Thursday, January 28, 2016

Honest PhD Guide Update 3.0

I am pleased to say that I am in the final editing and proofing stages of the Honest PhD Guide which will be published as an e-book. You can read all about the aims and objectives here.

I am hoping to have it ready for publication and purchase very soon, so please stay tuned for more news. In the meantime, here is a preview of how it's going to look:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Student Immigration

***Featured on the Times Higher Education website***

This post is prompted by the story of US citizen Paul Hamilton, recent PhD graduate of the University of Birmingham, detained by the UK Home Office. You read about his story here: Buzzfeed / The Independent / Times Higher Education / (Even the Daily Mail)

Having worked in Higher Education for only a few months now, I can say without hesitation that one of the foremost concerns facing universities in the UK is financing. This may sound ludicrous given the recent rise in tuition fees to £9,000 for undergraduates, but the increased revenue from student fees is countered by more and more governmental cuts.
One key question that universities face then is the changing demographics. More overseas students allows universities to boost their finances through increased tuition fees. Yet, while universities are looking to expand their population of international students, the governement is making it more and more diffucult to tempt those students to come to the UK to study.
Let's look at the fee schedule for UCL in a number of disciplines for full-time PhD students 2016/17(and I've picked UCL for no other reasons than it was the first university to pop into my head). You can find the full list here:
PhD History: £4,770 per annum HomeEU  /  £17,190 per annum Overseas
PhD Geography: £4,770 per annum HomeEU / £17,190 per annum Overseas
PhD Chemistry: £4,770 per annum HomeEU / £22,180 per annum Overseas
The point is not about how much UCL or other institutions charge overseas students, but the difference between what Home/EU and Overseas students pay, usually triple or quadruple.
Now, obviously if fully-funded than those costs are not the burden of the student themselves, but in the humanities there are many international students who fully-fund or partially-fund their PhDs in the UK.
In both instances, international students have contributed money to their institution. In return they have been provided with resources and expertise to assist them in their academic pursuits. The UK and its educational institutions are investing in the academic development of future researchers through the provision of funding grants, libraries, laboratories, supervisors, etc.  But this is not a one-way street. Like many Home/EU PhD students, they will teach undergraduates and many will work part-time, thus contributing to the economy through taxes. Students contribute far more than just financial resources. As educators they will help to shape the academic development of undergraduate students. But let's not forget the main thing: intellect and scholarship. PhD students will contribute to original scholarship, understake innovative research, deliver results, publish, conference, and much much more.
And how does the UK government say thank you for such contributions. They want to restrict the right to stay and work in this country to the very people they have poured resources into. They want to impose a minimum starting salary in the range of £30,000 which anyone in the humanities knows is hardly likely when first starting out post-PhD. They want overseas students to return home to apply for a visa from there, with the additional financial expenses incurred and the emotional implications. Remember, PhDs can take 3-4 years in the UK, sometimes longer, by which time people have found partners, found a community, and put down roots. In some cases, the government will even arrest and detain you. See the links above for the story of Paul Hamilton, an American PhD graduate and Shakesperean scholar from the University of Birmingham in the UK who is currently being held in an immigration removal centre
How will we continue to encourage overseas students to study and research in UK institutions and to enrich the UK academic arena if this is the treatment they can expect at the end? If the UK wants to thrive and succeed in the future, the opportunity rests in utilising the expertise and skills of PhD students, whether Home/EU or overseas. It seems so wasteful to lose such valuable resources through a bureaucratic, blanket approach to immigration policies.

Monday, January 25, 2016


Moving on from drama of the last post!
I have started my second placement at UCL working in Library Services. As usual, I won't go into the details of what I am actually doing, but suffice to say that I am loving being back where I did my masters degree.
I completed my MA in Medieval Studies (now called Medieval and Renaissance Studies) at UCL, with the initial intention of gaining a more solid grounding in medieval history with the wonderful tutelage of the inimitable Professor David d'Avray. I previously had studied History of Art and Architecture at Trinity College Dublin with a focus on medieval art, and intended to return there to pursue a PhD in medieval art. But, while at UCL I found the text that would become the focus of my DPhil at Oxford, and that was that!
It is wonderful to be back, although tinged with sadness that so many friends made during my MA now live far away! The nostalgia is alive and kicking as my office is on the same history corridor of the library I used to work in. I am literally 2 doors down from where I sat and wrote many of my course essay! And I get to walk by the stunning Flaxman Gallery every morning, usually when it's empty so I have a few moments in this beautiful space to myself!

