Promotion Commotion v.3.0

Inspired by my participation in the HEFCE-supported ‘Responsible Metrics’ event waaaaay back in 2018, and motivated by my strong belief that the promotion process in many higher education institutions is too opaque, I decided to write a series of blogposts. These posts were to give me a chance to outline and discuss Imperial College’s criteria for promotion, as well as providing me with an opportunity to *publish* my promotion-related paperwork. The Lecturer to Senior Lecturer, and Senior Lecturer to Reader step were covered some time ago; this, the final post, discusses the Reader to Professor step.

Having ‘read’ as a Reader you get to ‘profess’ as a Professor, at least in the majority of the UK higher education system. According to Wikipedia, “Professors are usually experts in their field and teachers of the highest rank”. The equivalent position in the US is, I think, ‘Full’ Professor.

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source: https://www.picpedia.org/highway-signs/p/professor.html

So, why did I apply for promotion to Professor? In short, because my departmental colleagues advised me that I should.

I had no burning desire to be promoted at that time (late-2014). I hadn’t felt unrewarded by ‘The System’ and I didn’t see promotion as a way to improve a problematic financial situation. Rather, my line leader (during my annual appraisal) and my mentor, Professor Howard Johnson, simply suggested I was ‘ready’. Howard has been my mentor and confidant since I started at Imperial in 2004. Always willing to tell me the truth, he was invaluable as a readied myself and my paperwork ahead of the final interview.

As discussed in the first blog in this series, the promotions criteria at Imperial fall into four main, inter-related activities, three of which are central to so-called ‘non-clinical’ Research Staff: (i) Education; (ii) Research; and (iii) Leadership and Management.  Candidates should demonstrate achievements in all three, but to different extents. A critical aspect of the promotion process is that individual cases should judged on their individual merits (i.e. you are not competitively compared to other candidates, inside or outside of your department and/or faculty).

The boundaries between grades are rather fluid. Candidates are generally expected to do ‘more’ as they progress. For example, in terms of Education, the step from Reader to Professor should involve a broadening of the contribution to education, from excellence in teaching delivery, through to the organisation and management of Departmental education and student support activity, to leadership on educational matters at Faculty and/or College level.

Progression in terms of Research will involve a growing national and international reputation combined with individuals making an increasing impact on their discipline or profession. In short, originality should be enhanced by seminality.

In the area of Leadership and Management, progression to Professor will involve a rather poorly defined, “increasing contribution to departmental/faculty/College management.”.

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Climbing the greasy poll with the help of friends. A metaphor for academia? source: http://www.fountainsthoughts.co.uk/uncategorized/climbing-the-greasy-pole1/

At this point, I make an important sidebar: as in 2012 ahead of my promotion to Reader, in 2014 I had been approached regarding Professor-level positions in one UK and in one overseas university. And like in 2012, I made the department aware of the situation. As stressed in an earlier post, such interest *can* be important in terms of giving you a sense of your ‘market value’. It may also make your present employer recognise your value.

The promotion application process for Professor at Imperial, or at least in the Department of Earth Science & Engineering, was fairly straightforward, centring on a lengthy application form that detailed my teaching and administrative contributions, research income and publications.

This draft application was assessed in my Department, together with a mock interview. For me this interview served two purposes; (i) it helped the department assess whether or not to recommend that you proceed with a full application (see below); and (ii) it prepared you for what might come in the final interview. It transpired that the Department interview was more testing, intrusive, and intimidating than the final one, given it was conducted by colleagues and, in some cases, close friends, who together had a detailed knowledge of my research area.

At Imperial, the support of your Department is not essential for progressing your promotion application, as an applicant can proceed via a “personal application”. This alternative route can be helpful for example if you feel that your relationship with your Department is not strong.. I am aware of some data indicating that personal applicants are slightly less successful than department-supported applicants.

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Paperwork. Great. source: https://bit.ly/2zdleFO

Having ‘passed’ the Department mock interview, I spent a few weeks updating my application and the final version ran to a rather substantial 43 pages. This was supported by a CV, four key papers with supporting statements, and a merged document containing my teaching assessmentsc (not included here). At this point I should publicly thank Hilary Glasman-Deal, a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Academic English (CAE) at Imperial. She read, reread, and read again my application, removing extraneous words and focusing the text, ensuring it was readable and compelling for a non-specialist. I *highly* recommend you buy here book, “Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English”. I use it every week.

At Imperial, the final bit of paperwork involved recommending referees and at that time six referees were required to support an application for promotion to Professor. I recall that two of the six could be so-called ‘personal referees’ (i.e. recommendations made by the applicant), whereas the remaining four were to be obtained by the Department. In practice, however, I recommended all six referees via a colleague. I am fairly sure all six referees provided references.

