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.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Announcing you passed your viva

Anyone who has completed a PhD knows the excitement and relief when you get to announce that you have passed your viva. It is the culmination of many years work and is absolutely something to be celebrated and shouted from the rooftop.

However, there is a trend now to qualify that announcement. No longer is it sufficient to pass your viva, some people now feel the need to add "passed with minor corrections", or "passed with no corrections". One tweet I saw, boasted of only having spelling corrections. Another boasted that they had 11 corrections which only took 1 hour to complete.

This post follows a recent Twitter conversation on this subject:
I have noticed this trend more and more, and the worrying thing that it conveys is that a pass is no longer good enough. No, we all must pass first go with no corrections. There is a real one-upmanship going on here, when in actual fact the degree is the same at the end of the day regardless of the route there. The achievement and effort is the same. The intellectual content is the same standard.

It was put to me that this phenomenon was maybe not that prevalent so I did a mini-experiment. I searched "passed" and "viva" on Twitter and did a very rudimentary analysis of posts relating to people passing their vivas. I only went back to December 22, 2017 because I underestimated the number of people passing vivas (plus, I have a day job!)! These were the results:
  • 52 posts had no qualifiers, only "I passed my viva!".
  • 22 posts did have qualifies, including "no corrections"(7), "minor corrections"(13), and "typographical corrections"(1).

Now, that is 30% who qualify their announcements. And that is data that only goes back 25 days. I would also argue that the percentage is actually higher because in reality I should filter out US PhD vivas which are more confirmations that the UK-type of viva where the outcome really is unknown until the very end.

Nevertheless - 30% may not seem like much, but to those who experienced more substantial revisions to theses, it can be a real kick in the teeth. And while I fully acknowledge no intended superiority from people who qualify their announcements, it comes across as putting down those who had more difficult viva experiences for myriad reasons (which may not always be about the academic quality - that's for another post).

Please do not think that I am not advocating for people to stop announcing their viva success. Please, make a song and dance of your achievement - it is massive! But don't feel the need to qualify it publicly. Sure - be proud of your minor corrections. But spare a thought for your colleague who maybe needs to do another 3-6 months work on it (or even more).

Think of it the same as any other announcement. We wouldn't say "I got the job (after only 1 interview!), or "I landed a postdoc (on my first attempt)". Sensitivity and kindness is needed in academia and how we celebrate our successes dictates how others feel about their own successes and challenges. And we all know how tough the current landscape is for ECRs so solidarity and support is key.

And if you did pass your viva recently - CONGRATULATIONS!!!!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018

I am pleased to say that for the past two weeks over Christmas and the New Year I managed to completely switch off. I barely checked my email and social media, and did a little bit of academic writing (mostly because I was switched off then my mind felt less busy and more focused - but I only did a half days work!).

It is only now that I can think about 2017 in retrospect and look forward to 2018. 2017 was a year of change and adventure for me. I achieved my dream of travelling to Japan and it has spurred me to plan more adventures in the future (and a return trip to Japan - it is magical). Professionally, I took the plunge to leave Oxford, my academic and professional home of 7 years, to move to London to be with loved ones and friends. While I do think I need to be more considered in my career choices, I am so grateful that I quickly found a well-paid permanent position in professional services at a great university. Academically, things kept ticking along nicely. My thesis was finally published by Routledge in January and, while I'll never make any money off of it, it was lovely to see it in print and sitting on my parents bookshelf! I also finished the final draft of an essay contribution to the Harlaxton Symposium Proceedings.

That's not to say that everything has been great. The move to London meant saying goodbye to amazing colleagues and also the realisation that making connections gets harder as a) I get older and b) live in a massive city. After a conference where I felt dismissed and unimportant as an unaffiliated researcher, I made the decision not to bother with that for a while. It wasn't good for my mental wellbeing to force myself into situations where I didn't feel comfortable. That may change in the future as I keep researching, but right now I'm done with conferencing. Finally, on a personal level, my sister was badly injured in a road traffic accident. While she is doing very well now, it brought home the importance and fragility of family, a wave of homesickness I've not experienced in a while, and a desire to try to return to Ireland in the future. 

But to the positives and looking forward. I'm not one for resolutions as I rarely keep them so I am making a list of academic, professional, and personal goals for 2018. It doesn't matter if I reach all of them - the important thing is the attempt.

