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academic struggling to navigate this early career thing

(46 Posts)
allicator Thu 21-Mar-13 09:27:05

Hello any academics out there. I wonder if you have any advice for an early career academic? I am in a small-ish campus of a large university, and am feeling totally isolated. This has been my first year of teaching and it's been OK, I've managed to keep the research going and have kept on top of teaching and all the stuff that goes with it. However, just recently I have been ill, as have the two kids and things feel like they've been falling apart slightly. I've missed several meetings (sort of boards of studies, lecturer presentations, type of thing) and feel like I'm holding on by the skin of my teeth.

I don't know what I'm asking really, other than, am I the only person to find this hard? I just don't have any peers to really talk to honestly about this, ie how to establish an academic career and be an adequate mother to two small kids. It seems to me that I can manage two things (research and teaching) but not necessarily all the other stuff I need to do to really develop my career, including networking; generating funding; citizenship etc. In fact, the only way I've kept the research and teaching going is to really not be a good citizen, and I worry that will damage my chances of getting on.

And then I also get conflicting advice - ie some people say the ONLY thing that matters is publications (I'm doing OK there), but a message I also seem to be getting is that I need to be more visible. But visibility often seems to require staying after 5pm to attend the many seminars that take place then and I just can't afford the childcare to facilitate that at the moment.

I know that lots of people do manage to do it which is why I often end up feeling like I do today, ie a bit of a failure. So how??!! I would love to be able to share experiences with people in a similar place. This is long, sorry.

NotAsNiceAsMyMum Thu 21-Mar-13 09:34:35

You need a mentor.
I finally got one after about 8 years on the job and it has made an enormous difference. She is not in my department so I don't feel the need to impress her or say the 'right' thing, but I can get sensisble practical advice about how to manage the different asopects of my job.
How often do you have apraisals? Sounds like you really need one to know what the expectations are from your HoD.
Can you ask your HpD for a mentor? Or find out from the faculty office whether they offer any mentoring schemes?
I really can't emphasize how useful this has been to me. It is like I've finally finding out all the stuff that I eneded to know 10 years ago smile

And FWIW you can't do everything. And nobody does. We just get better a pretending that we do smile

NotAsNiceAsMyMum Thu 21-Mar-13 09:36:11

Oh and is your uni signed up to Athena Swan?
this can be a good way of getting seminars moved back into within the working day. Ours are now all at 4pm.

allicator Thu 21-Mar-13 09:52:59

Hi notasnice, thanks so much for responding. I do have a mentor, and in some respects she's good, but I see her quite rarely. Also, the department, probably like many others, is highly political. I am not sure how comfortable I feel telling her that I'm struggling. I like the idea of having a mentor outside the department for this kind of thing though. Yes, an appraisal with my line manager would be useful but I don't entirely trust him. When we first met he made an incredibly sexist comment (I mean so much so that I literally gasped when he said it!!). Definitely not the person to be talking to about juggling work and life, but might help as you say with expectations.

NotAsNiceAsMyMum Thu 21-Mar-13 10:33:33

Is there someone else relatively senior that you could approach about mentoring you?

If your uni is singed up to Athena Swan then I'd approach the person who leads this and as their advice.

And with the HoD I'd advise asking direct questions.... "I don't have the time to do everything I'd like. Is it more important for me to do X or Y".
Do the set specific targets in terms of publications/funding? I foudn these helpful to know whether I was meeting their baseline expectations. It never feels as if we write 'enough' papers or grants. But often we are doing what can reasonably be expected.

And in terms of the admin type meetings, try and be objective about whether ALL staff are really attending all these meetings. IME women tend to be far more dilligent about these.

And one thing I've started doing with my mentor (who I see every 4 months) is after each meeting to write a 'to do by the next meeting' list. I find this really helpful to identify those areas where I'm making good progress, and those where I'm letting things slip. Even if you don't send these lists to anyone, I think they'd be useful.

allicator Thu 21-Mar-13 16:09:07

Thanks again notasnice, really useful advice. They don't set specific targets for publications etc on the basis partly I think that some academics go for very high quality and less quantity, and vice versa, and they suggest that either could be valid. I know what you mean about women being (too) diligent in the meetings dept. There is a theory in our department that the reason that women don't progress here (and they don't, on the whole) is that they get dumped with all the crap admin work by senior men, and are too 'nice' to say no. I'm determined not to go down that route but may be going too far the other way! And re: Athena Swan, yes they are, but I am in social sciences, so not sure if it applies. There is a general departmental rule not to allow meetings to go after 4pm, which is brilliant, but certain colleagues of mine appear not to have received the memo! Thanks again for your thoughts, I appreciate it.

