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!


  1. What lovely photos of you and the family, Jet - and a most interesting insight into your job. I like the way you highlight the closed shop that seems to operate at all levels of the scholastic field, be it secondary school or university. Blog on!

    1. Thanks Ali. I've been perusing through your blog and really enjoyed hearing about your holiday in Crete. As you are such a prolific blogger, I'm finding some of my limited time means I can't keep up with speed of your posts. Great stuff - maybe some of the energy will rub off on me!

  2. Great post and pictures Jet! I love posts about great family vacations , maybe cause I love going on family vacations myself. Thank your story with us.