Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Catching Up

I've recently come to realise where my anxieties about my career path comes from - my PhD. As readers will know, I work in 'alternative academia' - having held various roles from student welfare, estates, library services, and academic standards. All of which support the endeavors of teaching and research within Higher Education.

I made the choice not to pursue an academic career but wanted to actively work in universities. I entered a fast-track graduate management scheme in university management and worked my way up a few grades in a short period of time. But I was always striving for more, always thinking 5, 10, 15 years down the line and where I wanted to be. Which is completely normal.

What wasn't normal, and was certainly unexpected, would be how I found myself comparing myself to others. I did a four year undergraduate, a one year master, took a year off, and then a 4 year PhD. By the time I was done, my school friends had a 6-7 year career headstart on me. Whereas, had I pursued academia, many of my colleagues would have been starting around the same age as me, now I suddenly felt left behind from my "non-academic" friends and colleagues (yes, I hate that phrase). I saw people the same age as me 2-3 grades above me, earning significantly more than me, with solid career paths and plenty of experience.

I wouldn't change my PhD for the world. It made me who I am, opened doors, and I still remain research active. But I wish someone had told me that it would be hard leaving academia and starting towards the bottom, feeling the rush to catch up and make up for the lost time.

I know that I shouldn't compare myself to others. I know that I am still young and there is plenty of time to develop a career. But there are days when that is hard, when you don't feel valued or opportunities pass you by, when you will wonder about the choices you made. And you will wonder if your potential is being squandered?

I think we need to be open about this when we encourage PhD students to consider careers outside the academy. Yes, these careers can be amazing but there will be challenges transitioning out of academia. As long as we acknowledge the highs and the lows, then we will be setting students up to succeed in whatever career they choose.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Saying no to academia (for the moment)

A little while back I found a job advert for an academic position that looked perfect for me in terms of alignment with my area of research. I was hesitant about applying for a number of reasons:

*Obviously that should read "Is academia worth it". Twitter - where is my edit button!?

But Twitter gave me a boost to believe in myself and I started to polish off my academic CV and get to writing the job application. But in the end, I did not apply.

I have to be honest that I don't know if I made the right decision or not. Some would surely say that I should have just put my hat in the ring, just to test the waters. And yes, that would have meant that I had more up-to-date application material at my disposal. But the reason I did not apply was that this was a teaching-only position, and the more I thought about it, the more I backed away from applying.

I have written here before about my relationship with teaching. I enjoy the rewarding feeling I get at the end of teaching and seeing my students thrive. I know that I am a good teacher based on the feedback I receive. I have massive anxiety in the prep and lead up to teaching. This is my impostor syndrome - the thought that my students will "catch me out". I has never happened before, and I admit when I don't know the answer to something, but I always have the lingering feeling that one day I will be exposed as an academic fraud.

So, my reasons for not applying to a teaching-only role was primarily for my personal wellbeing. I realised that I didn't need that stress or anxiety in my life. The current state of academia with TEF and the stress on student feedback and peer observation would only have worsened that anxiety.

It all brought to light the thing that I enjoy - research. I am happily working away on the second monograph, have a conference proceedings paper about to go to print, and a collaborative article on the horizon. If I were to return to academia, it would be for a more research-focused role with some teaching that I could find more manageable. Interestingly, there is something just like that being advertised which I may just go for! Who knows!

The point of this point was to say that sometimes the "perfect" job may be perfect in terms of the subject matter but not the remit of the role. It was hard for me not to apply and face up to a potential missed opportunity. But I had to put me first and not jump back into academia for the sake of being back. If I go back, it will be on my terms. For now, I have a good job with an excellent work/life balance that affords me positive wellbeing. It also allows me time to keep doing what I enjoy - research and writing. It would have to be a pretty "perfect" opportunity to tempt me back.

Monday, March 5, 2018


A short post today to say that I am tired. I am tired of my role in a university being an afterthought. I am tired of being undervalued. I am tired of academics and admin being pitted against each other. And I am tired of attitudes which render my career path (university management) as dispensable and redundant:

I know that the majority of academics value the work that academic-related staff / professional services do, but all it takes is consistent oversight mixed with one blatant statement of admin's uselessness, to make me question if it is worth it. And when I think about my career, do I want to continue in an environment that will devalue and deride me on a regular basis? Do I want to work in an environment where no one considers how I feel?

