by Markus Pfeiffer
Today I resigned from my job at the University of St Andrews to take a permanent job. A permanent job that will not be at a university. I did this in spite of having two more years of funding on a Royal Society grant. I have come to the conclusion that I’d never get a permanent job at a university, and maybe worse, I do not want one. I am also pretty sure that not wanting a job in academia has little to do with the conclusion that I would not get one.
I came to the conclusion that I do not see a future for me, my skills, and my mental health as an employee of a universityany University, not just St Andrews. The University of St Andrews has its own unique flaws, some of which I will point out later, but I am sure there are enough common problems with the whole of academia that make me reach my conclusion.
As with every explosion in a relationship there is not one singular reason why it happens. I will list some of the sticking points I managed to identify. I am almost certain I could live with almost any given small subset of problems, but not with the whole lot of it.
Publications (and really noone cares about it)
I am not good at writing prose, but I think I can muster a decent writeup if needed. I don’t mind too much writing a paper about mathematical research, even if it involves algorithmic work, to describe the ideas. I spend the most time of writing computer code, trying things out, deleting code again, making it better. To some mathematicians this process might sound familiar; after all its how we (at least I) do mathematical research on paper. Even worse, some mathematicians do boring and error-prone computations on paper, when a computer would clearly be the better tool.
I contributed a large amount of code and time to the GAP System; none of these contributions get me any recognition (for example in the form of a job, talk invitations, or collaborations). Yes you read that right: I employed two skills, mathematics and coding, both of which are considered essential for the future, and I get very little in return.
As an example, recently I and my colleagues Chris Jefferson and Rebecca Waldecker wrote papers on “partition backtrack”, an algorithm to search for symmetries in mathematical objects. For the upcoming REF period these papers are entirely useless: Neither the computer science department (“too mathsy”) nor the Maths department (“ewww computers”) want to submit them.
I don’t think this attitude will change anytime soon. I also have no energy left to think it would.
Academics are a funny bunch. We do do a good amount of whiningjust like our students, and complaining how bad REF, TEF, KEF, peer-review, counting papers, and all the rest of it, are. We then readily turn around then and sit on a panel or in a room discrediting other academics’ work.
As an example, suggestions to teach “computer skills” to maths students are shot down, because mathematicians do not want to turn into a computer science department.
Or, as another example, funding to further develop resources for teaching and research in mathematics is deniednot enough impact, and then I find out that the university is buying exactly this product from another university.
Giving people credit for output that is not “publication in highly regarded journal”or, as seen above, even publications in regarded journals does not happen.
I might do another post on my experiences with peer-review.
My workplace conditions
In Computer Science in St Andrews we are sqeezed for space. Staff and student numbers are increasing, and buildings are not (except for a tennis court, student accommodation, a campus in Guardbridge, and a Music Centre).
I am now sqeezed into a small office with two more colleagues. There is a lot of noise from outside, which also affects my ability to focus, and hence greatly impacts my productivity and mental wellbeing. Now, I am only a postdoc, so I am not really seen as a full member of staff. I cannot expect to have an office to myself, but I can expect to have enough space and quiet to work.
Getting a coffee or food at any time where there is a lot of student traffic is now impossible, as there are massive queues in our CS coffee area as well as in the approximation of a cafeteria we have at the Medical Sciences Building.Let’s not even go into details about the situation concerning toilets.
When the food outlet (The Gateway) that staff used was closed down, staff concerns were completely dismissed.
Yes, there is a promise of a new “STEM Building”. Let’s be honest, it is built so we have teaching space. I have heard rumors that some academics will be forced into open plan offices or hot desks, which is provably even worse for people’s well-being than the current office situation. This building is also not going to happen before 2021. As far as I know And as a half-member of staff one doesn’t really know whats going on there is neither planning permission nor a real plan for a building yet. The construction of new buildings comes with the noise and irritation of sitting in the middle of a construction site. These problems are not going to be addressed.
Salaries, Pensions, Promotions
I believe my salary to be pretty poor on the scale of salaries. That might sound inappropriate: I have a salary far above the national median, I am also told that really a part of my salary is my superb pension. More on that later.
There has been a 20% cut in real terms in academic salaries over the last 10 years. This happened because academic salaries did not keep up with inflation. Maybe this is because of a weak union, or because of complacent staff; Or, because once you made professor, the salary is negotiable. In the last ballot about industrial action we (as in union members) achieved a pretty respectable turnout of 49% in St Andrews. Of course 49% Just as 48% is competely useless because you just get ignored if you are “just about below half of the electorate”.
