Totes Emosh

I don’t really know who reads this blog. I’m not sure what influence I have over edu-twitter. I am too tired and too emotional to write anything sensible or analytical here. I have many half-finished drafts. I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate here. I want to be insightful and witty. I want to be helping. I think I’m just venting.

I have been crying a lot. Its the end of Week 3 of teaching, and I’ve had at least three big meltdowns and some smaller ones.

I’m one of life’s criers. I cry at graduation, at weddings, at birthdays, I cry at the thought of this advert and at the bridge of this song. Tears are my response to any strong emotion. I’ve cried in meetings. This is who I am. 

This week, I’ve had a lot of questions from my students. They haven’t understood some elements of the course. I haven’t been clear enough. Each time the questions come I feel the tears pricking. I’ve heard from some of them about the shitty year they’ve had, I’ve listened to their worries, and I feel just awful for not being better at this. 

In this swirl of guilt and sadness comes frustration. I’ve said this I’ve written this I knew all this would happen. I want to scream. I want to cry. I do cry. I walk away from my emails a moment and come back. 

I rewrite what I think I’ve said before. I try so hard to be kind. I film another round up video to try and put a face to everything that they’re getting. 

And my god this is taking up my time. Trying, and sometimes failing, to be kind is eating my time. I see the untackled jobs and emails mounting. And I will not answer emails after five. Unless you count the insomnia emails.

I don’t really know who reads this blog. I’m not sure what influence I have over edu-twitter. I am too tired and too emotional to write anything sensible or analytical here. I have many half-finished drafts. I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate here. I want to be insightful and witty. I want to be helping. I think I’m just venting.

Here’s what I’d like to be reading:

You’re doing the best you can right now. I know that this sucks, and the fact that you’re doing it at all is the victory. Remember that the students are stressed too, and kindness goes both ways. You have made some mistakes, but you know that you can learn from them. Mistakes don’t mean you’re stupid. What will you do differently next time? Remember, I’m asking what you are going to do differently. You only have control over a limited number of factors, which one of those are you going to change? 

One of the small factors I have control over is a bit of an audience. Someone to share this with. To say “hey, I’m finding this hard. I think you might be finding it hard too.” Maybe I can help us keep staff and keep students if I just remind people that at the other side of a screen is a human who’s hard a hard 7 months.

Most of all, I want to be told I’m doing a good job, and I want a pat on the head for getting this far.

That’s probably how the students feel too.

Chronicles of Athena: Chatty Theenie

I’m training Athena how to use Augmented and Assisted Communication tools (talk buttons!) Want to know more?

Have you heard of Hunger 4 Words? Christina Hunger is a speech pathologist who has started using Augmented and Alternative Communication techniques to help her dog communicate. You can read about Christina and her lovely dog Stella over on Christina’s website here.

Needless to say, I was immediately fascinated.

Christina has a great introductory post here which I recommend you read to verse yourself in AAC. Athena certainly is able to express herself, often with different vocalisations, but often with behavioural cues. And she’s pretty good at understanding what we mean with our vocal and behavioural cues. Things like ‘food’, ‘play’ and ‘bedtime’ are all easily communicated between us.

We know that Athena will learn a behaviour – she has a whole host of ‘tricks’ that she will do (despite me being a terrible trainer). So why am I interested in button pushing? Well I want to know if Athena can generalise and predict.

If Athena knows what ‘ball’ is, can she press ‘ball’ to tell me that’s what she wants, even if she can’t see it? Would she ever be able to press ‘food’ + ‘ball’ to tell me she wants her puzzle-feeder filled? Would I ever be able to say ‘food’ + ‘ball’ and would she be able to say ‘no’ + ‘food’ + ‘hedgehog’?

To be honest, I don’t believe she ever will. I think that’s a step too far for a cat. I don’t think I’ve ever seen scientific evidence that a cat can conceptualise of two different futures and choose one or the other. I think they’re more reactive than that. But one of the things I love about social media is how it can give us access to larger sample sizes, to more information, to more examples of what’s possible.

