IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Transcript: Academia et al S01E02

Is it too early to think about retirement?

Female voice 1 00:00:02
You're listening to an IOE podcast. Powered by UCL Minds.

Female voice 2 00:00:23
This is Academia et al, the podcast for anyone and everyone figuring out life in academia.

Keri Wong 00:00:37
You're listening to Academia et al. The podcast for early career academics by early career academics. I'm Keri, an assistant professor in psychology at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society. I am one of the co-hosts for this podcast. Like you, I'm an early career academic just trying to figure it all out. In this episode I'm thrilled to be chatting with two special guests about a really exciting topic that is retirement. That's right, you heard it correctly. Retiring is not exactly at the forefront of our minds as junior academics, but this topic has piqued my interest in the latest UK pension discussions. It has gotten me to think about how I should plan for the future. Given that for many early career academics are on precarious contracts, what does this really mean for us and our pursuit of academia? Is it ever too early to think about retirement? What support is out there for us that can help us now?

Joining me today are two lovely guests, Professor Li Wei, who is IOE's Director and Dean and Chair of Applied Linguistics. His research spans many different aspects of bilingualism and multilingualism. He is editor of the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism and the Applied Linguistics Review. He has won the British Association of Applied Linguistics Book Prize twice for the Blackwell Guide to research methods in bilingualism and Multilingualism with Melissa Moyer and Translanguaging language, bilingualism and education with Ofelia Garcia. He is a Fellow of the British Academy Academy of Social Sciences, UK and Academy Europaea. My other lovely guest is Dr Emma Jones, a lecturer in Gender and Education Studies. Emma is also my partner in crime for the last two years as founder and Co-Chair of the IOE Early Career Network. Emma is currently working part time at the IOE and tries to pick up additional work on research projects to make ends meet. At the moment she is also working part time on a UCL funded project exploring the experiences of LGBTQ staff at UCL. Emma is no stranger to the IOE. Over the years she has held several temporary research jobs and spent three very happy years working in the IOE Library whilst completing her Master’s of Arts and then Master’s in research degrees. I feel incredibly excited and privileged to be welcoming both of you on the podcast as we navigate some tough questions today. Welcome to the podcast.

Li Wei 00:03:07
Thank you and hello. Hi everyone, lovely to be here. Thank you for such an important network, especially to you and Emma for setting it up and thank you for having me here today.

Emma Jones 00:03:20
Hello Keri, hello, Li Wei. It's a real pleasure to be here. I'm really looking forward to our conversation.

Keri Wong 00:03:27
Thank you both. So as a psychologist myself, I always love learning about people and their perspectives. So before we begin digging into the tough questions, let's start with a few simple ones. Let's start with you, Professor Li Wei. Can you tell our listeners how you got into an academic career and how you started? Why education?

Li Wei 00:03:47
Thank you, that's a great question to start with. I don't think I ever plan to be an academic if you if I'm honest. I grew up in the 70s China in Beijing precisely. And there was no formal school to go to and that time so I was lucky in a sense because my mother is a musician and music teacher and had lots of friends who happen to be teachers. So they organise a group of us or children's of teachers of various kinds and gave us informal lessons. Now what that experience meant to me was they gave me a very strong sense of the value of education. So I then went on to a foreign language school in Beijing and became an English language teacher when I was only went to university after I had been teaching for nearly three years. I gradually developed an interest in research but I always felt that I had a passion for for teaching and for education more broadly. I came to Britain in the mid 80s to teach and again only started doing postgraduate research degrees after I taught For a couple of years, and following my PhD, I worked on a number of research projects. So I was once an early career contract researcher, and then I applied for grants and got my own projects. And my academic career started then. So if you look at the kind of research I do, yes, lots of it is theoretical, conceptual, but all of it is shaped by practice and by policy issues. And I hope also, you know, the work has some implications for policy and practice.

Keri Wong 00:05:35
That's really fascinating. I had no idea and so lovely to hear r, you know, your journey from China moving also to Britain as well. And I guess now you're leading one of the top institutes in education, did you I guess you didn't always know you wanted to do that. But how does it feel?

