Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Freshers Advice

Dear Readers,

Please indulge me for a moment as I descend into a little nostalgia and consider the fact that I have been a Fresher three times in my life. I don't claim to have sage wisdom to impart, but perhaps some nuggets of personal experience will be of use to someone out there. 

  • Try a few different things. I definitely regret not joining a society or club to be a little more rounded.
  • The friends that you make in your first week may end up being your best friend for life. But equally, they might not. I had a close group of three in my first year. One is still my best friend 13 years on, one left the university, and the other I fell out with. It's ok for your friendship group to change along the way, because you will change too.
  • The career you thought you wanted at the beginning may not be the one you want at the end. Or it might be harder than you thought. I wanted to be a museum curator. That didn't happen!
  • It's ok to live at home. But you do need to make more of an effort to be social.
  • One professor can make all the difference. If you find one that clicks, stick with them. They can change your life. Mine did.

  • This is an intense year - the people in your course will be your circle and those bonds can last a long time. Mine certainly have.
  • Be a Fresher! I avoided the Fresher's week because I thought I had already done it all. But a new institution means new opportunities.
  • Masters courses can be very international. Expect that the people who become your friends will likely return home which can be emotionally tough.

  • Again - Be A Fresher! You'll have 3-4 years (in the UK at least) to develop an interest in something aside from academics (which is really important).
  • Your cohort will be with you for the long run and they will be your lifeline when things get tough.
  • You may also make friends with Masters students. Be prepared for them to leave and the emotional toil that new cohorts will have as new people come and go from your life.
  • Again, the career you thought you wanted at the beginning may not be the one you want at the end. Or it might be harder than you thought. Academia is tough and saturated.

I'm not going to talk about academic advice. Too boring! This is Fresher's Week after all and things are meant to be fun. But with my professional experience hat on (as both a tutor and working in student welfare) I have one more nugget to impart:

  • If you are finding things tough, please talk to someone. Be that a peer supporter, counselor, tutor, whoever...let someone know. They will help. New transitions can be tough. Finding it overwhelming is normal but when things become too much it is so important to speak up. Please know that you are not alone.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Viva Anniversary

So Facebook has kindly reminded me that my doctoral viva took place on this day, three years ago. My viva experience and subsequent corrections were the impetus for this blog so what I would like to do is pull together a list of some of the posts I wrote inspired by my viva. Long time readers will know that I started writing this blog from a point of frustration but I slowly have mellowed and come to appreciate me corrections. So, here we go:

The Doctorate In-Hand: My first post where I discuss how long it takes for a doctorate to be formally confirmed, especially with corrections, and how non-academic employers may not understand that.

The Viva Outcome: Where I try to grapple with the implications of the different types of outcomes from a viva, from minor to major corrections to refer and resubmit.

Major Corrections: This was my most popular post. I think it resonated with readers because I was open about receiving major corrections (when there is still a taboo over it), and I had reached a point where I was beginning to see the light. I could see that the corrections were making it a better and more publishable thesis in the long run.

Preparing for the Viva: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Here I provide some advice based on my personal experience but obviously everyone's experience will be different!

Limbo: There was a point after I submitted my corrections that I experience some frustrating, out-of-my control, delays so I created a minion PhD journey - seriously, no judgement please.

The Waiting Game: As above, my frustration and stress levels were high and I was becoming a bit ranty about the delays I experienced. However, I did try to make the point that universities have clear guidance to examiners about responding to students before the viva, yet there are no such guidelines or rules for after the viva.

Academic Destiny: At this point, I think I was losing the will or the plot! I found it incredibly frustrating waiting to hear about my corrections and was despairing over how just 1-2 people can hold such sway and power over your future.

Big News: As you can guess, this was the short post to confirm that the whole process after the viva was done and I was finally awarded the doctorate.

As I think back, I realise how far I have come. After that viva I felt an impostor: small, stupid, and incapable. As I grappled and overcame that setback, I became more confident and more trusting in my academic abilities. That amended thesis has produced my first monograph, an article, book chapter, conference proceedings chapter, and my forthcoming new collaborative monograph. I would like to thank my examiners because, even if I disagreed with some points, by and large you helped to steer it into something that has continued to give me so much academically.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Attacking HE and Elitism most of us will be aware that a certain someone has been tweeting a lot this summer about Higher Education in the UK.