So, how did I choose my referees? I recommended three who had detailed knowledge of various areas of my rather broad research portfolio, and three who valued and had familiarity with my ‘service work’ and teaching contributions. I thought it best to provide referees who could show their support across these three areas given these were the three main sub-sections of the application form. Also: academia only works because of some combination of these things…

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The interview. source: https://theriveter.co/voice/what-to-not-tell-about-yourself-interview/

The College-level final interview was a bit of a blur. It lasted around 45 mins and I was interviewed by six people, with my Head of Department, Professor Jan Cilliers, and a HR representative sitting in as observers. During the interview, there were no great surprises, which is in itself perhaps not surprising given the volume of the information provided within the application form. I left the interview feeling I had performed as well as I could, which according to my Mum is all you can hope for.

Fast forward a couple of months, and I’m heading to a local café for a coffee. My mobile rings, and my Head of Department asks if he can speak to me. The rest is history.

So, why did I write this blog series?

I wrote it to try and help answer the question; “what do you need to do to get promoted?”. In my first post, I stated that my intention was *not* to show off; especially given most the information in my promotion documentation is available on my website and associated CV. Nor did I intend to proclaim my way was the only way in which someone might be promoted. We all know that each institution, system, and individual is different. Instead, I hope I’ve given some transparency to what *might* be required to get a certain position, at a certain institution, at a certain time, by a certain individual.

In opening up this discussion, I hope you might gain an understanding of the promotion process. I maintain that the current levels of transparency in the promotion process are unacceptable at many institutions; it undermines trust in the system and the individuals working within it. In particular, those with power, for example those who approve or decline promotion, should be especially transparent in how and why they are making their decisions. Making promotion criteria public and open to scrutiny is one way; over the course of these three blogposts, I have argued that making promotion-related materials ‘open’ is another.

Notes: Huge thanks to Dr Ben Britton (Twitter: @bmatb) for comments and edits on an initial draft of this post. All mistakes are, however, mine and mine alone.

 

Promotion Commotion v.2.0

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Inspired by my participation in the HEFCE-supported ‘Responsible metrics’ event, and motivated by my strong belief that promotion documentation should not be confidential and that the related process should be transparent, I will ‘publish’ documentation associated with my three promotion steps at IC. Lecturer to Senior Lecturer was covered in my last blogpost; this post discusses the Senior Lecturer-Reader step.

So, you’ve been promoted to Senior Lecturer. Now what? In the UK higher education system, the next position is the rather mysteriously titled ‘Reader’. According to Wikipedia, Reader indicates “an appointment for a senior academic with a distinguished international reputation in research or scholarship”. Whatever its precise definition, whenever I mention the position of Reader to anyone from outside the UK, it is met with laughter, maybe as it conjures up images of a life spent in smoke-filled, wood-panelled rooms, simply reading and pondering great thoughts. The reality could not be more different, although I must admit I’ve never been to Oxbridge…

In some European universities, Reader is similar to a ‘Professor without a chair’ (cf. the rather oddly and luxuriously titled professor extraordinarius and professor ordinaries), whereas in the US, ‘Reader’ and ‘Professor’ would correspond to Full Professor. In fact, several UK universities (e.g.  Leeds, Oxford, and, I think, Southampton), in what I assume is some sort of bizarre (to me at least) attempt to become more American, have relatively recently dispensed with the Reader grade; in their revised system, those currently holding Readerships retain this title, but with no new Readers being appointed. In these universities, US-inspired academic titles such as Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor are slowly being phased in, with ‘Readerships’ being combined with ‘Professorships’.

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Comparison of academic grades. Source: Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reader_(academic_rank)).

Semantics aside, having been promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2009, not too soon afterwards, in 2012, it was recommended I applied for promotion to Reader. As discussed in the first blog in this series, the promotions criteria at IC fall into four main, inter-related activities: (i) Education; (ii) Research; (iii) Leadership and Management; and (iv) Profession and Practice. Candidates are expected to demonstrate achievements in all these activities, but to different extents, with individual cases judged on their individual merits (i.e. you are not competitively compared to other candidates, inside or outside of your department and/or faculty).

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Source: https://bit.ly/2mnZLk8

The boundaries between grades, at IC at least, are rather fluid, with candidates, in general, expected to do ‘more’ as they progress. In terms of Education, the step from Senior Lecturer to Reader should be based on; (i) significant evidence of contributions  to education within the department that have led to improvements and/or innovation in courses/module design and delivery; (ii) a significant contribution to tutoring and/or welfare of students and/or support for lecturers; and (iii) a thorough evaluation of courses and modules taking into account student learning and the validity of the curriculum.

Progression in terms of Research will involve a growing national and international reputation combined with individuals making an increasing impact on their discipline or profession. Whereas originality is important at the Senior Lecturer level, seminal  research and influence becomes of increasing importance in moving to Reader.

In the area of Leadership and Management, the progression from Lecturer to Professor (and thus Senior Lecturer to Reader) will involve an increasing contribution to departmental/faculty/College management and regular involvement in staff development programmes that help to enhance academic, management and personal effectiveness skills.

