Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Dear readers,

As today is my last day in work before the Christmas break and I wholeheartedly plan to do nothing over the holidays (including blogging), I thought I would end the year with a summary of what 2016 has meant to me.

2016 has been a rough year for everyone with Brexit, Trump, the refugee crisis, and much more leading to uncertainty, fear, and sadness. But, there have been highlights too, so here is my round up:

The start of the year began with me finishing my first placement as a graduate trainee on the Higher Education Management Scheme (@AmbitiousF - applications open to January 2017) and embarking on a 4-month secondment to University College London. This was a real highlight for me, as I had spent the past 5 years studying and working at the University of Oxford, and the opportunity to return to the place of my M.A. degree (and one of the best years of my life where I made lifelong friends - even if they are an ocean away).

The beginning of the year also marked the formal acceptance of my book proposal and the beginnings of the revisions to my thesis for publication in January 2017 with Routledge (The Making of Morals and Manners in Twelfth-Century England: The Book of the Civilised Man). This was important as it was a mark of my continued connection with academia. As a result of continuing to keep my foot in the academic door, I have presented at three conferences this year, and from that have two essays en route to publication over the forthcoming year.

Teaching was another highlight, as I taught a tutorial series on Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Europe for the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. And while teaching is always rewarding for me, working with American students during the end of the US election process brought home the anxiety and uncertainty my students face from a Trump presidency in 2017. Add to that the Brexit referendum, and the future is definitely unknown and definitely perilous.

2016 also saw my graduation from my doctorate, which was a wonderful occasion to celebrate with my family. This was shortly followed by the loss of my grandfather, an incredible and kind man whose outlook on life and people is one I will always keep with me.

And finally, 2016 saw me complete my graduate trainee scheme and accept a permanent job working in Student Welfare at the University of Oxford. I have written before about my desire to work in alternative academia, in roles which support the student body more broadly then just those students I have the opportunity to teach.

I am looking forward to what 2017 has to offer - while personally, it has been very good to me, politically is has been a disaster. 2017 can't be worse than 2016, right?

Thursday, December 1, 2016


As much as I convince myself that I do not want to pursue an academic career, academia has a sneaky way of making me question that choice. Now, I should say that I am very happy in my current career and fully intend to try to make an impact in Higher Education administration. But every now and again, the thought of academia creeps back into my brain. Sometimes it is when I give the odd seminar paper that goes down well, or the invitation to contribute to a volume. But all that I can reasonably and happily do in my spare time (albeit not without some sacrifices and caveating that not all ECRs have such a luxury. And I derive contentment from doing that, from feeling that I still have a toe in the water.

But if I am being truthful (and that it the whole point of this blog) one of the main drivers for not wanting to pursue academia full-time is a self-consciousness about my own abilities as a teacher. It is imposter syndrome - not that someone will discover my research is awful, but that my students will somehow expose some awful inadequacies in my knowledge.

Yet, that is unfounded. I have received detailed and positive feedback from secondary school students who I taught on summer programs for 4 years. But experience from teaching university students at Oxford can often feel like you are flying blind. The one-to-one tutorial system leaves little in the way of concrete feedback so you do your best and hope that your students succeed. 

I have often wondered if my students are as nervous as I sometimes am when I walk in the room.

Surely their other tutors are vastly more superior to me!

And so I go through swings and roundabouts. I get offered a term's tutorial series (I usually only teach one student a term because that is all I can manage with a full-time alt-ac job). I accept it because I want experience (just in case) and because it is additional income. And then the nerves start, the anxious lesson planning, the fear that the student will expose my ignorances. And then I get through the tutorial series, find out the student really enjoyed it or find out that they got the top marks in an externally graded paper, and I think "hey, I can't be all that bad at this". Maybe I could do more of this. Then I have a break, get offered another student, and it all starts again...

I guess what I am trying to say is that imposter syndrome is frequently equated with a fear that your research is going to be pulled apart, that the academic community will expose you for the fraud you really are. I have rarely (and correct me if I am wrong) seen a discussion in the context of teaching undergraduates and I think that those feelings of being an imposter in the classroom may resonate with many people. 

But for now, I received some amazing feedback, and I'm going to revel in my Sally Field Oscars moment before the self-doubt returns.

Image result for sally field like me

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

US Election

Today I had hoped and planned to write a piece about woman and leadership in Higher Education, to celebrate what I had hoped to be a momentous day with the election of the first female president of America.

I wanted to celebrate female role models who have inspired me, taught me, and helped me on my career path. And while I will write that post eventually, I am just too sad to do so today.

Today was an opportunity missed.
Women and leadership seems to be a case of one step forward and a marathon run backwards.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Following up from my Go Home post, today is yet another day where the rhetoric in the UK is overwhelmingly anti-immigrant and those feelings of living in a country that doesn't want you here are mushrooming.
Today we heard that non-UK doctors are welcome only to the point that the NHS can be wholly UK staffed - after that, bye bye.

Then we heard that the government wants to be more selective in which international students have access to higher education in this country and which universities can accept them. In pandering to the xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing campaigners and Eurosceptics, the UK government has chosen an easy target - students. By restricting student immigration they hope to reduce net migration figures. But this is a fudge that doesn't address any of the actual "concerns" of those anti-immigrant vocalists. It just penalises those who come to this country to better themselves - some will stay and contribute to this country through taxes, knowledge exchange, and cultural enrichment. Others will return home or move to other countries and have the same positive effects there. By attacking student immigration the UK is shooting itself in its own foot.
What is so disheartening when I open the news, is how the contributions of foreigners to this country is rarely valourised. And it can be small contributions. Take my example: my doctoral studies and employment in this country spans 6 years. In that time I have:
  • Contributed to scholarship in this country
  • Educated university students, both British, EU, and International students in this country
  • I have supported these same students to access resources in university libraries in this country
  • I have provided pastoral care for students studying in this country
  • I have started a career to enrich the lives of students in Higher Education in this country
  • I have paid taxes in this country
  • I have made a home in this country

 And yet every day I feel more and more that I am not welcome here.
The sad thing is that my feelings are just that - feelings of being unwelcome but I do not fear being asked to leave because I am lucky enough to be Irish and therefore exempt from this awful anti-immigrant, close-minded attitude.
My heart breaks for those at the sharp end of the government's narrow policies.
Maybe it won't be as bad as it seems, but I dread opening the news for fear that it will only get worse.

See my Times Higher Education post about student immigration from earlier this year.

