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Not a Post About Gender and Academia

20/04/2016 16:41

More and more of us are choosing to undertake a PhD, or at least it feels that way with the number of blog posts and YouTube videos dedicated to the topic. This might also be set to change in the UK over the coming years with the introduction of postgraduate loans. It is due to this that I have decided to dedicate my next few posts to the PhD, and in order to kick this series off I first want to present Professor Anne-Wil Harzing, currently affiliated with Middlesex University. A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to interview the professor, famous for the 'Publish or Perish' software and her journal quality guide, which I actually came across even before the 'ABS list'. At the time Anne-Wil had just started her own blog aimed at early career researchers, even though she has had a website since the late 1990s.

My initial questions for Anne-Wil (as anybody who knows me might have guessed) specifically revolved around gender, and yet over the course of more than two hours conversation we didn't really touch on gender at all. Anne-Wil actually commented that when she had told a (female) colleague that she would be interviewed and the first few questions were about gender in academia they replied 'well how long have you got!' Just last week Harzing published a post on Anne Huff's "Wives of the organization", written over 20 years ago, but still relevant today. The underlying idea is that 'women do most of the work, and nearly all of the invisible work, in the organisation and it is men that take most of the credit'. Having said this, I left the interview feeling more positive than ever about academia and my choice to be an academic, so I suppose that is the aim of this post, to leave you feeling as positive as I did and mostly do! Especially as the recent report published by the EU portrays a less than perfect image of academia for those of us beginning our careers.

I don't really know how to condense the 2 hour conversation in a short blog post, or where to start, but I suppose I'll start with something that worries me a lot, hoping that it might be relevant to other PhD students: STRESS. Anne-Wil, who remains positive throughout the interview, comments that academia is more stressful now than 20 years ago, due to more competition, more qualified applicants for every job, and more regulation such as quality assurance as well as research and teaching excellence frameworks, leading to much more paperwork. However, none of this is very different to what is happening outside of academia, it is mainly a sign of the times. Commenting on her own experience she remembers that the most stressful time in her career was during the first six years, which were characterised by casual work. Casual work seems to be a pattern both within and outside academia, but I was surprised to learn that this might have been the case even in the 1990s.

When I asked what we can do to cope with this environment, Anne-Wil advocated support groups. Now we have all heard about mentoring programmes that don't really work, but Anne-Wil actually practices what she preaches, having recently founded - together with two junior academics Ling Zhang and Argyro Avgoustaki - the London Human Resources & Organisational Behaviour group, a network of female scholars that meets every other month for a mix of professional development and informal networking and support. She runs three similar smaller scale - mixed gender - groups at Middlesex University. She notes that a

'key problem in academia is isolation, and that is why we have more than our fair share of mental health problems'

For PhD students, isolation can mean that they think what is happening to them is only happening to them. After all, 'your supervisor might only have time to talk about your PhD and not to build a relationship, which is why support groups every 6-8 weeks for a couple of hours are so important' this provides a safe environment without hierarchical relationships'.

Attending and presenting at conferences can also be key to dealing with isolation, but with large conferences it might simply add to stress. Anne-Wil notes how she hasn't always been the confident professor who sits before me, and in fact attending the American Academy of Management conference for the first time was a particularly daunting experience. This experience led her to chair a new committee of membership involvement for the conference, meaning that others like her had a network of people helping them overcome initial barriers. Yet, overall she comments 'I enjoy what I am doing so I don't feel too stressed. However, my first permanent job in the UK, teaching MBA students my age or older in English, was really stressful (Anne-Wil is Dutch although you wouldn't guess from her accent). I suppose the thing that can be really stressful is office politics and I'll be blogging about that, I think it is one of the most distressing things for academics, people get really wrapped up in it, it never solves anything it just makes you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about how unjust the world is, but the world is unjust'.

How do you cope with office politics?

'Withdraw and not getting institutionalised. Academics complain a lot, but don't move and they don't see that it might be the same in other universities. If people don't actively participate in wider academic networks they don't have an opportunity to get fresh perspectives. Academia is not a bad place, if you manage your work well and are organised, you have to be organised and systematic, but also join support groups'.

When I asked her how she deals with e-mail (often the bane of my life) she said that we have to consider email as work, and file away emails as if they existed in paper form, as it is easier to find them at a later date.

'A lot of my day is spent on email communication, it used to bother me, but then I thought- why, this is my work? It's not something that we have to go through before getting to our real work'

How does she find the time? 'Being organised and efficient! You have to be efficient in re-using work (not research) like reference letters, you have to file these things so that you aren't starting from scratch each time.' Specifically, as a doctoral student you might 'put a lot of time in when you do things for the first time, but if you do it well, and you keep a record, then you can re-use it'.

In fact the desire to be organised led Anne-Wil to develop her own on-line presence, starting out with her own website instead of a staff page because that was difficult at the time. A lack of learning management systems (like Moodle) meant that even putting slides on-line was impossible and this became the beginnings of her website. Anne-Wil has consistently navigated her way around obstacles like this, and the journal quality list came about as a way to tackle the low ranking of international business (her field of research) journals in other lists that were used at the time. Anne-Wil decided that that wouldn't work if she was ever to be promoted, so she looked for other lists and made an integrated list which she uploaded on her website in 2000. This became the start of providing resources for academics, but with a little help and support 'It was an early start, but it didn't feel early then, but now looking back it was over 16 years ago, I guess part of it was the fact that my husband is a computer science engineer and he said this is really important, this is going to be really important in the future'.

When I asked her what she thought about the importance of the internet and having an on-line presence for academics, she commented 'academia is so mobile, you may be moving universities and even countries so why put all your eggs in one basket (in a staff profile tied to the institution)? You need your own personal presence, it is easier today with websites like academia and researchgate, but I think a personal website can set you apart from the crowd, and it isn't just about finding the time, but making it a priority'. I follow this up by asking her opinion on what makes a good academic, to which she replies 'showing initiative, persistence, not giving up in the face of criticism and rejection' and we all know what it feels like to get a desk rejection. Anne-Wil also recommends that you 'Follow your own values, not to the detriment of everything else, but don't do things just because you think you will get a 4* publication, it isn't sustainable'.

I ask her why she started a blog and she told me that she hopes that the blog will act as a support network for those who can't attend a support group, she states emphatically

'I want to answer the questions we would ask the senior colleague next door, but there is no next door any more, as much of our work is virtual these days.'

Finally the most obvious question I had for Anne-Wil was concerning her advice for PhD students and she replied in such a way that I felt My thesis and I may one day take on the world, she said 'be proactive and use your initiative, make sure you get involved in networks, don't see them as something that takes up your time, if you do then you shouldn't be doing it, it is part of your own professional development, it teaches you a lot and builds you a network. Don't do things just because you think they'll be beneficial for your career, you never know what will turn out to be beneficial. It isn't just about publications. Follow your values and do things because you think it's important'

In response to my question why would anybody want to be an academic these days, Anne-Wil looks me in the eye and tells me in the sincerest of manners

'We do meaningful work because we think it is important, not because our boss has told us to do it, as an academic you can mostly work with nice people (i.e. co-authors you choose yourself), you never stop learning, and you can make a real difference both through your research and through your teaching'

When the topic shifts back to gender, she tells me I will have to read her blog but that 'both men and women need to change, we don't all need to take on male values, we can be different but still equal'.

If you are looking for a support network a good place to start is Facebook, where I found Women Academics in Tourism, and started Critical Tourism Studies Students. The Royal Geographical Society also offers doctoral students the opportunity to become postgraduate representatives for their research groups.

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