Note that, again, I do not refer to ‘Profession and Practise’ as it’s not especially relevant to my discipline (or at least it was not an important criteria in any of my three promotion steps).

It’s worth restating here the following key points: (i) my intention is NOT to show off; especially given most the information in my promotion documentation is available on my website and associated CV; (ii) my intention is NOT to make people think this is the ONLY profile that allows someone to get a certain position at a certain institution; instead, I rather hope it provides a flavour of the process; (iii) I do not here provide copies of my references (of which six were required for the Senior to Reader promotion step), teaching evaluations, or four recent publications (“…which have had the greatest impact since the previous promotion or since appointment at the College, and that show what has been achieved in the interim.”) and their 100-word supporting statements, although I’m happy to provide these on request; and (iv) I provide no additional context related to my promotion application, such as whether I was in receipt of job offers.

Related to this last point, I should and it is perhaps worth coming clean; in 2012, I had been approached by at least three institutions in the UK. I obviously didn’t choose to make a move, as I was enjoying myself at IC, my family were settled in London, and I was not convinced that a move at that point in my career would provide me with much personal or professional benefit. Hence, I stayed put, but I made the department aware of the situation, largely on the recommendation of my Line Leader. Like I said before, such interest is important as it may give you a sense of your ‘market value’, and could shake your present employer from their slumber regarding the ability to fairly recognise your contribution.

Although I want to present my paperwork largely unadorned by commentary, it is perhaps worth mentioning two things: (i) in 2012, unlike in 2009, I had cause to provide additional information under “Personal Circumstances” (p35); first, we had our first daughter, Olive, and second, my Dad passed away, at a relatively young age, due to prostate cancer. It was an unusual year; and (ii) my use of metrics in 2012 was horrid (p25-27). I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand what the numbers meant, largely because my JIF-world orbited between 1.5 and 4, and because we published “strategically” in journals that, although of low-JIF, were read by our industrial sponsors. Prestige is one thing, funding is another. I’d do things different now, and would recommend others do likewise.

So, here it is; the promotion documentation related to my (successful) application for a Reader position at IC. It’s worth noting that the highest grade achieved by Alan Turing was Reader…

Promotion commotion v.1.0

During their careers, almost all academic ask themselves or others the seemingly simple question, “what do you need to do to get promoted?”. Indeed, it’s that time of year again at Imperial College (IC) when the results of the last promotion round are announced. There will be successes and disappointments, with candidates preparing to apply later this year hoping to learn something from this year’s applicants.

From my discussion with academics inside and outside of IC, answering the question above is tricky. This is al least partly due to: (i) the lack of specific or ‘tailored’ guidance on the criteria for promotion; and (ii) the lack of transparency related to the promotions process (which I will argue below may be real or perceived).

I’d argue that the promotions criteria at IC are fairly clear, falling into four main activities: (i) Education; (ii) Research; (iii) Leadership and management; and (iv) Profession and practice. The guidance states these activities are interrelated, and that candidates are expected to demonstrate achievements in all these activities, but to different extents. Our guidance also stresses that individual cases will be judged on their individual merits.

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Photo by JJ Ying on Unsplash

Staff may also be promoted from the lowest level to the highest, or to any intermediate level, as long as the criteria for the relevant level of promotion are met. Indeed, I have seen this at IC and in other institutions, when a particularly stellar period, perhaps comprising some exemplary administrative or teaching contribution, and/or significant grants or papers, led to a candidate essentially ‘leap-frogging’ a grade (or even two).

I guess I’m a fan of the flexibility encapsulated in the criteria wording; nobody wants to be decline for promotions because they average 2.5 vs. 3 papers per year, or they ‘only’ raised £45,000 vs. £50,000, or their teaching evaluations came out as ‘Very Good’ and not ‘Excellent’.

The 2015 ‘Richardson Review’, which, it might be argued, indirectly arose from the tragic death of Professor Stefan Grimm, enshrined the principle that attainment in these four activities should be recognised in a thoroughly evidence-based way, both when it comes to hiring and promotion. The impact of Grimm’s death and the Richardson Review are still being felt today.

I won’t recite IC’s Criteria for Promotion; they can be read in full here. However, because they are important for this and following blogs, I here summarise the key points:

Education

  • Activities include: creative and clear teaching; development of appropriate curricula and courses; organisation of complex undergraduate and postgraduate programmes; design of appropriate assessment methods; teaching and assessing students with special learning needs; delivering teaching that recognises a diverse students cohort; effective feedback; incorporating change to meet the changing needs of students and the profession; tutoring; student support, welfare, pastoral care, outreach work; fostering students’ self-confidence and self-esteem to promote participation.
  • Measures of recognition include: effective management of educational programmes; teaching existing courses extremely well; creating new courses or revitalising existing courses; commendations by external examiners; receipt of teaching awards; acting as an external examiner; contributions to student welfare and pastoral care; research student supervision.
  • Progression in education will involve: a broadening of the contribution to education, from excellence in teaching delivery, through to the organisation and management of departmental education and student support activity, through to leadership in education research, and leadership on educational matters at Faculty and/or College level.
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Education (Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)

