Tuesday, 16 April 2019

What does it take to leave academia?

Dr Vikki Turbine
Twitter: @VikTurbine
Instagram: @vikturbine

This week, the hashtag #fullatforty, was doing the rounds on academic Twitter.  As the responses clearly highlighted, there are many reasons why this is only possible for a handful of academics enjoying a range of privileges and on a - now uncommon - linear career path. I commented on the hashtag myself - rather than aiming for the goal of tenure/promotion by forty, I was exiting academia.

Back in January, I announced that I had chosen to resign from my full time permanent post at a Russell Group University.  A post that I had held for 10 years. In that blog, rather than spelling out why I was leaving, I framed my blog around the reasons ‘Why I stayed’.

For this guest post, I was invited to reflect on my exit from academia. It is not going to be another ‘hints & tips’ for ‘post-aca’ life.  I won’t be reiterating here my motivations for leaving.  You can check out my Twitter feed for clues if you don’t already know…  We do need to continue to highlight the toxicity in academia at present- a culture of overwork, hyped up competition, gaslighting by default, audit cultures.

What I want in this post is a more candid discussion of what it takes to be able to exit the academy - and not to regret that exit?

This is therefore a reflection on how those of us exiting the academy are as differently positioned via shifting precarities and privileges as those trying to get in; and those already inside.

As Dr Catherine Oakely has been highlighting on Twitter recently, the ‘post-aca’ success stories can be grating, triggering. What if your exit has not been by choice, or led to a seamless transition to another ‘fulfilling job’?

While, my exit was in part pushed by my chronic illness (Stage 4 endometriosis), I think even if I had not become so unwell, I would have been planning my exit anyway.

I stayed for at least 2 years too long.

I stayed because I felt I had no other option.  As I mentioned in my resignation post, for a first generation working class woman, you cannot easily walk away from a secure and well-paid job. One that allows you not only to get out of debt (after almost 2 decades), but to also glimpse a life you had before only read about, or seen represented on television.

However, this is still a trap. Working in a toxic environment corrodes everything about you, including your health, values, creativity, ability to care. Everything I thought I could attain via that job - that privileged professional income - was in fact being pushed to the side.

I fully acknowledge the obvious material privilege in being able to get out of debt thanks to a full time job with a well-paid salary that also gave me the ability to save a small buffer fund.  I know this makes me very lucky. However, I am not going to feel guilty that I have been to choose my exit. I have in the past allowed that narrative of gratitude and ‘luck’ at not being precarious sway me away from my own health and happiness. This is also what breaks down the hopes of collectivity and solidarity.  We need to be focussing our energy on the structures, not the individuals.  Many of us who are often well-aware of their privilege, are trying to challenge the structures. In the full knowledge that will make them more precarious.

I am also not feeling guilty, because as a first generation academic woman and a mother, I have been trained to feel that my entire life. I have rarely been met with positivity and encouragement when expressing what I want to do with my life. Rather, I’ve been met with responses about why I ‘can’t' or ‘shouldn’t’. How it would be disastrous for me to ‘throw away’ an opportunity.

But what kind of opportunity? And this is as close as ‘advice’ I’ll come to in this post; I wish I had been made to feel that there were options other than ‘an academic career’ post PhD. I wish that I had access to more information about what an academic career would look like as a job; a university as a space of employment; as a large organisation. While we buy into the narrative of academia as privileged space (and it can be) - it is also a job. This is important to remember. It keeps our perspective keen on what it is we are being asked to do.

So to exiting; it goes without saying that it takes an enormous set of material and cultural capitals to leave. I fully understand that I am celebrating my exit because it comes as a relief. It comes as a relief because I have not spent the last 10 years fighting my way through temporary contracts across countries.

Exit becomes a rediscovery of my creativity because I had been permanent. Which for women who are mothers and working class can become stuckness. It became very clear to me that I could not progress, or reposition myself, in the current climate in academia without playing the very game that had broken me - and was not designed for me to play anyway. I never knew the rules, or when they would change.  Progressing illness also made ‘exceeding’ the ever-increasing workload impossible.

And, I didn't want to. It’s not who I am. I can’t try to change myself anymore. I like me and my values and my interests. They may not be “REFable” (although they were…) but they are what I’m interested in.

Exit becomes empowering when it is an active choice for something better.  When you are in a position to make that choice.

I do hope in writing this, in being honest about the privileges we need to leave, or choose not to enter, we can also understand how different forms of precarities both force exit and staying put.  Why people continue to chase elusive academic posts, settle for part-time contracts. We can begin to build a much better understanding of why so many feel trapped into staying in toxic job search cycles, working environments-  as I had for many years. Much to the detriment of my physical, mental and emotional health.

