Tag Archives: retirement

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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Data I am never going to publish in peer-reviewed journals

I have got to that stage in my career where retirement is no longer a distant speck on the horizon; something that 20 years ago I never even thought about, but which now I am actually looking forward to reaching. Don’t get me wrong, I have, in the main, enjoyed what I have been paid to do for the last 40 years, but I’m looking forward to a change of pace and a change of priorities. I’m not planning on leaving entomology and ecology, or putting my collecting equipment in a cupboard, throwing my field guides away and burning all my reprints in a huge bonfire. Nor do I plan on deleting my EndNote™ files and database when I retire to our house in Languedoc-Roussillon to sit next to the pool with a never-emptying glass of red wine and gently pickle myself in the sun*. I’m just looking forward to approaching it in a different way; my plan is to stop initiating the writing scientific papers, but instead to expand on the outreach, to blog more and to write books for a wider audience. I want to spread the joys and wonders of entomology to the world, and hopefully, supplement my pension a bit to make sure that I can keep that glass filled with red wine and heat the swimming pool in the winter 🙂

I’m planning a gradual retirement, a slow(ish) canter towards the day (September 30th 2020) when I finally vacate my university office and move full-time into my converted attic in the Villa Lucie surrounded by my books and filing cabinets with a superb view of the mountains.

View

The view from my study to be – I will have to stand up to see it, but exercise is good for you 🙂

I have already reached a number of milestones, I took on my last ever PhD student (as Director of Studies) this month (June 7th) and submitted my final grant application as a PI (June 10th).

Grant

I must admit that it is a bit of funny feeling, but a remarkably rewarding one in many ways. I look at my former colleagues who have already retired productively and enjoyably, and I’m envious, so I know that I am making the right decision despite the slight feeling of apprehension. I now have a dilemma. As Jeff Ollerton points out, when you have been around a while, in my case it is almost 40 years since I started my PhD**, you build up a substantial amount of data, especially, if as I have, you have supervised over 150 undergraduate research projects, an equal number of MSc research projects and over 50 PhD students. Much of these data are fragmentary, not significant or even lost (sadly when I moved from Imperial College, they threw away the hard copies of my undergraduate projects, although I can remember what some of the lost data were about). My ten year sycamore and bird cherry aphid field study from my time in Scotland (1982-1992) remains largely unpublished and my huge twenty year sycamore herbivores data set from Silwood Park (1992-2012) is in the same boat, although parts of the data are ‘out on loan’ to former students of mine and I hope will be analysed and published before I retire.

This leaves however, the data, some of it substantial, which I would like to see the light of day, e.g. a whole set of rabbit behaviour data that I collected one summer with the help of an undergraduate and MSc student, which surprisingly revealed novel insights. Other data, perhaps not as novel, may be of interest to some people and there is a whole bunch of negative and non-significant data, which as Terry McGlynn highlights over on Small Pond Science, does not necessarily mean that it is of no use.   I have, as an example of fragmentary, not entirely earth-shattering data, the following to offer. Whilst monitoring aphid egg populations on bird cherry and sycamore trees, in Scotland between 1982 and 1992, I occasionally sampled overwintering eggs of Euceraphis betulae, on some nearby birch (Betula pendula) trees and of Tuberculoides annulatus, on an oak tree (Quercus robur) in my back garden in Peebles.

As far as I know there are no published data on the overwintering egg mortality of these two aphids. Although novel for these two aphid species, the observation of the way the egg populations behave over the winter and the factors causing the mortality have already been described by me for another aphid species (Leather, 1980, 1981). I am therefore unlikely to get them published in any mainstream journal, although I am sure that one of the many predatory journals out here would leap at the chance to take my money and publish the data in the Journal of Non-Peer-Reviewed Entomology 🙂 I could of course publish the data in one of the many ‘amateur’ type, but nevertheless peer-reviewed journals, such as Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, The Entomologist’s Record, The Entomologist’s Gazette or the British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, which all have long and distinguished histories, three of which I have published in at least once (Leather & Brotherton 1987, Leather, 1989, 2015), but which have the disadvantage of not being published with on-line versions except for those few issues that have been scanned into that great resource, The Biodiversity Heritage Library, so would remain largely inaccessible for future reference.

I thus offer to the world these data collected from four Betula pendula trees in Roslin Glen Nature Reserve in Scotland between 1982 and 1986. On each sampling occasion, beginning at the end of October, 200 buds were haphazardly selected and the number of eggs present in the bud axils recorded. Sampling continued until egg hatch began in the spring.

Graph

Figure 1. Mean number of eggs per 100 buds of the aphid Euceraphis betulae present on four Betula pendula trees at Roslin Glen Nature Reserve Scotland***.

The number of eggs laid on the trees varied significantly between years (F = 20.3, d.f. = 4/15, P <0.001) ranging from 12.75 eggs/100 buds in 1983-84 to 683 eggs/100 buds in 1986-87. Mortality occurred at a regular rate over the winter and ranged from between 60% in 1985-86 to 83 % in 1984-85, averaging out at 74% over the five-year study.

So in conclusion, no startling new insights, but just some additional data about aphid egg mortality to add to the somewhat sparse records to date (Leather, 1992). Perhaps it is time for me to write another review 🙂

References

Leather, S.R. (1980) Egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 27, 96-97.

Leather, S.R. (1981) Factors affecting egg survival in the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Entomologia experimentalis et applicata, 30, 197-199.

Leather, S.R. (1986) Insects on bird cherry I. The bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymellus (L.). Entomologist’s Gazette, 37, 209-213.

Leather, S.R. (1989) Phytodecta pallida (L.) (Col.,Chrysomelidae) – a new insect record for bird cherry (Prunus padus). Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine, 125, 17-18.

Leather, S.R. (1992) Aspects of aphid overwintering (Homoptera: Aphidinea: Aphididae). Entomologia Generalis, 17, 101-113.

Leather, S.R. (2015) An entomological classic – the Pooter or insect aspirator. British Journal of Entomology & Natural History, 28, 52-54.

 

*although in light of the recent horrific BREXIT vote this may now not be as simple as it might have been 😦

**I must confess that I haven’t actually published all the data that I collected during my PhD. I rather suspect that this will never see the light of day 🙂

***Data from 1986-87 are not shown as their inclusion makes it very difficult to see the low years. I can assure you however, that the mortality rate shows the same patterns as the other years.

 

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