Monday, December 11, 2017

Passing deadlines

As some readers may know, I have signed the contract for my second publication, which will be a collaborative translation of the text which formed the basis of my PhD and first monograph - Urbanus magnus (The Book of the Civilised Man) by Daniel of Beccles.

Our deadline for submission of the manuscript was mid-January and I have just asked for an extension. Now, if myself and my collaborators really pushed, we probably could have got it finished in time. But that would have meant working through the Christmas vacation.

Academia has a weird sense of duty and sacrifice. Because we love our subjects, we must therefore be willing to devote all our time to it. Free time should be dedicated to the next project.

This is problematic at so many levels because it creates a sense of servitude to your passion and no allowance for taking a break. For me, my day job is not academic (although I work in an academic environment. My 9-5 job means that my academic pursuits already take place in my free time (evenings/weekends). Although that is a choice I have willingly made, there are limits to it all. I try and do as much as I can in my spare time without it negatively impacting on my personal life and impacting on loved ones. 

So what is the point of this rambling post. Well, one reason I asked for the extension was to spend Christmas with my family not worrying about the submission date and working towards that. While I may do some work, I didn't want to field beholden to this project to the detriment of my experience home with family.

Do I feel guilty about this? In the past I would have. My last monograph needed an extra month passed the deadline and I felt horrible about it! But I have realised that accepting your limitations and red lines are important. Christmas is a red line for me. I wish that academia accepted more the fact that everyone is due a break. And a true break. Not a break where you catch up on your research and find time to write. But rather, a break where it is absolutely fine to switch off and do nothing. Because we all need to do nothing sometimes.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Expenses and Finances

I saw this on Twitter and it reminded me of an experience I had when I started my first full-time paid job post-PhD a couple of years ago. Here is the Tweet:
Like many people graduating from University, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, I didn't have much in the way of savings in the bank. I lived in an expensive city and while my job paid adequately, it was a slow process of trying to save each month while also enjoying myself.

For four months during my job, I had to commute from Oxford to London. Luckily, my employer would pay for this but the expenses process was financially burdensome for someone who didn't have a lot in the bank.

I calculated the cost at approximately £2,400 for the whole 4 month period, or about £540 if I paid monthly. My employer had an advance expenses process, but this involved them advancing a percentage of the cost and then me making up the rest. This would be reconciled later. For ease of administration, my employer first requested that I pay the whole thing up front and do a simple reimbursement. I responded that I simply did not have the money in the bank to do that. To be fair, my employer simply forgot what it was like when you were starting out. We compromised, and did the reconciliation process monthly.

The point here is often there is a lack of understanding from more senior staff about the financial state of its more junior colleagues. This applies massively to doctoral students (especially self-funded ones) and early career researchers (as well as more generally professional services). It affects travel expenses, publication image costs, conference fees, etc. I have received grants in the past for all of these and have always had to pay upfront and then chase reimbursement. Not only does this impact people financially, but it is time-intensive too.

The reconciliation process does seem a more fair way of approaching this issue. An employer could upfront 50% or more and allow the individual to make up the rest. Once proof of purchase is provided, the remainder can be reimbursed.

It is not that employers are innately distrustful of people claiming expenses. They have just been locked into a system that has been in place for years. The disappointment for me is that the more you earn and the more senior you become, filling out expenses becomes a thing of the past. Your PA does it for you (at least, that has been my impression in three separate institutions). That means people become divorced from the realities that junior staff face, who may have to forego a conference because they simply don't have the money in the bank to pay upfront and expense later.

It is an easy problem to fix. If the will is there.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Making Friends

In the spirit of honesty with which I started the blog, I want to talk about friendships and making friends post-university. I will state at the outset that I am an introvert and the sort of person who would have 2-3 close friends to confide in. I love having friends/acquaintances to meet with for coffee/lunch but I would find it hard to have too large a circle of close friends.

All my friends I have made at university, during different states of my educational career. I think this is fairly normal but has the subsequent problem of distance for those who studied abroad. I made amazing friendships during my Master's in London but due to the international nature of the cohort, many moved back home to the US. Similarly, during my doctorate most of my friends were international and few have stayed in the UK. (*Here I would also like to add the difficulty in that PhD students study for 3-4 years while you may make friends with one-year Masters students - people dip in and out of your life). For those who did stay, many did not stay in the same town. 

