Academic mobility: Nomads, migrants and adventurers

I have been really absent on this blog for a while now, much to my chagrin. I really enjoy writing these posts – they are, as I have commented before, a form of scholarly therapy for me, and an important creative outlet as well. But, Big Things have been going on in my personal and professional life and I just have had no energy, headspace or ideas to spare. But, I am learning – always learning – that if I want things that are important to me to be things I can actually do, I have to make time for them deliberately. So, here I am.

The Big Things centre around me getting an amazing job, one I have worked towards for a long time now. The catch, though, is that this job is in another country. So, the last 4 months have largely been consumed by obtaining visas, packing up our home, and relocating ourselves and our cats from the south of the world to the north, with several complicated steps due to the pandemic and all the travel restrictions that have been in place. It has been stressful, anxiety-provoking, exhausting to say the least. That the job is actually as amazing as it sounded on paper, and my new colleagues as kind and helpful as I hoped they would be, makes the professional part of this whole process exciting and energising. But the personal stuff has been all-consumingly hard. I miss my home, I miss my books, I miss my garden and the beach. I miss things that are easy and familiar. I miss being trusted as a known citizen and person with a credit history and a track record and full rights and recognitions. Being an immigrant is a big thing to get my head around. And I have to acknowledge as I write this that I am a very privileged immigrant. I can’t imagine how hard it is to do all of this when you don’t speak English very well, or have friends and networks in the new place already, or have to move away from, rather than with, your close family.

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All of this has, of course, got me thinking, mainly about academic mobility and how so many academics and postgraduate researchers move around the world every year in search of new opportunities, PhD scholarships, postdoctoral fellowships, jobs. I have several colleagues who have relocated for various academic roles and reasons: fellowships, short academic exchanges, sabbaticals, permanent roles. I have moved in the past to undertake a Masters degree (10 months abroad) and also with my family for a 6-month sabbatical (Lovely Husband’s). In some cases, the move is pretty easy – you are helped with accommodation and setting up a bank account; there’s a network or space set up and waiting to welcome you. This removes a significant source of stress and time. Also, if you’re on a fellowship or sabbatical, you know you have not left your home for an indefinite period of time, maybe for good. It’s just a break from regular life – an adventure. This also removes a huge source of stress, which is having to make peace with a massive life change, really committing yourself to learning new systems, making new friends, creating a new home somewhere else.

Academic mobility is a significant feature of modern higher education. Until perhaps two or so decades ago, there was, anecdotally at least, less movement of academics – there were fewer postdoc fellowships around, for one thing, certainly in the context I have moved from, and there was more of a sense of getting a great role and climbing the ladder of your academic profession in one university, maybe two, rather than actively looking for new roles in other contexts and universities and going for these. Now, though, there are many more opportunities to study abroad, to take up shorter and longer-term fellowships, to find new and different roles in your own or other higher education sectors. I have noticed a significant increase in movement just in my own scholarly community over the last 20 years that I have been working in higher education.

This is likely partly linked to larger trends in higher education: postdoc fellows, for one thing, do research and teaching work, but if you can hire them on short-term contracts and convince them that a postdoc in an excellent career move, you can hire quite a bit of relatively inexpensive labour. Academic work is becoming increasingly precarious around the world, with growing proportions of researchers and teaching academics on contracts, rather than in permanent or tenured roles. Universities run like businesses now, thinking in terms of cost-benefit analyses and bottom lines, and this precarity combined with increased numbers of doctoral students exiting academic with PhDs and hoping for academic work (which means increased competition for relatively fewer positions) means that you probably will have to move to secure work that you want to do, that links to your research, that will be meaningful and also support you (and probably also a family) financially.

But the whole idea of work has also changed, and in many industries there have been changes in the ways in which we work, particularly in terms of changing roles and even changing career paths. In academia, I have noticed a growth in conversations about alternatives to academia, about leaving academia for other kinds of work. Much of this seems to centre around the toxicity in academia: the intense competition for jobs, funding, PhD studentships; the long hours and inevitable burnout; ongoing and unresolved gender pay gap and equity issues. So much of this – the overwork and burnout especially – has worsened over the last 18 or so months since the pandemic started, and there is as yet no clear end in sight. So, just in my network there are more visible conversations happening that involve different ideas of mobility, both within academia to new universities, new roles, new countries, and also out of academia in to different parts of the private or public sectors.

