Monday, 24 December 2012

Post-academic Call for Papers and more


It's been a busy several months for many in the post-academic blogging community. We've either been right in the middle of academic labour frenzy keeping up with the demands of teaching, research and the imperative to publish, while wondering simultaneously if this is in fact the career path we are happy with and want to keep on pursuing - or we've been rewriting our resume/cv, waiting for invitations to interview, or settling into our new post-ac work lives. That dilemma, 'Should I continue or not' is what has led many to conduct Google searches using phrases like, 'Is there life after academia?', 'Is academia where I really want to be?', 'Academic redundancy', 'Transitioning from academic to non-academic life', 'Career choices outside of academia', and so on. When I discovered the many prolific post-academic bloggers out there writing about experiences and anxieties that were so close to my own story, I discovered a new-found comfort and support system that encouraged me to keep on with my career search out of academia and into something that was much more manageable.

And now the time has come to move forward. A few other post-academic bloggers such as Currer from Project Reinvention, Lauren from Mama Nervosa, JC From Grad School to Happiness
, and I have made the decision to pull our collective efforts together (thanks Currer and Lauren for the prompt) and create a website and ebook full of resources, advice and personal stories about the experience of leaving the Ivory Tower. We know this project will be much more successful and richer if it includes a breadth of contributions from others who have made the transition or are in the middle of working through the plethora of conflicting feelings they have about leaving academia.


Our website will include:
Practical Peer-to-peer advice for leaving academia on every topic from emotional issues to having to get food stamps to building up your resume/cv.

Our ebook of essays will include:
A wide range of personal stories of leaving academia.

We invite all those who have thought about leaving for one reason or another or more. We welcome a fully international scope of contributors. While we can see there are lots of post-ac bloggers from the US, we've spotted a few from Canada, the UK, Australia and beyond. We would love you to join us over here and get a sense of the common ground we share or can learn from each other across national boundaries. Feel free to start a topic. See below for details about the ebook. The website will be less structured. We intend it to be a 'One Stop Shop' for links and posts on all of the questions we ask ourselves when contemplating how to quit. Get in touch if you have an idea. Once we receive content (and have help setting up the site) it will go live.

What a way to begin thinking about starting 2013. Keep reading and find out more about how you can get involved.



Moving On: Personal Stories of Leaving Academia (tentatively titled)



Have you left academia? Or are you currently in the process of leaving? Share your story!

As post-academic bloggers, we know firsthand that there is a desire for stories that explore more than just the career aspects of leaving the ivory tower. People want to know how, when, and why you quit; emotional issues related to quitting; and examples of post-academic success. We envision this book as a source of advice and support for readers who have quit graduate school before getting their Ph.D., people leaving academia even after they have finished their degrees, and people who are adjuncting or working in academia who are looking to leave. Many stories of the post-academic transition have been told on personal blogs and websites, including our blogs and web site
www.howtoleaveacademia.com (forthcoming), but this is the first collection has been organized to speak directly to people’s experiences leaving academia.

We’re looking for thoughtful, personal pieces (non-fiction or creative non-fiction) that tell a story or develop a theme related to the process of quitting academia. Like any good paper, the essay should have a core thesis or concept that you’re exploring through your writing. We prefer submissions that are relatively jargon-free and more casual in writing style. Your essay can be any length, with a general goal of 5-10 pages double spaced (but we’ll consider shorter or longer!).

If you have poetry, art, or other (digitized) creative work that explores these themes, we’d be interested in that, too.

This collection will focus primarily on what happened after you quit; thus, we are not interested in treatises about the failures of grad school or the problems in higher education. You’re welcome to explore the reasons and circumstances under which you left, but please continue the narrative forward from there. You can be as anonymous as you like, although please include enough detail that the reader can be drawn into your story. We invite you to explore the messiness, difficulty, and contradictions in the quitting process. Not every story has a happy ending, and that’s OK. We encourage submissions on any of these topics, as well as proposals for essays that explore any gaps between them:

  • How, when, and why you left academia: hopes/expectations versus realities in grad school, specific incidents/anecdotes, the job market, what you wish you’d known.
  • Emotional dimensions of leaving -- loss or changes of identity, “deprogramming” from academic thought, relationship difficulties and transformations, isolation, mental/physical health issues, joys and new discoveries, family issues, etc.
  • Career Transitions: Teaching stories, writing stories, stories of how you discovered a new vocation/path.
  • Alt-Ac Careers, Adjuncting -- Life on campus when you’re not a prof or student, changes in relationships with “the academy.”
  • Success Stories: how quitting changed your life for the better, how happy you are, how glad you are to be gone.
  • Failure stories: screwing up, falling down, awful jobs, bad experiences, floundering, despair.

If you want to share a simpler or more straightforward story of your post-academic journey, please consider submitting to the website (email Lauren or Currer at the addresses below and specify that your submission is for the website).  


Timeline:
250 word abstracts due: Feb 1st
Goal of getting back to accepted folks mid-February
Final essays due: April 1st
Goal of publication by graduation in May 2013! :)

Email submissions with “E-Book Submission” in the subject line to Lauren at lauren.nervosa@gmail.com or Currer at projectreinvention12@gmail.com  by Feb 1 2013.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Alt-ac Update

The other day when I was reading around some of the other post-academic blogs I was reminded of my less-frequent posting. Unsurprisingly, this has happened more since I've started my alt-ac job in September. Aside from having pretty busy hours there three days a week, I'm finding that my two days off have been filled with multiple, boring domestic tasks, car issues that need addressing, and a variety of doctor, hospital, dentist or orthodontist appointments. Some of them are my own regular visits and others are related to my children, so no, I don't have adult braces, but my daughter has them.

When I started this part-time job I imagined I'd have all this freedom to get more exercise, then lounge, catch up on sleep with mid-day naps (after all the exercise), read lots of fun novels, have lunch with long-lost friends, and spend loads of time writing for the blog. Well, I've been managing a bit of some of those things here and there, but lately in the main, the hours have disappeared with necessary duties like the list above (recently I've more fun trying to organise persistent plumbing problems/leaks, boiler breakdown). Some of the time I am spending while waiting for the plumber, I hate to admit, has been spent catching up with work emails that I felt were too important to wait til I was next in. This kind of thing was something I promised myself I would not do. I told myself if I took on work stuff at home then I would take it off my time at the office the next day or so, however, I'm finding the usual pressing list of stuff to do now or yesterday never ends. If I'm not careful, this can spiral and I'll just begin resenting the work and hating myself for doing this. I am the only one to blame here. Although there are some tight time frames in which I'm attempting to do things, I know some things can wait and will just take longer as I'm part-time.

So, I'm now trying not to spend too much time in front of the computer screen as it seems to lead me into too much temptation to check emails and follow up a thing or two. Like JC recently posted, it's probably a good idea to go offline sometimes. 

Aside from my own problematic tendency towards a negative self-surveillance that can lead me to over-working, the new-ish job is all okay, overall. Some of what I'm trying to manage at the moment, is taking up lots of time with fiddly bits of admin-type work that I hadn't quite banked on, but which I can see is necessary for me and not someone else to do, as I don't have my own personal secretary. As I work for a non-profit organisation, there is always a tight budget and less resources available to help support some of the ambitions of the organisation. This is a frustrating aspect of the job and it means that many people there are probably trying to do too much in the space of the working week. Many of them appear to do the sensible thing and take time in lieu when they are working over time in the week. There is a knock-on effect though, I noticed, when you need to have that person to do something important for you and they're off for a day or two because they are finally catching up. It's not a perfect situation, considering I'd like to achieve some of the things I've set out to do when I was hired. The reality is that these targets will need to be planned as long-term ones, maybe with a few small successes along the course of this academic year.

