Extending my student time

I’ve just received word that my application for a one-year extension to my PhD program has been approved. I’ve known for some time that I was unlikely to be able to finish within what the university calls “standard duration”, but I finally managed to convince my supervisor that I would need an extension. Some of the delay is due to things that were beyond my control (health issues that have involved doctor visits and sick days), some that I could have controlled (mostly due to travel), and some that might have been within my control if certain things had been otherwise. Regarding the third category — I’ve had a really difficult time getting my head around qualitative analysis, given my highly quantitative background; and sometimes it has come into my head that this whole thing would have been a lot easier if I had done it in an Informatics department. But I’m stretching myself more by being in a Design program, and that was a large part of the point.

Next I have to start the process of extending my student visa, but that should be fairly straightforward. I am still looking for a job (and a work visa sponsor), but extending my student visa will give me more time to make that happen, as well as less stress about the urgency. The sooner I can do this, the better — the five years I will have to work before I can apply to settle in the UK won’t start until I get a work visa — but since I love what I do and can’t see stopping altogether as long as I am capable of working in user experience, I don’t mind a bit of a delay. (When I do start work, I will switch to part-time student status to complete my PhD.)

UK Registered Traveller: my first experience

While I was in the US last month I received an email from British Airways informing me that I was now eligible to apply to be a UK Registered Traveller. Under this program, people who are citizens of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the USA, and who have a UK visa, can use the UK/EU queue when entering the UK. It also removes the requirement for filling out a landing card1, which asks the purpose of your visit, where and how long you will be staying, and what you are bringing into the UK2. I applied right away, and the approval came through while I was gone. So when I returned to the UK, I completed my enrollment at Heathrow. After confirming my details, the border agent gave me a card and told me to write my name and RT number on the back. The whole process was pretty easy, and I was delighted that they approved me in time for me to enroll when I returned. It costs £70 to apply for one year (of which £50 is refundable if you are denied), but I don’t know whether subsequent years are £70 or £50. I hope I will find out. :-)

I was surprised to read, in my approval email, that my card would be valid only until mid-January because my visa expires at that point. (I had missed the fact that to apply you have to have a UK visa.) But I’m working on staying anyhow, so once I have either a work visa or an extension to my student visa I will update my visa details and hopefully the rest of the year will be added.

Yesterday I used my card for the first time. I had gone to Switzerland to lead a workshop at UX Lausanne, and although the queue at the UK border was no shorter for UK/EU passports than for “other passports”, I wanted to try out my new privileges and see how it worked. While standing in the queue, holding my passport and my card, I caught the attention of the queue monitor, who asked if I was Canadian. (Evidently, Canadian passports are the same color as US ones.) I moved my hand so she could see my Registered Traveller card, and she said it was fine. The border agent did ask me what brought me to the UK (I replied that I live here — I love doing that :-) and I said, as I always do, “My visa is on page 20.” On this flight it didn’t really save me any time (although it was nice not to have to fill out the landing card), but on flights from the US it undoubtedly will, as most of the passengers are American.

1I wanted to include an image of a landing card, but unfortunately I couldn’t find one that offered the right to use it. Odd that the UK government doesn’t make it available.

2Fortunately, one can bring up to 2kg of mayonnaise, so my supply of Duke’s Mayo is safe.)

Visa news (good news!)

I don’t know how I got the idea that I couldn’t leave the UK and return during the last six months of my student visa, but the student visa advice counselor at the university’s Student Support and Well-Being Centre has just disabused me of that notion. She said the US works that way (so that may be where I got the idea) but in the UK it’s generally three months and for citizens of “low-risk” countries (including the US) it’s generally not a problem. So I am no longer worried that I may not be able to travel to Europe or the US between mid-July and when I get a work visa sorted.


