Academics are not psychotherapists


There is a story in the papers this weekend about university students feeling that they are not fully supported by their universities, particularly in terms of mental health support. As per usual, given the 9k fees, students and their parents feel like high quality mental health support should be available to students.


However, I would ask students and their families to consider this from the other side.


Yes, students who are struggling, who may have a diagnosable mental health problem or who have a diagnosed mental health problem, should be supported to ensure that they have the equaivalent learning and student experience as their peers without a mental health problem.


But, what exactly do they expect the university to provide? Psychiatrists? Clinical psychologists? Unlimited access to psychotherapy? Academic staff to provide psychotherapy?


What? What do they want? The first three are the purvue of the NHS and universities will never supply services that are duplicated by the NHS.


The last one, academics providing psychotherapy, is ILLEGAL. “Clinical psychologist” is a protected professional title and ONLY clinical psychologists and other accredited individuals can provide formal psychotherapy. Any staff member providing psychotherapy to a distressed student is not qualified and risk formal disciplinary procedures. More seriously for the students, psychotherapy can have serious negative impacts on clients even with trained psychotherapists, and this is something many people forget. Not only can meds have deleterious side effects but so can psychotherapy, and psychotherapy provided by untrained staff is much more likely to have deleterious consequences.


Academics always fear students with serious mental health problems as our hands are tied and there is little that we can do for them other than to tell them to contact their GP or CMHT. We are here to provide advice about academic issues and provide an ear for students who just want to vent or talk about problems, but in reality, there is very little we can do beyond re-arranging coursework submission, etc.


We can, however, provide better Counselling services for students. But Counselling departments are not for diagnosing mental health problems. Student unions need to be more vocal in demanding that Counselling departments receive more adequate funding, although how likely this is with the Tory’s slashing the disabled student allowance we don’t know.


What I will say, though, is that if you think the support for students with mental health problems is poor, the support for staff with mental health problems is MUCH worse, and near on non-existent. Counselling services for staff have been outsourced to private providers, and realistically, counselling isn’t necessary going to be sufficient for staff with serious or complex mental health problems.


Also, while universities DO bend over backwards to put in adjustments for students with disabilities, including mental health problems, and the students have their own Disability Office, the adjustments and support put in place for staff with mental health problems is pretty much non-existent. Staff don’t have a Disability Office. While students may have deadlines altered due to mental health difficulties, staff requesting such adjustments are seen as being a burden. The best such staff have is their union and Occupational Health. And, OH are there to protect the university not the staff member. Getting adjustments out of OH is like pulling teeth, and this is largely due to the very unhelpful doctors who work on the service who overrule adjustments that practice nurses’ suggest. If you want adjustments you really need to push for them. And, if you are unhappy with your treatment, you have to speak to your line manager, HR, OH, or your union. There is no one-stop-shop place for staff, such as a staff disability office, unlike students, so having adjustments put in place and making your university abide by them is really up to you.


So, yes, we need to do more to support students, but in many case our hands are tied, and even the best service is not going to be on par with what the NHS can provide. All we can realistically do is modify academic work load. On the other hand, staff with mental health difficulties continuously get screwed over and have next to zero support in comparison to what is in place for students. Policies to support students are plentiful in university governance documentation; there is next to none for staff. Count yourself lucky.


Remove the basic from the basic/applied research cycle and all you have is a shit on a stick



It feels like the death knell of basic research.

Certainly in Science and Social Science.

If you’re in either of these disciplines have you tried recently to get funding for a PhD studentship for basic research?

ESRC have been known to bounce grant applications because “they don’t fund basic research any more”. And that was the office staff! The dreaded Impact Statement is screwing everyone.

So, you’d think University Studentships would fill the gap?

Wrong! Wrong! The money’s gone! Gone  to the Business School, gone on a proposed patent, gone to business and industry involvement, gone to social policy advisement with the government, gone to “user involvement”.

