Writing and publishing: strategies from/for non-native speakers

By lucky coincidence, most of the Bristol Clear writers’ retreats this year are being run in a large, well-lit room in Bristol’s ‘Centre for Academic Language and Development’. The CALD is a unit dedicated to supporting (particularly overseas) students with their English. As you walk through the main doors of the Centre, you can’t help but notice the banners, celebrating a quote by Pierre Bourdieu, which says

Academic language… is nobody’s mother tongue.

Bourdieu is right, academic language isn’t anyone’s mother tongue.

And for many of those who come on writing retreats, neither is English. And yet they are expected to not only write and publish in academic language, but in the academic form of English.

A non-native form, of a non-native tongue.

How are they doing this?

This is something that I’ve been asking those who attend retreats. I’ve also been looking in the literature to find out what others do. There appear to be four main approaches.

Write with a native

Probably the most common way that those who aren’t native speakers of English produce publication-ready material is by co-writing with native speakers (who lend their eye to all of the writing at all stages).

As a strategy, this is hugely effective, particularly at early career stage when there are potentially, naturally, multiple authors involved in a publication. But it can also carry risk, particularly if any kind of tension over the ‘authoring’ breaks out – e.g. where author ‘order’ becomes less an issue of who contributed most to the thinking, and more about who wrote more ‘words’. This can get worse when, in the mind of the authors, they begin to associate words with expertise. One writer describes the problems that arose when native English speakers in a mixed language group started to act as if they were more ‘expert’ in the research topic, simply because their English was ‘better’.

“at one point [it] caused me to go off and publish some academic articles in [my own language] just to prove that I’m better than them at something” (Sword 2017: 96).

That doesn’t mean you should avoid writing with native English speakers – It can work brilliantly, and even the difficult moments make it a perfect opportunity to practise negotiation and collaborative working (both of which are key professional skills). But it does mean being aware of the potential for tension early on, and taking steps to resolve it through a planned and professional approach, rather than assuming that ‘things will just work out OK’.

Ask a native to proof (or better still, mentor) your work

After writing with a native speaker, the next most frequent approach is to find a colleague who is prepared to proofread and/or correct a draft that you have written.

This can be very effective. Although it does rely on a (sometimes fragile) quid pro quo. Even though many fields have strong non-English literatures, in most the need to write in English massively outstrips the need to go in the other direction. Rather than a balance, then, the ‘proofing’ approach can end up relying on the generosity of a colleague, who may not receive the same degree of support back from you if they don’t need to publish in your language.

There are ways around this. Helen Sword suggests, in her book ‘Air & Light & Time & Space’ that you can establish a balance in the relationship by ‘giving back’ something: conversational language support in your native tongue, or cooking lessons. If you can’t do that, then you can at least offer constructive critical feedback on their work if they need it.

Alternatively, you might try to move away from the ‘ad hoc’, and establish a more stable relationship with a ‘language mentor’ – someone who will regularly work with you, reading what you write, to identify consistent language issues that you can then correct.

Language mentoring has the advantage that, because it systematically works on reoccurring weak points in your language, over time your English improves.

Professional proofing

An alternative approach, and one that doesn’t rely on colleagues, is to get proofing done by a professional. This can be useful, particularly if you are writing for an unfamiliar audience and need to ensure that not only the language, but the content lands as you want.

However, the expertise of editors can, on occasion, collide with the aims of the writer. I work in a field (Deaf Studies) where a capital letter can mean the difference between affirming someone’s identity as the member of a cultural and linguistic group (Deaf), or defining them as disabled (deaf). I have had editors assume that my capitalisation was in error, and remove it all – a mistake that then required hours of careful re-editing to put it all back in.

Besides which, professional proofing is expensive, and although it’s now required by some journals for articles from non-native speakers, I’m not aware of any publishers (or indeed any universities) who will pay for it.

Take a chance

The final approach is where you don’t get any native speaker support, but simply write and submit, and see what happens.

This is a gamble that can pay off… Researchers I spoke to have seen this work – but only where their English has been almost perfect, and where they happen to have landed a reviewer who has had time (and a generous spirit) enough to offer corrections, or on an editor who has seen the individuality of the writer’s style as something to be valued, rather than smoothed out.