I thought it would be worth noting that I've come across a few other alt-ac professionals in the university with whom I'm trying to liaise about a few things. I'm finding it reassuring that these women are also confessing to feeling that when they left the traditional teaching/research path, they felt they were selling out or would be perceived as failures. But they've also found that their alt-ac jobs in the university have given them opportunities to use their PhD/academic skills in other really useful ways. And they seem pretty happy to me, at least at the level of the chats I've been having. I'm getting there. I still feel a bit awkward when I share my PhD background/identity to some of my contacts. But as time is going by, is getting easier and feels less awkward. In fact, I seem to be hearing little pockets of stories of this PhD who left academia and is now doing this or that. Ahhh, there is hope!

The holiday season is all impending now and the organisation is planning festive drinks and parties. The university closure time, we've been told, will be a whole two weeks. This means paid holiday time for all. I'm looking forward to this a lot, even though we haven't got big travel plans.We may drive to London for a night or two to visit my in-laws. This stay is always a bit short because my husband's parents are elderly and not set up for lots of visitors in the small flat they have. Hotels aren't cheap there, but we may think of an over night in a nearby one to make things a bit easier. The fact is that I actually really enjoy hanging around in the nice city where we live. It's a popular university city which becomes much calmer when all the undergrads go home for the holidays. It's got great theatre, cinema, restaurants, shops, all which we can walk to. The centre is about a 35 minute walk - a great way to burn off all of the holiday excess that we'll be subjecting ourselves to. There's no city like London, but we lived there many years and had loads of great times there before having children. I don't really miss it or get any great buzz on visits back. What I'm looking forward to this holiday season is a nice rest, knowing that my time off includes pay, and looking forward to returning to a secure job (at least for now).

Cutting to the chase now....Sunday night, UK telly means the US series Homeland is about to start. Offline fun begins now! Will try to return again before another lengthy gap. 


Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The six week job review, coming out about the chronic health condition and other things...

Well, I was reminded the other day that this week at work was apparently the sixth week I have been in my new job. I think officially they are about a week early on that, but perhaps this Monday was the only day that my line-manager could squeeze in a one-one meeting with me.

The meeting involved chatting about how I felt things were going, how he felt things were going, and finally having a glance at a sheet of paper that had blocks of areas to fill in that covered plans, targets and actions, that sort of thing. This was where the conversation was less fixed, as he has been so incredibly busy over the last five weeks, he has been pretty much unavailable to work with me on establishing plans and how to work through them. There is a larger vision in place at the moment, but with all of the smaller tasks I have had to get through on a three day a week part-time schedule, I haven't exactly had lots of time blocked out for creative planning of sorts. The one thing I've been trying to emphasise with him is that because I am part-time, it will just take me longer to get through the list and that's all there is to it. This can be frustrating for someone like me who is accustomed to charging on forward and working too much in an effort to get things done quickly. For the most part, the biggest challenge, I think for this part-time job, is how I manage my own self-surveillance. It would be so easy to work over my contracted hours on a regular basis. In fact, as this job does involve participating in some of the social activities that are organised for students outside of the working day, I have already experienced busy times when I have still not taken up the 'time in lieu' option where I take off hours in the following week. I seem to be writing myself little reminders frequently - don't forget to schedule time in lieu this week, but there never seems to be a chance to take it because more and more 'stuff' gets piled on to my working week.

Overall, I reported that things are going well. I tried in the most diplomatic way to mention that there have been times when I felt that it would have been nice to know how some of the systems worked before it was too late or close to urgent crisis-mode, as there have been a few cases where I felt thrown in the deep end without warning. This diplomatic offering was actually prompted by my line manager himself when he made apologies for not being available for important communications and instructions about these things. So, the will is there for sure. But being the newbie in an office setting where quick and efficient turnaround for important events/tasks is crucial can feel a bit daunting when you're unsure about the details. I'm trying hard now to spot some of the potential crises before they happen. A challenge for sure.

This review meeting was also the time that I decided to bring up my Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. As some readers may remember, when I was applying for the job back in July, I wrote about my anxiety around disclosing my MS on the application in the section where the employer asks about health conditions and disabilities - all carefully worded, sounding something like this: 'According the disability act, do you consider yourself disabled...' My scan across some of the MS Society website in the employment section also found that they advised you must answer the question honestly when it is presented this way. So in my honesty, I disclosed my condition and added that it is very well managed and that it has been years since I had a clinically defined 'episode'. No point in adding extra details like the experience of fatigue, numbness/tingling, spasms, etc. In fact, most of the time all is fine, overall, especially if I manage to get enough sleep and time to recover from busy days. So part-time hours help a lot.

So I introduced the topic and wasn't surprised when my line manager responded positively and asked if there was anything they could do in the office to address any needs I may have. He reminded me about the potential to work at home when needed - as it is an open office it is busy and sometimes noisy, so this option will be useful when needed. So far so good.

This was his opportunity to say how he felt about my work and he was very positive. The last month has been completely full on, with me having to finalise pieces for an important postgrad student social event that happened at the start of term at a venue in the city. It was important that I was the face and voice of this large event, as my new role is focused on engaging with postgrad and enhancing the postgrad experience. So, after fumbling around sorting out people and details around this event, it all seemed to go well and a huge amount of students turned up and looked like they had a great time. All staff were totally positive and saying well done, well done, oh you're so amazing, you're a great public speaker and so on. This praise carried on into the following week, after the Friday event - it felt nice to be recognised this way, I must say, and at the same time, it felt very odd too. I had never had such open outward praise as a contract lecturer or researcher. I may have experienced a pat on the back here and there but this response was different. I guess that might be related to the timing of the praise and the buzz of the social event. We had a drink at the pub after and the buzz just extended there. The following Monday was kind of a recap time and the praise continued. I have since noticed that people in the office goo out of their way to praise and recognise eachother. Of course, this seems like it would help management in terms of people skills and getting the most out of people. But peer co-workers are also in this habit so the feeling is generated throughout the various departments. So, all of this seems a good thing, yes. There is a tiny sceptical side of me, perhaps the academic side, that thinks it's all too over the top and unreal. Surely, my performance can't be that amazing! Was just doing what I was told to do, earning the crust. When I shared this with my husband he said, well, you are very good, maybe exceptional, and they've noticed that in a way that the academic world doesn't because it's overly critical of everything, nothing's ever good enough. While there may be some truth to this, I guess I'm thinking that with time, there will probably be less outwardly praise as I just get on with the everydayness of the job. That's fine too, but I'll admit, the outwardly, over-the-top praise is kind of nice. There's one more thing though that has just come to mind; perhaps I am just better at doing a job like this than an academic teaching/research job. Hmm, yes this is important to realise and also important to remind myself that if this is the case, that's actually okay.

The everydayness of this job overall is fine, as far as my current career expectations go (yes, this is the first moment in this post where I have used the term 'career'). It will surely have it's lower, less exciting, less intellectually challenging moments, like the hours that get taken up with email correspondences and meetings (as is also the case in the world of academia). I can also see the spaces that feel very challenging for me, where I need to get my head around and take on something completely new;  there is some real anxiety there and a questioning of my ability to do it well. There's a lot of that feeling lurking in the background. And this is where that side of me wants to say, hey, you'd better hold back on your praise because there's no guarantee that I'm going to do a great job this time! It's this sceptical side of my self surveillance that can hold me back if I'm not careful. I'm certainly going to make some mistakes in this work, but I should probably cut myself some slack. My line manager made a good point of noting in our meeting that this was a place where mistakes could be made and that was acceptable and seen as part of a longer working process. I need to remind myself of this when the anxiety and vulnerability begins to set in. A bit of anxiety is okay and normal but it shouldn't take over. Some good lessons are to be learned here.


