Where is the love?

Now it is no surprise that the freshly minted ECR is turned out into the world to navigate the big bad academic terrain alone. Some may be lucky enough to have the continued support of their supervisors and may even have short term positions within an institution, where it is easier to access support. BUT even this “support” comes with caveats. 

If anyone else is like me, then we have many hungry ECRs desperate to strengthen their profile. And we all know this means gaining experience in the big 3 areas: research, teaching and administration. One obvious path is to write a successful funding application that allows for this, but once again, there are a limited number of funders who will actually support a lone ECR. 
So what to do?  

This is where all the strategic networking we were encouraged to do comes in handy. Collaboration with more senior academic staff members who can apply for such funds could be the first step into an academic position. I have tried to write the realities of the numerous problems with this solution several times, but I fear this is one confession too many…for the moment!
This process may seem like a quick and easy move into the academic world, but it is filled with a number of ethical issues. And the ECR will NOT receive any more support for additional academic services, even if they do win a fund. 

Here is the real kicker! At the end of the day, senior academic staff members are under pressure to do their own teaching, admin and research work with little time to apply for funds to employ the next generation of ECRs. On one side of the coin senior staff are overworked and on the other, ECRs have no work. 

Doesn’t anyone else not see the solution here? There has to be a way to eliviate the pressure for all and surely it means a change in the funding sphere to allow ECRs to have access to apply with institution support. I understand the issue with that: what if the ECR no longer has a home institution. But this is where affiliate status and finding the right mentor could start to mean something more!  

The point here is the system as it stands is not working. Academia is a massive stresspot that is boiling over and at some point something needs to happen to make it stop or the whole thing will go up in flames. 

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The need to escape…

Recently, I have experienced a period of productivity. A few jobs that fit my expertise have come up, I have been working on lucrative projects that will actually pay me some money and I have written a couple of articles with plans for a third. Finally, things feel like they are moving in the right direction, albeit at a snails pace. 

During a moment of time out, I was enjoying the movie Moana with my family [yes, the Disney movie!] And I found myself daydreaming about running off to strange lands, sailing the seven seas and travelling to world. I suppose this is the purpose of the movie; to help youngsters believe they can defy expectation and do whatever they want in life. However, thinking back to that moment as I was sucked into the storyline, I am surprised at how deeply it affected me. In that 1 hour and half, if felt so easy and freeing to think that I could pack up my life and do something else, something less pressuring and fun. But then I remember there are times when academia feels like a Disney movie…(Stay with me for a moment)…

Academia has so many ups and downs and it can take you on some of the most wonderful adventures to new lands across the world. But it is also hard work, another motto that Disney tend to promote! While I might not always want to whistle while I work, I do like the academic lifestyle. It is a hard slog, but to get that funding bit, or have an article published or even get a paper accepted for an international conference is an addictive thrill. I suppose the real challenge is to see the positives during those challenging times. 
This takes me back to the beginning of the blog series, where I wanted to improve my writing. In the last couple of months, I have been able to move away from what I wrote in my thesis and really see how I can improve my writing to produce more cohesive and well argued articles. I know that my research is good, but the information needs to make a succinct point. This is what all of the feedback has said, but I was too personally invested to really make sense of it all. I will never be able to escape criticism. After all, this is the backbone of human society, but what I can do is learn to see the uses of such criticisms to better my work. 

In the meantime, I don’t think I will ever stop dreaming of a carefree life, but that is an unachievable goal. The reality is, hard work and perseverance will see through, I just need to be strong enough to endure.

Collaboration or conflict: the blindness of academics

Yesterday was a rare occasion for some time off. Time to relax and do something that wasn’t academia related — sort of. From time to time, I enjoy nature and history walks and just one such walk came up in my local town. At a bargain price of less than a McDonald’s Big Mac Meal, it promised to be an exciting and informative 2 hour trail into the history of one of the most beloved parks in the area.

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The day may have been a bit wet, cold with snow coming down but none-the-less, it was an excuse to be outside and engaged with nature while peaking my love of history. we met the historian, a local to the town and apparently also a colleague at the same university to which I work. ‘What a coincidence’ I thought to myself, quickly followed by ‘I wonder if he might be interested in a coffee to talk about our work and exchange collaborative ideas?’