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I never thought I would be an academic migrant, much less an adventurer. I thought, after finishing my studies, I would find a great job, dig in and climb the ladder. Moving home, moving my kids from their schools and friends, leaving my friends, asking Lovely Husband to move and possibly also change jobs: this was all much too much. So much easier to just plant roots in one place and nurture them. But that great job didn’t materialise the way I had hoped it would: academia changed and the possibilities I did have meant precarious contracts or moving. I opted for the former, and have spent the last 7 years cobbling together a full time job from several different pieces of contract teaching and consulting. And it worked pretty well for the most part. But, over the last year I have realised that I do want more: more scope to innovate and create, scope to have an impact and make real changes, scope to grow myself as a scholar and researcher. And, in spite of many changes – especially around pushing so many more academics into precarious contract roles – academia still rewards permanence, tenure. It’s hard to get access to the opportunities if you’re not ‘on staff’; why should they invest in someone who can take their labour and go without even having to give formal notice? It’s a crappy Catch-22: you can’t really grow and progress with institutional help unless you have tenure, and you can’t get tenure unless you’ve done the growing and progressing. So, in the end, the only real choice was moving. There seem to be more people like me moving, migrating, and thus more people doing additional physical, mental and emotional labour which can take a great deal of time and energy that is not then fully available for other academic work, like thinking, reading, writing, research.

I would love to tell you how exciting this move has been and how energised I feel. I can’t do that yet. This move has taken a huge toll, emotionally, financially and physically. I have had to leave my older son behind because he cannot get a dependent visa; I have left a very ill mum behind who is not doing well; I have left wonderful friends and a beautiful home behind. It has really struck me how incredibly brave academic migrants are, all the more if they have to move alone, leaving partners, children, family behind. Academic mobility is premised on opportunity, on exciting growth and development, and can indeed offer this. But I think we also need to acknowledge how hard it can be and how much headspace it can take up trying to get settled into a new space and place. As a doctoral educator, this is something I’d like to acknowledge, especially as it pertains to helping international students as they settle into a new space, a new researcher role, a new research culture.

Part of research culture making has to include an acknowledgement of the additional labour academic mobility can create so that we can more consciously and deliberately include students who are far from home in their research communities, and help them to manage all this additional labour as they also take on a new research project, new supervisors, and new academic demands. This has been meaningful for me: having colleagues who acknowledge that I need extra time and headspace to settle, which has helped me not to put undue pressure on myself to be settled before I am; having a small community around me to offer me advice, help, a shoulder to whine on when things are just too hard and I want to go home; having people to remind me to be patient with my impatient self so that I manage my stress. I think those of us working with academic migrants can be more mindful of how much work goes into moving countries, universities, homes, whether these are our students or our colleagues and peers, and in doing this, create more supportive researcher development and collegial cultures in academia.

Becoming, being, and change: reflecting on early career (and what comes next)

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, and I can’t quite get what is in my head onto this page in quite the right way. What I want to do is something a little indulgent, and reflect on my experiences, over the last 5 years, of becoming and being an ‘early career researcher’. I am a couple of weeks away from no longer officially being one, according to my country’s National Research Foundation, and some of the literature out there*, and I am pondering what is next, and whether I am quite ready.

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If you take 5 years as the ECR period – the guideline I am using – then my time is almost up. On the 10th of April, it will be five years since I graduated with my doctorate. This is giving me pause.

There is a certain amount of mental and emotional ‘space’ that comes with early career. People expect you to publish, but not to churn out top quality papers that make a huge impact in your field. You are joining, rather than steering, the conversations in your field. You’re learning how to publish, and conference, and engage as a peer in your field. People expect you to teach, and consciously grow as a scholar, but if you are not yet settled, it’s not really a big problem – yet. ‘Early career’ seems to offer a bit of space to hang back, and observe, and then choose your doing with help from mentors – perhaps a supervisor, or more senior academic peer – alongside you. And the doing can be halting, and uncertain at first and no one will get too het-up about it.