NotAsNiceAsMyMum Thu 21-Mar-13 18:18:41

I agree that generic targets are not useful.
But targets set just for you with particular journals in mind are helpful.
The other way to do this is to ask "what do I need to do to get promoted". That is one way to find out what really matters. If you get a true answer. Or you can pick the brains of someone who has just got the promotion that you'd be looking for. I was far to slow to start thinking about promotion. I reall only got my act together when I applied and didn't get it.

In terms of timings of seminars, do you have any male staff with small children that don't have sahm wives? They sometimes get less of a hard time for asking for such things than women do. <depressing but true>

Highlander Thu 21-Mar-13 19:19:49

I'm an academic returner so I've been going to a lot of courses offered by our SDU. They're all research, as we (Newcastle) are a research-intensive Uni.
I'll be very happy to photocopy the handouts for you.

The big thing post-REF 2014 is Impact. Public engagement and alternative means of dissemination are going to carry a lot more weight.

Inhave no advice. I personally feel very isolated and lonely, as a part-timer still in the early stage. Hre are some comments offered up at a course given by our Research Fund managers today.......

"I really don't see what benefit a Daphne Jackson Fellowship will bring to the Uni" (um, return a woman to science so that she is an example to others and hopefully stem the haemorrhage of women from science??)

"If you've written a grant for an f/t RA then you can't allow them to go p/t."

"I knew a PI who wrote a grant application for 2 p/t positions of a year each. What was the point in that? Why didn't he just write for 1 f/t?"

When I pointed out that the Research Councils need to be more accountable for the loss of women from science, and direct applicants to ensure their posts clearly welcome p/t and jobshare, I was shot down in flames.

So 20 people left the course (repeat x3courses/year) thinking that they cannot put p/t RA posts on their grant applications.

I was speechless. Then I went home and sobbed for an hour. Then I got angry. Then I realised that I'm the only person making a fuss. Now I just want to resign.

And our Uni has Athena Swann Bronze.

Sorry, I have hijacked.

makeithappen Tue 26-Mar-13 00:39:06

Hi Alicator,
Im a returning academic too. I am REF accountable as an ECR and I really do share your anguish. I returned full time from mat leave, asked for flexible working which has been refused (currently going to tribunal but that's a different story), and getting rather annoyed by my peers who are strategically staying late/arriving early in order to make themselves more "visible" to the HoD. So far I am holding it all together (but also by the skin of my teeth).

I find that making a to-do list really helps me prioritise. I put down even the smallest of items on my list-reply to email X, read paper Y etc and I make sure I tick every item off one by one- it is extremely therapeutic (most people would say anal) but I find it helps me to keep a perspective of what exactly needs to be done and when. Otherwise I found myself starting a number of different tasks at the same time and feeling like Im drowning.

My perspective of getting the family/work life balance right (still work-in-progress) is to compare myself to other people of a similar standing- very few academics of my early career stage have a young family- and even though they are smooching with the HoD at every opportunity, I still have more publications and outside research esteem than them and from what you have said you are doing pretty well with this too. I might also add- how many senior members of your dept do you see beyond 5pm? In my dept there are none (occasionally the HoD)-so why waste my time (even if I could) staying any later when there is nobody to see me there?!

Admittedly taking the boss to tribunal is probably not going to secure a fast track promotion, but so long as I stay ahead of the game with the outside research community then I don't really care what the opinion is of me for not being in the office later than 5pm.

I honestly don't think you have anything to worry about - just do your best, and if things don't get done then they don't get done. I honestly believe that working mums are the most productive part of any workforce so if you are struggling to get stuff done then you can bet everybody else is too. - any seminars you can catch up with and contact the speaker personally (might be a nice touch for securing collaboration??) and anything else can surely wait?

