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!