I have mostly steered clear of engaging with him. Not because I wholesale disagree with him, but because of the manner with with he is attacking universities. If someone disagrees with him, the answer is to block rather than engage.

But his latest tweet made me angry:

This is an incredibly telling tweet as the quotations marks around universities clearly reveals a snobbery and elitism reserved to those who think that Oxbridge is the only worthwhile education (or maybe he would stretch to Russell Group universities). Clearly, in his mind. post-92s are not real universities.

Now, I'll put my hands up and say that I got my Master's from UCL and my doctorate from Oxford. However, coming from Ireland, I have to admit ignorance over the class barriers towards entry to elite universities in the UK. Once I started, however, it became all too apparent.

We all know amazing universities, pre- and post-1992, that have outstanding teaching and research. His denigration of modern universities, and exaltation of ancient ones, will only serve to deter more students from trying to get into Oxbridge while at the same time making those who love and thrive in their post-92 university feel bad about their institutions or even themselves. 

I did not do my undergraduate in the UK, but I have seen this binary play out in a graduate context. I have frequently heard from colleagues at post-92s (on excellent programmes with fully funded scholarships) who say they are dismissed at conferences in favour of the opinions of someone from an ancient university. 

Andrew Adonis fuels this further by legitimising the harmful belief that there are "real" universities (for which he really just means Oxbridge and other ancient universities) and "fake" universities, aka the rabble of Higher Education. 

What an elitist, pompous, snob he is! 

Whatever his agenda is, (and I am not saying that HE is without failings and room for improvement), he is at risk of seriously damaging future students' perceptions of universities in this country. 

I now await the inevitable Adonis block.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Motivation and Falling Behind

So, as you know from my previous few posts, I have left Oxford and moved to London for a new job in professional services at Queen Mary, University of London. The tumult of starting a new job and moving home has meant that I have inevitably let things slide.

I have been off the academic wagon (as it were) for too long and it is time to to hop back on.

Now that I finally have internet in my new place, I can finally feel set up to get back to my academic research. I am the sort of person for whom a deadline is always needed to push me into action but unfortunately I have cut things a little close this time.

This year focuses on two academic publications:

  1. Turning a conference paper I presented at the Harlaxton Symposium in 2016 in an proceedings paper for their forthcoming publication. The deadline is....TODAY! While I wrote the paper sometime ago, I hadn't fully incorporated all the review comments. It is fiddly but I am almost there.
  2. A collaborative publication of the translation of Urbanus magnus/Liber urbani by Daniel of Beccles.* This is due to the publisher in January, and while we are not too far behind, there is still a lot to do!
(*For those unaware, this is a 12th century medieval Latin text on courtesy, manners, household management, diet, etc., which formed the basis of my doctoral research).

These deadlines help to spur me on and keep me focused, but I am guilty of letting things slide. One of the challenges of doing your academic work outside of your 9-5 is motivation. Some evenings the TV, the Nintendo Switch, the cinema, a glass of wine or two with friends.....all seem more inviting than staying in and doing more work. 

So, why do it?

Well, first and foremost it is because I love my subject and want to share it more widely. But pragmatically, continuing to maintain an academic identity keeps the door open in the future for academic roles. While I have ruled it out for the moment, my day job is taking me closer to teaching and learning and in the future there may be a role that allows for further blending of my academic and administrative personas.

Does anyone else have projects/interests that they try to maintain in addition to the day job? If so, how do you staying motivated? Please share below!

Friday, August 25, 2017


Apologies for the radio silence!

Things have been a little bit hectic over the past few weeks as I have:

  • Left my role at the University of Oxford
  • Moved to London
  • Started a new role at Queen Mary, University of London.
Actually, I did this in an incredibly short period of time, considering I left my Oxford role on a Thursday, packed on a Friday, moved on a Saturday, and started a new job on the Monday. Yes, I am just that crazy.

