….but we are all fabulous.
What does an academic do?
This is a useful question to pose to new undergraduates. But given the below the line comments I have read today about the current strike action, it might also be a question that should be put to the media, the public and especially the government. In addition to the myth about long summer holidays (this is when we attend conferences, write research articles, set and mark resit exams, prepare teaching for the following academic year and, yes, take our annual leave) there are the comments about not enough contact hours. I won’t get into the debate about how many hours contact a student should have here, but I mention this point because the implication is often that we don’t do very much for our money.
So, as a senior lecturer (equivalent to associate professor) in a UK university, I thought I would try to capture some of the things I do. I have, inevitable, missed out lots of the bits and pieces that make up academic life and no doubt I will come back and amend this blog post as they occur to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. I consider myself fortunate to have a job and certainly to have this one. I spent 7 years studying to be able to be considered for this career and I know that not everyone makes it and that many of my colleagues are on casual contracts with no career security in sight. But it does become extremely frustrating when academics are portrayed as lazy or money-grabbing or somehow not working hard enough. This is just simply not true and I hope I give you a sense of that below:
TEACHING – this is the most visible part of our role along with marking
Weekly seminar classes
Weekly research methods lab classes
Lectures to 1st, 2nd, 3rd year and masters students across 7 modules
Supervision of final year dissertation students who each do their own research project. I meet with them 1 to 1 and help them design, run, analyse and write up the study.
We have ~600 undergraduate students on our degree course, each taking between 6-12 modules across 3 years in my School. Most modules have 2 pieces of assessment, most of which are written rather than multiple choice, leading to around 6000-8000 pieces of coursework a year marked by ~25 full and part time members of teaching active staff. Each piece of coursework is between 1000 and 10,000 words long and receives written feedback).
Marking and 2nd marking of essays and lab reports within the mandatory 3 week turnaround (most recently this was 35 x 2500 word essays). The 3 week turnaround is irrespective of other activities such as teaching, conferences, research, other marking etc.
Marking and 2nd marking of exam scripts
Marking and 2nd marking of final year dissertations – usually around 20-25 x 5-10 000 word dissertations (also commenting on drafts of the work)
Marking of final year project presentations (also commenting on drafts of the work)
ADMIN ASSOCIATED WITH TEACHING
Quality assurance associated with teaching – this involves collecting student feedback and completing end of module reports on the modules I lead on, writing reports for the external examiner, observing colleagues teaching and writing reports, making sure that my modules cover BPS accredited topic areas, keeping abreast of current research in each of the areas I teach, updating teaching materials and so on.
Meetings with students who wish to discuss the marks awarded on coursework and exams.
Personal tutor meetings – we are allocated around 40 personal tutees each and we offer meetings to them 4/5 times per year. They are additionally able to come and see us at other times if they need/wish to.
Office hours – students can meet with us by appointment but we also have office hours every week so they can drop in.
Regular BSc meetings of the whole teaching staff – for dissemination of teaching related information.
Annual teaching course review day to make curriculum changes, course changes, etc.
Emails – emails from students, prospective students, colleagues, reference requests, requests for grant reviewing, journal reviewing, requests for information from the university such as teaching evaluation, etc. Over the past 5 years I have sent 25,000 emails (that’s what is in my Sent folder since 2011) – that’s 5000 per year or 100 per week. Assuming each one takes around 2 minutes to read on average (some take much less time but equally some take MUCH more time), think about and respond to, that’s 200 minutes every week on emails – equivalent to over 3 hours per week.
Weekend open days – we staff these and make presentations to potential students and their parents. We each do at least 2 of these through the year.
School meetings, these are to consider the wider issues across the School and university e.g. around research, postgraduate teaching etc.
Athena SWAN – this is a charter set up by the Equality Challenge Unit to tackle gender inequalities in academia. The Unit give three levels of award – Bronze, Silver and Gold. From next year, Silver will be a requirement for being able to apply for certain research grants. We currently have Bronze and on our behalf I recently applied for Silver which involved writing a 10000 word report on what actions we had undertaken in the past 3 years. These actions are initiated and coordinated by me and include running an annual staff and student survey to assess perceptions and the impact of our activities.
References – current and past students apply for jobs. We provide references for them.
Visiting schools to encourage teenagers to consider coming to university.
I coordinate our speaker schedule. This involves writing to academics at other universities and inviting them to give talks, scheduling them in, hosting the talks and all the associated administration. This is part of the Masters programme as well as being good for research.
The best university teaching is research-led. This enables us to deliver cutting edge information to our undergraduates. Research-led teaching is best conducted by active researchers. In addition the university is not just funded by teaching income, but also by research income. Research income is brought in directly by research grants which we apply for and less directly by the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – a monitoring exercise which takes place every 8 years or so and evaluates the quality of our research using the quality of our research publications as one measure.
We are expected to submit a minimum of 2 research journal articles, 2 conference presentations and 1 grant application per year.
For my research, 1 research article requires collecting data from around 100 participants which takes around 50 hours of data collection time. Of course that is only part of the process, we have to design the study based on current research, get ethical approval, recruit participants, conduct the research, input and analyse the data, write the research article and submit it for publication. The best journals have around an 80% rejection rate or higher. This doesn’t mean the research rejected is no good, just that the field is very competitive.
Conference presentations are also based on research findings and I try to attend one national and one international conference a year if possible. This may sound glamorous and of course they can be fun, but they are also work. So I spend 3-5 days of attending conference talks twice a year.
Grant applications can have an even higher rejection rate than journal articles. These require completion of long documents with a breakdown of relevant research, your proposed ideas, a breakdown of funding required and so on. A good application can take months to refine and it goes through several processes of internal review before it can be submitted.
PhD students – I am currently involved in supervising 3 PhD students.
Visiting other Universities to give research talks.
We are expected to do some scholarship activities as well. Mine include:
Reviewing research articles for journals (each publication has been peer reviewed by experts in their field) – this is unpaid work.
Being involved with subject regulatory bodies – I am involved in voluntary roles within the BPS.
External examining – as part of quality control across the country each department has external examiners who scrutinise exams and coursework procedures and marking. I do this for another University. I receive a small stipend for this.
Other roles that academics cover in my School include:
Exams officers – they compile and scrutinise all marks across all modules, liaise with external examiners,
Academic Conduct Officers – when students commit academic misconduct a hearing takes place with one of the ACOs.
Ethics Committee – all research, including 200 undergraduate dissertation projects per year are scrutinised to make sure they adhere to ethical principles.
Programme Director – has oversight of the undergraduate curriculum
Director of Learning and Teaching – has oversight of all teaching in the School – undergraduate, postgraduate and other courses
Research Director – oversees the research in the school and coordinates our REF submission
Head of School
Outreach Officer – visits Schools and coordinates other colleagues who visit schools to do presentations etc
Year Tutors – when students need extensions or to miss coursework due to personal problems or health, they see the year tutors
Staff-student liaison officer – our staff-student liaison committee meets several times a year to ensure that the students have a voice and can raise any issues they may have and so that we can get their input on new developments within the School.
Disability Officer – works with students with huge range of conditions from dyslexia to schizophrenia to visual impairment
Diversity Officer – works to ensure that diversity issues are represented within the School and that students from diverse backgrounds are empowered.