Saturday, July 28, 2012

Workplace relations

When I started this blog at the end of last year, it seemed like it would be a kind of interesting way of a) keeping myself amused, b) testing some new social media, and c) trakking the highs and lows of the transition out of academic work.

One of the big lows, about academic, unemployment and starting new jobs is how relationships with other human beings are played out.

There are all the annoying types you meet in academic circles. These include rude and arrogrant professors, disinterested advisors, whiny colleagues, entitled students, needy students and so on. But usually, you don't have THAT much contact with people in any case, so you can generally avoid the people you don't like. I think that's why working from home becomes the dominant work model for so many people - so they don't have to leave the comfort of the familiar and trusted space of their own intimate environments. Lucky for me, I had an office. I used to shut the door and sit in peace, blissfully ignorant of what was going on outside in the hallway. Crucially too, when I'd had enough of the student emails, I simply switched my email off for most of the day, and only answered emails at certain times. These were both strategies that worked quite effectivley for me, and left me largely untrammeled by the demands of others. When things got to much, after teaching, during the semester, after meetings etc - shut the office door, turn the email off and bury yourself in some obscure reading/writing.

But then when you are unemployed, your perspective shifts once again. In effect, it almost feels like you drop off the face of the earth. It's like you have some kind of contagious disease or something, with few invites to socialise as everyone you know is out doing fun stuff that you can't afford to do. You become increasingly isolated and restricted to the small domestic habits of your immediate environment. It's a very isolating time being unemployed.

Then you start a new job. And if it's a non-academic one, you now have to work out how to be a team player and get along with a whole host of new people and different kinds of personalities. While learning the ropes and surviving your intial period of performance evaluation, you also have to work out who are the mean girls, who is the office bully, who is the organiser and who is the prankster. You can never predict which one of these people will be around at any given time, so you have to be ready to play the appropriate role at a moment's notice. It's exhausting. Throw in the obligatory birthday cakes, leaving dos, team outings and office socials, then that's a whole lot of interacting with people before you've even done any work.

For someone used to shutting the door and turning off their email, this is too much! Perhaps I am just a misanthrope, but I think the hardest part of any new job, especially if it's in a different industry to the one that you're used to, is the socialisation stuff. Who am I now that I can't retreat behind the door? Am I in fact the office wierdo because I don't want to go out all the time and would rather read a book at lunch time? Am I the office grouch when I am heard to express a critical opinion about, say, any current affairs kind of issue? Can I extricate myself from the endless obligations that seem to happen while still being "a team player"? The dilemmas of office life!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"It must have been love - but it's over now..."

I know you all love a bit of Roxette :)

Just the other day it hit me. With stunning certainty and clarity. My academic career is over. OVER. O-V-E-R. Over.

And I think I am ok with that. I mean, sure, it's hard to take that all those years I spent slogging away in pursuit of such a defined goal have amounted to, well, not getting what I wanted, but, at the end of the day, I will get over it.

For quite a while after the initial euphoria of actually getting a job wore off slightly, I started doubting whether I was really doing the right thing and was wondering whether it was worth hanging on to the academic life a little longer. I was toying with the idea of continuing to do what I have been doing "in my spare time". And then one day, I was sitting down at the laptop and realised "WTF am I doing? It's a beautiful sunny day outside and I am telling myself I should be looking up unbelievably dull journal articles in order to force myself to write another dull journal article that only five people will read." So I stopped. And went for a walk instead. Which was a far more enjoyable activity than writing journal articles I must say.

I think I can get used to this life.

Since then I have been thinking about failure and what it means and how we cope with it. Of course, a week out from the Olympics, there are going to be a lot of tales of triumph and failures coming up shortly. But think about it - athletes go through the same thing at the end of their careers. The difference is though, that athletes know they only have a short time to shine and have to make the most of their physical ability while they can. This is not something ever mentioned in academic circles of course. Anyway, my point is that making that call, about when to retire, when you no longer love the sport, you've lost the passion or your body can't take it anymore, are all the decisions that an elite athlete is faced with.

If elite athletes can cope, then I am sure someome with a PhD can. We've had just as much training and have similar levels of comittment, so there's no reason why we can't find that requisite ability to redeploy when necessary. I know that for a lot of former athletes there isn't much glory to be had post-career, but perhaps that's also something that can be different when your "sport" is academia and it's not so much physical strength/ability/prowess/talent etc as mental capacity that's been finely tuned.

Anyway, I will be watching the Olympics and wondering about the "also rans". For me, their the stories that are more inspiring than winning medals.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Workplace cultures and work/life balance

When is the myth that being a workaholic is a good thing going to die the death that it deserves?