Li Wei 00:05:54
Yes, absolutely not. Yeah, well, I worked in University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne for a number of years and ended up as the Head of School of Education there. And I also worked in both bank as provost, master of the college. But the IOE is something else. It's a leading institution in the world, when simply cannot plan or expect to go into a job as the IOE Director, to be in a leadership position of the IOE is a real privilege and very unique one tool. I think it's really important say this is an excellent leadership team of Pro-Directors, Vice-Deans, Head of Department Director of Operations, Head of Policy, Head of Academic Programme Affairs and Professional Services – it’s a real team work. So you know, I'm very, very proud of the leadership team we have in this wonderful institution, it is a collective achievement to be where we are.

Keri Wong 00:06:58
Definitely, and I probably everyone on the call here feel the same. I guess now moving on to Emma, you've been at the IOE for quite a few years. And you've seen it through various roles and hats that you put on as both a student and an academic, can you tell the listeners a bit about the kind of work that you do and the projects are working on right now and what it is like to be working at the IOE?

Emma Jones 00:07:24
I'd quite like to go back a little bit to my bio if that's OK, and just to maybe elaborate on that a bit because I think it gives us some context for what we might go on to talk about a bit later. So as you mentioned, I first came to the IOP, in 2011, which is unbelievable that is now 10 years ago, as a master student, and I did my Master's in education, gender and international development. And I kind of got hooked, so I stayed on and I did an embrace in education and social research methods. And it was during that time studying for these two different Masters, that as you mentioned, in my bio at the start, that I started to accumulate lots of different jobs. So at one stage, I was literally on four different contracts at the IOE.

I was working as a researcher, I was working on as a tutor on what was then the newly created BA in education studies, I was working in the library, and I even had a brief flirtation with working behind the IOE bar that didn't last for too long, but long, long enough that I was kind of at one stage people were like, are there more than one of you? Because I kind of would pop up in all of these quite random places across the IOE. And then after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get Economic and Social Research Council funding for a PhD at IOE, I decided to look elsewhere. And so I ended up securing funding for my PhD at the University of East London. So I left that I only in 2015 as a student, which kind of brings us up to the present. So I came back to the IOE as a lecturer in gender and education in 2019. And as you mentioned, my contract of the moment, although it is permanent, which is great, it is only part time. So I currently kind of shop around trying to find some additional work here and there, often on temporary or zero hours contracts.

And I'm currently working on a really exciting project which is funded by UCL to explore the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer staff within the university. And that project, we're going to be reporting on that to our EDI teams across UCL later this year and early next year. Before that, I was working on a project looking at the impact of COVID 19 on primary to secondary school transitions. And then just before that, and before the pandemic began, I was working on a project looking at the impact of the reception baseline assessment. So I've really had to become a bit of a Jill of all trades, as I've sort of in this early career stage. And I guess in some ways, it kind of goes counter to this idea of becoming an expert in a clearly defined area. And in fact, I've had to do quite the opposite and really kind of cast my net wide in order to continue to do this work that I want to do. And I do share the story because I think it's important to recognise that complexity. And it's actually something that Professor Li Wei talked about, in fact, in the beginning of his career as well, and the messiness of early career trajectories. And why the issue of precarity is so astute for me and I think also so many other colleagues.

So if I may, now I'll quickly turn to what it's like working at the IOE. And I think despite or perhaps even because of the trajectory that I've just discussed, I feel incredibly fortunate to be working at the IOE. I get to work with again, as Professor Li Wei said, like some really like truly exceptional people, whether they're academics, or professional services staff, and our students as well. And it really is a vibrant, fun place to work. And so I would say that I found a home here at the IOE, particularly now that we're part of UCL. And there are so many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration and professional development. And just in the last kind of 18 months alone, I've completed my HEA fellowship, and I'm now an Arena assessor. I'm an ethics reviewer. I'm part of the UCL enterprise initiative called Evaluation Exchange, which prepares academics with nonprofit organisations to help them develop their evaluation frameworks. And I'm part of a research team who have just been awarded some seed funding on a project of geographies of racialisation in teacher training. So really, there are just so many opportunities, it's really vibrant, it's really fun. And perhaps the biggest challenge is sometimes knowing what not to do.