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Of course, while enthused by the idea, I held back in asking straight from the off. After all, I was just a local punter coming on his history walk and thought it might seem odd to just jump in with an immediate request for academic exchanges. As the walk progressed, I got to chatting to him a little more about his research interests and ambitions for a monograph specifically on the vast materials of information he had clearly gathered to organise these walks. But what became apparent was that he was very hesitant when it came to collaboration of any sort, even anecdotally citing that he didn’t want to engage other academics who may be experts in things he had found but had little knowledge of in case they ‘stole his work’.

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I have to say I find this line of thinking slightly bizarre, particularly since the currently emphasis is on knowledge exchange and collaboration. Although, I have not encountered others taking credit for my work either. Should I be concerned that this is a possibility?

The other thing that struck me about the gentlemen, is that while he continued to talk about all the information he was gathering for a monograph, when I enquired as to the stage and thoughts about a publisher of the monograph, he was quick to avert the question citing a ‘lack of time’ and false promises from corporations who said they would pay for the book. This again struck me as very odd. While I have my own disparities with preparing a monograph at the same time as not getting paid to do so, I was under the impression this was just a fact of academic/ECR life. Even as a full-time academic I understand that time for research and publications is largely done out of hours. It may not be conducive to a work-life balance but it is what it is… I don’t agree but I am in no position to shake up the game.

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In fact, everything this man was saying just didn’t seem to ring true with what I have experienced in the academic world and it led me to briefly question if I should be more careful about sharing my work. But then again, why? Why should I do this? I want my work out there for people to read, cite, question, debate and interrogate. Surely, I am not doing my job if no one knows what I am doing and why I am doing it? Yes, I want to spread my research in forums that raise my academic profile, but in a world where academics are encourage to engage wide and diverse publics as well as publishing in 4 star journals, which one do we focus on and what will ultimately pay off?

These are all questions I have raised before, but what I learned on this walk (apart from some intriguing information about my local landscape) is that I DO NOT want to be an academic who hides in an office, curating and hoarding my work with little ambition to share it with others. This simply feels wrong. Though my work may not change the world any time soon, I do like sharing it with others and this is what I am going to continue to do!

Busy-ness vs Production

Apologies for not posting in a while. I began this blog before the university semester began, and I while I endeavoured to post on a regularly basis, I was swept up with numerous meetings, funding applications, administrative duties and teaching. However, over the festive period I questioned my busy-ness vs production. I knew I had been busy with a variety of tasks but my outputs were considerably low. So why was this?

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Well, perhaps it is my frame of mind. I met with numerous colleagues and more senior academics with the hope of making networking connections and developing projects. All through my PhD, networking was shoved down my throat at every turn, almost as if this was the key to the room of full time employment. And to be fair to those who preached this message, to a certain extent this is true. By maintaining a wide and diverse network of colleagues I have managed to score paid short-term contracts and successful funding for projects not to message some really amazing friends (something that I think it all too often forgotten!)

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Though the numerous conversations are invigorating, I fear that it is an addiction. An addiction to sitting in a room talking without action; inspiration without production; legitimising procrastination and lets face it, an excuse for academics to sit in nice coffee shops, setting the world to rights while drinking tea and eating cake. It is a lot of fun at the time, but at the end of month, I look at my diary and feel that sense of dread as I need to investigate a number of different funding options to actually make all of these collaborations work! Worse still, I come to the end of the semester and run through the numerous emails where I committed to think more about a project or write a collaborative article only to see that I haven’t followed this up in months. Then again, my colleague usually hasn’t contacted me about the project either, most likely because they are in the exact same position.

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There are occasions where a project comes together and this is starting to happen more and more, but I question if I need to be more previous about my time. Do I turn down certain opportunities to pursue those that have started to pay off? What if these avenues dry up and I haven’t maintained other opportunities? And dare I bring in the question of how to maintain a personal life? The deluge of material that reminds me to maintain a work-life balance is ultimately ludicrous. Academia does not allow for a work-life balance because it is assumed that the work is your life. How many other businesses will expect people to publish papers, maintain a network and research profile with only the tiniest amount of competitive financial support. That is the reality for an ECR. Yes, I am complaining a little and I suppose an outsider could say to me ‘if you don’t like, go get a normal job!’ That is true. I could get a normal job. But I like research. I like teaching. I like networking and talking to interesting people who could change the world with their thoughts alone. I don’t like feeling that a lot of my time is spent making money but not progressing my academic position OR working for free to progress in academia while making no money. The system is set up to suit those who can afford to ride this difficult period out until they get an academic position, meanwhile those of us who have to work to make sure that food is on the table are tested to the ultimate breaking point financially, psychologically and emotionally. With all the full-time academics constantly saying they are overworked and all the ECRs not having work, is it not time to change the system and spread the load? I think so…

 

Lots of good news all in one day – Is it really good news?

