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!

Image result for farewell

Friday, May 19, 2017


I set this blog up two years ago in reaction to my PhD viva and corrections, and it has followed my into two alternative-academic jobs, and the trials and tribulations of trying to maintain my academic identity while pursuing a career in the public sector and Higher Education.

And today the blog has breached 100,000 views and I could not be more proud and humbled. Thank you so much to all the readers.

I know that the blog started as a bit of a whinge and a moan about my viva and delays I experienced afterwards, but I hope that my posts about my alternative paths post-viva have been illuminating, helpful, and less-whiny!!

The success of the blog rests on the wonderful folk on Twitter who are often my academic lifeline. Don't stop being awesome!

Thanks again,

Monday, May 15, 2017

Conference Fees and Access

My previous post talked about the academia / admin divide, and how there can be a lack of understanding and respect in both directions. That post was timely, as I subsequently got involved in a Twitter conversation whereby a Cambridge history professor queried the value of professional services staff attending externally organised CPD events which cost in the region of £195.

Now, I am not going to talk here about how rude and demeaning it is to:

a) target more junior staff on Twitter
b) devalue the work of administration and professional services

I've been there and done that.

But the issue I had was the assumption from this professor that they would never pay upwards of £195 for a one-day academic conference. In my more limited academic experience, I could think of numerous cases of where I have seen/paid high costs for academic conferences. So I took to trusty Twitter to find out more.

I asked Twitter users what was the highest amount they had paid to attend one-day of an academic conference:

The results showed that the majority (31%) paid between £50-100, which is good! But the fact that 41% had paid over £100 for one-day registration was worrying. In conversation, it became clear that some multi-day conferences dis-incentivised one-day attendees with high costs that were barely different from costs to attend the full conference. I will come back to why that is problematic.

I then asked Twitter what was the highest fee they had seen advertised to attend a conference for one-day:
The results showed that 44% saw fees over £150, while 34% have seen fees over £200/£300. That is worrying. It assumes a culture in academia where they assume attendees have access to such funds through bursaries and grants. It fails to account for the large number of academics without an academic affiliation who have to pay those costs themselves. And for those academics with non-academic jobs, it is often only possible to attend a multi-day conference for just one day. Annual leave is such that often one can only sacrifice one day for a conference. So, high fees to attend for one-day actively excludes those who work outside of the academy or whose access to bursaries/grants are limited.

Luckily, there are some conferences which offer bursaries/discounts to PhD students and often include in that category people without institutional affiliation. But there are not enough of those.

And to that professor who believed that no one would charge or pay £195 for a one-day academic conference, the evidence suggests that it does happen. But it may be that once you reach a privileges position of seniority in an academic career that one doesn't have to pay those fees, they simply get waived. Or, you don't feel the pressure that young ECRs feel to attend conferences to network, develop ideas, work towards publications, etc. The landscape of academic careers has changed and high registration fees excludes those who need them the most while privileging those already in the system.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Academic / Admin Divide

I have written many times in this blog about the perceptions of administration, whether right or wrong, by academics. I should caveat here by saying that it is a minority who see university administration as the villains, the bureaucrats, the overpaid. An interesting conversation has raised a number of critical points:
  1. There are some who conflate high Vice-Chancellor / President / Provost salaries with "administration" which therefore ignores the fact that the majority of administrative staff are on lower grades with a much more modest salary than you might expect.

  2. Those admin staff on lower grades are proliferated by women who often find it difficult to move up or see paths to career progression and management roles.

  3. Those admin staff on lower grades are easily ignored - for example, conversations about high living costs are often couched in terms of enticing high-quality researchers to a university in an expensive area (Oxford/Cambridge/London) which completely ignores the fact that admin and support staff face the same high costs and attendant challenges.

You can read more over on my Twitter @FionaEWhelan.

Now, I have been lucky enough to be on both sides of the fence - an academic research and now in alternative academia, aka university administration. And my roles in admin have been varied, working across 4 different sections and working with a number of others. So, as a flavour of what administrative, clerical, support staff do for teaching and research in Higher Ed, I would like you to imagine that you are a lecturer or tutor and think about the following questions. Could you do your job if these roles were reduced, disappeared, or subsumed into your role?

  1. A newspaper calls you unexpectedly about a story that is about to blow up in relation to your work. They want a comment. Do you feel equipped to respond to this? The Press Office in universities is designed to both promote your work but also to support you should adverse media scrutiny strike.
  2. One of your students is distressed and needs support. Luckily your university has a Counselling Service and welfare support you can signpost them to.
  3. Your research grant for a major project just got approved and now you need to start hiring postdocs, PhDs, and project admin team. HR can help to create the job descriptions, advertise the jobs, and ensure that everything is compliant with legislation,
  4. That amazing postdoc and PhD student you want to hire from overseas. They are likely going to require a visa. Do you feel you have adequate knowledge to advise on both staff and student immigration issues? Handily, most universities have specialists who can advise.
  5. That new building you need to expand but need funds for. The Development Office can help to raise funds while Estates Services can work on planning and project management.
I could go on: student registry, admissions, outreach, examinations, graduation, alumni relations, strategic planning, payroll, library services, careers services, IT services, research services, data analysis, governance, legal services, and so much more.