The general rule of thumb, though, when presenting a manuscript for publication is to make it as perfect as possible. Editors and reviewers are just as tired and overworked as everyone else, and the last thing they want to do is wrestle with a script that is peppered with problems, or is unclear.

In that case, the gamble can fail – spectacularly.

I’ve known some very good articles be rejected and then really struggle to find a home, simply because in their first submitted form, they looked like the writer ‘hadn’t bothered’.

And finally… to all those native speakers out there.

All of the academics that I spoke to, and much of the literature, suggests that the better your English gets, the less you have to rely on any of these strategies, and the more you can simply write and submit under the ‘take a chance’ approach with a good expectation of success.

But as (again) Helen Sword suggests, that takes time.

Learning to write sophisticated academic English… Like any other artisanal skill, the art of communicating fluently and elegantly… requires, at the top end of achievement, thousands of hours of practice – and there are no shortcuts.

No shortcuts means that, in addition to their academic skills, non-native users of English spend thousands of hours honing a skill that most English-world academics have picked up, probably without ever being aware of it.

So here’s a thought for all those academics out there who are native speakers… consider how lucky you are, and be generous with it.

Whether as a co-author, an ad-hoc proofer, a mentor, a willing reviewer or editor, or simply as a colleague, ask what you can do to support your colleagues to succeed.

 

Structured writers’ retreats – things we learned during WriteFest

Across UK Higher Education, the month of November was ‘WriteFest’, a month for writing.

As part of our WriteFest provision, we ran four writing retreats, one a week. They’re structured days, set up specifically to allow academics to write, without the distractions of their daily work.

The retreat structure has always encouraged productive writing. But – with a whole month to play with – I was keen to examine the retreats themselves, and to identify and adapt anything that would make them even ‘better’ – to make the environment as conducive as possible to writing.

Now, at the end of the month, here are some things that we’ve learned, and changed.

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Core Values

Core Values

When thinking about career development, core values really are something to take into consideration. If you’re not sure what yours are, or you’ve never heard of core values before – read on to understand a key tool in thinking about your next career steps.

What are core values?

Core values are a set of values or beliefs that are fundamentally important to you as a person. We all have them, and they will be different for each of us.

They could be things such as autonomy, security, creativity, wealth, expertise, equality, kindness… the list goes on. But what it comes down to is the fact that there will be a few on that list that you will want to uphold and live by above all others… They are at the very core of who you are and what you believe.

Why are core values important?

Your values will affect the way you behave and your decision making. In short, they affect how you live your life. They are still there working in the background, even if you don’t consciously know what they are.

You’ll know that they exist because when you are living a life that is consistent with your values you will feel content, satisfied and all will feel right with the world. However, when you are going against your values, making decisions or behaving in a way that does not uphold your values you are likely to feel discomfort, unease and like something is just wrong… that sinking feeling in your stomach – a kind of gut instinct.

Becoming aware of what those values are can help you to make decisions to live a life more aligned with what is important to you. For example, if you value security, how comfortable will you be knowing that to be in a research career you are likely to be on fixed-term contracts or constantly bidding for last-minute funding? On the flip side if you value freedom, it is worth considering if a core-funded position like a lectureship will give you the freedom you crave?

How to identify my values?

So how do you find out what your values are? One way is to look at a list of values and see what resonates with you. There are many online or you can use the one linked below.

You’re looking for just a few… the really important ones.

If you struggle, then see if you can create categories of ‘I really don’t care about this’, ‘I care about this, but I can compromise’, and ‘I absolutely will never compromise on this’.

That refusal to compromise gives you another way to explore your values. When was the last time you got really angry with a situation? What was it exactly that made you angry? Why did you care?

It’s likely that, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that someone ‘stepped on’ one of your values (or worse, forced you into a position where you had to ‘betray’ your own values).

The hard bit – making changes

Many things can stop us from making the changes we need to make, to live in a way that is more aligned with our values; Habits, lifestyle, peer pressure, fear… all these things can keep us where we are even if we don’t feel great about where that is.

So how far might you want, or need, to redress the balance?

Be aware that there are no hard and fast rules about this. Each of us is different, and has different tolerances for misalignment, for different reasons, at different times.

And so there is no judgement either.

For that researcher who needs security, they might decide that they will embrace instability, for a period of time, in order to work towards a more permanent academic position.

Or… they might begin to look for a role that gives them more security.

