Quinquennial Reflection

One of the consequences of having written a blog for quite some time is that the back catalogue of posts provides reminders of significant anniversaries, and the opportunity to reflect on them. In this vein I noted that five years ago today, 29th July 2016 (a Friday), was my last day in office as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University, a position I had held for three and a half years.

All I really remember of that last day was doing some packing and saying goodbye to some of the people I’d worked with there. I also broke down in tears twice. It’s not easy admitting defeat. Fortunately, it being summer, there were only a few people around to witness the waterworks.

I didn’t tell many people at Sussex of the main reason for my departure. There were work-related reasons – largely intense frustration with certain decisions made by Senior Management – but the main reason was that my Mam had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her decline weighed too heavily on my mind for me to be able to function in that position. Although I think quite a few folk there feel I let them down by leaving before the end of my term, I still think it was the right decision. In fact I don’t think I really had any choice.

Incidentally, in summer 2016 there was a handover at the top of Sussex University. Michael Farthing had been V-chancellor when I arrived and he was replaced by Adam Tickell whom I met only once and only briefly before I departed. Now it seems he is stepping down after his 5-year term to become Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham University. There’ll no doubt be a new VC in post soon.

The first I knew about her final illness was at the end of 2015 when I visited Newcastle for Christmas and noticed how much her memory and behavior had changed. Shortly after that came the official diagnosis. Her condition deteriorated rapidly thereafter as dementia cruelly took hold and in 2018, being virtually completely incapacitated, she had to move into a care home. Fortunately she seemed relatively happy there. In the end it was pneumonia that took her, but at least she slipped away gently towards the end of 2019.

By leaving Sussex to go take up a part-time position, I had a notion that I might be able to help look after Mam, but I found the whole situation too painful and other things got in the way. In other words, I made excuses for myself. I wasn’t strong enough to contribute anything significant and the burden fell almost exclusively on the shoulders of others. I know I’ll never be able to put that right.

Having moved back to Cardiff it seemed my future was settled. I had a part-time position for a fixed term of three years. There was no guarantee (or indeed likelihood) of employment beyond that so I’d reconciled myself to taking early retirement in summer 2019 and disappearing into well-deserved obscurity. I fancied I might try my hand at setting crosswords to while away the time.

Then in 2017 I heard about a job opportunity at Maynooth, applied for it, and much to my surprise was offered it. I decided to accept it for reasons outlined here. I started here in December 2017, initial part-time alongside my part-time position at Cardiff. I resigned entirely from Cardiff in 2018 at which point my job here in Maynooth became full-time.

It seems no sooner I had I settled in as a full-time member of staff than I was made Head of Department of Theoretical Physics and no sooner had that happened than the Covid-19 pandemic struck. That not only increased my workload a lot (as it did for every member of staff) but made the logistics of buying a house and moving my possessions exceedingly difficult. If I’d known there was some urgency I might have been able to do it all in 2019 before the pandemic, but that didn’t happen. I did manage to buy a house in 2020 but my remaining belongings won’t be joining me from Cardiff until next month.

Despite the complications – and workload issues – I don’t regret the move to Maynooth. Whether the University feels the same is another question.

I often think the University would have been better off appointing a more junior Lecturer than a senior Professor given that so much of the workload in my current position involves teaching relatively introductory material and there is consequently very little time for research. Even less than I had at Sussex, actually. I have only published a few bits and pieces since 2017.

On the other hand, I am pleased at the steady progress being made by the Open Journal of Astrophysics and hope to have some further news on this front next month.

In summary, then, it has been a very strange five years altogether. Nothing has really gone the way I anticipated. Best laid plans and all that. The strangest thing, though, is that July 29th 2016 seems in the incredibly distant past. Perhaps that is because so many strange things have happened?

Having learnt a lesson from the last five years I’m not going to make predictions for the next five, nor even the next one! I hope we get through the pandemic sooner rather than later, and I hope the restructuring of Physics at Maynooth enables it to grow and prosper.

2 Responses to “Quinquennial Reflection”

  1. Francis Says:

    At what stage of your life did you decide to become an astrophysicist? Did you always want to do it, even at a young age (A-levels)? Or did you drift into it.

    Did you also think you would end up as a senior professor, spending a lot of your time on management?

    I went to university to do maths/physics with the intention of becoming a maths teacher. Suspect that many of my colleagues wish I had….

  2. Dorothy Lamb Says:

    29 July 2016 – a strange, sad and emotional day for me too, having had the most glorious time being your ‘umble servant. One of the most enjoyable periods of my working career, Peter.

    (half Northern Irish and half real Midlander) Miss Lemon

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