Work-life balance and academic parents

I haven’t written here for a while because I’ve been busy hanging out with my new baby. I’ve also been busy thinking about how we still haven’t achieved a normalised work culture that truly supports parents/carers to build a career around their family. I’m writing from my perspective as a woman and a mother, but most of these points also apply to other parents and carers.

It’s well-documented that academia has entrenched problems with gender diversity at senior levels, partly because of women leaving/being forced out of academic careers due to their choices around having children. A lot has been done to address this, but there’s still a lot more to do.

We need systemic change, not piecemeal initiatives and more cupcakes. We need to normalise ‘having a family/life priorities’ at work. Instead of trying to help parents to maintain pre-baby levels of work productivity, academic work expectations have to change long-term to enable parents to truly find some work-life balance.

Forcing women to choose between relying on childcare to continue working vs. quitting work to care for their child is not equitable.

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Academic stereotypes: where are the positive stories?

I watched The Chair and did not like it. Sure, there were some good moments and important themes, but overall, I found it cliched and frustrating to sit through. North American academic stereotypes and norms already dominate global discourse on academia, even though they don’t always reflect the reality in other parts of the world.  

I was excited when I heard about the show. Academia narratives are rarely portrayed on TV, which I think is a missed opportunity to familiarise general audiences with a sector that is so often misunderstood. But it was just another version of the same clichés – university faculties are backward and stagnant, most academics are nasty, stupid, out of touch, or inappropriate, and social and cultural progress is just not possible in academia.

Imagine a different show reflecting the positive lived experiences of academics around the world, stories showing university departments can be progressive and supportive workplaces. Places where inspiring academics like Professor Kim and Dr McKay succeed in throwing out old stagnant systems and galvanise the next generation of citizens, thinkers, and leaders.

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Reviewer 4, 5 and 6? New reviewers on already revised papers

A fairly typical peer review process goes like this*. Author submits their paper to a journal. If it’s suitable to send to review, the handling editor sources a minimum of 2 or 3 relevant independent experts to review the paper. Very few papers are suitable for publication at first submission, so their review comments are returned to the author for consideration. Author revises the paper in response to the comments and resubmits the revised version. If the revisions are very minor and the response appropriate, the editor might make a decision immediately. Otherwise, this revised version is sent back to the original reviewers, who assess whether the authors have addressed the original comments appropriately and potentially pick up any new issues. The editor then makes the decision whether to accept (or reject) the paper or continue with further revisions.

This process can obviously take many months, but is fairly straightforward when it all goes smoothly.

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Boycotting peer review is just a kind of gatekeeping

The ‘boycott peer review’ hot takes are reappearing on social media. Long-time readers of my blog may remember my post on why I think boycotting peer review is unreasonable, written the last time this hot take was doing the rounds. In that post I mostly focused on the impacts on the system and the editors, which are important reasons not to boycott peer review.

But refusing to review papers also impacts the authors. This is obvious and should not have to be said, but it seems that it is often forgotten when academics shake their fists at Big Publishing.

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Academic blogs: knowing where your work ends up

This week, a syndicated article appeared across a number of online media platforms under various different headlines. It covers the doomsday insect apocalypse narrative and appears to cast doubt on the issue of insect decline, largely blaming media and ‘activists’ for promoting the hype. The author links to my blog posts on the insect apocalypse, my BioScience paper co-authored with Jasmine Janes & James O’Hanlon, and my American Scientist article as evidence against the hype, and some sections paraphrase or directly quote from my work. To the average reader, it could appear that I have talked to the author, and that I endorse the article. I did not, I do not, and I was not aware the article was being written.

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The teaching-research ‘balance’ as an ECR

I’m almost at the end of the tunnel that was teaching this trimester*. It’s not my first time teaching or coordinating. I started this position last year, and I’ve had a few casual contracts before at different unis.

But I found this trimester particularly hard, mostly because of the amount of new content I had to create. This was largely due to a very outdated set of inherited lectures in one unit and a new set of topics allocated to me in the other unit.

I am utterly exhausted. I have had very little time to think about research, do research, write blogs, relax, sew, play my guitar, or do anything non-work-related since February (except for a few days of being unwell!).

This blog is not to whinge. I love my job, I love teaching and I really love the units I teach.

I am not the only academic to experience teaching fatigue. But it is unsustainable and new staff members, particularly early career researchers, seem to suffer this most. Yet it’s a ‘too hard basket’ problem that most academics don’t know what to do about.

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Let’s talk about standards for scholarly opinion articles

I’ve written a lot of posts here about how frustrating it is to try and publish conceptual or expert opinion-style articles in peer reviewed journals. Most journals have very few standards for this article category, and peer reviewers often don’t seem to have the guidance to know how to review them fairly.

Note, I’m not talking about popular media opinion pieces in the general definition.

I’m talking about the peer reviewed articles that many journals publish in various ‘non-data’ categories, depending on the journal, often called e.g. Opinion, Perspective, Forum, Viewpoint, Essay etc. They are a separate category to standard research data papers or formal literature reviews. The journals that publish these articles generally only provide vague instructions, which may contribute to the confusion over how to review them.

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Applying for a PhD: worth it, why, and how

Last year I wrote about how Academia isn’t all bad, and a PhD is definitely worth it. PhDs are definitely a degree worth having, but how do you know if it’s a degree worth applying for?

This post is a bit more about how to actually apply for a PhD and what it involves, once you’ve decided you might be interested. Most academic structures and processes are unfortunately still influenced by a privileged history based on personal connections. How to find and enrol in a PhD can be a mystery to most prospective candidates interested in further training in the research side of science. Don’t be put off…

As a first-gen academic, I didn’t even know what a PhD was (or that it was a career pathway) when I started my environmental science degree. It wasn’t until I graduated from my undergraduate degree and worked for a year that I realised I really missed the investigative part of science. I didn’t really know what to do about this, so I got back in touch with one of my favourite lecturers to find out my options, and she encouraged me to pursue a PhD. After a few applications and false starts (on available but unsuitable projects), I found a primary supervisor and project that aligned with my interests and goals, at a university I didn’t know much about, in a town I’d never been to.

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Admin: drowning, not waving

I worked in admin before my science career, in many roles, in many sectors. I’ve worked as a corporate receptionist, oversaw corporate communications, worked in document control for engineering consultancies, and managed content translation requests for university students with learning disabilities. I’ve been co-managing an unfunded citizen science project for more than six years.

So I’m no stranger to admin and I have no grudge against admin professionals – they are essential!

But, in some cases, the admin sagas that academics are forced to star in are a bit much.

Universities hire admin staff. Even within our own departments, academics generally have access to department-specific admin, finance and technical professionals. So why is so much of an academic’s time taken up with enforced admin, when it’s not technically part of their job description, and they’re not trained to deliver the desired admin outcomes?

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