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Saturday, May 07, 2005

I'll have it if you're offering...

Firstly, thanks for the good luck messages for my job interview. The good news - I'll take it! The bad news - I won't find out for 2 more weeks. Grrr!

The interview went really well. The supervisor was extremely friendly, and we even recognised one another from the various conferences we'd attended, although we'd never actually spoken. On the train down, I had read up on all of the lab's previous work and so when we discussed the project and what it was likely to entail I was able to drop in references to their previous work and give the impression that I understood what I was talking about. Following faculty rules, the interviewer had also invited along another faculty member to sit in on the interview and ask some more general questions. Joy of joys, they asked a question that I have been asked by lay people and academics alike, since the first day I started my PhD. Perfect!

My weariness from lack of sleep (I didn't get a wink the night before), wasn't a problem. Caffeine and adrenalin make a potent pick-me-up I find - and the supervisor had been awake all night themself, helping proof-read a graduate student's thesis ready for Friday's deadline. So whenever they yawned I took the opportunity to do so myself! The lab group is smaller and far more focused than I'm used to - and I'm rather taken by that. Their lab meetings for example, rather than being the wide-ranging rambling affairs that ours tend to be, usually centre around one person's research with everyone chipping in. Also, whenever anyone finds an interesting paper, they forward it to everyone, making it easier to keep up with the reading.

Regarding the supervisor, although obviously highly driven (their publication record alone shows that), they were also very personable with a good sense of humour. When left alone with the grad students and post-docs they were all very complimentary about the boss - and I felt they were being sincere. The whole lab dropped what they were doing and came over to introduce themselves - and given the wide range of CDs by the communal CD player and the photos covering the walls, they obviously enjoy working together.

The only thing we didn't discuss was salary. This is on the whole probably a good thing. Having been working for 2 years now, I have naturally gone up a couple of points on the salary scale - If I am offered the job, they are unlikely to argue too loudly about my (fairly modest) salary demands - whereas if it comes down to a choice between me and person X, who is a paypoint below me...

When or if we actually have that conversation, they will most likely ask what my current salary is - and there lies a slight problem. I don't know what I am paid. Strange as it may seem, I don't actually have any idea what my salary is. Sure, I know what my takehome pay is - but that figure is a year out of date pending a back-dated salary increase, which hasn't yet been determined.

Basically, the situation in British Universities is a real mess concerning pay. For about 20 years, academics have seen their pay dropping relative to other professions. In the 90s teachers, doctors and nurses negotiated above inflation pay increases to boost their ridiculously low pay. Academics on the other hand - who are paid by public/charitable money for the most part and are thus also public servants - seemed to miss the boat. Consequently our pay has dropped up to 40% compared to these other professionals. Anyway, a couple of years ago the Universities (we all negotiate en masse) offered a derisoury 6.5% over 2 years (3% in year 1 3.44% in year 2 - barely in line with inflation). Time for action!

To cut a long story short, it was finally decided to harmonise University pay schemes into a single system and apply a reasonable pay increase across the board. Up until now, universities have operated several parallel pay scales that work on a spinepoint system. I am toward the bottom of the academic-related system which starts at about £18,000 and goes up to about £29,000. Academics (eg lecturers and Profs) are on a different scale, and support staff (both lab-based and admin based) are on yet another scale. Each year I get a spine point increase plus our negotiated "inflation" rise. I'm not poor - far from it - but starting salaries for researchers tend to be about the same for school teachers and progress less rapidly. We also have an additional 3 or 4 years university under our belt and consequently 3 or 4 years more debt and are running 3 or 4 years behind on our pensions schemes etc. Support staff - from cleaners to technicians (some of whom are incredibly skilled and knowledgeable - often more so than the postdocs and academics they are supposedly "assisting") and our myriad admin and finance staff are also unlikely to be boasting about "Loadsa money!" down the pub on a Friday night.

So around the country, university finance and HR departments are working hard to try and integrate all of their staff onto this new single spine-scale. Jobs are being re-evaluated and they are trying to keep the unions sweet. Hopefully, by July I will a) know what my salary is and b) will have received the appropriate backpay - which will hopefully cover the rent on a new apartment down south whilst I wait for the return of the deposit from this one.

This August, the unions will start negotiating for the 2006/2007 pay rise... The Karmic circle of life eh?



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