Just as few of get #fullatforty, few of us get our happy exit after.

I don’t know if I will. I’m on a steep learning curve, setting up my own business, developing a website, a podcast. Putting myself back out there.  At nearly 40.

It might not work out. I don’t have much of a safety net. I have a temporary buffer. I do worry about my old age, my children’s future. I don’t know what will happen in the next year.

I only know how I feel now; and that is happy. Healthier than I’ve been in years. Excited. Engaged.

You may be at the other side of this journey - trying to get into academia - I get that too. It can be an inspiring, transformative, amazing space.  As can life on the outside. 

Friday, 12 April 2019

Why are Academics so Obsessed with Posters?

Photograph: Connor Brook

Mike Ryder is a PhD student at Lancaster University. His research interests include biopolitics, sovereignty, science fiction and war. He is particularly interested in the intersection between literature and philosophy, and the works of Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. In today's marketing- orientated post, he talks about the topic of posters and why they potentially shouldn't be overestimated. Go and have a look at his (fab) personal website: www.mjryder.net and check out his Facebook page

I’ve been involved in higher education for some time now – both as a student and an employee – and still to this day it surprises me just how obsessed academics are with posters.

And by posters here I don’t mean posters to stick on the wall; no, rather I mean posters to then send out by email or for users to download from social media or a website. Got a conference coming up? Make a poster and send it to your mailing lists. Got an event? Make a poster and upload it to your blog.

But the thing is, pdf posters just aren’t made for digital media. Here are some of the reasons why:

·         Posters are not SEO-friendly. Their content is not searchable online.
·         Errors are difficult to correct. If you have a change of date or change of venue, you can’t just go out and edit all the posters you’ve already sent out into the ether.
·         Posters are not mobile-friendly. Large files are slow to download and impact on a user’s data allowance. They also don’t make for easy reading on a mobile device.
·         Posters can be time-consuming to create. They are not an efficient means of communication and can often be overlooked by a time-starved audience.

The user journey

To give you a more practical example, every week here at Lancaster, our PG administrator sends round all of the emails she’s received to send out to PG students, so calls for papers, adverts and so on. Now imagine that among these emails, there’s one from you, with a poster attached for your conference. The email itself is empty, save a brief message asking ‘please can you send this out to your PG students?’

Now follow the process that someone might take to discover your poster:

1.    Open the email (large file size due to multiple attachments).
2.    Double click each email attachment in turn.
3.    Double click on the poster attachment to open / download it.
4.    Read the poster.
5.    Realise the poster is for a conference not in your field.
6.    Repeat.

I don’t know about you, but as a PG student, I receive dozens of emails each day. When it comes to conference posters and calls for papers, I dare say I have missed a few, or even just forgotten to check this week’s admin roundup, as there are often upwards of 10 or more attachments, each with a title that doesn’t necessarily shout ‘open me’.

So what’s the alternative? What can you do to make your communications more effective?

Adopt a marketing mindset

First thing’s first, it’s important to recognise that that you are engaged in a marketing activity, and not just a time-consuming addition to your academic workload.

As with all things marketing-related, it’s useful to spend some time planning your approach before you start. This will save you hours of toil and frustration in the long run. Your plan doesn’t have to be complicated – just a side of A4 will usually be enough, with a few key points plus some time-based targets to work by.

Even this simple step will improve your communications and give you better focus. You may even attract more responses as a result.

Things to consider

In any good marketing plan, you should always consider your audience. Who are you targeting? Where do your target audience go looking for information? Too often people take the ‘scatter gun’ approach and just fire out as many emails as possible, equating quantity with quality. However it’s far more effective and efficient to consider the leads you’re looking for, and the types of people you want coming to your event.

Put yourself in the position of the reader. We’re all busy people, bombarded with posters, flyers, surveys and all sorts of other communications, so take a moment to think about what you can do to make your particular message stand out. What other ways can you promote your event? Who are you targeting? What’s the best way to recruit them? Do you even need a poster at all?

You should also consider your existing contacts, as they can be a great resource. People are also far more likely to respond if they’ve been contacted directly, be it by email, instant message, social media of face-to-face.

I really do encourage you here to think outside the box, and don’t just assume that because you’ve made a poster or shared a Tweet that people are a) going to look at it and b) going to respond to it. This is why planning is so important, as it means you can often achieve better results with less effort, and a lot less stress.

Next steps

I hope this blog has given you some things to think about. At the very least I hope it’s persuaded you to take another look at the way you communicate with fellow researchers and academics.

In my next blog I hope to write about social media – especially in relation to conferences – but in the meantime do feel free to comment below and share your own experiences. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Monday Motivation


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