 

Research

  • Activities include: undertaking independent and collaborative research; developing research proposals and winning financial support; planning, leading research activity and managing a research team; presenting findings at conferences; publishing results of research; planning and leading research activities of outstanding quality and national/international repute; contributing to the development and implementation of departmental/faculty research strategy.
  • Measures of recognition include: the quality and quantity of research output; a sustained track record in attracting research funding; a national and/or international reputation for research, reflected in level of output, level of innovation, and the impact on the discipline or profession; widely recognised excellence and reputation among peers; the award of prizes; giving prestigious lectures; membership of national and international committees e.g. Research Council and professional or government committees; work on editorial boards of scholarly journals; visiting appointments at other institutions.
  • Progression in research will involve: a growing national and international reputation combined with individuals making an increasing impact on their discipline or profession. At the Senior Lecturer level originality is important; seminal research and influence become of increasing importance in moving to Reader and Professor.
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Research. In this case, in 2009, I’d just started to think a little about using seismic reflection data to study magmatic systems, such as these lovely sills and volcanic vents imaged offshore southern Australia.

Leadership and Management

  • Activities include, in addition to managing the individual’s own work, contributing to the management of the department/faculty/College; formulate research and teaching strategy; recruiting and selecting staff; managing and motivating staff to achieve their objectives; promoting equality and implementing equal opportunities; undertaking effective performance and development reviews; acting as an Academic Adviser or mentor; membership of internal and external committees; acting as an Athena SWAN coordinator; involvement in public engagement activities.
  • Measures of recognition include proven capability to lead and design research/teaching programmes; effective and innovative formulation of research and teaching strategy; an active interest in personal development and developing others; regular involvement in staff development activities to develop academic, management and personal effectiveness skills; evidence of managing change successfully.
  • Academic leadership becomes of increasing importance in moving from Senior Lecturer to Reader and Professor. Progression from Lecturer to Professor will involve an increasing contribution to departmental/faculty/College management and regular involvement in staff development programs.
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Leadership and Management. Solid stock photo this. (Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)

There is another category, ‘Profession and Practise’ (i.e. involvement in consultancies; contributing to continuing professional development; membership/leadership of respected institutions/organisations/peer review bodies; acting as an expert witness), which I don’t talk about here as it’s not especially relevant to my discipline (or at least it was not an important criteria in any of my three promotion steps).

So having argued that, at least in print, promotion criteria are clear and, in my view, pleasingly ‘non-metricised’ (again, at least in print), I now turn my attention to the transparency of the process and my motivation for this blog series. This can be traced back to the “The turning tide: A new culture of responsible metrics for research” event, hosted by the Forum for Responsible Research Metrics (FFRM) and supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

At this event, I was asked to sit on a panel discussing “The Researcher’s Perspective”. A key theme arising from the ‘Responsible Metrics’ event, which is echoed in many face-to-face and social media conversations I have with academics before and since, was ‘transparency’; i.e. not only are people worried about the statistical basis and thus value of metrics, but many feel they don’t even know what they are aiming for. In essence, what is a ‘good’ metric for a given career stage, in a given discipline, in a given institution?

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Metrics. (https://wonkhe.com/blogs/has-the-time-has-come-for-responsible-metrics/)

At the end of my panel session at the HEFCE event, we were asked a simple question; “what one thing could be done by senior academic and academic managers to improve ‘transparency’ in academia, and to build confidence in the currents modes of assessment?”. My answer, which I’d not given a huge amount of thought at that point, was for us to share documentation of successful and unsuccessful application for promotions, and maybe even grants and employment. Even at the time I acknowledged this could be tricky, given that some of the associated documents contain personal and/or confidential information. However, I, and many of the attendees, saw value in the proposal, even if it’s Not What We Normally Do (*harrumph*).

So, to this end, I have decided to ‘publish’ the promotion documentation associated with my three promotion steps at IC; Lecturer to Senior Lecturer (2009), Senior Lecturer to Reader (2012), and Reader to Professor (2015). And motivated by a discussion with Ben Britton, I will publish a series of blogs to provide some context, with this one focused on my first promotion step (i.e. Lecturer to Senior Lecturer).

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Me. In 2009. In Egypt. Studying a whole bunch of Eocene (ca. 42 Ma) rocks.

For this series, my intention is not to show off; especially as most this information in my promotion documentation is available on my website and associated CV. The very public nature of all my professional information motivates my willingness to share, as I strongly believe promotion documentation should not be confidential and I wish to encourage increasing the transparency of the process. I also hope that I can encourage colleagues to share their documentation too, in the vein that collectively we can improve the culture and shared understanding of the promotions process.