Flaxman Gallery, Main Library, University College London
In case this looks in anyway familiar to those who haven't seen this in person before, it featured in the movie Inception briefly (which filmed during my MA, but I missed Leonardo DiCaprio and Michael Caine in the library by one day!). Christopher Nolan, the director, is a UCL alumnus, hence the choice of UCL as a setting.

UCL has been used in many other films, a lot of which I didn't even realise until I had been to UCL and then rewatched. For example, in The Mummy, UCL takes the place of the British Museum:
The Real Facade of the British Museum
The 'British Museum' in The Mummy
UCL is an incredible institution. I have to admit that I had barely heard of it before I started research MA programmes in Medieval History, despite its impressive standing in university world rankings. Situated in the heart of Bloomsbury, it is a vibrant, cosmopolitan and perfect university for the study of medieval history. The British Museum is a few steps south while the British Library is a few steps north. The main reason I didn't consider UCL for my PhD was the size and expense of London (little did I know that Oxford rental market is as bad, if not worse than London). I wanted to live somewhere small enough to truly get to know, but with the resources and culture that London provides. And when Oxford got a little too small, London was but an hour away!
But UCL and Oxford have a lot in common. Both are devolved institutions (although Oxford more so) made up of a composite of faculties, departments, institututes, and libraries which make up the whole. So it is both familiar to be back in many respects, but different as I approach my current time in UCL not as a student viewing the workings of the university from the outside, but working and understanding it from the inside!

Friday, January 22, 2016


I am angry. I am rarely angry but today I am.

I wrote today about how I use the title 'Dr' in my work life. It was personal about my neuroses and receding impostor syndrome, but in no way related to my belief that I don't deserve to use the title just because I had a tough viva and major corrections. Imagine my reaction when I read this comment:      
You shy away from the title? I find that hard to believe as you're actually one of those types that insert it into your Twitter handle so that every tweet has it. I find this post particularly amusing considering you had MAJOR corrections to what must have been a poor and flawed thesis. Let's be real, you're going alt-ac because that was your only option and you love that title.
At first I was upset, but now I am just indignant for a whole host of reasons.
  1. Firstly, how dare anyone judge the quality of someones work based on knowing that they got major corrections?!? In my case, major corrections is anything which will take over 4 weeks to complete. So screw you!
  2. Secondly, major corrections does not have ANY bearing on the quality of the work. Never once did my examiners say that my work was flawed and poor. Rather, my external had different expectations of what my thesis would be and so I catered to their suggestions because YOU HAVE TO! Another examiner could have led to another situation. And if it was flawed and poor, why then has it been accepted for publication?! So again, screw you!
  3. Thirdly, don't you dare conclude the reasons I went into alt-ac! You suggest that it was because I was a failure without knowing any of my circumstances or reasoning.  I went into alt-ac as a choice. My choice. I wasn't forced to. I wanted a break from academia. And nobody should think less of someone for that. Nor should you think less of someone who took an alt-ac job to pay the bills when academic jobs are thin on the ground. 
  4. Finally, I don't love that title and bandy it about to impress people. I earned it, it is my right to use it how and when I see fit. I'll say it again, screw you!
You commented as 'anonymous' which says everything. I believe you have left other comments calling me childish and whinging. I will engage in a meaningful debate/conversation, but mean-spirited and spiteful comments have no place in my blog.

If I have learned anything from writing this blog, it's that you have to stand up for what you believe in and for how you feel.

The Title Doctor

I have written before on two separate themes and now have the opportunity to unite the two:
  • PhD Pride sought to highlight the positive of a PhD rather than dwelling on the negatives of life post-Phd. This was regardless of whether you continued in academia or left.
  • Impostor Syndrome was about how the doctorate helped me to be more confident in my skills as I segue into an alternative-academia career.
How to unite the two?