But frankly, I am not the type of person who likes gaps between employment. Not for any CV reasons, but because I find it keeps me in the work mindset. Had I taken a vacation in between roles I would have spent a significant amount of time worrying about starting anew.

No, when I take my annual leave, I know I can switch off 100%.

I will update more as I settle into the new role. But I can say that I work in Academic Standards and Quality, working towards course monitoring, course creation, and loads of other nitty gritty bits of administering taught programmes for undergraduates and postgraduates. It is a shift away from student welfare and I will discuss my reasons for that later.

But, for now, I want to say a big thank you to my colleagues back in Oxford who made my time there so memorable. I can, hand-to-heart, say that staff who work in student welfare have some of the most difficult work but they undertake it with patience, compassion, kindness, and warmth.

I am not going to wade into the devaluing of professional services staff rampant over the past couple of weeks (see recent Spectator and Guardian articles on the useless, wasteful, "empty" administration"). I found it too mean, degrading, and ignorant to waste my breath trying to stand up against it. Those types of people will never want to hear about the value of admin.

All I can say is that my colleagues in the past have exemplified the value and worth of professional services. And I have no doubt that I will feel the same in my new institution. 

Oh, and one thing - do not call someone professional services "non-academic". Why title someone by what they are not?! RUDE, RUDE, RUDE.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Alternative academic job hunting

As you will know from yesterday's post, I will be moving for a new job in London shortly. A lot has been written about academic job hunting, and in particular poor practice in terms of communication with candidates. Many on Twitter have experienced "ghosting" in the application process for academic jobs - if you don't get shortlisted, you never receive an email informing you that you were unsuccessful. Or worse, you receive a letter 4-5 months after the fact informing you that you didn't make it to interview (big shock!). The worst is ghosting after job interviews.

And much of the critique comes from the fact that it is very simple to embed automatic processes into the application process which ensures that emails are automatically sent to candidates. Much is made of the need to professionalise that academic job application process.

So, what was it like job-searching for non-academic roles within universities (or related bodies) in what we call professional services? Surely, the process would be more-professional?

Sadly not.

I won't say how many jobs I applied to, but suffice to say that at least 4 failed to acknowledge receipt of my application. A number of others took an inordinate amount of time to tell me I wasn't shortlisted. The best were the ones with a system where you could track your application process, and received immediate confirmation of receipt of your application. But even some top London universities failed with such a system in place, never informing me about my rejection.

So, it seems to me that there is an issue more generally in universities around job applications, for all staff. It is about courtesy and the impression that you give to your candidates. Yes, you may not want to hire them for that particular role, but don't put them off from applying in the future by leaving a bad taste in their mouth.  

The sad fact is that for academic positions, universities frequently have the luxury to behave in this manner because demand will always massively exceed supply. If University X ghosted you before, but another position came up, beggars cannot always be choosers (apologies for the phrasing, but the academic job market often seems to an exercise in pleading for opportunities). For professional roles, demand still outstrips supply but not to the same degree and in the future I may have the luxury of being more selective in where I want to work.

When it comes to job applications, first impressions count. And that applies as much to the candidate as to the institution.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

New Beginnings

So, some of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I announced that I am leaving Oxford for a new job at Queen Mary, University of London.

Making the decision to leave the place I have called home for almost 7 years is hard to do, but ultimately it feels like the right choice, both personally and professionally.

I am immensely grateful for all that Oxford has given me:
  • An academic community which has supported me through my DPhil, provided teaching opportunities, and helped with my post-PhD publications.
  • A chance to experience a wide-range of alternative-academic career paths through a Graduate Management Trainee scheme and my subsequent role in student welfare.
  • Wonderful colleagues and inspiring leaders who have encouraged and pushed me to believe in my abilities and pursue my ambitions.
  • Lifelong friends who are an integral part of my life and support structure
But mostly, Oxford has given me the confidence in myself. Both in terms of believing in my academic ability and continuing to pursue that, but also validating that many people with PhD thrive and are valued in professional services within universities.

London is calling and a new challenge awaits.

But for now I want to give thanks to my supervisor, students, friends, managers, mentors, and colleagues. This isn't goodbye, but see you later.

And for London-folk, please do get in touch and say hello!

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