Officially retired from CSC

About three weeks ago I made a decision and took action on something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years: I decided to leave CSC and start drawing my pension. I worked there full-time from 1977 to 2005 and part-time from 2009 until now (with VERY little work since I’ve been in the UK, as I was on the government side and those projects all require you to be physically in the US while working on them). I met and worked with Antonio there (that’s my late husband, for those who met me less than 14 years ago today) as well as many other wonderful people, some of whom are still friends. I learned a lot and gained an incredible amount of invaluable experience, and CSC management was incredibly supportive when Antonio and then my mother needed me to help care for them in their last months. CSC was not my first job, but it might as well have been — I grew up there, professionally — so this feels like closing a major door. (If I had waited until I was 65 I could have worked for them again, but since I’m doing this before age 65 I won’t be able to work for them again, ever.) But since I’m Doing What Needs to Be Done to stay and work in UK/Europe after this academic adventure of mine, I shouldn’t need the US-based work. So today was my last day as a CSC employee. It feels like ending a relationship; and in a way it is exactly that. So I am feeling both up and down about this. But I tell myself that it’s time.

Senior bus pass!

Travel Pass photoThis week I received my “Concessionary Travel Pass“, the pass that allows older people to use local buses free after 9:30am and on weekends. Each country in the UK has its own pass, and since I live in England mine is good for any local bus service in England. (This includes the London buses!) The pass is free to anyone who has resided in the UK for at least six months — easy for me to show, because my UK driving licence, one year old, has my address on it — but you have to give them a passport-style photo, and that costs £5 in a photo booth. (You’re not supposed to smile, but I think it’s just that you’re not supposed to show your teeth, and I’m happy that I managed to get a faint smile into mine.) After my pass arrived, I took it in and paid £12 to have one year’s travel on the Tyne and Wear Metro (same hours) added on to it.

Folks, this is an incredible deal, especially for people who live in a city such as Newcastle, which is very well served by local buses and not badly served by a subway/light-rail line (Newcastle’s goes directly to the airport, for example). My pass arrived on Tuesday, I used it for the first time on Wednesday night, and in less than 48 hours it saved me more in bus fare than the £5 I spent on the photo. Now, I admit that two of the bus journeys I took were for trips I probably would have done on foot if I hadn’t had the pass, but in my defense I’ll note that those bus trips saved me at least half an hour and I spent that time working on my thesis.

One thing I like about the UK is that senior pricing generally starts at age 60. You are probably aware that I’m a little beyond 60 at this point, so you may be asking why I didn’t get this pass until now, especially since Nexus calls it the card “for people over 60″. Well, UK residents used to become eligible for these passes as soon as they turned 60. Several years ago, however, the government started increasing the age of eligibility, such that for every month your birthday is later, you have to wait an extra two months to get your travel pass. For example, my friend Sue is four months older than I am and she’s had her pass eight months longer.

I do have to be careful not to let this make me lazy.

Four seminars in a month

Three in three days, actually, then one about three weeks later.

Early last month I traveled to Scotland to give seminars on my PhD research to three groups: the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at Dundee University and both the Design Informatics and Social Informatics groups in the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University. The seminars were very similar but slightly different, and I received some good and useful questions and comments from all three groups. Then last week I gave what was basically the Design Informatics talk to the TechWeb group in the Informatics Department at the University of Bologna (Italy), where I got some rather different but also valuable questions and comments. Fortunately, UniBo didn’t ask me to translate my slides, although I did most of my speaking in Italian.

I had gone to Italy mainly for World Information Architecture Day 2015, to give a talk and co-chair a workshop, but that will be a separate blog post because (a) I still have a lot of work to do to get it ready (and a lot of PhD work too, having been gone from that for most of a week), and (b) my WIAD talk and workshop were about a completely different topic (not my PhD research). Since I was in Bologna anyway, I took advantage of the occasion to offer my seminar to UniBo.

Who dealt this mess?

I learned to play bridge as a child. My parents taught my sister and me, starting when we were something like 9 and 11 years old. When we played, every so often my father would throw his hand face down on the table and demand, “Who dealt this mess?”

We soon realized that that always meant he had a good hand.

