Seven PhDs

So a few days ago I stumbled across Josh Raclaw’s tweet:

And this is the result:
Continue reading “Seven PhDs”


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.

Gie Us a Grant?

I’ve just submitted a little grant proposal! (Everyone go ‘woo!’)

One of the things I talked about in the grant proposal was my outreach activities. I like to think of my science as quite transparent. But I am definitely less good at talking about the grant writing part of science.

Why is this? Well firstly, grant writing involves asking for money, and that’s not a terribly pleasant activity for many of us. In addition, there are often privacy concerns. Funders might not want to disclose how much money they award versus how much they were asked for. Projects of a sensitive nature (which this one might be) also require careful thought before a science blogger starts talking about the 100 grand bid they just put in.

Still, most research funding comes from public money, so all parties have a responsibility to talk about finances, and how we spend that money responsibly.

For my part, this grant is asking for some of my time, some travel costs, and some research costs. Altogether, this amounts to less than £50,000. To me this is a small sum for a research project, and I’m interested to see if there’s any feedback on the costings, either from the grant, or from you guys.

Money in academia is a hot topic right now – so I want to do my part for making this more understandable. If this gets funded, and the funders agree, I’d love to do a full breakdown of how I came to that total. And then you guys would be able to judge for yourselves whether it was money well spent . . .

Opinion Piece

If I have a new year’s resolution for 2018, it’s to be more open to feedback. Feedback terrifies me, because it’s an opportunity to be told I wasn’t very good at something. And if I’m not very good at something, I have clearly failed at life. But I’m working on it!

I have to admit I was surprised to find that I get a lot of positive feedback too. It’s strange how trying to protect yourself from bad feedback also keeps the good feedback from sinking in too. Here’s something students say to me:

“I like hearing about your opinion, it’s nice to have the benefit of your experience.”

I get this when I’m talking about ethics, or how my personal ontology affects my research (which is a whole other post I have drafted, but is also talked about in my book – which you can still pre-order on Amazon, Waterstones , Blackwells and at the Publisher) It used to make me uncomfortable. I worried that students might take my opinion as fact, or think they had to follow my opinion to get good grades. So when I give students my opinion, I preface it with lots of wiggle words “it’s only my opinion”, “now this isn’t fact” . .  . why precisely?

I don’t want to create a horde of mini-mes when I teach. I’ve never been able to get that project past the ethics committee. But why do I shy away from my opinion? There might well be a gender bias there, and I try to soften my opinion to protect peoples’ feelings. But I think a lot of it is about the hard science bias. Try as I might, I can’t shake the idea that opinions (and those other icky subjective feelingy things) don’t have a place in real science.

But here’s the thing – students like it. They want to know what I think about these topics that they’ve chosen to study. Their studies are important to them. The people who teach them are also important to students. My research group is writing up a paper at the moment which explores aspects of the student-teacher relationship. Students want to feel respected by their teachers, and I think that (occasional) usage of opinion can be one of the ways to do that. When you share something like that with your students, you’re building trust with them. And it’s important to value their opinion too.

I absolutely love having ethics discussions with my students. I love exploring these concepts and sharing ideas. It shouldn’t be so surprising to me that my students enjoy that too.


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.

Stop asking me ‘what about men?’ 

This is a must-read for all of us


Everyone who follows my blog knows that my best work is written in rage, or port. But Christmas has gone now so no more port.
Well, at least I still have rage. So back to that.

Recently I have been getting increasingly frustrated with ‘whataboutery’ every single time I write or speak about women or girls.
For those of you who don’t know what that word means, ‘whataboutery’ is when someone responds to a difficult issue or question with a counter issue or question that completely derails the conversation.

Mai: My research focussed on the murder of women in Yemen
Randomer: uh, this is a bit sexist. What about the murder of men in Yemen? Don’t you care about men?

Example 2:
Pam: I’m really upset with you for stealing from my purse
Mel: What about that time you stole from the local shop? You’re not innocent…

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And May All Your Dreams Come True

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer.

As a child, I filled endless notebooks with my stories. They were mostly stories about animals, or thinly veiled replicas of Lord of the Rings. I may even have tried my hand at the odd love story. At school, I kept a private tally of how often my essays were read aloud, or made a teacher cry. I love the written word.

When I was 29 years old, an editor approached me and asked me to write a book. That book, Animal Personalities, is currently available for pre-order.