So I’ve started Theenie on her AAC journey. If you’re interested in following her, she has her own Instagram now!

Behind the Paper: Discipline Based Education Research for Animal Welfare Science

I’ve been working in education research longer than I worked in animal behaviour. Who knew?

Note: This has been sitting in my drafts for weeks and isn’t getting any more written, so here it is!

I’ve been meaning to do more ‘behind the paper’ posts whenever an article gets published, but I keep forgetting. Oops. One of my recent papers, Discipline Based Education Research for Animal Welfare Science has motivated me to start up the practice again.

This paper is somewhat of a Dear John letter to my former career. You see, as of 2020, I’ve been working in veterinary education research longer than I worked in animal behaviour and welfare. Moving disciplines from ethology to veterinary education was more than a little scary, and committing myself to work in a truly interdisciplinary space was a dive into the unknown.

DBER for Animal Welfare Science marks my sixth first author paper in education research, versus my four ethology papers and my one human-animal interactions paper. In terms of time and experience, I’ve been working in education longer than I was an ethologist. 

I have a couple of reflections on changing disciplines from your PhD studies that I thought others contemplating a similar move would find useful. 

The Deficit

There’s no way of getting around it – when you jump disciplines you have a massive knowledge/reputation deficit that you need to take time to recover. I’ve been exceptionally lucky in the team I ended up in, and I was supported during that year where my productivity dived and I was getting my teeth into some gigantic projects. I have two particular projects that I think of as my second PhD, one of which has also recently been published (here) and the other I’m currently writing up. The sense of scale on those tasks felt comparable to writing a PhD, not least because you’re doing them on top of the day job. You just don’t need to do all the ‘learning to research’ part of the PhD. You already  have your workflows and your skills, and its just translating them to a new context. 

Another aspect of the deficit though is progression. I ‘only’ made it to the Lecturer position in August 2019. My friends who stayed in the same field outpaced me in earning capacity relatively quickly. I’ve had many people assuming I’m further up the academic ladder than I am. Again, I’ve got a very supportive team around me who were supportive of me taking on responsibility before I was necessarily ‘supposed’ to. I did encounter the odd person who thought a Research Fellow shouldn’t be doing whatever thing I was off doing because I wasn’t ready yet. And I am the kind of awful person who gets bothered by that. I like being recognised for what I do. Know your value, and don’t be afraid to fight for recognition as an interdisciplinary researcher. 

The Culture

Something I didn’t expect when I switched disciplines was the need to take a long hard look at myself. The cultural biases I had as an ethologist only became clear to me when they were smashed up against the norms of educational research. This was really useful for me in a lot of ways, but it was also humbling. I now sometimes find myself gritting my teeth when I hear ethologists repeat those biases. Although by the same token, I see what education researchers ‘think’ they know being spouted forward when I’m able to say “actually, in this other field we do …”

Of course you soon develop new biases and ways of thinking. Something that gets my goat very badly is how ‘interdisciplinary’ is bandied around very freely.  I don’t think you’re interdisciplinary until you’re jumping across a ‘purity’ level. Two forms of biology no longer cut it for me. This makes me very fun at departmental meetings and wins me lots of friends. 

The Goods

I have been able to take things from one field into the other. For example, we have a really interesting PTAS project looking at human behaviour using an ethology lens. And of course DBER is part of it.  

I’m also so much happier in DBER than I was in ethology. This field always appealed to me, but felt like such a strange jump after I started investing in my career path. I started my PhD, not really out of any great love of the subject, but because it was 2009 and a paid job during a recession. I came to love it, and I don’t regret it at all, and more importantly I’m better at what I do now because of that time I spent in another field.