The answer may well be no.

I am passionate about education. I want to make HE the best it can be, just not in an academic role at present. But if a minority believe that my career path is meaningless and redundant, maybe I should put my skills and passion towards something that will value me as an equal partner.

I just wonder how many good people will be lost to HE because we didn't value them enough or, if we did value them, never took the time to tell them.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

On Hierarchies

Today has been a tough day. I spent a lot of today trying to remind people that those striking in the UK about university pension cuts weren't just lecturers. Many other university staff were striking, including librarians and professional services. But, if you were following this in the news, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was purely an issue which affected academic staff. Take this from the leader of the Green Party:

Or take the BBC who actually reported that the USS pension scheme was a "lecturers' pension scheme"  (which it is not, because I'm professional services and I am in that scheme).

All of this was emotionally draining. As I've said before, staff who support the work of the university in non-academic roles have been shut out of the conversation and ignored. It got me thinking...if we continue to devalue staff in universities, how long can we expect them to stay?

But what do I mean by devalued or ignored? I have worked in Higher Education administration for over three years now and have some observations (and apologies for some generalisations coming up).

Professional services staff service many committees whose membership is academic staff. This is the norm and is why universities are self-governing. Professional services staff can be called onto advise, but that (expert) advice can be easily ignored and, more often that not, we sit in silence at these meetings. We act as a second tier, destined to record the conversation but not really be part of it.

Administrative staff are easy targets. As we implement policies, processes and changes, we are at the cold face of grumblings and grievances about bureaucracy, paperwork, and obstructionism. We are subject to the same decision making by senior staff, but often people find it difficult to distinguish between the decision makers and the implementers.

Furthermore, when major issues arise, it is always the academic voice that is heard, not that of the rest of us. I recall going to hear the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford speak about the challenges the university was facing and it was all about the need to recruit early career researchers and provide affordable housing for them. No care was given to support staff who struggle to afford to live in the most expensive city in the UK but without whom the university would cease to run effectively.At another event about women's equality, again the whole conversation was couched in terms of getting more women into academic roles. I asked the Vice-Chancellor and the panel why it was that we don't talk about getting women into top professional services roles (such as Registrars) but no one had really considered it.

I am very disheartened today. I feel that today cemented what I have been feeling for a while which is that we are always an afterthought, rarely praised but often scapegoated. This isn't enough to make me leave Higher Education immediately, but I don't think it is sustainable to feel undervalued and not respected. I'm not sure how the system can improve but I worry that the more invisible we become, the more our enthusiasm and passion for Higher Education will wane.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Professional/Support Staff

So, as Twitter followers will know, I have been a little annoyed that professional services staff have been repeatedly ignored in the discussion over the USS pension changes and the subsequent UCU strike to protest this.*

*For non-UK followers, many univeristies are part of a pension scheme called the USS. I am not going into technical details (Google if you are really interested), but the gist is that pensions will be massively slashed as a result of proposed changes.

The problem I have is that all of the reporting (both in the mainstream media and on Twitter) has focused on the impact these changes will have on academic staff and the impact the strike will have on current students when their lecturers go on strike.

Well, I have news for you - many professional services staff are members of the USS pensions and nobody cares about us. I genuinely mean that. I went to an hour-long talk in my university held by the principal and it was only in the 58th minute that someone (rightly) informed the principal and the audience that there were professional staff there, concerned and ignored.

So, I was annoyed. And now I am angry. And hurt.

In this thread I used the term "support" staff in addition to professional services. I hate this term, and I am not the only one. I used it deliberately as it is a phrase so widely used in universities and I wanted to make a point about how "non-academic" staff (another phrase I loath) have been erased from the story about the pensions and the strike.