In one day, I received news that I have been offered an interview for a teaching fellowship post, I have a publisher interested in publishing my thesis, I have been offered another short term job working for a team that I have wanted to work with for the longest time and I have traction on a funding application I am developing with a colleague. All of this is very good news, but with all of this news also came with anxiety and I will explain why.

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Interview: this is for a job in another country and it is for a fixed term post for a year. I didn’t expect to get the interview and while it is good news that I have managed to beat out a number of other applicants to get an interview, I quickly jumped ahead to ‘what if I get the job’. My personal life is somewhat settled where I am if a little in flux in terms of work. It would mean up-routing myself for a year, and while this sounds fine in theory, in reality it is quite scary. I have started establishing links and plans where I am and while these are all in the planning stage, do I really want to break those connections for a job that it far away? I am sure my colleagues would understand, but what do I do about the applications for post docs that are already in? What do I do about the part time positions I have recently accepted that will possibly lead to bigger opportunities? This sounds like I am already talking myself out of the job before I even go for the interview, but I know that if I got offered the job it would be hugely difficult to pass up! My partner has advised to stop worrying and cross the several bridges across the multiple rivers of anxiety when I come to them, but I find this really, really hard!

Publisher: I should preface this with, this is just preliminary interest. They require a much more detailed proposal and sample chapters before I get offered anything, but they are interested. But this means, I need to think long and hard about how to develop the thesis from what it is, into a book and I know there is a lot more work and research to do. I have to let the publisher know when I will have this information ready for them to review, which means I need to think realistically about my timelines balancing efficiency with quality. And this clashes with the top worry – if I get a full time teaching fellow post, how much time can I really commit to reworking my thesis? The answer is I have to find a way to make it work!

Short term job: When I was offered this I was incredibly excited! It is an area I really interested in and I have the skill set and knowledge to do it well. This is an exciting opportunity and it will develop into larger opportunities but (and once again this relates back to the first issue) if I got a full time job, I would have to give this opportunity up. Do I really want to do this?

Traction on a funding application: All good, good opportunity but the worry is the same as above. I have put a lot of work into developing something, only to have to leave if I get this job, ARGH!

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This is where a training workshop on balancing the development of opportunities vs job interview/offer anxiety would be helpful. I am sure this is the plight of the academic but no one ever talks about it and I need to know what other people do! If I get offered the job, do I have to take it? Would turning it down be a stupid idea? Do I always have to inform collaborators that I am also looking at other opportunities for work or will they assume this? What do I do?

Confession time: I have the urge to write a novel

Last night after coming home from an event, I suddenly had the urge to write – nothing PhD or post-PhD related, but instead to write some fiction. Despite it being the wee hours of the morning, I dashed to the laptop to get my idea slowly merging itself into a coherent scene from mind to page. I have had this urge before, but as soon as the initial idea is down on the page, restrictions of time and life often means I don’t go back to develop it into anything else. Yet, this is the type of writing I very much enjoy. The pressure I feel when I am writing about my research is not present when I am writing fiction, but then again, there are no stakes attached. I am writing purely for pleasure.

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As a teenager, I was quite head-strong and determined, and so set about writing a novel. This was after reading Eragon and realising the writing was about my age. I had remembered reading the book thinking ‘I can come up with a much better story than this!’ and had visions of my book sitting prominently in my local book store. Being rather naive about the whole process of writing, I just sat and wrote – for hours and hours. I reached about 50,000 words and then reached a blocked. I had an idea of how I wanted the novel to end but not how to navigate the story through to the final chapters. Years later, I tried to go back to edit the whole thing, but realised that a 14 year-old’s writing skills were not the ticket to scoring a publishing deal. None-the-less, I had an enjoyable summer writing the whole thing out and seeing just how much I had written gave me a real sense of achievement.

Now, as a freshly minted PhD who has written a thesis of 100,000 words, I am back to toying with the idea of writing a novel. The visions of getting a publishing deal and becoming a world famous author have disappeared, but I have a number of ideas in my mind that I would like to develop into something substantial. And yet, I have so many demands on my time, I feel that I should be devoting my time to academic publications rather than hobby writing.