Oxford became a more lonely place when I completed my studies and began working. Without a college affiliation, much of the social activities I used to be involved with were closed to me. Even if I had retained it, I didn't want to the odd alumna who just hung around. I realised that university (and particularly Oxford with its ready-made collegiate community) made it too easy to organically make friends. Little effort needed to be made to meet others. Work-life was completely different. People's priorities are different - hanging out after work isn't as easy for those with childcare responsibilities for example. I was lucky that some of my friends who moved to other parts of the UK had reasons to come back often, but cultivating new friends post-university was and still is a challenge for me.

Oxford began to feel small. London was calling. I knew way more people who lived and worked there and I hoped that I would organically begin to cultivate those friendships more. But London is huge, plans fall apart, and new friendships are harder to develop. I'm not writing this as a pity party. I have plenty of friends, I just haven't developed my London social circle yet! What I have realised it that I took making friends for granted, that it was a given. But student life creates an environment that is designed to make it easy - shared common interests and experiences, close networks, ready-made socialising, etc. I know now that I have to try, which as an introvert is a challenge but one I must face. I have to be proactive at contacting people and making plans.

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions but I think this could be a good one.

And if anyone in London fancies a coffee, please do get in touch!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

There's more to HE than Oxford - Queen Mary

This post follows on the heel of my previous blogpost about the recent controversy of the lack of diversity in Oxbridge admissions. I was prompted to think about my new institution, Queen Mary University of London, following a new staff induction event I attended yesterday.

I realise that I never discussed much what prompted my move from Oxford to London, particularly my move from the top university in the world according to some rankings. Well, here is a brief overview:

  1. After studying and working at Oxford for almost 7 years, the town was becoming a little small and a little closed off to me. Many of my friends had moved on. My S.O. lived and worked in London. And also, once you lose your college affiliation/identity you realise that so much of what happens in Oxford is closed to you, even if you work for the university. So, the primary reason to move was person - it was to have a better work/life balance. I think it is so important to say that because there is sometimes a perception that once you are in Oxford you have "made it" and therefore should stay even if it doesn't suit your needs. I reject that idea. I reject that work should come before welfare.
  2. On the point about welfare. I was working in student welfare and support services and although I enjoyed so much of what I did, the emotional side of it was a little draining. More than I had anticipated. I wanted a job where I didn't take trauma back home with me. However, that being said, I am still passionate about welfare and student support is an area I would like to return to.
I have to admit that I wasn't fussy about what type of role I could get in London. I just wanted to move. I had a list of the universities I wanted to apply to, and found roles that I either thought I could do or that I thought I had transferable skills for. Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) was at the top of my list for a number of reasons:

  • Location  - I intended to live in east London and wanted a decent commute. I lucked out because I am on a direct bus route to work which only takes 25-30 minutes. No sweaty tube for me!
  • Pay - talking about money is dirty, no? Oh well. I took a lateral move in my career (so stayed on a commensurate grade). However, many London universities would have paid significantly less than QMUL for the same grade. I had a sense that QMUL treated it's staff well.
  • Word-of-mouth/Reputation - I knew alumni and staff at QMUL who only ever had wonderful things to say about the institution. It joined the Russell Group in 2012 and (as a medievalist in my spare time) I knew some excellent medievalists there where I hope I can forge some connections.
What surprised me was just how great QMUL is. I'm not going to discuss teaching and research, although I can vouch that it is world class here. I am going to paraphrase some of the key stats which the new Principal of QMUL, Professor Colin Bailey, gave to us at the new staff induction:

  1. The student body represents 162 nationalities - it is truly international
  2. Approximately 57% of the student body identifies as Black and Minority Ethnic.
  3. There is a real sense of how the university supports the local community, both in terms of widening access to HE but also more broadly in terms of working collaboratively with the local council and other agencies to improve the welfare of those in Tower Hamlets.

