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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.

Lomaamina Sun 21-Apr-13 11:19:48

Hello again: I don't know if anyone's aware, but there's a very long thread in 'Chat' about academic work/life. It's worth a peek:

Anna1976 Sat 06-Apr-13 06:12:57

Hi all - just wanted to stick my head up and say hello.
I'm a recent returner to postdoc level after having been a clinical lecturer/medic who had a research group and teaching program and clinical duties, got totally burned out, crashed, gave up, and now I'm back with crappy job security and loving science once again - working for someone else. It's not a career path that's advisable, particularly if you have children, but golly it's a relief not to have all the pressure.

The only thing that's currently giving me pain is the way early career researchers are fair game for high-level plagiarists. I'm really p'd off to discover large chunks of (unpublished parts of) my PhD thesis appearing as original research or attributed to me but citing completely irrelevant papers, care of some really dodgy russian colleagues. I tried to bring this up calmly and logically with my bosses, but they laughed and told me not to imagine things. I've seen this happen to other people too. Grr.

Booboostoo Fri 05-Apr-13 21:51:09

A variety of reasons, the main ones being:

- nobody valued teaching and I was expected to compromise the care and attention I had to give to my students
- REF pressures really distorted my enjoyment of research and my relationships with my colleagues
- some people seemed to make a career out of back stabbing others to progress themselves

googlenut Fri 05-Apr-13 19:32:26

Booboo did u get fed up for all the reasons we are saying? I've just come back from a weeks holiday and my mind was whirring all the time about what I had to do when I get back. That's what I want to get away from. Life is too short.

Booboostoo Fri 05-Apr-13 17:36:43

I'm an ex-academic because I got fed up so perhaps not the best person to advise but a few things spring to mind:

- teaching will be easier second time round as you will have a lot more materials ready
- do as little admin as you can get away with
- research the REF requirements and target your efforts in those directions
- apply for research grants

googlenut Fri 05-Apr-13 17:21:13

Can you say more about what you mean by an open forum? Not sure what you mean.

Promotedbymailinglist Fri 05-Apr-13 16:42:46

Another quick idea is to get some central funding for an online open forum for discussions about your subject where people can just ask questions - most uni libraries, in conjunction with an online education team that will exist somewhere (ask communication office) who will do it for you. I'm sure there are central government funds for these things.

One academic did it where I worked, got the web team to do some Search Engine Optomisation (SEO) on it, and it is now a networking group that has global input - once its running the participants maintain content (like this place!) and you have hit so many tick boxes people will freak!

Promotedbymailinglist Fri 05-Apr-13 16:38:07

Radio 4 is more than most academics achieve, that is excellent - in my experience the more sulky and less effusive your collegues are , the more likely it is they think you are doing well - its just that in competitive circles, and in England, complements stick in the throat! Academics are so much 'in their heads' its difficult to get positive cues at all - it could be that others are seeking them from you as well.

agree that twitter is good - just saying 'another great paper from x' with a link to the abstract or 'conference invite from x' with link is enough - and you can definitely train researchers to do this for you - or to tweet with your # so it goes to your followers..

Your uni should give average and max contact hours - or try HESA for figures - you can get one layer summaries without correlation for free. - don't ask senior admins or executive committee members or HoD as they will give you some 'you need to show commitment' guff that is, yes, trying to get compliant people to do more.

FWIW I know academics who have flatly said 'NO' to admin tasks and 'NO' to additional teaching. Its best to state clearly that you need to establish yourself as research-focussed until you get x papers and you want a year to achieve that with a teaching load of no more than 90% (of what the average is) when you get close to average drop courses that need prep/overhaul in favour of core standardised teaching - offer to sit on the teaching committee to find out which.

You can also cheat by asking for some teaching load to be lightened whilst you do a teaching programme - all unis have to have them.

To settle your mind, I suggest calling HESA and asking for coffee with some policy people saying 'I am producing a career plan for where I focus my energies for the next three years and I don't know where to start, just looking for advice to get me thinking' people are surprsingly keen to have a nice coffee and cake!

pinksky Fri 05-Apr-13 10:18:40

Allicator, I can't be much help as my school has relatively little teaching (and is an RG uni, if that makes a difference). I do undergrad tutoring one term a year (two hours of actual teaching per week), one lecture, one exam to mark. I also do short course teaching and have two phd students. I'm on a course at the moment with people from other universities and they seem to do far too much... teaching seems to be dumped on junior staff.

