A Year of Ups but also Downs

It has been an interesting (academic) year at Seery Towers and our fridge has had plenty of bubbly alcohol flowing through it. Some of the many highs of the year include becoming Director of Teaching, becoming Editor of Chemistry Education Research and Practice, running another MICER, publishing the Overton Festschrift, being elected Chair of the 2023 CERP Gordon Research Conference (wut?), and of course finding out in February (May, of course I mean May!) that I was promoted to Professor. Yay!


Academia is generally a place where we are used to talking about success. I think this is a good thing – the work involved in new publications and prizes and promotions (P3), sometimes against the odds of university systems they were achieved in, should be celebrated and lauded.

There is much less talk of associated “downs” – I am reluctant to call them failures as I believe they are part of the successes that we are more public about. Certainly we see more openness about grant/paper rejections on social media, and while that is ephemeral, it does help contribute to a more realistic perspective of the full breadth of academic life. In many ways I wonder if we should have a “Not Successful” part of our official websites – wouldn’t that make the successes all the more special? Beckett said to “fail again, fail better!” – isn’t that academia?

Further to that, even failing is bloody hard work, and maybe we should be honest about times when we are just floating a bit. I’m coming around to an idea that academic life isn’t a marathon, but a mountain hike. There are times when you can give your all, creative juices flowing, outputs both good and bad are in overdrive. But also times when you just want to sit and watch the clouds go by while you eat your cheese sandwich. Coming to terms with the fact that there might be times when easing off the accelerator and just being has helped me deal with the near constant concern of burning out, the stress of feeling that I should be writing those papers in the queue or replying to those emails or doing something – anything – above the normal baseline. But perhaps for periods of time, like a kind of academic circadian rhythm, the baseline is just ok.

Recently I had email correspondence with someone who was looking for help with something. It was something I would have loved to have done, but knew that I wouldn’t have time to do properly. I (eventually) replied, full of apology. The response was that the reader had gained solace in reading that I was too busy, and was happy that I was able to say no because it resonated with their own sense of feeling too busy while wanting to do things. If we only project all of our successful things, will others who just see our shiny websites only see that side of us? The knowledge of our “failures” can put the extent of our success into context, including what those successes truly mean to us.

I’ve been battling with my own failures this year. I’ll mention two. I haven’t had any serious writing time and therefore my output has reduced. This is a “not success” for me because the reason I am an academic is that I love reading and writing (and teaching, naturellement!). Not being able to write means I am not doing the part of the job I enjoy most. I don’t intend this to be a statement reflecting how super busy I am – I could find the time but I have not been successful in protecting it, nor using the time I have properly. Knowing that failure helps me redouble efforts to protect time to write, or just to enjoy a cheese sandwich, and therefore being allowed to indulge just a little more when that final “accept” email does come.

To offset the glorious opening, I will conclude with sharing that I did not receive a National Teaching Fellowship this year. I thought I met the standard, but somehow did not convey that in my application. Colleagues have kindly played the Victor Meldrew role for me, but I am ok about it (hearing in Tuscany en route to a glass of prosecco meant I was quickly consoled). But if I ever were to receive it in future, wouldn’t everyone know that it meant more because I didn’t get it first time around? And I guess that is the point.