Sunday, 30 September 2012

Is there any 'compassion' in academic recruitment?

It's Sunday evening now and I'm due to get on with family food preparations and a whole list of other domestic tasks, but I feel compelled to note a few things before I disappear into the kitchen and crash on the sofa later.

It's been a pretty busy week here for me. When I first accepted my new job role and discussed things like a proper starting date, I agreed that the week commencing September 24th looked like the best time, even though my family visitors from the USA would still be lingering around the household and leaving mid-week on the Wednesday. In the mean time, I agreed to work a couple of days a week through some of August to try to get my head around the systems, meet people and just settle in to my new work space. All of that felt very nice and cosy. It was great meeting these very welcoming people and I started attending some important meetings and thinking about creative plans for the future. One of my nice colleagues was unfortunately leaving his position at the end of August and I was allocated to picking up on some important jobs that he to leave with me. But of course, some stuff needed sorting when I had to take a couple of weeks off in September when my family members were here visiting. My line manager assured me not to worry and that he would pick them up while I was away. He is a very busy man indeed and when I returned on Monday he had to confess that these issues were still left unresolved and that I would have to attend to them. So, to make a long story short, I have spent the week in a frantic state trying to make sense of a plethora of tasks, sometimes hassling him throughout the days with endless questions of how to do this or that (like getting stuff printed after design, etc.) and other related things. Heavy sigh, I got home on Friday evening, crashed at the kitchen table, relieved to see that my husband got home early and started cooking, and vowed  not to challenge myself with much of anything over the weekend. Yes, I know, welcome to the world of the permanent work-force. The summer holidays are now over and it's time to get my head down and get on with things. It'll all fall into place, yes, but 'new' job stuff like remembering what systems to follow for this and that is still to be done via the ways of a learning curve that is frustrating when jobs need to be done yesterday.

What I want to draw attention to now though has been prompted by another post-academic over at  Unemployed PhD for Hire, who writes around the topic of academic recruitment and some of the issues that come up when the post advertised actually has someone already working for some time in the role but the role still needs to be advertised. 'WTF' adds some thoughtful points about the prospect of some other star candidate coming along who is great for the job and who will thus shunt the prospects of the hopeful one already in post. Of course, as I've added in comments, there is then the long list of other hopeful applicants who are probably well-qualified, fantastic, strong candidates, who just may not stand a chance because; a: they are not up to 'star' standard yet in their early career status; b: if they are 'as good' a candidate as the one in the role already, then, well, the department will just offer the job to the one they already know rather than rock the boat. Well, why not? It's tough. The problem, as we are all very well aware of by now, is that there are just too many great candidates out there for the few available jobs.

So my question today, after I read 'WTF's' post was, what kind of feedback will these hundreds of hopeful candidates get after forwarding their strong applications? What will these academic employers tell them? Will they just send them the standard response -  Sorry, good luck next time? Or should they offer more?

Coincidentally, I have just today come across this article from
The Guardian UK Higher Education Network that asks critically, this very same question about the ethics of academic recruitment. It makes some great, and to us in the post-academic community, obvious points about the over-saturated post-PhD job market. What I would have liked to see noted though is, considering the higher numbers of job-seeking PhDs, a recognition that academic institutions now have a responsibility to provide more advice about legitimate, intellectually stimulating, and well paid careers outside of academia. Sure it would be very nice to see employers think hard about how they can feedback in a supportive way  why candidates don't get short listed or offered the job after interview. But most of this difficulty and disappointment relates to larger, structural problems with the institutions who are rewarded (financially) for getting more and more PhD students through to completion, and knowing these PhDs will be struggling to survive in the over-saturated job market.

I am left feeling more and more sceptical about academia and the future of many worthy PhDs. With this in mind, I am not at all sure if there is any 'compassion' left in academia.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Occupying one's post-academic 'non-academic' time

This is intended to be a short post. Sometimes I kind of start that way and end up going on a bit more than planned, so apologies if I head off in this direction.

Over the last couple of days I have had a bit of a strange sensation about some the ways in which I occupy my 'free time' now. Most of my days don't really afford me with massive amounts of free time, because I am obliged to care for my dependent children and keep up with the usual domestic tasks of (chaotic) family life. While my two are older now, 12 (soon to be 13) and 16, and the level of 'care' is less intense than it used to be, I have discovered that the list of parental responsibilities is still long enough to sometimes feel exhausting and endless. On top of things like having to make sure they are keeping up with standard stuff like school work, getting out of the door on time, showing up for school etc., I am constantly trying to teach them the skills they need to actually 'grow' up and look after themselves so that they manage at some basic stuff on their own. This, as many parents of teens will know, is a harder, emotionally draining task, than giving them a bath and putting them to bed with a story. There's all the other stuff like the ongoing moral teaching we try to do - we want them to be decent people, caring citizens, in a modern world where aesthetics, surface fashions and consumption often overtake some important values like how crucial it is to treat people fairly and with respect. Their school does a pretty good job at this but I do find myself having lengthy discussions about the use of certain kinds of language that have become acceptable in 'common-sense' discourse (things like when the kids have used the term 'chav', which in the UK is used as a derogatory term to describe 'working-class' people who dress, talk and act a certain way) As I my younger school self almost certainly would have been perceived as a working-class chav to middle-class kids like my own, I take certain offence here and want them to know about it. While most of the middle-class school kids in our neighbourhood wouldn't dream of using racist or homophobic language, most of them seem to think it's okay to make jokes about 'chavs'. Much tiring parental work is still to be done.

Anyway, I use this just as an example to illustrate some of the investment that often cuts into my so-called 'free' time at home after the list of other chores like cooking, cleaning and laundry are sorted. Others in the house also help with these things - I am not the only one- but perhaps I end up taking more 'time' with these chores than others! So, what is left? I do enjoy my television drama hours for sure, but when not indulging in this (getting my way with the evening TV also involves a series of struggled negotiations with three others!) I am ready to get on with some reading. In my 'academic' life, this certainly filled a lot of time with lots of note-taking, writing, revising, and so on. When there was ever a 'spare moment' for reading on the weekend, the eyes turned to my pile of library books that I 'had' to get through. I could never do enough, there was always more and I did it willingly.

So, after having my summer holiday at the end of July and having gone through a series of fun novels, I am at this new point in September. The old me would be collecting a stack of library books now and downloading articles for work-related purposes and reading in the evenings. I would enjoy the intellectual stimulation, but it always took a further step when I'd find the brain working overtime and then interrupting sleep. Now I have a new job which involves some research activity and source searching, but I do not feel inclined to use what I now consider my very precious down time to do it. It can certainly wait for my contracted office hours. But I find myself now pondering what I will do with this 'precious' time? When I've done my bit of virtuous exercise and had a drink with a friend or gone out shopping (not for food!), what kinds of questions and challenges do I want to be presented with? I do love to read, but more than fiction genres. I have enjoyed reading scholarship but don't want to create and anxiety for myself where I start to conjure up all sorts of feelings about what the academic world was like for me. There are those works that go in between academia and the popular spheres. After having just read Siri Hustvedt's non-fiction work Living, Thinking, Looking, I can see the possibilities for this kind of writing from a writer who completed a PhD in English literature a while back and decided not to aspire for the life of a professor, and declares that this has enabled her to see so many intellectual possibilities outside her field of study.

