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.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Big news!

My PhD thesis has been officially accepted for publication with a large academic press! (I'll refrain from naming the publisher until the contract is signed).

This has been a long road, but this news has finally put some of my demons to bed.

Many of you will recall a particularly nasty comment about my major corrections (see Comments). I was accused of having a flawed thesis. And while I knew that wasn't true, the accusation stung nevertheless. The fact that my thesis will be turned into a monograph is the final nail in the coffin of any lingering imposter syndrome I suffered in the aftermath of my viva.

The publication process thus far has been long (for reasons out of my control) but largely positive. I had wonderfully constructive feedback from my reviewers and am immensely looking forward to getting back to my thesis for the final edits (goodbye evenings, hello library!)

I've said it before when I talked about my major corrections that I believe them to ultimately be a good thing because some of the issues may have arisen in the publication process. But the corrections I received were around structural changes (not content). The thesis I submitted for my viva and the thesis I had after corrections are pretty much the same content-wise, albeit much better organised and structured. 

So it really is a validation for me that the monograph based on my thesis will be sitting on bookshelves in the near future. I knew it wasn't flawed, but this is the proof I needed to shush the haters out there!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Impact is a word that gets thrown around a lot in academia: How much impact will your research paper have? How much impact will your teaching have on your students? 

When I think about the word "impact" I view it in much broader terms.When I thought about what I wanted to do when I finished my doctorate I knew that I wanted to contribute to a greater impact beyond my research. Hence, if I wanted to positively impact the landscape of Higher Education, I needed to be at the heart of the decision-making. So, I chose to enter a graduate scheme for professional services in HE. 

Now, I am a medievalist. I knew the limitations of the impact that my research would have. Often the humanities are derided as useless in terms of future and gainful employment (not true), and is seen as inferior in importance to researchers in science and medicine. As a medievalist, I am never going to cure cancer. No one in the humanities would equate their research with that of medical research. By that I mean the two cannot be equated in terms of the scale of the positive impact that a discovery of medical cure or treatment would have in comparison with the discovery of a new medieval manuscript, for example. (However, they can be equated in terms of effort put into respective science/humanities doctorates even if they method of researching and working are different). 

Now, before anyone gets huffy and thinks that I am being disparaging about the humanities, trust me I'm not! The humanities are the backbone of our understanding of our culture and history, and without the continued resourcing of the humanities the world will become a bleaker and poorer place.

The point is about impact. Professional services within Higher Education offers a route towards impacting real change (albeit slow change - universities are notoriously snail-paced with change which is both a blessing and a curse). For example, I visited a medical library where the library staff could be asked to assist on a literature search for an operation about to happen, having a direct impact on the success of that surgery. Staff who work in Research Services help to write and support bids for grants for innovative and life-changind projects. If you work in Alumni Relations, your philanthropic work can lead to the development of new scholarships for future students. If you work in Widening Participation and Outreach, you are actively engaged with disadvantaged students and having a positive impact on the choices those students will make for their futures.

You get the point.

As a medievalist, I could never hope to have that sort of impact. My focus would be on publications and teaching.

So, when academics complain about professional services, I get annoyed. No system is perfect, but often those in professional services may well be impacting the future of Higher Education more than the narrowly focused academic career. 

I get annoyed when people assume that someone is a failure because they have a PhD yet work in "Admin". The assumption being that they are somehow a failed academic.

Nonsense. That thinking does a disservice to those who chose the route for whatever reason and they should not be judged. For all anyone knows, that decision could be about wanting to make a bigger difference than is possible as an academic, which can only be a good thing.


I have to say that I have little sympathy for the sentiments expressed in this article on the Guardian's website of an academic bemoaning his role of dean:

While I do have understand the frustrations senior academics can feel when administrative tasks and bureaucracy can interfere with research and teaching, no one can be under any illusions that academics are expected to juggle multiple roles these days. Just read this article about the new trend towards having to be an "academic superhero" to survive (not necessarily succeed I hasten to add) as an early career researcher:

As the article from the Times Higher Education states, young academics have to contend with much broader job descriptions than previously:

"The essential criteria for selection included not just detailed requirements for research and teaching, but also the ability to perform duties in administration and community engagement."
"[the] new academic…is a multitalented, always ready and available worker that we have started to label the ‘academic super-hero'...The "academic superhero" is "capable of being everything to everyone and leaping over 24 key selection criteria in a single job application"

"This is what early career researchers have to be prepared for. Gone are the days when pure research with some teaching experience on the side was enough. You have to network, conference, publish, do public engagement and outreach, have strong interpersonal skills and excellent administration skills."
So when the author of the Guardian piece complains, I just have to smile:
"And what is it that gets under academics’ skin? Academics are simple folk. They want to teach their students and do their research. Yet, these activities are guarded by regulatory booby traps. You want to teach a new course? And what are your learning objectives? Where is the business plan? You want to conduct some new research? Do you have approval from the ethics committee? And yes, you do have to buy your new hard disk from the university’s official supplier even though you can get it at half the price online. Small things can loom large at close range."
I know that the bureaucracy can be frustrating and annoying, but having worked in administration I can say that there usually is some valid reasoning behind decisions, even if you don't agree with it. However, I would have loved an acknowledgement from the author that he speaks from a place of priveledged job security. Many ECR's are faced with similarly frustrating distractions from research and teaching, yet lack the job security or elevated salaries that come with roles such as Dean.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


We've all used them as students. But I have to admit that I never truly appreciated how much libraries can support their users in ways which I never utilised.