When I handed in my PhD, I told my partner that I planned to develop an idea for a fantasy novel. I started to do character development, plot points, planning out locations and sets for the activity, but all this planning made the writing less fun. It made it feel more like work than play so I put it to the side for another rainy day.

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I also have plans to develop my research into fictionalised stories. I have several ideas of how to do this i.e. podcasting, vlogs and even blogging but again; is this just an excuse to procrastinate from my real work. Even now, on my desk is the plan for an article and instead of typing out my research I have chosen to write this post (though I am forgiving myself a little since I need to leave for work soon and I probably would make myself late if I got into the thick of it!) Yes, the stress monster when it comes to writing still looms, but I am committed to beating it and getting something substantial published from my PhD.

In the words of Rob Schneider ‘You can do this! – Write that frickin’ article!’

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Away for far too long!

Apologies for my absence in blogging. I had a good run there. 7 days straight and then silence. My life was momentarily taken up by an event that I was running and the start of the semester already looms! Where did the summer go?

The event was quite a success. Such a success, in fact, I was quite surprised. Everyone left feeling very happy and I received a number of positive comments. But this was not just down to good planning and organisation. From the very beginning, it was encouraged that the event be more than just another academic conference. While it can be easy to fall into the 20-minute lecture-power point style format, largely due to the fact that this is what academics expect, maintaining interest and momentum is much more important! However, I was a little disheartened by some comments that noted the event should have followed a ‘standard format’.

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So let’s think this through – if you have never been to an academic conference, most follow a standard form. Three or four sessions perhaps parallel sessions, where a panel of three or four speakers will deliver a paper on a particular ‘theme’. Questions will usually follow each paper or will take place at the end of the panel. Occasionally, questions at this point can help to prod deeper into the position of the speaker, but I have found that questions at this point tend to focus on superficial aspects of the presentation or will come in the form of a statement where the person supposedly asking the question is really making a pointedly biased declaration concerning their own research rather than the paper they just heard. Questions are asked but there is no real reflection by those asking the question nor the person expected to answer. Rather, it is an awkward period of nervousness, particularly for early career scholars who often feel self-conscious that their more senior colleagues will catch them out with a question they cannot answer. And what is the point? This question time is not really enough for an in depth discussion of the issues presented by the speaker and probably more meaningful conversations will happy over the coffee and tea breaks. Finally, sitting, listening to a full day of 20-minute academic papers with only short tea and coffee breaks wears on the mind and body, leaving most very tired. Usually, I feel like I need to take time out of the afternoon papers to clear my mind just so that I can effectively function at any evening events the conference may offer.

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What is the answer? Longer breaks, changing the questions to a roundtable discussion? Changing the length of papers to include shorter, more focussed presentations alongside longer ones? These were all things my event explored and for the most part, most agreed this solved the conference problem. Yet, some were still resistant to change. I guess I can’t make everyone happy.

I am very aware, that my solutions to the conference problem were based on my own dislike of elements within the standard conference format. Yet, in speaking to many of my colleagues I have found my dislikes are not individual. Long sessions, short breaks and bad food seem to be the plight of the academic conference so why do we still stick to the format? If every conference changed one thing to make it a more invigorating event, just think how many variations would occur. Better yet, why not vary the event depending on suitability of subject matter rather than continuing to follow an unvarying layout.

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But posted at 11am…

  1. Get up – actually get up not hitting the snooze button
  2. Feed expectant animal
  3. Bathroom
  4. Breakfast
  5. Make brain wake up
  6. Outfit for the day
  7. Think about all the emails I need to send
  8. Send a few emails so that certain people coming to work read them when they first open up their inbox
  9. Watch the clock before going to the universityclock
  10. Post a blog (if I have time)
  11. Lunch – mustn’t forget lunch
  12. Brain wheels are turning now – need to write a list of things to do
  13. Reply to emails from academics who are also on their email before 9am
  14. Get back to list – forgotten some important things so need to sift through the memory banks – got it! *jot it down on to do list*
  15. Need to diary out to write down the meetings I have managed to make with the academics who have emailed before 9am
  16. Need to move some things around as one of the academics can only meet today at 10am!
  17. Successfully move things around – really have to go now but needy animal is comfortable – and so am I. I have worked enough today already
  18. Look at diary for next day off – “I need to write article” written clearly at the top of the page
  19. Article day scored off for meeting that has been scheduled by an academic who is on their email before 9amdiary
  20. Dressed – off to uni!

7 days of blogging! – Is blogging therapeutic?