As I move towards the next phase – I assume ‘mid-career’ – I am starting to supervise my own students, and I am starting to apply for grants to run my own research projects. Thus far, I have been supervised and mentored, and joined projects others have won funding for. Moving from being mentored to being a mentor to others is one significant change from early to mid-career. I am now asked to be responsible for parts of others’ research journeys, and this is daunting. It means you have to know stuff – what to read, what networks to join, which are the good conferences to attend, what areas of study are novel – and be able to do stuff – offer feedback and advice on writing and thinking work, co-write grant applications, co-publish with students and peers more often. There are more things, I am sure, but these are the ones I can think of now (that are pressing on me, anyway). Less time to observe, and hang back, and see what happens.

Moving into a more ‘mid’ phase of my career now, I feel like the biggest shift is the one from becoming, to being (and a new trajectory of becoming). I have become a researcher, and now I have to really be one. I have become a doctor, and now I have to help others to achieve the same goal through being a supervisor. I have become a decent writer, and now I have to really be a published author. And this is what I signed up for, and actually I enjoy all of the work, but what is making an impression on me is that time is taking on a different dimension. My career is starting to really grow now, and things feel like they’re speeding up a bit. Citations are becoming a thing, and making my research more visible. There is pressure to publish a few papers a year, and I am writing a book. I feel I need to be thinking about other avenues for sharing my research with wider audiences, such as in newspapers or The Conversation. I need to really start thinking about wider forms of service to my scholarly community, such as serving on editorial boards, reviewing papers, examining dissertations and so on. I now have enough distance and time from my own doctorate to be able to offer these services, and do a relatively good job.

Photo by Ankush Rathi from Pexels

I am struggling to sum this all up – probably because the becoming is ongoing really. I am still becoming a scholar, and mentor, and supervisor, and researcher, and critical peer, yet many of these roles are offered now because I am seen as being further along the path in terms of knowledge, experience and ability. I have climbed a few key staircases or ladders, and have the capacity to keep climbing, choosing which staircases to climb, and who to bring with me. I have different choices ahead of me: new research projects and related networks, different kinds of writing, teaching and travel opportunities, different ways of being an ‘academic scholar’ and playing this particular game.

Although there is less time for hanging back, there are new kinds of freedom: I have seen more of how the ‘game’ of academia works, and with that knowledge, I can make better choices about how I want to play it in this next career phase. I can see better some of the push and pull factors that I was blind to 5 or more years ago. Although I’d like a bit more time to be ‘early career’, especially to indulge in the mental allowances I have given myself to hang back at times, and be a participant guided by others but not a leader and guide, I can’t stay here forever.

I will, of course, always have mentors of different kinds as I go, and leaders are also participants, and time can be manipulated to suit your own life, and personality and pace. The becoming never becomes a static form of being – being is a just a landing on a much longer staircase of becoming. So, I suppose I am on a new landing, looking up at a new set of stairs, familiar and also strange. Now, I just have to find the strength, and courage, to start the climb.

*Literature from Australia and the UK defines early career as five year post-the end of a PhD degree. In the US, early career is a little longer, perhaps 7 years and tends to incorporate the end of the PhD process. In Africa, early career often includes all or part of the PhD, and therefore can extend to a period of 7-10 years. So, there are different time-periods and also definitions of what needs to fill up this time to move a researcher from early into mid-career.

On sexism in academia

When I started this blog in 2013, my primary audience was working women in academia, balancing work, PhD study and the demands of family life. I am so honoured to have a  wider readership now, and in so many different countries and academic spaces, but as a woman in academia, a mum and wife, a researcher, and a feminist, one of my chief concerns is still helping women, like me broadly speaking, to navigate at least some aspects of their personal, professional and PhD lives as they traverse these spaces.

