Different Coloured Grass

Photo of a man running on grass overlooking Vancouver

So I’m moving to Canada, more specifically I’ll be working at the University of British Columbia (UBC) on the Vancouver Campus, which sits on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the xwməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam) People. As I’m currently a very recently promoted Reader in Metallurgy and Microscopy, at Imperial College in London, a few folks have asked “why move?”.

Firstly, while we may pretend that the “grass is greener”, I am under a limited impression that the grass at UBC, and in the Canadian Higher Education system is perfectly green. Yet, it is certainly in a better condition than I find it in my home country…

There are a multitude of reasons why people move jobs, and academia is perhaps strange in that when we are permanent staff there are very few incentives for us to move and certainly many reasons why we stay put. Academia is a slow burning game, building up a group of people, sharing and improving best practice, developing the facilities that you have access to, and refining your teaching portfolio — these all take time, often years of your life.

In thinking about this I’ve been putting things in terms of “push and pull” — there are items that are pushing me away from my current role, and there are many more things that offer a ‘pull’ or attraction to a new adventure in Canada.

Often these “quit-lit” pieces can come across as an opportunity to throw stones at the system people are running from. Certainly, this is very tempting. I’m also aware that many folks reading this are my current colleagues and friends, who for many good reasons, either cannot or do not want to move. I’m also hoping to have long standing collaborations with my current institution (Imperial College London) and a wealth of folk across the UK (the world is small and we have great people here). I will try to be cautious and constructive in how this is phrased.

As many folk know, I was extremely fortunate to be able to spend a couple of months at the start of the year in Vancouver, and I had an immensely fun time. Yes, plenty of this was the sense of adventure of being away from my usual turf, as well as opportunities to explore the mountains and more, but the fun was captivated too with the people I met. These people included close friends and colleagues who I already knew, but also a range of people from across Vancouver as I had the time and energy to explore and meet some new folks (mostly via the Vancouver Frontrunners — as sibling of the London Frontrunners running club of which I am a member).

This trip was set up as I was feeling burnt out by a gruelling start to my career. Frankly I worked ‘too hard’ for much of the first few years setting up the group I lead, and in some ways I am reaping the rewards of some, but not all, of that invested energy in watching people in the group develop and supporting students who I have taught in their journey. However, London and academia in general has a habit of ingesting your soul if you don’t pay attention, and the risk-reward cycle in your brain becomes fried. I chose UBC and Vancouver, in part because of a friendship I have developed with my friend Chad (Prof Sinclair to many), but also because it was sufficiently far away and also as I could ski (a sport I very much enjoy — it’s one way for me to switch off) on the weekends.

To cut a very long story short, I worked pretty hard in Vancouver delivering five technical lectures, one technical workshop, and five diversity and inclusion workshops. As well as running my group back in London and a bit more. Not bad for an 8 week trip! I also bought a pair of skis, hit the mountains for 14 days of piste, sampled the local beer, made some lifelong friends, chatted up some cute boys, and was made to feel truly at home by Chad and his wonderful family.

Towards the end of this trip, I started to wonder “why I was not looking for a job here” as I knew they were recruiting. Anyway, a bit of work later, I put together the paperwork and let the gears turn in the open competition for the MANU & Materials jobs that were on offer. Interviewing and negotiating a job in COVID has proven challenging, but I can happily say that my colleagues at UBC were supportive, encouraging and challenging, even on the end of a zoom call (and there have been many).

So part of the attraction of UBC is that the people, and their attitudes towards work and especially towards other people, was hugely welcoming, even before they thought I might want to work with them long term. Had I done the reverse trip to London, simply due to the weight of the city and the fast paced nature of life here, I doubt I would have found the time/energy/focus to be as welcoming, and that makes me sad. It also highlights one of the push factors — there is almost too much to do in London and at Imperial, that we lose focus on what is important.

I’ll touch on a few push factors. Most of these are niggling factors that impact everyone in higher education, but when brought together and when an alternative is on the table, they can culminate in a significant decision. I think the UK Higher Education system is in significant trouble. This is not the first time I have written about this. Brexit remains a shambles and our presence on the international stage (broadly) is being highlighted as built on a self-inflated and self-important premise, which will be easily unravelled as we (collectively) take people for granted. The incompetence of the UK Government and the generation of a hostile environment for my friends and colleagues, particularly where my life in so international and enriched through sharing of culture, is painful and distressing.

The strikes, Black Lives Matter and knock on effects, and many other issues, are symptoms of the wider and longstanding issues. The lack of efficacy, and genuine engagement in finding solutions for this is problematic. Many of us have known of these flaws, e.g. inequality in the funding systems, yet many of those in power continue to brush them under the carpet.

There are a multiplicity of individuals who I cherish both at Imperial, and also in London and the UK. I am going to miss these folks, but I’m hoping to keep in touch. They’ve made this journey easier, provided support and active encouragement, and I’m also excited to see the people who I have ‘passed this on’ to emerge on their journeys in life.

While the majority of colleagues across the UK are a pleasure to work with, there remain challenges. In academia we are terrible at managing people, or encouraging good behaviour, and it is incredibly difficult to deal with poor behaviour. At this point, I recognise that I am no saint. Yet, there have been a few major incidents which stand out like flashing blips where I, and others, have been let down by inaction, lack of support, and a general attitude of being taken for granted. This creates and sustains unnecessary stress, and limits the opportunities for me to get engaged. Some of these cases are close to home, and some of these are more broad statements on the national scale.

I write this still managing the emotional roller coaster of having made the announcement public, which was faster than I’d like to have made it happen (caused by another blip). I’m aware that we still have yet to close out the discussions at Imperial (the direction is favourable and encouraging).

My move also has significant impacts on others, especially those who I supervise and mentor. Hopefully, I will remain a close colleague with those at Imperial, and continue collaborating directly for my Imperial-based projects for the next couple of years.

Moving forward, as I transfer more activities and build some new ideas afresh and join new networks, I’m sure I’ll look back at this blog post and have a different view, but we live the journey and not the destination.

Shadows of two people dancing on a green screen.

For those who have made this this far, thank you. Thank you to all the people who have influenced me so far, who inspire me, and I hope that I do you all right. There’s so much to do, but I’m excited and invigorated by this next adventure.

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If your are interested in the research group head to: http://expmicromech.com

If you fancy getting in touch, telling me your stories, and helping me understand the world better, you can find me on twitter as @BMatB, or keep up to date with the group’s work via @ExpMicroMech.

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