Monday, September 19, 2016


Facebook has kindly reminded me that this day two years ago was the date of my fateful viva!
I cannot believe that it was so long ago, and I cannot believe the journey I have been on since - both professionally and personally.
The aftermath of my viva was the prompt for the start of this blog. In the early days I was ecstatic to reach 100 views  - now I have reached well over 40,000. Thank you! It has been both educational, cathartic, and incredibly rewarding.
If you go back to the start of this blog, I probably came across as frustrated, impatient, and generally quite annoyed at the delays my corrections post-viva incurred. I hope that as I and the blog have grown, I have mellowed slightly. There will always be things in academic and Higher Education that will rancour me, but I hope that I can approach such issues in a more constructive and nuanced way - looking for solutions and alternatives, rather than just pointing our failings.
And in the space of two years since the viva, I have achieved much that I never expected:

  • I spent an incredible year as an Ambitious Futures graduate trainee in higher education management. I learned so much, developed in skills and confidence, met amazing people, and made friends whose network will last well beyond the scheme.

  • I managed to get my thesis published (subject to final proofs and indexing), a process which has taken over a year but the moment that book is in my hand will be worth all the evenings sacrificed!

  • I started a new job in Student Welfare, an area of HE that I am incredibly passionate about and where I hope to make a positive impact.

It has taken two years for me to establish my own identity in the post-viva wilderness. Was I still an academic? Did taking a job in alternative-academic mean that I had to give up on the other things I loved (research and teaching)? I recognise now that I don't have to identify as one or the other - I can be both at different times or concurrently. I see myself firmly as a #blendedacademic.

If you want to hear me speak about my viva experience, check out the Viva Survivors podcast.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


This post is slightly belated because I have been so busy, but I finally have time to sit down and write about the exciting thing that happened last week.

I started a new, full-time, permanent position in Student Welfare and Support Services at the University of Oxford.

This is a really important step for me post-PhD as it represents the solidification in my mind that pursuing a career in Higher Education professional services is 100% what I want to do, and more specifically working in roles which work with and for students at its core.

It is also important in the sense that I have a real work identity now. I worked throughout my PhD, from working evenings as a library assistant to spending every summer as a summer school teacher. However, in all those roles, the work was supplement to my identify as a doctoral student. As readers will know, towards the end of my PhD I became less sure that academia as a career was for me, and joined the Ambitious Futures higher education management scheme as a graduate trainee (basically 15 month contract with 3 placements in different university sections). Luckily for me, there were others finishing PhDs, doing them part-time, or coming from a career change (i.e. not straight out of undergraduate). However, there was still an identity issue, especially as the scheme is relatively new. So I was the trainee, the intern, on "work experience" - you name it, I was called it. And it didn't matter much to me because I learned so much in such as short period of time. I learned core skills, I learned how universities work (governance, funding, REF, etc..), and most importantly I learned what I liked and disliked. Without the space to try, give it a go, make mistakes, learn from others, and ask questions I doubt I would have the role I have at the moment.

But now, having an established identity and being able to introduce myself as "Hi, I'm Fiona, I'm X at Student Welfare" means there are no awkward questions. People understand who I am and what I am capable of, and I have a clear understanding of the expectations of me in my new role.

For me (and this is just my feeling...I am not denigrating trainees at all!), the title trainee was misunderstood in the university context, and as such people could be unsure about your capabilities and competencies. The concept is much more well-understood and delineated in the private sector and it would be great to see more of that in Higher Education. What eternally surprises me is the number of people with doctorates working in university professional services! If you are finishing you PhD and are thinking about a career in professional services but don't know where to begin, check out Ambitious Futures. (@AmbitiousF)

And if you think that leaving academia is the end of your academic identity, think again! A career in professional services retains access to academic resources, allowing you to continue to publish and research. As for me, I am currently in the final proofing stages of my monograph, I'm preparing an article for submission, and I will be teaching a tutorial series once a week in the evening after work. I won't pretend that it is easy, but it is doable. Yes, you sacrifice some of your evenings, but to be honest that has meant that I use my time more efficiently because I know how precious my evenings are. And the great thing about maintaining my academic identity outside of the 9-5 is that I do it on my own terms. I don't feel a duty to say yes to every opportunity. I can cherry-pick things that are right for me, and people understand when I have to decline other things. And no REF hanging over me...

But for tonight I am going to continue to revel in finally feeling like I am an adult, not a student anymore.

If you want to follow my professional alter ego, connect with me on LinkedIn.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Go Home

This post is a digression away from discussions of Higher Education but I want to write something about an experience I had at the weekend.

Brexit has brought the vile anti-immigrant rhetoric to the forefront, and in the aftermath of the vote the news was filled with stories of verbal abuse and racist graffiti, largely directed to Eastern Europeans telling them to "go home".

And now I am reading about the burkini ban in Nice, France and the horrid story of a woman being forced to change in front of four male police officers and countless onlookers. The pictures themselves were enough to make me angry as a woman and ashamed as a European. But, for me, the worst part of the story were reports that the onlookers on the beach cheered and shouted "go home."

Now, the story I have to tell does not even come close to the humiliating and racist experience inflicted on that innocent woman and her daughter. But it is a microcosm of how it feels for someone to tell you to "go home".

After Brexit I was repeatedly informed that I have nothing to worry about. Yes I am a European living and working in the UK, but I am also Irish and that makes all the difference apparently! So all that take about "booting out" EU citizens didn't apply to me. Don't worry about it, I was told. Now, this story is less about EU immigration and all about perceptions of nationalities. The point is that micro-aggressions and micro-xenophobia can affect all immigrants to a country, EU or non-EU alike.

I do not have a strong Irish accent. For a number of reasons I have a slight North American accent, which my mother likes to call a "mid-Atlantic accent". Although, trust me, the Irish accent comes out with a glass or two of red wine. But despite the confusion of my accent, I am as Irish as Irish can be - born and raised just outside of Dublin for all of my life.

Saturday found me in a lovely pub/restaurant in Oxford, sat at a table next to the bar. A man standing at the bar repeatedly interrupted my conversation with a friend (an American) to which I politely nodded my head but tried not to engage. That was until the following conversation took place:

Him: "Why are you here?"
Me: "Excuse me?"
Him: "Why are you in Oxford?"
Me: "I work here"
Him: "Why?"
Me: "Because this is where I have my job".
Him: "But why?"
Me: "Why not?"
Him: "Don't you want to work back home?"
Me: "No, I like it here".
Him: "But you're American, right?"
Me: "No, I'm Irish".
Him: "Ahhhh......but why don't you go home to Ireland?"
Me: "Because I like it here and this is where I have my job".
Him: "But you will go home....?"
Me: "Does it matter if I stay or go?"

At this point, he could tell I was getting angry and upset at the implication that I should go home, that I shouldn't be able to live and work in the UK. He apologised, although I doubt he knew why, and ended with:

Him: "Sure weren't those two lads from Skibbereen great in the Olympics?"
Me: "Yes, yes they were".

God bless those two rowers from Skibbereen for rescuing that conversations.

