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.

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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.

Ch-Ch-Changes

There are more changes afoot at FluffySciences! Because after six very happy years with SRUC it’s time for me to move on …

 

Yes today was, technically, my last working day at SRUC. On Monday I start a new role as a research fellow in veterinary education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

I’m really excited to be starting this new role. It’s a group I know well and whose work I’ve often admired, so it’s a delight to be working with them more closely. And it’s a subject I’ve been interested in for some time. But of course it’s sad to be leaving SRUC and my lovely colleagues. While we’ll still work together it’s a strange thing to be leaving a group who I’ve been working with for longer than I was in high school!

You hear a lot of horror stories as a PhD student about unsupportive and unhelpful groups. I feel like I owe it to everyone to talk about the other side of the coin. When you’re lucky enough to work with a supportive group they can help you achieve so much. They listened to me ramble about definitions of animal personality for years and their feedback was always honest and constructive. They gave me opportunities to work on MOOCs and learning objects and so many interesting little bits and pieces of research. And of course they took me to amazing conferences all around the world and bought me beer and cups of tea and cakes whenever we were all out together.

So it has been a pleasure and a privilege, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next chapter of my research career brings. FluffySciences will continue, probably with a little bit of a shift in focus, but it will remain a blog obsessed with proving that even the soft, fluffy sciences like educational science are thorough and evidence based. Keep an eye out for my application to the Higher Education Academy Fellowships, I’ll be working through Edinburgh’s programme to get there and I’ll mirror all the self-reflective work as examples on here. And of course the book will still be under development.

Goodbye, SRUC, I will always be grateful.

Chronicles of Athena – Lockout 2016

There I was, happily trotting off to the cinema to see ‘Spotlight’, when I heard an almighty yowl behind me.

Edinburgh tenements have a common stairwell, colloquially known as the ‘close’, with an exterior door at the bottom. I was at the bottom of my close, two neighbours had just passed me on the way up, when Athena decided to make her unhappiness known. Oh dear, I thought to myself, while my neighbours gave me an odd look. Athena has always been vocal and does call out to me when she hears me speaking in the close, but I always have a sneaking worry about separation anxiety.

Nothing to be done now, I think, and keep on going. Three and a half hours later I return, and funnily enough I don’t hear Athena calling out to me at the usual spot (where I think she must know the sound of my step on the stair).

No, because Athena is sitting huddled on the doormat outside my flat’s front door. And when she sees me she howls again.

Poor little Athena slipped out right on my heels when I left for the cinema and spent the better part of four hours in the close feeling miserable. We’ve now fed her plenty of treats (and she’s been tweeting about the experience . . . somehow). All is well.

But if Athena had been a different type of cat, one who’d decided to explore further, or was less sure of the close that she’s explored before, who knows what would have happened? Thankfully, she’s microchipped. It’s so important for responsible pet ownership for your animals to be traceable.

If you’re in the UK the RSPCA has a guide here. And for the US, the AVMA has their guide here.

Speak to your vets about keeping your pets traceable, make sure your records are always up to date, and double check your doors on the way out. Or your cat tweeting threats of negligence might just be the least of your worries . . .

 

Sorry Athena – will get right on that bacon for you.

About the Book

You will have noticed lately that the posting schedule has been a bit erratic. That’s partly because of work commitments, but also partly because I’ve been got some big news.

I am writing a book!

What? How? Why? Where?

Well after the MOOC and winning the Living Links competition, I was contacted by a publisher to ask if I would like to write or edit a book on animal personality. They, and I, felt there was a gap in the market for such a book. Was I up for it?

What a question to ask!

Surprisingly, it’s a question that does require some thought. Firstly: what kind of book do I want to write? A text book, a manual for personality studies, a review much like those I’ve already written? It didn’t take me long to realise that what I really wanted to write was a popular science book, something that anyone could pick up and better understand animal personality by the end of it.

I suggested this to the commissioning editor a little nervously. A fancy academic text is one thing, but would this be something marketable? Moreover, would anyone want to read something I’d written? So imagine my delight when the publishers responded enthusiastically. They were really interested in popular science books and liked the idea.

