The challenge of saying ‘no’ to academic requests


Stuart and Rob and colleagues in the comments lift the lid on the difficulties of saying ‘no’. Declining opportunities, prioritising current activities. I’m finding this to be a real challenge, but I now ask myself the following question – if I say no now, what difference will this ‘no’ mean in 6-12 months time? Admittedly I’m not invited to give 25-45 talks per year, but there are pressures on my time that there weren’t 4 years ago. Another academic skill they don’t teach us but we learn by doing! This post is definitely worth reading.

Originally posted on Progressive Geographies:

Last year Rob Kitchin had a short post on his blog ‘The View from the Blue House’:

Over the past couple of years I’ve been getting more and more invites to do work that extends beyond my usual day to day work.  This last week has bought it home to me that I really need to try and put a strategy in place to manage how I deal with these requests.  Excluding spam, I was asked to: edit a handbook; write an op ed; review two papers, one grant application, and a set of document for a municipality; present five invited talks; attend six other events; and give six media interviews.  That’s over twenty additional jobs, which collectively would take up more than a working week in time, only one of which provides any recompense.  My inclination is to try and be helpful and do as many as I…

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Secret diary of an Athena SWAN lead (re-blogged)

Brick Walls: Diary of a SAGES Athena SWAN Lead by Hilary Geoghegan

Wednesday 10th June
I receive a forwarded email from a SAGES colleague with a link to a Guardian article “Nobel scientist, Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs”. It was accompanied by the message ‘sigh!’ 


Thursday 11th June

Friday 12th June
I spot our technical manager coming down the corridor – I say something like: ‘what are you going to do about all this falling in love in the labs? It must be a health and safety nightmare’. We laugh. We bump into one of our scientists, I say, we’re talking about the idea that people fall in love in labs and women cry. We discuss the move on Twitter to highlight the issue #distractinglysexy. The scientist tells me that she and one of our students have already taken some photos to draw attention to the issue. A few hours later, we put out a blogpost containing photos of our scientists responding to the global trend of raising the profile of women in science: 

No falling in love in the lab!

Saturday 13th June
Barbecue with friends. The conversation moves to the latest news in science – the remarks from a world-respected scientist: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”. It’s a comment that clearly divides opinion. On the one hand, these are comments made by an individual based upon personal experience. On the other hand, taken out of context, they add to the list of remarks that damage the reputation of women scientists. Because this comment suggests that women are the agents of trouble here. Our conversation continued with a discussion about how we work in close proximity with others, not just in labs, but office spaces, and attachments are bound to form on occasion. This story is clearly not just a topic for discussion within science.

Sunday 14th June

Monday 15th June
I attended the ‘Student Wellbeing in Tertiary Education’ policy in practice workshop led by members of the School of Politics, Economics and International Relations. The event showcased the results of The Student Wellbeing Project set up in 2011 to “study how student wellbeing, performance, productivity and satisfaction with university provision are related”. Sarah Morgan from the Cabinet Office argued that whilst the number of women going to university had increased, a pronounced gender difference remained around subject choice. She also noted that there remained clear gender differentials with respect to a widening pay gap and lifetime earnings. The male graduate premium is approx. £121k and the female graduate premium is approx. £80k. Career breaks, discrimination and other unexplained elements were offered as reasons. Sarah went on to argue that we need to value women and the roles they do. There needs to be unconscious bias training. Institutions (and society) need to support women into non-traditional areas, offering imaginative solutions, as well as addressing formal inequalities. A linear career progression isn’t feasible for all in 2015. These are the sorts of issues that the Athena SWAN awards seek to address.


Tuesday 16th June
Flexible working from home.

Wednesday 17th June
Results day for our finalists in Geography and Environmental Science. I turn up to work. I chat with my colleagues in the GES office as I usually do. We are laughing. I get a tap on the shoulder. Could I come to see a student who is upset? I do so immediately. I’ve never met this student before. The student confides in me. I do my best to help and reassure.

This moment puts the events of the past week in sharp relief.