Now, all of the above may not sound that bad. And it wasn't. But it was the first time in 6 years living in the UK that someone made me feel unwelcome here. I felt pretty rubbish as I left that pub, have little to no inclination to return there for a repeat encounter. And if I felt unwelcome and attacked for being an immigrant to this country in that one small encounter, let us all try to imagine how that woman on the beach and her family feels today.

I am an historian and I have, perhaps naively, liked to believe that the role of history is to learn from it lest we repeat the mistakes of the past. More and more I read the news to stories which hark back to the darkest times in our recent history, where we judge people on their language, their skin colour, their religion, their accents. I can only say that this tweet struck a chord with me, and I hope it does the same for you:

Friday, August 5, 2016

Being an Academic

Ok, so Twitter had a field day with this article bemoaning the culture of social media use by academics. See #seriousacademic for the Twitter feed and the main article can be found here.
Now, caveat here. I fell foul of the self-importance tone promoted by the title, but it has been noted by many that the title was likely a "click-bait" addition by a sub-editor. So, apologies for that.
But, I will not apologise for my use of social media. The anonymous author needs "to believe that employability is not directly correlated to how many likes you get on your Instagram posts". Well, it's not, and probably never will be. Yes, a social media presence can be a factor in employability, but it can never trump credentials such as research, teaching, conferencing, and publications.
My issue with the whole tone of the article is the insinuation that academics utilise social media as a self-aggrandising tool of narcissism. It rarely is the case. The majority of academic twitter users I know engage in public outreach, collaboration, and actively seek to foster communication across a wide range of interests and disciplines. But more worrying is the undertone that those who engage with social media are not "pure" academics of days gone by. Yes, those halcyon days where you are confined to your lab, office, or library, etc., only venturing out occasionally to present at a conference or to teach. Those halcyon days where the academic community was limited to the elite few who held university positions. The landscape is changing to be more inclusive, and social media is the driver. Twitter today has shown how many feel more engaged with their academic colleagues worldwide, and it is especially beneficial for those at small or remote universities, or who work outside the ivory tower.
 The fact of the matter is that there is no one type of academic.
  • Is someone who only researches and publishes, but hates teaching, an academic? YES
  • Is someone who researches and publishes, but works outside of academia an academic? YES
  • Is someone who uses social media to network and disseminate research an academic? YES
  • Is someone who researches and publishes yet loathes social media an academic? YES
  • Is someone who is labelled as an "independent scholar" an academic? YES
I could go on. The point is that no one description of an academic is better than the other, and we need to question our assumptions about who/what an academic is and broaden our understanding to be inclusive, not exclusive. (As you can probably tell, this is my pet peeve!)

An academic can come in many different guises.
One who uses social media is no less serious than one who doesn't.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Time and Identity

I wrote about the notion of sacrifice in a previous post, but I want to raise the issue again. Mostly, this is in reaction to the Stern Report on the next REF (Research  Excellence Framework). As many young scholars have noted, this changes to the REF 2020 will likely adversely affect Early Career Researchers. You can read more at the Times Higher Education site here.

At its simplest, it represents a catch-22. You have to publish lots in order to have a chance to get hired for an academic position. But then your publications are of no REF use for your new institutions because they were the product of your previous institution. So, do you hold of on publishing to be more REF-able but to the detriment of your CV? It has been suggested that a lot of publication lists on academic applications will read "forthcoming" or "in process".

At the time this news broke, I had recently returned from the Harlaxton Symposium on the medieval great household, filled to the brim with ideas for publications. I have already started to write an article, have approached two people to work on collaborative papers, and have been invited to contribute to the Proceedings of the Harlaxton Symposium. My monograph has been passed to the production team of my publisher. This is not to gloat or boast about how much I do, but rather to highlight the luxury I have in not having to deal with the REF implications described above. I am about to start a new job in professional services in Higher Education (more on that in a future post), and am comfortable in my alt-academia identity. It means that I choose to publish when I want to one, with no external pressures such as funding or the REF. I can build a body of work over the next 5 years, so that if I want to return to academic full-time, I will be well-placed to do so. I retain my academic identity through conferencing and publications. I consider myself an academic who happens to work in professional services.

In addition, I have been offered more teaching opportunities in order to keep that CV refreshed with evidence of continued academic activity. So long as I can make all this work around my 9-5 job, then I will usually say yes to most opportunities that arise.

But what this means is that I sacrifice time. One of the missions of this blog is to show that there are alternative paths after the PhD; paths which may require you to compromise on what you thought the PhD would lead to, but paths to interesting and varied careers with routes to maintaining that academic identity. However, these are paths which require you to give up your evenings, and sometimes your weekends.

I frequently battle at conferences with the assumption that I *must* have a post-doc straight out of the PhD. And, if I say that I don't have one, the assumption is that I *must* want one and whatever else I am doing is just a temporary stopgap to the academic research fellowship or lectureship.

The truth is, for me, is that I find working in professional services within a university incredibly rewarding. I am soon to move into the area of Student Welfare which I am immensely excited for. I realise that my post-PhD path may not suit everyone, but I hope it serves to prove that a non-academic job is not the death-knell for being an academic. While some may have assumed I had a post-doc, no one doubted my identity as an academic, even after hearing that I work in alternative academia.

So long as I keep publishing, conferencing, and even teaching, my identity as an academic cannot be taken away from me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Networking and Presenting

It's a dirty work for many in academia.

I have always struggled with networking being a self-proclaimed dedicated introvert. However, one this a PhD should provide in the experience to get out of your shell through conferencing, and as a result, grow in confidence as both an academic and as a confident, assured individual.

If you ask me to walk into the coffee break at a conference like the International Medieval Congress in Leeds where 2,500 medievalists attend or the Association of University Administrators conference where nearly 1,000 attend, sweat starts to form on my brow. It is intimidating if you know nobody, and striking up that first conversation takes a lot of courage on my part.

But the joy of a conference is that you are surrounded by like-minded people. This takes the stress and anxiety down a level. However, at the recent Harlaxton Symposium on The Great Household, 1100-1500, I discovered an added benefit of talking and networking with people.

On Tuesday evening the symposium delegates sat down for dinner, and an academic I quote a lot in my thesis sat down next to me and struck up a conversation about the text and author at the core of my research. It was a lively exchange of ideas, but it also challenged some of my assumptions, raised new questions, and had an impact on my paper.

Luckily, I was presenting the next day, so had time to amend my paper to address some of those points of contention and new ideas. It allowed me time to prepare in advance for welcome critical questions. Had my introverted-ness and shyness limited my willingness to engage in conversation, my paper and presentation would have been worse for it. And, thanks to that conversation and amendments to my paper, that academic subsequently described it as "spot on" (the highest praise I could hope for!).

So, open yourselves up to networking, especially before you give a paper or presentation. When we print our papers out before a conference, the seem like fixed entities - you have carefully timed it, have the Powerpoint honed to accompany it - so you may be reluctant to make any changes. But conferences are forums for sharing, challenging, questioning, and rethinking ideas. So be open and receptive to others and incorporate that into your presentations. It can only help.

