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.

 

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My Name is Jilly, And I’ve Been Book-Free For 1 Week

Hello, my name is Jilly. I’m proud to say I’ve been book-free for one week.

Yes – it is true. Last week (in fact, Thursday 25th May), I sent the book off to the editors and received a lovely email in return thanking me for following the preparation guidelines so thoroughly.

Of course, the paper I submitted this week was missing a figure heading.

Writing the book has been an amazing experience. Even my PhD didn’t give me so much freedom to really dive into a subject and (forgive how academic this sounds) think about a subject.

So what happens when you write a book?

  • That quip about it being another, longer PhD on top of your full time job was absolutely true
  • You will lose all sympathy for PhD students, which is wrong, because you brought this on yourself.
  • You will swear you’ll never write another (and secretly really hope the second is easier)
  • The “I should be writing” guilt is real. It follows you around pubs and parks, a spectral apparition lurking at the corner of your vision of yourself hunched over a laptop.
  • It’s amazing how much more energy you have when the spectral apparition is gone – I suddenly feel capable of painting the living room
  • Somebody will publish an inflammatory paper before you submit your book. You will have a little cry.
  • The weakest part of your creative process (for me that’s always been editing) will improve – but it’ll still be your weakest part. By far.
  • You’re going to be really nervous about whether or not people actually like it – a nice email from your editor will make you burst into blubbering tears.

The next part of the process will take about eight months, I think, so expect to see the book early in 2018. I am very excited, and very nervous about how it will be received. I really hope people like it. I might even quite like the opportunity to do this again at some point (something about science literacy in general . . .)

But right now I’m really enjoying having absolutely nothing to do at evenings and weekends. This is fun.

Academics Supporting Academics

If you hang out in the academic circles of Twitter or the blogosphere[1] you’ll find many frightening stories about the cutthroat and ruthless nature of the world’s self-appointed thinkers. Bullying in academia has its own Wiki page (don’t be too shocked, academia is also an industry that hosts regular edit-a-thons of Wikipedia), and is frequently the topic of thinkpieces in your favourite left-leaning media (again, don’t be too surprised, we’re also an industry that writes for a living).

Bullying in academia is a problem, and early career researchers are frequently left unsupported. But this is not the only story. I’ve heard tales from my own university that make my skin crawl, but I think it’s equally important to highlight when things work well. I have always been incredibly lucky to work in supportive teams, and I’d like to think I help to support my colleagues, so if you want to change the culture of your academic workplace, here are the things that work for me:

1. Ask for help

SRUC recently hosted Temple Grandin for a series of talks, and I was invited to talk about my research as part of an early career day. I’m not the kind of person who gets nervous about talking, but presenting your research, that you’ve just written a book on, to one of science’s biggest characters is not a normal kind of talk.

I asked for help.

My colleague, Jess Martin, pictured to my left in this Tweet, sat with me as we flicked through my slides. She gave me some brilliant advice on my slides, and then she gave me some tips for coping with nerves during presentations. I think it’s important to point out that these are skills I have, I win competitions (and book deals) on these skills, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need help sometimes. As academics we like to  believe we are experts, that we have irreplaceable skills. If we don’t believe this then everyone is our competition . . .

Here’s the thing, every woman in that photo could do my job better than me if they put their mind to it. We are a strong team, not when we scrabble for funding scraps, but when we sit down together to see where we can learn from one another.

 

2. Acknowledge your colleagues

She won’t thank me but I want to call Jess out specifically here. Jess is one of these people who will always have time to help you if you ask for it. Jess also uses peoples names.

In a meeting, when Jess wants to echo someone’s idea she says “Jill’s point was a good one…”. I’ve started trying to do the same. “I agree with Bob”, “I missed what Alice said, can you say it again?”

I often find myself in meetings where there is a spread of paygrades around the table. You and your fellow early career researchers will not be on the radar until you all start speaking about your achievements. Don’t push your own agenda at the expense of others. When Bob makes a good point, tell people it was Bob’s idea.