Last Wednesday there was a ‘facepalm’ from colleagues as we read the comments about women scientists. Some of my colleagues responded in a light-hearted way to a difficult and serious topic, joining a community of scientists from around the world (regardless of scientific discipline) to draw attention to the place of women in science. I attended a talk about student wellbeing with comments from a government official that reinforced to me that we aren’t as far ahead on these issues as perhaps many of us assume we are. And then after a day of writing at home with these things running through my mind – I turn up to work and meet an early-career scientist who is carrying the weight of many of these issues. We’ve made a great start in SAGES, but we can and we must do more and better on this issue. This will benefit staff and students.

Thursday 18th June
I receive an email from my Head of School – “Have you seen the brilliant Twitter feed from women scientists across the world responding to Tim Hunt? Some archaeologists and geologists among them. Should we share this with colleagues?” This brings a smile to my face – this social media story has piqued the interest of our gender and archaeology professor. Brilliant. I reply almost immediately, sharing the blogpost from last Friday with our #distractinglysexy scientists. Our Head of School sends out a School-wide email asking colleagues to check out Twitter and check out our blog. Chances are that because it has come from our Head of School, the hits on our blog are going through the roof. They did – 146 views before 2pm!

Environmental Management students falling in love AND working

A short while later, it turns out that the blogpost has divided opinion within the School on how or even whether we should respond publicly to these pressing issues. Two colleagues reply commenting that whilst they have a good sense of humour, this blogpost might be a step too far and regarded as unprofessional. They call for the blogpost to be removed. I thought this might happen. I blog about academic life on my own site and I know the mixed reactions that something like this can lead to. However, the overwhelming response to the blogpost (that has remained on our site) was positive. It was positive for a number of reasons: i) it got people talking. Talking to each other and talking about these issues. Colleagues emailed and turned up in person to support our Head of School’s decision to retain the blogpost; ii) the scientists who participated were connected to something bigger than our SAGES community, standing in solidarity for the important issue of women in science; iii) our blog attracted a new audience. An audience that have on occasion relayed to me – stop blogging and write papers; and iv) it revealed to many the work we are doing and must continue to do within SAGES to facilitate an open discussion on equality, diversity and wellbeing.

Friday 19th June
My focus in this blogpost on my everyday experience this week reminds me of the work by feminist and queer theorist Professor Sara Ahmed, who describes how equality and diversity work is about coming up against brick walls. We need to come up against these walls in order to bring the issues to life and transform our workplace. In Ahmed’s research, some participants described equality and diversity work ‘as banging your head against a brick wall’. As Athena SWAN lead for our School, this certainly rings a bell. Yet, without coming up against these brick walls and creating a space to discuss and breakdown these walls, our School and Departments will never be the equal places we aspire to.

Perspectives on Gender and Fieldwork Conference: some reflections by Hilary Geoghega

Reblogged from SAGE(S) Advice: Fieldwork, Gender & Careers

On 29th April 2015, 50 academics, researchers, students and invited guests of the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science gathered to share their experiences and perspectives on the theme of ‘Gender and Fieldwork’. Fieldwork can be broadly defined as the work we do to research the natural and social world. It is also a common activity across all of the disciplines represented in our School, whether as undergraduate archaeology students digging at our field schools in Silchester or Pewsey Vale, on geography fieldclasses to Crete, Dublin or the Lake District, or as postgraduates, researchers and academics working in locations around the world. Gender is a subject of academic study for many of our students and staff. We are fortunate enough to boast colleagues who lead their discipline on ‘gender and archaeology’, research gendered identities in the Caribbean and UK and have been honoured as one of 7 British women geographic ‘foremothers’.

Hilary Geoghegan addressing the audience at the start of the conference

Forming part of the School’s Bronze Athena SWAN Award and our blog ‘SAGE(S) Advice: fieldwork, gender and careers’, the conference offered an opportunity to consider as a School what it means to be an archaeologist, geographer or environmental scientist in the 21st century and what role gender plays in our fieldwork experiences and chosen career paths. Indeed, whilst we have fantastic female role models within our School, the continued proliferation of reports, newspaper articles, blogs and tweets on gender equality issues, as well as initiatives such as Athena SWAN that seeks to ensure adequate opportunities for women in academic life – gender remains very much on the agenda in higher education in 2015. Our conference was a very local contribution to understanding this more fully. For those on Twitter – check out #SAGESfieldwork for tweets from the event.