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Tale of Two Conferences

Conference Season is officially complete for me!

I have just returned home from 4 days at the Harlaxton Symposium on the theme of the "The Great Household, 1100-1500" where I presented a paper. Two weeks prior to that, I attended the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and presented a paper as part of a session series organised by the Oxford Medieval Diet Group (nope, it's not a dieting group for medievalists!).

I am incredibly tired but also incredibly inspired. 

As many of you know, I currently work in professional services at the University of Oxford and am thoroughly enjoying working on the "inside" of a university. It was a conscious and deliberate choice not to pursue academic positions at the moment, but that does not mean that I am suddenly disengaged with the academic community. 

My attendance at both conferences this month were the result of invitations to speak, invitations which were impossible to turn down. The conferences are wildly different. IMC Leeds is the second largest conference for medievalists, and over 2,000 people attend. While the number and range of sessions is staggering, personally I find it overwhelming if you don't know many people there, and the sheer volume of people attending makes it difficult to strike up conversations (especially if you are an introvert like me!).

Harlaxton Symposium is much more intimate, located in the beautiful setting of Harlaxton Manor, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. The fact that the 100 delegates all stay at the manor, and share meals and drinks at the bar, makes it far more conducive and less intimidating to talk to people. There are no parallels sessions, which means that you are exposed to a wide range of papers.

I attended Harlaxton in receipt of the Barry Dobson Scholarship to cover the costs, and I am immensely grateful to the steering committee. Harlaxton is a good model for conferences which seek to share knowledge, form connections and build networks, and also have a little fun. I already have a few article ideas stemming from the conference....

But, I do need to highlight one issue I have. And this is not a criticism of the Harlaxton Symposium at all, nor of the attendees. On discussing the recent completion of my doctorate, virtually everybody that I talked to asked me a variant on "where are you doing your postdoc?" 

That is a problem for a number of reasons. It is the naive assumption that it is *that* easy to walk into a postdoc in history straight after the PhD. That may have been more true 15-20 years ago, but the academic job market today is fierce, competitive, uncompromising, and often a matter of luck.

Another problem is that it can be quite upsetting for someone who dreams of that academic position, but is forced to work outside of academia which continuing to apply for academic jobs. Feelings of failure and inadequacy can be tough enough, without being compounded by such questions. Luckily, this doesn't apply to me as I am quite happy doing what I am doing. I was very open when talking to people that I have taken a break from academia, and most people were very responsive and encouraging. However, a couple raised an eyebrow...

More and more, this will become an issue as fewer PhD graduates in humanities will walk into an academic position immediately. More and more will take alternative jobs for various reasons (money, job security, needing a break, etc.) but will continue to conference. I conference because I enjoy presenting on my material, learning from others, and keeping up with advancements in my field. Others will conference to network and work towards improving their job applications. So, we need more and more nuance and understanding from everybody. One may assume that the question "where are you doing you postdoc" or "do you have a research position" is a generational one emanating from the older of the delegates. But the truth was that it spanned current PhD students to emeritus professors.

We must shift the question to one which is inclusive not exclusive. A better way to ask a recent PhD graduate is to say:

"So, what are you up to at the moment?"

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Apologies for the delay in a new post. Things have been a bit hectic and up-in-the-air over the past few weeks, but I hope to share some very exciting news shortly.

In the meantime, we have had Brexit, a new PM, a cabinet reshuffle - life in the HE sector is very uncertain at the moment in the UK. But, I just saw a tweet about the new Education Secretary talking about teachers who made an impact in her life.

It got me thinking about those who have influenced me to get me where I am today.

During secondary school, I took Art to equivalent A-Level, which had a strong Art History component. To my shame, I cannot remember the name of my teacher, but without doubt she instilled an interest in the History of Art which led me to apply to study that at Trinity College Dublin. I thank you!

During my undergraduate, I was under the tutelage of Professor Roger Stalley, a specialist in Medieval Art and Architecture with a focus on Ireland. I was immediately gripped. Took every course I could with him:

  • Gothic Cathedral
  • Romanesque Art and Architecture
  • Early Christian Art in Ireland
He also supervised my undergraduate dissertation. I was shaped under his guidance, and always anticipated pursuing a PhD in medieval art with him. But life never works the way you plan.

I wanted to have a grounding in medieval history before returning to a PhD in medieval art, so went to UCL where I encountered the incredible Professor David d'Avray. He brought humour and rigour into Paleography and the study of manuscripts and documents. He supervised my master's dissertation and guided it to insights and conclusions I would never have come to without him. He still supports me with references, referring it light-heartedly to referee abuse as "academe's dirty little secret". I thank you!

During my Master's I found the text which led me to my DPhil (PhD) at Oxford, under the supervision of Professor Lesley Smith. Again, another incredible person to guide, push, and provide different perspectives to propel a project in paths unanticipated. I thank you wholeheartedly for the four years we spent honing that thesis, and the support during the hiccup of major corrections.

Teachers, lecturers, professors, supervisors - you all provide an amazing, and all to often underrated, service to your students. Without you all, I would not be the person I am today. I only hope that, whatever I do next, I can have an ounce of the impact on future students which you have had on me.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Week in the Life...3.0

I've had a little hiatus from this series (which has really only just begun!), mostly due to holidays, bereavement, and starting a new placement. But I'm back!

So, what is happening with me at the moment? Well, since my last update I have finished my secondment with UCL Library Services and have just started with Estates Services back at the University of Oxford. (If you are curious as to what my job is and what I'm doing, check out this post). I have received a (much-appreciated) extension on handing in my thesis for publication as a monograph. Those are the two big things happening, but here is what I'll be getting up to this week:

  • Proofing my manuscript and endnotes formatting
  • I should hear tomorrow whether I have funding for publication rights to images - if I get them, I will have to re-edit my manuscript to include them
  • I have to write a 800 word (much overdue) piece for Guardian Higher Ed on the academic costs incurred by those working outside of academia and the lack of support available to them
  • I have meetings to attend at work and generally trying to get up to speed with what my team does (and remembering names!!)
  • I finished my Couch25k series so now I am doing Bridge210k in preparation for a 10k race in August. Have to fit 2 more runs in this week.
  • My lease on my apartment is up at the end of July so I am doing viewings and trying to get that sorted

I think that looks like a lot, but some will balance others. I am stressed about securing my accommodation and anxious about this new placement, so running is actually a great stress reliever. The Guardian article feeds directly into the issues related to potentially not securing funding for publication rights and the consequences of that.

Busy busy busy...but in a good way!

And now off to a viewing...wish me luck!

View the series so far:

Monday, May 30, 2016


Well, the day finally came that I got to don my doctoral robes and graduate from my DPhil. This blog started because of the setback I had with major corrections and it only seems right that I share my experience of my graduation day which represented the culmination of all that hard work.

