Tuesday, December 12, 2017

'Admin' Bad Days/Good Days

As readers know, I wear two hats - my professional services hat during the day and my academic hat in my spare time. I am proud of my achievements in both areas, but that does not mean that I don't experience difficult days or tensions managing both identities. While I am anxious that this blog highlights professional services within universities as a rewarding and important career for recent PhD graduates, I also don't want to give the illusion that everything is easy.

I have written previously (here and here) about the divide that can exist between academic and administrative staff. (Please note, I refute the term "non-academic" staff and think it is wholly inappropriate to describe vital members of staff in the negative, describing them by what they are not). In institutions where decision making is academic led, finding one's voice as professional services can be a challenge. Feeling like you are on the outside looking in is another common feeling that I have. What is difficult is knowing that you are an academic too, but that it is separate from your 9-5 job. When criticisms of 'admin' are leveled at you, it is hard not to want to stand up and say 'but I'm just like you! I have a PhD, I have teaching experience, I have publications too!'

Now, I have had some incredibility rewarding experiences and good days in my short time in professional services. I have supported students in crisis, I have worked on an institutional strategy for sexual harassment, I have written policies and guidance on mental health and responding to student tragedies, I have kick-started user experience initiatives in library services, and more. I am incredibly lucky to have worked with amazing colleagues (both academic and professional) in a variety of different roles.

The bad days comes when you are perceived to be a gatekeeper or someone who gets in the way. And it is difficult when you get lumped in with all 'admin' and have to listen to complaints in areas outside of your control. Yes, I am sorry you are having HR issues or IT issues, but that has nothing to do with me! It is also difficult when in meetings you often don't have a voice, or feel you have a diminished voice, due to the nature of the committee meeting you are in. It is fascinating to be among the conversation but there are times when you have to acknowledge that you are not part of it, you are not making those decisions (but rather facilitating them).

However, the hardest thing for me is when you come too close to your own discipline. If you were an English PhD graduate acting as a secretary to a meeting reviewing an English faculty you may find that an interesting prospect. I found the opposite. Knowing so much about your field and not being able to participate is difficult. Feeling like you are judged as the bureaucratic 'admin' gatekeeper by your colleagues and peers who have no idea that you have the same teaching and research profile as them, that you go home and continue working on your next publication which they may well use in their courses. You do have to prepare for that feeling of being an outsider. 

I think this experience would be different for professional services staff embedded in schools/faculties rather than in central services. Why would anyone who met me for the first time know about my academic profile? What is important is to try to separate the two identities and to be clear which hat you are wearing when.

But if I could make a plea to academics. Please let us professional services types at least sit down before you tell us how awful we are. And please remember that we are not to blame for the ills of all admin. Nor are we the ones making the decisions that annoy you; rather, we just have to implement them. Those decisions are made at a senior level populated by senior academics in the university governance structure. The irony is that academics' perceptions of admin suffers precisely because we implement (sometimes unpopular) decisions but those decisions are being made by academics.

I think my takeaway here is just a reminder to all to be kind. Treat everyone respect and don't assume that because someone is 'admin' that they are any less accomplished or valuable than someone else.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Passing deadlines

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Expenses and Finances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Making Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

There's more to HE than Oxford - Queen Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

Access to Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Freshers Advice

Dear Readers,

Please indulge me for a moment as I descend into a little nostalgia and consider the fact that I have been a Fresher three times in my life. I don't claim to have sage wisdom to impart, but perhaps some nuggets of personal experience will be of use to someone out there. 

  • Try a few different things. I definitely regret not joining a society or club to be a little more rounded.
  • The friends that you make in your first week may end up being your best friend for life. But equally, they might not. I had a close group of three in my first year. One is still my best friend 13 years on, one left the university, and the other I fell out with. It's ok for your friendship group to change along the way, because you will change too.
  • The career you thought you wanted at the beginning may not be the one you want at the end. Or it might be harder than you thought. I wanted to be a museum curator. That didn't happen!
  • It's ok to live at home. But you do need to make more of an effort to be social.
  • One professor can make all the difference. If you find one that clicks, stick with them. They can change your life. Mine did.

  • This is an intense year - the people in your course will be your circle and those bonds can last a long time. Mine certainly have.
  • Be a Fresher! I avoided the Fresher's week because I thought I had already done it all. But a new institution means new opportunities.
  • Masters courses can be very international. Expect that the people who become your friends will likely return home which can be emotionally tough.

  • Again - Be A Fresher! You'll have 3-4 years (in the UK at least) to develop an interest in something aside from academics (which is really important).
  • Your cohort will be with you for the long run and they will be your lifeline when things get tough.
  • You may also make friends with Masters students. Be prepared for them to leave and the emotional toil that new cohorts will have as new people come and go from your life.
  • Again, the career you thought you wanted at the beginning may not be the one you want at the end. Or it might be harder than you thought. Academia is tough and saturated.