This documentation is not exhaustive with respect to a promotion, as there are absolutely critical details pertinent to my promotion that are NOT included in the main body of the promotion document that I supplied. For example, references are not included.

At Imperial College, as far as I recall, the step from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer requires six (6) references; one is a personal nomination by the applicant (I think I choose Prof Rob Gawthorpe, my PhD supervisor), and the other five are in principle selected by the applicant’s department, whereas in practise they are selected by the applicant’s department under the moderate guidance of the applicant

Of the six references, I saw two. They were sent to me by the referees for comment, although I declined to make any. I, and the college I’m assuming, wanted the referees unabashed view of my candidature. I’m sure there’s some legal means to gain request to my references, but I (and I’m assuming others) don’t have the time or inclination. In fact, I think the references are simply kept on my file in HR, so I suspect I could ask them nicely if I wanted.

Another thing not presented here is a transcript of the interview itself; in 2008, applicants for promotion to Senior Lecturer were interviewed for 45 minutes, with the panel including the Head of HR and three academics not based in your department. The academic element of the panel were not Earth Scientists, it’s fair to say they had little or no detailed knowledge of my research; this is an interesting and important point when considering the potential use (and abuse) of metrics. The interview was not particularly penetrative.

I have not also included here: (i) copies of teaching evaluation (to be honest, at that time, student evaluation, at least for the MSc-level courses I taught on, was a complete disaster for many, many reasons); and (ii) four recent publications (“…which have had the greatest impact since the previous promotion or since appointment at the College, and that show what has been achieved in the interim.”), supported by a 100 word summary (“…of the importance and originality of the selected publications.”). I’m happy to provide these on request. I should add that the panel were, I’m guessing, supposed to read these papers (in line with the principles of DORA, which IC only signed in early-2017), although I didn’t get the sense they did.

Finally, there are come completely unseen, largely undocumented thing that may ‘support’ a promotion. For example, job offers or, at the very least, interest from other institutions may play an important role, although this was not especially relevant to my promotion from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer). Such interest is important, as it can help give a sense of your ‘market value’. For example, your present employer may not deem your profiles worthy of a certain grade or pay, but somewhere else might. Your employer may just be over-familiar with your contribution (or your contribution is masked by that of others), but offers and interest from other institutions may sensibly and reasonably be used as a bargaining tool. Again, this isn’t captured in most promotion documentation, but it’s certainly important to be aware of. Indeed, if you look at a colleague and cannot work out why they’ve been promoted never forget: (i) their performance in interview; (ii) the strength of their references; and (iii) their broader ‘market value’ as judged by an external body.

So, what do I hope to achieve from this? Perhaps a small amount of self-calm in that I’ve demonstrated some transparency, having initially raised this myself at the HEFCE event. People may also get an idea of what might be required to get a certain position at a certain institution.

However, my intention is NOT to make people think this is the ONLY profile that allows someone to get a certain position at a certain institution; instead, I rather hope it provides a flavour of the process. This can be seen by looking at the profiles of similar grade staff in my own department, in other departments/faculties in IC, or in any other institution. I hope that in providing transparency, for example by having ALL documents public, people may get a sense of the true variability in profiles that may allow promotion (or hiring).

Anyway, with all this in mind, you can now, time and sanity permitting, go through  my Senior Lecturer promotion documentation and assess for yourself if, in 2009, I met the criteria outlined above. It is worth noting that, the way in which we evaluate how ‘good’ we are as academics, at IC and elsewhere, has undoubtedly changed over the last nine years; at IC, this has been at least partly driven by the Richardson Review and our recent signing of DORA. However, many things perhaps remain the same.

Ta. Bigly.

So…having been trapped in Arkansas for a little longer than planned, I decided to write a close-out blogpost for my GSA James B. Thompson Distinguished Lecturer Tour. As documented here and on Twitter, and as you will read below, I’ve had an amazing time. It is hard and perhaps unfair (unwise, even) to pick-out and list all the cool stuff I’ve done or awesome people I’ve met; all that is documented in the blow-by-blow posts. However, having scrolled back through my old posts, it is these five days/experiences/’things’ that will probably stick in my mind for the next few weeks, months and years…enjoy.

1. My day at the University of Connecticut – feeling refreshed having spent the weekend recuperating in Blacksburg, VA with Brian Romans and friends, I was full of beans as I landed in New England and walked around the beautiful, leafy campus of UConn with my host Julie Fosdick. However, it was the unbelievably friendly, open, chatty faculty who made this one of the most memorable days of the tour; they wanted to talk as much about life as they did about research. I laughed more on this day than on any other day of the tour; this was perfect, setting me up nicely for the final, gruelling week. In fact, it was really the people, including my awesome hosts, who made the whole tour. Without them, the tour would have simply been a bunch of PowerPoint slides, long waits in vomit-beige, provincial US airports, and sole-dining on, in some cases, poor-quality calories.