My aspiration I guess is to get to a point in my new work experience where I can feel challenged enough intellectually without being drained of all of my sensibilities and yet also have something outside of the career that keeps me from feeling bored. But maybe 'reading'/thinking as an activity can play a part on my life alongside a whole list of other stuff. I previously mentioned that I kind of fancied the idea of taking singing lessons (I've been a closet singer for a long time now I think). This and a few other pass times I'm sure will be enough to keep me amused. I also think I am having these funny feelings at the moment, like okay, what's next, because it's September and for so many years before now, it was a time of continuous academic focus. Things have changed now for the better. I need to remind myself of this and I will just adapt to new ways.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The potential of the 'alt-academic' career for the 'post-academic'

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I will start my new 'alt-academic' job (working in the university setting as staff but not as teaching/research) 'officially' in late September, although I've been going in a couple of days a week since my family summer break away to familiarise myself with some of the systems, attend some key meetings, and begin a general 'induction'. It's been a great way to settle in there slowly and get a sense for what the people are like and what the core values are. Of course, the whole purpose of the place is to prioritise the best interests of students, so if some staff didn't exactly sympathise with this aim they probably wouldn't last very long. But there are always less than perfect office personalities with which to contend at the best of times, so I'm sure certain negotiations will be made at some point along my path there. So far though, so good, I have to say. Everyone at the moment, seems to have gone out of their way to be friendly and welcoming. It's still a quiet time before the onslaught of student registration and things like Freshers Week, Induction sections etc., but at least I can say it feels like the place has a good sense of responsibility to co-workers and of course, the students.

I've already had a couple of meetings with some of the post-graduates with whom I'll be working throughout this year in various degrees. I've had the chance to throw around some ideas with them about possibilities for building a cross-faculty post-graduate community through which they can share positive intellectual as well social experiences. My first meeting also involved some conversation about future careers and what kinds of support the careers' office has offered. The chemistry/science PhD student I spoke with said that his department supported regular careers' workshops as it seems well-known that there are many fruitful opportunities outside of academia that are worth considering. The other Social Sciences PhD student wasn't aware of any workshops offered and admitted that she wasn't really keeping her eyes out for them either. But she made it very clear that she was aware of the poor employment prospects for working in academia after she finishes (she's in her 'writing-up' stage now). She acknowledged that a job probably wouldn't appear straight away and it could be a few years before a permanent one surfaces. Without pushing her too much, I had the feeling that she was going to give the academic path a shot for a while before considering other directions. That's fair enough, I thought. But then after tossing this around after our meeting, I wondered if students like her might still benefit from attending some of these early careers' workshops and even see a careers' counsellor as a way of introducing some important aspects about career planning that they may not be aware of. I remember being in the same position as this young woman, feeling sure that I was going to give it a go and work hard to get there. I remember getting advice from my adviser and the department about what was required and it all seemed very helpful and supportive. However, in retrospect now, I ask myself, 'What if?', What would have happened if I just allowed myself to open myself to other possibilities? Could I have found something that suited me much earlier than now, something that recognised my intellectual strengths and skills and rewarded me financially without me having to sacrifice myself in the process? I wish I could have broken through that barrier then. I admit though, I think it would have been a difficult one. All of my PhD friends at the time were on the academic path also. I would have been the odd one out, without any space to talk about and feel out other possibilities. I am certainly not in a position in my new job to act as a careers' adviser but what I can do is try to work with the careers' office as well as postgrad students and faculty staff to recognise the importance of career planning before postgrads complete their studies. I'll have my work cut out for me for sure.

I had another experience yesterday with a postgrad which made me think about my new role and how this job allows me to utilise quite a lot of the knowledge and skills I acquired in my PhD studies. Without going into too many details, last year my office implemented a postgrad research project which invited interested postrads to conduct some small-scale qualitative research projects about various aspects of the postgrad student experience. I've had the opportunity to read and assess the quality of some of the work so far. They are not perfect final pieces and they are in need of much revision it seems. My time yesterday was spent with a student going through the draft and discussing restructuring and revising for clarity and other things. It was a tutorial session without having the weight of having to give the student a final mark at some point. And the student was genuinely interest in the politics of the project and wanted to improve the work. It was a fulfilling experience for me, a nice start to the job which will have more of this kind of work in the future.

I've said this before and will say it again, this job seems to offer the prospect for lots of potential for professional growth and intellectual satisfaction without having the baggage of over-working or giving up one's personal life. My line manager made it very clear that I shouldn't work over my expected contracted hours and I think this is the ethic throughout the office culture there. The salary is less than a faculty teaching/research job would have been, but I've accepted that this is the area where there will be a sacrifice. For me and my personal circumstances, this sacrifice is worth it as I have other bonuses like lots of holiday time through the year (something like 5 weeks as well as added university 'closure days' that I will be paid for). The building I work in is being refurbished - the swimming pool will be back in action in October and I can use it, conveniently, at lunch time or after work when I want to fit the exercise in. I can also cycle to work and be there in 15 or 20 minutes, depending on my mood (sometimes I just take it slower to be cautious). This means I don't have any expensive or timely travel costs and I can be home at a reasonable hour at the end of the day to sort of the domestic responsibilities like feeding my children eventually. It's all looking very promising. The 'alt-academic' choice, for me, I feel, has been positive. Time will tell, but I'm willing to give it a good shot.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Post family vacation revival and new starts

It's been a busy month away from posting here and keeping up with other post-academic blogs. As I mentioned in my last very quick update on things, this is mainly due to our recent family vacation away to La Costa Brava area of Catalonia (that's Spain - although the Catalan people argue that Catalonia is not Spain - they cherish their own Catalan language and many want independence from Spain). With a bit of advice from a Catalonian friend of mine here in the UK, we visited the area of Palafrugell (about 1 1/2 hours from Barcelona) about seven years ago and stayed in a nice, family oriented beach village called Tamariu. We liked it so much we thought we'd go there again this time for a bit of relief from such a rainy British summer - oh yes, I've mentioned that before here haven't I? With luck, the sun did come out here for about a week or so before we left and it was hot enough to sunbathe and get into the summer spirit as the London Olympics were just about the start. When we returned on August 11th it was hot and sunny again, so a nice means of reorienting ourselves back into the routines of everyday life. Grey skies and rain were to come again soon, that was for sure, but at least I've been experiencing recently something of what I would call a normal summer season after so much vitamin D deprivation!

Okay, for my US readers who may think I'm living the high Life of Riley here, I'll just add that lots of Brits go off to hot European places for breaks in the summer as we can't have a guarantee of hot summer here, although the Southwest coast of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset have beautiful spots for walks, cycling and fun on the beach - that is, when it's not raining. And warning to non-UK home-based visitors: the waters are far too cold there to swim in comfortably. If you dare you can get a wet suit like many of us. In my view, even then it's far too icy and there are some strange Brits who strip down to their swimming costumes and splash around in it at the first sign of sun creeping through the clouds. Anyway, there are frequent cheap flights with Ryan Air to Girona and the accommodation there is close to the same price you'd pay for a cottage in Cornwall. Renting a car (much needed where we were) can add up but what can you do?

Here area few snaps:

 Top pic shows the view from our apartment to the shared pool. Tamariu beach had a diving board that our kids loved - big bonus there!

