Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Academic meanness

I cannot prove, but suspect that some of the comments about my major corrections, insinuations about the quality of my work, and my alt-ac career are by the same person, or 1-2 people. They have in the past told me that my thesis must have been poor and flawed due to major corrections, that I wasn't cut out for academia, and more recently, that I was a loser and failure. Here is a snippet:


They also like to trawl through all my posts to find they tiniest hint of a contradiction and publicly call me out on it.

Why? 

If the goal is to make me feel bad, then it doesn't work because I am proud of my achievements. I am confident in my research, published via peer-review. I am assured in my decision not to pursue academia right now. So, if you are trying to pull me down, it's not working.

If the goal is to make yourself feel better by belittling others, then I would ask you to look inwards. What is it about me and my story that makes you feel the need to call me a loser, failure, with flawed research? 

If you are feeding some sort of jealousy, I refer to the point above - look inwards. What have I done that makes you jealous and seeks to pull me down?

I will always stand up for myself, so do not consider this post (or my Tweets) a validation that you have got under my skin. No. Rather, these false notions about major corrections and quality are harmful and seek to create hierarchies in the PhD result. There are none. A pass is a pass. My degree certification does not have a footnote to say that I got major corrections.

I passed. I made a success of a minor set-back. And I spoke up about it. Sorry if that offends you but I won't stop. And if you keep commenting in such a mean-spirited way, I will keep calling you out on it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Catching Up

I've recently come to realise where my anxieties about my career path comes from - my PhD. As readers will know, I work in 'alternative academia' - having held various roles from student welfare, estates, library services, and academic standards. All of which support the endeavors of teaching and research within Higher Education.

I made the choice not to pursue an academic career but wanted to actively work in universities. I entered a fast-track graduate management scheme in university management and worked my way up a few grades in a short period of time. But I was always striving for more, always thinking 5, 10, 15 years down the line and where I wanted to be. Which is completely normal.

What wasn't normal, and was certainly unexpected, would be how I found myself comparing myself to others. I did a four year undergraduate, a one year master, took a year off, and then a 4 year PhD. By the time I was done, my school friends had a 6-7 year career headstart on me. Whereas, had I pursued academia, many of my colleagues would have been starting around the same age as me, now I suddenly felt left behind from my "non-academic" friends and colleagues (yes, I hate that phrase). I saw people the same age as me 2-3 grades above me, earning significantly more than me, with solid career paths and plenty of experience.

I wouldn't change my PhD for the world. It made me who I am, opened doors, and I still remain research active. But I wish someone had told me that it would be hard leaving academia and starting towards the bottom, feeling the rush to catch up and make up for the lost time.

I know that I shouldn't compare myself to others. I know that I am still young and there is plenty of time to develop a career. But there are days when that is hard, when you don't feel valued or opportunities pass you by, when you will wonder about the choices you made. And you will wonder if your potential is being squandered?

I think we need to be open about this when we encourage PhD students to consider careers outside the academy. Yes, these careers can be amazing but there will be challenges transitioning out of academia. As long as we acknowledge the highs and the lows, then we will be setting students up to succeed in whatever career they choose.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Saying no to academia (for the moment)

A little while back I found a job advert for an academic position that looked perfect for me in terms of alignment with my area of research. I was hesitant about applying for a number of reasons:

*Obviously that should read "Is academia worth it". Twitter - where is my edit button!?

But Twitter gave me a boost to believe in myself and I started to polish off my academic CV and get to writing the job application. But in the end, I did not apply.

I have to be honest that I don't know if I made the right decision or not. Some would surely say that I should have just put my hat in the ring, just to test the waters. And yes, that would have meant that I had more up-to-date application material at my disposal. But the reason I did not apply was that this was a teaching-only position, and the more I thought about it, the more I backed away from applying.

I have written here before about my relationship with teaching. I enjoy the rewarding feeling I get at the end of teaching and seeing my students thrive. I know that I am a good teacher based on the feedback I receive. I have massive anxiety in the prep and lead up to teaching. This is my impostor syndrome - the thought that my students will "catch me out". I has never happened before, and I admit when I don't know the answer to something, but I always have the lingering feeling that one day I will be exposed as an academic fraud.

So, my reasons for not applying to a teaching-only role was primarily for my personal wellbeing. I realised that I didn't need that stress or anxiety in my life. The current state of academia with TEF and the stress on student feedback and peer observation would only have worsened that anxiety.

It all brought to light the thing that I enjoy - research. I am happily working away on the second monograph, have a conference proceedings paper about to go to print, and a collaborative article on the horizon. If I were to return to academia, it would be for a more research-focused role with some teaching that I could find more manageable. Interestingly, there is something just like that being advertised which I may just go for! Who knows!