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Sunrise, sunburst through the forest in Glastonbury, CT on the morning of my visit to UConn.
2. ‘Moped day’ on Honolulu – Sometimes spontaneity, and to be honest downright recklessness, can lead to great things. Being low on underpants and spending time doing laundry in Waikiki, I realised I didn’t want to spend time doing laundry in Waikiki. I was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a tropical island; surely there must be something else to do? Remembering I use to ride a motorbike, and that a motorbike is essentially a regular bike with a motor, I walked to a random garage at the end of the strip and hired a moped. My day became infinitely better, as I rode around a giant monogentic crater, saw a.maze.ing pyroclastic deposits, and ate tacos on the beach before, you know, watching humpback whales from Makapu’u Point. Don’t think. Simply do.
3. Kilauea – Panicking about the right flights to take; being short on time; worrying about car hire and accommodation; pondering the wisdom of vlogging. All of these things almost conspired to make me not go to Big Island and the volcano of Kilauea. However, the lure of lava was too great, and I was rewarded with a fun-filled, action-packed 24 hours. So followed a chance encounter with my friend Gulce, a cycle ride across ancient lava fields to a lava tube sea entry, Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl half-time show whilst eating poke and staring out at the lava-filled summit crater, and a stay at a kooky B&B in the aptly named village of ‘Volcano’. Again, don’t think. Simply do.
4. Science (defined by the Gods of Wikipedia as a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe) – Scientific discoveries. People attacking science. People marching for science. Science has been in the news a lot lately. In fact, my tour was ostensibly about science. Growing up, science seemed such a serious, grown-up word, conjuring-up images of lab coats, simmering, smoking vials, and crazy-haired, white, male scientists. Science is and will remain some of those things, although this tour has taught me or at least reinforced for me that science is a rather weird thing. It can still cause me to scratch my head and weep into my pillow, but it can and actually normally is, full of fun and downright silliness. We can be so serious when reviewing papers for journals or asking questions at conferences; however, the same scientific discourse, for that’s what it is, can occur in far less formal settings, such as in dive bars in New York City, at the top of mountains overlooking the foothills of the Rockies, or when trail running and dodging tortoises in the Ozark mountains. I think we should take science into these places too.
5. Day 2 in Golden – Yes, I not long got back from Hawaii and yes, the talk at Colorado School of Mines has gone well the day before, and yes the weather was unseasonably gorgeous. So on reflection, maybe it was these things that contributed to making Day 2 in Golden, CO so awesome. However, Day 2 certainly did it own thang by including: (i) a pre-breakfast run up the gorgeous South Table Mountain with Jesse, Rich and Zane, crossing the K-T boundary and getting spectacular views westwards across the blue sky-mantled Rocky Mountains; (ii) a visit to the USGS for a meeting with Rich, Chris and Ryan; we discussed normal faults straight for around two hours. I was in heaven and my brain was fizzing; (ii) a walk in the sunshine to look at Late Cretaceous dinosaur trackways (my obsession with dinosaur trackways is now well-documented); (iv) an afternoon looking at awesome seismic data with bright, mustard-keen CSM students; and (v) a drive into the Rocky Mountains with Bruce, Jesse and Zan to the town of Nederland to eat hipster, sourdough-based pizza, and to watch live bluegrass(-inspired) music at the famous Caribou Lounge. Just to top things off, I caught a glimpse of the continental divide. I don’t think my heart could take everyday being like Day 2 in Golden, although I would dearly love it to be the case.
In the context of equality and diversity, someone recently mentioned on Twitter that we should think really, really hard about selecting nominees and winners of professional society and institutional awards. They remarked these awards can be life-changing, and should be thus taken seriously. I strongly concur and would argue that they should be life-changing; what value really is another award to simply throw onto the shelf alongside millions of other awards? Recognition should be cherished. I can safely say that for some of the reasons listed above and documented elsewhere in my blog, this has been a life-changing experience for me. I am happy and proud to have represented GSA, and thank them for allowing me to have this experience. I’d also like to say thanks to Vicki, Olive, Hazel and Norah, who have put up with me being a long, long way away, for a long, long time…xxx. Seis_matters, signing-off.

Stop 6 – University of Arkansas

Doctors prescribe a trip to Fayetteville as the antidote to New York. I was happy to swallow the pill.

The journey down to NW Arkansas Regional Airport, AR from La Guardia, NY was the first direct flight of my tour. This was much appreciated, given the ‘exertions’ of my time with Matt and Graham in NYC, not to mention the incredibly fraught journey out to La Guardia from downtown Manhattan (turns out that, in the city that never sleeps, subway trains do). The flight down to Arkansas was nice, passing over the northern part of the Appalachians and some striking fluvial geomorphology.