 One of my highlights was cinema on Tamariu beach for the families. We watched Ratatouille dubbed in Spanish. Great, great fun. Comfortable temps and no mosquitoes!

 A stop to La Bisbal where they make these gorgeous ceramics.

 Our teens in a moment when they weren't grumpy about something or arguing with each other. 

A nice little moment with me and hubby on a boat/cave excursion. He copied this and framed it as a gift for our anniversary yesterday - 18 years married and known each other for 22 - and still see eye-to-eye - how nice!


New start with new job

I won't be able to start officially with my new job until mid September. This is because before I applied I had made plans for my mother and sis to come here for a two week visit (various reasons why). At that point I kind of accepted that I would probably be unemployed for a while. I'd been job seeking for a while, applied for another role and never got an interview and pretty much thought it might take another few months before I would land anything, if I was lucky. When this prospect arose, I thought, like the others, I wouldn't hear anything but decided to give a shot anyway. And low and behold, I was surprised when it all went well in my favour. Anyway, I had to be honest about some of the difficulty I would have with working during the time my family is here - Mom doesn't drive in this country, which is for the best, considering her funny driving habits back home, and sis doesn't drive at all as she lives and works in the city. The whole driving thing wouldn't be a big deal if mother was not disabled by arthritis, but she is, or at least immobile enough that she can;t seem to walk further than short distances or be in major pain after 5 minutes. Her lifestyle has become very sedentary and suburban - car driving everywhere door to door, so a lot less exercise to help build up her strength etc., oh well..... So, this means I'll be taxi-ing her and sis around, getting them door to door to cafes and other places that might interest them in my city and I'll be left struggling to find parking and walking to meet them. All good exercise for me, I guess! 

So, yes, the job. I've agreed with my line manager to come in this month and early September to get to know the department a bit and start my induction. I've been invited to some important meetings already by the Dean of Graduate Studies to help get a sense of what some of the current issues are for Postgrads at the university. My role is with the student union and I will be training Student Reps and developing the area of postgraduate provision across the university. This means I'll be involved in getting together some research around the postgraduate student experience from various faculties and using this to target weak areas where troubled students may quit, complain or be struggling. After I accepted the job and got more of a sense of what I'd be doing, I began to really see the interesting aspects and potential of this role. I've gone in a few days now and really feel like this a good fit for me. 

When I first started to think about making plans for my academic exit about a year and a half ago, I got involved with a nice little research project on the undergrad student experience where I last worked as a contract Associate (Adjunct) Lecturer. Looking back, I think this was one of my smartest moves. I got a nice bulk of contract money from the gig (more than I would have from teaching as there were more 'hours' involved) and it was a great way of developing my CV outside of the usual teaching I was doing. While it was 'research' based, because it was oriented toward the student experience, it was valuable experience outside of the expected research area from my PhD and teaching interests, and a nice, well-respected internal report came out of it with my name attached. In terms of its value for working in a permanent staff/non-Faculty position in a university, it was very good with an excellent reference from the project coordinator who headed the work. It was also a good way to begin thinking about where my other professional interests may lie. In trying to think through what became a long, post-academic transition, one of the areas that kept coming up was my interest in wider issues in education. What did that mean to me though, exactly? I wasn't really sure. I looked back on my experience as a secondary school teacher, which I embraced but felt I could not do forever. So going back to that level of teaching, I decided, was not a good option. I enjoyed some of the intellectual challenges that my postgrad and PhD experience offered and I got to experience what higher education in the UK was like. The process of post-academic transition has enabled me to be pretty critical about what postgrads (in my case, in the Arts and Humanities) are offered. In the last six months, I've been thinking a lot about the problems and challenges in the area of careers' advice for postgrads and PhDs who may not get jobs in academia. Careers' support is a crucial area, I think, and I'm sure other readers here will agree, that can be highlighted for postgrads. In the UK there is a support service called 'Vitae', which offers a range of advice and courses around careers for postgrads. It used to be called the UK Grad School (I think?), and UK funding bodies have been known to send their students to week-long courses that offer workshop themes that help them think about their general strengths and transferrable skills so they'll have the confidence to win the job when they start hunting for it after degree completion. I did in fact, attend one of these courses in my second year, but the experience was clouded with the stubborn sense that I was already clear about where I was going. I was going to get an academic job in my field and I knew what I needed to do to get there etc. 

All of this experience came back to me the other day after I attended a meeting with the Dean of Graduate Studies and other key people from various student services, including someone involved in employability. Employability wasn't on the agenda - issues such as postgraduate depression, stress, isolation over the summer, and personal tutors were the key areas - but in a side chat about careers it was revealed that Faculty members are the ones who put walls up. It was said that after a key careers' staff spent a long time scheduling a student workshop, which teaching staff would have been aware of and helped organise, the whole thing fell through when she showed up to an empty department, hung around a while and finally gave up. So, we're back to step one again when faced with academic staff defending their own roles when threatened by others who may actually propose other viable options for students. This is dangerous territory - what consequences might it have for their departments who are struggling to round up and keep paying taught and PhD students? If these students are thinking of employment outside of academia then they might catch on to the fact that they don't really 'need' the PhD qualification. Of course you'll need it in the academia path but not outside it. The can of worms will be open. 

My new role will be fascinating in so many ways. I'll be the sympathetic face to other postgrads because I know what they are going through, and at the same time, I will be in a position where structural support for them is vital so that they stay on and complete their studies. If they aren't happy, and don't come here to study, people like me won't have a job. I am looking forward to this challenge. At least the first fun thing I have in my diary for October is the postgrad welcome party at a neutral cultural venue in the city. I hear it all went very well last year and inspired lots of interest. The rest of the year I'll be faced with coming up with other plans to sustain student interest, community building and who knows what else. Wish me luck. More to  come as I settle in. Mid September posting may go slow again as I face US family visit!




Friday, 17 August 2012

Overdue Update

I realise it's been sometime since my last post and I just wanted to send a very quick little message to mention that a longer one will appear soon with more details as to what's been going on with nice re-charging vacation/holiday and with new job start. We've had a two week family holiday to sunny Spain, the Costa Brava area of Catalonia to be exact and it was the perfect tonic needed for sun deprived souls from a wet and grey British summer this year - apparently the worst in many years. I plan to add some nice pics, hopefully without boring all to death. This week I've gone in a bit to my new job for a start with an induction to the place and that's opened my eyes to a range of interesting challenges I'll have to look forward to. Much of this new role at the university where I did my PhD involves engaging with the postgraduate community across faculties and working to enhance representation and the postgraduate student experience. I'm told that my PhD background and experience there was what sold them on me as the strongest candidate for the role. So nice to hear that my PhD has actually been useful and respected outside of the teaching/research norm.

More to come soon - Bye for now!

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Surviving commuter cycling

After visiting Literary Emergency's blog with its post about cycling to the new alt-academic job, I was inspired to share my commuter cycling enthusiasms and my joyful feelings of managing to find a job that is only about a fifteen minute cycle ride from home.