Sophie Bowlby - one of the guest speakers

All the best bits of the SAGES Gender & Fieldwork Conference and the Norma Wilkinson lecture are now gathered in one place!

John Carson - Postdoctoral Research Assistant in GES presenting during the 'meet the professionals' session

Following a brief introduction from me (as School Equality Officer), our Head of School Professor Roberta Gilchrist introduced our Athena SWAN Bronze Award and asked participants to ‘think creatively’ about gender and its relationship to fieldwork. In particular, she asked our students in the audience to reflect on the theme of gender as they go forward in their careers. Whilst ‘gender’ may not seem relevant as undergraduates, many participants highlighted how once in the workplace it is surprising how gender is a cause for concern, whether relating to equal pay or parental leave, or indeed leadership styles and team working.

To see the Gender and Fieldwork videos shown during the conference see the School’s Youtube channel – 

Amanda Clarke - Director of the Archaeology Field School and a speaker at the conference

We began by hearing from 8 colleagues and friends of the School in a ‘meet the professionals’ session where speakers were invited to share their experiences of gender and fieldwork. Our speakers were:

• Sophie Bowlby – Visiting Research Fellow University of Reading – researching social, feminist, retail & urban geography, mobility & disability, care & friendship

• Gill Hey – Chief Executive Officer Oxford Archaeology, University of Reading alumni (History and Archaeology)

• John Carson – Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Geography and Environmental Science – researching Holocene vegetation and climate in the Neotropics

• Amanda Clarke – Research Fellow, University of Reading – Archaeological Field Methods and Techniques, Director of the Archaeology Field School

• Sophie Webb – Soil surveyor and scientist, Reading Agricultural Consultants, University of Reading alumni (MSc Environmental Management 2011)

• Nick Branch – Head of Department of Geography and Environmental Science, Associate Professor in Palaeoecology

• Natalie Clark – Project Manager UK Environmental Observation Framework (UKEOF) – works to improve coordination of the observational evidence needed to understand and managing the changing natural environment

• Ruth Harris – University of Reading Environmental & Sustainability Co-ordinator, University of Reading alumni (Environmental Science MEnvSci).

Sophie Webb - Soil Surveyor and Scientist with Reading Agricultural Consultants

This was followed by small group discussions where participants reflected on the themes of the conference. I had the pleasure of summing up the event. And I identified 3 key themes that warrant further consideration as we move forward with our Athena SWAN Bronze Award.

Discussion and debate during the conference

First, the importance of the more emotional qualities of fieldwork. Unsurprisingly, our invited speakers and participants spoke with passion, enthusiasm and emotion about their fieldwork activities. Enjoyment and fun relating to fieldwork practices and the scientific endeavour were paramount for many. One speaker said, “There’s nowhere I wouldn’t go to look at soil”. Another said “I love what I do”. The emotional benefits of doing fieldwork could be felt regardless of gender or ability. Indeed, there was also passionate talk about some of the more trying and challenging aspects of being in the field, whether the physical toughness of digging a pit or the mental toughness of interviewing recently bereaved research participants. In addition, I was struck by the audience participation in the sessions and the nods in agreement and laughter that surrounded many of the gender and fieldwork stories shared across the day. Fieldwork is clearly something our School is passionate about.

Small group discussions

Second, as a human geographer, I learnt early on in my career to pay attention to my positionality as researcher and of those I research with. Here Sophie Bowlby, a human geographer at Reading, highlighted the importance of understanding how social location and personal history influences what we see as researchers and how we are seen. For those in our School working in the natural sciences this might have been a new way of thinking about how we are perceived in the field – whether by local collaborators, clients, field assistants or gatekeepers. In the context of ‘gender equality’ initiatives such as Athena SWAN and how we support each other – this is something we need to discuss further. One female speaker described how her fieldwork involved doing environmental assessments and digging test pits. Many of her clients were shocked to find her digging the pit, offering on many occasions to do it for her. Sometimes, we challenge the expectations of those we work with in the course of our fieldwork.