I was met by John Shaw (@johnburnhamshaw), a sedimentologist, stratigrapher, geomorphologist and physical modeller, with a weakness for deltas and distributary channel bifurcations. It was great to finally meet John, having first made his acquaintance on Twitter. Having tweeted the fact I had been made one of the GSA Distinguished Lecturers, John contacted me to see if I’d be willing and able to come and talk at Arkansas. Having never been, but having heard of John’s work, I jumped at the chance. We took a scenic route into the beautifully situated town of Fayetteville, with John providing interesting insights into the surrounding geology and geomorphology and, perhaps as interestingly, a story about the area’s long-standing link with the much-hated, megalithic shopping experience that is Mal-Wart.

He dropped me at The Inn at Carnell Hall, a grand, 1905-built building situated on the edge of campus. Named after the distinguished Miss Ella Howison Carnell, a Professor of English and modern languages and the first female faculty member of the University of Arkansas, the building has a rich and fascinating history, having served as an all-female dorm, a fraternity house and, most recently, as a hotel that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Having settled, John and I met Chris Liner (check out his blog here) and Mac McGilvery, two faculty members at U of A, for dinner, locally brewed beer and conversation. Despite the server’s best efforts to ruin everything by describing the minutiae of every dish (for future reference, and beyond knowing that the food is of good quality and prepared well, I don’t give a fuck about the name or height of the person who cut up my fries), all three were excellent. Oh, and I am now addicted to fried brussel sprouts. Full of food, drink and chat, I headed home to bed.

The morning started with a bang. Hearing I was an avid if somewhat shit runner, and having learned that I aimed to run at each stop of the tour, John had arranged for me and him to go on a trail run with his colleague, Matt Covington. It. Was Awesome. We winded up and down Kessler Mountain, under a dense canopy of tall trees, dodging tortoises and swampy puddles, whilst simultaneously avoiding breaking our legs. We popped-out at ‘Rock City’, an exposure of Carboniferous sandstones, where we did the typical geologist thang of failing to come to any sort of conclusion on a depositional environment.

A quick dash back to the hotel, a shower, and it was straight into the department for breakfast and a series of meetings with staff and students. Like all the department visits on this and the previous tour, it was great fun to learn about all the work being done by people in fields wildly different to mine. Particularly exciting was the way in which MSc and PhD students in particular feel so engaged with their research; they wanted to do it well and they were keen to talk about.

My talk, the final one of the tour (*sniff*) was to again be on normal faulting. The large lecture room was pretty full, and the talk went well despite me getting some neck strain due to the lofty situation of the giant screen. A Q&A followed, before I was presented with some ace swag (see above). A pizza-fuelled ‘meet-and greet’, where I chatted with several more students about their current research and future plans. A splinter group then headed down to a pub on main street, where discussions continued, this time fuelled by beer and, in some cases, whisky. It was around 1730.

Celina Suarez and I then met here husband Andy Lamb and their duck-obsessed daughter Ella, and we headed to the rather questionably positioned, but incredibly characterful Cafe Rue Orleans, a Cajun restaurant that came highly recommended by some of the students. An awesome meal was capped by beignets, which quite frankly should come with a health warning (imagine a oil-soaked doughnut, drowning in icing sugar). Andy and Celina told me all about their collective exploits travelling around and living in various parts of the world, whereas Ella told me her duck-house plans. It was a great evening, and the perfect end to a long, tiring, but inspiring day.

Up early(ish)the next morning, I packed, called home, and then met Mac for breakfast. Over remarkably restrained American breakfasts, we chatted about everything, including our joint love of paper-based, 2D seismic-stratigraphy exercises, and the stunning geology defining the state of Arkansas. Mac then kindly took me to the airport, where I currently find myself trapped, in a horrendous lightening storm, writing this final(ish) blog post.

Given the weather, it’s likely I’ll spend the rest of my natural life here in Arkansas. However, if there is a slim chance I’ll be leaving sometime soon, I’d like to say a huge ‘thanks!’ to John Shaw, my host here at U of A. Thanks also to Chris, Matt, Mac, Celina, Andy and Ella, for your company and laughs; I look forward to returning in the not-too-distant future!

 

Stop 5 – Columbia University, New York, NY

From the calm, leafy greenness of the UConn campus in Connecticut, to the hyper-urban, downright lunacy of New York, my GSA lecture tour crunched through the gears and switched it up.

The GSA travel agent saw fit to fly me from Hartford, CT to to New York, NY via Washington DC. Although it was nice to glimpse the ‘swamp’ and the White House(!) through a cloud-heavy sky, it was clear, having briefly peeped at the in-flight magazine, that it wasn’t the direct route. In hindsight, I maybe should have checked a map of the US when my itinerary was sent to me late last year. As it was, I arrived nice and early in downtown Manhattan, having navigated the labyrinthine but amazingly functional, New York public transportation system.