I truly believe that academia is going to experience some big changes soon. I believe that the old postdoc model is dead and careers like mine will become more common place. If you do find yourself staring at a frightening opportunity in the next few months, I can’t tell you what to do. But I can say that I have no regrets, and being interdisciplinary is the happiest I’ve ever been

How you doin’?

The peer observation cycle at the R(D)SVS is approaching its end, so its time to find a buddy and ask each other “how am I doing?” Feedback on practice that’s dear to my heart – my favourite thing!

The peer observation cycle at the R(D)SVS is approaching its end, which means we’re all hurriedly looking around for someone to come give us some feedback on how we teach. My teaching load has changed hugely since I started (hello new course organising responsibilities!) and I was feeling quite blasé about the peer obs process, mentally putting myself in reserve for those people who were undoubtedly going to run out of time and need a buddy last minute. 

Up until a colleague approached me and asked if we could buddy up because we teach very similar subjects. Why not do it right, after all? 

This is the first time in all my peer observation/feedback on teaching sessions that I’ve ever been observed by a more experienced colleague, and a considerably more experienced colleague at that (Dear Peer, if you’re reading this, your experience is simply a reflection of your very hard work, and in no way a commentary on years teaching 😉 ) And to my surprise, I found myself nervous about it. 

When I’m talking to people about our peer observation sessions I give lots of advice that I did not follow myself. For example, you have complete control over your peer observation sessions. If things are stressful or you’re not feeling it, you can always reschedule. But of course the time I’d scheduled with my peer just happened to fall over another colleague’s sick leave that I was having to unexpectedly cover for, a period of feeling under the weather myself, and a very stressful busy work period. But we went for it anyway. 

How did the session go? Well like many of my teaching sessions, I walked away thinking there was so much more I could have done, and my peer picked up on some of those in our debrief. But what was interesting was that the thing I’d asked my peer to focus on was what my peer considered to be the strongest part of the lecture. And this is a recurring theme in all my peer observations. The things I’m fretting about are usually not the things the peer picks up on. 

In this particular session I’d been asking about the engagement, and worrying about how the students were responding to the more ‘active learning’ parts of the session. My peer helped me see how positively they responded, and then was able to share some of their practice with me that I am definitely stealing drawing from next week when I continue the session. 

My peer also asked me a few questions, like why I didn’t scaffold in breaks, that made me think a little bit more about my approach to preparing teaching. Many of the questions my peer asked could have been answered “Oh I usually do that but…” and that alone is a fascinating observation. I spent a crazy amount of time designing these courses, and working hard on programmatic level innovation. Despite all that hard work, when I’m under pressure I default to teaching in the way I’m most comfortable with, the way I was taught. 

This realisation has also highlighted for me that building engaged and active learning opportunities actually costs me more preparation time than a more traditional lecture, despite the fact it seems like the student is doing most of the work. None of these observations are new to the field I’ll point out – people have been making this discovery for years, and  I suspect I’ve discovered this before too. I think the value of the peer observation session is helping to catch out those little bad habits you can slip back into. 

My final observation on the peer observation is that I’m really proud of myself for accepting the feedback. Working on feedback has been something of a project for me over the last few years. It reminds me of a time when a peer review came back on a paper I’d submitted, and I’d been grumping over the reviewer comments as you’re wont to do, until I got to the end and saw the reviewer’s name on this completely open journal. The reviewer was somebody I highly respected, and suddenly my entire perspective on the feedback changed. Having my peer be a more experienced colleague who I really respect was a great way for me personally to become more open to the feedback I was receiving. 

Ultimately lots to work on, and lots to be proud of, and all for a little bit of an uncomfortable an un-British conversation where we asked each other “how am I doing?”

If We Should Dress for Sun or Snow

Despite feeling pretty good about my work-life balance last year, I’ve been a little humbled by 2019 so far. My personal life has needed more attention than my work life, and I’ve been feeling guilty about shifting the focus.

