May 16, 2011 - Family, Life, Parenting    4 Comments

The Untold Story – Part 2: The Living Nightmare

A word of warning: My Apologies, this is a seriously long post. It was a long nightmare 😉

I finished my PhD in Structural Chemistry (2003), with a coveted Lectureship in hand. I even skipped the post-doctoral phase and I actually had a job deadline – to finish writing my thesis in order to start work.

The truth is, I had started my PhD with the full intention of being an Academic (you know, one of those boffins in the Ivory Tower), by the end of it, I was pretty sure that I no longer wanted to be an Academic.

Having said that, I loved Crystallography, the science that brought us knowledge of the double helix DNA structure, of numerous bio-chemical molecules, in our body, and has formed the basis and groundwork for many of the medicines and applications in our daily lives. Crystallography-related Nobel prizes continue to be awarded, the most recent in 2009, not bad for a Science that started more than a century ago with the discovery of X-rays.

And so, when I was offered a job, doing Crystallography, at a time when there were probably 80 applicants for every Academic job going, I took it. I enjoyed doing what I loved, I enjoyed the lecturing, the contact time with the students, the sharing of knowledge. I loved what I did, I truly did, the only problem was, I abhorred the environment (both built and social) I did it in.

It was extremely lop-sided gender wise, I raised the women count by 100%, (not counting the really brave / really mad? man turned woman, who stayed on – Academia is complicated!) when I joined. I was the only non-Caucasian and the youngest by at least 5 years to all my colleagues, the average colleague was a 45-year old male Caucasian, BUT these were non-issues when I started.

The issues really started I suppose mid-2005.

The Japan Trip

I successfully applied and got some grant money to spend a month in Japan for research. Problem was, I also, single-handedly ran the Crystallography service in the Chemistry Department (analysing and resolving crystal structures). So while from a Research and Grant success, point of view, it was good, the fact that when I was away and no one else could solve crystal structures didn’t go down well at all.

Then 3 days before I left to Japan I found out I was pregnant. I had a great time in Japan, thankfully with none of the well-known morning sickness. The only thing I could not bear was the smell of the raw fish. I met up with friends I had not seen for years, and made some new friends for life.

Three weeks in to my Japan trip, DH travelled out there, an arrived the very day there was a 6.8 earthquake! Quite an experience, but another blog post, another story. We truly enjoyed Japan, and will hopefully go back again for another visit. We also managed to squeeze in a trip back to Malaysia.

When I came back home to the UK, and to reality, I realised that I needed to talk to a) the Head of Department (HoD) who was away for 2 weeks at that time and to b) the Health and Safety officer (you know, being pregnant, working with X-rays etc). I also really felt that I needed to move offices as my office did not have a window and actually had a 5 gauss line in it at one end.

The 5 Gauss line

A 5 Gauss line denotes the proximity to a highly magnetic instrument, basically, you don’t want to be too near it for too long.  This was due to the proximity of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machines (an analytical machine which uses magnetism of the atomic nucleus to identify atomic type). There was also a signage on my office door that said “Do not enter if you have a pacemaker” – so I really did not want be there while I was pregnant!

So as the Safety guy was around, I spoke to him first (again, middle aged, pot-bellied male), going through the possibility of moving offices and Health and Safety Assessments pertaining mainly to the X-ray emissions from my work with X-ray diffractometers, and the other potential hazardous chemicals in teaching labs that I might encounter. (I should have mentioned also, that I was the first Academic ever to be pregnant in that Department).

I later found out that although we had dosimeter badges, they were never tested so there was no formal record of X-ray levels. I was confident enough in the machine and my use of it so from a work point of view it was fine, but for formalities sake – it was not good. I also asked explicitly that he did not tell the HoD as I was going to talk to him personally. I later found out that he told the HoD as soon as he spoke with him.

So anyway, I did get that office move to the second floor (!), rather ridiculous when there were empty offices down the corridor from my old one. Bearing in mind that I needed the proximity to the diffractometers for work, this meant that i would go up and down 4 flights of stairs, at least 5 times a day usually more. But, naive as I was, I was really just glad to get out of the 5 gauss hole! And I reasoned, to myself, I’d be getting exercise!

The Unsafe Lab Session

Things really blew up when the time came for me to supervise an undergraduate Inorganic/Organometallic Chemistry lab session (bizarrely it wasn’t even a course I taught but I had been time-tabled to take it). Anyway, the story goes like this…

The colleague whose course it was, lovely chap that he was, popped in to my office about two weeks before i was due to take the lab session, and said to me. “Colleague B and I’ll take the lab sessions that you’re timetabled to do. Frankly, because if it was my wife, I would not have her anywhere near the chemicals and the students.”

I was really grateful for this. I had not stressed about it at all. I figured I would stay on the teaching platform and rely on the post-graduate demonstrators to do their jobs properly. But my colleague also pointed out that it was a lab that didn’t always go well. It involved the use of lead and other heavy metals, and with undergraduate students being clumsy as they are, spills were common, and often ancient methods of pipetting by mouth (definitely not recommended) were used.

I then, stupidly and very naively fed this information back to the Health and Safety officer who in essence, blew his top! He truly was not pleased, because apparently my inability to supervise the lab sessions implied that the labs were not safe; forget the fact that it was my very generous colleagues who actually offered to do it! The contention, in his eyes was that – they could potentially have an unknowingly pregnant undergrad – and the lab would have to be safe enough for them.

So I was hauled up to meet the HoD, who also insisted that my not taking the lab was not right (I actually have all the emails pertaining to this absolutely absurb exchange!). In the end, I took the labs and kept as far away as possible from the nasties (never far enough!) relying on the excellent demonstrators.

