Friday, 18 January 2013

Why US students choose the UK for postgrad study

I've had the pleasure of discovering a great blog resource recently called The Professor Is In. It's created by Dr. Karen Kelsky, a post-academic from the US who decided to leave academia even when she has a successful career with tenure. I love finding blogs like this because they provide an honest narrative of why people initially aspired to the academic life, and what they learned about its realities after investing so much of themselves in it. The thing that also makes Dr. Kelsky's blog a great resource is the author's willingness to offer realistic career advice for post-acs as well as solid advice young academics just starting out. She's aiming to train postgrads in career preparation in a way that she never experienced when she finished her PhD. She is clear at the start that she is not in the business of creating illusions that there is a fruitful and abundant academic job market out there for new post-PhDs, but she does claim that she can offer strong advice about how to be competitive in these conditions if you are convinced you want to give it your best shot. On the other end, she offers some great thoughts about what it means to quit academia and doesn't stop at warning those potential grad students to rethink their move before getting themselves into major debt when signing up after they are encouraged by their undergraduate mentors.

After reading one of her great 'Guest' postings Don't go to graduate school shared by a tenured friend of hers, I spent some time thinking about why bright spark US graduates might be so keen on packing their bags and flying over here to the UK to take postgraduate MA, MSc courses and PhDs. The post is really an exchange between Karen and her friend, who tells the story about one of her talented undergrad students in English who has finished his/her degree and is passionate about becoming an academic. The student has applied to an MA grad programme in a prestigious university in the northeast and has not secured any funding, but is so stuck on pursuing this dream that they are willing to pay the 45,000 dollar a year tuition fee and go into massive debt to prove their commitment. The student letter/email to the professor is a kind of expression of intent with the hope that the professor will praise him/her, encourage their academic interests and open their arms as a welcome into the life of academia. The prof's response, however, is something unexpected. We don't know what the student's final decision was after that, but at least he/she can't say they weren't warned.

The wonderful twist to this scenario is that this prof tells it like it is and advises the student not to take the MA course, especially if it's unfunded, but even if funded, warns the student that this is not the way to go either, especially with worsening academic employment prospects that are not showing any sign of improvement. She stresses to this bright young star that he/she has a lot going for them and there are so many other avenues he/she can choose to exploit their talents while not breaking the bank. Yay for her for playing it straight, and yay for the student if they take seriously the advice.

I am reminded then about the perverse business of these elite US higher institutions that can charge whatever they like to allow their perspective students the 'privilege' of studying there. In the UK students have been up in arms and protesting in the streets when Higher Education institutions here went public with their intentions to raise yearly undergrad fees from 3,000 pounds a year to between 6,000-9,000 annually (home students costs) for their three-year undergrad degrees. For graduate MA or MSc courses, home students will be expecting to pay around 6,000 a year full-time or 13,000-14,000 pounds if international. These estimates are based on my scan of an equivalent 'elite' UK university (they are called 'Russell Group' universities here because they are the older institutions). Other non-Russell Group universities will often charge on the lower end of that spectrum but some go higher. At this point in British history these public institutions cannot simply charge whatever they want, and we don't have the large culture of private university options like in the US. They've been forced to raise fees because of less government funding and they've taken advantage of aiming for the higher fee demand, but that's the threshold at the moment. They're not allowed to go higher.

So for those talented US undergrads hoping for a future in academia they can see the benefits of studying here in the UK. Laying out 13,500 pounds for an MA converts, at current rates, to 21,567.60 dollars (to be exact), a massive savings of over 20,000 (using the northeast ivy league example above) if they are convinced they should go in this direction. For many of us post-acs who have been there, however, and who have suffered the debts of undergrad education in the US (myself included - I moved to the UK after finishing my US undergrad degree), and then accrued more postgrad debts, we wouldn't want to repeat the experience. Enough is enough, I say.

In my current alt-ac work, I encounter many international postgrads, a good percentage of them from the US, taking wonderfully intellectually fulfilling postgrad degrees. I am happy for them if they've been able to put a middle finger up to the US and have found a way to get off a bit cheaper for a quality postgrad education. But I want to also have long and extended conversations with them about how higher education institutions in the US and here now, who are rubbing their hands together in excitement at the prospect of taking in the postgrad student, and even better if they are a nice international money-maker. I want to remind them that years ago when my UK friends were undergrads the government paid their full education costs and even gave them extra stipends for living expenses. Of course, in those days higher education in the UK was even more elitist with a very small percentage of mainly privileged middle-class young people attending. With increasing widening participation there has been a large increase in those achieving degrees here. This is a great thing for sure, but any increasing fees will not help a lot of prospective students achieve their educational potential if they are faced with years of debt. Getting out in the streets across the UK to protest hasn't solved the problem but it it has increased student awareness and given students a strong voice and presence here that was potentially waning  before fee increases.