Administration can often be perceived at a departmental level as that is where it is most visible, but it is so vital to take stock of the work that goes on behind the scenes. And while some of it may seem superfluous, redundant, or excessive to you, try to imagine what would happen if those roles/departments did not exist. And before you dismiss such roles out of hand as "university bureaucracy gone mad", remember that:

  1. These roles exist for a reason. You may not know/care what that reason is, but there is a reason.
  2. People's livelihoods depend on these roles.
  3. When you dismiss those roles you belittle the people who fill them.
  4. Those who work in admin are likely to be just as passionate about teaching/learning/HE as you.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

From thesis to book

When I see advice sought or given about getting your thesis published, it is all too often couched in terms of 'If you want an academic job, you really need to have a monograph' (in the Humanities at least). Here, I don't want to go into whether that is right or fair, but rather highlight that this attitude implies that pursuing academic publications is really only reserved for those with an academic job or actively looking for one.
As someone who currently doesn't want an academic career, but definitely wanted to get my thesis published, it felt at times that what I was trying to do was a vanity project. And there weren't many others talking openly about some of the difficulties of publishing as ostensibly a non-academic (in the sense that I have a non-academic full-time job).
So, what I'll do here is a brief run-through of my experience of the publication process I went through, and how it may have been different for me as someone without institutional affiliation.
The process (dates are rough cause my memory is hazy):
  • April/May 2015: Submitted a proposal to a publisher recommended by my supervisor.
  • July 2015: Following positive noises from the publisher, submitted a full draft of the manuscript which was then put out for peer review.
  • Sep/Oct 2015: Reviews came back. One was more receptive to the project with minor alterations, while the other wanted something different. I followed the former recommendations and submitted a revised proposal in light of those comments
  • Jan 2016: Accepted for publication, contracts signed, and deadline set for delivery of manuscript.
  • May 2016: Submitted final draft.
  • Aug/Sep 2016: Manuscript proofed.
  • Jan 2017: Manuscript published.
Now, this timeline was elongated due to the fact that the publishing house I initially submitted to was taken over my a larger publisher which did delay the process. 

My experience of trying to do this in conjunction with a full-time non-academic job had some limitations:
  • I didn't have a community around me who I could immediately turn to for advice and support. As such, it was a rather isolating experiencing.
  • Evenings and weekends were often sacrificed, and friends and family roped in to help. There was no way that I could embed this into my day job, although I acknowledge that the current state of academia and academic jobs means that even academics may not have the time either.
  • Access to funds to cover costs such as image rights and indexing are harder to come by (although I am grateful to the IHR Scouloudi Fund to help cover image costs). I had the option to have the publisher provide an indexer but costs would have come from my royalties (which would be pittance) so I did the index myself.
  • Writing your author bio is tricky as you can't say 'Fiona Whelan is a lecturer/researcher at the University of X'. 
However, a lack of academic affiliation is NOT a deterrent to publishers. I did fear than emailing from a Gmail account or my admin work account would be a detriment to my proposal being taken as seriously as someone with an academic position. That fear was completely unfounded and I felt that I was treated with respect and courtesy throughout the whole process.

If anyone has any questions/comments, please do leave a comment below.

And if you want to see the final product, here is a link to my first academic book!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ethics and Sharing

A while ago there was justiciable backlash against an annual feature of the Times Higher Education called Exam Howlers, a 'competition' designed to encourage teaching professionals in Higher Education to submit some of the worst/funniest mistakes students made in their exams. Now, fans of this feature would claim that it is harmless fun which allows academics to let off some steam. The submissions are anonymous so the students shouldn't care. Critics of the feature (like me) would argue that it is exploitative, humiliating, degrading, mocking and anonymity is not protected because a student could easily identify themselves in the examples. And it is not just Exam Howlers - we have to acknowledge that social media has made it easier for people to share anecdotes about their teaching experiences and, as a result, use students as fodder for laughs.

Now, I have taught students and I have definitely let off steam in conversation with fellow tutors. However, I would never post anything on social media that mocked a student's work. That is right and decent and just good practice. Surely, then, it should be the same in the world of work?

I raise the example of job interviews because the scenarios are just the same - you have those in a position of power and authority (the examiners/lecturers/interviewers) and those in a more vulnerable position potentially riddled with anxiety and nerves (the student/candidate). The same ethics apply, those of confidentiality, of being respectful, of not using a 'hilarious' exam answer or interview answer as fodder for social media clicks and likes.
So, imagine my surprise when I saw this pop up on my LinkedIn news feed:


Best, worst, or most surreal interview answer ever.

I've interviewed many people in the past but one answer stands out above all. Context: Interview was going rather well for a social media manager role, the interviewee was slightly nervous but had given solid answers to most of the capability questions and then hit me with this doozy whilst discussing personal development and self awareness.

Q: What is your biggest weakness?
A: Fried chicken.

There was no pause and he answered automatically. What has been the strangest response you've had in interviews?

Now, I suspect that this is not a case of mocking the individual's answer, but rather about the challenges of answering stock, overused interview questions. Nevertheless, if I had been that candidate and checked into LinkedIn to see that my interview experience was being splashed all over social media, I would be understandably angry, annoyed, and frankly a little upset.

Of course, this individual may not care or may have given consent for this to shared (although I doubt the latter). Surely, what happens within the confines of an interview should stay there.

It is sad to see instances of people using exam answers or job interview responses as a means of garnering more visibility. We sadly live in an age where self-promotion on social media trumps decency and respect, and those more vulnerable become the victims of those who ought to know better.