Before Christmas I got very into the Groundhog Day musical soundtrack, particularly If I Had My Time Again, which is my new favourite shower sing-along. I was also thinking a lot about academic workload last year, and how the varying pressures of the academic role can be challenging.

Despite feeling pretty good about my work-life balance last year, I’ve been a little humbled by 2019 so far. My personal life has needed more attention than my work life, and I’ve been feeling guilty about shifting the focus. It’s been difficult to keep on top of things, and I hadn’t quite appreciated how much I’d let things creep into the evenings.

There were two articles recently that my mind kept returning to. One is Dr Anderson’s widow speaking out about academic workload, and this article about email’s influence on workload. Particularly on Monday when I was attending an Echo 360 community meet-up about learning analytics.

I had good reasons for wanting to go to this community meet-up. I’m interested in analytics, and I’m the PI on our university’s evaluation project so a little networking is always valuable. I’m also in the rare academic position of having some spare money floating around so it all seemed worthwhile. Except there was a very west-of-Scotland sounding voice in the back of my head wondering if I’m worth spending that money on. Who am I to go to That London to talk to people? Shouldn’t I be slaving over a hot laptop?

On the other side of this, I’ve also spent a little bit of my evenings this week working on a Shiny app. Now I want to emphasise that ‘a little bit’ in this context literally means five or ten minutes here and there when an idea comes to me, but it’s still very much useful time. And yet I’ve been frustrated that I haven’t been able to spend more time on it.

A couple of months ago I had a devil’s advocate style debate with my good colleague Ian about how much these kind of extracurricular activities should contribute to our CVs. We kept circling back to how much the open science and open data analysis movements favour those people with the spare time to dedicate to this kind of work. If all your work is on proprietary data, you maybe can only contribute to things like a github repository in your spare time. And if when you get home you start doing the childcare, or can’t get away with not cleaning the house because you prefer to spend that time tweaking a package. What if all your hours out of work are spent on other tasks, and when you have that lightning moment of “ah – I should use enquo()!” you can’t immediately go to your laptop to check it out?

There are many people much busier than me who manage to contribute way more than me. Those people should be applauded. And we should definitely still value the amazing resources people put online. I think it is our responsibility as academics to support ourselves (and our managers too).

All this is a round-about way of saying that having a little bit less time to make-up for my business has highlighted to me how very important it is to protect time for the things that are important in your work. During one of our protected analysis times today I started a new package which I hope will be able to be incorporated into a shiny app I’m planning for our students. Tomorrow’s my first Writing Friday since before Christmas.  This is the way to do it. And yes, my emails have been slipping in the mean-time. Let ’em.

We should believe we are worth the time.

(And also I managed to go to work today wearing two different earrings and no one pointed it out. That’s not relevant but it amused me greatly.)

The Gold Standard

This a blog about assessment and urine. I promise there’s more of a point than the punny title.

This is a blog about assessment and urine. Please stay . . .  

I was very proud of myself this morning for collecting a urine sample from Athena. She seems to be suffering from cystitis, which is common in cats in her demographic. By a bizarre coincidence I happen to have a UTI this week as well, which is a common occurrence in my demographic. The upshot of this is that on Wednesday I saw a GP deal with my case very effectively, and a vet deal with Athena’s case very effectively. Both practitioners impressed me.

In medical education we have a concept, Miller’s Pyramid, which describes the different levels of ability in a practitioner.

  • You know
  • You know how
  • You show
  • You do

Obviously the ‘doing’ is the most important part. Both my GP and my vet did an excellent job of doing, with a lot of similarities in how they handled their respective cases. Both were good at providing detail, providing treatment options, making me feel consulted, and both were respectively gentle with their patients (although I will say Athena was less grateful than she could have been). But large parts of that ‘doing’ is subjective, involving my feelings and Athena’s feelings, as best we can know them.