It seems strange, but I didn't think that graduating would matter so much. My doctorate was formally approved way back in May 2015 and I had to wait a year for an available graduation date (because graduations at the University of Oxford are heavily oversubscribed and other reasons which are opaque to me!). But as the day arrived, as did my family from Ireland, it was clear that this was the day we had all been waiting for. The robes made it real.

The day was brilliant. It started with heading up to my college, Wolfson College, in my sub fusc to attend a champagne reception and lunch. Sub fusc is something that all Oxford students will wear at different points of their studies (exams, matriculation, graduation). Usually it is a dark suit, skirt and tights, black shoes, white shirt, bow tie or ribbon, coupled with a gown. This is me heading off to Wolfson College in mine:

Sunglasses optional!!

At Wolfson College I collected my doctoral robes and donned them for the requisite family photos. It was a beautiful day and so lovely to share my college home of 4 years with my family.

After lunch, we headed to the historic Sheldonian theatre (built by Sir Christopher Wren, of St Pauls Cathedral fame). I returned to my black subfusc and left my doctoral robes in an adjacent building. We processed into the theatre according to rank (DPhils, Masters, Undergraduate). The ceremony itself is a very solemn affair and conducted wholly in Latin. The DPhil students stand in front of the Vice-Chancellor of the University and the Proctors where we swear an oath binding us to be obedient and faithful to the University and its interests, and to comport ourselves circumspectly at elections to University offices. We then process out of the theatre, change into the colourful doctoral robes, and are processed back into the theatre to applause. (This process is then repeated for the other students). At the end, the graduands walk out of the theatre. This time undergraduates first, followed by masters. When it was the turn of the DPhils it was a shock and pleasant surpise to see that all the preceeding students were lined up like an honour guard for the DPhils, Vice-Chancellor and Proctors. It truly felt like a very special occasion and one which truly cemented the fact that I am now Dr Fiona Whelan.

I could not have done it with my amazingly supportive family. Thank you so so much!!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Life Interrupted

Apologies for the radio silence recently but things have been a little manic recently! The past 2-3 weeks have reminded me that as much as we can try to plan out our weeks, months, and years (life-plans and all that!) there will always be bumps along the way, be they big or small.

Almost 2 weeks ago I finished my four-month secondment to UCL Library Services, an experience which I absolutely loved. However, the last 2 weeks were a sprint to the end to get all my work done leaving little time for blogging. Then my family all came to Oxford to see me (finally!) graduate from my DPhil which was just a truly wonderful occasion (more on that in a dedicated post). I treated myself to a glorious week in sunny and historic Malta, before an unexpected return to Ireland for a funeral.

As a result of all of this, I am a little behind on getting my manuscript completed for submission to my editor by my deadline, and I am hoping that some leniency will be allowed. However, it did get me thinking about timelines for PhDs.

I've written more extensively about this in my book, The Honest PhD Guide (get yours here!). I was lucky in that I had so serious derailments in my PhD timescale. Mostly, the extension into the 4th year was a result of jobs and extra-curricular activities (none of which I would trade as they have got me the job I have now). But contingencies do need to be built into timeframes for PhD as hiccups and hurdles will occur. And they can manifest in different shapes, sizes, and severity:
  • Having to change the direction of your thesis when you discover someone has already published on your exact topic
  • Changes in supervisors
  • Problems of access to resources or sources
  • Experiments not working
  • Major corrections / referrals
  • Illness
  • Mental health
  • Care-giving
  • Bereavement

While it is important to have a plan and a timescale (both in academia and in life), it is so important to build contingencies into that timescale, and to not beat yourself up when you go over the time you have given yourself or missed a deadline you have set yourself. And if it is an externally set deadline, don't be afraid to speak up about your concerns about missing a deadline. I've always found that most people are incredibly understanding, sympathetic, and willing to help.

So this week I am starting my final placement 3 days later than planned. And I am about to email my editor to explain my situation and see if I can have a few days grace with my deadline. The worst that anyone can say is no, so there is nothing lost by asking.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Week in the Life...2.0

Continuing my short posts on A Week in the Life of...

Last week I set my week tasks/goals as the following:
  • Work: Preparing to run focus groups and a User Experience project and am writing up my final report to be delivered next week. Finishing up ILM assignment (Institute of Leadership and Management).
  • Academic: I need to edit 2 chapters of my thesis for my monograph manuscript.
  • Personal: I have three 25mins runs to complete for week 7 of the Couch25K scheme.
So, how did I get on? Well, work is going well and I finished all of my tasks, and am prepared for a week of running focus groups. I submitted my ILM assignment before the deadline (yes, I am an overachiever!). Personally, I completed my three 25mins runs. On the academic side, I wasn't so good. I have only managed to edit one chapter so am definitely a little behind on my schedule. But luckily, it is a Bank Holiday today so I can take the rest of today and try to get that second chapter done!

Now it's time to think about the next week:
  • Work: Run 4 focus groups, write up the results of those groups, and complete my placement report. I also have to prepare a brief presentation.
  • Academic: For my monograph manuscript, I have to write a short chapter discussing briefly other themes which are covered in the medieval text I study but which are not analysed in depth. It should be relatively straightforward, but I have to admit that I have been procrastinating with this as I haven't written new research in a while!!
  • Personal: I am on week 8 of the Couch25k scheme, which means three 28 mins runs for me!! As a perk, this weekend I will be shopping for some summer clothes for my upcoming holiday to Malta!!
I recently asked the Twitterverse what methods people employ to keep track of their tasks. There was a huge variety of response, from large posters to physical planners to GoogleCalendar, to specific apps such as ToodleDo or Todoist. I have to admit that I haven't come to any sort of method myself, but I do find that publicly documenting my goals and tasks in this forum makes me feel like I hold myself more accountable for achieving them! Hence the slight guilt in not doing as much editing as I would have liked...

But hey, you have to have a little fun on a Bank Holiday weekend!

Now, back to editing....

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Week in the Life...1.0

I'm not very good in keeping track of all the things I have to do. At work, I'm usually quite good and have a system of physcial lists and tasks to do in my Outlook calendar. But, for all the other things that I do I am very lax at scheduling and planning.

So, to remedy that, every Monday I am going to write a short post detailing what I have to do that week and what I want to achieve. It will help me not only to document my progress, but will also shame me into doing more! Beyond that, however, I hope that it will provide some insight into the life of a recently graduated PhD student who works in alternative academia but is trying to keep one foot in.