My first job was to head down to 16th and Broadway to meet Graham Ganssle (@grahamganssle), do’er and thinker extraordinaire. I cannot even begin to classify what Graham does; I can only say that I befriended him via Matt Hall (@kwinkunks), an old friend who did his PhD a few years ahead of me at Manchester University. I had kinda, sorta met Graham a couple of times when I ‘appeared’ on Undersampled Radio, the science(?)-based podcast he hosts with Matt; I least managed to recognise him when he walked into my café. Having remarked on how tall I was in real life, we chatted and drank fancy coffees, before heading out to drop off my case at the apartment he was staying in. Beer and lunch beckoned, so we repaired to a small bar to wait for Matt’s delayed arrival from Halifax via Montreal. It was great to see Matt again, having not seen him, face-to-face, for around 15 years. However, weirdly enough, it didn’t feel like that long, having been in fairly regular contact with him in the last few years via the Twittersphere. We drank, ate, and chatted, before heading back to our AirBnB to check-in and to make something vaguely resembling a plan. To be honest, the rest of the evening went by in a bit of a blur. I vaguely remember a dark, wood panelled bar, a pasta dish served in a half-wheel of Parmesan (see here), meeting an awesome geek called Ethan (@eprosenthal), and then a podcast. Yes, full of booze, cheese and carbs, we did an Undersampled Radio podcast. What on? I don’t recall, but you when it’s been edited down I’ll tweet it out.

The morning after the night before was *cough*, rather ‘slow’ *cough*, so we tried to kick-start things by taking on epic bagels and juice. Remembering I was not in town to simply drink, talk and eat, I had to hustle to get uptown to Columbia University to get the shuttle-bus out to Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to give my GSA talk. The second half of the bus-ride out to the leafy campus was ace, crossing the mighty Hudson River, and climbing up and along the impressive escarpment formed by the Palisades Sill.

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That. That is the Palisades Sill escarpment. Wow.

I was met at the campus by the indefatigable, still-British, Nick Christie-Blick (@christieblick). With a range of research interests as broad as mine, Nick is one of my geo-heros. Over lunch we had an animated chat about how science, in our case Earth Science, should focus on tackling exciting, complicated problems, and not exclusively on specific geographical regions or method development. We also discussed politics. Nick then took me to my lecture, which was to focus on the growth of normal faults (this talk, on the second leg of this tour, has proven to be especially popular). I must admit to being slightly nervous; Lamont-Doherty has some folks who know their shit about continental extension and normal faulting…plus for reasons that will always remain a mystery to me, Graham and Matt had made the long trip up town and off the island of Manhattan to watch me talk. To make matters far, far worse, they then sat in the front row. I think the talk went well, with even some geochemists/petrologists (I’m looking at you, fellow GSA Distinguished Lecturer Terry Plank…) nodding approvingly as I rambled on about kinematic models for normal faults. The Q&A was long and ‘robust’, and I was eventually allowed to leave to visit some of the faculty.

First up was Roger Buck (yes everyone, I met Roger Buck…), who took Matt, Graham and I on a tour of the campus, showing us the original Tharp and Heezen map of the seafloor, and telling us captivating stories about the birth and growth of Lamont-Doherty. We then chatted briefly to Roger and several students about their research on continental extension. The upshot of this; there’s some seriously A-Grade work being done at Lamont on the processes and products of continental extension. What was particularly inspiring was thinking about how our work on relatively small, segmented, upper crustal fault systems work in the context of larger-scale variations in crustal rheology, temperature, etc, etc.

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Heezen and Tharp map of the seafloor. The original was painted. Painted.

My mind was fizzing as I went to meet Donna Shillington and her student Natalie Accardo, who are doing some awesome work on Lake Malawi. Part of a major, multi-disciplinary study called SEGMeNT, they are using an array of geological and geophysical datasets to understand the geometry and kinematics of the lake-bounding normal fault system. We swapped numbers and will keep in touch.

It was time to leave, so Matt, Graham and I trekked back downtown before going out for a run. From our apartment on West 14th Street, we headed out west to the Hudson, before running south towards Battery Park where we got a nice view of the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, Staten Island, Jersey City, and the Verazano-Narrows Bridge. Selfies done, we headed back north to the apartment before meeting Ethan and his soon-to-be wife Mandy for dinner at a cool little Spanish restaurant. Fun chat, tapas, and many beers made for a great evening that I didn’t want to end. End it did, however, and Matt and I said our goodbyes to Graham, who was returning back to New Orleans on a very early flight. We also said goodbye to Ethan and Mandy, before heading back to our apartment for more beers (well, we couldn’t leave them all alone, cold and scared in the AirBnB fridge….), a little more science chat, and eventually bed.

So, here I am blogging from Union Square, New York, NY. It’s funny how life turns out. I had the most amazing time here in New York; in fact, during the run, as I chatted with Graham and Matt about absolutely everything, it struck me how ridiculously lucky I am to have experienced the entire tour. Here in The Big Apple, it was great to finally meet Nick, who was a great host and with whom I share a scientific kinship. I also had a ball spending time with Graham, Matt and Ethan; being around independent, passionate, clever, driven, energy-filled people is intoxicating. After all, it’s New York, baby…!