Third, and this is more forward-looking, our discussion was very focussed on the global North, but many of us in our School conduct fieldwork in the global South – whether as human geographers, physical geographers, archaeologists or environmental scientists. The opportunities and challenges are different, as one colleague pointed out – with different social structures, religious beliefs, and modes of communication, to name but a few. Here attention to positionality is vital, but so is thinking about how we – as a School – support our staff and students.

In sum, the event was a celebration of fieldwork. Yet the conference highlighted how the theme of gender equality persists and how gender equality work requires persistence. Personally, I felt there was, as a result of the conference, a renewed commitment by members of our School to a continued culture of equality for all. 8 months ago the Gender and Fieldwork Working Group set out to engage our School on the theme of gender through our varied experiences of fieldwork – I think we fulfilled our aim. Hands were raised and thoughts shared on the need to consider further themes of male caring responsibilities, work/life balance, female approaches to leadership, students with caring responsibilities, and staff/student wellbeing. Our work as a School continues…

The overall winner of the Fieldwork Photograph competition was George Hibberd – congratulations George!  All of the photographs are now on display in the Sorby Room (Wager building) and Russell Meeting Room (Russell building).

'Two best friends enjoying fieldwork in the Mount Teide caldera, Tenerife

Following the conference the School held the Annual Norma Wilkinson Lecture – Into the treasures of the snow: field measurements of snow density in Greenland and Antarctica. This year the speaker was Dr Elizabeth Morris OBE. Dr Morris was the first woman to work deep field in the Antarctic with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and for 13 years was Head of the Ice and Climate Division at BAS (1986-1999). She is currently a Senior Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. Her research is concerned with the mass balance of polar ice sheets, and their response to climate change and is based upon field observations, remote sensing techniques and modelling.

Liz Morris presenting the Annual Norma Wilkinson Lecture

Steve Gurney provides some reflections on this years lecture:

This year we were extremely lucky to have Dr Liz Morris speaking on the subject of snow and the important role it plays in our understanding of polar ice sheets, as found in Greenland and Antarctica. This is ‘big science’, since these days it involves satellite observations from a purpose-built satellite (‘CryoSat-2’ – which cost 140 million Euros) as well as lengthy field campaigns in remote and inaccessible regions (costly, although much cheaper than a satellite). Liz convinced us that fieldwork was still a vital component of this research and continues to play a role in both ice core geochemistry and ice sheet dynamics. These are both topics that we desperately need to research, since they are strongly linked to the science of global climate change. Liz also described how gender and fieldwork in the polar regions has changed over the course of her career. She clearly faced very real discrimination in the early days, but fortunately, the reality now is very different.

Liz Morris 'in the field'

Lecturer to do list…

The small things that make up ‘academic life’…

  1. Sort out VAT on expense claim
  2. Organise marking for seminar reviews 
  3. Review two papers
  4. Organise interview transcription
  5. Sort out consultancy claim
  6. Book student to improve wordpress site
  7. Re-draft sections of Athena SWAN application
  8. Re-draft paper revisions with co-authors
  9. Write dept blogpost
  10. Send out email about dissertation prize 
  11. Share draft of report for feedback
  12. Write a research project to-do list and print out spreadsheet of remaining funds 
  13. Meet colleagues for end of term lunch
  14. Set ‘out of office’
  15. Go on annual leave 

I think I’ll cut to 13, do 14 and try to enjoy 15 without worrying about 1 to 12! Have a great break!!

Clearing my mind with plants 

It’s been a busy 2015 and today I just needed an hour or two to clear my mind and refresh my thinking on what needs to happen before the end of term. I decided getting outside and doing some gardening might be the answer – getting a planty perspective (see work by Atchison and Head at Wollongong for more!). I began by clearing this lovely old acer – planted 50 years ago – of the leaves that had fallen from its neighbour. 

Then a quick check-on the camellia hiding by the shed.

I then got a bit active by tidying up the lawn/paving interface. Who needs a gym membership!!

Finally admiring this gorgeous specimen below. It’s very warm outside today. 

Now – with my mind a bit clearer – I’m going to pick up my work where I left off 2 hours ago. 

