Living in Limbo – remember what you have

I bit the bullet this past week and finally – finally – organised and de-cluttered my laptop. Renaming hundreds of poorly-named Word documents, and deleting multiple copies of the same journal articles dowloaded through the course of my PhD, was actually quite a cathartic exercise, and I feel a little better prepared for the start of the new academic year now that I have a clean electronic slate. I did discover, however, that the only relatively well organised folder I had at the start of the process was also the folder that brings me the least joy and the greatest anxiety – the Job Applications folder. Just the presence of this folder on my desktop is a constant reminder of the state of limbo in which I – and probably the majority of newly-minted PhDs – live. (I got my PhD at the end of November 2015).

Now that I no longer have the relative safety blanket (said with hindsight) of being enrolled on a PhD programme, my days are spent trying to write new publications, keep on top of my teaching responsibilities, and the seemingly interminable search for jobs to apply for and postdoc programmes to prepare proposals for (all of which want something different in an application), all while simply trying to make ends meet. Don’t get me wrong, I was prepared for this reality from the earliest days of my PhD (the advantage of having an older sibling also doing a PhD, and having a great supervisor who helped and encouraged me to do what I could during my PhD years to gain the experience and publications I would need when I finished). But knowing what the reality will likely be when you finish, and actually living that reality are two very different things. And it doesn’t take too many applications, or too many rejections, before the dejection and self-doubt start to creep in. A few months ago was a particularly low point for me – a series of rejections combined with the impending end of the semester ushering in a period of no income.

At around this point a dear colleague who had recently had success on the academic job market invited me for a coffee and a catch up and gave me this piece of advice (as well as a great little book): remember what you have. It is so easy to become disheartened and have a crisis of confidence when faced with rejections and staring down the barrel of an immediate future with no solid plans or security. And this is hardly the ideal state in which to complete a job application! But remembering what you have can be an effective tool to help you refocus, and regain some of that lost confidence. Taking this advice has proven helpful for me, and I hope it will prove helpful to you as well.

And so as the new academic year starts, inspired by my newly organised and inventoried computer, I put out into the void an inventory of “what I have”, as I complete yet another job application and continue to hope that my sojourn in limbo will be mercifully short. I’d encourage those still doing their PhD and those who have recently finished, to compile an inventory of their own, to help with completing those application forms, and also to refer back to when you’re having a bad day. You’ve achieved so much more than you think – and more than those job rejections will make you believe – but until you see it written in front of you it can be hard see the wood for the trees.

What I Have:

  • a PhD, funded by the ESRC
  • a published, peer-reviewed article in a respected journal
  • a book contract
  • my own module based on my research, and 1 semester’s experience teaching it
  • 2 years experience working with undergraduate dissertation students
  • 3 years experience teaching on introductory IR modules
  • concrete achievements in improving skills provision for undergraduate students in my School: an Essay Writing Guide and an Academic Skills Workshop programme
  • experience presenting at national and international conferences
  • being a peer-reviewer for key journals in IR and forced migration

There are still things I see on job adverts that I don’t have on my list. And so the next step is to try to identify ways in which to develop those skills and experiences. But that’s a post for another time.

So give it a try – it only takes a few minutes.

Etymological trivia: “Limbo” comes from the Latin limbus, meaning “border”. In Roman Catholic theology it refers to the place where innocent souls reside while waiting to enter the kingdom of heaven, and has since come to mean any “in-between” place, state or condition of uncertainty, oblivion or neglect. Also a fun dance involving a pole and a level of flexibility and balance which I have never been able to attain. 

P.S. Thank you FD x

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