So while the UK might offer some attraction for prospective US postgrads (and undergrads too, especially as they will be on a degree programme here for only three, and not four years), I want to signal to these prospects that there must be another way to reward your intellectual curiosity. Unfortunately, with unemployment so high at this time of world recession, there is no easy solution, and many are choosing postgrad courses as a way of buying more time before they have to compete in the job market. And with the extra MA/MSc they will see themselves as being one step ahead of others, I guess. But they are also a few steps behind financially and will have the added pressure of seeking employment in highly paid private, commercial sectors in the hope that they can pay their student loans quicker. Many will find they are working 13 hour days in a career they are unhappy with and are simply looking forward to that one big annual holiday where they can bask in the sun and recharge until they are back in the rat race again. My advice to these postgrad want-to-bes is to take a long, hard time to think about this. It's hard when you're young in your twenties to imagine where you may be when you are forty when you might have regrets about your choices. Think hard about the core of things that help make you happy. And if confused about whether you should sacrifice financial stability for the love of your academic subject, read many of the well-considered post-ac stories in the post-ac blogging community.

That final word, of course, leads me to plug again, the collective post-ac website that I am jointly editing with Currer, J.C. and Lauren, called How To Leave Academia. This is the newest post-ac resource that can guide you in the right direction if you are pondering what to do about academia. As time goes on, readers here might see that I'm posting less - that's because I'm busy with the demands of work and family, and there are times when I really need to go offline! But I will also have to choose to allocate some well-spent time over there. Some of posts here may be repeated there too - why not. Have a look and think about contributing somewhere to share your experiences.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Where have we been and where are we now?

Well, it's now the middle of January and many of us are trying hard to keep up the momentum around our new year's resolutions. Often at this time of year we are also looking back at the past twelve months and asking ourselves we have achieved and how do we want to move forward. So, with the title of David Bowie's new single in mind, 'Where are we now?', I would like to look briefly at where I was last January and where I am now. If you're a follower of this blog you can expect that I'll probably take this as an opportunity to expand and look further back into the past, but I'll try hard not to wander. My aim is to keep this post brief-ish!

Last January I was employed in a short-term academic research project as a Research Assistant. It was a funny time for me. The post was advertised the summer before at the same time when I was still considering how I might be able to leave academia. I was coming to the end of another academic year Lecturing contract  and was prepared to have another summer of unemployment. I guess I was pretty much buying time last summer with the teaching year. When I wasn't teaching I was working on some research ideas, developing a paper from a conference to help build up my CV, and thinking about using my other time to experiment with other forms of writing. I enjoyed the experimental writing exercise but felt resentful with the research paper - I was doing all of this on unpaid time and my 'passion' for the subject was waining. Where would it take me, I asked myself. Was all of this effort worth it? I was hoping that the extra time over the summer could liberate me a bit from some of the stuck and indecisive feelings I was having. Basically, I was keeping my eyes out for employment prospects in the university but in other non-academic, administrative or project areas. Every week and month that went by (from April time) reconfirmed that those prospects were low. As I hadn't come up with any other solutions I resigned myself to just carry on with the expectation that I would take the plunge and turn down contract teaching offers for the next academic year. I would be unemployed then but at least I wouldn't be tied down to the contract and could have more flexibility in my job hunting, and I guess, my soul searching.

So this research project appeared through my institution at just the right time. I was still half in the state of mind that I might have some kind of future in academia so I committed myself to doing the research for this field of study (it was outside of my comfort zone but still within Arts and Humanities). I interviewed well and got the job. It was interesting enough and I got my head down to do some good work, but it didn't excite me enough to want to invest myself in academia again. It was an interesting testing ground for me. When I took the job I thought, this might be my turn-around moment; it can lead to all sorts of wonderful prospects. There was an opportunity to bid for more funding with my manager and the team to extend the project's prospects, but I decided at that stage of the discussion to pull back. That was when I continued to look seriously for more non-academic career possibilities. It was also around that time that I discovered all of these other post-academics on the net blogging and sharing their experiences.

So a few more months passed and more applications were sent out in alt-academics areas. For that moment at least, I decided to pursue non-teaching/research possibilities in UK Higher Education and accepted the fact that I might have to take up short-term contracts to get started. My current job was advertised in June. I spent a lot of time working on the personal statement and later preparation for a demanding, full-day interview process. And then I was offered the job. I breathed a long sigh of relief that my efforts had finally paid off and someone out there recognised some of my potential. For those of you who are are experiencing the frustration of the post-academic transition and are exhausted from the process, take comfort that there is hope and a good outcome will surface. It just might end up taking longer than you imagine when you start out.