I'm not going to talk about academic advice. Too boring! This is Fresher's Week after all and things are meant to be fun. But with my professional experience hat on (as both a tutor and working in student welfare) I have one more nugget to impart:

  • If you are finding things tough, please talk to someone. Be that a peer supporter, counselor, tutor, whoever...let someone know. They will help. New transitions can be tough. Finding it overwhelming is normal but when things become too much it is so important to speak up. Please know that you are not alone.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Viva Anniversary

So Facebook has kindly reminded me that my doctoral viva took place on this day, three years ago. My viva experience and subsequent corrections were the impetus for this blog so what I would like to do is pull together a list of some of the posts I wrote inspired by my viva. Long time readers will know that I started writing this blog from a point of frustration but I slowly have mellowed and come to appreciate me corrections. So, here we go:

The Doctorate In-Hand: My first post where I discuss how long it takes for a doctorate to be formally confirmed, especially with corrections, and how non-academic employers may not understand that.

The Viva Outcome: Where I try to grapple with the implications of the different types of outcomes from a viva, from minor to major corrections to refer and resubmit.

Major Corrections: This was my most popular post. I think it resonated with readers because I was open about receiving major corrections (when there is still a taboo over it), and I had reached a point where I was beginning to see the light. I could see that the corrections were making it a better and more publishable thesis in the long run.

Preparing for the Viva: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Here I provide some advice based on my personal experience but obviously everyone's experience will be different!

Limbo: There was a point after I submitted my corrections that I experience some frustrating, out-of-my control, delays so I created a minion PhD journey - seriously, no judgement please.

The Waiting Game: As above, my frustration and stress levels were high and I was becoming a bit ranty about the delays I experienced. However, I did try to make the point that universities have clear guidance to examiners about responding to students before the viva, yet there are no such guidelines or rules for after the viva.

Academic Destiny: At this point, I think I was losing the will or the plot! I found it incredibly frustrating waiting to hear about my corrections and was despairing over how just 1-2 people can hold such sway and power over your future.

Big News: As you can guess, this was the short post to confirm that the whole process after the viva was done and I was finally awarded the doctorate.

As I think back, I realise how far I have come. After that viva I felt an impostor: small, stupid, and incapable. As I grappled and overcame that setback, I became more confident and more trusting in my academic abilities. That amended thesis has produced my first monograph, an article, book chapter, conference proceedings chapter, and my forthcoming new collaborative monograph. I would like to thank my examiners because, even if I disagreed with some points, by and large you helped to steer it into something that has continued to give me so much academically.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Attacking HE and Elitism

Ok...so most of us will be aware that a certain someone has been tweeting a lot this summer about Higher Education in the UK.

I have mostly steered clear of engaging with him. Not because I wholesale disagree with him, but because of the manner with with he is attacking universities. If someone disagrees with him, the answer is to block rather than engage.

But his latest tweet made me angry:

This is an incredibly telling tweet as the quotations marks around universities clearly reveals a snobbery and elitism reserved to those who think that Oxbridge is the only worthwhile education (or maybe he would stretch to Russell Group universities). Clearly, in his mind. post-92s are not real universities.

Now, I'll put my hands up and say that I got my Master's from UCL and my doctorate from Oxford. However, coming from Ireland, I have to admit ignorance over the class barriers towards entry to elite universities in the UK. Once I started, however, it became all too apparent.

We all know amazing universities, pre- and post-1992, that have outstanding teaching and research. His denigration of modern universities, and exaltation of ancient ones, will only serve to deter more students from trying to get into Oxbridge while at the same time making those who love and thrive in their post-92 university feel bad about their institutions or even themselves. 

I did not do my undergraduate in the UK, but I have seen this binary play out in a graduate context. I have frequently heard from colleagues at post-92s (on excellent programmes with fully funded scholarships) who say they are dismissed at conferences in favour of the opinions of someone from an ancient university. 

Andrew Adonis fuels this further by legitimising the harmful belief that there are "real" universities (for which he really just means Oxbridge and other ancient universities) and "fake" universities, aka the rabble of Higher Education. 

What an elitist, pompous, snob he is! 

Whatever his agenda is, (and I am not saying that HE is without failings and room for improvement), he is at risk of seriously damaging future students' perceptions of universities in this country. 

I now await the inevitable Adonis block.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Motivation and Falling Behind

So, as you know from my previous few posts, I have left Oxford and moved to London for a new job in professional services at Queen Mary, University of London. The tumult of starting a new job and moving home has meant that I have inevitably let things slide.