  1. To publish the translation of Urbanus magnus by Daniel of Beccles, again with Routledge. This should go into print this year, I just have to get through the final push to get the manuscript complete.
  2. To work on a collaborative article on health in courtesy literature with a contact I met at a conference. 
  3. To think more strategically about my professional career and work with an HR specialist to hone down my professional priorities.
  4. To undertake more Career Professional Development opportunities to develop myself further.
  5. To travel more!
  6. To be able to run a 10k by May (if you know me, you'll know this is a big challenge)
  7. To be more sustainable and environmentally conscious (Blue Planet 2 destroyed me)
  8. To try to foster more links with people, to reach out, and be more sociable.
  9. To make the most of London - I don't know how long I will live here for so I cannot let this opportunity go to waste.
  10. To not feel obliged to say YES to every opportunity that presents, but also to learn to speak up and say NO when something doesn't feel right.
Let's see how that goes. What I like is that 50% of my goals have nothing to do with work or research! Getting the balance right is so important. 

For now, Happy New Year and I hope 2018 can be a brighter year than 2017.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'Admin' Bad Days/Good Days

As readers know, I wear two hats - my professional services hat during the day and my academic hat in my spare time. I am proud of my achievements in both areas, but that does not mean that I don't experience difficult days or tensions managing both identities. While I am anxious that this blog highlights professional services within universities as a rewarding and important career for recent PhD graduates, I also don't want to give the illusion that everything is easy.

I have written previously (here and here) about the divide that can exist between academic and administrative staff. (Please note, I refute the term "non-academic" staff and think it is wholly inappropriate to describe vital members of staff in the negative, describing them by what they are not). In institutions where decision making is academic led, finding one's voice as professional services can be a challenge. Feeling like you are on the outside looking in is another common feeling that I have. What is difficult is knowing that you are an academic too, but that it is separate from your 9-5 job. When criticisms of 'admin' are leveled at you, it is hard not to want to stand up and say 'but I'm just like you! I have a PhD, I have teaching experience, I have publications too!'

Now, I have had some incredibility rewarding experiences and good days in my short time in professional services. I have supported students in crisis, I have worked on an institutional strategy for sexual harassment, I have written policies and guidance on mental health and responding to student tragedies, I have kick-started user experience initiatives in library services, and more. I am incredibly lucky to have worked with amazing colleagues (both academic and professional) in a variety of different roles.

The bad days comes when you are perceived to be a gatekeeper or someone who gets in the way. And it is difficult when you get lumped in with all 'admin' and have to listen to complaints in areas outside of your control. Yes, I am sorry you are having HR issues or IT issues, but that has nothing to do with me! It is also difficult when in meetings you often don't have a voice, or feel you have a diminished voice, due to the nature of the committee meeting you are in. It is fascinating to be among the conversation but there are times when you have to acknowledge that you are not part of it, you are not making those decisions (but rather facilitating them).

However, the hardest thing for me is when you come too close to your own discipline. If you were an English PhD graduate acting as a secretary to a meeting reviewing an English faculty you may find that an interesting prospect. I found the opposite. Knowing so much about your field and not being able to participate is difficult. Feeling like you are judged as the bureaucratic 'admin' gatekeeper by your colleagues and peers who have no idea that you have the same teaching and research profile as them, that you go home and continue working on your next publication which they may well use in their courses. You do have to prepare for that feeling of being an outsider. 

I think this experience would be different for professional services staff embedded in schools/faculties rather than in central services. Why would anyone who met me for the first time know about my academic profile? What is important is to try to separate the two identities and to be clear which hat you are wearing when.

But if I could make a plea to academics. Please let us professional services types at least sit down before you tell us how awful we are. And please remember that we are not to blame for the ills of all admin. Nor are we the ones making the decisions that annoy you; rather, we just have to implement them. Those decisions are made at a senior level populated by senior academics in the university governance structure. The irony is that academics' perceptions of admin suffers precisely because we implement (sometimes unpopular) decisions but those decisions are being made by academics.

I think my takeaway here is just a reminder to all to be kind. Treat everyone respect and don't assume that because someone is 'admin' that they are any less accomplished or valuable than someone else.