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.