Keri Wong 00:11:32
And we'll probably pick up from that a little bit too. So thanks so much, Emma, for sharing your incredible journey. And I think for Professor Li Wei, also hinting at the messiness of being early career, I think that's incredible. And something I think, maybe resonates with our listeners who are in that same position right now at this moment. So moving on a little bit to focusing on the people. Because you know, as we all know, the IOE is a very special place, not least, because we've been ranked number one for the eighth year in a row. But because of the people, we have staff who are researchers, teachers, and those trained in both, and a real good mix of international researchers as well, even on this call quite an international and diverse. So this is true of also more of the junior staff members as well, as we surveyed through our survey, many of them are from international backgrounds. And so I guess, Professor Li Wei, how is the IOE uniquely placed for the future? And what role do you think early career academics play in your vision of the IOE?

Li Wei 00:12:35
The IOE is a unique place, not only because of our long history and the size of our offering, but also because of our highly multi and interdisciplinary strengths in our research base, we take a very broad approach to education not narrowly focused on schooling, but education lifelong and life wide. And its role of education in society. So what we do is we actively encourage and promote innovation, disruptive thinking, through our work, colleagues work from very diverse theoretical and methodological perspective, this is a real strategy we want to encourage and this is positioning us really well for the future. And we want to encourage debates and engage with the community, with policy and with practice. Now, I really want to say this: early career academics play a crucial role, a central role in all of this in innovation, in connecting the IOE with other parts of the university and with wider society, bringing new, perhaps a little bit different perspectives. So I would say, you know, we must encourage early career academics, not to be afraid of challenging orthodoxy, and ask really critical questions. Now, all these things said, the IOE is a community and the very successful one because we have clear values, we believe in equity and social justice, and equalising opportunities through education so that we should be very proud of these values and be strong in articulating these through our work in the future.

Keri Wong 00:14:22
And I guess this links into kind of how I even got to meet Emma in the first place. And I guess this links into kind of how I even got to meet Emma in the first place, I think, when we started thinking about these issues from the perspective of early career academics. And so Emma, one of the reasons for starting the IOE Early Career Network is for us to raise awareness and early career precarity and to support early career staff at the IOE. Can you tell the listeners a bit more about the ECN and what you think are the key challenges that early career academics currently face?

Emma Jones 00:14:53
It's a really interesting journey, I think because on the one hand, we have the fact that the IOE and I completely agree with Professor Li Wei around kind of having these values both now and historically of being a an institution that is committed to equality and justice and so on is one of the reasons why certainly I wanted to work at the IOE. But that's not to say that your things are perfect. And things are always so straightforward. And I think the reason why we set up the network in the first place was because a general sense of frustration, and not knowing where to go, and what to do around particular issues. And it was very small things say, my experience was, I didn't have anywhere to work. When I first started my job, I didn't have a computer, there was no research time factored into my workload allocation, even though I was on an academic contract. And so what was interesting was that as soon as I raised the so I began to raise these issues with Lucy Davies, the IOE Research Development Manager, and she immediately put me in touch with Professor Allison Fuller, who was the then Pro-Director for Research. And unbeknownst to me, Keri was, was asking very similar questions, I think, and having encountered some different barriers, having just started in her job, but what I think must be recognised is that as soon as we raised these issues were met with a very open and generous response from our senior leadership. And particularly at the time, I think we really must recognise the work of Professor Allison Fuller, and the work of our interim director, Professor Sue Rogers, and having that kind of openness to recognising some of the challenges that early career colleagues were facing, and then supporting us, in both pragmatic ways. And in kind of just, you know, more every day, let's have a cup of coffee ways, was really, really vital.

So when we were setting up the network, the first thing that we were asked to do was to write a proposal. And that was sent to our senior leadership team at the IOE. And from that, they agreed to give us some funding for the network and to help us formalise the network within the IOE structures. And from there, the development of that proposal was actually really, really helpful for us because it made Keri and I and other colleagues as well sit down and think well, what do we want this network to be? And I think we were very clear, actually, that we didn't want this to be an early career research network. That was one of the first things and it's something that people keep slipping into, is that this is a research network, and we're playing it. It's not that that's not the case. We wanted this to be an early career network for all staff, irrespective of whether they have teaching or a search, or even technician focused roles. And being at the IOE, we really wanted to put front and centre, the importance of teaching in early career roles as well and to really kind of bring that into prominence.

