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

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!!