Fitting in…or not…

This has been something that I’ve thought about quite a bit actually, but a tweet-storm by @hormiga (see below) made me realise that maybe I should put my thoughts out there. This is gonna be a bit of a personal post, but I think it’s relevant, and hopefully helps someone else that might feel the same.

As the title suggests, I’ve always felt like I don’t really “fit in” to any specific group. I was born in Belgium, to Belgian parents, but when I was 5 we moved to Northern Colorado. I didn’t speak a word of English, but as a 5 year old, you learn very quickly, especially if immersed in the new language. My family has a rather long history of baking, and that’s also what my parents did. Nobody else at school had self employed parents. Most other kids didn’t speak another language at home. Some people had never left the state. I had to leave the country every few years just to be allowed to stay (yay visas). Almost all my classmates lived close to their extended family. I (still) hardly know my cousins. Basically, I was different. I knew it. But it didn’t stop me from making friends or doing well in school. But I was still different.

Then, when I was 13, we moved to New Zealand. Almost everything changed. A few things didn’t. Dad was still baking and Mum was still involved in hospitality too. Everyone spoke English. But it wasn’t the same English. And of course, my English was weird and funny. So, there I was again being different at school. Yeah, I still made friends and did well, but I was still different.

Since then, I’ve met other people who’s parents moved around a lot when they were growing up, and some of my closest friends are other “Third Culture Kids“. But I’m still different. And now, I realise that so many of my “otherness” feelings regarding academia are especially close to how I feel about other “TCKs”. They grew up with money. I didn’t. Their parents weren’t necessarily rich, but they probably were never bankrupt either. When you grow up with just barely enough to get buy, having a comfortable salary is such a revelation, even if it’s “just” a PhD students’ salary.  I still feel this difference almost every day. To a certain degree, I’m supposed to fund parts of PhD-related things myself. They may not be essential, but I’ll do a whole lot better with them. But, I can’t just ask my parents to help me out. They’re doing fine, but they’re running a business (lemonade, not baking anymore) so there’s never any extra. So, it might just seem like a small thing to you, but money can be a really big matter to first-generation college students. No matter what, I’m still different.

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Silly Blog Challenge – Rescue Me

I’ve been challenged by Ian Street to pick five characters from TV series or Movies I’ve seen lately that I would want to come to my rescue in a terrible situation.

  1. Patrick Jane (The Mentalist)
  2. Claire Underwood (House of Cards)
  3. Jake Peralta (or actually anyone from Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
  4. Asher Millstone (HTGAWM)
  5. Mark Watney (The Martian)

I will tag @HereBeNabila, @RheeMor, @inkyspider, @LDrogosPHD, and @NickWan

We’re lucky to do this job, but…

 

A recent article in The Guardian brings up a good point with regards to acknowledging how lucky we are to work in academia, however many of the finer points in the article actually perpetuate many of the harmless attitudes that make up the culture of academia. Accepting harmful behaviour does perpetuate it, and if one does not speak out against it, one is, by default, supporting it. I will break down what I mean below. Keep in mind, I am not criticising the general sentiment of the article, or attacking the (anonymous) author, purely adding to the discussion surrounding academic work-place culture.

“As a tribe, we academics enjoy complaining. There’s too much teaching, too many committees, not enough funding. The reviewers are too mean, the houses too expensive, the wages too low. But I would like to stick my head above the parapet (anonymously) and propose a new idea for 2016: let’s celebrate academia for a change.

We need to remember that this profession is fun. We need to rekindle the fires that got us here in the first place. Yes, there are some rubbish bits. But when I take a break from complaining and reflect, there are lots of things that make me happy – and should make you happy too. Here are nine of them:”

 

Even the first paragraph brings up some points which I would like to dissect. First off, the implication that complaining is unique to academics isn’t really such a great point. I have never, in my life, met a single person who does not complain about something. It is not a mark of academia, and it does not make us special. As a side-note (which will come up again and again), “complaining” is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the “complaints” mentioned even in this first paragraph (eg. relating to money) are actual, legitimate concerns which may keep people out of academia. So, is it really a bad thing to discuss these things? If it leads to awareness of the problem, ideas for solutions, and an improvement in the system, why is it framed as a bad quality? I agree, a positive outlook, and a recognition of how lucky (aka how privileged) we are is very important, but why not strive to be better?

Many of the points in the article are great to reflect on, and a few I cannot comment on because I just don’t have the experience, but some of the nine “good” points this author mentions are actually anything but.

“6 Time is on my Side

As an academic, you are more or less your own boss. That means you can find the things you enjoy and do them: I get deep joy from taking a break to play football during the working day, for example.

There are disagreeable tasks: admin, marking, grant-writing. But the bad bits shouldn’t take all of your day – if they do, drop some. It is acceptable to say no. And where it is not, it is normally possible to shape courses and committees to reflect your research interests.”