The funny thing I’ve learned about the book commissioning process is that after being approached to write a book, you then have to pitch your idea to the commissioning board. Because the topic was unusual, I also had to write a sample chapter to demonstrate that I could write about such a complex topic in an accessible manner. My proposal and sample were sent to reviewers, and I was left bursting with news I wanted to share here but didn’t want to jinx myself.

Well today I got the contracts through and it’s all going ahead. I’ve had some lovely reviews in about the proposal and sample chapter and felt really supported by my publishers (5M Books).

So what does this mean for Fluffy Sciences? Well much as I love and enjoy this blog, I simply won’t have time to update it while also writing a book on the side, so blog posts will become sporadic.

I hope that when the books comes out you’ll all be ready to enjoy it – because I am so excited about writing it!

Jilly

Fluffy Friday – Growing Up

My radiator exploded tonight. Which is a convoluted lead in to the Syrian refugee crisis.

I didn’t intend on writing this post. I intended on spending tonight doing some fancy things for our upcoming MOOC. As it was a bit chilly, I put the new radiators on high and sat down to keep designing thumbnails . . . until hot water started spraying out the top of the radiator.

A few frantic googles told me what I’d already guessed, turn off the radiator and the boiler, and I phoned my amazing installation company to get their voicemail. They called me back immediately, on a Friday evening as well, and promised to be over soon.

I waited for the engineer, anxious and upset. This was so unfair, I thought, what have I done to deserve hot water spewing all over my floor? And then the engineer arrived, and very kindly completely turned my radiator off, restarted my boiler, and drained the broken radiator. This wasn’t the engineer’s radiator, or their installation, this was entirely their kindness showing up on a Friday evening to do something that any self respecting adult should have been able to figure out for herself. They calmed me down and reassured me, promised to get in touch after the weekend.

And I was left with the strange realisation that my whole life I have been coddled and protected, lived in a world where hard work is rewarded with help, and where fairness and justness matters.

The refugees fleeing Syria have tried everything they can, and there is no fair reward, no kindness shown to them. My greatest upset today, something that brought me close to tears, was having some hot water stain my carpet. The strength of my emotional reaction to a silly radiator problem is shameful, when children are drowning trying to escape a war.

I have no reference for how these people are feeling. My personal disaster scale is so completely skewed to the other side that their experience is almost infinitely impossible for me to grasp.

The Guardian has a practical advice list. I will write my MP. One of my colleagues is collecting resources to donate. But I feel very sober today as I wonder if there’s a Syrian postdoc out there, wishing that the worst problem in her life is a leaky radiator.

Ethical Eating Month – Cheesecake . . . wait?

Why no Ethical Eating post this week? Well we had our exam board for the MSc and so it’s been crazy busy. Instead, let me offer you my Cranachan Cheesecake recipe as an apology.

Cranachan is an old Scottish dessert, an easy, summery mix of fruit, oats, cream and whiskey. For this cheesecake version, you will need:

  • 300g digestive biscuits
  • 150g melted butter
  • 1/2 cup of rolled oats
  • 1 punnet strawberries
  • 1 punnet raspberries
  • 450g cream cheese (I used half and half philly and mascarpone)
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp bourbon (I used Jack Daniels)
  • 4 eggs
  • Springform pan

Preheat the oven to 180C and butter the pan.

Crush the digestive biscuits up and and mix with oats and melted butter, press down into the pan and cover with sliced strawberries and raspberries. Put in the fridge to chill while you prepare the cheese filling.

Add the cream cheese, sugar, bourbon and eggs and mix, being very careful not to overbeat. Fill the pan over the fruit layer and pop in the oven for 45 minutes (or until the cheesecake element only slightly wobbles)

Leave until cool.

A few things: Why use bourbon and not an expensive Scottish whiskey? Well bourbon, especially Jack, has the vanilla flavours, the honey flavours and the extra sweetness that puts you in mind of cranachan, but you could use a good whiskey if you have one on hand. You might want to add a dash of vanilla flavouring in that case.

