Why, to my wife’s dismay, I made a late academic career move

I decided early on in my undergraduate career that I wanted to be a university teacher, so I knew that I would have to do a PhD, which is what I did indeed go on to do.  My first degree, Agricultural Zoology (essentially applied entomology and parasitology), had engendered a love of the applied and my PhD and subsequent post-docs echoed this, I worked on cereal aphids and ways in which to control them without recourse to pesticides. I had noticed as an undergraduate that although my degree was applied, the staff teaching us, had not actually worked outside universities.  I felt that if I was going to be a successful applied academic I should have some experience outwith the university system and in 1982 found myself working as a research and advisory entomologist for the UK Forestry Commission based at their Northern Research Station just outside Edinburgh (Roslin). My original plan had been to stay there for about five years and then move into a Lectureship. Unfortunately, 1987 coincided with a dearth of positions within academia and it was not until

Senior Scientific Officer, Entomologist with the Forestry Commission Research

1992 that I made the transition, when I was appointed as Lecturer in Integrated Pest Management* at Imperial College, London, based at the Silwood Park campus.

Newly appointed Lecturer in Integrated Pest Management 1992

At the age of 37, and armed with 50 publications, six children and a spouse in tow, I think this probably counted as a mid-career move.  It was a great time to move to Silwood. The Centre for Population Biology, headed up by John Lawton was in full swing, with future luminaries such as Chris Thomas, Hefin Jones, Brad Hawkins, Bill Kunin, Andy Hector, Mike Hochberg, Suzanne Koptur and Shahid Naeem in post.  In what was then the Pure & Applied Biology Department, I was one of eighteen entomologists, pure heaven. Silwood Park had a vibrant coffee culture, in the morning over at the Refectory (Paddy’s), where bacon and egg butties (rolls)) were consumed in huge numbers and in the afternoon, tea was served by Pearl over at the Conservatory at the rear of the Main House.  In the summer, we would sprawl on the grass outside, exchanging ideas and discussing our research plans.  There were no silos, and there was a significant amount of inter-disciplinary mixing.  The ideal environment for productive and innovative research and I was content to imagine myself in situ until retirement beckoned.

Unbeknownst to me there was something rotten in the offing.  Back in 1986 the University Grants Committee assessed the quality of research being produced by UK universities to help guide them in allocating research funding. The Research Selectivity Exercise and the Research Assessment Exercise followed this in 1989 in 1992. The criteria used to assess university research standing, was, largely based on the impact factor of the journals that staff published in and the amount of research income won from research councils. The effect across those universities in the top tier was insidious but largely predictable. Despite over 50% of income being accrued from teaching, recruitment of staff became increasingly based on publications, leading in the case of the Biology Department at Imperial, to an influx of staff with publications in Science, Nature, PNAS and similarly high impact journals, much to the frustration of our Director of Teaching.  Effectively, every time a whole organism biologist retired or left, they were replaced by a molecular biologist.

Things got even worse when in 2001, Sir Richard Sykes was appointed as Rector (Vice Chancellor).  Coming from industry and with a reputation for asset stripping, the collegiate nature of Imperial College came under attack. Staff, who had, until then, been valued for their departmental contribution in terms of administrative roles and contribution to teaching now felt under threat and if unable to up their research profile, encouraged to seek early retirement, or in some cases, as when Imperial acquired Wye College, which was subsequently closed, made redundant. Despite having a large research group, albeit largely made up of PhD students my teaching load continued to increase.  I even ended up teaching forestry and plant biology, when the plant scientists were culled. Another example of how research trumped teaching was In 2007, when despite me pointing out that the youngest whole organism biologist was 52 (me), and the oldest molecular biologist 52, our Head of Department decided that we needed more systems biologists.