I imagine I am not alone in using libraries in a two-fold manner:

  • as a resource with access to books/journals/databases
  • as a study space

Throughout my PhD this was how I used the library. I had my spot where I sat with my friend and fellow PhD student (although not quite as diligently as he - I wasn't a 9-5, Mon-Fri type then!) for over three years. I found the information I needed and used the quiet space to research and write. And occasionally print!

But that was it really.

In my current secondment to UCL Library Services, I am meeting a wide range of people and learning about all the amazing things that library staff do to support their diverse users. I feel regretful now that I didn't utilise the expertise and knowledge of the library staff to the fullest while I was a student.

There is still the image of the stuffy librarian hiding behind a desk, merely stamping books and collecting fines. Which could not be further from the truth in an age when students are demanding more and more services deemed commensurate with high tuition fees, and the rise of student autonomy with self-service issuing machines for example. More and more, library staff are in front facing customer service roles, and subject librarians can do far more than just help you find the sources you need for literature reviews. 

Accessing databases you didn't know about, getting help with referencing styles and systems, support with formatting theses and dissertations, providing 1:1 sessions for information services training, and so much more.

Gone are the days of librarians with their noses in books, shushing any noises from students. I can speak as one who spent 3 years working on an enquiry desk - most of us want to help you to our upmost and share our knowledge and expertise.

Make use of all your library has to offer and your PhD process could be made much easier.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Teaching and Trust

There appears to be two camps when it comes to delighting in the failures or faux-pas activities of students. This concept is best seen in the vogue for publishing Exam Howlers. See for example this list of 32 howlers.

Now, you either think these are hilarious or you can see the more destructive side to this activity. Sjoerd Levent (follow @slevent) has led the campaign to stop news sources from reporting this shaming of students. I firmly sit in the camp that sees the publication of these "howlers" are very worrying. Some educators are gleefully entering into a competition to see which of their students should be openly and publicly mocked and shamed the most.

I have taught at numerous levels, from high school to undergraduate, and the number one thing that you want to develop with your students is trust. Trust that what is discussed within the confines of the classroom stays there. Trust that answers in examinations remain private and confidential. Building that trust and respect is paramount, yet the activities of educators who extract "howlers" from exam papers and send them into competitions chips away at that trust.

Furthermore, the Guardian newspaper's website features a blog from the 'Anonymous Academic' whose recent post further helps to erode the trust between students and teachers. It extracts large chunks from students emails with teachers, and openly invites readers to join in the mocking and derision. Yet, while the anonymity of the author is protected, that of the students is not. While their name may not be attached, they would easily be able to identify themselves.

You can read the blog post here. And if you disagree with this behaviour, do tweet your comments to @GdnHigherEd.

It claims concerns about the influence of social media on the communication inabilities of students to discern what is appropriate or inappropriate. Yet, the irony is that the 'Anonymous Academic' similarly cannot distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. The internet age and social media has facilitated a culture which allows some educators to think that it is acceptable to publicly share students comments, private communications, and exam answers. It claims a veneer of anonymity for the student which in reality is not there.

As an educator, I cannot claim to never have talked about funny things students have written or said. No one is perfect. Educators have a stressful job and need to let off steam every now and again. However, that steam should be let off in the confines of the staff room, in the privacy of your our home, over drinks with other teachers. It should only happen behind closed doors and away from the earshot of students. 

Transferring that to the internet is a dangerous step, and one which undermines the trust students should have in us. And if we want students to respect us, we must also respect them, not publicly mock or deride them.

I want the Guardian newspaper to remove that post and acknowledge that the anonymity of students is equal to that of the academic.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


I am pleased to announce that the Honest PhD Guide has gone live! It is available for purchase here.

Many thanks to those who contributed to the survey and for your frank and honest insights into the PhD process and career paths. I hope this little book sheds light on a complex and emotional process, dispels some myths about the PhD and post-PhD life, and generally aids towards a little bit more compassion, understanding and tolerance about the PhD.

Why should you buy it?
Well, apart from the fact that you're not just reading my story, but the collective experience of 200 recent and current PhD students, there is a somewhat charitable side to this. Revenue generated from the sales of the e-book will be used to support my academic endeavours this year. I hope to cover some of the costs of attending and speaking at the International Medieval Congress and the Harlaxton Symposium.

So, purchasing this will genuinely be supporting academic endeavours.

Available now for purchase through Amazon