By Benjamin Geer
I left a successful career as a software developer in London to study Arabic and do a PhD in Middle East Studies. I then had a traditional one-year visiting assistant professor job (in Egypt) and a traditional one-year post-doc (in Singapore), while applying for about 50 academic jobs per year. By then I’d had enough of the academic job hunt, which demanded a great deal of time and effort but offered terrible odds and highly arbitrary results, and my wife and I were tired of moving to a different country every year, especially with a child. I was thinking about going back to software development, but knew I’d have to update my skills, since I hadn’t had a programming job in seven years. My wife then got a job in Germany that gave us a little breathing space, and I taught as an adjunct for a semester while trying to figure out what to do next.
I’d heard of a field called digital humanities, which sounded like it might enable me to use my programming skills while staying in or near an academic environment. It turned out that the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel had an opening for someone with a background both in the humanities and in software development. After a brief exchange of emails, they invited me for an interview and made me an offer immediately, which was certainly a contrast to the typical long, formal academic job application process. I asked for and got a flexible working arrangement: I work in Basel three days a week, and work from home in Germany two days a week. Best of all, one day a week is set aside for my own research. The lab’s current funding situation doesn’t enable them to offer long-term contracts, so I’m on my second short-term contract (my official title is post-doc), but there’s at least a possibility that this will turn into a permanent job.
Having gone through a period of mourning my former ambition to have a traditional academic career, I think my current situation actually seems better. I don’t take my work home with me, and I have more time for research and writing than I did when I was a visiting assistant professor working 12-hour days and weekends to prepare courses. Since I’m under no pressure to publish anything, I can do the research I’m most interested in, rather than the research I think I can publish quickly. So it seems that I actually have more academic autonomy than I would have in a conventional academic career.