When I lived in the Boston area years ago in my younger, carefree days, it was common and accepted that most working people would just have to get in their cars to get to work if they didn't work within the busy city borders where you could rely on buses or trains. I worked a few jobs that were located in the suburbs around the major industrial parks, with my last, desperately needed job taking about a 55 minute car journey. I hated the traffic filled journey (and wasn't crazy about the job either), but I couldn't escape it. I used to dream of having work that I could walk to or take a short, uncomplicated bus journey. Later when I lived and worked in London, I relied on the underground system to take me across the city to my first job. My next job was a bit closer but still required a long-ish bus ride in constant London traffic. In my later job when I was teaching I had the option of driving a 50 minute journey, and could also get on a train then bus if I wanted a change. We lived in a very busy part of the inner city then and with the work commute I felt there was never a moment of a slow pace in life. By the time the weekends came, the thought of just staying indoors for two days was quite attractive. As I said in my last post about babies and post-grad study, our move out of London at the time was very welcome.

One of my other teaching contracts in higher education years ago also meant a long commute in. It was another stint that I hated and  I wasn't overly excited about the teaching deal there either, so was very happy when I accrued more hours at the institution that was closer to us. By the time I was thinking about PhD study, I was determined that it had to be somewhere I didn't have to spend my life struggling in traffic to get to. At that point I just didn't had the luxury of extra time for it, and my patience had run thin.

This terrain of the question of how far would I be willing to commute in my future employment prospects has been a difficult one. It certainly played a large part in my decision to give up on a teaching/research academia career. I have come across many others in academia who work away from their homes and come back for a few days of the week when they are not required to be there for teaching or in meetings. I contemplated that possibility and after some time realised that with all of the other demands and pressure I would be under, this wouldn't be a good option for me. My domestic situation with two young children and an academic husband who is required to be away (sometimes frequently) just wouldn't accommodate it. After living with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis for some time, I also accepted that my health would suffer and my condition would probably progress and go downhill if I wasn't careful. It's been a relief to accept that if I want to continue to be upright, on my feet with some energy that something else in my life will have to give  - and the prospect of an academic first permanent job away somewhere else across the country was what I was willing to give up. But what about non-academic work? After researching some of these possibilities for some time, it's been clear that with the recession there are few good/appropriate jobs out there and many people have to be willing to travel if they want to stay employed. One possible contract position that looked interesting and got me a telephone interview some time ago was over an hour's drive away. Another prospect was full-time and an hour or so train travel and bus ride on the other side. I have often thought that my increasingly narrowing list of expectations for the ideal job will just result in long-term unemployment - it would all be my own fault as I was simply asking for too much.

I promise I am getting to the cycling part now and I apologise to readers as I've noticed I've tended to go on   a bit too long now. Anyway, last year in June I managed to secure a short-term research job based it the city centre here, only a fifteen-twenty minute cycle ride away. Walking is manageable but about 40 minutes one way and I worry a bit about using up my energy reserves this way. This prompted me to finally get out there and look for a bike that would replace the one that was stolen around the same time that I was really ill and had my RRMS diagnosis. After the diagnosis and long recovery time, I really felt that I'd never be able to get on a bike again. Maybe on flat ground but certainly not in my very hilly city where even mega-fit cyclists seem to struggle on. But, not to despair, the electric bike has made it's way here! One of my work colleagues from the university got one and it began to open my eyes to the freedom I could have to pop in and out of the city. After some time looking around and being very indecisive (they're not a cheap option) I decided to go for it and started riding again last June.

For us it's been a perfect commuting option. We have only one car that I use more as my husband can cycle quickly to his office. So, without the extra burden of a second car with increasing petrol prices and car insurance, maintenance etc, I could justify spending a bit more on the electric bike to help me up the hills around here. I use it mainly just for short commutes but the juice will go for about 40 miles before it needs a recharge. The battery comes off and you just plug the charger into it over night to go the next day.

Now, back to the issue of job searching and getting lucky. The non-academic staff job I've just managed to secure a couple of weeks ago is based at the university where I did my PhD and is close by. The pay is much lower than I wanted but it has lots of benefits that for me cancel out this problem. I don't have a long commute that will stress me out and exhaust me. I am actually going to save a fair bit of cash this way by not having to spend on train fares or petrol costs. Commuting to another major city where some academics go for top jobs around here, for example, would run costs up to at least a couple of thousand more pounds a year. They have offered me the option of part-time hours, which had been on my list of outrageous and unrealistic preferences for a long time - after a while I crossed off this preference, assuming it was just too unrealistic and I'd just have to see how I got on in terms of my energy levels. The team of people I will be working with are accommodating, nice and professional. I discovered that one woman left her work as a lawyer in a swanky law firm because she wanted to work in a more civilised atmosphere. So, I'm not the only one compromising! The job can grow - it also includes research and will make good use of the skills I've been acquiring over the last several years. Later I will have the option to apply for other internal only jobs where there will be less competition. I can get back on the bike again and give up the car. This prospect is a good one, but of course, I do live in a country where we have had the most rain this summer in British history. Cycling in a down pour is not fun at all, and I have begun to invest in more cycling rain gear - some of it quite stylish,as you can see here:






These fancy things are called Leggits and I've got them online from Georgia in Dublin, where they have their fair share of rain. They had some other cool, stylish stuff but thought I'd wait a bit before spending all of my first pay cheque before I've even earned it. These leggits are meant to be worn over any kind of shoe to protect shoes and trousers from rain. I've run them under the tap already as a test and they are completely waterproof. Good stuff in summer showers when cycling in sandals! Here are some shots of my electric bike. It's the 'Diva' women's design from the Oxygen brand:




I've got waterproof trousers and waterproof gloves now, as well as a stylish long cycling coat which claimed to be waterproof but after a major heavy rain, I discovered it was 'resistant' which isn't quite the same! If pushed I could drive the car to the area of my new job during a heavy rain and walk a distance to the office, as parking is extremely limited, if not impossible there. I'm hoping that after the very wet summer we've had, the colder season, like this past winter, will be drier. The saving grace is our mild temps in winter here, so winter commuter cycling is feasible outside of the really heavy rain conditions that is! My message here then is, if you're hesitating about getting back on your bike (in hilly cities like mine), don't despair. The electric bike is amazing and liberating. I highly recommend it to all. And who knows, maybe your list of future job expectations is not as unrealistic as you think it is at the moment. The right job may just be right around the corner waiting for the right time to surface!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Babies and Post-Grad studies




Today is my son's sixteenth birthday. This is a pic of him after we brought him home from the hospital and tried to get our heads around the reality that our lives would never be the same again. His impending arrival sixteen years ago was the start of many new things in my life at that time. My husband was offered a new job which entailed a much welcome move away from an inner-city London area where we lived for some time. My husband was a Londoner since the age of three and loved it there, but the time had come for a positive career move for him and a good move for us to start a new family with a baby. I left a secondary school teaching job that I enjoyed, but I was feeling pretty fed up with a very busy city life that was never quiet. Coming out to the South West of England to a nice, manageable city was great for me. We had already established a couple of sociable connections through his new workplace and found a great flat with amazing views. The problem with this flat was the extent of the physical work that one needed to do to get to the views at the top of this Georgian terraced building. These amazing old places don't have lifts/elevators and there are many stairs to negotiate to get to the top flat. I did feel a bit skeptical about this, knowing there was a baby on the way and we'd be carrying extra loads (more me, as husband would start job straight away), but husband talked me into it as we hadn't seen any other places that were as nice as this one. Another crazy decision that added to the exhaustion that took over my life much of the time. Well, one positive point was that I managed to stay pretty fit and tone with all the stairs and lifting, not to mention walking extensively with baby in pushchair in a very hilly part of town.