I have been off the academic wagon (as it were) for too long and it is time to to hop back on.

Now that I finally have internet in my new place, I can finally feel set up to get back to my academic research. I am the sort of person for whom a deadline is always needed to push me into action but unfortunately I have cut things a little close this time.

This year focuses on two academic publications:

  1. Turning a conference paper I presented at the Harlaxton Symposium in 2016 in an proceedings paper for their forthcoming publication. The deadline is....TODAY! While I wrote the paper sometime ago, I hadn't fully incorporated all the review comments. It is fiddly but I am almost there.
  2. A collaborative publication of the translation of Urbanus magnus/Liber urbani by Daniel of Beccles.* This is due to the publisher in January, and while we are not too far behind, there is still a lot to do!
(*For those unaware, this is a 12th century medieval Latin text on courtesy, manners, household management, diet, etc., which formed the basis of my doctoral research).

These deadlines help to spur me on and keep me focused, but I am guilty of letting things slide. One of the challenges of doing your academic work outside of your 9-5 is motivation. Some evenings the TV, the Nintendo Switch, the cinema, a glass of wine or two with friends.....all seem more inviting than staying in and doing more work. 

So, why do it?

Well, first and foremost it is because I love my subject and want to share it more widely. But pragmatically, continuing to maintain an academic identity keeps the door open in the future for academic roles. While I have ruled it out for the moment, my day job is taking me closer to teaching and learning and in the future there may be a role that allows for further blending of my academic and administrative personas.

Does anyone else have projects/interests that they try to maintain in addition to the day job? If so, how do you staying motivated? Please share below!

Friday, August 25, 2017


Apologies for the radio silence!

Things have been a little bit hectic over the past few weeks as I have:

  • Left my role at the University of Oxford
  • Moved to London
  • Started a new role at Queen Mary, University of London.
Actually, I did this in an incredibly short period of time, considering I left my Oxford role on a Thursday, packed on a Friday, moved on a Saturday, and started a new job on the Monday. Yes, I am just that crazy.

But frankly, I am not the type of person who likes gaps between employment. Not for any CV reasons, but because I find it keeps me in the work mindset. Had I taken a vacation in between roles I would have spent a significant amount of time worrying about starting anew.

No, when I take my annual leave, I know I can switch off 100%.

I will update more as I settle into the new role. But I can say that I work in Academic Standards and Quality, working towards course monitoring, course creation, and loads of other nitty gritty bits of administering taught programmes for undergraduates and postgraduates. It is a shift away from student welfare and I will discuss my reasons for that later.

But, for now, I want to say a big thank you to my colleagues back in Oxford who made my time there so memorable. I can, hand-to-heart, say that staff who work in student welfare have some of the most difficult work but they undertake it with patience, compassion, kindness, and warmth.

I am not going to wade into the devaluing of professional services staff rampant over the past couple of weeks (see recent Spectator and Guardian articles on the useless, wasteful, "empty" administration"). I found it too mean, degrading, and ignorant to waste my breath trying to stand up against it. Those types of people will never want to hear about the value of admin.

All I can say is that my colleagues in the past have exemplified the value and worth of professional services. And I have no doubt that I will feel the same in my new institution. 

Oh, and one thing - do not call someone professional services "non-academic". Why title someone by what they are not?! RUDE, RUDE, RUDE.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Alternative academic job hunting

As you will know from yesterday's post, I will be moving for a new job in London shortly. A lot has been written about academic job hunting, and in particular poor practice in terms of communication with candidates. Many on Twitter have experienced "ghosting" in the application process for academic jobs - if you don't get shortlisted, you never receive an email informing you that you were unsuccessful. Or worse, you receive a letter 4-5 months after the fact informing you that you didn't make it to interview (big shock!). The worst is ghosting after job interviews.

And much of the critique comes from the fact that it is very simple to embed automatic processes into the application process which ensures that emails are automatically sent to candidates. Much is made of the need to professionalise that academic job application process.

So, what was it like job-searching for non-academic roles within universities (or related bodies) in what we call professional services? Surely, the process would be more-professional?

Sadly not.

I won't say how many jobs I applied to, but suffice to say that at least 4 failed to acknowledge receipt of my application. A number of others took an inordinate amount of time to tell me I wasn't shortlisted. The best were the ones with a system where you could track your application process, and received immediate confirmation of receipt of your application. But even some top London universities failed with such a system in place, never informing me about my rejection.

So, it seems to me that there is an issue more generally in universities around job applications, for all staff. It is about courtesy and the impression that you give to your candidates. Yes, you may not want to hire them for that particular role, but don't put them off from applying in the future by leaving a bad taste in their mouth.  