Let’s take a less medical example. An excellent question for a statistician might be:

Calculate the likelihood of a cohabiting 32 year old woman and 4 year old spayed indoor female cat presenting with cystitis on the same week.

A statistician would need to investigate the prevalence of these conditions in these populations and then calculate how often these populations intersect. We might then ask them to comment on the factors which may make this an under/over estimate, and see if they show enough awareness of the real world to realise that I’m probably more sensitive to Athena’s problems when I’m in pain myself.

Even with this example, which uses lovely objective maths, there isn’t a true ‘right’ answer for doing. You might use different estimates, for example, or you may bring in other information (such as the fact cystitis may be associated with stress, in cats, and possibly in women). The best you can do is give your estimate and outline your thinking as to why this is the case.

At the same time, it’s MSc marking season. We say the gold standard for an MSc is to be of ‘publishable quality’, but in line with #PeerReviewWeek18 (yeah, that is unbelievably a thing), we scientists can’t decide that amongst ourselves. A recent study has shown that as readers, scientists are reasonably good at guessing which papers will not be replicated, and yet we still allow those papers to be published – we are the ones who peer review them after all.

My GP and my vet were responsive to me, and both were very accepting of the ‘grey’ areas in diagnoses. My vet deeply impressed me by strongly recommending a painkiller for Athena (who is currently snoozing very comfortably on my left leg), and my GP was extremely good at parsing my confused jumble of “I’m not sure if this is a symptom or if I’m just overly-anxious today”.

When I was asked to collect a sample of Athena’s urine I thought back to when I used to perform similar tasks in the wildlife hospital I worked in over ten years ago. Then, the assessment criteria (that I perceived anyway) was to perform the task quickly, with economic use of resources and with a minimum of fuss. But this morning I wanted to do it calmly, inflicting as little stress on Athena as possible, and still get to my first meeting on time. Similar task, two different sets of criteria.

The same task in different contexts requires different definitions of ‘doing’ – and good practitioners are adaptable. But funnily enough, this week has made me a lot more confident in ‘assessing’ practice. You recognise good care when you get it, not necessarily because it ‘works’, but because afterwards you feel better. Athena and I feel better today, and even if our respective problems aren’t fixed, we’re better for having seen good health professionals. Vice versa, the next time I think a paper isn’t publishable, I’ll remember that I’m capable of recognising quality when I see it. 

And just an observation, it’s those ‘softer’ skills that my practitioners used to demonstrate their excellence . . . 

Dear Readers

Dear readers,

I have confession to make. In 2017 I did not publish a single paper. In fact in 2018 so far I’ve only had one paper accepted. That’s worrying for someone whose job is ‘researcher’. Someone whose worth is often judged by the length of the publication section of their CV.

It’s fair to say I’m quietly shitting myself about this and it’s been the source of great existential angst.

First of all – there are lots of ways to explain and justify why my publications section is light at the moment, but I should not. I am trying, very hard, to internalise the message that I am more than my publication count, and I don’t want to spend time justifying why I haven’t met an arbitrary target. Suffice to say there’s little I would have done differently.

Instead I want to talk about some of the steps I’ve taken to change this.

Over the last six weeks I’ve adopted a practice I’ve called ‘Writing Fridays’. This is where I’ve blocked off the whole of a Friday simply to write. In this period, I wrote and submitted a short paper, did major revisions on another paper, and published my first preprint. Writing Fridays has been successful enough for me to decide to maintain the practice.

I remember once taking a workplace personality test, most likely an MBTI rip off (see the book for my feelings on this), and whatever my type was called (Eldritch Abomination?), the test made this prediction. “Whenever someone knocks on your door for help you’ll drop everything to do it, even if there’s somebody already talking to you mid-crisis. You just want to be needed.” It’s one of the few times personality tests have really ‘got’ me. I am very guilty of this behaviour.