I tell you, on your own heads be it, Universities. In ten years, when you need basic researchers to run your labs and train students in basic skills because business and industry need graduates with these basic skills there won’t be any academics with the expertise. We’ll be a country of applied researchers and the knowledge base will have atrophied.

The problem is that Universities are so parochial. They don’t realise that really good applied research doesn’t materialise out of nowhere. It comes from basic research. You need the basic research to identify the parameters first before applied research can take it on and field test it. Otherwise, it’s a sheep dog out in the field with torch looking for it’s flock in the dark.

How the USS are going to piss on all off us for generations to come

I was absolutely delighted a couple of weeks ago to see the proposals for changes to the USS pension scheme. As a mid-rank lecturer, apparently, I can look forward to having my pension pot halved, and living on exactly the same amount as I did in my first post 12 years ago.

After 45 years of blood, sweat and tears, I’m only worth 21k a year pension. Seriously. Postdocs these days are getting at least 8k more than that in their first post. It is an insult.

Not that anyone coming into the scheme in the last few years is any better off.

We’re paying for all those superstars brought in at the last minute on huge salaries and bonuses for REF2014, and god knows who else. They’ll be fine on their 40k+ pension (MY pension!).

And this is why it is such an issue. I won’t have paid my mortgage off by the time I retire. I couldn’t afford to get a mortgage until recently after saving up a big deposit for 10 years. The next generation of PhD students coming into academia probably won’t have mortgages until well into their 40s, so they’ll have even more to pay off after retirement. So, none of us will end up retiring because we won’t want to have to sell our houses to move to one bedroom bungalows. In turn, there will be no jobs for the next generation of new academics.

Screw one generation on their pension and it will carry on feeding on down the line. Is it not enough that students get screwed on tuition fees, less studentships for basic research, less lectureships available, an even more cut throat publish or perish mentality, professors swinging in to stamp their name on junior staff’s grants and claim all the credit when all they did was add an electronic signature?

Piss on me, Piss on you.

The demanding nature of undergraduate project students

Dear Undergraduate Project Student

Thank you for your email.

I would just like to draw your attention to the general guidelines of the final year project that you seem not to be aware of:

(1) If you choose a project outwith the supervisor’s research expertise, as you have done, you will be told so, and you can, therefore, not expect the supervisor to tell you about the variables that you should be looking at, the theory behind the topic, or design the experiment for you, for which you have indicated in your email that you expect me to do.

(2) It is not my job to do the literature search or read the papers, not even one, as you have indicated in your email to me you would like me to do. I have a job with many roles and tasks. I don’t need or have time to do your job for you as well. You should feel privileged that I took 3 hours to read even one paper, which I did, but not required to do. See, I can use a search engine. Can you?

(3) When I tell you to do (2) yourself, which I have already, I don’t expect you to then respond asking me why I haven’t done it. It is not my job. I have one already. When I tell you to go find it yourself I expect you to do so before emailing me asking me why I haven’t done 1 and 2.

(4) Finally, I don’t care what your friends are doing or that they have, apparently, started their project already. It is the first week of term. If you were so eager, stressed, worried, etc., then you had all of the summer to start.

I would also like to point out that I cannot respond to emails I never received. I am also not obliged to respond immediately, after 5pm during the week, or at weekends or when I am on vacation. I also may take some time to respond because you never asked me a question in your previous email or because I actually have other work to do before responding to your mini drama.


Further evidence of drama queen antics will be squashed.

You have been warned


Thinking of claiming 40% of your time on a grant?: Some words of advice on costing grants

While I’m on the topic of grants, here is another little piece of advice.

I review grants for RCUK and numerous charities around the world, some of which allow you to budget for staff costs. It is this latter point that I would like to offer a little bit of advice based on my reviewing experience.

If a peer-reviewer has any sense then one of the things they will put quite a lot of weight on when making a decision as to whether to recommend a grant for funding is cost. Obviously, this is a measure that the grant cmt’s also make.

