Twenty five years without parole

In which I look back in… stunned disbelief?

It has been a rather strange week here. The main reason, I think, is that last Wednesday, on Feb 1st, I passed a rather unnerving landmark – twenty-five years working for the same employer.

Indeed, you might almost as well say “twenty-five years with the same job”.

I certainly have essentially the same job title – “Lecturer in Physiology” – as when I was appointed in those distant days when Mrs Thatcher, now immortalised in a weighty biopic, was still running the UK, and indeed had yet to win her third general election. Actually the original appointment letter from late 1986 said “Lecturer in Biomedical NMR Spectroscopy in the Department of Physiological Sciences”, but that title was short-lived (probably just as well given its length) , and when I was appointed permanently a few years later (1991?), that letter said “Lecturer in Physiology”. Or possibly just “Lecturer”

And so the job title has stubbornly remained these subsequent twenty years and more.

Now, you might think I must have learned a few things in my quarter century on the Faculty that I could pass on – but I struggle to think of many.

And in fact, I am often loathe to dish out advice at all.

There are a few reasons for this. One is in case I communicate to my younger colleagues too much of what some people (typically members of the senior management) call my “well-practised cynicism”. My younger colleagues don’t need that, after all – they have, on the whole, quite enough **** to deal with already.

[I recall that when one of my ex-PhD students (by then a postdoc in another lab in the department) was being appraised by one of our department’s most dynamic and going-places Professors, my ex-student was asked “Is the reason you want to quit research because Austin was your PhD supervisor?”.]

Another reason I don’t really “do” advice is that I am mindful that University Departments tend to be rather full of people who are only to keen to dish out advice at the drop of a hat – to the point that junior academic staff may well be swimming in the stuff, much of it probably conflicting One of my ex-Heads of Department used to quote a line to the effect that “the only advice worth having is advice someone actually asked for”, and I reckon that is a good maxim.

A third reason is that it is arguable that, as a junior staff member, you’d be best advised to get your advice from those who have demonstrated an ability to rise purposefully through the system – on the obvious basis that they must have been getting things right. In the light of that logic, a man with exactly the same job title after twenty-five years in the University perhaps wouldn’t be the best source of sage council – as I point out to any who ask, as a kind of Caveat Emptor.

A fourth reason is that I’m never terribly sure what advice to give. I’ve certainly received plenty of bits and pieces of it myself here and there, and I have to say that a lot of what I was told was not all that useful. Apart from the obvious stuff like:

“Guard your time zealously”

“Avoid department politics”

“Don’t give up at the first, second, or even third setback”

“Don’t agree to write a review article unless: (i) you’ve written it already or (ii) you really want to do it and you’ve got several months free”

“Never, ever, lend your colleagues money” and

“If someone tells you you should do something because ‘it’ll be good for your career’, you almost certainly shouldn’t touch it with a barge-pole

However, the ongoing discussion at OT about ‘What am I doing here?’ did bring back one piece of advice I was given, back when I was suffering from what I might now identify as an early career bout of Impostor Syndrome.

This dates from when I was a final year PhD student, and was talking to an older colleague with whom I was co-authoring one of my earliest papers. At the time I was having some doubts about whether we needed to do lots more stuff, use more sophisticated methods, add n numbers, more elaborate data analysis etc etc.

“Look” my colleague said “Do you REALLY think that these experiments of yours were somehow done worse than the other labs we know doing similar things do theirs?”

I had to admit that they probably weren’t.

“Well, just stop over-thinking all this and get on and write the paper.” he said.

And that advice, at least, I have occasionally been able usefully to pass on.

 

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
This entry was posted in Getting old, Grumbling, Physiology, Procrastination, The Life Scientific, Uncategorized, Universities. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Twenty five years without parole

  1. Heather says:

    I like the advice with which you finally, grudgingly, parted.

    I wish you would tell me the blindingly obvious “Don’t agree to write a review article unless: (i) you’ve written it already or (ii) you really want to do it and you’ve got several months free” on a periodic basis, though. Because even though I know it is true I keep saying yes, though I seem to be off the hook for the moment.

    Congratulations, if you consider them in order, for your anniversary. You are not the only person in my acquaintance loyal to their workplace over years, or decades. I wish the quality was more appreciated in terms of recognition and, dare I write it: salary.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Congratulations!

    Your post just made me realise that I’ve lived in Vancouver for ten years as of this week… wow… time flies, eh? I’m on my third Canadian job, but jobs #1 and #3 were for the same employer (different departments though) and job #2 was at a company that was a spin-off of that organisation, was run by someone who was also the former head of department at job #1, and is just around the corner from my current building. Having been accustomed in the past to moving to a new city every three years, this sense of permanence is mostly great but still feels weird!

    My PhD supervisor emailed me a couple of years ago to say that following a series of retirements and resignations, he’d just realised that he was the oldest and longest-serving group leader at his institution and therefore had to leave forthwith because it made him feel so old – he was roughly 50ish at the time and thought he had at least one more move in him. He’s still there now though 🙂 This was the same guy who once commented in a lab meeting that he’d just realised he’d been a group leader for ten years. The postdoc piped up with “ten years ago I was just starting undergrad! You’re so old!”; I one-upped with “ten years ago, I was twelve!“, and we both got some pretty filthy looks!