The sad fact is that for academic positions, universities frequently have the luxury to behave in this manner because demand will always massively exceed supply. If University X ghosted you before, but another position came up, beggars cannot always be choosers (apologies for the phrasing, but the academic job market often seems to an exercise in pleading for opportunities). For professional roles, demand still outstrips supply but not to the same degree and in the future I may have the luxury of being more selective in where I want to work.

When it comes to job applications, first impressions count. And that applies as much to the candidate as to the institution.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

New Beginnings

So, some of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I announced that I am leaving Oxford for a new job at Queen Mary, University of London.

Making the decision to leave the place I have called home for almost 7 years is hard to do, but ultimately it feels like the right choice, both personally and professionally.

I am immensely grateful for all that Oxford has given me:
  • An academic community which has supported me through my DPhil, provided teaching opportunities, and helped with my post-PhD publications.
  • A chance to experience a wide-range of alternative-academic career paths through a Graduate Management Trainee scheme and my subsequent role in student welfare.
  • Wonderful colleagues and inspiring leaders who have encouraged and pushed me to believe in my abilities and pursue my ambitions.
  • Lifelong friends who are an integral part of my life and support structure
But mostly, Oxford has given me the confidence in myself. Both in terms of believing in my academic ability and continuing to pursue that, but also validating that many people with PhD thrive and are valued in professional services within universities.

London is calling and a new challenge awaits.

But for now I want to give thanks to my supervisor, students, friends, managers, mentors, and colleagues. This isn't goodbye, but see you later.

And for London-folk, please do get in touch and say hello!

Image result for farewell

Friday, May 19, 2017


I set this blog up two years ago in reaction to my PhD viva and corrections, and it has followed my into two alternative-academic jobs, and the trials and tribulations of trying to maintain my academic identity while pursuing a career in the public sector and Higher Education.

And today the blog has breached 100,000 views and I could not be more proud and humbled. Thank you so much to all the readers.

I know that the blog started as a bit of a whinge and a moan about my viva and delays I experienced afterwards, but I hope that my posts about my alternative paths post-viva have been illuminating, helpful, and less-whiny!!

The success of the blog rests on the wonderful folk on Twitter who are often my academic lifeline. Don't stop being awesome!

Thanks again,

Monday, May 15, 2017

Conference Fees and Access

My previous post talked about the academia / admin divide, and how there can be a lack of understanding and respect in both directions. That post was timely, as I subsequently got involved in a Twitter conversation whereby a Cambridge history professor queried the value of professional services staff attending externally organised CPD events which cost in the region of £195.

Now, I am not going to talk here about how rude and demeaning it is to:

a) target more junior staff on Twitter
b) devalue the work of administration and professional services

I've been there and done that.

But the issue I had was the assumption from this professor that they would never pay upwards of £195 for a one-day academic conference. In my more limited academic experience, I could think of numerous cases of where I have seen/paid high costs for academic conferences. So I took to trusty Twitter to find out more.

I asked Twitter users what was the highest amount they had paid to attend one-day of an academic conference:

The results showed that the majority (31%) paid between £50-100, which is good! But the fact that 41% had paid over £100 for one-day registration was worrying. In conversation, it became clear that some multi-day conferences dis-incentivised one-day attendees with high costs that were barely different from costs to attend the full conference. I will come back to why that is problematic.

I then asked Twitter what was the highest fee they had seen advertised to attend a conference for one-day:
The results showed that 44% saw fees over £150, while 34% have seen fees over £200/£300. That is worrying. It assumes a culture in academia where they assume attendees have access to such funds through bursaries and grants. It fails to account for the large number of academics without an academic affiliation who have to pay those costs themselves. And for those academics with non-academic jobs, it is often only possible to attend a multi-day conference for just one day. Annual leave is such that often one can only sacrifice one day for a conference. So, high fees to attend for one-day actively excludes those who work outside of the academy or whose access to bursaries/grants are limited.

Luckily, there are some conferences which offer bursaries/discounts to PhD students and often include in that category people without institutional affiliation. But there are not enough of those.

And to that professor who believed that no one would charge or pay £195 for a one-day academic conference, the evidence suggests that it does happen. But it may be that once you reach a privileges position of seniority in an academic career that one doesn't have to pay those fees, they simply get waived. Or, you don't feel the pressure that young ECRs feel to attend conferences to network, develop ideas, work towards publications, etc. The landscape of academic careers has changed and high registration fees excludes those who need them the most while privileging those already in the system.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Academic / Admin Divide

I have written many times in this blog about the perceptions of administration, whether right or wrong, by academics. I should caveat here by saying that it is a minority who see university administration as the villains, the bureaucrats, the overpaid. An interesting conversation has raised a number of critical points:
  1. There are some who conflate high Vice-Chancellor / President / Provost salaries with "administration" which therefore ignores the fact that the majority of administrative staff are on lower grades with a much more modest salary than you might expect.

