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Long term, I am in you

I’m on a train, headed home after three days working in our Cambridge office, to which I’m assigned. This morning I had my end-of-probation review, in which I received the news that I will soon be receiving a letter congratulating me officially on moving from probationary to permanent staff. Just as with my visa, I wasn’t seriously worried about this hurdle from a realistic perspective, but my inner catastrophizer was as active as always, and I am immensely pleased. I really like my colleagues and the company culture, and I think it will be a great pleasure to work there for another five years or even longer.

This afternoon I gave notice to my landlord, who said he’ll be sad to see me go. It turns out that my tenancy has to end on the 8th of the month (not 30 days after my notice) because it started on the 9th, so I’ll have a couple of weeks more rent to pay than I had expected (silly me for not checking the rental contract), but I’m very pleased with the house I’ve rented in Cambridge. I wish it were a little better served by buses — I’ve been totally spoiled by Newcastle’s excellent local bus system — but it’s not in a complete bus desert. (I am going to buy a car, but I’m not going to drive into the city centre, so I care about being able to take a bus into town.) The house is a bit larger than my current flat — separate dining room, much larger kitchen, somewhat larger bathroom, a 4-foot-wide unheated but covered space running alongside the kitchen, containing some shelving and (wonder of wonders!) a chest freezer! and a large back garden with a shed and raised beds — although it has no front yard/garden at all (the house fronts right on the sidewalk/pavement) and the main bedroom is only 2/3 the size of the one I have now and probably won’t be a place I’ll want to spend time in during the day. Except for the stairs and the smaller bedroom, the house has wood or tile floors (good for my dust-mite allergy). What makes it really special is the wood-burning fireplace in the living room. It was built as a coal fireplace but the owner has been burning wood in it, and I’m salivating in anticipation of doing the same. I’m looking around for where I might acquire some peat, as I am desperately in need of a peat fire. (Cambridge, like many UK cities, has an ordinance against burning fuels that produce smoke, but this house is outside the prohibited area and I’m going to do it as soon as I can.)

I’m also discovering Chinese and Italian eateries in Cambridge. This week’s prize was a new Italian place next to the train station, where they were delighted to talk with me in Italian and I was delighted to hear one of them say I have almost no foreign accent. It’s been a few years since an Italian has said that to me, and I was afraid I had lost my touch.

Friends, I think it’s going to be a good few years.

I have a lot to live up to! :-)

I’m into my second week with Sigma, and on Monday they published a blog post with the news. I wrote the bio (the middle part), and they wrote the first and last bits. I feel really honoured and grateful to be so well thought of, and delighted to be working with such great people. If I weren’t already highly motivated to finish my thesis, the knowledge that I’ll have more time to spend with these folks would put me there. Can’t wait to make this move!

I’m returning to industry — in the UK

A year and a half ago I wrote a post about having decided to return to industry after my PhD instead of trying to stay in academia. I had realized, I explained, that at my age and with my experience I’d find more opportunities in industry — and it would also pay better. Well, I am delighted to announce that my efforts have borne fruit: as of today I have joined Sigma Consulting Solutions Ltd. as a Senior User Experience Consultant. I’m starting on a limited part-time basis while I finish my thesis, and after my Tier 2 General visa comes through I’ll switch to a permanent role in the company. When my three-month probationary period ends, I’ll buy a car and move to Cambridge. My permanent role will have me working three days a week, and I hope to spend the other two doing further research on my PhD topic (with the occasional extra-long-weekend excursion thrown in). I’m savoring the idea of being only an hour from London — close enough to go into the city for an evening event, and much more convenient than Newcastle for flights to (most of) the rest of the world.

This is a wonderful opportunity for me. I’m looking forward to returning “home” to UX consulting and to exploring how I can apply what I’ve learned in doing my PhD. I’m really excited about collaborating with a great group of UX folks who are interested in both my consulting experience and my PhD research. I don’t think I could have asked for better.

I’m also acutely aware that I’m going to miss the North East of England. But this will be arrivederci, not addio; I’ll be back for semi-regular visits. You’ve grown on me, Newcastle.

Hi ho, hi ho — it’s back to work I go!

Dearest friends and colleagues,

It is my great pleasure to inform you that you are reading the blog of the new Principal User Experience Consultant at Natural Interaction Ltd.

I will start on 16 October, initially working one to two days a week under my student visa whilst finishing my PhD. Then, some time after the company get themselves registered to sponsor Tier 2 visas we will switch to that and I’ll be a permanent employee. I could not be more delighted about this. Chuffed, even. :-) We are all very excited about the great work we can do together.