While we do generally have flexible working hours, this often comes with the expectation to work MORE HOURS. I really love the fact that I can choose when I work, and that if it is a really sunny day I can get out and go hiking, or if the snow is good, I can try and avoid the crowds by hitting the slopes mid-week, but I have also been pressured to work extreme over-time and been denied holidays. I’d argue that this is a much bigger problem for junior represented academics, we are much more likely to experience pressure from our superiors than someone who has tenure. There is often the implication that if you are not at work every single day of the week for at least a few hours, you are not serious enough about your work. You can be productive in a more-or-less 40 hour work week. Some weeks you may need to work more, and sometimes you may also need to do the work at odd hours (especially in biology), but when discussing work hours of academics, one needs to consider both sides of the “flexibility” argument.

“7 Under Pressure

Remember, there are far more stressful jobs out there – some involve people shooting at you (soldier), shouting at you (police) or dying on you (doctor).

There are others that involve horrible hours, terrible working conditions and repetitive tasks, but luckily I stopped being a post-doc.”

See above points about working hours and expectations. I also take issue here with the “joke” about post-doc positions. In my view, this shows how little respect the author has for their juniors. Yes, science has repetitive tasks, and nobody should shy away from that, but horrible hours and terrible working conditions are not to be passed on to your juniors at all. I really can’t stand the “my journey in academia was horrible like this, so it must be like this for you too” attitude. We can all work together to make academic culture more welcoming for everyone, and this starts by respecting your juniors.

“8 The Kids are Alright

If my relentless optimism isn’t enough for you, think of the children/students.

Complaining about the stress of an academic job may be a cunning plan by established faculty to stop newer, smarter people snapping at their heels. But it isn’t fair on the next generation and it is a waste of the time, energy and money we have invested in getting them across the line.”

Yeah, but the students also need to know what awaits them when they embark on a PhD. Having unrealistic expectations about your future plans or your dream career helps no-one, and only pushes people out of academia.

 

“9 Don’t Worry, Be Happy

In conclusion (and for the sake of balance), I do accept that there are problems with the system. There are fewer entry-level posts, and those that do exist come with considerably less job security than they used to. The demands of the career have changed significantly and it is much harder to get that critical break-in grant than it was 20 years ago. But dwelling on the negative doesn’t actually help anyone.”

 

These are not the only problems in academia, and overall the author seems to be advising “just smile and be happy” as a way to fix all the problems. Maybe, instead of dismissing meaningful discussions by people who experience the issues of modern-day academia as “complaining”, it would be more useful to listen, really listen to what they are saying and try to use your position of power (or luck, privilege, whatever you want to call it) as a means of change. So, dear author, try and listen more to your colleagues who are experiencing these issues, and maybe their “negativity” WILL actually help someone.

 

Reflections

So, it’s been almost a year since I left a place where I felt at home. The events and decisions that lead to me leaving were complicated and emotional, and this ‘anniversary’ is really making me reflect on my time there, and my past year.

  
 
It’s been a crazy 12 months, an exciting 12 months, a heartbreaking 12 months, a brilliant 12 months, a stressful 12 months, a lonely 12 months, 12 months filled with new and old friends, 12 months of goodbyes and 12 months of hellos. I’m sure there is only more to come, but I am also sure that the past 12 months have been really tough for me, very rewarding too, but boy have they been challenging. I’m now living in my 5th country, but it’s my 3rd in the past 12 months. Of course I like most parts of my slightly nomadic lifestyle, but there are parts that are hard. And it’s the same parts every time you leave a place dear to you, when you come back to an old haunt, and when you try and settle in a new place. I hated to leave Bergen, it felt like it wasn’t my decision, I had finally settled in and made friends, I hadn’t seen as much of Norway as I would’ve liked. I wasn’t ready. And it’s really the first time I haven’t felt like it was my own decision to do something since my parents dragged me to New Zealand when I was 13. So, of course, I was miserable when I arrived back in New Zealand, I was miserable for quiet a while. But then, I managed to find a job to keep myself busy, I really earnestly started applying for new PhD positions (it took me a while to decide to have another go), I got involved with some sports, I made some new friends, I went to a friend’s wedding, and another really good friend came to visit me. It was really great, and really awesome to find that side of me again. Eventually I found a new phd position, and I moved to Austria. I love my new lab, my project is great, but I’m not sure I’ve really settled in yet. I’m not sure I will settle in here as much as I have in other places, it’s nice here, it just doesn’t feel quiet like it could ever be ‘home’. I guess that feeling might go away, but right now I’m not convinced. 

I guess it’s always a bit of an adjustment when life throws you a curve ball, and I am slowly adjusting to my new world, it’s just taking longer than I thought it would. I really do like what I’m doing now, and who I’m working with, so I’m excited for the future but I guess I just can’t help looking back at last year just a bit more than I probably should.