For me, writing is not about finding ‘time’ but about finding and protecting the mental space to write. I need a whole day set aside, with no meetings, with no expectation that I’ll also be supporting students and colleagues. That support is a hugely valuable part of my role, and I love doing it, but for me writing papers is an expensive mental activity. By blocking off one day in the week I’ve been much more productive at what is actually a core part of my role. I think when I return to work next term, I will be very explicit about my office hours being Monday-Thursday.

The next step has been about more positive about feedback. I’ve spoken about feedback a lot on this blog, and my challenges with it. So part of that, and part of making my work more accessible, has been publishing my first pre-print.

Pre-prints are inarguably a good thing, but somehow in my head only hard science is ‘deserving’ of pre-prints. The kind of fluffy science I do is somehow trying to hide behind pre-printing. This is yet another example of my own internalised prejudices about the kind of work I do. For example, I am more than happy to share a git repository for example about the NSS analysis even though it’s an unfinished flow of consciousness, but my carefully collected thoughts about Discipline Based Educational Research in two fields I know well feels . . . it feels presumptuous.

I hope the pre-print gets feedback, and I hope I listen to it.

And finally, I have been keen to keep a record of my other activities. All academics should be recording their publications and activities for ref. At Edinburgh we use a tool called Pure for this (pure dead brilliant so it is). In pure there’s a category for publications > other> multi media forms. This blog lives there, so do other types of entry.

Let’s be clear. This blog doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t count towards my ref eligible publications. But the other types of publication do matter, and we have the facility to record it. We should be tracking all of our activity, especially as publications become more contentious.

But for now it’s time for me to take some annual leave. I’ve uninstalled outlook from my phone, I’m going to work very hard at forgetting about work, and I’m going to come back to it more productive.

We all have dreams 😉

Jill Goes Back to the Chalet School

It was my birthday recently, and one of my friends gave me an old copy of The Chalet School. It’s one of the best presents I’ve ever been given. I’ve been hunting for the Chalet School books for years, but they’re very difficult to find and seem to be out of print at the moment.

For the uninitiated, the Chalet School series was written by Elinor M Brent-Dyer in the 1920s. It is probably a trope codifier for the ‘boarding school’ genre in English fiction. There are 58 books in the series and I reckon in my childhood I read a good 50 of them. The books serve as morality tales, preaching obedience and diligence to the girls, while recognising that the most fun girls still have character flaws. Jo, one of the great heroes, frequently is described as dishevelled and romantically dreaming of Napoleon’s conquests.

When I was little, I could devour two or three of these books in a week, so I imagine there was a period of about a year when I was obsessed with them. I remember constructing elaborate fantasies in my head about being sent to the Chalet School where I could somehow become Jo, and my two younger sisters would also be sent to the Chalet School and they would cause trouble and I would have to rescue them, while nearby a handsome Doctor would be waiting for me to turn of legal marriageable age. I also remember going through a period of putting brushes in peoples’ beds and being deeply disappointed by my mum’s utter lack of reaction (an excellent example of negative punishment).

I was aware that the Chalet School existed in another time. After all, it takes ten books to get to the second world war which lasts another five books in itself. But reading the book as an adult, there were a few things that jumped out to me. Firstly, I vividly remembered the odd feeling I had when Simone and Jo interacted and I recognise now that I identified their relationship as romantic long before I identified myself as bi. Secondly, the quality of the German in the book is appalling. Thirdly, the imperialistic tone of the book is really quite troubling at times even if you do try to remind yourself it was written in 1925, the same time as The Great Gatsby and Mein Kampf.

But the fourth thing . . . I think we could learn a little about curriculum design from the Chalet School. Re-reading the book, not just as an adult, but as an educator, was fascinating. I was never one to play ‘teacher’ as a kid (my fantasies were more about letting both my little sisters nearly drown in the ice-covered lakes of the Tyrol before deigning to rescue them in the nick of time so I could be lauded by a much older Doctor), so it’s interesting now to note how often the Chalet’s School’s curriculum is referenced. The girls are very much trained to be good wives, with needlework and mending forming a decent chunk of the timetable. They also must be fluent in three languages and possess good numeracy skills (which many of the heroes struggle with).

