On Not “moving on”

longserviceOn Monday I received recognition of 21 years service as an employee of the University of Reading (I’ve actually been here for 24 years but 3 as a PhD student don’t count!). In that time I have gone from postdoc to Professor, held many teaching and learning administrative roles, been Head of Department of Meteorology and moved into a University wide leadership role. I get invitations to speak at international meetings, to review funding proposals and appointments from across the globe. I have published a reasonable number of papers and won a considerable amount of funding. PhD students have graduated and gone on to roles in other research organisations and BEIS. I am President of the Royal Meteorological Society. I don’t feel that I have done anything particularly amazing other than working averagely smartly and being pro-active in terms of my own career development.

But, there are a significant number of my colleagues both near and far who think this career path should have been impossible. Here you might expect me to mention being female and working part-time for the past 10 years. And I will – because these are definitely viewed as “unusual identities” for successful academics in at least some places. But these are not in fact the main reason that some colleagues might think thatshocked emoji I should not be where I am today. It is instead exactly what was recognised by the University this week. I HAVE NOT MOVED INSTITUTION.

 

Recently I have noticed an increasing prevalence of expression of the belief that it is a requirement to move institution in order to demonstrate independence as a researcher, a necessary step in gaining an academic position. Perhaps this has always been one pervasively held view, indeed I have been told this on occasion regarding myself (fortunately not by the wonderfully open-minded people who hired me and kept me here). In some countries this is enshrined in the career path system, so determined are they that external perspectives need to be gathered in this way. What is upsetting is that I am increasingly seeing this feedback given to really strong Early Career Researchers as they apply for independent research fellowships from a variety of funding sources. Even though some of the funding agencies in my area state to reviewers that applicants should not be penalised for not moving around, I have seen paragraphs of feedback doing exactly this given to applicants, regardless of any recognition that the chosen institution is one of the best places for the science that needs to be done. I understand that applicants should be expected to justify the choice of institution to which they are applying. I don’t have a problem with reviewers giving feedback on whether the choice of institution makes sense on science grounds. But I DO have a problem with the assumption that unless you have moved around, you cannot be a bona-fide independent academic. From another perspective, as a Head of Department it can be incredibly frustrating to have valued team members who want to stay but you struggle to keep because of these quite pervasive opinions.

I did not stay at Reading for any “personal” reasons, at least not for the first 11 years of my career here. I stayed at Reading because it is one of the best places in the world to do meteorological research. End of. Yes, I can appreciate the value of different perspectives and experiences that might be brought by working in different institutions. However, this can be gained by different means – for examples visiting other institutions, building collaborations with overseas teams. Additionally, moving has quite a large overhead in terms of setting up a new group and integrating into a new environment both at work and at home – I have mentored and coached several people through these transitions both here and elsewhere. It is common for there to be a gap in publications following such a move due to these overheads, and this has to be balanced against the “independence” shown by moving your life around. The positive productivity benefit of knowing the environment and having a support network in place seems to be less appreciated.

Of course I am biased since I have not moved around. Others will be biased towards demanding that postdocs move around because they have moved around – I guess to them folks like me are the exception that prove the rule! Ultimately, if people want to move around or feel that they need to do so to achieve what they want to achieve then great. However, I’d like to end with a couple of requests.

Firstly, to funding awarders – if a review comes back full of statements about whether the applicant has moved around or not that are not directly related to whether the science can be done in the chosen location, please disregard this, and think about whether it should be passed on to the applicant. The reviewers are, after all, at least where explicitly told not to penalise for this, giving the impression that they are ignoring your instructions. This damages your reputations as inclusive organisations. Appearing to take into account demands that applicants move could in fact be discriminating against certain communities whose equal opportunities are protected under the UK Equality Act 2010.

Secondly, to fellowship application reviewers. Please put to one side those limiting beliefs that we all hold, and judge the applications on the science and on the capacity of the applicant to do science in the chosen location, not whether the applicant has moved around. There may be many reasons why people haven’t moved around, including caring responsibilities, financial constraints, disability or mental health issues. People may not wish to declare these.

Or it could just be, as it was for early-career me, that they are already in the best place to do the science that needs to be done.

With a huge thanks to those who have made it a wonderfully challenging yet productive and happy 21 years at Reading.

party popper

Deadlines

Deadlines – often a necessary step to move things forward, but we need to talk about unnecessarily short windows of opportunities over traditional holiday and family times, and deadlines that implicitly encourage working through weekends. Of course there are some unavoidable short deadlines or deadlines constrained to a particular date, but here I refer to those deadlines where these is no particular time critical aspect. Short windows over traditional holiday times, particularly discriminate against those with caring responsibilities, especially those with school age children who are forced to take holiday actually LOOKING AFTER children during the school holidays. Whilst by no means exclusively affecting women, this may particularly discriminate against women, and against staff in certain age groups. Deadlines that seemingly encourage working over weekends or outside normal working hours are potentially more broadly damaging at a time when mental ill health is on the increase amongst University staff.