  3. stephenemoss says:

    Congratulations Austin. This is an impressive innings, having served a mere 22 years myself. And I imagine that your reluctance to offer advice probably gives your words of wisdom particular value. After all, those who incessantly dish it out are, more often than not, those whose advice is least welcome. I am minded of the (I think) Italian maxim, which is to take advice from everyone and then do what you were going to do anyway.

    Whatever, I hope the next 25 years will continue to be punctuated by entertaining blogs and the occasional annotated chess game.

  4. Austin says:

    Thanks all

    @Heather:

    I’ve only ever written one ‘serious’ review article, and one was definitely enough! It was much more work than I’d bargained on. Though I guess it is almost certainly one of my most (the most?) cited scientific works. And someone I met at a conference did once tell me they’d used it as the basis of a seminar class in a Grad School course at Yale, which was an unexpected compliment.

    Re ‘rewards and appreciation’, I did get a letter from a person in HR (not the HR Director, or even the HR Supremo for the Faculty, note, but just someone in HR) congratulating me and telling me that ‘in appreciation of my contribution’ I could have either (i) five extra days paid holiday this year; or (ii) £ 400 in shopping vouchers. Though personally I might settle for an office where the temperature exceeds 17 degrees in the WInter.

    Anyway, since, like most academics, I don’t usually take all my official holiday entitlement anyway, I think it will be the vouchers. They might stretch to the cheapest iPad, though the kids are demanding a Wii.

    I often wonder if I should have moved on at some point. I think, with hindsight, the answer is almost certainly “Yes”, but it’s easy to make these calls with perfect rearview vision. The same person who gave me the paper advice once told me over some beers that he reckoned my underlying problem was that my longtime employers here ‘don’t share your [my] sense of humour’

    @ Cath:

    Yes, it is strange after being peripatetic to become so (accidentally?) rooted. I attended four different primary and two different secondary schools in two countries, so it was a shock to me that I got stuck here, really. Though my (considerably more successful) younger brother has actually been in Manchester even longer than me – he arrived as an undergraduate in the Autumn of 1982, so he is rapidly closing in on his thirtieth anniversary in the city.

    @Steve:

    Well, 22 years is not that far behind. I wonder if UCL does vouchers too?!

    By the way, I added an annotated chess game to the last post on chess gradings.

    • Stephen Moss says:

      I spotted the chess game, but need to find an on-line site to play it through. Any suggestions?

      • Austin says:

        Sites that let you enter (or play) both players’ moves seem to be quite rare, rather oddly. There is one here, I think, though its two-click procedure for entering moves is rather slow and annoying.

        There are various Flash and Java thingies that let you generate play-through-able games (i.e. show you a chess board/position and let you play through the moves of the game w fwd and back arrows), after the manner of chessgames.com. Some of these claim to generate ‘stand-alone’ bits of HTML (i.e. doesn’t require the whole implementation on the site to have some cunning plugin). I haven’t tried any of them, though. Perhaps in the Easter holidays, if I survive ’til then.

        • stephenemoss says:

          Perhaps when I have a moment the easiest thing will be to get the chess board out.

          • I still use the foldaway magnetic set (board 20 cm square, Kings 3.5 cm high) that was my main set when I was a chess-obsessed teenager. Fits handily on a corner of the desk at home when required.

  5. Nico says:

    For his 25 years at the same employer my dad received the “Médaille d’Honneur du Travail (bronze)” (French Wiki description with picture here, no English version I’m afraid). Very Soviet. That’s it.

    He has held the same position (Ingénieur, although he is a researcher) for that entire time, again partly because of differences in comedic entertainment with his superiors. They didn’t see the fun in a “ban land mines” sticker on the car at a military research center.

    • Austin says:

      Heh. Le père Fanget sounds a man after my own heart, Nico. I’ve come across a few other examples too – must blog about them one day.

      One of my heroes among the people I’ve encountered in physiology (and I’ll probably embarrass him by saying this) is the inimitable Professor Roger Thomas, who made it to FRS and head of a Cambridge Department despite his utter disdain for any kind of managerial posturing or striking-of-attitudes-for-public-consumption. He is Emeritus now, but I see he’s still publishing single author experimental papers from his (notional) retirement. And I guess some people would say that my father is another of the tendency (more links here), so perhaps it runs in families.

  6. Stuart says:

    Strangely enough I recently passed a major milestone last month – 30 years of paid employment!! Seems unbelievable that it was 1982 when I left the North of England to work with the Mad Chilean in London!

    [Editor’s Note: this brief and affectionate, but nonetheless accurate (!) description immediately identifies, to anyone who worked in epithelial transport physiology in the UK between the 70s and the 90s, the amazing David Yudilevich – obituary here.]

