Category Archives: work

Pomp and circumstance

In theory, I understand why students (and their friends/family) get excited about attending a graduation ceremony: They’ve spent years working towards their degree and they finally get someone–a whole big crowd of someones, in fact–to both recognize their sacrifices and help celebrate their achievements.  That all sounds well and good on paper, but in reality (assuming we’re not discussing ceremonies for one-room schoolhouses in tiny towns) they are rather long and drawn-out affairs that involve a tedious run-down of dozens upon dozens of names, some inevitably belonging to people you swear you never saw at any point during the entire degree program.

Or, at least, that was how I felt about the ceremonies that I attended when I received my high school, Bachelor’s, and Master’s diplomas (I skipped my PhD ceremony because I just couldn’t bear another). Perhaps those were not fully representative examples of what a graduation celebration can be; all I know is that the University of Exeter ceremony this summer was nothing like what I’d previously experienced.

cait robes

For one thing, to start on a totally vapid and shallow note, my robes were much more impressive. Like the ones I wore in previously, this year’s were merely rented–thank heavens, because it costs hundreds of pounds to purchase them. However, these were made of thick, heavy, high-quality fabric rather than cheap polyester; I almost felt as though I were wearing repurposed curtains. Whereas I’d formerly felt as though I was dressing up in a disposable Halloween costume purchased from Walmart, this year’s robes gave me the sense of being a true scholar who had just emerged from Hogwarts or Cambridge or some other ancient and worthy institution of higher learning.

That said, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed not to receive the actual robes to which I was entitled as a doctoral graduate of the College of William and Mary. They would have looked like this:


I don’t think that any of the other academics at this year’s ceremony wore green, so I would definitely have stood out from the crowd. This outfit also has the advantage of being hoodless, which would have spared me the torture of spending my afternoon being choked by my own clothing (I nearly developed a repetitive strain injury from adjusting the hood every 30 seconds or so). One thing I did insist on was upholding the WM tradition of spurning a hat; there was no way I was going to assault my ‘do with a mortarboard or any of the bizarre forms of headgear worn by European scholars (for examples, see video below).

The venue was also quite a bit more exciting than those to which I’ve been invited in the past:


The Truro Cathedral may not be as venerable as some of the hallowed graduation facilities doubtless used by institutions such as Cambridge and Oxford, but it is still darn impressive–and is certainly much more scenic than the gymnasium in which I attended my high school ceremony, or the banquet room where I received my Master’s diploma. Flying buttresses, rose windows, and stained glass do have a way of making an occasion a bit more awe-inspiring. (All due respect, though, to Haverford College, which holds its ceremony outdoors on its beautiful campus; it is hard to compete with nature’s decorations.)

cathedral interior

The venue worked especially well with the British practice of processing. This is not just the entrance of hundreds of robed and bedecked graduands; it also involves the more fancifully attired faculty, the even more fancifully attired VIPs, a scepter, a staff, a mace, and lots of bowing. It was properly archaic, and I mean that as a compliment.

The grand finale of the procession was the entrance of our chancellor–who holds a predominantly ceremonial, rather than executive, position. I say “predominantly” because, in our case, there was no doubt as to who was in charge of giving the day’s proceedings a simultaneous sense of weightiness, pizzazz, and meaning; the event may have been attended by our all-powerful vice chancellor and chief executive Sir Steve Smith, but its great success lay in the very capable hands of the formidable Baroness Floella Benjamin.

2014-07-21 13.26.06

Floella is probably best known as the former presenter of TV shows for children. Her showbiz pedigree was obvious from the moment she entered the nave, confidently swaggering along in the position of honor at the very tail of the procession, turquoise sequins flashing with every step. Uttered by anyone else, her welcome speech might have seemed a bit over the top, but coming from Floella it felt appropriate and inspiring. She went on to personally greet, shake hands with, hug, and/or kiss every single student receiving a diploma, leaving even the surliest and most reticent beaming with delight.