Well, it comes down to the question of when I use the title ‘Dr’ or not. In social media (especially Twitter) I confidently use that title because it highlights to followers an essential part of who I am and what I tweet/blog about. Obviously in teaching and academic work, using the title is a no-brainer.
However, I must admit that I am less consistent in my use of my title in non-academic roles. In my last placement in my current alt-ac job, I did sign off my emails as Dr Fiona Whelan, mostly because I wasn’t the only person in the department with a doctorate (there was about 5 of us out of 14!) so it felt natural to embrace mine. However, now that I am starting my secondment in a new place and a new role, I have shied away from the title ‘Dr’ in my sign-off.
There are probably a number of underlying, but ultimately mistaken, reasons for feeling this way (fair warning, this will give you a reasonable insight into my varied neuroses!).
  • I don’t want to consistently answer the questions about why I don’t have an academic job, or why I have chosen to work in alt-ac.
  • I may feel that people would judge me as an academic failure although I know this is not true.
  • I don’t want people to think I am rubbing their noses in it.
That last point is actually quite serious. The PhD will likely be the toughest thing I will do in my life, intellectually at least. It took 4 long years with bumps and upsets along the way. But I earned it.
I recall when I started at the University of Oxford that I would meet people when I went home or elsewhere and they would as what I am doing. I would reply that I am studying for my doctorate in history in the UK. And they would push and say ‘where?’ I replied ‘Oxford’ and sometimes the response back was ‘ooooh, don’t you think you’re great?!’
Well, you asked!
And no, I don’t. Oxford was a pragmatic choice based on resources, support, community, and yes, a little bit of the prestige. And no, I didn’t think I had a shot in hell to get in!
Those responses are invariably in the tiny minority.
It’s the same with the PhD. I shouldn’t feel embarrassed to say that I have a doctorate from a great university. It doesn’t mean that I think myself superior or better than anyone else. Merely, it was my choice, my interests, and ultimately my achievement for which the reward is the title ‘Dr’.
Simple as.
Now, I know that in my heart but tell my head that! I have to keep trying to get out of my head and realise that using the title ‘Dr’ is not a sign of pretension, but a simple fact of truth.  
I would love to hear if anyone else varies when and how they deploy ‘Dr’ and whether you experience complex emotions/neuroses around it.
Please tell me it’s not just me!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Imposter Syndrome

As I come to the last day of my placement I am faced with the prospect of starting a new placement (i.e. new job) in just 3 days time. The old impostor syndrome begins to rear its ugly head. This wonderful Buzzfeed post explains it perfectly!!

For me, that feeling is diminishing more and more as I gain substantial work experience and prove myself to my colleagues and managers. But starting a new role is always daunting, and the illogical feeling that I will be "found out" starts all over again. 

There is a strange double-impostor syndrome that I feel as I segue into an alternative-academia role. As a PhD student and then as an academic job hunter, I constantly felt that other candidates were better than I was. Throughout my PhD I had feelings of "why did they let me in?" or "surely my acceptance was a clerical error!". Of course, now I have the doctorate in hand those feelings have subsided, but even looking for academic jobs I hesitated applying because I felt I wasn't up-to-scratch for whatever reason.

Now, working in alternative academia, I feel that impostor syndrome in other ways. At the beginning I shied away from mentioning my doctorate for fear that I wouldn't live up to the high expectations that come with that.* I'm much more confident now, and know that my doctorate has given me the skills to succeed in whatever work I do. 

I trust that a lot more now.

But, although substantially diminished, the nerves will still be there on Monday morning.

Kristin Chirico/Buzzfeed

*Of course, there was the other illogical, irrational, and unfounded idea swirling in my head that people would think I was a cop-out or failure for not being in an academic job! 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Alternative Academia 6.0

The end is nigh…
Well, the end of my first placement is nigh…
I’m not sure if I have ever probably described what I am doing in alternative academia, but I am part of a UK graduate trainee programme in university management and leadership called Ambitious Futures. It consists of three placements across 15 months, with the second placement taking place at a different institution. As a result you leave with a solid grounding of three areas of the university, and also of different institutions. I’m not here to pimp the programme, but applications for the next cohort beginning September 2016 are open at the moment and the deadline is 25th January 2016.
Currently I have one week left in my first placement which has been within a planning department. I’m not going to go into details of my work because I don’t believe that blogging about my work, department, or institution is appropriate or professional, but I will summarise generally my experiences of working within Higher Education over the past four months as opposed to how I found it as a student:
  • So much goes on behind the scenes that students, and I dare say academics, are not aware of. Administration or professional services can frequently be derided as bureaucratic and ineffective and I believe that to be unfair. Universities are complex beasts and the growing regulation from government bodies equates to greater university administration. No system is perfect, but I get really annoyed when friends and colleagues talk about “incompetent” administrators. There will be bad eggs in any industry, for sure, but my experience thus far is that most people in professional services are hard-working, dedicated, but also over-stretched
  • I never knew how universities were funded or how much is spent in the support of teaching and research. The logistics of it is truly staggering at times.
  • Universities are a collaborative endeavour, managed largely through committee structures. This has downsides in the speed and accountability for decision-making, but advantages in that decisions are made by consensus, and largely led by academics with the support of professional services.
  • You never tell somebody to do something in Higher Education, you consult, persuade, cajole, but you never ever demand!
  • Personally, I know that I can set my mind to anything and come out of my shell. I entered a very technical, data-driven (and acronym) department and initially felt inadequate coming from my Humanities background. But I feel like an Excel wizard now, my communication skills have grown further in confidence (you can read about that here) and while I still feel intimidated when meeting very senior members of the university, I feel like I do belong and have a legitimate role to play.
Next, I am off to UCL to spend 4 months working in Library Services (which is a little bit of a comfort zone for me as I did my MA in Medieval Studies at UCL and worked in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford). I'll then return to Oxford to complete 6 months in Estates Services. I would encourage others to apply for this role. For me, it has provided the perfect opportunity to take a 15 month break from academia and explore other roles within the university environment I love so much. Here is the link to the Ambitious Futures website, and I am (as always) happy to answer any questions!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Honest PhD Update 2.0

