Tag Archives: academic work-life balance

A cautionary tale – facing mortality and the work-life balance

Back at the end of July last year, the day before we set off on our annual summer road trip to our house in the Languedoc, my wife, who had left for work a couple of minutes earlier rushed back into the house to tell me that her car engine was on fire! Not the best of news to hear especially as it was her car that we had booked on to the Chunnel and Car Train 😦  As she had only got a couple of metres I volunteered to push it back into the parking bay, a task initially hampered somewhat by the non-release of the handbrake. To cut a long story short, and not to dwell on the exchange between my wife and I, the car was safely re-parked and my smaller car pressed into service for the trip to our French house. 

I had, in the throes of pushing the car felt something ‘pop’ and developed a pain in the mid-thoracic region, which I initially attributed to a strained muscle.  The pain was still with me two days later when we arrived in Paris to drop our car off at Paris Bercy Auto Train terminal and enjoy a couple of days sightseeing. I also started to feel a bit tired and my appetite was not as healthy as it usually was when facing French cuisine.  By the time we reached Vinca my appetite was a mere shadow of itself and I was feeling distinctly weak and feeble (feek and weable as we say in the family).  I also noticed that (those of you of a nervous disposition might want to skip this bit), my stool looked like molten tarmac.  I concluded that it wasn’t a strained rib or a muscle causing me pain, but an upper gastro-intestinal bleed.  Having being brought up in a household where going to the doctor was a last resort* and despite having a pretty good command of French, I felt that my medical French was not up to discussing my bowel movements, so decided to give it aa day or two to see what happened. Sure enough after a couple of days my appetite returned, the pain had disappeared, my stool was normal and I no longer felt dizzy after climbing the stairs.  I told  myself that everything was fine and enjoyed the rest of our break.  Three weeks later we were back in the UK, and after a bit of internal debate I broke the habit of a lifetime and booked an appointment with my GP.  After listening to my story, she referred me to the local hospital for an endoscopy to see what might have caused the bleed. I won’t dwell on what an endoscopy is like, but if you do have one I recommend that you take up the offer of the sedative 🙂 The endoscopy revealed that I had Barrett’s oesophagus, (caused by years of untreated acid reflux**) and a suspicious area from which the consultant*** took a biopsy.  It turned out that I had early stage oesophageal cancer, which came as a bit of a shock.  I was initially booked in to have my oesophagus removed, which as he said might seem to be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut but would give me pretty much close to a 100% chance of being alive in five years time. These are odds with which I am willing to live 🙂

My consultant surgeon’s sketch of my cancer and of the proposed treatment, which involves massive thoracic and abdominal surgery.

I was scheduled for the operation in early January but then the surgical team decided that as it was early stage that they could try a less invasive procedure and go in via the mouth and pretty much scoop and suck the tumour out. This would involve a much shorter time under anaesthetic and only a day or so in hospital. This seemed a good idea to me and so they went ahead and removed the tumour.  I had a week or so when it was incredibly painful to swallow anything solid; chocolate mousse, panna cotta, rice pudding, mashed potato and mince were fine and soup as long as it had no tomato in it.  I also managed to lose a kilogram, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a weight loss programme. I was then supposed to be monitored frequently to check that all was well, but along came the dreaded virus and I wasn’t scanned until August when, despite having no symptoms, it turned out that the tumour was not only back, but bigger (4 cm).  The surgical team decided that the best option would to be put me on pre-operative chemotherapy. They decided on quite an aggressive regime (FLOT) as I was, surprisingly fit; one of the disturbing things about my cancer is that I have had no symptoms.

My chemotherapy details.

To facilitate this I was fitted with a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line), which was quite an experience but totally painless.

My apparatus – I was surprised at how quickly it became a part of everyday life, although unfortunately I developed a blood clot in my sub-clavian vein, which means injecting myself in the stomach with tinzaparin soiudum every day.  This is, or so  I was told, quite a common side-effect of the PICC line.