Even if I accept that a poor pay comes with working for the “public good” more on that later!, I can at least be respected for my work, and maybe get a more permanent arrangement for my employment that gives me security. This is evidently never going to happen: The University of St Andrews has laid out “career paths” for its academic employees with three career focuses: Teaching, classical, research. The classical career track is the old system where once Lecturer, people start accumulating points so they make Senior Lecturer, Reader, and finally Professor. The teaching track allows for collection of these points also based on teaching track record. One should think this would be possible for researchers, too.
Except that I see no evidence that suggests this to be a viable career path: There are no positions (planned or otherwise) at the university of this kind that I am aware of, I have no prospect of permanent employment.
I tried applying for Lectureships, but my “research output” is not good enough. Even if I had gotten a Lectureship, I would now be in a similar situation: I decided last year after talking to, and observing, a couple of colleagues who recently became Lecturers (or even Professors), that the job as a Lecturer is really not one I want: It involves a lot of duties that I do not enjoy too much, such as teaching large classes of students, marking exams, admin duty, panels, and being subjected to TEFs, REFs, and KEFs, as well as picking up the slack of some colleagues (in permanent positions!) who do not seem to be taking their job too seriously.
Ok then, I thought, maybe I can make my niche in computer algebra, after all some people agree how crucial it is to have it. Well, wrong. I currently cannot even be promoted based on meritSince, as I mentioned above my work is not academically recognised, this is a moot point: I can only move from “Research Fellow” to “Senior Research Fellow” by my role being analysed and it is approved to fit the “Role Description” by a panel run by the University (“Workforce Planning”).
So I have to prove that I am already doing the job of a “Senior Research Fellow”, before I get the “promoted”It’s not really a promotion, one literally moves into a different job with a different role description A “Senior Research Fellow” does independent researchI have not been “line managed” in my entire academic career and I was always quite happy with that., applying for grants, or doing student supervision on projects. All of which I do.
The whole process is also not designed to be carried out with me, its conducted by my “line manager” and the Head of School. I recently tried to get this promotion. I did not get notified that my request was refused, and I also did not get any useful feedback as to why (“We think you’re doing exactly the job you’re supposed to do”). Thanks, University, your feedback sucks.
Incidentally in 2019 I will max out my salary grade and my yearly increases will stop.
It might also be easy to forget that in my current employment scenario, either I, or more realistically a colleage who is a professor, have to apply for grants to pay me. I have recently been told that the more senior a “PostDoc” you are, the harder it gets getting money on grants to pay for you.
Lets get to the last fun bit: My pension. It will be poor because I started late, I will not rise to any high salary levels. Now in their infinite wisdom Universities UK (UUK) have decided that they’d rather abolish our favourable pension termsIn effect this is a cut in deferred salary.. I joined the Union, we went on strike for a total of fourteen days over four weeks. I lost £1000 in salary, while not really doing any damage to my employer, because as a PostDoc there isn’t really any production output that my employer can measure. We achieved something, I think. Ultimately though as things stand, I will get a real salary cutYes, I know, only more money goes into the pension fund. And that’s a good thing. in April 2019, in October 2019, and in April 2020. And UUK, and some “HE providers” are at it trying to cut down the USS pension scheme further.
Yes, this has to come up. In the run-up to the vote I was confronted with people saying “but when David Cameron says “immigrant” he doesn’t mean people like you”. Well, tough, because we now know that, yes they damn well mean people like me, and back then I also thought that he did. What happened since that fateful day in June 2016 is beyond anyone’s worst nightmares.
If you paid attention to the above I voiced the suspicion that my (and other academics’) willingness to work a bit beyond what’s paid is priced into our salaries, a bit like it is for nurses, or GPs. I am not willing to gift my time to a society that is so clearly complacent and on the wrong side of history. It doesn clearly not have a regard for my time, my colleagues time, and further, the time and investment by *all* people who chose to make the UK their home.
With the coming economic crash and burn of a country of 65 million people, maybe more upheaval because Scotland becomes an independent countryYes. Yes it will. I am looking for a better employment than in the public sector of a failing economy.
To quote a colleague who was quoted by a colleague “Das isses nich’ Wert.”That’s not worth it; Young graduates, PhD students, and PostDocs have to get real when it comes to their prospects. If you want someone to dissuade you from an academic career, I am the person to talk to.