I’m not advocating a return to home-making skills in our higher curriculum, but in both the #UoELTConf18 and VetEd18 we had discussions about how much higher education should encourage community spirit and social responsibility. There was considerable debate in fact about to what extent it’s the responsibility of universities to do this. Many of my friends and family work in all stages of teaching and I happen to know that (in Scotland at least) there is a focus on community in early years education, so I’m not trying to pass this responsibility on.

In some ways, I wonder if we come at this from the wrong perspective. Perhaps what we’re really asking for is authentic assessment. In my elaborate self-insert fantasies where a handsome doctor was waiting in the wings for me to turn 18, I was being assessed on how good I’d be as a wife. That assessment is unique to each individual pairing, and has unique criteria. I really like Guliker’s et al (2004) framework for thinking about authentic assessment. They suggest that authenticity comes from:

  • Task
    • i.e. a problem which will occur in practice
  • Physical context
    • i.e. in a space that will be equivalent to the space that you’ll be in in practice
  • Social context
    • i.e. reflecting the social structure you will be in in practice
  • Assessment form
    • i.e. the output of the assessment has a relevance or parallel in the real world
  • Assessment criteria
    • i.e. the things you mark are relevant to how that task will be assessed in the real world.


If we stay with the Chalet School a little longer, the tall Doctor waiting in the wings will presumably want me to remain calm under pressure around patients (i.e. rescue my drowning hypothermic sisters), in an unsupervised environment (The Austrian mountains), while not pointing out any of my working class roots (jolly good), and provide continued life for my sisters while keeping up appearances the whole time.

I think that when we wring our hands over whether our students demonstrate social responsibility and community spirit, we’re actually bemoaning how our programme design and assessment don’t translate to what the real world values. Unlike the Chalet School, we don’t want to produce good spouses in higher education, but we do want to produce good citizens. And therefore we need to make space in our curriculum and our assessments to reflect that importance.

And if anyone spots any other Chalet School books int he charity shops . . . . do let me know.

USS Strike

I want to tell you why I have chosen to join my fellow members of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) in industrial action from the 28th February.

I consider myself incredibly lucky in my career.

I am lucky, because I only signed on once after my PhD, for a short period of time. Many sign on for longer.

I am lucky because I knew that signing on would contribute to my National Insurance payments, which had been on hold, or only partially fulfilled, for the eight years of higher education I took part in.

I am lucky, because I finished my PhD at 26, and entered full time employment at 26. Many people do not finish their PhDs until their thirties.

I am lucky, because I was earmarked for a PhD on day one of my undergraduate degree, and I received exceptional support.

I am lucky, because I have been given fixed term contracts. Many academics are given guaranteed hours, or hours to be notified, and don’t even have the luxury of knowing how much they will bring home every month.

I am lucky, because my fixed term contracts ranged from three weeks, to three years, and so I have felt largely safe in my employment, as much as academics ever can . . .

I am lucky, because the bank decided to bend the rules on my mortgage, even though my contract did not qualify me for one.

I am lucky, because I’m coping with the mental health problems that accompany working in academia.

I am lucky because I am not juggling academia with a young family, because I genuinely love both teaching and research, because I am not stuck with one of the bullies as my boss, because my visa is not threatened by Brexit, because I happen to work in a field that is strong in the UK, because I’m publishing papers that happen to REFable, I’m lucky because I don’t want to quit . . . unlike them, them, them and them.

Yes, we have a good pension. An expensive pension. It is what the universities give us to make up for the fact that on average we earn less than we would elsewhere. We think that the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge is vitally important for our students, and for our society, and so we put up with the challenges. One of our conditions of employment is that our employers take some of our money, and give it to us after our hard working life is done.