Here’s how it came about: A year and a half ago I gave a talk at World Information Architecture Day 2014 in Bristol, about a technique I had learned during my PhD research that I saw as useful for IA practice. One of the attendees came up to me afterwards to ask me questions, saying he thought the technique would be useful on one of his projects. Adam Babajee-Pycroft and I have kept in touch, and prompted by the success he had with it on that project we have developed a workshop to teach the technique. We will give a short version of this workshop at UCD-UK 2015 next month and are preparing a longer version for other venues. Last week we had a Skype call to discuss the first workshop. I had already decided to ask Adam about the possibility of working for his company, and before I could get a chance to mention it he brought it up. He said he knew I was coming to the end of my three years and asked if I had any availability to work. I explained that my student visa does not allow me to work for myself and asked if he would consider sponsoring me for a Tier 2 General visa — and he said yes! We have been working out the particulars in the intervening time (during which time I was trying desperately not to count my chickens); and now, in less than a week, I have a firm offer letter and expect to have a signed employment contract tomorrow. There will, of course, be a probationary period (UK standard of six months), but every time Adam and I talk we discover something else on which we are very much in tune, and I am confident that this collaboration will work out well for all of us.

After I switch to a Tier 2 General visa I will of course be allowed to work more than 20 hours a week. What we plan is two days a week as a base, with more as needed for client projects. I envision continuing to do some research on techno-spirituality, probably on my own time because I doubt my visa would allow me to do sideline work that different from UX consulting. Client work will be done mostly at client sites and internal company work can be done mostly anywhere, so I will have the flexibility to live anywhere in the UK that has adequate access to air and rail transport. I’m open to staying in Newcastle — especially if I end up doing a fair amount of work for clients here and points north — but as much as I love the area during the day I have to confess that it doesn’t have enough Renaissance music to satisfy me and the Toon nightlife is a bit rowdy. Plus, I’ve always fancied living in London. I’ve got lots of decisions to make in the next few months!

When I came to the UK, almost three years ago, I was going to do my PhD and return to Maryland at the end of the three years. After about a year here, I decided I wanted to stay. And now it looks as though I just may be able to do that. And unless I end up in central London, one of the first things I’m going to do when this goes permanent is buy a car.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have seen my musings about staying in academia or returning to industry, and in particular my decision that I would return to industry. I am still slightly sad that the academic route didn’t turn out to match my dreams, but industry really is where I belong — where I feel most at home and where I can make the biggest contribution. And now that I have an even better grasp of research, I am excited about making even more of a connection between the two than I managed to do before.

So if you have any UX consulting needs or just want to explore and discuss the possibilities, please contact me. I’ll have to start out slowly, but if you have a substantial need we can always consider having Adam take the lead with me supporting him in the time I have available.

Stay tuned!

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?!? :-)

Thoughts on paid work

My studentship (aka research fellowship) pays relatively little. It’s probably enough to cover the costs of a UK/EU student who’s sharing a flat with one or two others, but for me it is definitely a reduction in income from when I was working. I’m not complaining about this; I have always considered it part of the cost of getting this PhD and making this change in my life, and have been willing to put up with it, drawing on my savings if and as needed. I do have some additional resources — the rent on my Maryland house brings in somewhat more than the rent I pay on my UK flat (now that the maintenance costs have settled down to very small), and my late husband’s Social Security (at about a 3/4 rate because I started drawing it early). I’m sure I could get some freelance work if I were allowed, but my student visa prohibits me from working for myself or running a business while I’m in the UK, so I have been looking to find a company that would hire me on a zero-hours basis. I have been discussing this with a terrific UK company, but they aren’t ready to make it happen yet, so that’s on hold for the time being*. One main stumbling block is the amount of time I have available for work — the university is paying me to do my research, after all, and they (rightfully) expect me to spend the equivalent of full time on it — but I do have my own time for my own purposes.

So I have been considering whether I should start drawing the company pension from my long-time US employer, with whom I am still on the books as a “casual part-time” / “zero-hours” employee but for whom I hadn’t had any work since I left the US almost a year ago to come to the UK. If I start drawing it before I turn 65, however (another four years from now), I won’t be able to do any more work for them, ever. (This is company policy, AFAIK, not law; but I’m not sure of that, and in any case it really doesn’t matter.) Do I really want to close that door?

Three weeks ago I became very glad that that door is still open. I think the main reason I hadn’t had any work since I moved is that I belong to a section whose clients are US Government agencies, and almost all of them want contractor personnel to be physically located in the US. But three weeks ago I got an email from someone who had gotten my name from my manager, and it resulted in a few hours of work over two weeks and the possibility of more of the same, a little further down the road. I have to work out the tax implications of getting paid in USD while doing the work from the UK, and I’m hoping that a visit to the IRS office in the US Embassy London will help me sort out what’s what. I had feared that the shutdown would close that office, but the site says they’re open with reduced staff. Good thing I’m arriving in time to spend all day Thursday there if I need to. Better take a book.

No, make that TWO books.

Back now to organizing the papers in my literature review. PhD work is neverending. :-)


*Whenever I say “for the time being” in my brother’s presence, he starts speculating about a Time Being who appreciates all these things that we humans do for him (or her, I might add).