Re networking - I know you do well with media, but do you actively use twitter? I've found twitter to be an excellent way to extend my network. I've been to 'tweet ups' at conferences, and am even currently trying to build a collaboration with someone I met on twitter. Before conferences or events, I try to work out who is attending and strike up a bit of a dialogue and this makes it easier to actually meet face to face.
It took me a while to build my confidence tweeting, but now I feel part of an online academic community, it has raised my profile, I've learned a lot and I've had conversations with leaders in my field who I'd never ever have the opportunity (or guts) to speak with in real life. There's a nice ECR group on twitter, @ECRchat

allicator Fri 05-Apr-13 09:51:27

Hi Lomaamina, thanks for that, and sorry that to hear about your illness. That's really helpful advice. Funnily enough, I do OK with media, have had quite a lot of print coverage, and have even ventured into broadcast (well, Radio 4, once)! It's other academics I find difficult, just feel as though I'm never quite up to the standard necessary and best just to keep quiet!

Lomaamina Thu 04-Apr-13 20:08:35

allicator I cannot answer your question, but regarding networking: I sympathise; due to chronic illness I barely travel and go to very few conferences, so I work very hard at my online presence. Here are some tried and tested ideas:

* - I upload all my publications there (as well as to my own university's repository) and you'd be amazed at how many hits as well as downloads I get of my work.

* And twitter - I know some people find it daunting, indeed grubby in some areas, but I've found it amazingly useful in making new contacts by simply being useful to others; namely retweeting interesting news, such as conferences in my field, following well-regarded people in the field and engaging with them and, when feeling brave, commenting myself on issues of the day relevant to the field. The LSE publishes a great guide to using Twitter and other social networking. Have a look at

* Also have a think about reviewing for the LSE review of books: A great way to promote your angle on your area of research (and you get a free book). Email them with an idea of a book you'd like to review and/or just let them know you're interested in being a reviewer. They will then put you on their page of reviewers, which acts as another way for you to have a presence on the web.

* There's also the new The Women's Room, although I have to admit I haven't yet ventured into the scary world of broadcasting!

allicator Thu 04-Apr-13 17:00:01

Gosh, thanks so much for all this great stuff. Promoted your post is amazingly helpful.

Sounding a bit negative now, but I am on a small campus of much bigger university and fear that my visibility relies on spending more time at bigger university. However, this is almost impossible given teaching commitments on small campus, so not sure quite how to manage this.

My biggest challenge is networking - meeting other academics in my field, reaching out to them, self promotion, etc. I can't bear it, due to a serious inferiority complex and a constant imposter syndrome! But I know I must find ways to push myself forward.

One quick question, might be difficult to answer, but can anyone say what is a 'normal' teaching load for an ECR at a non Russell Group university (not a new university)? When I say normal teaching load I mean contact hours, including seminars and lectures? I am in the social sciences. Despite a supposedly transparent system, it is amazingly opaque here, and the dept I am in has a reputation for overloading junior female academics who are too compliant to say now. I don't want to be paranoid, but it is very very difficult to really get to grips with!

Thanks so much!

ThePendant Thu 04-Apr-13 12:48:31

Can I just add to the voices saying 'it gets better'.

I had 5 years of essentially treading water. No reasearch to speak of as all my time and mental energy was taken up with teaching/admin. I had nothing left for research and wasn't prepared to lose the precious family time and give up weekends/holidays.

Now my kids are both a school and I'm finally loving my job again. I have some really really exciting projects on the go smile
There is a bit problem with funding though. My crappy funding record is defintely a huge obstacle in terms of research council funding. Interestingly some other non-RC agencies seem not to mind a gap in funding during/after maternity leave.

And I love the flexibility that the job gives me, especially during school holidays. I chose to work all of Easter weekend as I had a big deadline but can now take all of next week of to spend with the kids.

MagratGarlik Wed 03-Apr-13 23:13:01

Googlenut - that is exactly what drove me out in the end.

Also, the last comment, "holiday like a bastard when you finally do get away", in the last 8 years I did not have an uninterrupted family holiday.

googlenut Wed 03-Apr-13 22:09:07

Thanks for the detailed post promoted but it also makes me feel quite depressed! It's the reason Im thinking of jumping ship. I'm a really good researcher - just has a full Myers Briggs done which confirms Im meant to be a researcher but its all the other stuff that will probably drive me out sad

pinksky Wed 03-Apr-13 14:58:33

Thanks so much for all the useful info/perspectives, especially your mamouth effort, Promoted! and for requesting a board, Lomaamina.

Lomaamina Wed 03-Apr-13 11:05:42

That's incredibly comprehensive promoted! Of all the items listed, with which I agree completely, I'd particularly emphasise "Do Collaborative bids with people you get on with..." Sharing the burden of bid writing is so useful and in my experience helps by naturally extending your research range.