 

3. Think about wellbeing

I have another set of colleagues, Kirsty Hughes, Sharon Boyd and Jessie Paterson, who are very engaged with workplace wellbeing. They organise various sessions to get us thinking about things other than work. I’m going to be talking about video games for my team later this month. They’re not mandatory, but they’re there. Just before Christmas my boss was teasing me for me affection for glitter as we made some Christmas cards, and then we pondered our approach to one of my current projects.

Good bosses are very important here, and another place where I’ve always been incredibly fortunate. But even if you don’t have a supportive boss, think about how you and your colleagues interact. Working in Scotland my colleagues and I are big fans of the pub debrief, but there’s plenty to be said for walk-and-talks out in nature, for crafting sessions and opportunities to explore hobbies.

Hobbies teach skills you can bring into the workplace, my photography and videogaming are both things I can use in my role, but that’s not the real gain here. Work shouldn’t make you sick. It’s as simple as that.

 

4. Go home!

Don’t be part of the culture that normalises sleeping under your desk. Go home at a reasonable time. If you are sending an email to a colleague and you see their out of office is on, it’s very easy to delay an email so it gets sent when they’re back, and it takes very little extra effort on your part. Turn off email notifications on your phone, turn off your inbox’s ability to pop up every time a new email hits your inbox. If you have a short question why not visit your colleague’s office, instead of sending an email?

Don’t fall into the trap of saying “this is how it was for me, this is how it’ll be for my students”. I hope the future generation has a better life than ours.

 

5. Reflect on feedback

This is the one I find most challenging. I like to think of myself as amazing at all times, but I’m not. I do things wrong, I lack several skills, I have a long way to go. I found my Higher Education Academy application to be a revelation in this sense. I still struggle to take feedback on board, but I like to think I’m getting there.

Trying to hear feedback as about the work, and not about me, is not easy. On the whole academics are good at things and don’t like failing, but our work is always about failing. You’re never going to answer that question perfectly, you’re never going to be perfect. Let yourself be messy, let yourself fail, give yourself space to grow. How else will you know when you need to go to your colleagues for help, or when it’s time to stop bashing your head off the keyboard and go for a walk?

Self-reflection isn’t easy, but there needs to be a lot more of it in science.

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 . . .

Renewal Season

It’s February, and what I have come to think of as contract renewal season. I’m reasonably confident of continuing the work I’m doing, which is split between coordinating the online MSc (mostly student wrangling, as I think of it), teaching and coordinating my two undergrad modules, miscellaneous knowledge transfer activities, and any bits of research I can stick my fingers into.

There’s a part of me that’s afraid of losing out on the research forever, and wants to get a postdoc. But it’s time for a confession: I hate the postdoc lifestyle. The uncertainty and enforced nomadicity wreaks havoc on my anxiety. So on balance, I’m happier to take on student wrangling and get to foster other peoples’ research in the best way that I can.

But the big news being circulated among my colleagues this week has been the news of Bristol University veterinary lecturer who was fired for not bringing in enough research money. Now if there’s anything guaranteed to send chills down the spine of an academic, its actually being judged on the merit of your work.

I’m being facetious. I feel very sorry for the lecturer in question, and the Epigram (Bristol Uni’s student paper) has a more detailed account of the disciplinary process brought against this lecturer. It must be deeply unpleasant going through several rounds of being told you must get more money or else.

We were asked, on our MOOC, how animal behaviour and welfare research happens – it’s a constant fight for funding and the numbers of graduates wanting to go into academia far outstrips the monies available. It is a hard, hard place to be in.

Of the five animal behaviour PhD students who were around when I started, three of us are teaching, one of us supporting academic innovation and business, and the fifth has a postdoc further from her home than she would like. I think we all enjoy what we do, and I don’t know that any of us would do anything different, but there are eight behaviour PhD students I can name in our office. There are probably more I can’t name.

There is always the work, there just isn’t always the money.

I don’t know how universities are supposed to do this, but I wish they’d figure it out.