The point of this point was to say that sometimes the "perfect" job may be perfect in terms of the subject matter but not the remit of the role. It was hard for me not to apply and face up to a potential missed opportunity. But I had to put me first and not jump back into academia for the sake of being back. If I go back, it will be on my terms. For now, I have a good job with an excellent work/life balance that affords me positive wellbeing. It also allows me time to keep doing what I enjoy - research and writing. It would have to be a pretty "perfect" opportunity to tempt me back.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Fatigue

A short post today to say that I am tired. I am tired of my role in a university being an afterthought. I am tired of being undervalued. I am tired of academics and admin being pitted against each other. And I am tired of attitudes which render my career path (university management) as dispensable and redundant:

I know that the majority of academics value the work that academic-related staff / professional services do, but all it takes is consistent oversight mixed with one blatant statement of admin's uselessness, to make me question if it is worth it. And when I think about my career, do I want to continue in an environment that will devalue and deride me on a regular basis? Do I want to work in an environment where no one considers how I feel?

The answer may well be no.

I am passionate about education. I want to make HE the best it can be, just not in an academic role at present. But if a minority believe that my career path is meaningless and redundant, maybe I should put my skills and passion towards something that will value me as an equal partner.

I just wonder how many good people will be lost to HE because we didn't value them enough or, if we did value them, never took the time to tell them.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

On Hierarchies

Today has been a tough day. I spent a lot of today trying to remind people that those striking in the UK about university pension cuts weren't just lecturers. Many other university staff were striking, including librarians and professional services. But, if you were following this in the news, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was purely an issue which affected academic staff. Take this from the leader of the Green Party:

Or take the BBC who actually reported that the USS pension scheme was a "lecturers' pension scheme"  (which it is not, because I'm professional services and I am in that scheme).

All of this was emotionally draining. As I've said before, staff who support the work of the university in non-academic roles have been shut out of the conversation and ignored. It got me thinking...if we continue to devalue staff in universities, how long can we expect them to stay?

But what do I mean by devalued or ignored? I have worked in Higher Education administration for over three years now and have some observations (and apologies for some generalisations coming up).

Professional services staff service many committees whose membership is academic staff. This is the norm and is why universities are self-governing. Professional services staff can be called onto advise, but that (expert) advice can be easily ignored and, more often that not, we sit in silence at these meetings. We act as a second tier, destined to record the conversation but not really be part of it.

Administrative staff are easy targets. As we implement policies, processes and changes, we are at the cold face of grumblings and grievances about bureaucracy, paperwork, and obstructionism. We are subject to the same decision making by senior staff, but often people find it difficult to distinguish between the decision makers and the implementers.

Furthermore, when major issues arise, it is always the academic voice that is heard, not that of the rest of us. I recall going to hear the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford speak about the challenges the university was facing and it was all about the need to recruit early career researchers and provide affordable housing for them. No care was given to support staff who struggle to afford to live in the most expensive city in the UK but without whom the university would cease to run effectively.At another event about women's equality, again the whole conversation was couched in terms of getting more women into academic roles. I asked the Vice-Chancellor and the panel why it was that we don't talk about getting women into top professional services roles (such as Registrars) but no one had really considered it.

I am very disheartened today. I feel that today cemented what I have been feeling for a while which is that we are always an afterthought, rarely praised but often scapegoated. This isn't enough to make me leave Higher Education immediately, but I don't think it is sustainable to feel undervalued and not respected. I'm not sure how the system can improve but I worry that the more invisible we become, the more our enthusiasm and passion for Higher Education will wane.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Professional/Support Staff

So, as Twitter followers will know, I have been a little annoyed that professional services staff have been repeatedly ignored in the discussion over the USS pension changes and the subsequent UCU strike to protest this.*

*For non-UK followers, many univeristies are part of a pension scheme called the USS. I am not going into technical details (Google if you are really interested), but the gist is that pensions will be massively slashed as a result of proposed changes.

The problem I have is that all of the reporting (both in the mainstream media and on Twitter) has focused on the impact these changes will have on academic staff and the impact the strike will have on current students when their lecturers go on strike.

Well, I have news for you - many professional services staff are members of the USS pensions and nobody cares about us. I genuinely mean that. I went to an hour-long talk in my university held by the principal and it was only in the 58th minute that someone (rightly) informed the principal and the audience that there were professional staff there, concerned and ignored.

So, I was annoyed. And now I am angry. And hurt.