In terms of career progression, I had in the early days, done quite well having been promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1996 and Reader in 2002. By then, looking at Athene Donald’s list I see that I was pretty much doing a professorial role, serving on external committees, validating degrees for other universities and acting as an external examiner. I was also appointed as Editor-in-Chief of Insect Conservation and Diversity, a new journal for the Royal Entomological Society. My administrative duties had also continued to increase.  It was no wonder that my beard was getting greyer! I was however still preparing my own talks, although I will confess that a lot of my data analysis was being passed on to members of the group, duly acknowledged of course. I am extremely grateful that I have always had a loyal and very supportive research group, without their help life would have been impossible.  My thanks to you all (if any of you are reading this). Promotion to full Professor was by departmental or self-nomination and successful interview performance in front of a panel composed of the Principal of the School of Life Sciences and Deans from across the university. If you wanted to be nominated for promotion one had to submit a lengthy cv to your Head of Department and this was considered by the other Professors within the Department to see if you were worthy of being put forward. In 2010 I had two post-docs and eleven PhD students and 136 publications, so felt that I was ripe for promotion to full professor. To my disappointment, the Department thought otherwise and my name was not put forward. I shrugged my shoulders and decided that there was no point in trying again, especially as by 2011, I only had one post-doc so that year I didn’t bother putting my cv in despite being pressed by the Department to do so. The departmental panel however, to my annoyance, considered my cv in absentia and pretty much forced me to submit even though I pointed out that it was going to be a waste of time as my research group was now smaller. Nevertheless my cv was submitted to the university and I was duly called for interview.

Accompanied by my Head of Department I arrived in good time for my scheduled 45-minute interview.  The panel finally called me in twenty minutes late. The Principal of the School of Life Sciences, an immunologist of some repute, began by saying “Hello Simon, can you tell me what you have been doing since you were last promoted, if you can remember that far back”. I looked at the HR person in shock, expecting some sort of response but nope.  Anyway, I proceeded to tell the panel what I had been doing since 2002. At the end of my reply, her response was “So you count things”.  That immediately told me that I was not going to get promoted.  The questioning passed on to one of the Deans, who said, in an accusatory manner, “I see that you get a lot of prizes for teaching”. I explained that I liked students and felt that they deserved the best experience I could give them. That went down like a lead balloon. The second Dean said “I see that you don’t give very many plenary lectures”.  I replied that I received many invitations but that my teaching load made it difficult to accept them all. Next up was the third Dean, who remarked on the fact that I only had one post-doc and that my research group was mainly PhD students.  I replied that yes, this was the case but that for the last 18 years I had been providing the Department with a steady and substantial income.  Then back to the Principal, who asked me why I hadn’t published in Science and Nature recently. Those of you who are applied entomologists will know the answer to that one 🙂 So that was it, twenty five minutes and I was dismissed, the interview panel were back on schedule, and of course I was not promoted.  My Department, to give them their due, appealed against the decision, pointing out that that I was actually doing more teaching than anyone else in the Department including the Teaching Fellows and that my research income was above the Departmental average.  The Faculty response was that perhaps if I did more teaching they could consider me for promotion via a teaching route.  I laughed hollowly. That was pretty much the final straw, it was obvious that the Faculty of Life Sciences had no interest in my research. My Department on the other hand relied on me and the other whole organism biologists to run six MSc courses and to service several undergraduate modules**.

It became increasingly obvious that things could not carry on as they were. My teaching and administrative loads were becoming ridiculous.  There were only four entomologists left in the Department and the coffee culture had almost disappeared, most groups staying in their silos and only venturing out at lunchtimes. I was seriously considering early retirement although I was reluctant to do this, as I was sure that with my retirement the last entomology degree in the UK would quickly disappear.  Then Peter Mills, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Harper Adams University, approached me and asked what it would take to get us surviving applied entomologists to move.  I told him and was reassured that this was all possible.  With some trepidation, I agreed and we moved despite some half-hearted attempts by the Department to get us to stay.  I don’t think that they actually believed that we would leave a world-class institute to move somewhere that they had never heard of. I have never regretted the move. It was great to be in an environment where our skills were appreciated and back in a collegiate and collaborative atmosphere with an excellent coffee culture and to cap it all, better research facilities than we had had at Silwood. I take some pleasure in pointing out that I moved from a research intensive institute to a more teaching focused one, but halved my teaching and administrative loads. As a result of having that extra thinking time I very soon won two research grants. Domestically it was a bit hard as my wife couldn’t find a similar job in Shropshire so we ended up as two-house family, commuting between each household on alternate weekends, but entomology in the UK at postgraduate and undergraduate level is now in safe hands with a number of newly appointed entomological staff.  Though as my wife points out, if I had taken early retirement we would now be safely ensconced in France with full residency and not being subjected to the horror that is BREXIT.

*the last time that my Department advertised so specifically for a post.  Subsequent job adverts were along the lines of “in the area of ecology, evolutionary biology…”

**I confess I was rather pleased when I heard that Imperial had to close those six MSc courses because of a dearth of staff able to teach on them, although I was sad that after almost a century, postgraduate entomology was no longer being taught at Imperial.