Some examples of, in my opinion, poor practice, include:

  1. an internal deadline for research proposals on the day that University and Schools return after Christmas. Whilst I know that these are set themselves relative to research council deadlines, in reality it means one of two things. Either you plan to get it done before the Christmas break (our University shuts down entirely between Christmas and New Year, and obviously some of us need to look after children during the School holidays even if that were not the case), or, you will be working over the Christmas break, squeezing in writing and editing around family or other commitments, and missing out on a chance for even the shortest of breaks. Some people will say the former is impossible due to teaching commitments. If your proposal involves multiple collaborators the latter becomes way more likely. There is of course a 3rd option, to decide not to apply, but this is a bold move given pressure to bring in funding.
  2. A similar internal deadline for internal promotion cases – given the relative under-representation of women in the professoriate, it is unfortunate that I know of several women for whom Christmas family responsibilities preclude working on promotion cases. There are doubtless men for whom this is also true, but I have not heard them speak about it explicitly.
  3. A research Council deadline for funding applications with the online application system only open for two weeks at the end of August. Despite notice being given, this short period of accessibility to the submission system discriminates against those forced to take holiday in the school holidays – the proximity to the bank holiday also makes this a popular holiday choice for many others. Holidays are often arranged a long time in advance and cannot be rearranged easily.
  4. A research council deadline for applicants to respond to the reviewers’ comments on their proposal, originally timetabled for the whole of August but subsequently narrowed to one week at the end including the bank holiday – similar problems to the preceding example – and interesting justified on the basis of needing to give the final panel at least two weekends to look at the papers (possible multiple problems here – but at least there is presumably a week in between the weekends!)
  5. Papers appearing at 4 pm for a 9.30 am meeting the following day OR at 4 pm on a Friday for a 9.30 am meeting on the immediately following Monday morning is also fairly unacceptable since it likely requires people to work in the evening or over the weekend or attend the meeting unprepared – a waste of time for everyone. For me working part-time, finishing at 3 on Fridays to do the school run – it guarantees I will not read them and therefore will not be able to contribute effectively to the meeting. Not exactly inclusive practice to enable diverse voices to be heard.

I am delighted to report that once attention was drawn to occurrence 4 above, positive changes were made. An email from one of the applicants resulted in an extension of the response period back towards the original plan, with reviewers’ comments being delivered as soon as they were received. In the case of 3, a solution is also under discussion. This willingness to reflect and react when the potential problems are pointed out is admirable and should be recognised. However, consider how much better it would be if organisations looked at their deadline setting through an inclusive lens from the get go.

Of course, no deadline will ever please everyone. But, there are perhaps some more obvious things to avoid:

  • Short windows of opportunity in August (admittedly England-centric view)
  • Deadlines immediately following significant national holiday periods
  • Deadlines on Mondays

If deadlines are justified on the basis of timescales need to complete process, then either lengthen or shift the entire process, or perhaps preferably, consider whether you can simplify and reduce the process or paperwork to speed things up.

And if you want me to contribute in an informed way to a meeting, I need papers at least 2 working days in advance!

 

 

 

Working year: 2015

2015 was a year of big change for me. I stepped down as Head of Department of Meteorology, and took on the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion (role shared with my former Head of School, Prof. Simon Chandler-Wilde), thereby moving away a little from atmospheric research and more towards University leadership. Perhaps appropriately therefore, my year of work has been in itself diverse. Here are some images that capture the general idea.

  1. My changing career

2. Life on campus as a Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

3. And life off campus getting out and about….

4. Some light reading…

5. Teaching my favorite module – Arran field course

6. Research trip to China – first visit there, and first long haul travelling in 9 years!

7. Traditional end of year Christmas Carols in Meteorology

2015-12-11 13.05.40

I wonder what 2016 will look like?

Breadth vs depth

I am feeling envious. Envious of those researchers, or research leaders, who have found a particular niche area, and who are able to spend the majority of their time there. I am at a project meeting for one of the 4 projects I am involved in at the moment. It so happens that the work my group does at the moment concerns 3 distinct geographical regions: the Sahara, the Brazilian rainforest and the South Asian monsoon. In each case, my interest is in the role that aerosol could play in driving regional weather and climate, but in each case the background is very different. On days like today, I am having to catch up with the basics of biomass burning and all the previous literature before I am even on the same page as those who are working more continuously on one area.