This time of January, new year reflection though always leads me to an emotional place where I contemplate where I have been with my chronic health condition, Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis, and where I am now, which is in a very good place, although I have to make sure I am good to myself so that I won't suffer another relapse. I have mentioned in my last two posts that I have joined up with three other post-academic bloggers, Currer, J.C. and Lauren to begin a new Post-academic resource website called How To Leave Academia. This is where I have recently written about how my health suffered when I was in the middle of my PhD studies and had to take a long leave of absence from my research project. It was that time when I had my MS diagnosis. It was an incredibly difficult but rewarding time as it also forced me to think hard about how I wanted to proceed with my career aspirations while also managing a serious health condition when I had two young school-aged children and a husband who was often away on work-related trips. I won't revisit that story now but you can visit our How To Leave Academia site here and find it. You can also find other accounts from Lauren, Currer and J.C. about how they managed their intense emotions, anxiety and depression when transitioning out of academia. The common threads across all of our stories illustrate that stresses around academia when studying or when leaving can take a serious toll on the body and can lead to depression. The authors' different means of coping are all worth a read. We are always looking for contributors to the site to share their resources and stories around leaving academia so take a look, comment and feel free to get in touch.

Friday, 11 January 2013

New Year, New beginnings and a New Postacademic Web Resource

Well, the holidays over here for this post-academic in the UK were in my view just a perfect recipe to initiate a process of Doctor Who-like regeneration before the start of the new year (apologies for US readers not familiar with this classic and popular British TV reference!). After a very busy beginning in my new-ish Alt-ac job in September, by December 21st I was ready for the solid two week break that coincided with the university closure. And with everyone there slowing down by December 17th and getting into party spirits I felt like I couldn't have found a better place to work. The official break came and my family and I stayed based here with the plan of meeting friends over party drinks, dinner parties, brunches, country walks and attending a local, low-key New Year's Eve party. I found plenty of time to eat and be merry and balanced that with loads of extra sleep, some healthy cooking as well as adding some exercise. Aside from the addition of my husband's bad cold toward the end of the mix, (that he's now passed on to me I think) I can safely state that this holiday hit the top near the perfection scale.

Back to work on January 7th this week has been a nice, slow introduction back into the real world. Making an earnest attempt to get into things in full flow on Tuesday I found myself to be the first one in at 8.30 am sharp and got a start on attacking my 'To Do' list. I've been at this place a few months now and still find I am gob-smacked when reminded of how much my co-workers are committed to achieving the work/life balance. Most appear to leave the office to get the most out of their lunch hour and many take advantage of flexi-time. On Tuesday at around 4.45 I found myself deep into reading an article that I needed to review for some research I am planning (Yes, I am now getting a chance to use to my research skills and am in the process of getting ideas together for the proposal). This colleague came in sometime after me in the morning and noticed I was the one who opened up. So there I was just working about fifteen minutes over my scheduled, full working day and he said something like, 'Shouldn't you be getting out of here by now? Haven't you done enough for one day?' Well, I admit I was actually speechless and didn't know how to respond. But I did think afterwards, hey, he's right. My contract of employment is pretty clear about what is expected. There may be times when I'll have to get involved in an evening event (and I can then take time off in lieu) but I'm part-time which means certain things/projects will take me a longer time to get through. It's nice to be reminded that enough is enough. I've done my bit for the time being and it's time to get out and think about something else. A very happy start to the new year if I can keep myself in this realistic frame of mind. I advise all others working hard to keep up with the pace of the rat race to do the same. You'll find major benefits to your health and well-being for sure!

The new Postacademic Website 'How to Leave Academia' is now live!
While my brain's been moving at a snail's pace after this festive season, my post-academic peers thousands of miles away in the US came up with this amazing idea to get started on developing a website full of stories and resources for those who want to leave academia. When they asked if any others wanted to join I was keen to get in on the action, expecting that such projects can take some time to develop. Well, I was certainly proved wrong! In no time at all, these amazingly energetic and productive postacs have designed the site and got significant content up before I could say Happy New Year. I've finally managed to add something the other day on my day off, but all the praise for efforts goes to Lauren, Currer and JC and another webdesign contributor for the overall planning, design and content management of this project. As I see this collective work coming together in such a top quality professional manner in such a short space of time, I can see that US academia has really missed out an opportunity to exploit such talents. Their loss for sure.

I've mentioned the call for papers and contributions in my last post and will add the link here for those who want to have a look at How To Leave Academia. It's ongoing with lots of potential to add news ideas so if you're a postacademic who's had some experience of leaving that you'd like to share, we'd like to hear form you. If you're thinking about leaving and don't know where to start or are in emotional turmoil about the prospect then this is a place where you will see that you are not alone. Hope to see some of you over there soon!