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I have been thinking a great deal lately about sexism in academia, and all the big and small ways it makes itself felt. I had an encounter, recently, where a senior colleague who works at the university at which my husband still works (and where I used to work) asked me to apply for a post advertised in his faculty. But, rather than approach me (and he does know me well enough to do that), he sent me a message via my husband to tell me about it. My husband replied that it would be better to approach me directly, but did come home and tell me about it. Not only was this, for me, unprofessional; it was sexist. I was pretty angry about it.

I would not, I am very sure, have been given a message to pass on to my husband, unless it was to ‘say hello’ or ‘give regards’. Before you think I’m being overly sensitive, this is underscored by several other messages male colleagues have asked my husband to pass on to me over the years, including when I still worked at the university. And a former line manager meeting me for the first time, in a job interview, with the greeting ‘So you’re the other half of [my husband’s name]’. No, dude. I’m the whole me. And that same line manager dressing me down in front of peers and colleagues in a high level meeting for not being at my desk when he stopped by the day before, because I was on family leave taking care of a sick child and trying to work from home. And then proceeding to tell us all about a male professor who works 7am to 11pm, 6 days a week, and publishes prolifically, and is the epitome of academic success and worth (and has no children, partner, ageing parents, pets … or life, it seems). Ho hum. Taken together, all of these events can have the effect of making you feel smaller, less self-confident and less able to take up the same amount of space as your male colleagues can.

So, sexism is alive and well in my lived experiences of academia, and in those of many other women around the world. A recent piece in The Conversation reported on research that shows that women get less funding than men in the biomedical sciences, and tend to apply for smaller grants; a further piece in University World News reports that women are under-represented in senior academic positions across European universities, and elsewhere, such as in South Africa, the same is certainly true. Most of the research I have read speaks a great deal about how to change all of this; far fewer stories celebrate significant changes happening, although we are taking steps forward, particularly in the social sciences.

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What interests me, personally, is what role I can play in celebrating my own and other women’s achievements in academic spaces, and in amplifying women’s voices, and research. What can any of us do? Here are a few of my initial thoughts:

  1. Amplify one another’s voices: Have you ever been in a meeting where 3 women will make the same basic point and the male chairperson will only really hear the point when a male colleague echoes it? I have. A lot of women I know have. So, one thing we can do practically is to amplify one another’s voices, using a fantastic tool women staffers working in the White House during Obama’s presidency put into practice: amplification. Essentially, how it works is that if one woman makes a point that is not heard or noted, another woman in the meeting will repeat it, giving her colleague the credit for suggesting it. If it is still not heard, a third woman will speak up, crediting the first two, and so on until the people in the meeting have no choice but to hear the point, and credit the woman who made it.
  2. Stop being so bloody modest: The male researchers and academics I know have no problem talking up their research, and promoting their achievements: grants won, books published, papers cited many times for being amazing, etc. No problem. But, and I am pretty sure this is not just me, I am less comfortable doing this. Women are taught to be modest, and not to be too brash, or self-congratulatory or in-your-face – it’s unladylike and makes other people [men, mainly] uncomfortable. The trouble with this learned behaviour, though, is that many women can also become squirmy when other women ‘brag’ on social media, or in person, about their papers published, or grants won or laudable achievements. We have to stop this, and start not only being less modest about our own achievements, but also add this to the amplification. ‘Did you hear about J’s grant – her stem cell research is really groundbreaking!’ Have you read C’s paper on a critical history of women resistance fighters in Africa? It’s really fantastic! Your students should read it too.’ And so on. We need to be our own, and each other’s, cheerleaders.
  3. Create and sustain supportive spaces: I am always encouraged, inspired and energised by meeting with other women colleagues and peers, spending time talking about our research, our lives, our writing and so on. I feel surrounded by people like me in the sense that they get where I am coming from, and what I struggle with, often without me even needing to put it all into words. We so often, in academia, feel alone. We feel we are the only ones not coping with PhD and home and work, or not writing papers, or not doing Impressive Research, or not winning grants, or not being Good Enough. We are SO not alone, and reminding ourselves of this, and learning from one another as we support and cheer on one another, is a really good idea. We need to be creating and sustaining supportive spaces and cultures in academia – formal and informal – so that we can give ourselves and one another this emotional and intellectual sustenance and support.