It ultimately comes down to the old breadth versus depth argument. Ever since I started winning research funds I have always had quite a few different strands of research on the go at any one time. This is interesting and exciting, but can be exhausting to keep up with. At one point I had people or myself working on 7 different topics. I felt like I was constantly behind on all fronts, although all projects were interesting. In the end, I breathed a sigh of relief when one or two of the projects ended. For me, breadth has worked so far, but at moments of low self-confidence I sometimes wonder whether the broad approach that I sort of fell into (possibly related to inability to say no?) was the right decision.

Breadth versus depth is an age-old discussion at all levels of education, in all fields. To me it seems necessary to have some degree of flexibility in terms of research area since the very process of doing research opens up new questions, and more pragmatically, sometimes funding is easier to come by in some areas than others.  Again, opinions amongst colleagues are divided between those who “chase” funding, and those who stick to a narrow area even if it means research grants are hard to come by (not all institutions will be totally happy about this given the way research funding is used as a metric). Most of us are somewhere in between. This variation regarding the importance of breadth vs depth has unfortunately reared its heard in discussions of potential academic hires –  in one case that I was witness to a long time ago, the breadth appeared to be valued differently depending on whether the candidate was male or female – in the case of the male, breadth was viewed as positive and creative – in the case of the female it was discussed as “lack of focus” etc. Not our finest hour…

It’s a question that I get asked by postdocs and more junior academics very frequently, not just in terms of research area, but also the balance between research, teaching experience and other academic activities. It’s also something that varies between graduate programmes in different countries , as discussed in this article by Robert A. Segal for Times Higher Education. My usual response is to say that it varies and point to examples from within our department of those who are incredibly narrowly focused, and those with a broader portfolio. There is success in both cases (but then everyone’s definition of success is different too!).

When I was a junior lecturer, my line manager at the time Prof Alan Thorpe, now Director of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, asked me to draw a map linking my various current research projects together and to identify 2 to 3 common science questions or themes. Then, each time a new opportunity presented itself, I was to use this to consider whether it was either central to one of my themes, or developing a new theme that I had in mind to expand at the expense of something else. At the time it was useful in clarifying that there were some universal themes across all 7 projects. For a few years it was helpful in giving me a reason to say “no” to some requests. I periodically review and revise this map of my strategy and still find it a useful process. I don’t think its giving too much away to show the version as at 2012 with the projects that were running then. I still have lots of things going on, but can see that at that point there was more emphasis on modelling than work with observations – perhaps a reflection of being a parent and not wanting to go away on fieldwork quite so much. Looking back at earlier versions its interesting to see how some things have evolved (the balance of modelling vs fieldwork whilst other aspects have remained more constant (the use of idealised experiments to understand processes). I wonder what future versions will look like?

strategy_2012

 

How (not) to manage my time.

Time management has been a long term challenge for me. I am a classic multi-tasker, love “to do” lists but can procrastinate for England. The challenge increased when I took on the Head of Department role, as the number of meetings and “interruptions” multiplied. Last year I found it really hard to carve out any lengthy period of time in order to focus on any one task. So in October, I resolved to try some time management techniques (again) to see what I could achieve. The basic plan was to ring-fence two 3 hour periods each week, protecting them from meetings and telling my PA that only in exceptional circumstances was I available. I originally had the idea that these would be designated “research time” and I would actually get some hands-on analysis or coding time. The reality is that although many parts of my role have benefited from a focussed period, e.g. designing the work-load model, reviewing a paper, planning a lecture, preparing a proposal or writing a blog, hands-on analysis time is still lacking. But there are many ways to “do” research, and in reality there are plenty of people better at the hands-on stuff than me these days. Last term this seemed to work fairly well. Most weeks I managed to keep at least one of these periods free and spend a blissful 3 hours immersed in one of my “important, not urgent” tasks.

Last week however, this aim led to a spectacular own goal. The flip-side of ring-fencing time is that the myriad of meetings ends up crammed into the remaining days. For some years I’ve tried to put all my research meetings on one morning or afternoon. I still like to touch base with all my postdocs and PhD students weekly whenever I can so when I succeed in lining them up, it can mean 4 or 5 hours of successive meetings on related but quite different topics. Although I am usually tired at the end of them, it is exhilarating to be thinking about so many interesting questions, and I get to talk to lots of enthusiastic people (most of the time). Last week however, I thought I was being “efficient” in lining up 5 hours plus of administration related meetings back-to-back on both Thursday and Friday. On Thursday I went from Head of Department meeting to budget meeting to staff meeting to Royal Meteorological Society committee meeting. On Friday it was 2 research meetings, a staff review and the school steering committee. As a result, by Friday night it felt like all I had done for two days was collect action items, and no space between meetings meant I couldn’t tackle even the smallest of these. I went home feeling panicky and dissatisfied about the working week and woke at 5 am stressing about my work “to-do” list – something that usually only happens in the 3 weeks leading to a field campaign.