I feel that way about my data. Occasionally I make a Facebook post saying nothing but “Che casino!” (By that I don’t mean Señor Guevara’s gambling house, haha; no, it’s an Italian expression meaning “what an unholy mess!”) I have just realized this evening, as I wrestled once again with the information architecture of my data analysis, that my collection of data is so rich and so complex that a simple, obvious structure doesn’t emerge by itself; instead, every arrangement I make raises questions and suggests rearrangements. I’m in the process of collecting interview quotes for the results chapter and organizing them into subsections so that I can write up my notes and thoughts and interpretations and theorizing and all that good stuff that will make this a PhD thesis. I am starting off with too many quotes, as cutting is easier than adding. But it ain’t that easy when I have so much great material.

So I ask you: Who dealt this mess?

Some thoughts on what comes next

People have been asking me what I’m going to do after I finish my PhD, and I’ve always said I’m considering various paths. Well, I’ve come to one important conclusion, and I don’t think it will hurt my future if I post that publicly.

I’m going back into industry.

I would love to continue doing research into techno-spirituality, but I can do that without going into academia. After much thought and some discussions with other people, I have concluded that starting work in an academic institution is just not realistic for me at this point in my life — I’d have to start at the bottom and compete with all the other new PhDs, who have much longer careers ahead of them than I do. With my 35 years of professional experience in industry — PLUS a PhD — I am much better positioned to return to user experience consulting. It pays a lot better, too.

But I should be able to meet both needs. That is, I am confident that I can find a way to continue my research (albeit not full time) while working in industry. My topic ties in with several areas of application (no details in this post; that’s for later) and I like to think I will be able to integrate it into my work. Or I can, perhaps, work less than full time and continue the research on my own time. I may even be able to collaborate with people in academia. (I do hope so!) Although lots of things would have to be addressed to make this happen, the upshot is this: Returning to industry doesn’t have to mean giving up doing research that really energizes me.

I’m taking steps to increase my visibility within industry and to explore my opportunities with UK consultancies. And of course I won’t say anything publicly about discussions or negotations with potential employers until I have something established.

And all this while doing my data analysis and writing it up.

Free time? What’s that?!? :-)

A satisfying break, with family

I’ve just had a wonderful two weeks — no, I live in the UK now; I’ve just had a wonderful fortnight — with a couple of family members who came to spend Christmas with me and see part of the UK. We spent four nights in London, then had two overnights on our way to three nights in Islay, then they spent five nights at my flat in Newcastle. It was kind of a whirlwind trip (planned by moi) but exciting and satisfying, and they said it was a very rich experience.

My visitors did a lot of the London touristy things by themselves; many of those were somewhat expensive and I had done them before, so (for example) while they went on the London Eye I sat in a cafe below and worked on my data coding. (Yes, I carried my laptop around London in my daypack/rucksack. What can I say? I’m used to carting it around Newcastle.) The day we left London we took a taxi to Heathrow Airport to pick up the car I had arranged for us to rent/hire (yes, I know it’s more expensive at the airport, but we had very good logistical reasons for doing this) and we headed west. We upgraded to a slightly larger car with built-in GPS/SatNav, and although I would have preferred a car about 6″/15cm narrower I was glad we had the GPS (which we ended up naming Synthea).

My personal highlight of London: Dinner with four long-time friends of mine, one of whom had never met two of the other three. My visitors enjoyed them all.

First day out of London: Stonehenge, lunch inside the Avebury circle, half an hour at Tintern Abbey, ending with an overnight in Stroud, complete with dinner & drink with a friend there. Stroud was slightly out of our way, but it’s a family name on my mother’s side and anyway it allowed my visitors to meet my friend.

Second day on the road: Liverpool, with a late lunch in the Beatles’ home stomping ground and a look in the Cavern Club. Overnight in a wonderful cottage in the Lake District. I’ll be back there again, I think.

Third day on the road: No substantial stops because we had at least five hours of driving and a hard deadline for the ferry to Islay. Synthea directed us onto a route that had two ferry crossings but that “she” said was quicker than the road route. After taking the first ferry (Gourock-Dunoon) we took the overland route the rest of the way because we weren’t convinced of the existence of the other ferry. Unfortunately, because we had taken the first ferry we missed seeing the beautiful and aptly named Rest and Be Thankful pass in the daytime. Oh well. We did stop a few minutes in Inverary to take a short walk so one of my visitors could photograph the castle. It was her first castle, after all (other than the Tower of London), and we weren’t going to see any in Islay.