And, for that researcher who revels in the autonomy of a research position, they might decide that they can build that freedom into a permanent academic post… or that the compromise of lost freedom is justified by having a stronger platform of influence for their work.

Or… they might decide that they value the freedom more, and – even though it’s potentially precarious – remain as a researcher.

The difference for both will, though, likely be that having identified their core values, and negotiated with themselves a solution that acknowledges and respects those core values, they will be at peace with the solution that they adopt.

 

Resources

Values sheet

What Are Your Values? From mindTools

The case for structured writing retreats

If you’ve ever been to a writing retreat at the UoB, you’ll have heard us explain why we structure it as we do.

If you’ve not, then you might wonder why we run them in such a structured way.

The structure might even have put you off.

This post will explain some of why we shape our retreats like that – and what the potential benefits are.

*spoiler alert* – they’re not just about how many words you write!

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Find your Why…

We all know that we’re researchers… and that researchers research stuff… But, if I asked you to tell me why you do what you do in one sentence, could you tell me?

If you can’t – then perhaps you need to find your why.

Find your Why’ is a concept created by Simon Sinek who believes that each of us has a ‘why’ at our core. Our ‘why’ affects the decisions we make and is the inner driver for why we do what we do. Our ‘why’ is the reason we get out of bed in the morning, the thing that makes our lives worth living.

Sinek believes that most of us know what we do…. “I’m a Research Associate”

He believes that we know how we do it … “I run tests in a lab / I create new technologies /I look at the worlds history/ I study the earth etc….”

But most of us never stop to think about why we do what we do.

Finding your ‘why’ is all about digging deep to explore who you are as a whole and find that unique ‘why’ that makes you tick.

Why is ‘why’ Important?

Why is important for you on a personal level because you’ll find energy a lot more sustainable if you act in harmony with your why. When you are faced with choices, if you are making a decision that aligns with your why, then that decision is likely to bring you greater fulfilment and contentment than a decision that goes against your ‘why’. Knowing your why can help you to show up as who you want to be in the world.

But why is also very important for us as researchers because the ‘why’ of research is what hooks people’s interest and gets them to back what we do.

Consider these examples:

“I analyse microbes. My research is ground-breaking. It could change the world.”

“I change the world. I do it by carrying out groundbreaking health research. I analyse microbes.”

Who would you rather listen to?

How to discover your why…

Whys are strange things – because they tend to float to the surface in everything that you do.

Simon Sinek’s why is “To inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, we can change our world”, and this has come out in all the different areas of work that he’s been involved in.

So, sometimes it’s enough to just look back and see if there’s a common thread.

Mike – for example – has worked in education, in a bank, for a charity, with children, and now with researchers… but in all those situations, he’s found himself challenging people to recognise that the way things are isn’t the way that they have to be… and to see that change is possible.

Katie – for example – has worked in a museum, for a council, as a self-employed artist, and now as a researcher development advisor… but in all those situations, she’s gravitated towards supporting people to make the most of the opportunities that they have.

What if it’s not that simple?

If you can’t see a common thread, then you can start to ask yourself…

What do you do?

… Why?

… And why is that important?

… And why is that important? 

… And… (guess what?)… why?

Or start to ask yourself deep questions (!)

“If you knew you were about to die, what’s the one message you’d like to leave behind for people to think about?”

Or more superficial ones.

“If you went to work in a [insert completely different sector here], what’s the job that you’d really like to do there?”

Try and write a ‘Why statement.’

When you have some ideas, then try and write a ‘why statement’.

Mike: “I believe Higher Education could be radically different… so I try to model new forms of research environment at the UoB… I work in researcher development”.

Katie: “I believe that people are important… so, I set up opportunities for people to develop… I organise the Bristol Clear mentoring scheme”.

You: “I believe that… so I …. I do…  ”

Start living your why

Some people may find their ‘why’s’ quite quickly but for others it may not be so obvious or instant (Katie still struggles to find hers). It may be something you need to explore for weeks, months or years in order to clarify it, and that’s ok.  The closer we get to finding our ‘why’s’ then the more we can live in harmony with it.

Finding your why can potentially be quite alarming. You may find that you have strayed away from your why and that you are doing something that you don’t want to do or behaving in a way you don’t want to behave. It may require you to make a change in some area of your life which can be scary. However, by taking steps towards living our why it will always lead to a more purpose filled life.