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It is  galling that we still have to read so many stories of women in academia struggling to reach the seniority of their male counterparts, struggling to balance the demands of childcare with those of research, teaching and administration – often without sufficient support from their university – and struggling to make their voices heard above the still-male-dominated din. But, we do, because sexism in academia (and in society) is alive and well. But, it can be fought – it is being fought, and gains are being made. To keep the momentum moving forward we  can all be doing our part where possible, amplifying, listening to, supporting, and learning from one another. We’re worth it.

Paper writing: effective conclusions

This is the second post in the Paper Writing series: the first on Introductions is here. This post deals with the opposite end of the paper: conclusions. 

Conclusions, for me, are the hardest part of paper writing. I really struggle to pull all the strands of the paper together in a coherent, punchy closing paragraph or two. Part of this struggle, I think, stems from how I was taught to write conclusions in my undergraduate study. I was taught that you need to start with the phrase ‘To conclude/in conclusion/to sum up’ or similar, and then proceed to summarise the ‘body’ of the essay by restating the main claim and then the main ideas of each paragraph. Although most essays asked us to make an argument, we were not taught to consider the relevance or significance of that argument for our audience. In fact, I was never explicitly told to consider an audience for my work (beyond my tutor or lecturer) until I was a Masters student.

This ‘summarise and restate’ version of conclusion stays with many students as they move into postgraduate study, largely because of the dearth of focused writing education and support at postgraduate level; once students are registered for an MA, or PhD especially, we assume they can write effectively in these forms and at these levels. This obviously needs to change if we are going to graduate more successful postgraduate students, and at PhD level graduate more able researchers, writers and future supervisors.

The papers and dissertations we write at postgraduate level – PhD and postdoctoral in particular – have to make a contribution to knowledge in our fields; they have to say something relatively new, interesting and relevant to our audience. But, we can’t just leave it to that audience to work out what that contribution is or why they should care about it. Our papers have to answer the ‘So What?’ question clearly, and effectively. (Actually, all papers have to do this from first year onwards, but this has different implications for a first year student writing for a tutor, and a researcher writing for a wider audience of their professional peers in the field). If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have an argument. The Introduction to the paper is where we posit the argument, and where it fits into this field of ours, but the Conclusion is where we really get into what the argument of the paper is and what contribution it makes to the field – in other words, why it matters and should be engaged with  by readers.

Rather than summarising the restating the thesis and summarising the main ideas of the paper, the conclusion needs to be focused on discussing the point of the argument the paper has been made, and its implications for the area of the field you have located your research within. It needs to pull all the strands of your paper together, which are connected like links in chain, and close the paper off with clarity. If you are, for example, writing about a new form of evaluation of teaching practice, or a new way of creating energy from biomass, your conclusion should explore what meaning or relevance this form of evaluation or method of energy creation potentially has for the field – your audience – and could perhaps make recommendations, or posit areas for further research and development, building on your work.

Useful questions to guide this writing could include:

  • what is the argument my paper has made? Write it down in as couple of clear sentences.
  • on what basis have I made this argument? Briefly pull together the main forms of evidence – from the literature and data – that you have discussed and used to support this argument.
  • why have I made this argument? Briefly summarise the reasons behind your research – the gap in the field you located and are seeking to fill.
  • who would benefit from engaging with this argument, why should they engage with it, how? Talk to your readers here – tell them what the significance of your argument is to the research and/or practice you imagine they are engaged in, and why this research you have done matters to your shared endeavours.
  • do I have any recommendations for further research that builds on this research and what are they? Briefly, indicate how this argument could be furthered through new, or cumulative research.

The main point here is that you are avoiding the ‘restate and summarise’ version of the conclusion, and you are aiming for a clear, concise, pointed answer to the ‘So what?’ question. You need to show your readers why your argument matters, and remind them, without doing a point by point summary, of how and why you made your argument and are engaged in this research. They should be longer than one short, limp paragraph – a decent conclusion is at least 10 of the total word budget for your paper. Read the conclusions of papers in the field in which you work, preferably those by authors who are regarded as successful and knowledgeable. See if you can find the moves they make in their writing to convince you of the relevance of their argument, and replicate these in your own writing, Share your writing with peers and ask them if they can see the same moves in your drafts.