And the other thing that this sort of project of reflection brought to us was that it was really important for people to self-define as early career, recognising again, the messiness. And that often early career is now quite a protracted, long period of time, because of the different kinds of contracts that people may be on and so on. And that's something that research councils are now also starting to do more of, and we have even had debates actually, about whether or not the term early career really spoke to all members of the IOE community and recognising the fact that for many, a career in academia, particularly people at the IOE, I think, who may have had a previous career as a teacher in some way or some other career. So we had lots of really good interrogative conversations, I think, which led us to the network that we have now, and led us to a structure where we have a committee which has representatives from every department in the IOP. But also, we invited actually a member of the Union the UCU union as an early career representative to be on the committee, because we recognise that some of the issues that we were experiencing, they're systemic issues, they're not about the IOE. They're about sort of the wider sort of culture of academia at the moment.

And in terms of the general challenges facing early career staff, what I'll do is I'll just speak to some of the research project that we carried out about a year ago. And this garnered responses from 50, self-defined early career colleagues, and they identified the most significant challenges as the following as precarity. So with only 33% of those people in the survey, having a full time permanent contract in terms of research, the things that people were most concerned about was support for carrying out research and developing a publication profile. And the third thing was a general kind of question around support. And we found that a third of early career colleagues did not have a mentor.

So drawing on the findings of this survey, one of the first steps that we took as a network has been to sort of to speak with senior managers at the IOE. And again, we found a really kind of receptive audience and we've been speaking to the IOE’s Research Committee. We even had a sit down with the UCL Provost, Dr Michael Spence, and I'm particularly proud for the work that's been happening in my department in Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment, around mentoring, and I had a research professor Eleanore Hargreaves, and as a result of her work, I and now many of the colleagues within my department, we all have mentoring support. And I personally, I have a brilliant mentor, Professor Michael Reiss, who over the past few months has done everything from supporting me on writing for publication, he's invited me to become a subsidiary supervisor for one of his PhD students. He even does the little things like he invites me for a coffee on a piece of cake. And it's these little things to which in that mentoring relationship have really made me feel even more kind of at home within the IOE.

Keri Wong 00:20:41
Thank you so much for that Emma and sharing all of the support that you have, as well, as well as some of the challenges that you've had to navigate. I think the listeners now have a very good idea of what the IOE Early Career Network does. And moving on, I guess, to a little bit more of a serious tone and topic on retirement, which was what I started off with. This isn't something we think about or discuss often. But recent discussions in our industry, across academia, I guess, have forced us to think more about how best to plan for the future.

But as we know, and as you mentioned, both of you mentioned, we know many early career academics often find themselves on precarious contracts going from postdoc to postdoc project to project saying yes to too many tasks and responsibilities and thinking that it's really good for their career progression, yet, maybe they eventually might be forced to leave academia altogether, if they don't get that permanent job. As an early career academic, it may seem rather challenging to be forced to think about the uncertainty of our future, shrinking pensions, and whether or not to go on strike, etc. on our first full time job. So I guess maybe just drawing on me a little bit as well, on your experiences. As an early career academic, what do you think are some of the, you know, key pertinent issues and whether or not retirement has even crossed your mind?

Emma Jones 00:22:05
So I sometimes joke that I'm never going to be able to afford to retire. And then I realised that that very well might be true and that actually, maybe the joke is on me. And I actually about a week ago, got my annual pension statement through from the pension provider, USS, and I did the new pensions calculator that is out there. And it would be laughable if it weren't so serious. I'm about to turn 40. I'm still in a part time job. And the consequences of like the kind of the pensions changes are really quite concerning. And I'll give you just a context for that in that. So my wife is also an academic, but has been employed for long enough to have benefited from a previous final salary scheme. And she could literally retire tomorrow, if she were able to claim the pension that she has, and would be better off than I will probably ever be in my pension. So for me, it's the inequalities in the pension scheme. They're also deeply concerning. And I would guess that sort of set as well against the backdrop of wage stagnation.