In this thread I used the term "support" staff in addition to professional services. I hate this term, and I am not the only one. I used it deliberately as it is a phrase so widely used in universities and I wanted to make a point about how "non-academic" staff (another phrase I loath) have been erased from the story about the pensions and the strike.

The phrase "support staff" has lost it's meaning I think. I had viewed it as "supporting teaching and learning", which includes facilitating the work of academics and success of students. Now I think it is viewed as subservient, lesser, there to "serve" academics. Now, obviously, not all people treat it like that and view the admin/academic relationship as collaborative, which is what it should be. However, personal experience has shown that some treat professional services staff as less important and less worthy of an opinion around the table. Our work can be devalued, deemed as obstructionist, bureaucratic, or acting as gatekeepers. At the sharp end, we can be used as glorified personal assistants:

I am utterly unsurprised that no one reports on the plight of professional services in this pensions row. This is because we are the invisible side of the university, holding it altogether. We are only seen when things go wrong. And then get blamed for it.

We need to think about language that emphasises that collaboration, that symbiotic relationship between academia and professional services which delivers teaching and learning together. And, at the end of the day, there needs to be respect for our roles...even if it make not be evident to you why we exist, trust me, you would notice if we weren't there.


Friday, January 26, 2018

The narrowing goalposts of academia

In response to a previous post I wrote about major and minor corrections, I was sent the following screenshot of an advertisement for a 1-year postdoctoral fellowship in the humanities at a UK university:


I decided to investigate this further because I have never seen a stipulation that only those with minor corrections could apply. To put this in context:

  • The proposal application date: March 2018
  • Fellowship start date: October 2018

When discussing this on Twitter, many pointed out that the minor corrections requirement was likely a safeguard to ensure that corrections were complete by the fellowship start date. I agreed, but felt that the wording would put off anyone who got majors but could easily complete within the time frame. For example, it only took me 2-3 months to complete mine.

So, I contacted the university to see what they had to say, and it was interesting:

  • This was the wording of the Economic and Social Research Council
  • One response indicated that if you haven't been awarded your PhD you must have had your viva by 23rd March (proposal date) and be under an outcome which means you will have been confirmed by the start date (October)
Fine, I thought! As long as you could complete your corrections and have them approved within 6 months you could apply. WRONG!
  • Another response indicated another story. This stated that they can accept applicants with minor corrections to complete, but would be concerned about candidates who have had their viva and have major corrections completing these and re-submitting by the deadline of 23rd March 2018.
This ran contrary to what the actual guidelines (and the first response) stated. I responded to clarify the guidelines which state that the viva should be complete by March and the PhD confirmed by October. The last response was brutal as it:
  • confirmed that those with major corrections to make by the full proposal deadline are ineligible.  
Now, again they claim this is the ESRC's wording and I have no reason not to believe them. But what a lot of tosh. Had this been me (and many others who received major corrections), I would easily have made the deadline of full PhD confirmation within 6 months. Let's take a typical 'majors' timescale and add in the ESRCs deadlines:
  • November - Viva
  • December - List of corrections provided / Christmas break
  • March - application deadline (eligible because viva complete but ineligible as corrections not complete)
  • April - Corrections submitted (let's assume 3-4 months work)
  • May/June - Corrections confirmed
  • June/July - PhD confirmed
All this before the October start date. Even if I had added 2 extra months of work (to use the full 6 months for major corrections at my university), I still would have made it in time.

My point here is that the ESRC demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about major corrections and perpetuates a fallacy that major corrections take forever to complete (they often don't). And as a result, many will be excluded from applying. Even more than that, to include such a restriction, regardless of intent, speaks to those who received major corrections and says "you are not good enough, you are not wanted - go away". Which isn't true, but often the impression. This brings me to the final point of this fellowship.

Another stipulation is that, if you already have a PhD you must have been awarded it no more than 12 months before March 2018. So, that is a further restriction, eliminating anyone who struggled to find an academic job 12 months post-PhD. I am all for fellowships and opportunities which target recent graduates and early career researchers, but a 1-year restriction eliminates anyone who experienced any sort of bump in the journey, anyone who doesn't fit the traditional route. Now, I would hope that allowances would be made to those who needed to take time for family, children, caring responsibilities, illnesses, or anything else which is part of life but interrupts it. But unless these things are explicit, the message that adverts like this convey is: "if you are not perfect in our definition of academic perfection, you are not welcome".

We need to make room for every type of person, every type of outcome, and every type of journey. The way we word academic job adverts informs the way we perceive academia. And that perception should be one of inclusion, not exclusion.