I guess being brought up in a family where education was highly valued, and now working in a University, it is probably not surprising that the start of the new academic year always feels more significant to me than the change in digits in January. As a child, early September was always a time of excitement (and occasionally a little anxiety), returning to school with new uniform, new shoes and a new pencil case. Most of my social activities also depended on it being a school term – the bands, orchestras and choirs only rehearsed in school weeks. As a University student, the start of the new year heralded an early start, a long drive up the M6 to Manchester (which always included Dad waking me up at Keele services and piloting me around to get a full English breakfast), and new lectures and friendships to build. Only once have I been less than eager to start a new academic year. When I began my PhD here at Reading 20 years ago this week (ouch), I moved from a house-share with good friends to a concrete tower block with 17 rooms sharing one kitchen and one large institutional bathroom on each floor. I actually cried. Dad quite rightly told me not to be silly – I was 21 – he was probably grateful for the shorter drive! Sure enough, although that accommodation was not great (and is now no longer in use), I made friends and had a good time. And as for Reading… well I’m still here 🙂
Of course, since I am not a student anymore, the long summer vacations are no longer. As I continue to struggle to explain to my grandparents, my in-laws and some of the school-gate parents, just because there are no undergraduates does not mean we are “on holiday”. It is true that there is one less type of task or interruption and campus takes on a more relaxed vibe, but our MSc students work on their dissertations from April to August and we are still supervising research students and staff. In our research intensive department, are still grant deadlines to meet and increasing numbers of meetings and conferences to attend or even organise. Undergraduates have resit exams in late August, and the first two weeks of September are spent marking MSc dissertations and exam papers. There is usually around one week between the past years MSc cohort leaving and the new one arriving. Many of my colleagues have commented that this year “it hasn’t stopped”, and it does seem that periods of respite from multiple demands on our time are becoming shorter. As a result it is harder than ever to find precious unbroken periods of a couple of hours to immerse oneself in the latest research or a tricky programming challenge.
This year I am seeing the New Year in wearing my dual hats of Mum and Professor. I took my eldest son shopping for new school shoes and was unable to resist buying myself a new notebook and pen for old times sake. Today is the first day of the new University term and campus is buzzing with lost but eager students. I still get “butterflies” of anticipation, these days more for their sake than mine. Whilst I like the more relaxed feel of campus in the holidays, by the end of the summer, it feels good to see the campus full with the people for whom we exist again. I look forward to meeting them and learning new things from them.
Traditionally of course, people make resolutions at New Year. So, here are mine:
1. I will accept that I cannot miraculously conjure up time and therefore will use my time more wisely by delegating some tasks, prioritising using the “important” vs “urgent” framework and blocking out one morning a week for research, and earmark specific time periods for completing all the little admin jobs that I would otherwise allow myself to procrastinate over
2. I will say “no” to any more “opportunities” before February 2014 since my diary is full enough. I will monitor the build up of meetings after that time and stop accepting invitations when I start to feel panicky when looking at my diary
3. I will keep better notes from meetings with students and postdocs.
4. I will have lunch or coffee in the main Met building once per week, and make time for lunch with my closest colleagues in Lyle once per week.
5. I will focus on activities central to my core mission, understanding the world around us, empowering others, and communicating science and my science-life
All the best for 2013-14!