Pleased to say that I have finally finished the first draft of the Honest PhD Guide!

I have a number of people reading and proofing it at the moment, and I hope to have it ready to go by the end of January 2016. I'm designing the cover now which is my favourite bit! I am currently planning on turning it into at e-book and selling it for a very modest price (really to cover costs of survey subscription, etc.) - likely it will be roughly £2.99 / €3.99 / $4.99.

Any subsequent proceeds from the sale of the e-book will be used to fund the promotion of the book and also to support my academic activities such as conferencing and image copyright costs in publication.

I hope that this sounds reasonable to my readers. Please let me know if this sounds outrageous to you!!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Academic References

I recently posted on Twitter about how much I dislike asking people for references. This isn't the first time I have thought about academic references, see here.

However, I was comforted by Twitter to know that I am not alone! My somewhat neurotic nature makes dislike asking for reference because I fear that:
a) they won’t remember me
b) they don’t like me
c) I am inconveniencing them terribly

Trust me, I know that these are ridiculous thoughts! Supervisors and examiners are well-used to being asked for references, and once written they keep them on file to use in the future with minor tweaks and adjustments. The effort is a one-off one!
But it raised some thoughts for me. I understand the importance and value of written references in academia but question the need for written references to accompany each and every academic application. It is true that many applications require a generic reference which the referee can pull from their records and tweak with minimal effort. But there are applications, especially funding applications, which require referees to rewrite a reference into a specific format, thus taking up a considerable amount of their time.
This is a highly inefficient system considering the success rate for academic jobs. In Oxford, for example, a Junior Research Fellowship can receive 100s of applications, each requiring 2-3 written references to accompany each application. Hypothetically, if there were 300 applicants for 1 position and each applicant required 2 written references, that means that 600 references were written and received for that post. That is actually a lot of time an effort put into an endeavour with such a low success rate!

Now, imagine that you ask applicants to provide the name and contact details of referees, but reviewed the applicants based on their CVs and research statements. The pool can be narrowed down to maybe 50 candidates, at which point you may wish to request written references. That means only 100 total references needed! Indeed, you could be more efficient than that and only request references for the top 10 candidates.
Or, you could go full private sector and only ask for the references of the candidate you have chosen!
I jest, academia works in different ways! But there is something for universities to learn about efficiency from other sectors. References are just one example of needless time-wasting and paper-pushing which could be streamlined.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Happy New Year 2016

Wishing all my readers a (belated) Happy New Year and best wishes for whatever 2016 brings you!
This is already shaping up to be an exciting year for me, so just to give you all a taster of what I have planed this year in my life Beyond the Doctorate:

  • I will be finishing my first placement at my job in two weeks, and then will be spending 4 months in a secondment to UCL. I am very excited to return to where I completed my Master's in Medieval Students and work with the library there.
  • I have positive indications that my thesis may be accepted for publication so will be working on revising that!
  • My pet project, the Medieval Texts Translation Project has reached the final stages of the Oxford IT Innovation Seed Fund and I will be pitching for funding in February. 
  • I am graduating in May and will finally get to don my doctorate robes!!
  • Also, in May I will begin the final placement in my job.
  • July is my conferencing month, where I will be presenting at the IMC Leeds and Harlaxton Symposium. You can read more about that here, and help me finance it here!
  • By August/September the next job hunt will begin as I am currently in a fixed-term position. But at present I don't know where or what that job will be.
Who knows what else this year may hold! I am toying with the idea of applying for some Junior Research Fellowships but currently I am enjoying my time in alternative academia and focused on doing the best I can in my current job.