The overnight infusion pump – the main problem, where to put it when in bed, under the pillow, tucked next to your tummy or….

As I mentioned earlier, the tumour has not caused me any discernible problems, the treatment, in particular the chemotherapy, has, although I have been fairly resistant and not needed the extra anti-nausea tablets or those for constipation and diarrhoea. I have, however, suffered considerable hair loss, most of my head hair, except for the grey ones fell out within the first three weeks so I am now left with a grey fuzz.  My very bushy (and not very popular with my wife) eyebrows are a shadow of their former selves, my famous entomological beard is almost non-existent and my nostrils have no hair left at all.   My body hair, in the main, is still there, although my armpits and my scrotum are as smooth as smooth 🙂 The biggest physical effect was a reduction in my energy levels which meant that my lunchtime walks became much shorter as the chemotherapy progressed.  Now, after five weeks without, I am back to my usual walking speed and distance (5 – 7 km daily, with the occasional 10K thrown in for good measure) and hopefully, am now in a robust enough state to deal with the rigours of my imminent surgery.

Before moving on to my work life balance I must thank all the NHS staff I have encountered over the last year or so, whom despite being grossly overworked and underpaid, have been unflaggingly cheerful and helpful. I am especially grateful to the specialist staff of the Lingen Davies Chemotherapy Day Unit for their exemplary care and attention and for inadvertently, providing me with an entomological bonus 🙂 We are so lucky to still have a National Health Service that is relatively free. We must look after it.

Bonus entomological display at the Lingen Davies Chemotherapy Day Unit, Royal Shrewsbury Hospital.

I am also grateful to family, friends and colleagues, some of whom are also friends, for their support during these trying times.

I wrote about the academic work life balance a couple of years ago when I semi-retired, so this seems a good time to revisit the subject.  I wrote that I hoped reducing my hours would have an equivalent effect on the time I would spend on the bits of the job that I dislike such as administration, marking, and committee meetings. Unfortunately, except for a couple of committees, nothing really changed, except that my workload allocation went from 113% to 105% :-). Before the virus, changed all our lives, I had adopted a working pattern of 100% at the university for a term, then a month in France at our French house, then back to the university for a term and then back to France and repeat. This had the advantage of keeping me away from the office and putting me in a completely different environment in which I was able to work on my alternative projects – the books. Covid and my treatment has of course, changed this and I have been confined to a single location, which has meant me trying to remember not to do office work (albeit remotely) two days every week, which is not as easy as it seems.  It did have an unexpected bonus, much more time in the countryside and the opportunity to get closer to Nature, something I hadn’t being doing as much of as I should have been. As the end of summer approached, I decided that the time to retire officially would be when I became eligible for my state pension in March 2021, and, not without some qualms, submitted my retirement forms accordingly.   If the university feel fit to offer me a new part-time contract (nothing has so far materialised), I would be willing to accept it as long as it involved no administrative role or the setting and marking of exams and assignments, the three things I hate most about academia. What I have missed enormously is the contact with the students and the opportunity to stand in front of them and expound, or should that be profess, about entomology to a live audience.  I hope, that one day, in the not too distant future, I will be able to do so again.

Wish me luck and I hope to be back on line sometime fairly soon.

I’m out the other side – seems to have gone wll, but I am a bit sore and two weeks ahead of hospital to look forward to

*my sister almost died of meningitis when she was two, because my father thought she just had a bit of a temperature

**if you suffer from acid reflux more than once a month, I recommend you to go and see your GP immediately

***coincidentally he did his PhD at Imperial College at the same time as I was Deputy Director of the Graduate School of Life Sciences and Medicine, so I will have judged his poster at the annual postgraduate colloquium. This may, or may not, be a good thing 🙂

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The Academic Work-Life Balance – Doing what you enjoy for as long as you can

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.

http://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-unbalanced-scales-stevn-dutton.html

 

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.

 

 

References

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.

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