The phrase "support staff" has lost it's meaning I think. I had viewed it as "supporting teaching and learning", which includes facilitating the work of academics and success of students. Now I think it is viewed as subservient, lesser, there to "serve" academics. Now, obviously, not all people treat it like that and view the admin/academic relationship as collaborative, which is what it should be. However, personal experience has shown that some treat professional services staff as less important and less worthy of an opinion around the table. Our work can be devalued, deemed as obstructionist, bureaucratic, or acting as gatekeepers. At the sharp end, we can be used as glorified personal assistants:

I am utterly unsurprised that no one reports on the plight of professional services in this pensions row. This is because we are the invisible side of the university, holding it altogether. We are only seen when things go wrong. And then get blamed for it.

We need to think about language that emphasises that collaboration, that symbiotic relationship between academia and professional services which delivers teaching and learning together. And, at the end of the day, there needs to be respect for our roles...even if it make not be evident to you why we exist, trust me, you would notice if we weren't there.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The narrowing goalposts of academia

In response to a previous post I wrote about major and minor corrections, I was sent the following screenshot of an advertisement for a 1-year postdoctoral fellowship in the humanities at a UK university:

I decided to investigate this further because I have never seen a stipulation that only those with minor corrections could apply. To put this in context:

  • The proposal application date: March 2018
  • Fellowship start date: October 2018

When discussing this on Twitter, many pointed out that the minor corrections requirement was likely a safeguard to ensure that corrections were complete by the fellowship start date. I agreed, but felt that the wording would put off anyone who got majors but could easily complete within the time frame. For example, it only took me 2-3 months to complete mine.

So, I contacted the university to see what they had to say, and it was interesting:

  • This was the wording of the Economic and Social Research Council
  • One response indicated that if you haven't been awarded your PhD you must have had your viva by 23rd March (proposal date) and be under an outcome which means you will have been confirmed by the start date (October)
Fine, I thought! As long as you could complete your corrections and have them approved within 6 months you could apply. WRONG!
  • Another response indicated another story. This stated that they can accept applicants with minor corrections to complete, but would be concerned about candidates who have had their viva and have major corrections completing these and re-submitting by the deadline of 23rd March 2018.
This ran contrary to what the actual guidelines (and the first response) stated. I responded to clarify the guidelines which state that the viva should be complete by March and the PhD confirmed by October. The last response was brutal as it:
  • confirmed that those with major corrections to make by the full proposal deadline are ineligible.  
Now, again they claim this is the ESRC's wording and I have no reason not to believe them. But what a lot of tosh. Had this been me (and many others who received major corrections), I would easily have made the deadline of full PhD confirmation within 6 months. Let's take a typical 'majors' timescale and add in the ESRCs deadlines:
  • November - Viva
  • December - List of corrections provided / Christmas break
  • March - application deadline (eligible because viva complete but ineligible as corrections not complete)
  • April - Corrections submitted (let's assume 3-4 months work)
  • May/June - Corrections confirmed
  • June/July - PhD confirmed
All this before the October start date. Even if I had added 2 extra months of work (to use the full 6 months for major corrections at my university), I still would have made it in time.

My point here is that the ESRC demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about major corrections and perpetuates a fallacy that major corrections take forever to complete (they often don't). And as a result, many will be excluded from applying. Even more than that, to include such a restriction, regardless of intent, speaks to those who received major corrections and says "you are not good enough, you are not wanted - go away". Which isn't true, but often the impression. This brings me to the final point of this fellowship.

Another stipulation is that, if you already have a PhD you must have been awarded it no more than 12 months before March 2018. So, that is a further restriction, eliminating anyone who struggled to find an academic job 12 months post-PhD. I am all for fellowships and opportunities which target recent graduates and early career researchers, but a 1-year restriction eliminates anyone who experienced any sort of bump in the journey, anyone who doesn't fit the traditional route. Now, I would hope that allowances would be made to those who needed to take time for family, children, caring responsibilities, illnesses, or anything else which is part of life but interrupts it. But unless these things are explicit, the message that adverts like this convey is: "if you are not perfect in our definition of academic perfection, you are not welcome".