Serve with tea and Great British Bake Off!

Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?
Ethical eating?

Chronicles of Athena – One Year

This week Athena is one year old! We went from this …

Athena 9 Weeks Old
Athena’s first day with me, discovering Netflix for the first time

To this …

Athena at One Year
Athena as a one year old, not getting into Sense8 on Netflix and very much enjoying the sunshine

 

The aging process is a strange thing, and something me and a colleague have been talking about lately. For Athena, there’s still a way to go. She still has a kitten’s energy, and still finding her own individuality. Purina has a fun age chart on their site here, which suggests that as a rule of thumb, we would consider Athena to be equivalent to a 15 year old human. These kinds of rules are sometimes confusing for pet owners. Athena isn’t likely to start using heavy eyeliner and locking herself in her room (although one night I did walk into the bedroom to find her alone, sitting beside the mood lighting and seemingly listening to the Genesis I had playing), but these companion animal aging rules are more to give you a comparison between the physical maturity and the kinds of behaviours you might expect.

For all my ideas of getting and well-socialising a kitten, Athena has developed her own ideas of how she should behave. Her personality is that of a live wire, cautious and curious bundled up with affection. When we went to stay with our lovely friend Kay while the central heating was being installed, Athena very quickly adopted Kay into the pride and spent the morning accidentally miaowing and making noise outside of Kay’s bedroom, feigning shock and delight when Kay got up (and then looking less impressed when Kay wouldn’t let her in the shower).

I’d love to ask Athena what she thinks of her life, does she enjoy it, what would she change, is she happy with me? But I don’t think she really has any comprehension of a different life, no power to imagine the comparison. What she does know is that she loves her fluffy pillow on the windowsill, she doesn’t know what hunger is, and she’s never felt much pain, and she gets cuddles whenever she asks. I think that means she’s had a good first year. Here’s hoping she’ll have many more.

Happy Birthday, Athena!

Chronicles of Athena – 52 Weeks

Athena is currently trying to climb the bookcase in order to then climb back down the rolled up rug that’s resting against it. The rolled up rug is hugely fascinating to Athena, as are all of the many, many toys that were liberated from beneath the sofa when the rug was taken up.

Why are the walls bare and the floors littered with toys you may ask? I wish I could explain to Athena how much she’s going to love what’s coming. You see, we’re getting central heating installed next week.

This is very exciting for me, never mind Athena. It’s been over five years since I’ve lived somewhere that has central heating, or even a combination boiler (this is Edinburgh, it’s how we roll). The thought of having hot water on demand is pretty intoxicating. As Athena has lived most of her life in a pretty cold environments, I’m not sure how she’s going to handle it, to be honest. But next time she watches the snow from the window, she’ll be able to gently toast her bottom on a radiator. As Athena loves toasting her bottom on laptops, I think she’ll be pleased with the developments.

Chronicles of Athena – Fifty Weeks

Last week, I was in Aberdeen for my sister’s graduation, which meant that Athena had to spend her first ever day away from me. My mum came over to stay at my flat while I was in Aberdeen, and was left with a long list of instructions about how to attend to Lady Athena in the style to which Athena has been accustomed to.

Here are some of the things Athena got up to while being looked after by her granny . . .

  • Athena stole her granny’s toothbrush, taking it into the bath to play with it. She has never stolen a toothbrush before.
  • While granny slept, Athena sat on the ottomon beside the bed and watched . . .
  • When granny was working, Athena got so annoyed she deliberately pushed all of granny’s papers off the table.
  • Then lay on her laptop
  • Athena got lots of treats.

So this week, Athena has been quite affectionate in her own way, as talkative as ever, wanting to be beside me (if not actually wanting to sit on me – my Theenie is not a lap cat, despite a promising start as a kitten), and generally looking terribly cute and behaving like a terribly spoiled princess. I have a cold which has made me lose my voice, which means she is immune to being told off, because apparently I’m not at all intimidating when croaking.