Citizen Science Event (for social scientists) in May

Following a superb meeting on citizen science last week – here are a couple of events you might be interested in…

British Ecological Society Citizen Science special interest group’s events in May

The two events are quite different in structure and purpose – but both linked to citizen science (obviously!). Feel free to come along to one, or both. Registration for BES members is £30 for event 1 (training day) and £10 for event 2 (workshop) and includes lunch (what a bargain – thanks to the BES for support enabling us to keep costs down). Fees are slightly higher for non-members. Both events are at Charles Darwin House in London (15 mins walk from Kings Cross Station).

Event 1. Monday 11th May 2015. A training event for citizen science: What you need to know, but no one told you!


Event 2. Tuesday 12th May 2015. Understanding Participants Interactive Workshop.

For the workshop (event 2) we welcome contributions from participants:

As citizen science becomes an increasingly used and accepted method within the natural sciences, there has been much discussion around the scientific and data dimensions of citizen science. However, the socio-personal dynamics of participation in citizen science have remained largely unexplored. This workshop will showcase experiences from researchers and practitioners involved in citizen science projects. We would like to invite contributions from researchers working in this area.

Topics include but are not limited to:

  • Narratives of participation and engagement
  • Cultures of amateur natural history, traditional expert amateur groups
  • Age, gender and ethnicity in citizen science – overused and underused communities
  • Temporalities and spatialities of citizen science participation
  • Methodologies and techniques both for looking at (i) citizen science socio-dynamics and (ii) the impacts of citizen science methodologies and techniques themselves
  • Curiosity, creativity and emotion.

Please send a 150 word summary of your potential contribution to both and by Friday 20th March. The organisers will determine the final format of the event based on these contributions and will respond by Friday 27th March.

More details on both events and booking details are at:

Feel free to pass the details round to anyone who might be interested. Space is limited so if you are really keen to come then make sure you book early!

Be yourself, not an imposter: on conferences and public-speaking

Early-Career Plenary Panel at the RGS-IBG 2014

Early-Career Plenary Panel at the RGS-IBG 2014

Risk is both motivating and paralyzing. On the one hand taking risks can move us forward as researchers, advancing our knowledge of the world. On the other hand the before, after and moment of risk-taking can stop us in our tracks, unable to move, respond or get on with life. I’ve experienced both of these feelings of risk in the last few years. It’s not easy to talk about but once researchers do start talking about it we find there is plenty we have in common. This post has been inspired by the amazing talks I’ve seen this week at the inaugural Citizen Science Association conference in San Jose.

I’m a lecturer. I find that I am now so occupied with a mixture of research, teaching and administration that some of the risks I agonised over when I was doing my PhD and as a postdoc, such as standing up in front of an audience and giving a presentation, no longer feature on the horizon in the same way. Last year I had to lecture for 2 hours each week. At first I was anxious, of course, I was. But as the weeks passed and my students continued to show up, I saw those nerves and the risk of failure diminish.

Public-speaking is a central part of academic life. Nobody told me this. You don’t get a handbook on day one of your postgraduate life that says, being an academic involves x, y, z. Instead, you learn by doing. Making mistakes. Taking risks. Picking yourself up. We need to prepare our students for the element of public-speaking (the same goes for writing too but that is for another blog post). We cannot expect academics to be effective communicators, if we do not spend time during undergraduate degrees and as postgraduates cultivating the ways in which we communicate our ideas and research. Indeed as researchers we need to continually evolve our ability to communicate.

When I talk about the risk of public-speaking, I am referring first to the element of standing up in front of students, colleagues, peers, even strangers, to share ideas, knowledge and, importantly, our enthusiasm for the subject. I am also talking about publicly communicating in a friendly and conversational manner via other media such as blogs and Twitter.[1]

First, there is the risky decision to communicate our work – to submit an abstract to a conference, to organize a conference session, to draft our conference paper, presentation or poster, to share this draft with colleagues, peers and supervisors for feedback, to finalise the draft – usually cutting down the word count.