We need to make room for every type of person, every type of outcome, and every type of journey. The way we word academic job adverts informs the way we perceive academia. And that perception should be one of inclusion, not exclusion.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My viva

My last blogpost seemed to resonate with many readers. In it, I addressed the fact that major corrections were still a pass, and that it was important to:

  1. Dispel the myth that major corrections equaled a failed viva
  2. Reduce the stigma associated with major corrections
  3. Break the cycle of one-upmanship and the notion that UK/US PhDs had grades.
But that led me to think - did I ever fully describe what happened in my viva? I have discussed this in a podcast for Viva Survivors but never in print. So here it goes.

As brief background, my thesis was about an obscure 12th century medieval courtesy text which had never been translated and had little scholarship associated with it. As such, there were 100+ different approaches which could have been taken but I chose to look at it thematically, pulling out different themes and contextualising them.

My external was my second choice option and had published two key articles on my text. When I entered the viva my internal took the lead in asking questions but the external interjected only to provide negative criticism. Now, no big deal. That is what a viva is for. But what I had hoped for was that the external would be critical of what the thesis was, not what it wasn't. It became increasingly evident to me that the external was disappointed that the thesis was not the study that they would produced on the text. So every question they asked me was phrased as "Why didn't you do this?" or "Why didn't you do that?" It rarely seemed to actually focus on the content of the thesis. Whole chapters (which I thought were the most interesting and innovative) were glossed over. They had no problem with it. They were just uninterested.

It became clear that I was not going to pass with minor corrections, and it was confirmed at the end of the viva that it would be major corrections (in my institution, that constituted anything that would take between 1-6 months to complete). I am grateful that they didn't keep me waiting or make me leave the room, but now that I think about it, it was clear that they had already decided that it was major corrections before I entered the room. I don't think there was anything I could have said or done that would have changed that. However, to be fair to my external, they concluded the viva by saying that the thesis was good but the corrections would make it even better. 

When the list of corrections came through (which thankfully were very clear and well ordered unlike a colleague of mine who received a rambling list of thoughts), my supervisor and I sat down to go through them. We agreed on the substantial corrections that we were willing to address (such as structural rearrangements and an additional section), and also noted those that we disagreed with and felt were unfair and unfeasible. This included a correction to discuss the style of the text in greater depth. Mine was a historical thesis, not a literary one. It was corrections like this which confirmed that the external examiner just wanted the thesis to be something else, something more like what they would have done. We agreed that my error was not being more explicit in my introduction on what my thesis was and was not. 

So, my supervisor duly met up with the internal examiner to find out what happened and discuss next steps. This was incredibly helpful and revealing. The internal admitted that they had taken a rather passive role within the viva and wished they had done more to help me. She discussed what corrections were valid and which one's were beyond the pale, and an action plan was created. It felt so nice to know that the internal was on board and would stand up for me if there was any push back when I handed in the corrections.

I took a methodical approach to the corrections, addressing each one in turn. I had two versions of my thesis - one clean and one with amendments highlighted in red. I also took the list of corrections and annotated their comments with my own, detailing what changes I made and which page(s) they could find them on. I wanted to be 100% sure that there could be no challenge from the examiners.

So by the time that I put in my corrections, I felt confident that I had addressed all their points, explained why I didn't do something they wanted (with the support of the internal), and the corrections went through no problem.

What can be learned from my experience? 
  • Be careful in your choice of external. They shape the viva. 
  • Be explicit in explaining why you are choosing to take a certain approach and not another. 
  • You supervisor is your ally. When things go wrong, they should be your champion and defender. Mine leaped into action and I couldn't be more grateful.
I share this because it is important to remember that difficult vivas exist but people are afraid to talk about them for fear that it is a negative indicator of the quality of their research. It isn't. Vivas are conducted by humans, humans have biases/preferences/etc. Who is to say that my result would have been different with different examiners. The point is that a difficult viva/major corrections has not held me back at all. My thesis is published. I'm working on the next publication. I have two essays published post-viva. I still get conference invites. 

We shouldn't be afraid to speak about our experiences and show that, at the end of the day, all that counts is the thesis as deposited into the library not the earlier version in the hands of the externals.