Day number 7 and I am still here and blogging! And another confession for you all…

I am not writing a post a day, rather I am writing a number of posts during one sitting but posting them up each day. Did I just break the bloggers code?

My reason for this is simple. I have days where I am very busy and all I want to do is turn on the TV, eat ice cream and think about nothing else. Other nights I want to go out and play Pokemon Go – *yes, I play Pokemon Go and I love it! It is getting me out of the house for hours at a time. I am walking and my partner and I are closer because of it, since we often go out together, taking down gyms, catching our favourite types and singing the theme song all around the town!* Then there are days when my head is spinning. I have too many ideas, too many thoughts about the future and I need to vent. My partner, who has been hugely supportive throughout this whole process is probably sick of my constant whining and I don’ want to be insensitive to my friends, many of whom are in the same boat. During these times, I used to try to turn my brain off, or I would write endless lists with things I should be doing, could be doing but probably wouldn’t do.

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Now I am blogging, I can get these concerns down the page and I found that the words come so easily during this time. Blogging is most certainly akin to personal diaries of the past. I tried keeping a hand-written diary but after one entry the rest of the pages in the book would lie empty. On the other hand, I feel compelled to blog and to make sure I continuously update the page. Not because I presume there are expectant readers (no offense intended to anyone reading this post) but to keeping it going and watch if it will grow and how it will grow.

Before I began blogging, I had read all the self-help sights about running a successful blog. As you can imagine, regular content was number on the list, alongside tags, sharing links and twitter posts. I hope I have followed these hallowed pieces of advice well enough but mainly I am blogging as a form of self-induced therapy – a way to work through my issues without talking the ear off everyone I meet. This does beg the question, is blogging therapeutic? There must be a research project in that question!

And while this blog is in no way academically written, and deliberately keeps away from specifics about my academic research, I still find that I am imposing guidelines on my posts. You have probably noticed I include pictures on most posts – why? Basically, to break the monotony of written text. It is written in first person, which only makes sense as it is me writing it!

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And finally, I only write 1 A4 page. Once I get to the end of the page, I wrap it up. It means that all of my psychotic ramblings are savoured over a number of posts rather than a hugely massive post. But I feel this trick can be applied to academic work as well. Next challenge – write a project into one A4 page. If it doesn’t sound convincing, the idea probably needs more thinking!

Differing Aims

You are probably sick of hearing me talk about developing projects, but that is pretty much my life at the moment. I have recently organised a conference with a colleague of mine and it has been quite an adventure. The aim of the conference is not just an exchanging of ideas but I hope that it will lead to bigger opportunities and more funding. I had a clear public engagement element in mind as I wanted to genuinely find out what public perception was surrounding this particular topic. I laid out the plans for capturing this data (something I am not entirely comfortable with, but after speaking to a number of colleagues who working for funding bodies, it is something I accept is necessary). In order to do this, the conference needs to be framed in a much more ‘public friendly’ way. No one wants to spend their Saturday in a large, cold lecture room listening to endless speakers drone on while reading from a paper and hitting the keyboard to change to the next power point slide that often has far too much text on it! Man, even when I have an invested interest, I really struggle to concentrate. There are a number of techniques to flip the dry academic conference on its head and make it fun for the whole family and you don’t have to turn everything into comedy skits either! Short, quick fire papers, lots of opportunity for mingling and discussion and good food are just a few ideas that can easily go alongside more traditional panels.

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When my colleague and I were planning the day, I thought I had made this clear. I thought we had agreed that widening participation was the way to go, but we were not exactly on the same page. Though the funding bodies who had generously given us money had signed off on a more broad spec public engagement day, the conference was turning into a very, very traditional conference. Then questions were raised about why we were handing out evaluation forms and I had to put my foot down.

I had to remind my colleague that why we were both uncomfortable with shoving a clip board in people’s faces at the end of the day was not fun for anyone, evaluation methods were very important to our funders and in obtaining future funding! Basically, how can we prove the day was a success if we don’t have the evidence to back it up. During my internship, I spoke to a lot of academics, some who were very clued up I capturing participant data and others who were not. The number of projects that had fallen flat and gone nowhere was astounding! And all it would have taken was a couple of click counters at the door and a questionnaire.

I would like to be a little more inventive than that and capture good amounts of data but present it a fun way and if we get this right this could be the ticket we need to ride us through to lectureships! Perhaps, a little too hopeful but at least there is hope.

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Just goes to show that when working with others you have to make sure you share the same ideas and values, particularly if you want projects to grow.