So next time you have a big decision to make, an event where you’ll be networking with others or you’re thinking about how to start your grant application… consider starting with why.

Resources:

Simon Sinek webpage

Find your why Book – by Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek – Ted Talk

Bristol Clear – Year round up

And…. that’s a wrap! This week saw the last workshops that Bristol Clear will run for this academic year. Here is a round-up of what’s been on offer since our launch last October, and what we’ve learned for next year.

Before that, though, we have to say thank you… to you! If you didn’t attend the training, participate in writing retreats, book onto 1:1’s, sign up for mentoring, complete our surveys, or read any of our emails, we’d be finishing the year empty-handed. But because you get involved, we have masses to show for the last year.

Training

We’ve run 36 training sessions across the year and trained 530 people. (that’s over a third of the entire research staff community at Bristol!).

This year’s training was similar to last year’s, covering a range of topics that draws on the full scope of the Researcher Development Framework. Topics like careers, grants, writing & publishing, engagement, policy, communication & impact, research project management and personal effectiveness.

What we did differently this year was release the training schedule further in advance to allow you to sign up earlier. This has encouraged people to plan their training better… so we’ll be doing that again next year.

What we also need to do next year is let you know more about what’s coming up closer to the date. So that you can book on, and take advantage of any drop-outs, if you missed the original call.

Careers drop-in

Careers drop-ins were a new initiative this year, 19 were run across the latter half of the year. These sessions give you space to do your own careers research, check a CV, ask a question, or work on job or grant applications. We make laptops available so that you can explore online careers tools, a growing bank of our own online guidance, books and other resources aimed specifically at postdoctoral career level and a quiet space for you to focus.

These have been growing in popularity, but we think we can do more to advertise them… after all, you told us in CROS that you don’t have time to develop your career outside of your normal daily work – and these drop-ins provide just that opportunity.

Writers Retreats’

A day where you can step out of your norm and focus solely on writing – what a luxury! We saw how much you valued these sessions and so this year upped the number of writers retreats’ to one a month. We ran 9 in total at nearly full capacity each time!

Just think what you could achieve by taking out just one full day a month to write!

1:1’s

75 of you have taken advantage of a half-hour coaching session with one of our staff development officers. These are often about careers decisions. But we’ve also talked about things like prioritising writing, negotiating the authorship position you want on a paper, and planning a tricky conversation with a PI.

Mentoring

In September 2018 we launched the Bristol Clear Mentoring Scheme. We’ve run two cohorts so far (Sept 2018, and March 2019) and created 37 (you tell us ‘high quality’) mentor/mentee matches. The scheme will open to all faculties come September 2019 and we’d expect it to then grow considerably.

Alongside one to one matches, we’ve run Academic journeys events, where academics talk candidly about their own journeys through mentoring. We’ve also run several peer to peer events when staff could practice mentoring with each other and gain the benefits of being mentored by a peer.

Writefest

In November, we worked with the Bristol Doctoral College to run a month focused on academic writing. Throughout the month there were 3 video shorts containing 9 writing tips, 9 book reviews on how to write books, 5 weeks of activities, 4 drop-in writing days, 4 writing workshops, 3 thesis boot camp days, 3 writer’s retreats and 373,000 (approx) words written! Phew… roll on WriteFest2019!

The Post Doc Residential

In May 2019 we ran a 2-day residential for new postdocs. Those who attended spent two days, away from their everyday work, thinking about questions like: Where have you come from? Where are you heading? What are your values? Why do you do what you do? How can you be as productive as possible, and What do you need to do next?

Feedback was generally very positive, with some good ideas about how to improve the experience. One person found it truly transformative, saying

It was fantastic! I came away completely different, I’ve never had a professional development experience like this, it changed the way I feel about my career. I would like more early career staff to be able to experience this

More Communication:

In addition to these events, we’ve renewed and reshaped some of our communication. We’re now using Twitter (@UoB_Researchers), and have introduced this blog – which has run 35 blog posts through the year. We’ve also introduced the weekly Friday bulletins to keep you all up to date with what’s going on.

And other things:

And then there are lots of other things that we also do that are probably less visible: support the Reps network and the work of the Research Staff Working Party, meet with Heads of School, run the CROS survey, etc.