All, I've been in touch with Mumsnet HQ, who are considering my suggestion for a separate section.

Promotedbymailinglist Tue 02-Apr-13 23:30:10

Oops! Forgot.

Get a really good course on email organisation (eg Outlook etc) from your IT or office support people - librarians may also have these. They may only be promoted to admin staff, but you need 'em! Some filters might need IT dept information - librarians can usually help.

Good organisation of work emails and tasks once learnt will save you a lot of hassle - eg group emails can all be dealt with at once, non-departmental emails in a dedicated 'office hour' each day, messages from certain staff automatically tasked for certain days, groups of emails for particular project sent to particular files etc etc.

A real headache to learn initially, but really pays off once it becomes a habit. I have about seven diaries on gmail that all display at once but allow me to see different colours for different types of task.. and though it might not seem it here, I am terrible at organisation if I rely on my natural personality!

rhetorician Tue 02-Apr-13 23:15:24

promoted going to paste that fabulous post on my notice board...

I will come back, but am heading o bed now having spent evening grading, prepping my classes and drafting bits of a proposal...

Promotedbymailinglist Tue 02-Apr-13 23:09:02


Congratulations are in order!

Well done for asking for insight and support - that's the big mistake most academics make, think they are the only one, and then get overwhelmed.

Secondly, what you are experiencing is normal. Academia is one of the most demanding, fractured roles you can do - its three jobs in one, with one of them being hard to do, even for people who are professional managers (yes, that's 'admin' I'm talking about -in most places its called either project management or expert team management - in academia you are doing both, all the time - managing a research group and managing managerial/quasi directorial activity.

Ok that's job one. The other two are teaching (which may also include an additional managerial function if you are running a masters, UG teaching component or course design, admissions events, outreach events, poster competitions or .. designing your own courses), and research - the most intellectually demanding and competitive work there is. Oh yes, the last is 'the most important one' and the one people judge you on. No wonder you feel 'challenged' and iolated. Its normal! ..

I am presuming your subject is quite demanding - science? At least assuming smallish research group

Some suggestions based on what you've said...

NOTE: Sometimes a good PG admin will do/help with nearly all of this (that was my job) so ask.

(Be specific too - if you want a high graded overseas student with modelling skills ask the PG admin to help recruit one - they have tools at their disposal to help - advertising budgets, social media skills, and normally responsibility for content/SEO on the department website - this is good because your uni website will have a great search-engine present already so asking to be front page for a week will have great dividends).

1. Read PhDComics -funny but also reminds you how weird academia is, and how isolating - Jorge Cham does talks on isolation and weird culture - if you bring him in (he tours the UK occasionally) its visibility points ahoy.

2. Missing meetings/talks etc - don't feel too obliged - the big hitters show utter contempt for these things - Talks - go to things that are relevant, ask some qs, go to the odd one that is political - bin the rest. meetings, apologise if you can't go when you can, sometimes just cancel on the day or send email notes. Try to not miss ones in a row for the same committee.

3. FYI much of meeting stuff can be done in emails, by all means kick this off eg 'can't make tomorrow - I was going to suggest saturdays from oct 15th for admissions, reshuffle timetable to include new assessment at 10am to allow for meet and greet and then have Prof. Jean Hamble as guest speaker. IF not JH then Prof. Wendy Jemima Posslethwaite. Hope goes well, happy to do this by email if easier..'

4. Networking - get research group to handle this - linkedin page, FB page, research page - link all them, they to manage network, give them amusing targets - 1000 likes by next week, see whose first to get Prof Lehneman in their network' - etc. Get them to seek journalism, social media, networking development courses for themselves, get dept to pay for them - ask your PG admin -but get them to do all the paperwork and liaison. Hey Presto - team development, personal development, networking and team career development all in one!

5. Similarly conference schedule - get research group to do it, and cherry pick the list. - same can be done for attracting speakers etc

4/5a develop your students mwah-ha-ha.. There will be loads of development courses for you and your students - look them up - most useful for you are management/professional development, for them are writing skills presentation skills, poster-skills, journalism (press releases) and project planning. Doing all these will help them work for you to their and your benefit (and your group and your dept..etc etc).