Hope you feel better about the situation soon x

bunchofposy Tue 26-Mar-13 09:45:28

Hi, I am not an academic so can't offer specific practical advise but a close family member is, and from what I can tell, she had to forgo parts of her role when her children were small, and concentrate on the ones she can do. For her, she became much more pastoral and had a while not doing so many publications, though she has been able to do more of this as her children have got older and with the help of a sabbatical.

While she is very organised and juggles far more than I ever could in a million years, she does have a lot of help from family, friends, understanding childminders etc too. Please don't see yourself as a failure, look at all you have achieved, academia is (that I can tell) not family friendly for the reasons you have described and you are managing as best you can in a tough world. Go easy on yourself!

allicator Tue 26-Mar-13 11:09:21

Thanks so much for these responses, nice to know there are others out there struggling with similar issues (though obviously, wish you weren't). I think I can focus on certain areas of work and let others go, and accept a slightly slower pace of progress in my career for now, but the trouble is, I don't know whether that is accommodated in the academic world. In other words, if your CV has less on it over a certain time period, you are seen quite simply as less good? Not sure yet, guess I'll find out. The other frustration I find is that in my field, there seems to be a growing focus on a certain type of academic. In other words, somebody who is quite aggressive, and especially, aggressively critical. There are any number of seminars where it seems the sole purpose is to make the presenter feel bad. I hate that culture, and just can't participate in it, but it does seem to be increasingly dominant. Anyway, thanks so much for your responses, they help.

googlenut Thu 28-Mar-13 07:14:08

Another returner after a long break. Academic life is a strange beast. I love the autonomy you have, can come and go as you please which is very nice with children. And I love my research so I never clock watch in this job and time flies by.
BUT lots of the things that need doing take a lot of time and thinking through- papers, grant writing, etc and that can be very un family friendly.
Also I agree it is so competitive that it can create a very unhealthy atmosphere. I'm a very good researcher but also not an 'up front' person but you can't seem to get anywhere in academic life without being very visible. I struggle with that and the time involved for that.

MagratGarlik Fri 29-Mar-13 15:35:45

I'm a recent ex-academic. I resigned after many years due to lots of the issues that you talk about. I felt very isolated, working regularly until the early hours (3 am and beyond), difficulty balancing out family life with research commitments - particularly heading my research group. I was working on a grant application just 2 days after ds2 was born so as not to miss a deadline and I was back in meetings 6 weeks after he was born.

I do miss my research now, although I try to stay somewhat active, this is difficult to balance with the demands of another (non-academic) job. I'd agree with your analysis though that an academic CV which has less on it over a certain period of time is simply considered as less good and you are compared unfavourably against full-time (usually male) colleagues. I know many of my female ex-colleagues with children felt they could not mention family within work for fear of being labelled as not career-orientated enough and not being taken seriously.

MagratGarlik Fri 29-Mar-13 15:40:56

I should add, only 1 other woman in our (large) department had more than 1 child and was above lecturer level. The only female prof in the department did not have children, but every male prof in the department had 2 or more children and stay-at-home wives.

googlenut Fri 29-Mar-13 19:36:54

Margrat - if u can say without outing yourself, what sort of job have you moved into?
I moved from industry to academia and I have to say grant writing is such an inefficient use of resources!! Takes up so much time which should be used for research.

MagratGarlik Fri 29-Mar-13 19:46:31

I'd rather not be too specific, I've moved into 'industry'.

I agree grant writing used to drive me nuts. I don't miss that at all. I managed to avoid it more than most by getting lots of industry funding, but of course this is not as well regarded in REF terms as actual grants.

It was another reason I left. I went into it for the research, but found I was doing increasingly little research and increasingly more grant and paper writing, especially as PhD students have a tendency to not feel the need to write up their papers, but supervisors are judged on paper output.

Lomaamina Sat 30-Mar-13 15:20:47

I'm a female academic in a relatively senior position and all I can add to the excellent advice is to hang in there: it does get easier as the children get older and you gain seniority. Do seek a mentor from outside the department if yours is political. Mine was from within, but very trustworthy as she'd suffered considerably in the 70s, without maternity leave, male dominated profession etc and she wanted to make sure I had things easier. I particularly found it useful to download the criteria for promotion so that three years before I could contemplate applying to SL, I could ensure I ticked the necessary boxes. Also build up friendships outside your department. I didn't plan this, but the side advantage of volunteering on a couple of university level committees, interdisciplinary initiatives, etc., is not only that you raise your profile, but that you have the opportunity to meet colleagues from elsewhere who can help, say, in showing their promotion cases, read draft research grants, etc.