  2. Those admin staff on lower grades are proliferated by women who often find it difficult to move up or see paths to career progression and management roles.

  3. Those admin staff on lower grades are easily ignored - for example, conversations about high living costs are often couched in terms of enticing high-quality researchers to a university in an expensive area (Oxford/Cambridge/London) which completely ignores the fact that admin and support staff face the same high costs and attendant challenges.

You can read more over on my Twitter @FionaEWhelan.

Now, I have been lucky enough to be on both sides of the fence - an academic research and now in alternative academia, aka university administration. And my roles in admin have been varied, working across 4 different sections and working with a number of others. So, as a flavour of what administrative, clerical, support staff do for teaching and research in Higher Ed, I would like you to imagine that you are a lecturer or tutor and think about the following questions. Could you do your job if these roles were reduced, disappeared, or subsumed into your role?

  1. A newspaper calls you unexpectedly about a story that is about to blow up in relation to your work. They want a comment. Do you feel equipped to respond to this? The Press Office in universities is designed to both promote your work but also to support you should adverse media scrutiny strike.
  2. One of your students is distressed and needs support. Luckily your university has a Counselling Service and welfare support you can signpost them to.
  3. Your research grant for a major project just got approved and now you need to start hiring postdocs, PhDs, and project admin team. HR can help to create the job descriptions, advertise the jobs, and ensure that everything is compliant with legislation,
  4. That amazing postdoc and PhD student you want to hire from overseas. They are likely going to require a visa. Do you feel you have adequate knowledge to advise on both staff and student immigration issues? Handily, most universities have specialists who can advise.
  5. That new building you need to expand but need funds for. The Development Office can help to raise funds while Estates Services can work on planning and project management.
I could go on: student registry, admissions, outreach, examinations, graduation, alumni relations, strategic planning, payroll, library services, careers services, IT services, research services, data analysis, governance, legal services, and so much more.

Administration can often be perceived at a departmental level as that is where it is most visible, but it is so vital to take stock of the work that goes on behind the scenes. And while some of it may seem superfluous, redundant, or excessive to you, try to imagine what would happen if those roles/departments did not exist. And before you dismiss such roles out of hand as "university bureaucracy gone mad", remember that:

  1. These roles exist for a reason. You may not know/care what that reason is, but there is a reason.
  2. People's livelihoods depend on these roles.
  3. When you dismiss those roles you belittle the people who fill them.
  4. Those who work in admin are likely to be just as passionate about teaching/learning/HE as you.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

From thesis to book

*Blog post updated to include copies of my book proposal

When I see advice sought or given about getting your thesis published, it is all too often couched in terms of 'If you want an academic job, you really need to have a monograph' (in the Humanities at least). Here, I don't want to go into whether that is right or fair, but rather highlight that this attitude implies that pursuing academic publications is really only reserved for those with an academic job or actively looking for one.
As someone who currently doesn't want an academic career, but definitely wanted to get my thesis published, it felt at times that what I was trying to do was a vanity project. And there weren't many others talking openly about some of the difficulties of publishing as ostensibly a non-academic (in the sense that I have a non-academic full-time job).
So, what I'll do here is a brief run-through of my experience of the publication process I went through, and how it may have been different for me as someone without institutional affiliation.
The process (dates are rough cause my memory is hazy):
  • April/May 2015: Submitted a proposal to a publisher recommended by my supervisor.
  • July 2015: Following positive noises from the publisher, submitted a full draft of the manuscript which was then put out for peer review.
  • Sep/Oct 2015: Reviews came back. One was more receptive to the project with minor alterations, while the other wanted something different. I followed the former recommendations and submitted a revised proposal in light of those comments
  • Jan 2016: Accepted for publication, contracts signed, and deadline set for delivery of manuscript.
  • May 2016: Submitted final draft.
  • Aug/Sep 2016: Manuscript proofed.
  • Jan 2017: Manuscript published.
Now, this timeline was elongated due to the fact that the publishing house I initially submitted to was taken over my a larger publisher which did delay the process. 