We travelled to Islay on Caledonian MacBrayne’s beautiful new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. (It was new to me, anyhow; and it is only three years old, their newest one.) We arrived to find that the hotel had lost our booking (a mixup on their part) but they had other rooms available and we got profuse apologies and a decent price break. I had been hoping for a peat fire (the hotel’s website says they have one in their pub), but all they had was coal and nobody knew where I could find a peat fire. My guess is that it’s mostly the distilleries that burn peat any more, and all of those were shut down for the holidays. So I settled for buying a box of peat incense. I’ll have to try harder next time!

I had done all of the driving up to this point, as I was the only one with any experience driving on the left. But we had registered two of us to drive this car because my visitors were going to have to drive it back to Heathrow from Newcastle without me. So the other driver did all of the driving on the Islay roads. I thought it would be good for him to start there, as there are no roundabouts and most of the roads have only one lane anyhow. As I had suspected he would, he did fine. Fine enough to brave the roundabouts and the motorways and drive to Newcastle.

Maol Buidhe

I wanted to show my visitors all of Islay and a reasonable amount of its neighboring island of Jura (whence the Buie surname comes), but two and a half days simply wasn’t enough time. We drove most of the Islay roads, though, from Kildalton to Kilnave to Kilchoman (missing out Sanaigmore, Saligo, and the Oa, unfortunately), and we saw the Islay Woollen Mill, the Kildalton High Cross, the Cultoon Stone Circle, the Kilchiaran Chapel, the Kilnave Chapel and Cross, some prehistoric hut circles west of Gruinart, two places named “buie” (Tigh na Buie and Maol Buidhe), and the Finlaggan Visitor Centre, site of the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles from about 1350 to 1492. That last was especially meaningful for me because we were greeted by Donald Bell, who had showed me around Finlaggan on my first visit to Islay in 1987, which I think was before the visitor centre was even in the full planning stage. We went to Jura for an afternoon and had tea at the hotel, where they were just taking homemade shortbread and mince pies out of the oven. Mmmmmm! As we checked in for the ferry to return to the mainland, my visitors remarked on how great it was to be in a place where people hear your name and know how to spell it. :-)

On the way to Newcastle we made a short detour to Carlisle to have a look at the castle from the outside, and then we stopped by a Hadrian’s Wall site so my visitors could stand on the wall. It was a Wednesday and Birdoswald Roman Fort was closed, but the wall itself was of course accessible, so they stood atop it and I took their photo for Facebook.

We arrived at my flat the evening of Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning we slept in a bit (the first time since they had arrived) and made a pound cake. Then we went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral (one simply cannot visit the North East of England without seeing that magnificent building), and they found the service interesting and meaningful; then we came home and cooked Christmas dinner and skyped with some other family members. In their remaining days with me we did a lot of walking around Newcastle and visited several medieval sites (Tynemouth Priory and Castle, Warkworth Castle, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne). We were disappointed that Newcastle’s Castle Keep is closed until the spring (renovations, the sign said), but at least they got to go inside two castles and see three others from the outside. And I introduced them to some grand British Christmas traditions — particularly, Christmas crackers and Fenwick’s window. They loved it all.

They left about 6:30am on Monday for the drive back to Heathrow. We were all concerned about possible contingencies, but they made it in good time and now they are safely back at home in the States. We all had a fabulous trip, and now I’m settled back into sorting out my data coding scheme and doing the analysis. Plus preparing several presentations, both for academia and for industry. It’s a good thing the long winter nights don’t much affect my productivity any more!

This was my third Christmas in the UK, and my first with family present. I found it very, very meaningful.

And you know, that fortnight saw me doing more of two things than I had done in the previous two years: driving, and saying “y’all”. :-)


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