This year I will…

As one year ends and the next begins, newspapers and social media will be flooded with articles about how to make and keep New Year’s resolutions. I don’t do resolutions, but since moving to the UK two years ago, I have starting doing themes.

In 2016 the theme was ‘Settling In’. I gave myself permission to spend the year getting settled in a new country, a new job, a new house, and a new community. In 2017 the theme was ‘Kicking Arse’. I gave myself permission to spend the year working around the clock to expand my international collaborations, apply for major research funding, and develop and deliver new modules for my students.

Ever the over-achiever, however, I’ve been a little too good at working to a theme. In 2016 that wasn’t a problem. Settling in is a good thing. I fully embraced British life and now I have a wonderful community of friends and colleagues in my adopted home. In 2017, however, it was slightly less functional. Although I totally kicked arse, it came at the cost of my health. In order to achieve my professional goals, I sacrificed my nights, my weekends, my holidays, my swimming, and my yoga. And now I’m knackered. As someone with an autoimmune disease, I really can’t afford to sacrifice rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation. My professional goals are important, but the work is not sustainable if my body can’t keep up.

So my theme for 2018 is ‘Find the Stillness’. I am going to give myself permission to spend the year being content with wherever I’m at. This will be a year of making peace with body’s limitations and rejoicing in its strengths. It will be a year of striving to achieve my professional goals and accepting that I will never achieve them as soon as I’d like or exactly how I’d planned. It will be a year of finding the calm in the storm through swimming, yoga, reading, knitting, and meditation. And most importantly, it will be a year of surrounding myself with people who see the value in stillness. Because stillness is not stagnation. Rather, it is the start of all great things. And as Pico Iyer says, “In an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. In an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.”

What’s your theme for 2018?

Yes, but…

I just finished reading Mary Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto. Although I admire Beard’s work, her ability to make history accessible, and her persistence in the face of blatant misogyny, this is not a manifesto. It is a brief and fascinating account of the problematic relationship between women and power all the way from the Greeks and Romans to Theresa May and Hilary Clinton. But it is not a manifesto. It offers no suggestions for how we might move forward, no fundamental principles around which women might unite, and no call to arms for the men who wish to support us. It simply tells us what we already know: women are screwed.

The systemic and persistent gender problems in academia have been the topic of many a discussion amongst my female colleagues over the last few weeks. We are all facing the same problems, but have no collective voice and no power to create change. When I pointed out some blatant gender discrimination in a recent staff meeting, not one other woman spoke up. But six approached me afterwards to thank me for what I’d said and share their experience of the exact same discrimination. Likewise, when we express our concerns to men in power, each incident is seen as an unfortunate one-off. There is no appreciation of the cumulative effect of these incidents over the course of a career. When I pointed out recently that all but one of the staff teaching on a module I convene are women, a senior male academic told me it was “an accident”. It is no accident. It is the direct result of a system in which women must be team players, but it’s every man for himself.

It was in this context that I eagerly read Women and Power and that several of my colleagues asked if they could borrow it when I was done.  But sadly Beard’s book provides no rallying point for me or my academic colleagues. And we’re the privileged ones. White, middle class, PhD-educated, and in continuing, well-paid appointments. There is even less in Beard’s book for our non-academic sisters who make minimum wage cleaning university toilets or providing administrative support, and almost nothing for women whose disadvantage is compounded by their ethnicity, sexuality, or disability.

As the female history teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys says “What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket!” Women and Power is a timely and well-crafted reminder that although a lot has changed for women, much remains the same. A manifesto is exactly what we need, but this ain’t it.

Fit Your Own Mask First

Academic travel is pain and anyone who says differently is selling something.

Apologies to Cary Elwes for bastardising his great line, but I’ve recently returned from the worst trip in 12 years of professional travel and I’m feeling a little tender. The Princess Bride was on the TV in one of the five hotels I slept in over the last fortnight. Or maybe it was in one of the two airports I was forced to sit in overnight because an airline had cancelled my flight or a hotel had lost my booking. It’s hard to remember because so much went wrong on this trip. But somewhere between Exeter, Gatwick, Tampa, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Tampa, Gatwick and Exeter, I watched the Princess Bride and the line about pain resonated.