My experience of trying to do this in conjunction with a full-time non-academic job had some limitations:
  • I didn't have a community around me who I could immediately turn to for advice and support. As such, it was a rather isolating experiencing.
  • Evenings and weekends were often sacrificed, and friends and family roped in to help. There was no way that I could embed this into my day job, although I acknowledge that the current state of academia and academic jobs means that even academics may not have the time either.
  • Access to funds to cover costs such as image rights and indexing are harder to come by (although I am grateful to the IHR Scouloudi Fund to help cover image costs). I had the option to have the publisher provide an indexer but costs would have come from my royalties (which would be pittance) so I did the index myself.
  • Writing your author bio is tricky as you can't say 'Fiona Whelan is a lecturer/researcher at the University of X'. 
However, a lack of academic affiliation is NOT a deterrent to publishers. I did fear than emailing from a Gmail account or my admin work account would be a detriment to my proposal being taken as seriously as someone with an academic position. That fear was completely unfounded and I felt that I was treated with respect and courtesy throughout the whole process.

If anyone has any questions/comments, please do leave a comment below.

And if you want to see the final product, here is a link to my first academic book!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ethics and Sharing

A while ago there was justiciable backlash against an annual feature of the Times Higher Education called Exam Howlers, a 'competition' designed to encourage teaching professionals in Higher Education to submit some of the worst/funniest mistakes students made in their exams. Now, fans of this feature would claim that it is harmless fun which allows academics to let off some steam. The submissions are anonymous so the students shouldn't care. Critics of the feature (like me) would argue that it is exploitative, humiliating, degrading, mocking and anonymity is not protected because a student could easily identify themselves in the examples. And it is not just Exam Howlers - we have to acknowledge that social media has made it easier for people to share anecdotes about their teaching experiences and, as a result, use students as fodder for laughs.

Now, I have taught students and I have definitely let off steam in conversation with fellow tutors. However, I would never post anything on social media that mocked a student's work. That is right and decent and just good practice. Surely, then, it should be the same in the world of work?

I raise the example of job interviews because the scenarios are just the same - you have those in a position of power and authority (the examiners/lecturers/interviewers) and those in a more vulnerable position potentially riddled with anxiety and nerves (the student/candidate). The same ethics apply, those of confidentiality, of being respectful, of not using a 'hilarious' exam answer or interview answer as fodder for social media clicks and likes.

So, imagine my surprise when I saw this pop up on my LinkedIn news feed:


Best, worst, or most surreal interview answer ever.

I've interviewed many people in the past but one answer stands out above all. Context: Interview was going rather well for a social media manager role, the interviewee was slightly nervous but had given solid answers to most of the capability questions and then hit me with this doozy whilst discussing personal development and self awareness.

Q: What is your biggest weakness?
A: Fried chicken.

There was no pause and he answered automatically. What has been the strangest response you've had in interviews?

Now, I suspect that this is not a case of mocking the individual's answer, but rather about the challenges of answering stock, overused interview questions. Nevertheless, if I had been that candidate and checked into LinkedIn to see that my interview experience was being splashed all over social media, I would be understandably angry, annoyed, and frankly a little upset.

Of course, this individual may not care or may have given consent for this to shared (although I doubt the latter). Surely, what happens within the confines of an interview should stay there.

It is sad to see instances of people using exam answers or job interview responses as a means of garnering more visibility. We sadly live in an age where self-promotion on social media trumps decency and respect, and those more vulnerable become the victims of those who ought to know better.

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Tale of Two Conferences 2.0

As many of you know, I try to juggle my alternative academic day job with maintaing my academic profile. And in a strange coincidence I ended up attending two back-to-back conferences: one work-related, the other academic-related.

Now, the work conference is probably better described as a CPD event (continuing professional development) but it followed the same format as an academic conference with keynote speakers and Q&A. However, it also had the added benefit of two workshops which I find a really vital tool because it is a less formal and more collaborative way of sharing ideas and learning from each other. The traditional paper Q&A session is more rigid in academia and allows for the worst of academia to pervade:

  • Some panellists not getting questions and being ignored
  • Agressive questioning in a non-supportive manner
  • The dreaded grandstanding of the 'comment, not question'
As an introvert, I also find that workshops are a more inclusive way of allowing those who feel too much anxiety about traditional Q&As and they are better for networking as it is more organic and less artificial. I have come away from my CPD with a real in-depth knowledge of a subject and really useful contacts.

The second conference is your standard keynote lecture followed my chaired panel sessions with 3-4 participants. Now this was a really fascinating conference that I was invited to present at and what I am saying has no bearing on the organisation of the event or the quality of the papers. I have already learned so much. But the striking difference between the two events was timing and chairing. Because participants before me were indulged to go over their time, I had less time and the chair in my paper stood up (who was sitting to the side in the middle of the room) and steadily creeped closer to my podium. Needless to say, I felt thrown and the last part of my talk definitely felt both rushed and glossed over. And pity the person who came after me with even less time cause lunch was looming.