Conclusions are hard work, but strong, clear conclusion will stay with your reader and make your paper both useful and memorable.

On support for PhD and research writing

I have been reading several articles and blog posts recently about research writing, PhD writing, and the need for more focused and well-thought out pedagogies and support for research and doctoral writing (as opposed to what mostly happens, which is ad hoc, often managed by a ‘support unit’ like a writing or learning centre, or non-existent because it is assumed if you are a researcher/postgrad you should already know how to write research papers or dissertations). As a new supervisor, I have been thinking a great deal about how to work writing support and advice into the supervision conversations, rather than just leaving this all to my student to work out for herself or find elsewhere. This post reflects on the kind of work academic writing is, and my initial thoughts on how we need to change the way we approach writing development and support in academia.

As someone who used to manage a university writing centre, and ran many workshops with both postgraduate and undergraduate students, and as a researcher-writer myself, I can attest to the fact that not knowing how to write in a new or specific genre, like a research paper or thesis, is not a mark of failure or even necessarily of inability. Often, even the ‘best’ or brightest students battle to work out how to write, think and read effectively in new and unfamiliar genres, or when they move up to a more demanding level of study that requires a different kind of academic literacy practice. Research suggests that we cannot ‘frontload’ academic literacy support at undergraduate level, and then expect that at every stage after that students will automatically be able to work effectively, and learn what they need to without explicit guidance from their supervisors/lecturers/teachers. As the literacy demands change, so too do a student’s strategies and skill levels need to change and develop, and so the guidance, instruction and advice around writing that they are given needs to keep pace with these changes.

I have read, recently, about the need for more writing courses for doctoral students – optional and compulsory – and the need for more writing spaces on campuses that serve postgraduate students, and the need for a recognition that just because you got accepted into a postgraduate programme, doesn’t mean you will just know how to write effectively at this new level, and in these new forms. So much frustration, disenchantment, anxiety, and harm could be avoided if universities, postgraduate support divisions, and supervisors really realised that being bright and capable does not automatically equate to being an amazingly efficient and polished writer, and that supervision of a postgraduate student ideally needs to encompass explicit conversations about the writing itself, and how it is (or is not) progressing. If the thing that gets a PhD finished is actually writing it, then the management and doing of the writing itself has to be a more central and recognised focus in supervision.

Supervisors need to be supported, as well, as they work more closely with their students around the actual business of writing the thesis, as we can’t assume that all supervisors can simply be writing advisors. We all have our own struggles with writing, whether we are at the beginning of, or more advanced in, our academic careers. Perhaps, as supervisors/advisors who are often held up as ‘capable experts’, we need to be able to confess to our own struggles and writing blocks, and share these as a way of lessening the power divide between supervisor and student, and as a way of opening up conversations all academics could benefit from that expose this truth: writing is (damn) hard work. These conversations, between colleagues, and between students, could help us share strategies, tools, struggles, triumphs and steps forward more openly, and with less fear of being exposed as frauds. Rather than starting from the point of assuming that all postgraduate students and researchers are capable writers, why don’t we start from assuming that writing (especially when it needs to fit into the rest of our busy lives) is actually quite challenging, even if we love doing it, and that everyone at whatever level they are working at, can benefit from support, advice, constructive feedback, and useful resources to draw on?

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If we start from this assumption, we start disrupting the notion that, if you have reached an advanced level of study, like a postgraduate degree or a post-doctoral career, you no longer need help with your writing, and that if you do then maybe you’re in the wrong career. That’s just nonsense. All writers need feedback, and all writers get stuck, and lost and feel like frauds at some point. All postgraduate students and academics can benefit from more open, constructive conversations that recognise that writing an extended piece of academic work like a thesis, or a journal article, is seldom as simple as just shutting up and writing it. When we can not only be kind to ourselves as we seek help, but also offer this kindness and help to others around us, we can start to create higher education spaces for postgraduate students and career academics that make writing a truly collaborative, engaging, creative and less awful and lonely thing to do for a living.