Changing Patterns of Work

I read an interesting piece in yesterday’s Observer about a number of people who have decided to switch careers, or at least change the pattern of their working life, relatively late in life. Unlike the cases described in the article, I haven’t had the nerve to try an entirely new kind of job – at least not yet! – but I did feel the article in question had some relevance to my own decision, made a few months ago, to resign from my previous post as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex and move back to Cardiff.

I’m not going to go into all the reasons for stepping down, but one of them is I wanted to establish a better work-life balance. Fortunately, I never sold my little house in Cardiff and had also paid off the mortgage on that property some years ago, so returning to live there full-time was relatively straightforward and meant reducing my outgoings considerably.  I was therefore more than happy to accept the offer of a position here on a 50% salary. In other words, I am officially a part-time member of staff. I’m planning to use the other 50% to pursue some other interests, such as writing a couple of books and running the Open Journal of Astrophysics, but generally just taking more time off the treadmill of academic life.

Another thing I ought to mention is that my current position is fixed-term, for three years only. The earliest I’ll be able to retire is when I am  55, which is still a couple of years away. Whether I do go then depends on a number of things, including how difficult the University funding environment becomes as a result of loss of EU income and the proposed large reduction in numbers of overseas students.  If things become really tight I think it’s important for people of my age to make way so that the younger generation have a better chance. Perhaps I won’t retire at that time anyway. Perhaps I’ll follow the example of the folk in the Observer piece and start a new career as something completely different!

Having said that I’m a part-time member of staff, I have to also admit that I’m finding it quite difficult actually working part-time. This is largely because the University’s calendar of business continues at a full-time rate. Some of the jobs I’ve been asked to do in my new role – specifically designing a couple of  new postgraduate courses – had to be completed quite soon after I arrived, something I had not realized when I accepted the position here! However, now that those deadlines have been met I can hopefully settle down to a regular pattern of work, involving a bit of teaching and research in the School of Physics & Astronomy and helping get the Data Innovation Research Institute off the ground. When things have settled into a steady state I think I’ll start filling in time sheets – not for anyone else’s use, but for my own records. I can manage comfortably on a part-time salary, but I draw the line at unpaid overtime.

On the other hand, it’s always difficult to draw the line when you’re an academic. We’re basically paid to think and most of us don’t stop doing that even during our time off..

13 Responses to “Changing Patterns of Work”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I would add a note of caution for any academics contemplating early retirement who intend to remain active in research or other academic activity. It is essential that they retain membership of a university department, through an emeritus position, a long-term visiting fellowship or other arrangement. There has to be guarantee of a long-term association that will give a university address, access to library facilities (particularly for journal subscriptions), and access to high-performance computing facilities (such as high-capacity internet links for data downloads).

    I found it virtually impossible to continue in research after my last university contract came to end (not through early retirement). I was not offered access to my old department, so it lost a university affiliation that would have given me credibility. Another university much later offered me a visiting fellowship for three years, but that was located geographically very far from where I was living, so that library and other facilities could not be used routinely. So my experiences would lead me to caution academics contemplating early retirement to get guarantees of status and access before accepting any offers.

    • I agree about the advantage of a university affiliation. Some time after I retired my Honorary Senior lectureship was withdrawn without consultation or notification. Emails sent to the head of the school were ignored. Some years later I had an email that told me that I should not use the departments name in any scientific correspondence. I believe that the cause of my ostracization was my arguing that there is strong evidence for a static universe. Unfortunately current cosmology has similar characteristics to a religion where there is a strong emphasis on faith over evidence.

    • I know of at least one major institution where most retired full professors don’t even have an office even if they want one, though I think an institutional affiliation can still be claimed.

      Adddress? This in itself shouldn’t be necessary, but unfortunately it sometimes is. Do you want to submit to a journal or attend a conference which won’t let you do so if you don’t have an institutional affiliation? Note that by using an address for this reason, you reinforce this unjust practice.

      Library? Is less important these days. However, I can still see some advantages of a physical library for books which I don’t have and for occasional papers which are not on arXiv. With regard to the latter, do you really want to cite something not on arXiv? Older journals are not a problem (ADS) and newer stuff should be on arXiv. A real problem is that not everyone replaces their submission with the latest, greatest version. I recently had occasion to read the full text of one of Herschel’s papers (the musician and astronomer, not the satellite). I found the full text freely available online. Granted, not everything is, but there is progress.

      Computing? Yes, it is possible to need more resources than one has at home, though this is probably true only for a minority. In most such cases, though, one can probably get enough access via a collaborator.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        In my case I wanted to continue with research and to publish. I was concerned journal editors and referees would not take seriously somebody with only a private address. (I probably wouldn’t!)

        I feel access to a library is needed to remain fully on top of an academic subject. Not all papers appear in the ArXiv and it could be easy to miss important papers. This is changing and the dependency on journal subscriptions is reducing.

        I only had wireless internet access at the time my job ended, with a 3GB per month download limit. Some databases require an institutional affiliation for access.

      • “In my case I wanted to continue with research and to publish. I was concerned journal editors and referees would not take seriously somebody with only a private address. (I probably wouldn’t!)”

        I publish only in journals which do. As long as they exist, I don’t mind not being able to publish in others, though in general it is better to have a choice. Also, some journals might be marginally better suited to some things and so on (though this is becoming less relevant).

  2. “I’m planning to use the other 50% to pursue some other interests, such as writing a couple of books and running the Open Journal of Astrophysics”

    I see that there are three papers there now. One I saw briefly a few months ago then it disappeared again. Is this the real deal, or just a bug that I am seeing these papers? If the former, isn’t a big announcement in order? If the latter, it seems that there is at least one bug somewhere.

    • telescoper Says:

      Between you and me, we have published three articles (and if you look at the corresponding arXiv pages you will see the DOIs we have issued. This is neat because it shows the arXiv is happily reading the metadata we produce.

      However, in running these papers through the system we identified some serious workflow issues. Fortunately we now have a grant from the Moore Foundation and have employed someone to revamp the necessary parts of the platform. When this is done we will do an official launch.

      The authors of the first three papers needed to have their papers published, but we didn’t want to encourage a flood of new submissions before the fixes are in place, which is why we have been quiet.

      • Thanks for the update. I’ll be waiting for the Big Announcement.

      • “However, in running these papers through the system we identified some serious workflow issues.”

        For what it’s worth, only one out of three browsers show the PDF when selecting a paper (and it takes a while). I can try more, but if 2 out of 3 both work (all are relatively new versions of modern browsers), there is probably something wrong.

        With a list, I like the ability to “open in a new tab”; the context menu doesn’t provide it. At the very least, there should be a normal link to the corresponding arXiv page.

        Since the grant is from the Moore Foundation, can we expect the number of papers to double every 18 months? 🙂

      • telescoper Says:

        We don’t actually keep a local PDF at the OJ site; it is pulled from the arXiv every time you access it.

      • It’s not even easy to cut and paste the DOI links. 😦

      • “We don’t actually keep a local PDF at the OJ site; it is pulled from the arXiv every time you access it.”

        Maybe that is why it takes a bit. This delay is acceptable, but it doesn’t work in all (even relatively new) browsers.

        Actually, someone on a slow connection would probably not like this. A link to arXiv would be easier to implement and, as a normal link, I would be able to open it in a new tab.

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