Animal Academia

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian criticising London Zoo for offering an unpaid job with an MSc as part of the requirements.

Unpaid work crops up repeatedly in academia, sometimes in terms of “pay your dues”, or “gaining valuable experience”. But I think it’s particularly prevalent in the animal sciences for a number of reasons, one of which being the huge number of people in the field, the cost of running animal projects, and the scarcity of available funding.

There are two other reasons I think unpaid work occurs so often in the animal sciences. First, there is a terrible assumption of class that pervades academia. Most of the ‘old guard’ have come from traditional animal-owning backgrounds. Their families can support them on unpaid volunteer work. If you need to bring money in to the house, then you cannot gain that experience. Whose CV is stronger? Well I remember scoffing when, late in my undergrad, a more privileged student had never written a CV before. And I remember how much more detailed hers was than mine.

And I worry that the feminisation of the animal sciences opens up the unpaid internship bias too. See Oschenfield 2014 and Constance 1996. As a field that is getting more attractive to women, but also has people saying that money is too tight to offer pay, we are going to see more and more of these unpaid jobs cropping up.

Would I say to one of my students “Don’t apply?” I’m not sure if I would. I did my own time, paid my own unpaid dues. They were immensely valuable to my career. No, I think this needs to be tackled from the top. Which is why I have an Athena Swan meeting tomorrow to prep for . . .

The New Term

We’re halfway through Week Three of the new academic year.

Students, I love you. I really adore  you guys. I love helping you, I love seeing you puzzle out new ideas, I love when you challenge my thinking, I love when I can make you feel better about yourself.

But Jesus I wish you’d learn to read the course documents.

This year marks the sixth that I have been doing some form of university level teaching. In the past six years I’ve gone from the occasional lecture and lab to helping to coordinate an MSc program (admittedly that last bit has only been happening for two weeks, but it’s still pretty damned cool). I’ve come to the realisation that I really like the role of lecturer, particularly when I get to straddle the different scales from undergrad programs to masters and even helping out the odd PhD student. Which is a good thing because my wall planner looks like this now. Orange dots represent teaching days and I ran out of them so they start accounting for two towards the end of the year. Yellow stripes mean MOOC. Red stripes mean teaching at workshops:

The 2014 Wallplanner

But what really amazes me is that students, be they MOOC students, MSc students or just people who happen to catch me in the pub and receive a free lecture, never seem to read the course documents.

I’ve been writing some learning objectives for one of this year’s undergrad programs, and I was breaking the lecture up to indicate where the learning objective should have been achieved. I did this for a couple of reasons – I have a three hour lecture slot and that’s boring as hell. The learning objectives gave me a natural break. But I also did it because one of the questions I’m frequently asked is: “What should I know here?”

In some ways it makes me feel old. When I was at uni, we were only just developing this whole ‘communicating via email’ thing, and we received paper course books, which you had to look up to find a lecturer’s office. There was no way I was dragging myself into uni to ask them something I would more likely find myself in a book.

These days, however, I’m an email away from my students, and it’s easier for them to ask me where to find certain things. But it’s also easier for me to give them a reading list – I have lectures with lists of links to further reading if they want to, it really is information overload.

This is part of the learning process now, knowing what is valuable information and what is not. Part of that should be learning how to scan the course handbook, in my opinion, rather than outsourcing it to your lecturer’s knowledge, but that’s also part of the training. Students pick it up and within a few weeks it’ll all be sorted.

The thing is, I would never tell a student not to email me. I would really much rather say “As you’ll see in your handbook . . .” than have to say after an assessment “If you’d asked me I could have told you . . .” when a student’s done poorly.

Still, it’s student season right now. It’s the time when they’ll be grinding against one another in the cafeteria while you’re having a meeting with a guest. It’s the time when there will be emails at the weekend that expect to be answered. It’s the time where we gently remind them that Facebook is very nearly forever. It’s the time for tech problems, sudden financial difficulties, introductions and students second guessing themselves.

I love student season.


I’ve been doing a lot of navel gazing lately, professionally speaking of course, because June is a month of anniversaries for me. Most recently, June marks one year since walking out of my PhD viva and being called Doctor. It marks five years since finishing my undergraduate program. It marks ten years since my last day in high school. And it marks my twenty eighth birthday. Navel gazing has been rife. I have a mounting concern that I will never be a real adult.

With that being said, I feel like it’s a good time to take stock of my career, particularly as I was recently reminded of how hard it is for final year PhD students to see anything other than the doom and gloom that surrounds you in that period of your life. So this is my attempt to show you that one day you’ll feel good again.

Earlier this month I was supposed to be converting  some slides for our MOOC when I was sucked into the ThesisWhisperer blog, taken there by a link and then unable to keep clicking through the stories. It reminded me just how awful I felt when I was finishing up. I felt defeated, utterly, and handing over the thesis was nothing like the victory I thought it would be when I started.

I was sick. I handed in my PhD thesis covered in chicken pox blisters (unbelievably, the third time I’d had the infection). In the six months that ran up to my submission date I had been constantly ill with sore throats, migraines and repeated colds. My insomnia had never been so bad, I cried in our work’s canteen, and I was so ready to walk away from the office and never return.

Except I was back the next week because I’d scored a three week contract. Despite my conviction that I was out, I couldn’t turn down the money. That led to a month’s contract. Then a three month contract, then a six month contract, and now I have guaranteed paycheques up until the end of March.



