Am I a Blended Professional or Troublesome Hybrid?

Hybrid roles combining research with administration or management are becoming more common. Health psychologist and impact champion Julie Bayley suggests that balancing the two roles can be a challenge, but potentially offers a creative and engaged third space…
Academia isn't neat. One size does not fit all and, in the current competitive market, there is a need to continually reinvigorate who we are and what we do. Academics are simultaneously privileged in ‘having a voice’ yet pay personal costs through contract precariousness, workload burnout and seemingly endless judgement and assessment.

There are challenges for everyone within the academic ecosystem, but particularly those who don’t fit the standard mould; those whose career trajectories defy alignment to simple pathways. The hybrids. The joint posts. The ‘blended professionals’ that work in both academic and management (or professional services) roles.

The concept of the blended professional suggests a profession that recognises the value of combined and integrated skill sets. Doubtless this does exist in places, but the picture across the country is mixed.
I am one of those hybrids, and for many years have run two lives: one as an academic researcher and the other as an impact research manager (artistic licence applied). In my experience there are three main areas in which sector challenges are magnified for blended professionals.

1. Unclear personal and professional identity

Academia requires us to have a coherent identity, getting increasingly specific as we progress up the chain: from a broad undergraduate subject area through more filtered postgraduate specialisms and towards clear professional (and professorial) profiles.

We continually have to present focused biographies, short titles for conference badges and narrate our expertise in a succinct and punchy way for funding bids, job applications and assessment exercises. But as a blended professional, I cannot neatly package my answer into a short statement.

The more I reduce my answer, the more of me I lose and oftentimes a complete half of me is omitted. I am lucky to benefit from the variety my duality affords. But for many—especially those for whom it is a result of a forced marriage of opportunities rather than an elected coalition—trying to harmonize disconnected professional identities is continually wearisome.

2. A square peg in a round (contract) hole

Identity is not just psychological. With the requirement that all research-active staff on a contract of upwards of 0.2 full-time equivalence are submitted to REF 2021, contract identity is being increasingly used to legitimize or delegitimize the activities people can engage in, for example by shifting a member of staff to teaching only.

There are of course contractual templates for joint posts, and many examples of where such joint posts appear. However, these contracts often reflect dual not combined value. Contract segregation fundamentally undermines the value of blended professionals; imagine refusing to value green because it isn’t neatly blue or yellow. Ultimately, until we have a clearer and valued identity for blended professionals that transcends simplistic categorizations, divisions will persist and opportunities will be lost.

3. More than a whole, but still not enough

Being a blended professional has privileges, and just like the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ it offers promise for making boundaries more permeable. Yet in practice straying beyond neat expectations of a well-understood role can yield personal costs.

Ultimately blended professionals have twice the burden of professional maintenance, so even posts which nominally add up to 100 per cent require much more in terms of updating knowledge, maintaining networks and broader continuing professional development for both sides.

Perhaps a more fundamental identity challenge for blended professionals is never feeling you are ‘enough of either’ side, or even imposter syndrome. Ultimately you’re always going to come up short if compared with someone who’s a ‘full’ version.

This burden extends to progression, as in effect you are pursuing two careers while: potentially not demonstrating quite enough academic prowess; not appearing to be managerial enough; and articulating only the relevant part for each progressive path.

This is compounded if the institution doesn’t support hybrid posts (and thus penalizes individuals for not fully ‘committing’ to one pathway) or overvalues blunt metrics as markers of ability.

Changing the game

In higher education we’re still transitioning towards recognizing the value of blended, not just complementary, roles. Many people are struggling with a sense of not fitting. We need to shift away from the cognitive economy of seeing the distinctions and instead recognize the value of the mix.

So why maintain my hybridity if there’s such a toll? It would doubtless be neater and easier to pick one path. But that’s my point. Neater and easier doesn’t offer that fascinating third space in which new things become possible. We hybrids are probably annoyingly square-peg-like, but instead of finding ways we can fit circular holes, perhaps we need to change the shape of the game.

This blog first appeared on Research Professional and is posted here with its permission. Find out more here

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