Travel is essential for academic work. It is the key to building relationships, conducting truly collaborative research, learning about the latest developments in your field, and disseminating research findings. And when it’s good, it’s really good. But when it’s bad, it’s painful. The financial costs are never fully covered (and frequently not covered at all), the preparation and recovery time is often longer than the trip itself, work piles up while you’re away (so you return to what’s affectionately known as a shit-storm), you eat bad food, you eat expensive food, your exercise options are limited, the time difference cuts you off from friends and family, the language barrier (if you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language) is exhausting, and you never fly business class. Raul Pacheco-Vega and Pamela Gay have both written recently about the toll that academic travel takes on personal finances and the environment. In addition to these, it also takes a toll on physical health, mental health, and personal relationships.

When I returned from my most recent trip it was three days before I could get out of bed without crying. The extended stress of the trip – physical, psychological, and financial – was more than I could cope with and my body simply shut down. On a recent trip to Sweden a colleague, on hearing that I was travelling for two weeks, asked how old my children were. The question was so problematic I didn’t even know where to begin. She was making at least one (though most likely two) of the following three assumptions: (1) My children were old enough to stay home without me for two weeks; (2) I had a husband who didn’t travel for work and was at home with the children; (3) I was a bad mother for leaving my children behind. What she didn’t realise is that I’m single and childless, another consequence of more than a decade of academic travel.

My sister and I frequently remind each other to ‘fit your own mask first’. Stolen from the safety demonstration on every flight, it has become our shorthand for dealing with the complexities of our highly dysfunctional family. It’s also a good mantra for academic travel.

So in the interests of fitting my own mask first, I’ve put together some rules for academic travel. Rules I intend to follow from here on, to minimise the toll of travelling for research.

  1. No travelling for work unless someone else is paying and the trip is fully costed.
  2. No more than one destination per trip.
  3. No more than three international trips per year.
  4. No less than one month between trips.
  5. No cheap fares or hotel deals. Fully refundable/changeable or you don’t go.
  6. Do not sacrifice personal holidays for professional travel.

Have you got any other tips for keeping your physical, mental and financial health in check when you travel for research? Leave me a comment!


Non-Required Reading: Redux

A few years ago I wrote a post about the importance of reading for pleasure in academia and suggested a non-required reading list for PhD students. The basic premise was that although great writing comes from great reading, great reads are rarely found in academic journals. Instead, if students want to write well, they need to immerse themselves in quality fiction, narrative non-fiction, essays, feature writing, memoir, and poetry. In short, phrasebanks are not the answer to poor academic prose, Shakespeare is!

There’s been a lot of interest in my Non-Required Reading List recently, so I thought I would revisit it. But rather than making the list prescriptive, as I did last time, I thought I would offer a simple framework and a list of resources. This would give students and supervisors more flexibility in how they approach the list and allow the resources to grow over time as I discover and remember other great reads (or you suggest them!).

Every month you should aim to read four long-form articles of your choice from Long Reads, The Atlantic, or Mosaic, and one quality work of fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.





Can you recommend other great reads that should be added to the Resources? Or have you got feedback on how you or your students have used the Non-Required Reading List? Leave me a comment!


Care: A Reading List

There’s a piece of street art in my home town that says “The more I think about it, the bigger it gets”. I was reminded of it during a recent visit to Keele University when a conversation with colleagues turned to recreational reading. I always have a book on the go and I’ve written before about the importance of good reading for good academic writing, but the conversation at Keele made me realise how much my recreational reading overlaps with my professional interests, particularly my interest in care. And it’s not deliberate, it’s just that once you start thinking about care, you see it everywhere. The more you think about it, the bigger it gets.

Not everything I’ve read, however, has been good. I’ve read many books that, while undoubtedly cathartic for the author to write, should never have been published for general consumption. So I wanted to celebrate the good books. The books that are both beautifully written and true to the experiences of carers (both family & professional). The books that expand your mind and tear at your heart. The books that I regularly recommend to friends, strangers, students, and colleagues.

I hope to continue to add to this list over time, as I read new books and remember old ones, but I’d also welcome your suggestions. What’s the best thing you’ve read that explores the concept of care?

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Home is Burning by Dan Marshall

Shtum by Jem Lester

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Bettyville by George Hodgman

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum


And the beat goes on

The findings from my first collaboration with European colleagues were published this week. This is a significant milestone for me, because it’s exactly the kind of collaborative, international research I was pursuing when I packed up my life and moved to the UK just over a year ago. More importantly, however, it’s a significant contribution to a growing body of research on suicide and homicide risk in people caring for family members with dementia.

My previous research showed that 1 in 6 carers had contemplated suicide in the previous twelve months, that only half of them had ever told anyone they felt this way, and that 20% of them were likely to attempt suicide in the future. This research also found no difference in the rate of suicidal thinking experienced by carers supporting a person with dementia at home, carers supporting a person with dementia in a nursing home, and carers who had been recently bereaved. These were ground-breaking findings and they generated significant interest from the community, the media, playwrights, and other researchers. But there was still so much we needed to understand.

