Monday, August 13, 2018

Publishing outside of academia

I wrote before about passing deadlines. Even if I had a full-time academic position, I think it is natural for some deadlines to be pushed for a variety of reasons. When you work outside of academia and you have to write in addition to your day job, it is even more difficult to meet deadlines.

I wrote before (here) about asking for an extension to my second monograph with Routledge. Initially that was to extend my a month to January, then it became May, and now it is August and it is finally submitted.

Now, some of the delays were out of my hands as this was a collaborative project, transnational, and not done face-to-face. Nevertheless, the delays were substantial but ultimately necessary. Had we rushed it, then it would have suffered. We would have suffered too, with the pressures and sacrifices we would have to make to do it in addition to our day jobs and studies.

I am so proud to have it done. To have sent the manuscript for my second publication while juggling everything else in my life. I will never pretend that it is easy. It is not. And it comes with massive impostor syndrome as I know there are scholars out there ready to critique the translation (although they don't care enough to actually translate it themselves - can't have it both ways!). I am so grateful to the hard work of my collaborators and the patience from my editors at Routledge.

I don't know if I will go for a third monograph or not. While I have bits and pieces of academic projects to pick up, I can't see much value in my continuing to put the effort in when I don't want to return to academia. At this point, I am thinking about turning my hand to more public history, to write books and articles that are more accessible and not just for the academic environment (and the libraries who are the only ones who can afford to buy these academic books!). If you have any tips on seguing into more accessible publications, please do let me know.

In the meantime, look out for The Book of the Civilised Man: An English Translation of Urbanus Magnus by Daniel of Beccles, coming in 2019.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Being an academic on the outside

So, I had not realised that a new academic volume was already out that contained a new essay from me. It was by chance that I googled it to see that it was already on Amazon that I realised people were buying it. People had already bought it at the recent International Medieval Congress! And all the while, I am waiting for my copy to arrive in the post!

The volume is called The Elite Household in England, 1100-1500. Proceedings of the 2016 Harlaxton Symposium, and my essay is entitled: 'Administering the Household, 1180-1250 - from Daniel of Beccles to Robert Grosseteste'. You can see more here

This is particularly pleasing for me as the publication process can take so long that it takes time to see a project to fruition. This is even more true for me at the moment as I am in the final throes of completing my manuscript for my second book! I have written before about the challenges of pursuing academic research outside of the academy. It takes dedication, sacrifice (both of your personal time and time with loved ones), and pretty robust motivational skills to keep at it when you are tired from your 9-5 job.

Just thinking about motivation for a moment, I do sometimes ask myself why am I doing this. Why, if I don't want an academic job, am I putting all this time and effort into academic publishing? Perhaps there is a subconscious side of me that wants to keep that door ajar just in case I change my mind. But I doubt it. Rather, I think that I just haven't finished with my PhD yet! By that I mean, there is so much more output from my PhD research than fit in the thesis. My PhD proposal was the product of an Master's essay where I hit on a topic which didn't fit 2,500. So I did a PhD on it and tried to fit it into 100,000 words. And it still didn't fit! So I guess I want to continue to work on and increase the scholarship and visibility of it. 

But I won't sugar-coat it and say that it is easy. It's not. My Harlaxton essay was the product of networking, relationship-building, and kind colleagues who could point me to resources. I was invited to Harlaxton to present and as I was no longer a student and had no academic position, I had little means to cover the costs of travelling and attending the conference. Luckily I was signposted to and then awarded a scholarship which was open to both PhDs and researchers who worked outside of academia - incredibly invaluable for people in my situation. From that conference, I may have a second collaborative article in the pipeline.

Impostor-syndrome is something that people discuss a lot in academia, and it is an issue that academics who work outside the traditional bounds of academia face. Raised eyebrows when you say you don't have a postdoc or lectureship. Even higher raised eyebrows when you say you work in administration. The label 'independent scholar' is wrongly tabooed. You are constantly made to feel like a second class of academic where opportunities are not open to you (such as the BBC New Generation Thinkers Scheme). So it is incredibly validating and affirming to read the blurb on Amazon for this Harlaxton volume. It describes all the contributors as 'leading scholars' and it has taken me some time to accept that label. It is important to remember that it is not your job title that confers your expertise but your research, however you choose to undertake it. We are all more than our job titles.

Yes, my day job may be in university administration but I am still a subject expert, a leading scholar in my field, and that can never be taken away from me. 

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.