Of course, when you achieve your childhood dreams, a weight lifts from your heart, a divine confidence settles in your soul, and you never again doubt yourself or your abilities. You become as happy as you always believed you would be . . .

I recently wrote a short case study about being a postdoc for Edinburgh’s “Thriving in Your Research Position” document from the Institute of Academic Development. In the case study, I talk about a spectral figure who has haunted me throughout my whole career: the Perfect Postdoc. She is always better than me. When I wrote my book, she somehow wrote a better one. She’s like a funhouse mirror version of me, and when I change, so does she. I’ll never be able to outdo her.

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog, you’ll know I’ve been thinking about failure lately. I explored my failures as an animal trainer, and meditated on how academia breeds an anti-failure culture. I’m also critical of the idea that all scientists have to be specialists – I’m not a specialist. I’m interdisciplinary and I love it. This leads me to another area of my academic life where the Perfect Postdoc is always one step ahead of me.

The Perfect Postdoc understands R much better than I do. I’ve spoken before on this blog about my frustrations while trying to learn R. While I have taught research methods and statistics for several years now, I’ve always hesitated to teach R. I’ve hesitated because, well . . . because I’m not brilliant at it. My code is ugly and often cobbled together, and I often find the community around R, places like stack exchange and stack overflow, are hideously unfriendly.

I’ve been lucky enough enrol on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s woman-only Aurora programme this year. The first session was called Identity, Impact and Voice, where we explored how we can make a difference in our workplaces and communities. There were two-hundred plus women at the Aurora event in Edinburgh this month, and so many of us spoke about being afraid of ‘not being the best’.

The curious thing is, when I was listing my strengths, I never said I was “the best at [thing]”. My strengths are my communication skills, the fact I’m approachable, and my willingness to try new things. I firmly believe that in five years time anyone who doesn’t have R skills is going to find it very difficult to get a job in academia. Hiding my bad code means I’m not contributing to the R conversation happening right now. I have a voice. And I can have an impact too.

Hadley Wickham, who wrote some fabulous R packages, says:

So with that in mind, I’m going to start sharing my own R teaching materials more widely.  You can find my resources on Github (scroll down to find direct links to the exercises). The worst that can happen is that someone tells me my code is ugly. The Perfect Postdoc’s code is of course much prettier, but do you know what? Just like writing my book, writing that exercise was pretty fun.

Glory in your bad code. Glory in saying “I don’t know how to do that” in your local programming club meetings. Glory in your voice. There is nothing else like it.


The Academic Place

Have you been watching The Good Place? For UK viewers, it’s on Netflix, and it’s a very funny and sharp comedy based on exploring ethical points of view about what ‘goodness’ really is. I love it. The latest episode focussed on the Trolley Problem, which I have a particular soft spot for.

I’m a utilitarian, as I’ve said many times on this blog, and for me the trolley problem has limited discussion value. It’s also one of my favourite examples of a flipped classroom (you can use my flipped classroom here on TES Blendspace).

I was really lucky with this classroom that I had great engagement from my students, and there are a few elements of this that have really stuck with me. One of them was one of my students who flatly said no, she could not pull the lever to move the trolley. She could not bear the thought of causing a person’s death. The class had a brilliant discussion, and a truly equal one as well, where I walked away from the class feeling as though I’d stretched my understanding of ethics as well.

The trolley problem hinges, in my opinion, on the fact you know your inaction will result in five deaths. When you know the outcomes, does inaction hold equal culpability as action? I firmly believe that it does, and this is partly an outcome of my atheism. I don’t believe there is a final tally of good acts or evil acts, and the only ‘worth’ is how much you helped other people. It’s my ethical position, and informs my actions, and how I value other peoples’ actions as well.

This brings me to a less happy topic. The #MeToo hashtag has been spreading over social media, a visible way for people to say they had experienced sexual harassment or assault. Eventually, I posted too.

There was so many feelings swirling around before I made that post, but in fact it was walking away from a student engagement event that made me think about it. I have said in our Digital Footprint MOOC that I believe my Twitter (and indeed this blog) are a way for me to widen participation in academia, to help engage the public and students with the kinds of science I do. The fact is, I have been sexually harassed in my role as ‘student’, more than once. My feelings on this are very mixed. I feel ashamed. I feel guilty that I ‘brought it upon myself’. I feel relief, and a sense of fraudulence, that these incidences of harassment only made me uncomfortable and shaky, and didn’t physically harm me.