In particular, the research was cross-sectional, so we were only capturing suicidal thoughts at one point in time. Consequently, we didn’t know how thoughts of suicide changed over time and whether carers who thought about suicide after the person with dementia moved into care, or after they died, had also thought about it while caring at home.

This new research addresses that issue. The article has been published ‘open access’, which means you can read the entire thing here for free, but to summarise briefly:

  • The study followed almost 200 carers in the Netherlands for two years, none of whom had depression or anxiety at baseline
  • Over the 2 year period, 40% of carers developed depression and were assessed for thoughts of suicide
  • 12% reported thoughts of suicide, with one third of those reporting suicidal thoughts at multiple time points
  • Thoughts of suicide were seen in various patterns, including only before the person with dementia was admitted to a nursing home, before and after the person was admitted to a nursing home, only after the person was admitted to a nursing home, and after the person with dementia died.

These findings support my previous research and show the incredible toll that caring can take, particularly at key transition points such as institutionalisation and death.

What they also show is that thoughts of suicide are not unique to Australian carers, but rather appear to transcend social, cultural, and political boundaries. Although more research is required to understand how the health and social care policies of different countries might influence suicidal thinking, this is another important step toward understanding and preventing suicide-related thoughts and behaviours in family carers.

It is heartbreaking to do research that shows, time after time, how little the world cares about carers. They are the invisible scaffolding that holds up every part of our society and our communities would crumble without them. This research is only a small contribution to efforts to recognise and support the wonderful work of family carers, but, added to my other work and that of my colleagues around the world, I hope it is a meaningful one.

As ever, nothing good is done alone. I am indebted to Dr Karlijn Joling, Professor Cees Hertogh, and Professor Hein van Hout, who conducted the research that provided data for this study. I am particularly grateful to Karlijn, who led the analysis of the data and was a joy to write with. Karlijn, Cees, and Hein share my passion for research that cares and I look forward to our continued collaborationsl


Pimm’s & Privilege

Last night I drank Pimm’s, played Giant Jenga, and relaxed in a deck chair while a band played 80s classics on the quad. Provided free of charge by the university as part of an initiative to make staff feel valued and reduce stress, the Pimm’s, the games, and the music were the perfect end to a tough morning reading about people who kill their loved ones and a productive afternoon building new research collaborations.

Last week I played hostess when a friend came to Exeter for a job interview. I took him on a tour of the town and introduced him to all my favourite colleagues. I have since been sending pictures and text messages, as he decides whether or not to accept the job, extolling the virtues of the place I now call home.

Today I checked my privilege.

It’s easy to enjoy a Pimm’s and some live music, when you have a permanent job. It’s easy to put down roots and say how wonderful a place is, when leaving is a choice not a necessity. It’s easy to commit to new collaborations, when you know you’ll be around to see them through. And although exploring difficult topics in research is never easy, it’s definitely easier to step away for some self-care when you know you’re playing the long game.

A recent report from the UCU documented the number of staff on insecure contracts at universities around the UK. At my university it’s nearly 70%. So I am definitely one of the privileged few.

But it wasn’t that long ago that things were very different. I’ve written before about my experiences of doing research on short-term contracts (see herehere, and here) and it was less than a year ago that working in a pub in Wollongong was looking like the most viable way to make a living. But what I realised today was how easy it is to forget. How easy it is to embrace a life of privilege and dismiss the concerns of others because they are no longer my concerns. How easy it is to dance to a bad cover of My Sharona, while somewhere a postdoc is crying in their office.

Of course, to co-opt Tim Minchin’s great lyric, a permanent job in academia’s not all wine and roses; sometimes it’s handcuffs and cheese. I’m currently paying off a $6,000 credit card debt because the university’s relocation allowance didn’t cover the cost of the move. I haven’t slept in my own bed since November. I haven’t held my nephews or hugged my sister since Christmas. And I won’t be able to attend my godson’s christening. I’m also having to build an entirely new network of research collaborations and navigate new research, education, and health systems. And it’s been a long, hard road to get here.

But, in the words of Jeanann Verlee, those bruises will fall off eventually. The challenge now is what to do with my privilege. How to use it to support those around me who are still facing insecurity and instability. How to be the voice for those who aren’t in a position to shout for themselves. And how to offer guidance that is both practical and sensitive. I’m not sure what that will look like yet, but I think I’ll start by buying the next round of Pimm’s.