They are hugely important, though, as they support everything else that we aim to do.

This summer, particularly, we’ll be working on analysing the CROS data, and getting an action plan ready for next year.

And that will also detail our programme for next year, so look out on our webpages and blog for updates on what we’ll be doing for 2019/2020!

The CROS – and questions of time…

Preamble

And so begins the analysis of CROS… which will take some time. Especially since, this year, we’re not just trying to report numbers, but rather trying to draw the data together with what we know from the staff survey, with themes and evidence from a range of other engagements that we have with research staff, and then work with research staff Reps and with units like HR and RED to work out what the data means, and then what doing better actually looks like.

Over the summer, I’ll be pulling together some ‘thought pieces’ on aspects of the data.

These have two aims:

The first is for you to see where our thinking is going as we analyse what you’ve said. Please read, and respond… Note, I’m not sure how we’re going to do that yet, so bear with us as we try out comments, or something more anonymous. 

The second is so that we can start to share thoughts with the rest of the sector. Something that is very clear from CROS is how (despite there being comparatively little researcher traffic between them) the Russell Group data profiles are very similar. So these are sector issues, and not just ours.

So, this is the first of those thought pieces, and concerns some of your responses about..

 

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Your working time, and your career development

First, your time…

It probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that nearly 80% of you are working more hours than you’re contracted to. The average is about 6 or 7 hours extra a week, with just under half of those worked at the weekend.

The main reasons given are that you’re not as productive as you’d like to be. You’re beset by things that eat into your time – mainly distractions: “need quiet” (lots of those), “less admin”, “doing other people’s jobs for them”, “inefficiencies elsewhere”, “surveys” (yes… sorry!), “interruptions”, “other people’s emergencies”

Because of these distractions, it’s taking you longer to complete your contracted research. You’re also trying to fit in a multitude of legitimate tasks… but in fragmented ways.

“with the science, and then the peer reviewing, grant writing, supporting students, teaching, outreach… my time is fragmented.”

And then, of course, a postdoc isn’t always just about doing the ‘work’. For many of you, it’s a stepping stone in a growing, increasingly autonomous, academic career… so you’re also trying to add in tasks that will promote your own career progression and finding that very hard to achieve. Three-quarters of you say that you don’t have enough time to write applications for funding or fellowships, to plan your career, or to write additional publications. And nearly 80% of you say that you don’t have time to develop opportunities for secondments or placements.

Tackling that fragmentation of time is key for many of you. Many of you asked for support in managing time both in terms of training and techniques. Some of you have discovered things like writing retreats, or are able to block out “chunks” of time to focus on “priority tasks” like writing.

“I recently attended the writer’s retreat day and found it invaluable. I would really benefit from more opportunities like this”

These are things that we’ll keep offering, along with more training and guidance.

But also, your career development…

But some of you identify that, even if you can find that time, it’s not easy to decide what the priorities are.

“We are valued primarily on grants and papers… However, if we don’t teach or perform [other] citizenship activities, we cannot be promoted.”

And sometimes guidance in that area is really polarised. While I’ve heard one senior academic say

“Find out what you need to do to be promoted, and focus only on those things – say ‘no’ to everything else”,

I’ve heard another say

“do EVERYTHING – grants, and papers, and articles, and peer reviewing, and teaching, and public engagement, and supervision, and mentoring, and sit on committees, and … and… and…”

And, of course, any extra work that you do on your core research is always gratefully received. Over half of you appear to be voluntarily doing ‘more’ on your core work than you strictly need to. And 13% are accepting additional work set by your PIs.

If that contributes to you achieving ‘success’ in whatever shape that comes, or building a CV for future success, then that’s great.

But what if it doesn’t?

And what if we’re not doing enough to support you in making choices about what does and doesn’t?

And what if you’re (then) not able to make choices, and take ownership of your time, and – therefore, also – your own future careers?

Postdoc-ing is not, in most long-term cases, a career (Elvidge et al. 2017). And so The Concordat for the Career Development of Research Staff says that we (the UoB) should provide a clear structure to help you understand and plan your career development.

It also says that you (research staff) have a responsibility to engage in pro-actively planning your careers. But it’s unreasonable to expect you to do that without good guidance and support.

It would appear from CROS that many of you are struggling in this, and we will be looking at how we can support you better.