This feels very different to Oxford. Currently around 15% of Oxford students are BME. In addition, there is sometimes tension between the University and the local area in Oxford with many resenting the wealth of the institution and feeling that it fails to work to bridge the town/gown divide. 

I'm not here to bash Oxford. I loved it. But sometimes distance gives perspective. I am so privileged to have studied and worked there. Yet when you leave, you do see things a little more clearly and there are areas which can be improved. And of course, QMUL is not perfect either. It faces issues related to retention and attainment which Oxford doesn't. But what I admire so much is the diversity of the student body, the emphasis on access, and the sense of place within the local community.

Our Principal described this university as a hidden gem. I find it hard to disagree.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Access to Oxford

Today, Oxford is in the news because new data has revealed serious inequalities when it comes to diversity in the admissions process. The above tweet was followed by a lengthy threat where I tried to argue some points:

1. The representation of students from diverse backgrounds is a problem. I was not an undergraduate student at Oxford but my postgraduate experience equally had a lack of diversity in its postgraduate population (although this is somewhat better due to the international nature of postgraduate admissions). Thinking about my cohort and students I taught - they were predominantly white. And having moved to a London institution it has become painfully obvious to me how homogenous both the student and the staff population is at Oxford, now that I am at an institution that is genuinely diverse. The Oxbridge narrative is always that admissions is based on academic merit, which of course is true. But that fails to account for students who don't make it to the admission process.

2. This takes me to my second point. Students often feel that Oxbridge is not for them or their teachers believe it is not for their students. Common themes are that it will be too difficult for them or that students from diverse backgrounds won't fit into a white, elite stronghold. (40% of state secondary teachers rarely or never advise their brightest pupils to apply - often saying 'they wouldn't be happy there'.) Widening participation teams have a tough job to break down the barriers that stop students from apply (or teachers encouraging them). We need the educational system to help at pre-university level and allow students with potential to believe that they can apply.

3. (A side point about "not fitting in") This is a valid concern and Oxford could do more to dispel myths but also not to exaggerate. Promotional material online and in prospectuses need to be representative of the current student body and not aspirational. There is no point having photos of diverse undergraduate populations when you could be the only black student in your cohort (or even college!!). Initiatives such as the Oxford Black Alumni Network may be more powerful for illuminating the lived experiences of students at Oxford.

4. (A side, side point about not "fitting in") Staff representation is also critical. If Oxford wants to do something proactive and meaningful, then increasing the proportion of BME academic and professional services staff is critical. 

5. Back to my point about pre-university education. Targeting Oxford misses the fact that much needs to be done at an early stage to support students towards higher education (and of course, that doesn't just mean Oxbridge). However, by identifying issues in the secondary school system, that does not absolve institutions from responsibility to do more. My fear is that more millions will be thrown at widening participation as an ineffective bandaid. Of course, WP is important and valuable and absolutely necessary. But creative and innovative solutions are needed, as well as the ability to look to other models. Oxford has a habit of remaining entrenched in its ways. Certain sections of it will say: "it's lasted 800 years, why change?"). Looking towards best practice is happening, but very slowly. Lady Margaret Hall launched a Foundation Year programme to act as a springboard for students to enter a full degree at Oxford. This was inspired by and created in consultation with Trinity College Dublin's Trinity Access Programme which has been running since 1993. THAT'S 24 YEARS!!! I listened to Alan Rusbridger of Lady Margaret Hall talk about access this year and he was astonished that no one had looked to Ireland for inspiration. I'm astonished no one looked even closer to home as my current institution, Queen Mary University of London, also has an established foundation year programme. So Oxford can and should do more by thinking creatively and looking beyond its medieval walls. Ivy Leagues in the US can provide useful innovations.

6. This is a complex issue and one where there is not a single point of blame. However, I feel the need to stand up for my former colleagues at Oxford who are doing a phenomenal job. Too often, it is the "boots on the ground" people who are on low grades who do the lion share of work on access. They are going to feel pretty bad today and they shouldn't. They are working within internal and external structures and systems that work against what they are trying to do. What I want is for the VC of Oxford to stand up and applaud the work that they do, while acknowledging that a rethink may be needed about how to improve the current state of affairs. 

More than ever, we need leadership and ideas, not blank cheques. 

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.