Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Cheer up my colleagues: A rebuttal

Let’s say, hypothetically, I did write this article in the Graun about being happy in your work and, theoretically, I had read all of the comments obsessively, then I might potentially reply as follows (if only to get more traffic to my blog):

Naively happy

Naively, I thought a message about being happier would not be all that controversial. It turns out there are a lot of angry academics out there (but I should probably have guessed this from the peer review process). On reflection, there are many places in the article, where for levity or brevity (or because of the reader’s own biases), my message may not have been quite as clear as it ought. Not applying the rigours of science writing to a piece of whimsy I wrote on the tube, on the way home from the pub was amiss of me. Ironically, I cut the following lines from the original:
“I can already hear/ see the acerbic, but witty or maybe just acerbic tweets being prepared to puncture my optimism: “it’s easy for you to say, you’ve made it”, “you don’t know how hard it is for X stage academics in Y field”, “self-satisfied Oxbridge twit”. I am aware that any description of one’s own life can come across as boastful (if good) or lacking in self awareness (if described as bad). To those of you preparing such retorts (the haters), give me the chance to persuade you that academia is fun and to rekindle the spark that got you here in the first place. And if I can’t, at least make your comments funny.”

Right to reply

Maybe I should have left those lines in. However, seeing as I failed to convince everyone first time around of the joy of this career, in the tradition of academic discussion it only seemed reasonable to try and address some of the comments:
  1. On Money. As was pointed out, the statement about money was about research funding rather than salary. Research funding (and whether there is enough of it is another topic) does come from someone else’s pocket and they – the government/ charity chose to support our research over spending it on other things and for that I am grateful (and I struggle to see how this could be wrong-thinking of me). The other perceived point about money was about salaries. I didn’t mention salaries. But the comments do raise an interesting point around pay, gratitude and expectation. My world view is to be happy you have a job and are paid, I had not appreciated that this was a political viewpoint, but am grateful to have been enlightened about my shortcomings. I do think if you are deeply unhappy in your job or with the system, it is worth at least exploring other options.
  2. Use of the word lucky. There is some luck about being the right person in the right place to getting into a tenured job, but on reflection use of the word lucky was misleading, I meant it more in the terms of blessed/ appreciative. I don’t think appreciating the good parts of the job necessarily precludes being aware of the bad parts and trying to change them.
  3. On the comment about writing well for a scientist. I do, don’t I?
  4. Finally, and this sounds more whiney than I want it to but to many of the comments: I didn’t say that actually. I wasn’t saying there are no other worthwhile interesting jobs there clearly are. No I haven’t done many of them (I have been a soldier too, but thought that probably wasn’t going to endear me to the average Guardian reading academic).

Angry like me

PS. Secretly, or not so secretly if you actually work/ live with me, I am pretty angry much of the time. The irony of writing such an upbeat piece was not lost on me or my colleagues. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and be more positive, at least some of the time. On the whole, I stand by my assertion that there are good elements to a career in academia and that these should be celebrated. And as a teaser for wildly optimistic pieces which will appear here and elsewhere in the future, it should be possible to work within a system acknowledging there are parts of it that are broken, whilst still being mindful of the pleasures, and try to find or recapture the joys and the positives. Except of course on the day when I am an angry academic too (grant/ paper rejections), on those days I agree with you, smash the system, burn it all down.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Cheer up, my academic colleagues! Happiness Anonymous

This post was originally on the Guardian Higher Education in the academics anonymous column. It was anonymous, because it's ok to be happy as an academic, but not ok to let anyone else know...

Good moaning

As a tribe, we academics enjoy complaining: too much teaching, too many committees, not enough funding, reviewers too mean, houses too expensive, wages not enough, blah blah blah. However, I would like to stick my head above the parapet (anonymously) and propose a new manifesto for 2016: Celebrate Academia. I would like to remind you that academia is fun, to rekindle the spark that got you here in the first place. Yes there are rubbish bits, but when I pause (from complaining) and reflect, the following things make me happy and I think should make you happy too.

Everyday people

The longer you work in academia, the wider your global network. Bask in the reflected company of your peers. We have the privilege to work with brilliant, interesting people from around the world, many of whom are fascinated by the same obscure minutiae of our fields and will happily discuss it late into the night, often over a beer, in an interesting exotic place, or Brussels.

My Generation

Working with students allows you to reflect on the joys of youth through the mirror of their experiences. Undergraduates have a limitless capacity to imagine they are pioneers, that their ironic fashion show is the first of its kind, or that no one else ever pulled an all-nighter to complete an assignment for which they had ample warning because they were too busy organising an ironic fashion show. Celebrate your acquired wisdom and maturity, whilst missing grant deadlines for which you had ample warning because you were too busy organising your children’s fashion show.

Get Better

I don’t have much experience of the real world outside academia, but certainly compared my time as a night cleaner in a refrigerated yoghurt warehouse, working in a university is full of chances to learn. Learn more because you are teaching a new course, learn more because it drives your research. But most of all learn more because it’s fun, it’s there and it’s the essence of the job.

Heal the world

Our work has societal value (measurable if you believe REF). Not only is that a good thing, it is a shield when confronted with your friends from undergraduate days who are now earning a million dollars in the City. It will take the sting out of the fact that they can afford houses in Oxford/ shopping in Waitrose/other essentials.


You get to be the expert in your field. We may not get as much time to spend on research or the funding to support it as we would want. But we are extremely privileged to be given money, most of which comes from other people’s hard work – taxes, charity, benevolence, to indulge our own personal curiosity, which, when you stop to think about it, is amazing.

Time is on my side

Find the things you enjoy and do them: I get deep joy from playing football during the working day. You are, as an academic, more or less your own boss. Yes there are disagreeable tasks: admin, marking, grant-writing. But even the bad bits shouldn’t take all of your day and if they are, drop some. It is acceptable to say no and where not, it is normally possible to shape courses and committees to reflect your research interests.

Under Pressure

Remember, no one forced you to do this job. There are a number of high stress jobs that involve people shooting at you (soldier), shouting at you (police) or dying on you (doctor). There are others that involve horrible hours, terrible working conditions and repetitive tasks, but luckily I stopped being a post-doc.

My Generation

If my relentless optimism isn’t enough for you, think of the children/students. A common reason given by PhD students for not remaining in academia is pressure on junior PIs. Complaining about the stress of academia may be a cunning plan by established faculty to stop newer, smarter people joining the competition. But it isn’t fair on the next generation and wasteful of all we have invested – time, energy, money - in getting them across the line.

Don’t worry be happy

In conclusion and for the sake of balance, I accept that there are problems with the system. There are fewer entry level posts and those that do exist come with considerably less job security than before (believe it or not). The demands of the career have changed significantly and it is much harder to get that critical break-in grant than 20 years ago. But dwelling on the negative doesn’t actually help anyone. So, in 2016, let’s turn the tearoom discussion around and celebrate what we have. Happier people are more productive, healthier and have better hair (just look at Trump/Drumpf he is really angry and has terrible hair).

PS as always bonus points for the artists for the headings.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Nature Jobs Blogs: How to add value in Academia

Have been freelancing for other blogs. These two are from Nature Jobs Blogs and are linked:

The faculty series: Nobody rides for free

This described how faculty need to learn how to add value to their institution.
The companion piece described how to get the balance between your different responsibilities.