My goals/tasks - both professional, academic, and personal - for the next few months to a year include:
  • Continuing to learn and develop a range of skills in my current fixed-term job.
  • Research and prepare for job applications in Autumn/Winter.
  • Deliver my monograph manuscript to my publisher on May 31.
  • Present two conference papers in July
  • Find new accommodation from August onwards
  • Prepare translation work for a book proposal
  • Run a 10k race

So, what is on the horizon this week:
  • I have three weeks left in my current placement working at UCL. This week I am preparing to run focus groups and a User Experience project and am writing up my final report to be delivered next week.
  • I have to finish up an ILM assignment (Institute of Leadership and Management) for my certificate course.
  • I need to edit 2 chapters of my thesis for my monograph manuscript.
  • I have three 25mins runs to complete for week 7 of the Couch25K scheme.
And just to be clear. This isn't some sort of self-congratulatory post where I am seeking pats on the back. Running aside, this is the reality of what myself and many others do to pay the bills, start a career, and keep a foot in academia. Although, it is also so important to make sure you have time for yourself. Whether this is through exercise, socialising, hobbies, whatever, it is vital to keep an eye on your mental and physical health to avoid burnout (see here).

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Waiting Game 2.0

One common theme that has continued from my PhD into my post-PhD life is waiting. We seem to live in an perpetual state of suspense waiting to hear back from those with more power, money, influence, authority than us.

If you've been a long-time reader of this blog, you will no doubt remember my long and protracted waiting period to hear the results of my major corrections re-submission (see here). For me, the issue of the academic waiting games rests not on waiting to hear a yes/no, it is about knowing when to expect an outcome.

Now, some funders are brilliant. I recently put in a scholarship application for a conference and was immediately told when the panel would meet and specifically when I would hear back. That's the way it should be. But that is the exception.

In my previous post, I mentioned some of the upcoming costs I am facing in my pursuit to keep in academia. One of these costs is the permission rights for images to be used in my monograph. The extortionate price and state of academic publishing is a conversation for another day though. I found a fund that covered publishing costs and, to make things even better, it caters especially for those who don't currently hold an academic position. Hurrah!

But here's the rub.

The deadline was 18 March. It is now April 22. My manuscript delivery deadline is May 31 with image permissions granted. Obtaining such permissions can take up to 4 weeks. See the problem here...

Without knowing the results of that funding bid, one way or the other, I'm in limbo. If I get the funding then all my images can be included. If I don't, then I will have to remove some, if not all, images due to prohibitive costs.

And guess what, there is no guidance given as to when a candidate for this funding will hear. This is true for many many other funding bodies and equally applies for conference paper submissions, journal article submissions and job interviews.

As one of my Twitter colleagues schrewdly noted, we PhDs and post-PhDs and ECRs are bombarded with deadlines all the time. "Respond to this call for papers by X, job applications should be submitted by Y." But there is frequently no reciprocal deadline. Little guidance for those in limbo, for those whose next steps are wholly contingent on hearing back, regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative. And don't forget about mental wellbeing, stress and anxiety. Every time your email pings your heart jumps, you check the email, it's a promo ad from Pizza Hut, and you start the process all over again (albeit with pizza, so that's something).

We are taught to just accept the status quo in academia. This is just the way that it is. Well, the way that it is does not reflect nor care for the current state of academia, and I for one think something needs to change.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Academic Wilderness

*Update: I'm already well over half-way to covering the costs of my registration to attend the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, 2016. Thank you so much! Please help me reach the finish line! See fundraising campaign here.

I've written about this before, but I do think it is worth stating again. Trying to continue to engage with academic pursuits when working outside of academia is so hard. It is far more challenging than I initially thought.When I started my alt-ac job, I thought that I would just be pressed for time to do all the additional things I wanted: publish a monograph, present conference papers, network with colleagues...

While time is always precious, I very naively did not factor in money. Yes, cold hard cash keeps the academic wheel turning and keeps many people on the outside looking in.

While I was a PhD student, there were many avenues to funding different endeavours such as research grants, travel grants, etc. While there are some that apply to those without academic affiliation, they are too few and not well advertised. Now that I am outside of academia, the pressure is really on. Admittedly, I was eager to say yes to opportunities that arose because conferencing and publishing are things that we are told to do if we want to succeed.

I have now found myself in the position of begging strangers for financial help. This feels awful but at some point you have to put your pride to one side. Currently, I have three main academic financial burdens:
  • IMC Registration Costs and Travel: £135 + £80
  • Harlaxton Symposium Costs: £400
  • Monograph Image Permissions: £400
Luckily, there is a potential funding source for Harlaxton. I have applied for a grant for my image permissions. If I don't get that though, I may have to resort to removing the images from my monograph. And, I have resorted to a GoFundMe campaign for Leeds. And since I was invited to present by the Oxford Medieval Diet Group who have helped me immensely in the past, I don't want to let them down. 

This is a plea for more understanding. Conferences offer reduced fees for students, maybe they should do the same for unaffiliated attendees and speakers. Academic publishers rarely pay an advance, but perhaps they should help with image funds where possible. That's wishful thinking, I'm sure, but something has to give! Academic endeavours cannot remain solely the preserve of the academically employed or the rich.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Recently I had a discussion on Twitter about the trend towards referring to students as "customers" in universities. I noted that there was a strong reaction from the academic community (lecturers, postdocs, ECRs, and PhD students) against the terminology. I thought it was an interesting dynamic with universities tending more and more towards the word "customers" but the academic community being against it. 

Now, this post isn't about this issue. Rather, it focuses on the question of binaries as one Twitter user noted the intellectual reaction against "customers" and the administrative trend towards it. I took umbrage at this from a personal standpoint, although the comment was not meant in that way at all. It was a general statement which reflects a binary which exists in Higher Education but which I believe is unfair and actually unproductive.

I've experience lots of binaries in my experience as a PhD student:
  • There is the binary between funded v self-funded students
  • There is the binary between science v humanities, and which is more "worthy" of funding...(don't go down that rabbit hole, not worth it)
  • At Oxford, there was the binary (and snobbery) between being at an ancient college v a modern one
None of these binaries served any good.The newest one that I am encountering is a binary between academics and administrators. Working now in alt-ac in Higher Education, I am more sensitive to this, without a doubt. But the very idea that there is an absolute binary between intellectual and administrative bothers me because it ignores the duality of university governance. For example, Vice-Chancellors act as the CEO of the university, yet are majority former academics in a leadership and management role. There are a huge number of people with doctorates who work in university  professional services. Having such a binary between academic v administrative or intellectual v administrative does a disservice to a huge number of people who work in professional services.

I have said it before, but we need to challenge our perceptions of who or what an academic or an intellectual is? And we should probably also challenge our preconceptions of who/what an administrator is...

The pervasive suggestion that university administrative is actively anti-intellectual in its bureaucracy is very demeaning to me. I am an academic and I am on a training scheme in leadership and management in Higher Education. The binary insinuates that I cannot relate to academic pursuits (teaching and learning) when I wear my "professional services" hat, or that I resent administration and bureaucracy when I wear my "academic" hat. The truth is that I am both person all the time.

