kind of creative element to my job, and although I wanted to work largely alone, I did want to have some contact with other people during the working week. The idea of being in a large institution such as a University, where I would meet lots of different kinds of people, was also appealing. Because of all of that, I thought I would like to be an academic. I knew that being an academic meant hard work for little pay or recognition. I wasn’t afraid of working hard, or long hours, having done so all through my school and undergraduate careers.

I didn’t share these aspirations with anyone, because I wasn’t sure whether I would really be good enough until I got my degree (LLB (Hons), first class). With that came success in the Economic and Social Science Research Council’s doctoral funding competition, which paid for my PhD (a comparative study on sex equality law). Three years later, I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a Head of a Law School whose recruitment strategy was to appoint ‘bright young things’ and bring them on, rather than ‘tried and tested’ old hands who already had posts. So that’s how I became a lecturer.

Being a new lecturer is really hard work. You have to perform, for the most critical of audiences, undergraduate students who are scarcely younger than you are. You know what kind of teaching you enjoyed the most as a student – teaching based on years of scholarship, leading to a deep knowledge and love of a subject; but you also know that that kind of teaching comes with experience – the one thing you don’t yet have!

You know – or you should know, if your department’s mentoring system is any good – that you must develop your research. Not only do you need to read and understand enough to develop and deliver your teaching, you also have to have something new and original to add to your discipline, and to disseminate your ideas, first in conference papers, and then written up as journal articles and eventually books. For a long time, I developed a system whereby I threw myself 100% into teaching during term times, and 100% into research in the ‘vacations’. (I did actually have some real vacation, too!) I was ruthless in not allowing teaching and the desire to prepare teaching (which, if you are not careful, can fill every waking moment) to encroach on what I had earmarked as ‘research time’. Although that was a practical solution, I’ve never separated teaching and research: for me, University education is about the interface between the two.

To begin with, I was pretty poor as both a teacher and a researcher. Oh, I was good enough, and I don’t think my student feedback was any worse than that of any other new lecturer. But I had to develop a thick skin when looking at the feedback forms, and respond only to constructive criticisms, rather than being downcast by negative ones. I also talked with more experienced colleagues about specific teaching problems and how they had approached them: many of my senior colleagues were most generous with their expertise. I had senior colleagues observe my tutorials, seminars and lectures, and I thought about their feedback and ideas on how to improve. Most recently, I have begun exploring ‘inquiry-based learning’, and the notion of empowering students to find and interpret legal materials for themselves, to answer problems, rather than ‘teaching’ them legal rules in more traditional ways.

I cut my writing teeth (as well as doing the PhD) on writing book reviews and case notes, gradually building up to writing longer pieces like journal articles and chapters in books. I asked other people to read my work in progress, and tried to respond to their criticisms. Like everyone, I was sad and angry when submissions of academic articles to journals came back ‘covered in red ink’, with changes required before publication. But I got over it and methodically went through what was being asked for, invariably improving the article in the process. I turned my PhD into a book. Drawing on my teaching materials and interests, I wrote a second book, which was even more painful to produce than the PhD. I applied for external funding to support my research. I started work on a third book, with a co-author this time. I moved to a bigger law department. I went to conferences and workshops, and watched how other people did it (well, and not so well). I was lucky to find a network of other early career scholars who, though spread across the world, are now dear friends as well as colleagues.

Eventually, encouraged by trusted mentors, I applied for a readership in another institution, and then, when my publications profile merited it, was promoted to a chair. I moved to my current position in Sheffield so that I can spend more time with my family and less time commuting to work. I work hard, but enjoy the autonomy I was expecting. I decide what research projects to pursue, and (subject to the teaching timetable) how to arrange my working days and weeks. Sometimes I work at home rather than in the department. I try to ‘pay back’ all the help and advice I had along the way. That’s the most enjoyable part of the job, in many ways, being part of other people’s learning processes.

Above all, I developed skills of reflection. I thought – I still think – a great deal about what I do. What are my assumptions, why am I interested in the research projects that interest me, why should anyone listen, why does it matter? How are students different now than they were 20, or 10, or even 5 years ago, how does information technology change learning, what am I trying to achieve with my classes? How should I best spend my time? That, above all, is what you need to become a professor: hard work, a bit of luck, and a reflective mindset.



3 thoughts on “How I became a professor

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