It didn't improve. Another session allowed the first two participants to go significantly over time leading to increased pressure on the final speaker. Now, that comes down to the Chair (a different one in this case)...and if the Chair is lax then there is little the audience can or should do. What I completely disagreed with was the first speaker in that session (who had overrun) gesturing to the last speaker to wrap it up. 

There was one final piece of conference etiquette which I would like to highlight. Before my session I was introduced to the Chair and we were having a conversation so that they knew what to say to introduce me, but we were also just having a very fruitful conversation about the state of academia. A fellow attendee approaches the Chair, ignoring me and starts a conversation. I have never felt so invisible before and just had to walk away. I really got the sense that this individual felt that his conversation was far more important than mine and that I could be so easily dismissed.

So conference etiquette lessons learned:
1. Do not try to be the Chair no matter how frustrating running over time can be and especially not if you contributed to the overrunning of time.
2. If you want to introduce yourself to someone who is conversing with someelse, by all means approach but acknowledge the interruption and respect the conversation that is happening. Don't bully them out of the way. Especially if you are a man and you ignore the woman.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Subject Fatigue

I talk on this blog a lot about the details of my work/life balance, and how I maintain my academic identity while working a full time alternative academic job in Higher Education. But I have realised that in talking about attending conferences and publications that I rarely talk about the subject of my research!

As readers may know, I recently published my doctoral thesis as a monograph called The Making of Morals and Manners in Twelfth-Century England: The Book of the Civilised Man. I wrote on a text known in Latin as Urbanus magnus, attributed to Daniel of Beccles.

This is an unknown and problematic text, both in terms of dating and authorship, but it is also a sorely misunderstood text which gets lumped into discussions of chivalry, courtesy, table manners, and bodily emissions. A cursory search on the internet reveals that people are disseminating the funny bits from the text related to "when you belch, look at the ceiling". But this is a 2,840 line text and one which covers an incredible breadth of subject matter: morality, religion, citizenship, friendship, professional conduct, hospitality, marriage, sex, household administration, diet, and much more! For a very basic introduction see this booklet which was produced on the text.

It is that breadth which has allowed me to dedicate my scholarly output on this one text. To date I have written the first dedicated study of the text and two articles, one on manuscript dissemination and the other on diet. Another article is in the works (deadline next week - eek!) which focuses on household administration. But that barely scratches the surface on the subject matter in this text.

The next project is a collaborative translation to get an English translation published hopefully this year or next. And the process of completing this translation throws up more and more interesting topics to explore. I can already envision articles focusing on the concept of patronage, interpersonal relationships, and marriage and sex. Hopefully, the publication of the translation will lead to a renewed interest in the text and others can delve into its subject matter.

I haven't tired of this text yet. And I am fine with being known as the Daniel of Beccles expert. But I have two fears: one is that I may bore of the text; the second is that I am not expanding my knowledge my focusing all my efforts on this one text.

However, the subject fatigue has not set in yet. Mostly because I am still so charmed by the uniqueness of this wonderful text. So to reward you for getting to the end of this post, here are some quotes from Urbanus magnus to give you a flavour of the text:

You should wage war on fights, avoid prostitutes and taverns, fierce wresting matches, and idle dances. You should not have scoundrels for companions; keep away from the brothels.
[One for Donald Trump] Don't be eager to harm the weak with blows or words.
[Another for Donald Trump] Let no fables sprout from your mouth whereby you are shown to be deceitful. More often, speech full of vice runs into offense, and to speak confers lies and very often harms the use of genuine conversation. 
You are a rustic if you blow your nose or spit whilst dining; cough if you have to but try to suppress it.
[Classic example of medieval misogyny] If your viperous wife cannot be subdued with honey-sweet speech, do not beat her with a stick. Blows are useless when no words succeed. If you resort to strike her, a cruel woman will give you fatal dishes and poisonous drinks... 
There is so much more to this text. If you want any information on Daniel of Beccles and this text, please get in contact!!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Falling in and out of love

I fall in and out of love with academia on a monthly basis. Sometimes weekly. Sometimes daily.

As readers will know, I work in Higher Education in what is often termed "alternative academia" - a phrase to describe those supporting the core activities of teaching and research. I work in student welfare, love what I do and find it very rewarding.

But as you will also know, I try to maintain my academic identity as much as a can. I present at conferences, keep up my publications and research profile, and teaching a few tutorials when the opportunity presents itself.

This is not easy and I frequently feel that I am spinning 10 plates at once. The days where you receive conference rejections or where writer's block hits or where Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head are the days where I fall out of love with academia. The days where conference invites come out of the blue, or 1,000 words flow out in 2 hours, or you make a research discovery are the days that I fall back in love with academia.

