348 Days in Limbo

At 16:28 on Thursday 3rd November my time in academic limbo came to an end when my Head of School rang me and offered me a job: a full time, three-year Teaching Fellowship in International Relations/International Political Theory, to start on 1 January 2017. And in those 2 minutes on the phone, standing in the rain outside the department, all of the anxiety, stress, self-doubt, and fear at an unknown future I felt I couldn’t control washed away.

From viva to job offer my time in limbo totalled 348 days. I applied for 40 jobs – post-docs, lectureships, and teaching fellowships – on 3 different continents. From those 40 applications I had 4 interviews, 2 of which resulted in offers – 1 to teach a year-long module for not enough money to live on, and the other, my new job, with a contract, rights, a research and travel budget, and the security that we all crave.

Over these 348 days I spent more hours than I dare even try to count working on job applications; hours that I felt I should have been putting into my teaching and into writing my book. I’ve had to dig out high school transcripts to provide grades for parts of my academic life I didn’t think could possibly be relevant anymore. I’ve come close to screaming in frustration at the redundancy of inputting the exact same information five different ways into the same application form. I’ve struggled to remain motivated to complete applications properly when the very process of doing so was de-motivating. I’ve been emotionally exhausted by the seemingly never-ending cycle of hope, anticipation, and disappointment, and left frustrated by a lack of feedback in the face of rejection. I’ve despaired at the lack of time to devote to the publications I felt were the key to success on the job market. I’ve doubted myself. And I’ve cried. With all of this going on in the background I’ve tried to do my best for my students: putting the time into preparing their classes, reading their work, giving them constructive feedback, and trying to develop as a teacher. And I’ve tried to carve out time for research and writing. Looking back on those 348 days from the light which really does exist at the end of the tunnel, two thoughts immediately spring to mind:

  1. I can’t believe I went through all that and remained sane (relatively); and
  2. I’m one of the lucky ones – 348 days is actually a comparatively short amount of time to live like this when pursuing an academic career.

So what have I learned? I’ll spare you the obvious “careers centre” style advice, since you know it already, and stick to the personal lesson it took me a long time to learn, and in a way I think I’m still learning:

That you really mustn’t take the rejection personally. It hurts. It does. Especially at the beginning, and even more so when it’s from a job you know you’d be a perfect fit for. But it isn’t a rejection of you. It’s a rejection of the paper version of a small part of you, when compared with the paper-version of others. You are more than your CV; more than your publications list; more than your research grants. You are your sense of humour; your eagerness to help your friends; your hobbies and interests; your crushes; your hopes and fears; your guilty pleasures; your personality quirks; the impact you have on the lives of those around you; your memories. Academia is a job, not a life, and it certainly isn’t who you are. It’s hard to see this sometimes because what we do doesn’t lend itself, without considerable effort and strength of will, to being left behind in the office at 5pm. It follows us home, to the pub, to the restaurant, to the cinema, even to our beds; it distorts our sense of time – for most of us at the early stage of our careers “5pm” isn’t a time that really means anything, nor is the concept of a “week-day” or a “weekend” (channeling a certain Dowager Countess) – and, if we’re not careful, we can let it define who we are. I still struggle with the whole work-life balance thing, but what I’m trying to say is that if you define who you are by the career path you’ve chosen for yourself, then any rejection in pursuit of that career will feel like a rejection of you as a person, and this is a dark road to travel down that leads nowhere but despair.

I’ve also learned that there is a good deal of luck involved in success on the academic job market. If you happen to be joining the rat race at a time when there is a demand for what you do then your chances are already going to be better than joining during a period of drought. If the people making the short-listing decisions happen to be disposed to look for potential in an applicant, rather than sticking rigidly to a list of criteria beyond the job advert that you aren’t privy to, then as an early career academic you may stand a chance of being short-listed even if you don’t have a book and two articles straight out of your PhD. But it isn’t all down to luck, and while you can’t control the disposition of others, or the decisions of University HR or administration, or trends in your subject area, there are certain things that are in your control (or at least partially).