And many others are. Oxford for example is a self-governing institution. Decisions are made by academics but implemented by professional services. Many other institutions are the same, So it's unfair and narrow-sighted to blame "administration" for all ills. And yes, university administration is ballooning in many institutions, much to the disdain of the "intellectuals", but an understanding of the HE sector should make it clear that this increase is more often than not a reaction to increased government intervention (i.e. more regulation, more staff need to implement it) and reduced govenment funding (i.e. more fundraising staff needed).

Yes, perhaps some in professional services may go too far, too corporate, too bureaucratic. But there are many who wear both hats and are sensitive to the needs and demands of both sides.

The more of this "us and them rhetoric" the further the divide and forced binaries will grow. In an age where universities are put under more and more pressure from government funding and regulation, surely more collaboration and respect would be beneficial.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Taking Care of Yourself

I have recently taken up running.

This will shock anyone who knows me and and my complete disinterest in any and all forms of exercise. And it was more of a shock to me to find that I really enjoy it!

Which led me to question why it has taken so long for this to happen - why didn't I exercise during my PhD? I have written in my book, The Honest PhD Guide, about my slight weight gain towards the end of my PhD. This I attribute to stress, laziness while writing up (takeaways and junk food were the easy option), and changes in my metabolism as I get older. Now, only I really noticed the change yet I did nothing about it for a year. 

Why has it taken until now for me to look after myself?

I think it has something to do with leaving academia.

There have been articles recently about work/life balance for academics (see the Times Higher Education article here, and my blogpost here) and how academics and PhD students find it so difficult to switch off. For Humanities students, a 9 to 5 simply does not exist unless you have the self-discipline to impose it on yourself (and fair play to you if you can - I couldn't, and worked weird hours as a result). Similarly, science students may nominally be "in the lab" from 9 to 5, but the work doesn't stop there. The brain is constantly ticking with things to do - write a paper, prepare a lesson, grade papers, write up reports, prepare for seminars, design a poster...

Ultimately, health and exercise took a backside ride on the road to the PhD.

Now, of course, I knew lots of PhD students who were incredibily active. But where I studied and at my college in Oxford, sport would frequently become competitive. Try rowing...become a rower. Play tennis, join a team and compete. Start rowing...lets train for a half-marathon...

These are gross generalisations and only my feelings as the non-sporty outsider looking in. It felt like there was little for the recreational, just-for-fun, exercise-seeker. Although admittedly, I didn't try very hard.

Now I work for universities in a non-academic capacity. I get home at 6pm and can genuinely switch off from work. I don't feel guilty taking 30 mins or an hour to go out for a run or do some pilates. And surprisingly, when I do exercise I feel more energised and more likely to focus on the work I want to do in my spare time such as editing my thesis for a monograph or preparing my forthcoming conference papers.

I wish I knew this during my PhD. I wish I pushed myself to take meaningful breaks from researching and writing rather than using TV as a reward.

But at least I am doing it know and doing it on my own terms, guilt-free. If you ever feel guilty for taking time to do something for yourself during your PhD, don't!! A PhD is hard enough without beating yourself up. A work/life balance is just that - an equal balance between the two. And allowing yourself those moments of self-care will positively impact your work!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

AUA 2016

I have just returned from attending the AUA 2016 conference for professional services in Higher Education and I just want to reflect on some of the things I have learned (both serious and lighthearted). Sadly, I could not attend the conference in it's entirely so I can only reflect on the first two days.

  1. While I have many skills, booking dinner reservations on the correct day for those in my graduate scheme is not one of them!! Apologies to the pub for the guests who didn't show up on the Saturday and for the influx of trainees on the Sunday for which you were understandably unprepared for!
  2. One of the repeated phrases was that so many who work in Higher Education work in silos and communication between different areas can be poor. But more than that, I think that the sector as a whole can also work in its own silo. The energetic and engaging opening plenary by Ben Goldacre discussed the misuse of statistics and how the medical sector has used randomised controlled trials to great success. I for one am thoroughly intrigued by this idea and would love to be able to employ this method in the future. Too often sweeping decisions are made with thought or experimentation for their effectiveness.
  3. Leeds is awesome! Got a recommendation to have dinner at Buca di Pizza where you can have unlimited pizza and prosecco for £20 with the only rule being that you have 90mins! Two Irish girls should not be trusted in that environment. (But seriously, I highly recommend it: http://bucaleeds.com/)
  4. There is NO difference between professional conferences and their academic counterparts. If you disagree with something that has been said or you are muttering under breath that someone is misinformed - politely take the microphone and add your voice to the mix. Too often in conference people bristles with anger/frustration about something but never speak up. But the bravery lies in asking the question in the first place (so long as it doesn't start with: "this is more of a comment than a question...").
  5. The AUA may have discovered the secret to time-keeping. During a "hotspot" section, speakers were given 2 minutes to pitch to the crowd. Little did the speakers or audience realise that once the countdown clock reached zero the booming sound of a gong would rudely dispatch the speaker mid-sentence. I made light of the gong on Twitter and of course there is frequently the problem of speakers going over time and chairs not dealing with this. And while the initial audience reaction to this gong dispatch was laughter, I later thought about it and feared that the speaker may not have been aware it was going to happen. If that is the case, and speakers were not informed of this practice, than it was grossly misjudged and unfair.**
  6. Universities are like an iceberg. We always here about what Vice-Chancellors are doing (and earning!). We know about big research emanating from our universities. We read about student activism such as #RhodesMustFall. We read about the REF and upcoming TEF. We fear the next big policy to be decreed from Whitehall. But what the AUA celebrates are the people who make it all work. They are the cogs in this large and unwieldy machine but a machine that has massive benefits for both individuals and society (although the comment that universities were "civilising activities" did not go down well in my books). It is often said that if there was no government then things would tick over just fine because of the expertise and experience held by the civil service. The same applies to university administration. And more thanks and respect needs to go to those who hold the knowledge and to those who implement policies and procedures on the ground.
  7. And yet, all too often they are forgotten. When the Brexit was mentioned at the conference, the focus was on the number of EU academics who work in UK institutions and the number of EU nationals who study in the UK. Zero mention was made to those EU nationals who work in professional services. In a discussion on equality and diversity, people talked about how BME numbers in students and academic staff are increasing, but again zero mention of such equality and diversity goals in the pool of professional staff. 
**Update: Speakers did know that there would be a sound, but perhaps not how loud that gong was going to be!!

With that all said, I did enjoy my first AUA experience. Of course, research and teaching are the core of what universities do. The work of academics and the experiences of students should always be foremost, but that does not mean that professional staff should not be considered in issues such as the Brexit or the Prevent agenda.

What I can positively take from AUA is that I work in an incredibly vibrant, diverse, and exciting sector populated by people who are passionate about their work, their universities, and the greater goals of Higher Education in general. 

