I am very lucky. Unlike many people, I have essentially been paid to do what I love for my whole life. My job is my hobby, my life even. I get paid to study and talk about the natural world, insects in particular, and have done so for the past forty years. How lucky can a person be? That said, it hasn’t been 100% fun all the way.
As I enter semi-retirement (3 days a week) I thought I would be self-indulgent and reflective (navel gazing in other words) and share a few thoughts about my academic work-life balance past, present and future.
As a PhD student the scales were very heavy on the research side. Apart from some demonstrating in the labs and a few Maths tutorials (BIO101) it was reading, writing and research. Albeit this involved weekend working, but as there was plenty of time doing the week to fit in games of squash (our lab had a very competitive squash ladder) between field and lab work, it was pretty much fun all the way.
The PhD and first job– research heavy, a fun time
My first ‘permanent’ job was with the Forestry Commission, where I was based at their Northern Research Station, just outside Edinburgh. My first few years were almost idyllic, lots of field work in remote parts of Scotland, the ability to have PhD students, giving guest lectures at Edinburgh and Aberdeen Universities, and an official ‘side-project’ time allowance which allowed me to write papers on a diverse range of subjects not included in my job description, e.g. my foray into species-area relationships (Leather, 1985,1986,1990,1991). By the end of my time there however, government policy had changed, and we, even as a research organisation, were very much ‘customer facing’ and freedom to do less applied research was very much restricted to our own time.
Early academic life – when grant writing had some rewards and didn’t seem to take up as much time
It was thus a huge relief when I joined Imperial College at their world famous, and at the time, very collegiate, Silwood Park campus. I was able to have coffee with luminaries such as Mike Way, Mike Hassell, John Lawton, Stuart McNeill, Val Brown and Nigel Bell as well as to rub shoulders with up and coming stars such as Sharon Lawler, Lindsay Turnbull, Jeremy Fox, Chris Thomas, Shahid Naeem, Mike Hochberg, Charles Godfray and many others. I could research any topic I wanted to as long as I got funding (and I did) and my teaching load, if not as light as some within the department, was manageable and very enjoyable.
It starts to tip
Administration has never been my thing, but as I got more senior, more administrative stuff came my way, and in my last few years at Imperial College where I was the Postgraduate Tutor, a role combining pastoral care and regulatory matters, such a chairing all the MSc exam boards and monitoring PhD student progress. Luckily, I was very ably helped by two fantastic people, Diana Anderson and Janet Phipps. Without them my life would have been a misery and the paperwork in an awful mess, to put it mildly. I also ended up on a lot of college committees as well as taking on a number of external roles; editing, refereeing, external examining etc. At the same time, Imperial College, as a joint consequence of appointing Sir Richard Sykes as Rector and the Life Sciences Faculty adopting a largely publication metric-based approach to new appointments, started to replace retiring whole organism biologists and entomologists with molecular biologists and mathematical ecologists. Not necessarily a bad thing if managed sympathetically, but they still expected the same course content to be delivered by the few remaining whole organism biologists. To give you an idea, when I joined the Department in 1992 there were 18 entomologists, when I left there were three of us.
My teaching load soared, while the departmental average was 25 hours per year, my personal load was 384 hours and I was also having to run a research group! The collegiate atmosphere was also very much eroded as was the attitude toward students. When I first started at Imperial as a Lecturer, only Senior Lecturers and above could “Process” at the graduation ceremony in the Albert Hall. By the time I left, Teaching Fellows were being asked if they would like to attend. The majority of Faculty saw no benefit to them in attending. A sorry state of affairs as far as I was, and am concerned. Seeing our graduates happy and smiling with their families is such a buzz; why would anyone want to miss that? We also had a change in our Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUGS), our former DUGS ‘s philosophy was to give the students the best possible experience with the resources available. Our new DUGS’s was completely different. His opening address to the Faculty went along the lines of “I know you don’t like teaching…” (this upset quite a few of us who did and do enjoy teaching) and his underlying philosophy was, as far as I could make out, how can we make the students think they are getting a great experience without expending too much time on them. I was very pleased to make my move to Harper Adams University in 2012* where collegiality and student provision were, and still are, very much more valued; all Faculty are expected to attend the student graduation event unless they have a very good excuse😊
The things I have disliked the most over my career are grant applications, over long committee meetings, unnecessarily complex paperwork, office politics and marking assignments and exams. On the plus side have been my good colleagues, lecturing, field courses, research project supervision at all levels, the opportunities to do outreach, and the students who have made it all worthwhile.
With retirement comes the opportunity to dump most, if not all, the things I dislike, and to concentrate my efforts on those aspects of the job I love the most, teaching, outreach and writing. In the main, I have had a great time as an academic, but in the present climate, I would think very hard about advising my PhD students to take up an appointment in a Research Intensive university in the UK, especially if the value their family life and their mental well-being.
Hoping to spend more time in France 😊 The biggest challenge will be developing the ability to say no.
Leather, S.R. (1985) Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests ? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology 10, 43-56.
Leather, S.R. (1986) Insect species richness of the British Rosaceae: the importance of host range, plant architecture, age of establishment, taxonomic isolation and species-area relationships. Journal of Animal Ecology 55, 841-860.
Leather, S.R. (1990) The analysis of species-area relationships, with particular reference to macrolepidoptera on Rosaceae: how important is data-set quality ?. The Entomologist 109, 8-16.
Leather, S.R. (1991) Feeding specialisation and host distribution of British and Finnish Prunus feeding macrolepidoptera. Oikos 60, 40-48.
*It may amuse my readers to know that I applied to Harper Adams (then an Agricultural College) for a Lectureship in Ecology in 1992, for which I was rejected. The following week I was offered the job at Imperial 🙂