23 Comments

Filed under Teaching matters, The Bloggy Blog

23 responses to “Why, to my wife’s dismay, I made a late academic career move

  1. Amanda Tuke

    Great post Simon – I had wondered what had tempted you from Imperial. Just confirms how lucky I was to be at Imperial when I was (1993 to 2000) and why the alumni marketing I receive at intervals never feels like it’s from Uni I know.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jonathan Wallace

    A very depressing tale. The fact that Harper Adams stepped in to provide a congenial environment for you and your colleagues to work in is, I guess, a happy ending but it is still very dispiriting that the blunt instruments used to measure ‘value’ led to Imperial College turning its back on entomology in this way.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I remember telling my dad about the entomologists who had welcomed me so warmly at Harper when I started. Dad had studied at Imperial and was excited to tell me all about Silwood. Unfortunately I had to tell him of its demise and that there was a rather large collection of insects right next door to my office which would give Silwood a run for its money and that the entomologists had decamped from there. I’m forever grateful that you did as I don’t think I would have made it this far without Ancellor’s Yard and the lovely people who work there at HAU.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Fascinating! I think I would have crumbled under that load of teaching and research at IC! My memories of Silwood go back to my BSc field project (summer of 1976) helped by the wonderful Dr Nadia Waloff (“interesting”!).😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • What really frustrated me was that the Head of Department didn’t realise that it wasn’t money (they bumped my salary to tempt me to stay) that was the problem, but the lack of specific staff recruitment to ensure that entomology remained viable. The most that they would commit themselves to was “if an entomologist applies when we next advertise a position we will look at them”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed reading this story, Simon, and it has some parallels with my own move to the University of New Brunswick from my first Prof job. Not completely parallel by any means! But similarly, I’ve been very happy where I am – and I’m glad you have been too.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Sorry you had to go through all of this, Simon. I remember hearing that Sykes was referred to by staff at the time as “Slasher Sykes”. Things dont seem to have impoved at Imperial though: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/dec/14/imperial-college-london-executives-admit-they-bullied-colleagues-alice-gast

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Rob Knell

    Interesting reading Simon. I thought we overlapped more at IC but I graduated in 1992 so you must only have been there for my final year. Such a shame that university management seems to attract such small minded people.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Samuel Bolton

    Interesting post, Simon. Many american entomologists think this obsession with impact and the effect it has had on entomology is bad over here, in the US. When I tell them the main reason why I came to the USA (to have a chance of a career as a systematist), some of them barely believe me, although things have gotten worse here even over the 11 years since I arrived. Academia in the USA is following a very similar path to the UK but appears to be about 20 years behind. There is still funding for research in systematics, but it is getting harder and harder to get. I now work for government as a mite systematist and feel happy to be out of the rat race.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Glad that you made the jump to HAU rather than retire! I have personally benefited from your service as reviewer, and now from reading your informative blogs! My journey was somewhat similar to yours, although I thankfully skipped the top tier university and went straight from an industrial position in a small pest management company to the brand new University of Northern BC as a charter faculty member! Got to experience the official opening by Queen Elisabeth II in 1994, be part of building the institution, and work with a great group of interdisciplinary minded colleagues! I consider myself so fortunate!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Gail Jackson

    I knew the entomology MSc’s at Silwood ended just about when I left in 1991, but hadn’t understood why. Thanks for the blog. Good to understand what went on. I did my PhD on cereal aphids, with Stewart McNeill from ’87 to ’91. Great days – but probably left at the right time.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Roundabout review of the year 2020 – yet another bout of navel gazing | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

  12. Julien

    Dear Simon,
    Thank you for sharing your Research journey. Unfortunately, it is not specific to the UK. That’s the same thing in France. This metric system is not adapted to fields such as applied entomology. Whole organism biologists are quite disappearing and it is common to see molecular biologist working on a species and do not know much about its biology.
    Best regards,

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I’m an academic from Asia in my late 20s and I’m already having a love-hate relationship with the academe at this early point in my career, and part of it were because of the exact same horror stories you mentioned in this post. I’ve been having second thoughts about going for a PhD (in with the Social Sciences field), but right now I’m leaning towards taking it. I think a career move no matter how early or late is still a brave one. Sticking with the status quo, I think, would be worse. But that’s just me.

    Liked by 1 person

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