You can follow the conference at #AUA2016.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

International Womens Day

It is International Womens Day and Twitter has been all abuzz with discussions of famous and historical and inspirational women. From Heloise in the Middle Ages to JK Rowling in the present, today is a day for promoting the achieviements of women in a world which still sees us on unequal footing with men in too many respects.

So, I started thinking about women I can look up to and aspire to in my own work. I am specifically thinking about leadership roles in universities, and here is where is gets rather disappointing. 

University administration / professional services (whatever you want to call it) is awash with women. There is no doubt about that. Yet, many women get stuck in middle management and don't progress to the top roles in universties. 

Recently, the appointment of Oxford's first female Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson has made headlines for vaunting the progress of the institution in appointing a woman to the top-role. And this was followed swiftly by the news that St Andrews was appointing it's second female Vice-Chancellor in a row. 

Great! That's progress, yes!?

Undoubtedly, these are welcome appointments which will hopefully help to continually change the gendered landscape of university leadership. Yet, look at this list of Vice-Chancellors from Wikipedia. Of the 127 universities listed, there are 25 female Vice-Chancellors.* That is already pretty poor. Them, if you look at those 25 women, only 5 are leading Russell Group universities. So, while there are women to look up to and aspire to in university leadership, in reality they are thin on the ground. Much of the problem stems from the academic inequality, where the number of female professors is disproportionately lower than their male counterparts. Vice-Chancellors traditionally are senior academics, so if we consider that only 22% of professors are female in the UK, then the pool of choices for Vice-Chancellorships will obviously be reduced. So, the problem needs to be tackled at an earlier stage by promoting and striving for greater parity between male and female professors.

One final area is in the more professional role of Registrar (or Secretary) of universities, a role which is equivalent to the Chief Operating Officer where the Vice-Chancellor acts like a CEO. Now, I don't have time to go through all 127 universities on the Wikipedia list, so I looked at the Russell Group. Out of the 23 institutions, a quick look told me that 5 are female and 16 are male (there were 2 which I couldn't readily find the information).

On this International Womens Day it is important to celebrate those women leading the way for others (and in this example, leading universities), but there is so much more work to be done. I hope to have a long and fulfilling career in universities, and I hope that in the future there will be increased parity across the board. While I celebrate Oxford's first female VC, I hope for a day when the appointment of female Vice-Chancellors and Registrars doesn't make headlines. 

It will simply be the norm...

*I have updated and changed Louise Richardson for Andrew Hamilton, and included Sally Mapstone who will be the new VC of St Andrews.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Institutional Responsibility

A recent post on the Guardians 'Academic Anonymous' blog has raised some discussion today. You can read the article here.

Ultimately, it argues that universities are not doing enough to support PhD students find academic employment. It says:

'Unis need to stop merely training academics and instead start providing some of the jobs they have trained them for'.

Now, no one would deny that they would love to see universities create more academic positions for early career researchers in order to make the academic job hunt less brutal (especially in arts and humanities). But there is also a reality to be faced that there will simply never be enough academic jobs to go around, even if the situation improves. The number of people gaining a PhD is increasing and increasing, but the demand isn't there. Take the situation of history PhD students for example. This important blogpost by @brodie_waddell explains exactly how dire the situation is:

So, yes, it would be wonderful if universities increased the number of academic positions, but it won't solve the problem. If universities really want to support their PhD students they need to start looking at them beyond the research lens. The skills that PhD students gain during their studies have real world applicability, but too few are informed of this. For example, my History department put on a number of employment workshops but every single one was geared towards postdocs and lectureships. Not a single one discussed alternative career paths. No wonder so many PhD feel lost and helpless once booted out from the ivory tower!

And non-academic job workshops I have come across, predominantly cater towards STEM subjects where leaving academic for industry is far more the norm.

Academic departments and career services ought to work together to put workshops on that explore alternative career paths, based on skills developed during research-intensive PhDs in arts and humanities. It is my experience that students are more likely to attend department based workshops on careers, rather than set up 1:1 appointments with careers services. Furthermore, universities should be promoting the value of working outside of academic help to reduce the stigma that non-academic jobs are the "last resort" when the academic job doesn't manifest. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016


An article was recently published on the Times Higher Education site and has aroused some debate (see here). It discusses how academics stuggle to find a work/life balance due to increasing demands placed on their time to do all of the following:
  • Teach
  • Research
  • Publish
  • Conference
  • General administration
  • Commitee involvement

These activities and more are necessary, not for career progression, but job security. As a result, academics don't know how to switch off.


The same applies to PhD students of course. When not actively engaged in research, they are often constantly thinking about their research.

All I can say is the following: at least those academics who were asked to write in that THE article were gainfully employed full-time. While there is spill-over from the workday into leisure time, at the minimum the core working hours of 9-6 can be dedicated to those taks, with the financial support of a salary.

But we must not forget that academics and people engaged in academic research don't exist solely in the ivory tower of universities. A vast amount of scholarly research takes place by those who hold non-academic day jobs.

Imagine that you are a recent PhD graduate with the goal of getting an academic position. But the market is crap. And academic jobs are hard to come by. So while you wait for those academic job opportunities to arise and for you to be (hopefully) successful in your application, you take another job. It could be in the private sector, it could be in alternative academia, it could be teaching in schools, whatever. The point is that you need to live and eat. You need to pay the bills. You take that job. You make sacrifices.

S, when are you going to do all the academic things you need to do to keep your dream alive? You will try to pack what employed academics do into evenings and weekends, likely to the detriment of your home life, your family and friends, your social life, and possibly your sanity. And lest we forget that engaging in activities like conferencing and publishing come with costs that are not supported by any research allowance.

Admittedly, I am speaking for other people. I work outside of academia for the moment, and I have reiterated many times on this blog that this was a conscious and deliberate choice. I needed a break after my PhD. But my PhD thesis has been accepted for publication and I have only 3 months to get it into shape. So, that means late nights in the library (luckily, I work in one!), working on the commute to and from work, and saying no to social engagements. However, that is my sole focus at the moment, and that deadline was self-imposed. For others, getting a non-academic job is far more pragmatic and without the luxury of choice. Financial reasons take top billing, but think also about PhD graduates on student visas who must get a job to stay in the country!

For so many, the fight for the academic dream lives on, and the sacrifices that people make are rarely spoken of. Articles about the plight of academics ignore those on the outside looking in. If academics are struggling to manage their time, consider how difficult it must be for those standing on the drawbridge of the ivory tower.

*As an update on this post, many twitter users agree that an academic is someone engaged in scholarly research, doing activities such as publishing and conferencing, at a university level. So, to post-PhD students discussed above, we can add independent scholars, museum curators, people working in industry, and so much more! So we need to think more broadly about who or what an academic is, and make sure discussions about academia are inclusive and not exclusively for those paid by universities.