As we all know, this idea that you should be working 24/7 is rife in academia, and with increasing competitiveness for increasingly scarce jobs, it is getting so bad that University's have started offering unpaid research positions (as Dr Piglet and JC have blogged about recently). University of lies reminiscence about advice for PhD students also draws attention to this myth of long-hours = productivity. Implicit in this argument too is the idea that without working long hours your career will fail.

Well guess what? That's an outright, baldfaced lie. A significant amount of workplace productivity studies demonstrate clear and decisive links to work-life balance and increased productivity emerging from worker less, not more. Not to mention the fact that studies in driving, flying, doctoring (the medical kind, not the research kind) and so on have demonstrated clear safety risks from working longer hours. In fact, just this evening on the local news there was a bulletin about how it has been established that working long hours is equivalent to drinking in terms of skills affected.

So, if you're a workaholic you're no better than being a drunk it seems.

AND: labour studies have always demonstrated clear links between long work hours and higher rates of stress-related illness, physical and mental, that obviously affect productivity. This lost productivity costs in the order of billions annually.

So you're not just drunk, but you're the worst kind of drunk, a maudlin drunk. If you're even at work in the first place.


Given all this research, and government, union and coporate rhetoric around worklife balance - why are we STILL subjected to the kind of machismo crap that working long hours is something to be proud of?

Do you want your colleagues to think you're a dull, whiny, drunk???

[Disclaimer: I am highly sympathetic to anyone struggling with mental health issues - a serious mental health issue created by overwork and overstress is no laughing matter]

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Anatomy of a career gone wrong

Reading some links from Dr. Piglets blog, I now realise that the reason I haven't got an academic job is that I did exactly all of the wrong things! So silly in hindsight. It's a pity I can't go back and fix it.

First - I stayed at my home institution for my PhD. I was suckered into it by an advisor who I was too naiive to realise was firmly in recruitment mode for the higher ed money machine.

Second - I picked an obscure and interdisciplinary area of research. Instead of picking something sensible and unambitious in scope, I thought I was there to make an original contribution to knowledge.

Third - I lacked the professional ambition to promote myself via every available outlet. I was, in fact, too busy thinking and reading and writing my thesis to worry exessively about conferences and publishing.

Fourth - I was blissfully ignorant of the need to build networks. Stupidly, I hung out with people I liked, regardless of their ability to influence my career.

Fifth - I was largely clueless about the enormous necessity to secure grant income. I was several years down the track before I realised that without grant income, I was going nowhere.

Sixth - I rather stupidly relied on the idea that the academics who taught me must have known what they were doing. It took me a long time to access some teacher training that ultimately made a significant difference to my emjoyment of teaching.

Seventh - I made some questionable personal choices about how I would negotiate my career opportunities. I would, however, probably make the same mistakes again.
Eighth - I let myself be blinded by the cultish aura of academia. In short, I focused too narrowly on my obscure research area and didn't allow myself to be open to ideas from elsewhere.

Ninth - My teaching has been in programs that have been axed, rather than boosted.

I am not that remorseful about what I did or didn't do - after all, I am a forward-looking person who can only work with what is to come rather than worrying about all the mistakes I made. But it is useful to reflect on what I did do, versus what other's might have done and think about how complicit I might have been in the unmaking of my academic career. While there are a lot of systemic issues around too many graduates and not enough jobs, I think that if some people get jobs, but others don't, then it is a little bit too convenient to blame 'the system' for all the damage done. In short, although I have a good track record and am pleasant to work with, there has to be something that distinguishes me from the other candidates who have gotten academic jobs.

That is not to say that it's eniterly my fault either. As has been mentioned plenty of times on different post-academic blogs, it is far too easy and too convenient for our former academic colleagues and/or advisors to say we weren't committed enough, we weren't dedicated enough, we didn't try hard enough, etc etc. But if I have a good track record and plenty of evidence that I am actually ok at what I do, and that I have tried hard and so on: how is it my fault that I don't have a job?

So somewhere between blaming the system and blaming myself, there has to be a more nuanced explanation of the experience that has led me to this point. And yes, it's ultimately a combination of systemic issues and personal faults, some of which may have been avoidable and some which couldn't have been. However, lacking a crystal ball to tell me what was going to be important, and without many structural remedies offered at different times, I blundered along as best as I could.

Now wonder it's often said that "hindight is 20-20".

Anyone interested in a scathing critique of Australian academic life should read Richard Hil's (2012) Whackademia. UNSW Press. It's got a lot of inside info about Australian universities that may not translate that well to an overseas audience, but it certainly highlights all those systemic problems for people still working in academia. And makes me feel more like I have dodged a bullet than missed out.