Speaking of diplomas, this is where the students came to receive them:

diploma desk

Not the most picturesque or exciting of destinations after standing on a dais in the center of a cathedral with a well-known celebrity. This was my station, since I was once of two people responsible for handing out diplomas to graduates from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences and the University of Exeter Medical School. Many students didn’t seem to realize that they would receive this paperwork en route to their seats, so my colleague and I frequently had to step out and intercept them as they tried to pass us by in their smiling, dream-like state. Many of them seemed dazed by the experience, which I suppose is understandable; they worked hard for three long years and then suddenly their moment in the spotlight was over in just a matter of seconds. Also, I suspect that may be a common side effect of encounters with Floella.

cathedral exterior

Once the paperwork was all handed out, the procession was repeated in reverse, allowing the faculty to exit and the students to parade around picturesquely in front of their parents one last time. They filed out into the square in front of the cathedral in order to mingle and take photographs. Eventually, they made their way to the rendezvous point where they could hop a bus back to campus in time for the college-specific reception–which involved a large number of these:


To be honest, I was kind of dreading graduation day–partly because I was worried that I would make a mistake when handing out diplomas, and  partly because I thought it would be boring to sit and listen to 300 names being read off one by one. However, I both overestimated how difficult it would be to find and distribute the correct envelope to each student, and underestimated how invested I felt in the achievements of these students that I had been helping to educate over the past several years. As it turns out, despite my endless grumbling over the volume and content of e-mails I’ve been receiving while working as both a lecturer and administrator, I do actually care about the students who send them, and I was extremely pleased to see the looks of excitement, happiness, and pure relief that flooded their faces as they walked across the stage. I was a little bit like the Grinch experiencing his heart expansion on Christmas morning.

Alas, there was one small thing that kept me from completely and unabashedly enjoying the day’s celebrations:


This brought to mind all the disastrous misspellings I’ve seen on the graduation cakes profiled on Cake Wrecks. This may not have been as egregious as some of those errors, but it was still pretty painful for someone as sensitive to typos as I am–after all, this sign was erected at an event celebrating education! Ah, the irony. Clearly, the text was not written by one of our graduates, whom I’m sure cease misspellings altogether once they receive a University of Exeter diploma.

In all seriousness, though, I’m pleased to report that it was a joyous and inspiring ceremony on a flawlessly beautiful Cornish day. The event organizers should be proud of how smoothly everything ran, the faculty and staff should be proud of how many graduands they ushered through their many difficult years of study, and the scholars should be proud of their achievements. Mortarboards off to the Class of 2014!

So I finally got a job…

When I moved to the UK in 2010, I had a great job as a freelance editor for Cactus Communications. I loved being able to work whenever and wherever I wanted. What I didn’t love was being paid in dollars while spending in pounds–or never being 100% sure that the assignments wouldn’t dry up, leaving me without an income.

Cait editing
Caitlin the Editor

Thus began my three-and-a-half-year quest to obtain a permanent, full-time job–in a portion of Britain that has some of the highest unemployment levels in the country. It was daunting and depressing. I scoured online job databases for available positions, only to find that the only open spots were for SEO optimizers, personal carers, sous-chefs, and cleaners. Exciting advertisements would occasionally pop up, but usually for jobs that were prohibitively far away, or for something that I was interested in but not officially qualified for. I sent off a dozen inquiries, CVs, and/or applications, but received no response. As for my three hard-earned degrees, they began to seem pretty useless, and I began to feel pretty bitter.

During the summer of 2013, I eventually found two jobs for which I was eminently qualified. I got interviews for both within weeks of each other. The first was a total bomb, despite the fact that I would have done an amazing job in the position (in my humble opinion). The interviewers were friendly, but asked the weirdest, most touchy-feely questions I’d ever heard–or heard of anyone else having–in that context. I was completely taken by surprise, and I think it probably showed. I was determined that the second interview would go better, but then disaster struck: I was going to be out of the country during the scheduled interview time, and my potential employers refused to offer an alternative date or allow me to conduct the interview over the Internet. Things were not going well.

Shortly thereafter, I applied, and interviewed for, a third job. By this point, I no longer cared what happened. I had resigned myself to being an underpaid editor for the rest of my life–at least I could work from the beach, should I desire! I didn’t particularly want this third potential job, but I knew I would be an idiot to not apply.

From my point of view, at least, the interview went great. I got up at 5 AM during a family vacation in order to converse with my potential employers via Skype; none of the questions were out of left field, I felt I did a good job representing and selling myself, and when it was all done I had a lovely sunrise walk along the seaside. Life could be worse.

Ring-billed gull
Ring-billed gull at Sunset Beach, North Carolina, USA

As I anticipated–and somewhat to my relief–I was not offered the job. Fair enough, considering that I was quite rusty at one of the skills required, and would have needed to teach myself another of the necessary skills from scratch. I did, however, get good feedback on my performance, which was some small consolation.

