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.