Things pretty much got worse progressively. I was taking my due maternity, and tried hard to put in place a system for the Crystallography service I ran, as they refused to advertise for maternity cover. In the end I did put in a proposal that would be a stop-gap and student skills development programme that was approved very very reluctantly. I trained some PhD students to solve their own crystals – but this did not go down well with some of the old men….

Returning from maternity leave

I had planned on working right up to when I was due, to maximise my maternity leave (it really was very generous, 6 months full pay, at the time). In the end, I went on maternity about 3 weeks early (again another post and another story!). But I took my due time, and had minimal contact with anyone from work.

Upon my return, I found out that, during my maternity, a colleague’s post-doctoral researcher (post-doc) was paid to do the Departmental Crystallography, but upon my return, I was told not to interfere with his use of what was essentially my Diffractometer! And that I had to answer to this colleague, who was now my manager (?), all informal of course!

Then I got lumped with more teaching duties, and having to work that out with a PG-Dip teaching course that new lecturers had to do, and run the Crystallography service. Essentially I had more work than could possibly be done by a single person. A new Head of Department started about a week before I came back from maternity and he took it upon himself to suggest that I change my contract to a teaching-only position, (I was at that time in a research lectureship), as in his words, I should be spending more time with my family now (!!!).

I also came to blows with this new HoD’s post-doc who helped himself to my Diffractometer without training or permission…and this really, really peeved me off because I would come in to work, to run the crystals and he would be using the machine. Raising it as an issue with the HoD did nothing, as clearly it was in his own research interests that his post-doctoral researcher used the diffractometer. Never mind the fact that he was not trained nor approved (by yours truly!) to handle the machine and had no knowledge of X-ray safety pertaining to the machine.

The other thing that really got to me was the fact that HoD insisted on my deferring my probation period by the 6 months of maternity that I was off. (Academics typically have a 3 year probation to prove grant application success). And I questioned why, he just said ‘It’s better for you’ even though I had met all the targets on time regardless that I had been away on maternity leave. I had worked very hard to catch up on the Teaching Diploma and completed it successfully with my cohort. I had grant applications to submit. I had already successfully obtained some funding for some initial research.

I was really ready to quit very early on. As soon as my required, pay back of 3 working months was done. But my brother, being a lawyer, insisted on my doing the ‘right’ thing by writing to HR, very informally I might add. It was worded as a concern not a complaint and in the end, it just made matters worse.

I had further, unofficial meetings with HR in which I was told that basically even if I challenged the Probation decision, at the end of the day it was down to the HoD to sign it off.

Through it all, of course was the horrible nagging guilt of having to leave my child in nursery all day every day (from 8.30am to 5.30pm). I had the most ridiculous (eventually i found out it was stress-induced) dermatitis on each and every one of my fingers, painful, raw, peeling, bloody cracked fingers.

Opting Out, Leaking Out, Giving Up

The one thing that really stands out, that probably broke the camel’s back was that I had to have this meeting with the HoD, who was insisting that I change from a Research based contract to a Teaching contract. This meeting was meant to be a ‘further discussion’ type meeting as to why they thought it was ‘best for me’ and me, defending the fact that ‘I did not want to change contracts’

His secretary was due to schedule it and hadn’t for about 2 weeks. And then Georgia was been admitted to hospital with a chest infection.

His secretary was well aware that I had pretty much spent the weekend at the hospital, and yet she phoned me at home the very day Georgia was discharged (Monday) to say that the HoD could not meet any other day apart from the next day.

That completely took the fight out of me, and I went to that meeting thinking all the time that I really should not be in this meeting – so essentially i just agreed to everything he said with regards to changing contracts and redefining my role, because, the only thing that kept going through my mind was, What could be more important than my sick child?!

Following that meeting, there was meant to be a summary report, but the guy (supposedly my mentor) who was supposed to write it, took 3 months to write it. When I finally got hold of it, I sat on it for a week. I had to sign to agree to it….it just seemed really final, I was signing myself in to a dead-end job.

You see, Teaching contracts don’t head anywhere in Academia. Only researchers move up the scale, going through Senior Lecturer, Reader and then making Professor. So I really felt like I was signing a death warrant. (Perhaps it might help to explain that I was completely the typical type A achievement oriented personality)

And then the most horrendous thing happened – my husband got made redundant (this we knew was coming) and his younger brother died in a car crash all within the space of one week (this was a real shocker!). I’d gone in to work the next day following the news, as I had to supervise some undergraduate labs – I’d dropped my husband off to get the coach to Heathrow and then to Malaysia and I dropped Georgia at nursery as usual. A friend suggested I tell the HoD in case I needed emergency time out. I had no plans to, but agreed in the end, that it might be a good idea. And after telling him – you would not believe his reaction!

Basically I said to him that I was not asking for any time off, but just wanted to let him know in case I had to go at short notice. And he said, “OK… and can you sign the letter from the meeting?”

I just didn’t know what to say after that….it just seemed so crass! So I resigned as soon as my husband came back and got a job – which thankfully was quick.

I toyed with the idea of taking them to tribunal – the Union were absolutely abysmal and no help at all. I did a lot of research with the outcomes of tribunals in Academia, but didn’t think the stress was worth the £4-5K I might get at pay out.

And would you believe my dermatitis cleared up the day after I handed in my resignation, and that was in June 2007 (the notice period was another 3 months).

Next up: The Untold Story – Part 3: My Life Now

© 2011, Li-ling. All rights reserved.


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