And so I want to offer this piece of advice for those of you who are in the early stages of your PhD and still have a few years to go until you join the job market. I do so tentatively, because I know how stressful and how difficult a PhD is, and I know how pressed for time we all are. But I do so because, first, I think that it was part of the reason that my sojourn in limbo has been mercifully short, and, second, because of the reality that is the current academic job market, where there are more newly minted PhDs than there are jobs to go round. The advice is this: if you know you want an academic job then start to think early on about one or two steps you can take each semester toward building the type of profile that would map onto a lectureship or a teaching fellowship. They don’t have to be big steps, but building a diverse profile in small steps is much more manageable than trying to cram everything into the few months between submission and viva. But what should these steps be? I’ll offer you the ones that I took. Some things beyond the usual “teach and present at conferences” that you might consider:

  • Organise a conference – and contact academic and professional bodies who might be interested for sponsorship. Not only does this show initiative and organisational skills, it also builds contacts and shows you can secure money (even if it might not be much).
  • Diversify your teaching – ask your supervisor if you can give some of his/her lectures; or organise academic skills workshops for your students. If there are opportunities to teach on more advanced modules – like a dissertation module – take it! Lecturing and teaching academic skills are very different things from seminar-based teaching in your subject area, and if you are able to build progressively on this as you move through your PhD then this also shows a commitment to continuing professional development. When it comes time to write those job applications you’ll then have evidence to back up your claim that you’re “committed to CPD.”
  • Design your own module based on your research. This can be a helpful exercise in and of itself in thinking through what “research-led teaching” really means – how would you teach your research? Would you turn your research project into a module, or would you isolate distinct parts of it and build a module around that? It can also help you determine if you really do know the literary topography of your field – can you compile complete reading lists? But it will also mean that you can apply for jobs with a module ready to go and which would, hopefully, only require minor edits to be viable in a new institution.
  • When nearing completion of your PhD ask your department if they’d be willing to let you run your module. They may say ‘no’ – if student numbers mean they don’t need any new modules, or if your module doesn’t necessarily fill a gap in their current offerings. But if you don’t at least ask then they can’t say ‘yes’. And they might say ‘yes’ – mine did and it is an opportunity for which I will be eternally grateful, and meant that I was applying with a type of teaching experience that others fresh out of their PhD may not have had, and this may end up counting for something.
  • Attend training courses offered at your institution on a diverse range of topics beyond your research. I’ve taken courses on effective lecturing, understanding learning difficulties, convening modules, and so on. On their own these courses probably won’t get you a job, but they are evidence of your commitment to developing as a researcher and a teacher. They can also, actually, be helpful and valuable in and of themselves.
  • Volunteer with summer schools or initiatives to widen access. Not only are these rewarding experiences – especially in regard to widening access initiatives – but they are increasingly important to a growing number of universities in the UK: the Further Particulars in job adverts often mention that they want the person appointed to be committed to widening access and participation. And, finally……
  • ….TRY TO PUBLISH! I was lucky in having a supervisor who started talking to me about publishing early on in my PhD and encouraged me to turn my second thesis chapter into an article to submit for publication by the end of my 2nd year. Other supervisors seem to be sticklers for “just getting the thesis done”. While it may be true that you’re not going to get a job without your PhD, it’s becoming just as true that you are unlikely to be successful quickly without any publications. So it’s worth thinking about whether any of your thesis chapters might also work as a stand-alone publication, or if there is a side project or interest that you may be able to write 8,000-9,000 words on in a break between chapters. If your supervisor is working on an edited volume related to your work, ask if you can contribute a chapter or article. I know it’s time consuming and daunting, but even just having something “under review” by the time you’re done can make a difference.

If you were to try to work on all of these at once you’d burn yourself out, go insane, and probably not finish your thesis – which is, after all, your primary responsibility as a PhD candidate. But it is worth taking this list, or compiling your own, and identifying one specific thing that you plan to work toward or accomplish each semester, so that when your 6 or 8 semesters are done, you have much more than just a completed thesis. And hopefully your sojourn in academic limbo will turn out to be as mercifully short as mine has been – even if it didn’t feel short at the time.

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