Finally, about a month later, I submitted yet another job application. By this point I could practically write them in my sleep. This yielded me my third interview, a fact that I couldn’t mention without compulsively adding, “Third time’s a charm!” Luckily, I was in the country this time around; unluckily, I was attending a conference where I was scheduled to give a presentation. However, the conference and the interview were in the same place, and the timing was such that I could give my presentation, answer questions, then turn around and dash off to the interview. A normal person might have considered such a plan ridiculous, but I had become rather blase about these things and decided I’d go for it.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that people routinely take the “blase” approach to interviews, but it clearly worked for me. Because I was so focused on my conference presentation, I didn’t have an opportunity to over-think the interview or get nervous about facing the panel. I felt calm and relaxed, and I didn’t really care about putting on a show in order to impress anyone. *I* knew I’d be good at the job, so I just acted naturally and told the truth. As I was walking home that evening, I got a call offering me the position. Hooray!

Panoramic view of my office

Somewhat oddly, my new job is in the same location as my last job, which was a temporary teaching support position at the University of Exeter. I now sit in the same office where I sat before, but have moved from the “hot desk” (center of the room in the photo above, just behind the coat rack) to a desk by the door; it has been described as being at the head of the room in the same way that Picard’s captain’s seat is at the head of the bridge on the Enterprise. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like it regardless.

Even more oddly, I am now the line manager of four colleagues that I worked closely with before; all of them are senior to me in age, length of time working at the University, or both. That puts me in quite an interesting position. They are far more knowledgeable than I about many things–especially practical stuff having to do with the day-to-day running of the College. I, on the other hand, have more experience with lecturing and research, so, cumulatively, we are a team perfectly suited to our purpose.

The Captain's Seat
The Captain’s Seat

And what is that purpose, you ask? Well, we are the Education Team (which makes me the Education Team Leader), and we create a bridge between faculty and students and between both of those groups and the broader University infrastructure. We do things like put together students’ timetables, keep track of their submitted assignments and grades, provide assistance to struggling individuals, schedule field trips, develop new classes and degree programs, organize special educational events like the Grand Challenges project I worked on last spring, and various other random tasks that pop up from day to day.

Because I was previously a researcher, and then a lecturer, everyone was quite worried that I would be dissatisfied by what many people would consider a step down the academic ladder. However, doing something and liking something are two different things, and I was never fully enamored of either of those careers. I enjoyed designing research projects and watching/playing with birds, but I always knew I wasn’t that creative or ground-breaking; I would never have been more than a mediocre academic, and that was not a prospect I found appealing. I’m a much better lecturer, but only because I’m a good communicator. I’m not overly-fond of all the other stuff that goes along with teaching–particularly grading (as though any teacher is!) and answering a million student e-mails in which they ask questions that you have already answered in class.

Cait's desk
Alternative view of the Captain’s Seat

What I do like, though, is problem solving. Streamlining. Improving efficiency. Organizing. I suppose all of that sounds boring, but it’s not boring when it’s in the right context–in my case, the context of education. There has been no time since I was 5 years old when I have not been attending, working at, or otherwise affiliated with, an educational institution. The academic schedule and mindset have now become ingrained. Even in my moments of greatest frustration at the bureaucracies and hierarchies seemingly inherent in schools, I have a hard time imagining not working at one. When I am feeling especially optimistic, I hope that my range of experiences and perspectives will allow me to fight against those inherent evils from the inside.

I may not ultimately end up having a long-lasting influence on the system at the University of Exeter, but I feel pretty confident that I can, at the very least, make things better in the short term–for students, for faculty, for other staff members working hard to provide the huge array of services that people all too frequently take for granted. A university is a big, complicated thing, and the more I learn about what happens behind the scenes, the more impressed I am with how smoothly things run the bulk of the time. That is not an easy task to achieve.

Exercise ball chair
My famous lumbar-friendly exercise ball chair

I have to admit that I do occasionally miss the editing–or, more specifically, the fact that being a freelancer gives you an amount of freedom that is virtually impossible to have when you are working for a boss. Plus, I can’t just sit around in loungewear all day. Or take a mid-afternoon nap if I need one. However, I tended to get a little weird when I was hanging out by myself for 8 hours a day. Also, I got sick of being tied to my computer. My new job offers quite a bit more variety, and makes evenings and weekends seem all the more wonderful–because they are actually distinct from the rest of my schedule. Plus, I get to have regular visits with this guy:

Campus cat
One of the “campus cats,” as I call them. I believe they do have owners and homes, but they like to visit Tremough in order to lounge in the sun, hunt small mammals, and get affection from students.

I also think the new job has had a noticeable effect on my personality. Maybe I’m just imagining things, but I think I am calmer. I feel happier and more fulfilled; I feel like I have a more well-rounded life. That is even better than simply having economic security (though that’s not bad, either!). All in all, I think things have turned out pretty well–even if my happy ending was a long time coming.