I am an experienced researcher, I’m an interdisciplinary researcher, and at the age of 32 I will be one of the youngest people to age out of the ‘six years post PhD’ definition of an early career academic. I am managing to keep my head above water, and my career going, and I just about feel safe now. The proposed cuts will take £12,000+ per year away from my pension.


I am what it looks like to be lucky in academia. Take our pensions, and academia will be lucky to have any of us left.


It’s 1998

In a large, sloping theatre in the west of Scotland (that no longer exists), a teacher brings in their VHS tape of ‘Friends’.

There was always a vote – after half a dozen classes were assembled in theatre: “Should we watch ‘Friends’ or should we do our assigned class?” I wasn’t a fan, so I always voted for the assigned class, and inevitably, our teachers showed our year group episodes Season 3 Episode 10 (The One Where Rachel Quits) to Season 3 Episode 14 (The One With Phoebe’s Ex Partner) to distract us from . . . staff shortages? I’m not sure why we all had to watch Friends . . .

It’s 2007

In between shifts at an RSPCA wildlife hospital, I catch the first episode of Friends on E4. Over the next eight months I watch all 236 episodes of Friends. I had been vaguely aware of ‘Ross and Rachel’  as a concept, but watching from the start, knowing vague outcomes like “Monica proposes”, “it all ends”, “Rachel gets Ross at the airport”, my first honest experience of the legendary show ‘Friends’ was uniquely insular. My internet access was a weekly sojourn to the pub with my laptop, and I never thought to mention that I was watching a show that had finished three years ago.

In this virgin state I think that Ross is a manipulative arse, that Joey and Phoebe are feeble, that Rachel is spoiled, that Chandler is cute, and that Monica’s ethos echoes my own entirely.

It’s 2018 . . . just.

‘Friends’ is on Netflix. Since moving to Edinburgh and fulling assuming the mantle of ‘scientist’, a lot has changed. ‘Friends’ left UK television in 2011. For one, I now understand why my teachers thought a single hours of ‘Friends’ was preferable to teaching on a Friday at the end of term.

Ross seems sweet. Phoebe is an independent spirit. Monica is representative of my darkest impulses. Chandler, a manifestation of my fears. Joey needs protected and Rachel is just beautiful. Millenials find ‘Friends’ problematic says the Independent. Generation Z, I think, primly.

My time with the RSPCA is over ten years ago, my time in that auditorium in the early naughties is over fifteen years ago. It’s almost half my lifetime. I have a couple of GAP shirts that I wear over t-shirts when I can’t be arsed, but ‘Friends’ makes me think that I might be able to rock that as a ‘look’. Maybe when I’m publishing my book, I can hustle my friends out the door in black tie garb. I want a ‘Rachel’ haircut but I’m afraid of what my stylist will say.

Perspective is an interesting thing. ‘Friends’ has followed me throughout a career where I have conducted research and educated. But more crucially, while explaining to my cat why the ‘Marcel‘ storyline is no longer appropriate, I realised that Athena has been with me for 39 months. My PhD lasted a total of 39 months. Come the end of this month, I will have lived with Athena longer than I lived with my PhD.

Right now, Athena is telling me it is ‘bed time’. Her whole life is the same amount of time as one of the most stressful periods of my life. She is barely aware of the blog post that’s  been brewing in my mind about the importance of a teacher’s opinion to their student’s. She knows, vaguely, that I have been ‘busy’ recently. She dislikes my work laptop.

Over half my life ago, I did not know I’d be here, but I would watch ‘Friends’ and think these people were so cool. Today, I have no idea what the next fifteen years will bring, but I am quietly amused, wondering how ‘Friends’ will be shown to us then, and how I will remember those 40 short months of my PhD. Perspective is a fleeting thing, but right now, perspective is a memory of what was, and still laughing when Ross tried to explain the theory evolution to his friends.