Do not be fooled. Your price tag is very important. The more you ask for the more critical the reviewer will be and will hold you to higher and higher standards. If you are asking for a lot then you are taking a big slice of that round’s funding which means other worthy projects cannot be funded: more smaller grants can be funded with that pot of cash than bigger ones. So, if you’re asking for close to a mill then it better be focused, tightly written, blockbusting material (and on the latter point, you as the PI might not be the best judge of that). So, realise that if you ask for a lot of money you could be pricing yourself out of the market.

Of course, total amount asked for is a blunt instrument: it’s what you plan to do with it that counts.

Firstly, if you have never had a grant before, then ask for a small amount. No-one is going to fund you if you are the only investigator and you want £500k.

Secondly, be reasonable with asking for payment for staff time. RCUK usually work on the principle that anything over 40% is unreasonable. However, the people assessing your grant will have a fair idea of how much time is needed to successfully complete the grant on time and on budget. So, don’t think you can pull a swifty. My rule of thumb is that 20% and higher requires iron tight reasoning.

Following up on the latter point, in RCUK there are sections on Staff Duties and Justification of Resources. These sections allow you to go into great detail as to what everyone who is claiming staff time for will do. Saying that you will supervise the overall project is not sufficient. You need to be really detailed. And, if you are claiming 20%+ in time I expect you to be REALLY detailed about how you will be spending your time. If you claim for 20% and only say you’ll supervise the day to day running of the project then I will not be happy. That is what postdocs do, not PIs.

Thirdly, people like me calculate the proportion of the costs of the grant that is being spent on PI/CI time. If it is top heavy on staff time you could be looking at a reject based on cost effectiveness.

Fourthly, in this climate, you have to have a really good reason to cost for a postdoc. Obviously, postdocs out there don’t want to hear that, but in many cases, where experiments are relatively simple with no specialised techniques or populations or equipment, someone with an MSc could do the job just as well for a snip of the price. So, if you really want a postdoc then you need to go to town on justifying why. At the same time, if you want a postdoc then you are going to have to cut back on claiming PI time, as the postdoc can do much of the day to day running of the grant for you. Otherwise, you’re double dipping, and undermining your claim of needing a postdoc.

If you are PI and have a senior role within your university then you need to be cautious with the amount of time you claim for. If you are Dean and claim for 20% time a reviewer could reasonably query how you will find that time during the week to devote to the grant and juggle other substantial responsibilities. My recommendation is reduce the time requested (and, given that such people will have big salaries, will cut costs), and request an experienced postdoc instead. I think that seems reasonable and practical.

Only under exceptional circumstances will a claim for a full time postdoc plus full time RAs be acceptable. If you really do need this then you need to justify it.

Basically, don’t be cheeky, and don’t expect reviewers or grant panels to accept your view that you need all this money for your time, your CI’s time, or that you need postdocs and RAs. We are not mind readers and without justification it just looks extremely cheeky.

Note of caution when writing grants with international co-investigators

Adding an international co-investigator to a grant can look impressive, and increases the likelihood that the grant will have international impact.

However……some words of caution.

Set aside LOADS of time for liasing with the international university’s financial/research department on getting costs. As the grant body won’t be one that they are familiar with you may be asking for information that they are not use to calculating or providing (ever tried getting annual salary info from a US researcher? They don’t exist! They have term time and summer time wages that are not equivalent. They’ll also try and get you to cost for buying out time from a course. This is outrageously expensive and tell them to sod off!). Also, beware that some countries have much MUCH higher wages for researchers than the UK even if they are of an equivalent position to the PI which can skew the costs of the grants.

Secondly, quite frankly, they don’t really care. They have very little incentive to prioritise your requests because the grant isn’t coming to them (which is a problem with home nation CIs as well), and there is very little money in it for them as you’ll be requesting less staff time than the PI. I think this is the major factor in the slow and unenthusiastic response from international universities.

This info is particularly critical if you are aiming for a grant with a deadline. You’ll have zero experience of the other uni’s financial and research support staff and how prompt or enthusiastic they are. So, set aside 4-6 weeks for getting this info.