Ultimately, I feel that if a student under my care came up to me and told me they had had a similar experience, I would be furious. I would not be asking them what they’d done to bring it on themselves, even though I ask myself that. I would support them.

Saying #MeToo was deeply uncomfortable. It was frightening. I know other scientists who chose to disclose, and others who didn’t. No one owes someone their disclosure. For me, I wanted to say something because I knew it had happened, and staying silent felt a little like not throwing the lever and changing the trolley’s tracks. As uncomfortable as it made me, staying quiet was worse. It’s my personal ethical stance, and I don’t demand that everyone follows me.

But there’s still more. With the news that Oxbridge is less diverse than it was seven years ago, and the mental health challenges associated with postgraduate study are a terrifying read. I fundamentally think that we are all in this together, and we have to talk about the things that go wrong. We also have to help the people who contribute to harassment, to the stressful culture, who make the choices about who comes in. We’re them too.

Changing an individual person’s behaviour is hard, trust me, I know. Changing a workplace culture is even harder. But it’s worth it. By having the conversations, we might just be able to make the Academic Place . . . the Good Place.

The Finnish Lesson

For the record, I managed two whole plenaries in AMEE before I was overcome with opinions and had to blog about it.

First things first, AMEE 2017, an International Association for Medical Education, has been a bit of a revelation for me. Sitting in a crowd of 3800 medical educators, when you’ve only been on the job for fourteen months, is a bit overwhelming. But this has been one of the friendliest, most accessible conferences I’ve ever attended. It’s been a delight so far.

But I want to talk about the Finnish Education system here. Our second plenary of the conference was by Pasi Sahlberg, whose talk was titled “What can medical education learn from the Finnish experience of educational change?

First off, it’s important to talk about the conference crush. It’s a thing that happens when you hear another researcher talk and their passion and excitement, and their insight into a topic, just sets your heart racing and before you know it you’re having idle fantasies of working in another research group. It happens to me about ten times a conference. I got a case of it listening to Sahlberg talk about the Finnish education experience. In about 15 years they managed to make massive improvements, and top the global league tables in many arenas of literacy. They improved so much they surprised themselves.

I think Sahlberg will be posting his slides on his website, but I quite enjoy taking my own things away a talk. The highlights to me were:

  • Teaching must be respected (in Finland you need an Masters degree to do any kind of teaching)
  • School systems should not be competitive with one another for ‘clients’
  • Value play and failure
  • The society you teach in needs to have high equity


Whether or not this is what Sahlberg intended to communicate, this is what I walked away with. There are so many questions that come tumbling out when I think about this. For us in Scotland, I really worry about the equity in our educational society. Any three students in my lecture could have paid three different fees to hear the same material. That worries me greatly. With the changing politics of the UK, we risk losing many of our hard-earned gains in society.

Sahlberg presented a slide which talked about ‘Global Educational Reform Movement’, and how it had spread (like a g.e.r.m.) from the UK in the eighties, and moved forward. I can’t be the only person in the room who was thinking about dear old Maggie Thatcher. Whether education must always be political is an interesting question (one opinion, one more). I have always been a political creature, and I believe there is politics in all we do. I found Sahlberg’s slides very convincing that we must create certain kind of systems in order to promote better educational outcomes.

Sahlberg also highlighted the value of play, briefly, and the value of what he called ‘small data’. These are subjects close to my heart. As someone with a big-data PhD, I now spend a lot of time on small data, and explore qualitative ways to evaluate what we do, because sometimes that’s the best method you can use to answer the question you’re interested in. I like these two elements because they are both things that are sometimes frowned upon in the environments I work. When I did my M.Sci, I had this feeling that I wasn’t allowed to get emotional about the animals, I wasn’t allowed to have fun in my job. Where did this come from? No one ever told me this, but it was part of my culture nonetheless. I still struggle a little with this.

This blog is called ‘Fluffy Sciences’ because I want to kick back against the ideas that ‘soft’ things, play, small data, feelings, are less valuable. What we do is massively complicated, asking questions like “how do we change a whole community in order to improve our education”, and not recognising how valuable that is results in any old person doing teaching, being given no support, and students who are treated as commodities, not people.

Here at AMEE, it’s incredibly empowering to be around so many people who recognise the importance of education research. Let’s hope that we can all take that confidence back with us to our schools as a beacon.