    I was only made permanent in 1996, and I now think I have even overtaken Austin in the Grumpy Old man sphere and I’m almost continually amazed by what goes on in University Admin. I’m now thinking of bailing out of the whole shooting match whilst I’m still young enough to spend a few years doing something else before I actually retire!

    The last few months have, however, been interesting as, for the first time in years, I’m doing science in an entirely new area – the electrophysiology of spermatozoa! Never in a million years did I think I’d end up studying K currents in sperm cells but I’m now co-supervising a very keen PhD student who spends his mornings collecting samples at the IVF clinic (don’t ask) and works long into the night almost every day of the week. Some of the evenings we’ve spent trying to get just one more good recording to finish off a particular experiment have fantastic – really reminded me what science is about.

  7. cromercrox says:

    Congratulations, Old Chap. I hope to achieve my Silver Jubilee in December.

  8. Congratulations, Austin. Your decision to avoid dispensing advice seems sagely wise.

    Also, please stay away from Erika, she’s writing a thesis and doesn’t need to be discouraged. 😉

  9. I think I must be on the same career trajectory! On the plus side, I must say it remains a privilege to be paid to teach, to think …and to call government policy “half-baked”.

    • Austin says:

      Don’t worry Kieron, you’re still young enough to avoid my fate..!

      Agreed generally on it being a privileged occupation. Though it inches a little closer to being like the commercial sector each year – most irritatingly in the amount of box-ticking bullshit, need to be seen to be cheerleading and general PR shiny-ness-bollocks – it still has some way to go. Thankfully.

      PS For an example of the kind of stuff I hope we keep avoiding, see here.

  10. cromercrox says:

    When I am asked to dispense advice I find that the person asking always seems to know the answers anyway, or at least has a far better grasp of the issues than I ever had, or ever will. So what I usually say is words to the effect of ‘Instincts Trust You Should, Young Padawan’

    • Austin says:

      Yes, good point. Often what people are seeking is mostly reassurance that what they want to do is not a mad idea, or career suicide. I think I do good reassurance, on the whole.

  11. chall says:

    Congratulations! I, as Cath, made me realise how long I’ve been in my “post-doc” city (although I’m not a post-doc anymore).

    I do think however, that as it seems right now, there will be no such 25 years of employment for me. Not because I wouldn’t like it, but because time’s a changin’ (probably mis-spelled that one). It seems like an interesting work title, this “lecturer”. It reminds me of the Swedish University titles when there was one ‘professor chair’ at each department (or at least only one in each specific subject) and no possibility of being called professor unless you had that specific position. Nowadays you can get promoted into professor title, and stay in that function. Might be similar to the long term lecturer?

    Your last part about the “you really need those extra experiments” really hit home though. I only wish I’d read them a few years back….

    • Ha ha, I love the idea of “Lecturer’ being a lifelong grand title, like “Geehrte Privatdozent” or “Herr Professor Doktor Doktor”

      Sadly, it isn’t really like that. Should you be ‘on the rise’ – or even just not ‘on the down’ – you are usually, if tacitly, expected to progress (via promotion) to Senior Lecturer. Certainly most people do.

      Oxford actually used to be an exception to this, having only the grade of Lecturer and no ‘Senior Lecturer’. I’m pretty sure Oxford’s ‘Lecturer’ pay scale did encompass the equivalent of what at other UK Universities were the Senior Lecturer grades, and most people progressed to them, but they stuck to the single title – so a little bit more like the old Scandinavian/German system.

      Anyway, about a decade and a half ago Oxford suddenly (and famously) created a whole slew of new Professors all at once. It turned out that they had decided that they had lots of people who formally had only the title Lecturer, but who were at the top of the pay scale (see above) and

      ‘would quite clearly have been Professors already at any other University’.

      So – what they did was to allow all these people to apply to be made “Professor’, with the proviso that the special promotion didn’t carry any extra salary. I know one or two people who were in this group. I also remember hearing a rumour that a very high-profile scientist who we have previously discussed on here was another.

  12. Stephen says:

    Sorry I’m late to the party but congratulations Austin. Hope you can celebrate, even if it’s just with a beer at home. You have quite a knack of being funny and serious at the same time.

    • That’s because my life is so splendidly rich in tragicomic elements, Stephen.

      Actually, one of my long-time colleagues and sometime collaborators at The Bunker started the very same day as me, Feb 1st 1987. He got the same HR letter, so we and a few mates celebrated with a pint at the Friday lunchtime lab meeting last week. Though with it being the kids’ half-term week next week a curry might also be in order. If I’m not too busy marking.

  13. Frank says:

    Congrats, Austin, from me too. I will reach my silver jubilee here in 2 years, just before we close. My predecessor put in 37 years all told, so I cannot catch him up. Quite a few people here retire with 20 plus years of service, some over 40.

    I am not convinced that overweaning ambition (spot the loaded word!) is all its cracked up to be. There is something to be said for staying power and being content with what you have, enjoying the constantly-changing challenges provided by staying in one place rather than always seeking out new challenges elsewhere. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?