The Valley of Shit

The ThesisWhisperer blog talks about the Valley of Shit, and I can remember my valley vividly. It lasted from roughly December 2012 – May 2013 when I handed in.

I’m a competitive person. I like to be the best, and I’d work for nothing if people told me I was wonderful (please don’t tell my HR department). My PhD was the first time I’d ever had to confront the fact I wasn’t the best. My PhD made me confront the fact that not only was I not the best, I wasn’t even in the top percentiles. That was a hard, hard lesson to learn.

Approximately a month before I submitted, my PhD’s key paper was rejected from a journal because of one reviewer’s comments (the worst paper they’d ever read, they couldn’t believe my coauthors had deigned to put their name on it). I cried in the cafeteria in front of my bemused supervisor. She told me I’d need to develop thicker skin, which seemed absolutely impossible.

This month another paper of mine was rejected from a journal (although the comments I admit were much more positive and it was rejected from a very well respected journal that was a bit of a long shot). It barely registered on my radar.

I think this is a big part of the Valley of Shit. Everything feels like the end of the world. I remember being on the phone to my mother and asking her if she would still love me when I failed. Which is ludicrous, of course, but still something I felt I needed to ask. So, yes, the Valley of Shit exists. I clearly lost all perspective in this period of my life.



The Plateaus of Okay

My viva was a long and arduous one that resulted in remarkably few corrections, at least from my point of view. A few months after I’d submitted my corrections and the University’s Senate agreed I could be awarded the degree of PhD, I got my six month contract extension.

One morning I was in the shower, washing my hair, and I felt a distinct sense of unease. It took a moment but I realised what was unnerving me: I had nothing to worry about. For so long I’d been thinking of the PhD and finally there was nothing to be fretting over. What could I think about instead?

I think I ended up reading the shampoo bottle. It took a while to relearn the art of the shower daydream.

It takes a long time to adjust to being on the Plateau of Okay. There are little things, like not wanting to take all your holiday days because you want to be invaluable. There are big things, like fretting over the fact I still don’t have a postdoc and I’m moving further away from research and into education instead. The thing about the Plateau is that you have the space to remember how to cope with these challenges.

Just before Christmas I was offered an interview for a job that I didn’t really want. The interview was at an inconvenient time and in an inconvenient place. But it was a full time, permanent position and with a higher salary than I’m on right now. After some deliberation I declined the interview, and felt sick for the rest of the day.

In the Plateau you start to make your choices based on what you want, rather than what you’re frightened of. And that in itself is terrifying. I’ve turned down a few jobs and interviews because they’re not quite what I want, and I still wonder if that was the right thing to do. I’ve also been turned down for jobs I thought were perfect for me, and that is what the pub and your friends are for. In the Plateau, it’s not about losing the fear, but recognising you have choices again. You’re no longer trudging endlessly, you can go in any direction.

It’s pretty intoxicating.



The Peaks of Happiness

This month I won some project money (a small amount, certainly no postdoc, but still). I have enjoyed what I’ve been doing thoroughly. I’ve booked a holiday with all those holiday days I didn’t use last year. And I got my longest contract extension yet.

When I was reading the ThesisWhisperer I realised I was at the Peak of Happiness. All the things that upset me about academia are obstacles to deal with in a few months time (like the next contract extension, my lack of paper output this year, how I’m supposed to do grown up things like buy a house or a pet when I don’t know where I’ll be next year . . .) I was feeling truly elated.

This time last year I could not have believed that I would be this happy.

A peak means there must be another valley further on. The very fact that I know I’ll need another contract extension, that there are still grants that need to be won, and that if I want to leave those parts of my life behind I’ll have to sacrifice the parts of academia I love. You can’t just stay on the peaks of life, but you can hope the plateaus keep climbing, which is what I have decided to do. I’m not afraid of the deep dark valleys right now, because they inevitably end. As the poet said, this too shall pass.



But most importantly of all, in a few months time I’ll be going to my high school class’s ten year reunion. I guess I could introduce myself as a pet psychiatrist.

More Science Communication from VoYS

Voice of Young Science, who were instrumental in prompting me to start Fluffy Sciences, ran another one of their excellent Science Communication workshops next week.


Check out Chemist By Choice’s write up of the event. If you’re a young scientist I really recommend you keep up with VoYS and their Standing Up For Science Media workshops. Very useful stuff!

Learning About Pain in Animals

Today the AWIN project released five online learning objects on their Animal Welfare Hub. I have to confess an ulterior motive to sharing these: I had a hand in creating them.

The Animal Welfare Hub requires registration, but it’s free and once registered you can find animal welfare courses online, download learning objects, and share your own events, courses and materials. It’s designed to be your one stop shop for animal welfare resources.

The learning objects I’m sharing today are about animal pain. They’re aimed at vet nurse students, vet students, and as some refresher training for vets and vet nurses, but the beautiful thing about learning objects is that anyone can access them. You can take them at your own pace. You don’t need to read all the information present, and can direct your own learning.

By having these learning objects online we can also reach a global audience. Supplying the 7 billion with animal products (everything from meat, eggs, dairy, leather, etc.) results in a huge demand for animals. It’s more important than ever to share animal welfare knowledge between countries so we can learn from one another.

Anyway – first you have to make an account on the Animal Welfare Hub and then you can follow the direct links below to check out the learning objects. They can be downloaded and used for education, so long as you say where you got them from. Hopefully you’ll find them useful, and let us know any feedback you have.

1. What is animal pain?

2. How is pain produced?

3. How is pain assessed?

4. How is pain treated?

5. Attitudes to animal pain.