And I love my job. I love teaching I love researching has taken me a long time to find this work that I'm really deeply passionate about. But there does remain that niggling question which you raised earlier, can I afford to stay? And I suppose what if I then put my early career network hat on and I think of that as not just me, but other people, I would probably ask some slightly different questions, which are, who can afford to become an academic? And who can afford to stay? And if we're serious, I think about addressing these inequalities in higher education than this question has got to be at the heart of our wider discussions and the actions that we want to take.

Keri Wong 00:23:46
And I think this is a you know, definitely an industry wide question, and perhaps we are forced to ask this question a lot more now that we're at this kind of decision point of whether or not pension funds should be doing better, etc. And I guess, yeah, I was moving good. And move on to Professor leeway. What are your thoughts on this? And, you know, being a bit further along than, you know, me and Emma, what are some things that you might like to share?

Li Wei 00:24:14
Yeah, if I may come in. I mean, I'm absolutely no expert on pensions I'm not offering any financial advice here. I think the issue I want to raise is intergenerational justice. Actually, I know, I think the vast majority of academics are in this together, we don't have a great deal of choice. We have one pension scheme that you either opt in or out. But I think people who entered academia earlier, do have better benefits. Now things are gradually changing I'm very, very concerned about the impact on people who are still in their early career stages. And the future people who are coming into academia as future academics, I think that is something that has much wider social significance that really, we need to bring up with employers and with the pension provider to really deal with it, rather than purely as a financial management issue, of course, there are financial management issues that needs to be addressed. But the intergenerational social justice issue is something that we absolutely cannot lose attention to.

Keri Wong 00:25:24
So, you know Professor Li Wei, then you know pensions obviously is a big question, but and it takes a long time and multiple sources to come together to work on the issue, but looking more specifically at the IOE, then what are some institutional support that the IOE may be providing now for early career academics and what are some of those opportunities that perhaps early career academics should engage with and seek out now?

Li Wei 00:25:51
I attended a welcome meeting in one of our departments, I think, actually Emma’s department this week for newly promoted professors. And I said there that one of the expectations we have of our professorial staff, is to provide support to our early career colleagues, Emma talks about her experience of getting the support from senior colleagues that's really, really wonderful to hear. This is a really important issue, we do have a range of support that the IOE provides, including your network, of course, and all our departments, again, thanks to your initiative, now have mentoring systems in place for staff. In fact, some departments have mentoring systems, not just for early career academics, but for all staff, which is really invaluable. There is also the Collaborative Social Science Domain, which is led by one of our senior colleagues in the IOE that provides wonderful networking opportunities and support for all academics but especially for early career academics. UCL has the Arena Centre, that offers support to staff in teaching practice, in particular, now, many of our early career colleagues are eager to gain teaching experience after an intensive research period, whether it's a PhD or a postdoc. So teaching is important. And we need to support people in developing their teaching career and accumulate their experience in teaching.

Now, other relevant professional bodies like BERA, and BPA, also have very good networks for early career researchers, there are support courses and training provision for people wanting to take on research supervision, for example, you know, there are all sorts of opportunities. I think it's very important to say to early career colleagues, that it's useful to have a personal research programme, a longer term programme, think of the bigger question you may wish to pursue as your career, you know, a career-long question, then divide it up into workable projects, because the one the key differences between, say, a doctoral student or even a postdoc fellow, and the kind of regular academic, if you like, especially full time academic, is the full time academic takes on a variety of different tasks. You teach a couple of days a week, you supervise, you provide teaching support, you then do admin, you still have to keep your research going and publish. So you need to kind of have a really carefully planned programme of work that will last a lot longer than, you know, say, like three years really, really intensive, concentrated devotion to a research project. It's a very different work balance kind of scheme. So I think that's the way to plan once one's career - have a longer a bigger question that takes longer to answer for maybe, but you know, kind of you can break it down into workable projects that can carry on while you're doing the teaching, or doing the supervision or doing the little teaching support and all the rest of it.