My activity levels were challenged even more, because for some crazy reason I also made the decision to start an MA course part-time. It was going to be a difficult time for me to begin looking for new work, as I was pregnant when we arrived, and I wanted something else in my life to 'challenge' me. As I type I am chuckling cynically at this idea now - what was I thinking - all I can say is that I was properly warned by many that this idea was not exactly practical, as once baby arrived I would realize how much pressure I would be under to keep up. My crazy husband, also an academic, was one of the few who encouraged me to give the MA a go as it was 'only part-time - sure I could manage it if I approached it realistically. Well, it must have been hormones doing strange things to me at the time. I started the course in the October after my son was born on the July 17. I found some part-time baby care and sorted out a schedule of class and study time for myself, and cracked on. After the initial struggle with confusing ideas and academic challenges, I got the hang of it and felt excited by academic work. But this 'excitement' seemed to be mixed totally with a tendency toward obsessiveness and compulsion toward perfection, to succeed at all costs. As I read more current debates in the field, I convinced myself that my own essays weren't as good - they too had to be of publishable standard. I am amazed that I actually managed to finish these essays by their deadlines. Of course, I did manage this but only because I would be working at crazy hours throughout the nights to achieve a high standard. Nothing was ever good enough. Hmm, I'm sure post-academics reading this know exactly what I'm talking about. Over the years I have recognised that these obsessive qualities seem to define many features of the academic personality. I think it may take me many years to break away from these tendencies and relieve myself of these pressures. Oh how liberating this will be. I've been allowing this to happen slowly since planning my post-academic transition and feel a great weight is being lifted from my shoulders.

The pressure of perfectionism in some personalities also extends into other areas of life too, especially for the middle-classes whose horizons of expectations are high. My biggest challenge was living up to the expectation of trying to 'have it all' and mastering everything. What a heavy burden it was to try to make new friends in new city while pregnant with my first child. All of my MA peers were younger and single, no kids. There was one other student, single mother with two older kids, but they weren't babies and somehow she seemed to have a grip on things a lot better than I had. New mothers, especially the middle-class ones, are also expected to cook fresh food, pureed when the babies begin solids, and I haven't even mentioned breast-feeding, which was a constant, on demand activity. With my son, we suffered the extra strain of very bad colic, which was at its worst in the evenings and night time. There was not much sleep for many months. When I left him with someone else I struggled to get little bottles of expressed breast milk for him and stressed when there wasn't enough. When I was away at class or at the library, I'd have overly engorged breasts and would need to rush to the bathroom to push some of the milk out for some relief. What can I say, there was never any easy way to get around the business of feeding baby when away in the early days. When I weaned from breastfeeding I had the same over-engorged problems - with my second baby this resulted in painful mastitis.

In the final year of the part-time MA I was working on my dissertation. This was the year when my husband and I discussed whether we should think about having another child. Wow, this decision was very difficult indeed. Finally, I felt I was getting to a point where life's pressures seemed to ease up a bit as my son was getting older. I haven't mentioned how extremely active he was. Compared to other boys and girls his age, he was certainly the busiest and most distracted, with the tendency to take more risks than other children. The playgroup he went to advised me not to try to 'full-day' as they thought he wasn't ready/mature enough and needed to be with me. My translation was that they couldn't cope with his activity levels and left it to me to deal with. I was desperate for a break and only got little bits that I treasured. Suddenly, there was talk about having another. I was 36 at the time and felt I needed to be clear about what we were going to do - I wasn't getting any younger - pressure, pressure. We did try and after I finished my dissertation in May, I had my daughter a few months later in September. Sometime later I started the adjunct teaching path and then was talked into starting a PhD. I applied for funding with the expectation that I wouldn't get it, but surprise came when I did. I felt compelled to carry the obligation through - with such competition for funds I saw it as my duty.

I cannot ever make the claim that my PhD study was a waste of time. I am the person I am today because of this unique experience and I've grown intellectually in ways I would not have if I hadn't done it. Having said that, I may have found other avenues for intellectual challenge outside the expectations of a PhD if given the chance. I also may have had a less self-inflicted stressful, anxiety ridden life if I avoided PhD study. Or would I? Perhaps, considering my somewhat obsessive personality I may have sought other ways to put myself under pressure. I've said in earlier posts that I have some residual guilt about how academic stress may have been passed on to my children. Being completely honest, I have to admit I would have been more productive academically had I not had them. If we decided not to go forward with having our second child I probably would have gone straight into PhD and had more energy to devote to my academic career. I may have secured a job at a time in UK Higher Education when there were more jobs available.  Have I taken some sort of resentment out on my children. Probably. Probably out on my husband too. I am only human and living during historical times when there are just too many expectations to try to live up to. As I'm getting older, I feel I can let go of many of those expectations now and appreciate the other great things in my life, including my family - I'd be pretty lonely without them. Would an academic career, where nothing is ever 'good enough' be worth sacrificing them? As I'm writing this, I want to make clear that I'm not taking a dualistic position on family-good, no family, career - bad. I'm just working through how some of my own difficult feelings around this have surfaced over the years. 

The golden time of academic life here in the UK has passed now, of course. If I had taken the path where I din;t have my daughter, I may also have got to this point now, where academic labour may feel less favourable to me. Many academics I have come across are very unhappy with working conditions as they are now and are dreaming about retirement time. Others are losing their jobs from forced redundancy and are wondering how they can now make a living.



Fast forward now to the present. Sixteen years later my son last week had his secondary school 'prom'. Not quite the standard of the overblown US high-school prom, (no date, not lots of pics) but enough to warrant spending some dosh on renting a tux (opted out of bow-tie, and went for Mafia style here!). When he was seven, after years of struggling to keep up with his pace and endless negotiations with his school about his unusual level of distraction and hyperactivity, yes, you guessed it, he was diagnosed with ADHD.We opted to try the meds and life began to become more manageable for all the family (too many details to discuss here - life was very, very hard for a while). He's an A star student now aspiring to get top grades to go to Cambridge where they teach top Maths degree. He's picked up on my husband's and my obsessive academic qualities and spends hours on his own trying to figure out bizarre Maths' formulas and problems that are a completely different language for me. My constant advice to him is to take great care and have a balanced life and to focus on having strong relationships with people. Hopefully he'll manage this.

My daughter is a high achiever too, growing massively upset if she can't sort out her homework on time or to the best standard. And she happens to be pretty good in everything - her choices will be extremely difficult to make. My advice to her is the same - keep life balanced! These days are tough, with their school expectations very high, wanting good exam results for survival, and with the potential for many girls to play the 'good girl' compliant academic routine. She and her friends simply want to please their teachers all the time. Academic danger signs are there for sure.

My experience of academia as a mother  bringing up two young children has been a great challenge, to say the least. I don't think I ever managed it that well, but this isn't to say it is impossible as I've met other women who, at least from a distance, seem to pull it all together. In my case, my personality, the over-worry, over-anxiety led to over-work. My over-work eventually led to very bad health and a diagnosis of Relapsing-Remitting MS when I was mid PhD study. The lack of sleep certainly triggered the first and second MS episode - a recipe for MS disaster, which made me stop dead in my tracks and rethink what I was doing, and what I wanted from life. If there was anything good to come of out bad health, then a new revelation about the direction I wanted to take in life was it. But it's taken my still, a very long time since then to get out of academia. I'm hoping now that I have a new non-academic career ahead of me, that I put some of these bad working habits behind me and enjoy the work-life balance more.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Today's tooth extraction: A metaphor for post-academic life

Well, as I have such a long history now of life as an academic who has had some great pleasures in reading interesting scholarship, attempting to build my own research and scholarly identity, I now see that I will forever be 'thinking' about intriguing metaphors. It has become a habit now that I think will be hard to break, so I'm just going to go with it and see if takes me to some other creative places outside of the academic sphere. This is what is leading me to share my experience today at the dentist's office.