Academic Journeys – Personal Career Story: Richard Pancost

Dr Richard Pancost – Professor of Biogeochemistry, Head of School for the School of Earth Sciences and a speaker from a former Academic Journeys event talks on the Bristol Clear blog about his personal career story. Richard talks on what sparked his passion for his subject, the thrills vs the sacrifice of academic life and the decisions that have led him to where he is now.

What I do:

I study how the Earth works as a system, how all of the biological, climatic, geological and chemical components interact today and how they interacted in the past.  I was also Director of the Cabot Institute, which was a chance to not only work across disciplines and research environmental problems but to support a wide range of academics and partners studying solutions to those problems.  Currently, as Head of School, I have all sorts of new obligations but am particularly enjoying connecting to a new group of amazing students.

Why Academia?:

How I ended up in academia and even higher education is a complicated question.  Part of it was because I was good at it: I was smart, good at exams and course work and got good grades.  Part of it was because I loved it; I followed every Shuttle launch and was glued to the television as Voyager 1 and 2 whipped past Jupiter and Saturn. And part of it was because it could get me out of poverty.  I try not to overly mythologise growing up on a small dairy farm in Ohio, but I did love it.  I loved working outside and working with my family.  But I also hated the machinery, the brutality of it; the ceaselessness of farm life, no matter if you are sick or if there is a heat wave or a blizzard; the uncertainty, the worry, the continuous worry about the weather and the bills. It seemed like we were always talking about bills – for the farm equipment, the mortgage, the water and electricity, the dentist and the doctor…. 

 So university always seemed inevitable.  I could go. I wanted to go.  I needed to go.

College was fantastic.  I loved the intellectual freedom and the variety.  My god, especially the variety.  Then and now, that has to be one of the most amazing things about academia.  Every day is different.  Every hour is different.  I had come to college to study astrophysics.  Or political science. Or literature.  In the end, I studied geology. I loved it all.  [During the summer after my Freshman Year, with discussions of environmental crises beginning to trouble the news, with my family’s farm seen in a new light after being away for a year, and with my interest in both science and politics growing, I decided I would merge my interests.  I would study geology and then go on to Law School and become an environmental lawyer.

However, it also took a long and awkward time for me to fit in, this farm boy at a big university, first generation, working class, a bit of a country hick. I had support, but I wish that support had been more aware.  I wish that they could have seen past my good grades and enthusiasm for scholarship and seen the kid who was suffering from anger and anxiety. I wish they could have seen that my bravado was a lie and that my cuts and bruises were a sign of someone using sports and contests to inflict self-harm. I wish that I had been more self-aware.  I wish that I had realised that some of my actions were signs of self-doubt, fear of appearing foolish or uncool, and anger at being mocked and poor and unable to afford what others could.

But friends – even those who inadvertently made me feel that way – supported me. Lecturers championed me.  And helped me financially.  They paid me on internships and work study and once, when money was really tight, even to paint their house. And they taught me with passion and love for the subject. They gave me good grades; and when I was complacent, they gave me my first bad grades.  They were patient and then impatient and patient again.  And finally, they gave me advice, support and wisdom.  I graduated top in my class and won a PhD Fellowship to the Department of Geosciences at Penn State. 

There are two stories that explain why I went to graduate school rather than becoming an environmental lawyer, and they are both true in their own way.  In the first, Geology stole me from that path by showing me a stunning and beautiful world: I found my first fossil in the Cleveland Shale in Rocky River Park; I felt my first sense of wonder at geological time in an outcrop teeming with Ordovician brachiopods and trilobites in the Cincinatti Arch; I marvelled at the forces that had shaped the Appalachian Mountains. And then, in the summer of 1991, my field project in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, one of the most beautiful parts of the world, revealed to me 500 million years of Earth history over the course of an exhausting, exhilarating, sweaty, blistering, eye-opening summer.  

And the second story? I would have had to go further into debt to attend Law School, whereas graduate school would pay me a stipend. That’s all. You don’t always get to make your own choices.

My career path / the big decisions:

 I loved graduate school, but the first two years were a battle.  A battle to flip from being a straight-A student who had excelled at learning and tests, who could solve problems and equations to a scientist who could conceive new ideas, new questions and design the experiments to test them.  I had a brilliant supervisor – Kate Freeman – but also a network of mentors and advisers across the department who tolerated my fumbling journey, pushed me at times, and let me make a few astonishingly poor decisions – but not too poor. I was allowed to learn and to fail and learn again.  And it was frustrating and it was amazing and always always always interesting.  