Keri Wong 00:29:22
Hmm yeah, I think I mean Emma and I are both nodding because, well, in agreement, because I think that's so helpful to know what that guiding research bigger question is, and then to kind of work backwards a little bit to think about perhaps the work packages that can get us to also align with that goal, the background so that's fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I guess you know, today we've talked about the challenges as well as the you know, hints of positivity also in academia. I guess I want to end with a on a positive note. So maybe what is your reason your true reason then for choosing academia and the job that you have now. Maybe start with Emma?

Emma Jones 00:30:05
I think there are two separate but maybe interlinked stories that I could tell here and I do think that they are stories because I think this this narrative maybe changes over time and with the audience that I'm speaking to. But the first story, I think, goes something like this. I never would have chosen academia on my own. No one in my family had been to university. The whole idea was and still is extremely foreign to my family, and I've lost count of the number of times I've tried to explain what I do for a living. PhD's were for other people and if it weren't for a friend and colleague Dr Emily Henderson, who is now at Warwick University, really believing in me when I was a Master’s student and showing me how things worked in academia, then I never would have even considered this as a path that was open to me.

So that's one story I would tell to answer that question and the other goes something like this. So I was an International School teacher for about 10 years and whilst I loved teaching, I really didn't enjoy having to teach the national curriculum. I didn't particularly enjoy the high stakes exam preparation that goes along with that, and I'm sorry to say I couldn't spend another year teaching grid references to year seven students, so I think choosing a career in academia has been closely connected, though with that desire to teach. But I wanted a different kind of intellectual challenge, and to be in a space where I could be more creative in my teaching and particularly my role now as a dissertation module leader for the MA in education, I get to work with students to develop their own ideas rather than having that constant hum of transmitting knowledge in the background and instead the practice of teaching feel able to be more dialogic in that approach, and I think I'm constantly transformed by my teaching and by my research at the IOE, and that's something that is really quite hard to quantify.

I think I've become a better person through this process, I've become more aware of my own position in relation to the world and developed I think a broader vocabulary for undertaking that sense-making around my position, I hope that in turn I'm better placed to make a difference to people in my life, whether that's through my teaching or research or even in the everyday and to give you an example recently I was able to bring my academic knowledge to an equality issue that was taking place in my bike club and people were grappling with this really complex issue and I was able to bring my knowledge to that space in a way that felt really, really productive.

Keri Wong 00:32:38
Thank you so much Emma. And how about you Professor Li Wei?

Li Wei 00:32:42
It's wonderful to hear Emma story. For me academia is such an amazing space for creative, critical and disruptive thinking. We have so much freedom to think and to articulate our ideas, thoughts, it gives us opportunities to meet and talk to such a wide range of people and learn from each other. Now you know talking about retirement, academics don't retire because our thinking doesn't stop, you know, we create knowledge, we engage in deep thinking and developing ideas in articulating that those things don't really stop even if we don't get paid any more or we move away from our kind of regular teaching and research positions, and that in some sense is a real privilege to be part of academia to be academic.

Keri Wong 00:33:39
Finally, to conclude our podcast, we ask all of our guests to share a tip of the day to our early career listeners. Professor Li Wei, what’s your tip?

Li Wei 00:33:49
Don't be afraid to challenge what you've been told - that includes what I've just said.

Keri Wong 00:33:54
Fantastic, and Emma?

Emma Jones 00:33:56
Mine is if you don't have a mentor, find one!

Keri Wong 00:33:59
Thank you so much for both of your insights and this lively discussion. I really, really enjoyed it and I'm sure that our listeners will too. Thank you for listening to Academia et al. I’m Keri Wong and joining me today were my two lovely guests Professor Li Wei and Dr Emma Jones. You can learn more about our guests and their research on their Q&A pages, which are posted in our show notes or follow them on Twitter as well. You can also follow the IOE Early Career Network Twitter account at IOE_earlycareer. If you have suggestions for content or want to be part of our next episode as a guest, send us an email at IOEearlycareer@ucl.ac.uk. Thanks for listening!


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Academia et al is brought to you by the IOE's Early Career Network. This podcast is presented by Dr Keri Wong and Dr Alina Pelikh. The theme music was created by Roni Xu. Amy Leibowitz is the series producer, and Sarah-Jane Gregori is the executive producer.

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Thanks so much for downloading and listening to this IOE podcast.