Reflecting on this from a little distance I can now see my mistake. Whilst back to back research meetings work on the whole, back to back admin meetings don’t. Firstly, with the best will in the world, I don’t tend to pick up any concrete action items from meetings with my postdocs and PhD students (wise on their part). It is entirely appropriate that I pick up actions from the leadership and administrative meetings that I had at the end of last week. But I was surprised how quickly the list became lengthy and how overwhelming it felt to have no opportunity to do anything about them. Secondly, my research supervision meetings tend to take place in my own office or at least nearby. The admin meetings of last week took place in other buildings and rooms, with no escape to my pictures and my coffee mug. So, although I continue to ring-fence “no-interruptions” time, and would recommend this, I also have to be vigilant that by doing so I am not storing up trouble and stress for the rest of the week. Some weeks, it may just have to not happen. Finally, if I do have to stack up these meetings, it might be better to stack them at the start of the week so that the weekend isn’t destroyed by worrying.

It’s probably also a good idea to end this reflection by identifying the time management successes. I find the Important/Urgent matrix (See an explanation here ) very useful, although invariably end up with too much in the “important AND urgent box”, and find it hard to put time in on the  “important but not urgent” tasks. I also find that turning off my email for most of the day (or even just minimising the window) limits distractions, and I no longer have my twitter account open on my desktop. If I want to spend time brainstorming about something, then moving to one of the campus cafes is the best way to do it. It frees me from the feeling that I should be ticking off things on the urgent list, and the buzz of being surrounded by students somehow both grounds and energises me.

Right, so, it’s Thursday again. It took me until last night to get back to grips with everything from the end of last week. So what does today look like? Hmm… perhaps next week will be different.

Happy New Year!

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!

Arran 2013 Part 1: Why I like teaching on fieldcourses

This week I have left the family and the office behind to teach on the joint Leeds and Reading Atmospheric Science field-course on the Isle of Arran. This course has been developed jointly over the past few years and has come to be one of the highlights of their degree for many of our students. This is my 5th year as a module co-convenor, and despite the organisational and logistical stress, and being away from my family, it is one of my favourite teaching activities. Here are the reasons why:

Total Weather Immersion: These days, I get all too little time to really get “into” the weather during office hours. On Arran, we are governed to a large extent the evolving weather situation. The main issue is scheduling the walk up the 875m high Goat Fell. Whilst we don’t wait for blue skies and sunshine, it would not be sensible to go up on days with high wind and torrential rain, so for the first few days we have to keep a very close eye on the forecast.  In 2011 we just about made it up there before we were all confined to the classroom during the passage of Hurricane Katia. The students take a range of measurements on the walk and at the field-centre, probing the local boundary layer and linking local observations to forecasts and balloon launches. A key educational benefit of this course is the opportunity to integrate knowledge and skills from the previous 2 years of work. Although I have email access and will clear the inbox daily, there is little time, energy or inclination to do anything else resulting from my role as Head of Department .

Prolonged contact with students: We take a maximum  of about 30 students drawn from the final year  of BSc and MMet Meteorology degrees at Reading, and the final year of BSC Meteorology, BSc Environmental Science and BSc Climate and Atmospheric Science from Leeds. These are split into small groups of 4 or 5. This year we have 5 teaching staff as well as 2 technical staff, so there’s a really good staff:student ratio. We (and the students) work 7.30am to 9.30pm for 6 days solid, and it is fascinating to watch how the groups and individuals develop over that time. To have the time to sit down and really explain a bit of theory, get the students to draw out the key results and see them have a “discovery” or “realisation” moment is a rare treat in our (and their) busy learning journeys. I *think* the students appreciate this too.

Teaching collaboration: My involvement with this course, came about largely because the current Leeds convenor @JimMcQuaid and I were on a research detachment with the FAAM aircraft in Treviso in August 2004. I routinely collaborate with colleagues at many institutions on research projects, but collaborations in teaching activities, particularly those that contribute assessment towards undergraduate degree courses are much rarer. There is much we learn from each other, not just concerning our subject, but also teaching and communication skills, assessment ideas and feedback methods. I really value this time to reconnect with my teaching skills.

Simplified work-life integration: As well as the total immersion in the weather compared to other “work activities”, Arran is undoubtedly a chance to immerse myself in work compared to the rest of my life. I cannot deny that this is in part at least pleasurable. I feel very guilty leaving my young family for an extended period of time, and my 3 year old at least will take a while to forgive me, but it is a pleasant break from the constant plate spinning and transitioning. Any down time can be spent writing proposals or blogs or reading papers and manuscripts without feeling guilty that I’m not doing “domestic management” tasks. I am fortunate indeed that my support network at home accepts and understands this part of my job.

Expect some more field course related blogs in the next few days…