And thrilling.  Nothing is as thrilling as discovering something, whether it be something fundamentally new, like a new biogeochemical pathway or a new compound, or even just being the first person in the world to analyse a particular rock.  And related to that is the thrill of having an idea, nursing it, testing it, patiently, rigorously and then proving it right – bringing a new sense of understanding into the world.

 So clearly I was hooked.  I would finish my PhD.  Get a post-doc. And then get an academic job. And I am still hooked, almost like a drug, addicted to those thrills, those moments of discovery, those moments when you know something – even if it is just a small something – about the universe that no one else does. And then sharing that with the world. 

But addictions require sacrifice.  The post-doc opportunity was in the Netherlands.  I’d only been out of the country once before and no one else in my family even owned passports. You don’t travel when you have no money.  You don’t travel when you own a dairy farm. My parents always wanted the best for me, they wanted me to go to college, they wanted me to excel and to be successful; but at heart, we were still a farm family from Ohio and they never thought I would move that far away.  

But I did.  And then I made that permanent when I moved to Bristol.  I have no regrets about those moves; I love this University, my School, my discipline, this city and my academic career.  But it would be a lie to say that this career does not demand sacrifices from us.  It would be a lie to say that this move was not hard and painful, that it has not had consequences, that family connections are more fragile and that some have been lost.  My parents cannot fly, they still do not have passports; they have never seen my house or my home or my city.

My advice to my younger self:

 I’d tell him that he could ask for help. I’d tell this kid, who was proud of his working class background but who had also buried some anxiety and fear and anger,  that he could ask for help.  That it is not a sign of weakness.  

And I’d tell him that we always have choices. They can come with financial or emotional risk, but we do have them.  You can embrace the addiction of academic life or you can kick the habit if the thrill is not worth the sacrifice. I think he would have made all of the same decisions, but I wish he had known that the world is vast and full of options.  I would tell him that he will have an amazing life no matter what choices he makes as long as he remains true to himself and his values.  

And he’d probably have some advice for me as well.  

 

 

CROS – How?

OK, so how do I fill in CROS? Filling in CROS requires your university email and some kind of online device. It’s very easy… because if you are eligible (which you are, if you are Research Staff at Bristol) then on or around the 1st May you’ll be sent an email directly from the Online Survey system. The email will contain a link which is individualised for you (1). All you have to do is click on it, and you’ll be taken directly to the online survey, which you then complete.

How long does it take? The survey is a bit of a beast, but shouldn’t take more than about 25 mins.  If it’s any incentive to finish it, remember that we only ask you to do it every two years, and that the questions put in there by Research Staff at Bristol are towards the end (!).

So I’ve filled it in… Once you’ve filled it in, you shouldn’t hear from the survey tool again. Although you might want to subscribe to the blog, or follow us on Twitter, or check the regularly Friday Bristol Clear Bulletin, as we’ll be releasing data that we get throughout the month.

And if I don’t fill it in… If you don’t fill in the survey from that first email, then you’ll get regular reminders throughout the month. You might also be encouraged in a more global sense by your Head of School or your School Research Staff Rep. We’re giving them completion rates for each School (although, anonymous, obviously).

I’m not sure I’ll have the time… We know time is tight, so we’re asking all Heads of School to make sure that PIs are aware of the need to complete the survey, and to allow their staff time to do so. We’re also hoping that some Schools will organise a ‘CROS hour’ at the same time where all researchers can stop and complete it. We’ll also be feeding (anonymous) response rates back to Heads of School throughout the month so that they can see how much harder they need to work to give you the chance to share your views.

Oh, and if bribery works for you, then we’re also giving away a new iPad 5 mini, and some Swoon Gelato giftcards to randomly selected completers of the survey, after it closes.  

(1) – We individualise the links so that we can use the online survey system to send out reminder emails to those who haven’t completed the survey. To be able to do this, we have to store some information about you, like your name and your email address. We *never* release this information out of the survey system, *never* allow anyone else to have access to the system, and *only ever* work with data that has been fully anonymised, so you can complete the survey safe in the knowledge that your answers will never be linked to you.

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