I sympathise with the working hours culture. I run a constant battle about non family friendly hours - my most recent one was with HR, who should know better, but asked me to attend an interviewing panel starting at 08:30 [gasp]. I told them I'd do it, so long as they shifted it to 09:00! Same story with another centra committee. The latter is a particular triumph, seeing as the committee has now permanently shifted its time, even now I've left it - and surprise, surprise: more women are sitting on it.

N.b. I volunteer on a London based BME academic mentoring scheme (which purposely has mentors matched with mentees from a different institution). I do think a similar one for women would be helpful, although I am doing so anyway for a few of my more junior colleagues...

pinksky Sun 31-Mar-13 17:59:48

I'm an ECR and also pregnant, thought haven't told work/funders yet. I just wanted to say I understand feeling like you're holding on by the skin of your teeth sometimes. I recently had some careers coaching through my uni, but it just reinforced how much I love research and can't see myself doing anything else. It can be tough though. I always loved writing but the pressure to publish has taken that away.The pressure to work evenings and weekends...I'm trying to do as much of this now as I can! Our dept is very high achieving (top ten last ref) and I'm concerned about work post mat leave. I'm particularly worried I won't be able to keep up all the citizenship stuff/supervision etc that I do on top of project work/grant writing, although I really value it and it's important for progression.

Lomaamina Mon 01-Apr-13 12:11:37

Hi pinksky - can I add to my earlier message to say that the wonderous Mary Beard said on a webchat here on Mumsnet [] that the important thing as an academic with young children is to "hang on in there, dont imagine that with small kids you can write big books.. and make sure you keep on people's intellectual agendas.. punchy review, short article. The key is that they shouldnt forget you exist."

I would add that you cannot have it all, but you wouldn't want to be without your beautiful child; the career is likely to go into the slow lane for a while, but so long as you manage to keep your hand in with the research, it will still be there when you return.

I'd also keep in touch during maternity leave, if that's what suits you of course. Doing little bits: if you've PhD students, continue to see them; keep abreast of publications - show that you want to be in touch. Nowadays people are so afraid of breaching rules on ML that they may avoid contacting you about something that might suit you very well.

pinksky Mon 01-Apr-13 19:48:23

Lomaamima thanks so much for your message, that's really helpful and reassuring. My PhD students are worrying me in particular and I'd like to keep seeing them. You're right about people probably being unwilling to contact me, so I think I need to drive this and have a clear plan for manageable/appropriate contact, contributions etc. Thank you.

Lomaamina Mon 01-Apr-13 20:10:30

Delighted to help pinksky! There are so many academics on Mumsnet I sometimes wonder if it would be worth having a separate section dedicated to these issues.

MagratGarlik Mon 01-Apr-13 22:00:56

You may find Skype is a good way to keep in touch with your research group whilst you are away. Then you can have a meeting, share documents etc but you don't have the hassle of trying to drag a baby in to university.

allicator Tue 02-Apr-13 09:28:50

Hi all, really interesting and useful responses, thanks. Having spent much of the Easter weekend writing a paper for a deadline today, I am feeling as though my work/life balance is a little out of line, but never mind. I would love a dedicated space for academics on Mumsnet or elsewhere. I have so many questions about how to make it all work, it would be great to have somewhere specific to go. My kids are away this week, so this morning I could come into work having just had myself to get ready and out of the house, and in theory I can return home when I am ready ... all of which has reminded me just how exhausting it really is to maintain a full-time career and two kids under five (without practical support during the week from DH, who works long hours)! So now I am giving myself a little pat on the back for doing it at all.

Lomaamina Tue 02-Apr-13 09:52:42

I think it might be an idea to ask Mumsnet HQ to create a section in the Work section - but then again they might say why single out one group. I'll try 'reporting' this thread and see what they say.

n.b. what might we call it? 'Academic_Careers'?

googlenut Tue 02-Apr-13 21:20:35

Think it's a great idea to have a dedicated area on mn for academics. It can be such a lonely road it would be lovely to have somewhere we could talk freely and search threads for guidance. Please mn hq this would be so useful and inspiring and encouraging for those of us struggling in this journey.

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