Classically Inclined

September 21, 2015

On being an ECR, academia and maternity leave

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 10:21 pm
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Today was my first day back from maternity leave. I have, hypothetically, been away from the demands of my job a little under six months; we now have a small boy who at just over five months is happy and thriving, and starting to get the hang of this sitting up business. Now is the time for me to dive back into all of the things that I have left undone since I shut my office door at the end of March.

Or, at least, it would be if I had actually been away.

The funny thing about academic maternity leave is that you don’t actually leave. You slow down a bit, but you don’t stop. Yes, I didn’t do any exam marking in the summer term, I handed over running the departmental research seminar, and I’ve not been on campus since I left the building. But according to my records (yes, I keep records), during my maternity leave I:

  • Made some final changes to the sci fi and classics review piece and got it published.
  • Did some final administrative work related to my chapter about women classicists at Newnham for a volume due out later in the year.
  • Made edits to my pedagogy article and saw that through to publication.
  • Approved proofs for a book review that I submitted a few years ago.
  • Wrote a short article on Seneca and relaxing for a web outreach project.
  • Wrote a case study report for the Family Archive project and kept in the loop with that as it progressed.
  • Finalised the book contract.
  • Revised two and a half book chapters plus an epilogue (which is still in revision but getting there).
  • Provided some guidance for the replacement Intermediate Latin marker on how to go about it.
  • Sorted out the syllabus for the new course I’m teaching this year, requested electronic copies of readings, and submitted a reading list.
  • Sorted out my course Moodles.
  • Completed the annual monitoring forms for the courses I taught last year.
  • Engaged in discussion about the establishment of a UK-based body to represent women in classics, which is growing out of the classics and feminism sandpit because I put my money where my mouth was.
  • Did I mention learning how to parent a tiny baby, live with less sleep than I thought humanly possible, establish breastfeeding, heal from undergoing significant physical trauma, have my emotions turned upside down every five minutes by hormones, and realise why people tell new parents to stock up on muslins?

Now, baby wrangling aside, none of those things were expected of me. With the possible exception of the annual monitoring forms, my department didn’t expect me to do any of that (and I suspect that if I’d put my foot down, they would have been worked round). Part of this is because I’m generally a productive person, and I have become good at doing things efficiently during nap times (and I’m lucky to have a baby who does nap). But there are a whole load of implicit pressures at work here, both internal and external.

Internally, I recognise that some of these choices were driven by wanting to be a good colleague. If you have promised an article, say, by a publication deadline, it’s good practice to follow through, regardless of whether you’ve just had a small person, right? It’s just common professional courtesy, isn’t it? If you’ve committed to a volume, shouldn’t you help the editors to have as painless an experience as possible by responding to their e-mails in a timely fashion? I mean, sure, people say that you shouldn’t worry because you’re on leave, but if the press has set a deadline, then that deadline’s there, baby or no, and you are inextricably bound into the process of getting the book on the shelf. The way that academic publishing works means that once you’re involved, you work to the publishers’ timetable.

Some of the choices were pragmatic, in their own way. The syllabus and Moodle wrangling happened because it was going to be far easier to do that in dribs and drabs instead of getting to this week and trying to do All The Things at once – a little bit of advanced preparation goes a long way in making re-entry smoother, even after a normal summer.

Yet there are also huge implicit external pressures at work here, not least in the shape of the job market. It wouldn’t hurt if I’d left most of the heavy lifting for the book until the start of 2016, but the pressure to be able to say in applications that the manuscript is in press… when we’re all told that it’s The Book that makes the difference between fixed term and permanent contracts… Oh, and all the other articles, that’s all important for the job market too, because the more an early career researcher in a temporary post can have on her CV, the more shiny it makes her, so long as that magic book is there. So everything will be alright?

These myths about the lengths an ECR has to go to in order to get a permanent contract are pernicious enough under normal circumstances, driving those in junior positions with no security to bend over backwards to achieve goals which come with nothing more than vague promises that it’s this quality that’ll make the difference in the next job round. Those goalposts keep moving, of course – it’s the Book, it’s a project with demonstrable Impact (thanks, REF), it’s more peer reviewed article in big-hitting journals with the right metrics, it’s a good social media presence (or none at all), it’s Fellowship of the HEA.

But to have those same pressures impact on your maternity leave, whether you are conscious of them or not, is a sign of just how paranoid the current system of academic hiring makes you without even noticing. I can’t put things on hold because I need to know what’s happening when my contract ends in August, and the job adverts are already starting to appear.  But equally, I can’t put the rest of my life on hold until that phoenix-like permanent contract deigns to make an appearance. (Not that a permanent job cures all ills by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the grail we’re told to reach for and that the system appears to reward.) I’m making decisions that limit my ability to be the perfect ECR who can up sticks and move to a contract at the opposite end of the country at a moment’s notice – because there’s more to life than that.

I’m going to go and snuggle up to my son and get some sleep. And tomorrow I’ll take him to campus and introduce him to some of the people who know him but have never met him. And eventually we’ll find a new way for our family to get through the week. And I’ll keep on making the most of nap times. But I will not let those ECR myths take charge of our shared life and take away the daily joys of being together.


  1. Hell’s bells, Liz. My initial reaction is that it isn’t enough that the department is not explicitly requiring these various things of you, someone should have been actively advising you on managing your workload, sticking to the set number of days of work, setting priorities etc. It’s bad enough that there is, clearly, an implicit assumption that colleagues returning from maternity leave will instantly snap back into 110% commitment as if they’ve never been away, without this creeping into the actual period of maternity leave. But I am very conscious that this is an awful lot easier when someone is on a permanent contract, so my role as Head of Department is to help them manage their workload and career trajectory over the medium term; I have to be quite honest and say that I am really not sure how I would advise someone in your position, or be able to tell them anything they don’t already know, other than confirming that “there’s more to life than that” is the only sane attitude.

    Comment by NevilleMorley — September 22, 2015 @ 2:45 pm | Reply

    • I think this is the thing – colleagues in permanent posts can enjoy their leave in the knowledge that they have the security to come back to. The insecurity of not having a permanent post, and the worry about ‘falling behind’ all those other bright shiny young things out there, is a very nasty effect of the current market. I’m not sure there really is any sensible advice to give, but unless this gets talked about, it’ll just become another one of those ‘norms’ which shouldn’t actually be there.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 22, 2015 @ 9:38 pm | Reply

      • Actually, it’s little better with a permanent contract (at least in STEM). I will be shortly going on second maternity leave and already have scheduled into my ‘keep in touch’ days: preparing two students to submit their theses; 2 major international conference commitments; two-three papers that will need to be completed/edited to schedule; at least some contributions to a grant we have with industry; one possibly two external PhD examinations; and general maintenance of my current group. I should probably also complete the review articles that were promised to the publishers after my last maternity leave, since this is one thing I did blow off and now feel guilty from not finding the time between coping with a small person, moving house, moving job and labs and setting up the new group. At least these editors have been tolerant, if not understanding. But note, this is a switch to external commitments (and commitments to my students who have no timeline choice) – little on the departmental level – but things that I need to keep up my external visibility and retain momentum – if I want to keep any sort of decent career trajectory. At least REF gives me a 1 paper break FWIW …

        Comment by Kris — September 23, 2015 @ 10:11 am | Reply

  2. […] it is real work. Liz Gloyn has blogged eloquently on the challenges of recent motherhood and being an ECR, of the pressures both external and internal […]

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