Second, the conference date arrives, we sit patiently as we await our turn to speak. Self-doubt creeps in. I don’t think I should’ve submitted this paper. I wish I had time to alter it. Usually at this point, I get a knot in my stomach. I am waiting for my turn to talk and I feel sick.

Third, I am behind the lectern or holding my papers. I remember one particularly nerve-wracking occasion where my hands were shaking so much that the clicker to move the slides on was doing this as my hands moved. It didn’t help that I was in a drama studio standing in the middle of the room – all lights on me. I felt completely out of my depth. These days I realize that preparation is key. Knowing what you want to say and how. Avoiding papers if I can. Instead working through ideas and trying to identify how I want the audience to feel once they’ve heard me speak.

Finally, the nerves have passed. There is the applause. There is time for questions. Honesty is the best policy. If you get a tough question and can’t figure out how to approach it. Why risk it? Explain that you need to reflect on that some more. The same goes for the risk of asking a question – I’ve lost count of the numbers of times that I didn’t ask a question at a conference or seminar in the last 10 years. And how many times I regretted it or sat in awe of colleagues who would pluck a fully-formed question as if from nowhere. And then a few months ago as part of a teaching course, our teacher informed us that formulating questions isn’t an easy activity. It takes time. We can’t expect our students to have a question immediately. Phew!

For me, public-speaking will always involve a certain element of risk – an emotional and personal risk. The knot in my stomach. I used to think these feelings were bad. I’d avoid any occasion to speak in public, even in small meetings. I wouldn’t risk it. I hated how it made me feel. But then – I said, enough is enough. I decided to take some control. Through my university I found a presentational skills course. It wasn’t run in-house by the university, but was led by professional actors and communicators for people in industry and leadership to ‘present with presence’. The course was in central London. I had to be there early. I felt both excited and nervous about the course. I arrived at the building.

The offices were up a flight of stairs. I met our course leader and my two fellow students. One worked in sales for a large builders merchants, the other was the people manager for a 5* Mayfair hotel. And there was me – a postdoc researching enthusiasm. We had to present for 5 minutes on our work. I held cards. I spoke too fast. I didn’t get anywhere near the point. We were filmed. We were given feedback from the group. We reviewed our own performance. We developed a number of presentations across the two days. On the second day, I returned. We had to give another short presentation. I lost it. I broke down in front of the group. I was crying, really crying. And it was a relief. I cared about doing a good job so much that the thing I failed to do, possibly ever, was be myself.

Being ourselves is the very best thing we can do.

How can we ever expect to feel comfortable or do our best if we are not being ourselves.

The group were a bit shocked by my outburst. They also couldn’t believe what I did next. I got up and did my presentation again. This time as myself, not the researcher I thought they expected me to be. I got a round of applause and feedback that stayed with me for years to come.

I have taken a risk telling you all of this. I hope some of it resonates with readers.

Being yourself seems like the most obvious and simple thing in the world. But it isn’t always that easy. The risk of being oneself, of showing the academic world the real you has been much discussed in blogs, on Twitter – the imposter syndrome is what they call it. (I blogged a bit about it last week.) The feeling that you might eventually be found out, that you aren’t supposed to be here. So we hide away. Or we portion bits of us away to avoid being discovered. But the risk of doing this can be anxiety, stress, depression. I know this from personal experience. From beating yourself up that: you haven’t read everything – well you can’t possibly read everything; you aren’t intelligent enough – well you clearly are, you’ve done a masters and PhD; you don’t spend all your time fixated on some theoretical idea – well neither does most of the rest of the world.

Imposter syndrome affects researchers regardless of age or gender.[2] It is a term that I have become familiar with as I progress in my career. Feeling there are things that I can’t do, but actually upon reflection, why can’t I do them? Well, because I’m often not being myself, following what I believe to be the right thing for me.

In April this year I was invited by the postgraduate geography community to open their mid-term conference. I shared with them the image of two concentric circles one showing ‘where you are’ the other ‘where the magic happens’. We need to get out of our comfort zones, be ourselves and take risks.

Creating the space to talk about the people behind the research or conference paper is risky, but the price is too high not to. What better way to learn to take risks than from each other.

[1] Athene Donald on why women should blog.

[2] Athene Donald on the imposter syndrome.