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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Perspective

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.

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.

From Butter to Feliway

Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen! As you know, Athena and I moved house just before the Christmas break. We now live in our very own four walls, and it’s very exciting.

Athena, to her credit, was exceptionally well behaved during and after the house move. She gets a bit anxious every time I move a chair, so it certainly wasn’t an enjoyable experience for her – but as kittens go she did very well.

I contribute a lot of this success to my liberal usage of Feliway, the cat feline facial hormone (fraction 3, if that’s relevant). Feliway is one of those cool little body hacks that I love. You’ve seen cats rub their cheeks over people and objects, usually when they’re happy, or trying to greet someone. (I bumped into a cat outside Edinburgh Uni’s geosciences building on Monday who was so keen to rub her cheeks on my new riding boots she fell over twice. I understand, kitty, my new boots are beautiful). They’re expressing the feline facial pheromone while they’re doing this, specifically the part of the pheromone which says “this is mine” (and in Athena’s case it probably also say “and this is mine, and this is mine, and also that thing over there”).

There are a lot of interesting studies out there about Feliway – it is very good at reducing behavioural signs of stress in cats, particularly non-sexual spraying. But you have to think about the behavioural reasons behind this.

Chronicles of Athena – Twelve Weeks

I don’t know how to say this in a not-bragging way, but I think I got one of the clever ones. It’s not necessarily a good thing (unless, like me, you place an unreasonable amount of value in cleverness). At three months old Athena is very proud to have invented several different games such as the ‘I bring you this toy, you throw it over there so I can hunt it, then I’ll bring it back to you to throw it again’ (she’s working on the name). She’s figured out that my phone is a touch screen and will do stuff when she plays with it, but the laptop needs to be pawed at to do stuff (and she’s also figured out that she’s not allowed to paw at the laptop and there are specific places she can walk where I will tolerate her).

These last two I rationalise as there being limited interactivity on a phone (the only thing you can touch is the touch screen after all), and the laptop keyboard as being more tactile and pleasing to play with than the laptop screen. I’m not sure how she invented fetch.

The flip side is how easily she gets bored. I have to regularly rotate her toys to keep her interested in them, otherwise she turns to playing with the loose threads in the carpets and the curtains. She’s also extremely quick to pick up on routines which means she knows what I do when I’m about to leave the house. Thankfully she’s also developing more of an independent streak and so when I leave she doesn’t spend the day curled up in her safe place. The whole flat is now her safe place and even when the evil monster Vacooooom comes out she’s more likely to go sit at the window than hide under the telly.

This week has been a real joy – even though I was plagued with migraines, Athena has been so happy and affectionate. While I was lying on the sofa, trying to keep the light from my eyes, she was playing games underneath the blanket, bringing me Mr Ducky in the hope it might tempt me to play, and generally trying to figure out why I wasn’t behaving like she expected me to. It’s been lovely to see her exploring how to interact with me, and other humans, what she expects from us.

I was baking a cake earlier and she was genuinely irritated that I wasn’t paying attention to her. Little things like this we need to work on.

But that being said, she does purr so loudly when she’s cuddled.

There's nothing Athena loves more than a good cuddle - excpet for maybe a cuddle and a head scratch
There’s nothing Athena loves more than a good cuddle – excpet for maybe a cuddle and a head scratch

Welcome Athena

I’ve noticed a weird thing. No matter how much you may earn your rent telling people what animal welfare is, being flown half way across the world to teach this to professionals, and being generally young and successful at this whole ‘making a career of animals’ lark – when you make a big decision like “I’m going to get a cat”, you become racked with self doubt.

Maybe it’s just me.

I know, on an intellectual level, that I am more than capable of looking after a cat. I know that while I might not give her a perfect life (because no animal ever has a perfect life), it is life that will be pretty damn good. And yet I’m a compulsive worrier.

On Monday I picked up Athena from my friend Leigh’s house. She has been fostering kittens for Arthurshiel Rescue Centre, and Athena is one of a litter from 8 month old Star, who couldn’t cope with her babies. After a little brush with tapeworm that had made her feel a bit ill, she was finally ready to come home with me at the age of 9 weeks exactly, with all of her siblings already rehomed.

It was a long car journey, with a very grumpy little lady complaining most of the way. When I caught her eye at traffic lights the complaining would start again.

When we finally got home, I sat back and opened her carrier, trying to ignore the hammering of my heart – would she be terrified? Would she find some unknown hole in the wall and get stuck in the Kingdom of the Mice (never mind that I still haven’t figured out how the mice were emigrating from the Kingdom of the Mice in the first place)? Well she immediately started exploring, finding the darkest, sneakiest corner of the room (turns out not to be gateway to Kingdom of the Mice so we’re all good), and then she came to see me. With a quick head rub and a purr she was emboldened enough to run to the other side of the room.

Purring within ten minutes of coming into her new home. You’d think I’d have relaxed about this point, right?

So there was plenty of exploring, although she steadfastly refused to enter her perfectly pleasant igloo bed, or her tree nest. After a little bout of play she fell asleep on my lap for a while, and only woke up to play a little bit longer.

When I couldn’t stay awake a moment longer I decided to leave the door to the bedroom open, to see if she would follow. After a few minutes of calling, she decided she’d come and see what this whole other world was about. She explored briefly, but in coming to see me for some reassurance, she discovered something quite wonderful, quite mighty . . . the memory foam mattress.

My friends, you haven’t seen true mystified delight until you’ve seen a kitten discover memory foam. She played for a little while before curling up under my arm and falling fast asleep.

I’d love to say I slept like a log and that all my worries faded away. I stayed awake all night and fretted about her habit of chewing on electrical wires.

In the morning Athena was confident enough to explore under the bed for a little while, and then headed to the living room. Knowing I’d no chance of sleep, I followed, and we played and cuddled and bonded all day. Was I feeling relaxed yet? Ask me about the moment I lost sight of her and somehow convinced myself she was stuck behind a kitchen cupboard (she wasn’t, she was relaxing in her hidey place behind the tv stand). When I left her for an hour and a half on Tuesday, I came back convinced she would somehow have broken herself, she had been in her hidey hole and came to see me immediately for cuddles.

For the next few months, Fluffy Fridays will be devoted to Athena’s development, but for now, I’m just trying to relax into the idea that I can look after this little lady, and give her the best possible home, while teaching her that computer charger are not for teething.

But in the mean time I have to pop off as we’ve discovered that our tail is fun for chewing . . .