6. Fund-raising:
Work on:
a. Links and relationship with your research support function - basic stats, policy information, collaborative funding, scholarships, sometimes even grant-writing (at least the replicable bits).
b. Do Collaborative bids with people you get on with .. life's too short.. they are fun, stimulating and can also generate significant funds - each of you can keep the other going so you are less likely to give up on these. also you get max interdiscilpinarity points and can also claim impact and visibility across disciplines..
c. 'Citizenship' presume you mean 'helping others in dept?' remember this cuts both ways - you demand citizenship from others from now on. Mentoring, collaboration, heads up on funding and scholarships etc. Also see this - be aware that whilst everyone is saying 'lets play the collective game' some, and normally the most recognised, will be playing an individual game - of course the biggest win is a department working together for all, but that comes in waves and you need to know where you are as to whether its all for one or all out.

or If by 'citizenship' you mean outreach then head down and refuse task unless a. they stimulate you and b. you initiated. If you do have to do any, let the outreach person do the admin, not you.

7. 'Visible' means two things a. 'do people know who you are in the dept, name etc' and 'do people know what the hell research you do'.

a. take on one (ONE MIND) admin job that needs you to communicate with all (eg a department series of lectures - one suggestion from each academic)
Walk around a lot.. go to coffee area when others do
When you meet admins say 'Hi have we met I'm x and I do y (simple!)' etc.
b. Get your research group to present posters in prominent places as 'practice'
c. Combine the two! circulate your research group profile for approval, your Group LinkedIn for suggestions, get internal comms/PG admin to put a 'welcome' message on the websites for you, take group photos in the entrance hall etc etc - have fun with this one!!
d. Pick one widish description/keyword for your research and say it.. A LOT.. eg 'Bioiformatics in Cell division' ' Hello I'm Allicator and I work in 'cell division'
hey presto everything on cell division will be 'Allicator territory' and you can discard or select as you deem appropriate.

8. Sweat the Librarians! They are usually EXCELLENT - they know abosultely everything about keywords, metatags email alerts etc and they can help your research pages automatically pick news about your subject area and you can republish and/or get reasearch group to turn into 140 characters for your twitter feed (yes I know!).

9. All the idiots who think that staying late will impress - no senior FRS professor can see anything but what he/she is panicking about.. ie... all the things you are panicking about, but.. in a much important way.... ahem! <cough> senility <cough> and probably can't even see you..

10. Courses.
Loads of professional development courses for you somewhere in uni - perhaps performance coaching, perhaps management training dig or sweat the PG admin for this.

'Communication skills' for role-playing difficult conversations eg with HoD say 'I am concentrating this year on Research, Teaching and these two admin tasks. Which one of these should I prioritise' or 'you said goal was refurbishment this year, could I drop admissions and liaise with estates over interiors?'
Project planning
Team Management
Employee motivation and reward
Mediation and grievance handling good if uni has no simple courses.

- you'll find out from these you are better than you know already.

6. Publications. Work out not only the crude bollocks that HoD will say 'one paper each every month gentlemen!' work out benchmarks for your general subject area and specific research area and the number of groups you see as relevant and how often they publish - use this info strategically when cornered! eg 'I'm one of only two groups working in this specialist area and I publish in higher ranked journals' or 'I'm in 80th percentile over the general research area' etc etc! Research Support or a good PhD Admin can help ...*sweat the group!* they may well know more than you - or can be asked to find out!

7. Female Scholarships/swan awards etc.
Female academics do a huge amount for departments, no question. They encourage talented women to see themselves as potential academics, they are generally more conscientious and better team managers. Swan awards are sadly usually gained irrespective of culture on the ground because all you have to do is say you do what they say is good, there is no test - I was in one where if the figures were factual (they weren't) it looked like even the weakest female candidate would get through ahead of the strongest male as the pro-female bias was above 80% each round - which in itself would have been evidence of discriminatory recruitment

1. Sweat the Research Group
2. Sweat the Admin Staff - PG admin especially
3. Sweat research support functions
4. Use Internal Comms/community outreach/PGR admi and research group to get your visibility up.
5. Keep asking for help - it will come from the weirdest places!
6. Be firm with HoDs and people who dish out shit jobs. Trap them by saying 'that's a nightmare job!' 'no it isn't, its hardly anything' 'oh well you have a high workload, you do that and I'll do the department seminar next year'.
7. Keep personal development to short lunchtime and two-day awareness courses, you will benefit from the refresh and time out, and learn perfectly well but will be doing more than your colleagues
8. Dude, everyone is getting a bit of counselling - try it and see how many coleagues you bump into! mention overwhelmed feelings - they will hear it all the time, but man it feels good to admit it!!
9. Massage/SleepPod/Meditation


googlenut Tue 02-Apr-13 21:22:24

I'll even volunteer to moderate it if you want!!!!

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.

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'?

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.

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.

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