And on those days I often find myself wistfully thinking about academic jobs. I never fully tried to get an academic job after my doctorate because I was scarred by my experience. But my feelings ebb and flow from never to maybe when it comes to full-time academia. Interestingly, when the perfect job does manifest (and there are 2 jobs out there at the moment), I never want to actually apply. Before now, I have never tried to dissect why that was so here I go:

What do I love about academia?
  • Researching and making new discoveries
  • Collaboration
  • Presenting at conferences and making new connections
  • Teaching
What do I dislike about academia?
  • Imposter Syndrome
  • Precarious contracts and financial insecurity
  • Laborious job application processes
  • (Perceived) nepotism and favouritism
  • Workload
  • Competitiveness

I am sure that many other peoples lists may look very similar. But what I have discovered is that those elements that I love about academia are those which I can maintain, with effort, in addition to my alternative academic job. And my 9-5 job provides me with those things I dislike about academia:

  • Balanced work/home life
  • Feeling of confidence and ability to do the work
  • Financial and job security
  • Support and collaboration
I recognise that not having family or caring responsibilities affords me the luxury to be able to have the time to maintain my academic hat. But it is also important to recognise that sacrifices will still be made. I've talked before about sacrifices in terms of time, annual leave, and even finances. But another thing to consider is that things will just take longer like writing that article. You may be able to keep teaching, but it will be limited and subject to being able to teach after work.

But at the end of the day, I am happier now that I was when I thought that an academic job was the only post-PhD path. And never say never, maybe in 5-10 years my feelings will change!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Academic References 2.0

I have written here before about how difficult the process of obtaining academic references can be, from logistically making sure everything is submitted on time to the (often unfounded) sense of guilt that you are "bothering" something for asking for written references.

I firmly believe that the majority of academic applications should included named referees, and follow with a request from references once shortlisted. But hey, everyone wants to live in a utopia, yes?

But, on a related note, I was recently reminded of something my supervisor said to me (slightly tongue-in-cheek but with a smattering of truth) about who to choose as my PhD examiners. "Don't choose someone close to retirement...they may not be around in 10-20 years for references".


Now, on a more practical level, contacting retired referees can be problematic not simply because they died, but (less morbidly) their email may be cancelled, contact details changed, etc.

I was reminded of this when I sent a friend a job description and they decided not to apply because the hassle of tracking down such contact details and obtaining the references was just too much.

I wonder if other people have had similar issues?

And more broadly, the academic system of references privileges those who go straight from PhD to academia and therefore may find it easier to maintain such contacts and links. What about those who took non-academic jobs for financial, family, visa, reasons who are still hoping to return to academia after a few years?

How many talented young academics are actively discouraged from applying for jobs because the mechanism and tradition of academic applications are so onerous?

How can we make the application system more equitable and inclusive?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

HE Administration

I started this blog to normalise major corrections after a PhD viva corrections. It has then evolved with me wanting to confront issues such as failure in academia, leaving academia, and working in Higher Education as a professional, not an academic.

There is a huge lack of understanding both inside and outside the ivory tower about the role of professional services, and there is tension on both sides. Academics complain that administrations burden them with unnecessary extra work or while those in professional services may say that academics nitpick over minor points of committee papers, such as commas and semi-colons!

Of course, I am being reductive to make a point. And by-and-large the two sides realise that they both need and help each other. But I still want to campaign for a greater appreciation of administrative staff. For example, Oxford is one of the most expensive cities to live in the UK, and the problem of recruiting postdocs (esp. with families) is hard when 60% of income will go on rent. We hear this a lot as admin staff - more needs to be done to provide affordable housing, childcare, etc. All of this is absolutely true, but fails to address the problem that administrative staff on lower grades face exactly the same issues. But, their voices and their struggles are less promoted.

Now, we can't claim to change perceptions of value anytime soon, but we can take small victories as and when they arise. Yesterday I went on the Times Higher Education site which I do daily because I believe that it is important in my role to stay up-to-date with HE issues. I suspect that a large proportion of their readership are people like me - HE professionals - wanting to remain abreast of the news. So, you can imagine my disappointment when I went on the site to be asked to complete a survey question which asked whether I was:
  1. A student
  2. Becoming a student
  3. An academic
  4. Other
And I had to tick 'other' which I felt did a massive disservice to my role and my interest in Higher Education, devaluing the work that professionals do to keep the machinery of universities running. So I told the Times Higher Education via Twitter. And within a few hours it had been changed:

It is a small step but means a lot. HE professionals support the work of teaching and research undertaken by academics, and that contribution needs to be respected, not ignored. 

So, thank you Times Higher Education!!