I have a had a bad tooth that has been causing me problems for actually quite a long time now. I've begun to lose track of the start of the issues with this problem back tooth, but I believe it caused me some basic headache years ago when I discovered that I had got into the habit of 'grinding' at night. This terrible way of dealing with stress (unknowingly) I think introduced problems with old fillings, and led to paying for an expensive root canal later on. Even using the dreaded mouth guard (another term for this is called 'birth control'), I still hadn't quite overcome it. Last year after having more toothache there I saw my dentist who put in a massive filling. It really just about covered most of the tooth itself on the inside area. I was desperate to have this done before my family and I went on vacation to the US last summer. Unfortunately, into the first week of the holiday when I bit down on something with that tooth, I ended up with growing pain and a gum abscess which had to get sorted immediately, and not so cheaply, by a local dentist there. Eventually when I got back to the UK and saw my dentist, she went into a very long technical explanation about this previously root-canalled and now thinly cracked tooth, how important it was to try to save it but if more filling wouldn't last, it would need to come out or have another expensive procedure that would call for specialist treatment, blah blah. At that point in the conversation I couldn't really hear or understand any more. It was as if she was speaking another foreign language. I basically planned to try the other type of filling and if it failed or didn't last, I was happy to have her take the dreaded thing out and be done with the problem.

So, fast forward now to the next year - present day, when two weeks ago this damn tooth filling chips at the corner on a Saturday, no pain, rush into see her as soon as I can - happens to be on the day of my birthday (yes, as you get to my age, you fear losing all your teeth) -and a patch up does the job, with a reassuring smile that all is okay now. Unfortunately, another week passes and eating a similar type of food as last time (just ordinary chicken thing, not hard or crunchy) and it chips off again, close to the same spot again. Rush in again but have to see another dentist as she's not there and his discouraging look tells me, there's no hope left. The tooth is cracked. There's an infection starting. It's got to come out (confirmed fear of ageing and losing all my teeth). He could have done it then, or I could have seen my dentist the next day, but the next day was my job interview. Hmmm. Scary thoughts were going through my mind. I won't get through the night. I'll wake up with a massive abscess and pain. I'll have a high temperature. I will need to see some straight away and hence, I must withdraw from the job interview as I won't get the job anyway - self-pity, self-pity and more self-pity.

Well, I got a grip and carried on and as readers know, I did get offered the job, another year older, cracked tooth, self-pity and all. This has meant that I had to wait a whole week before I could see dentist today to get rid of the thing. I am now back home after the lengthy time of the extraction and feel compelled to share the thoughts that have been running through my mind while sitting in the waiting room and then while holding my mouth open and being pulled around and drilled at for at least 30 minutes.

This tooth and the extraction has become a metaphor for some of my recent post-academic in transition experience. So last year, I resigned from teaching and took up the RA contract. Not quite 'out' of academia, and wondering if the job would turn things around for me a bit, get me into a better academic position to look forward and maybe apply for other academic posts afterwards. The job was fine, it held me over but I wouldn't say it wowed me. In retrospect, I guess I could say it was like patching up the problem tooth for a while. The tooth was never really completely fixed after such a difficult history, but it was fine for the time being.  But then a little chip here and another chip there, revealed the bigger problem that never really went away. The crack got worse, started an infection that was only going to get very bad if it wasn't extracted. Thankfully I don't really need to go the expensive crown route as it was at the very back. As she was yanking out as much of the tooth as she could, although she had to break it up and take it out in pieces, she said, reassuringly, 'You won't feel any pain, but you will definitely feel lots of pressure and force'.

This, I guess is how some of the transition out of academia has felt. At the very beginning when I had difficulty deciding if I should carry on or stop, it was very painful, with lots of tears and anxiety, and maybe I was grinding again too, creating more of a tooth problem! After leaving teaching and doing the other job, I began to really think about other options and read a lot of books and sought advice about career transition possibilities. The painful element of leaving was a bit less intense but it wouldn't say it was emotionally easy during the job-seeking process - lots of self-doubt pressure was there but not constant, at least. The final crack in the tooth happened at the same time as the recent job interview. The extraction that I have now been looking forward to so much for the last week, so I can put this bad tooth history behind me, now coincides with the new job prospect. I'd like to see this final, drastic extraction as a nice metaphor for the removal of many of my post-academic struggles that grew out of years of hard academic work and uncertainty, not to mention, accompanied with the side-effect of teeth grinding! What I do realise though, is that there is a huge gap in my mouth - and it feels bizarre, strangely inviting, to run the tongue across it - it's so hard not to. I think I've accepted that there will always be some kind of post-academic gap in my life too. Academia has taken up a large part of my life and made me who I am today. It will find ways of enticing me to have a look now and again at what's happening in academic life in my PhD field, I'm sure. This will be hard to escape - a couple of good friends are academics in closely related fields, my husband is an academic in another field and I will be working at the university where I did my PhD - how will I ever be able to completely avoid it? The gap will be what it will be. I've decided I shouldn't be too worried about trying to fill it, but see it as something that was part of me and my history but had to be taken out because it didn't serve it's purpose anymore.


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Post job offer happiness

This is going to be a quick little snippet. Still getting my head around the reality of being offered a decent job after so much soul searching and job seeking this year. Today I'm feeling pretty good, with a bit of giddiness here and there. I've also had another birthday last week and as with every year at this time, I find I am often reflecting about my life, where I've been, where I am going, and reminding myself of all of the good things I have for which I am so grateful. So, I decided, in one moment of morning giddiness, to snap a couple of shots to record the moment. This pic is the first one I've revealed here (many of us in the post-academic blog community take pseudonyms and don't have pics of ourselves), but I'm feeling today like it's okay to celebrate a new stage in my life.

As I am another year older I see the grey hairs are multiplying more quickly than ever and they are especially more visible when a certain daylight hits them. Several years ago I made the firm decision that I was not going to invest in any more hair colouring and I was just going to let the hair develop into a new (grey) style. I don't regret the decision but it is very clear that it quite obviously 'ages' me - yes, there is a reason why the hair product industry makes a fortune as it relies so much on our pervasive culture of youth and our anxieties about losing attention. One of the pair of style celebrities here in the UK, 'Susannah' of the 'Trinny and Susannah' pair whose show 'What Not to Wear' hits the heights of popularity a few years ago, made this statement (paraphrase): 'I really don't know what I'd do if I just became invisible and not noticed'. She just couldn't bear the idea of losing her looks or her femininity and she was referring to the invisibility many 'women' experience when they get old. (Funny though, I have spotted a few older men who I am certain add the Grecian formula to their locks but they would never admit to it!) For me, this 'invisibility' experience offers a liberating potential that she just hasn't quite spotted yet. How nice to know that men (and women) will be forced to judge me on things other than my looks as I get older. And how nice to get a point in later life when not giving a fuck any more feels pretty good. In fact, having that attitude can draw another kind of attention that we may not have managed to get when we were younger and more physically desirable. Yay!


So, I know I could take a few years off if not grey, but fuck it, I really just don't give a shit anymore about this trivia. Another bonus about ageing is that you begin to prioritise the important things and the other stuff doesn't get a look in.  I am relieved to finally come to this point in my life. I haven't given up many of the other accoutrements of femininity (and yes, I will totally admit I felt I had to carefully choose which pic to upload!), but this has been a nice start.