This blog post comes from two places - first, the fact I am writing my first cover letter of the job season and second, a series of tweets I sent yesterday that I've been thinking more about. Here are the tweets:
I have spoken before about my chronic illness, and my finishing my PhD as a single parent, and the hardships that those things brought upon my work, my career progression, my ability to work (effectively) three full time jobs: the one I was paid for (that is, the teaching), the one I had to do in order to get my publications and research in order to get a permanent job, and the one I had to do to ensure the tiny human in my care was... well... cared for. You might notice that this does not account for any time I may have to manage my illness, care for myself, or have any kind of a life that didn't revolve around either the academy or my child.
Several years on from that, I've reached a point where I am exhausted. I have been in various full-time teaching-only roles for the past several years and, if I'm honest, I just want a break from it so I can build up other parts of my CV. No doubt some will say that this is proof that I think I'm too good for teaching or that I don't value or enjoy teaching. In fact, I love teaching and I think it's hugely worthwhile and therein lies my problem. The past few years I have worked above and beyond in order to deliver innovative, engaging classes and this has left me precious little time to get my research and publication on track.
Why do I bring this up, though? Because I want to highlight some very serious issues in the way that permanent academic jobs tend to be won and lost. And, in so many case, it's in research (either not enough of it, or what's there isn't good enough). Teaching is something that is ticked off as experience rather than by quality. This is, I think, demonstrated in the way that teaching and research requirements are articulated in job adverts. So, when I have a limited amount of energy to give, and I want to move toward my goal of a full-time, continuing (i.e. permanent) academic position of course I will, in part, want to stop doing one of the things that's taking so much time and energy. That can't be parenting, and it also can't be research. That's a simple calculation based on my energy levels and my long-term goals. It is not a value judgement on any of the activities I am currently engaged in.
And, of course, this directly links back with mental health and ill-health. Mine, here, is obvious. I have a serious but well managed set of illnesses that demand some work, time, and energy on an ongoing basis. But more generally academia is demonstrably bad for the mental health and well-being of early career academics - whether in teaching-only, research-only, teaching-and-research positions, or are not currently employed in academia (which may occur for a whole host of reasons from being too ill to the simple fact that there are far fewer academic positions than qualified candidates). The mental well-being needs of each of these groups will be different, not because the positions or pressures are different (indeed the pressures are pretty generally something like do all the things) but because people are different.
I assume that my musings on mental wellness and early career academia are not over, but, at least for now, I am going back to my CV and cover letter, trying to get ready for the job season without scrawling across applications in desperation: "I've had a pretty tough time of things and please keep that in mind when judging me!"
Well. Yesterday I started thinking about completing my goal for the month, which is to write a new career/publication plan. I couldn't really be bothered starting from scratch and I had seen that jobs.ac.uk had some career planning toolkits on their site, so I thought I'd review them. You should watch the video before reading the rest of this post.
You are in a small sanctuary, near the banks of the river Acheron, in the Western Peloponnese. A priest comes to fetch you. ‘It is time’, he says, leading you through the darkness. Stop. Breathe in deeply. What can you smell? The fertile soil, wet and black. The moss that covers the stone temple. You think you can just hear the river, gurgling away in the background – leading the souls of the dead down, down, down into the Underworld. That is why you are here.
As you enter the temple feel your body getting heavier. Relax your head, and neck, relax your shoulders. Feel a fog of tiredness wash over your mind.
You are about to commune with the dead.
You do not know how long you will spend living in the darkness of the temple, but you know it will be at least a week. You enter a long corridor. On your left, three arched doorways lead to the three small rooms you will live in. Here, in the impenetrable darkness you will prepare. You find your first meal in the room through the first arched doorway. Pork, broad beans, barely bread, shellfish. These are the foods of funerary banquets. You lift a cup to your lips – expecting wine, you start back as the sweetness of honeyed milk fills your mouth. This is a banquet for the dead – and you begin to realise the seriousness of where you are and what you are doing. You are putting yourself in a state between the worlds.
Days pass. You don’t know how many. You are disoriented. The mild toxicity of the broad beans begins to affect you. Slowly at first, but then one night – or day, you don’t know which, it’s all night right now – you feel your brother’s strong arms around you, in a cold, dead embrace. You start to believe that you have died, and you are at your own funeral. The banquet truly is yours.
Breathe in, deeply. Smell the dank, wet stone. Smell your own sweat and tears and mud and excrement.
A man enters? Is it the priest? He brings a sheep, presses some smooth stones into your hands. He guides you down a deep passage that seems to never end. He tells you to throw one of the stones in a pile, and then takes you into a room to wash your hands.
You take the sheep. The man tells you to dig a hole and hands you a knife. You are disoriented, but suddenly you snap back as the sharp metallic smell of blood fills you. You have slaughtered the sheep. Your hands are covered in blood and as you cut the sheep up the smell of half-digested sludge and offal overwhelms you. Now there is smoke, you don’t remember setting the fire – it must have been the priest. In this small passage way the smell and the smoke and the bile in the back of your throat have no-where to go. They linger, settling on you, surrounding you, obscuring the way out and the way forward.
The man pulls you to your feet and directs you into a winding, twisting series of passages. You turn the wrong way and hit a wall. You stop, and weep.
Breathe in. What can you smell, in the darkness? The metallic taste of blood clings to your hands. The smoke is still billowing up behind you. Your own panic begins to rise in your throat. You hear someone – or something – coming up behind you. You move on.
Finally, you enter a great hall, the air is clearer in here. Before you enter, you remember – somehow – to throw the barley in your hand onto the ground. You throw the final stone into the room and you enter.
Sinking to the ground, a figure appears in front of you. You can’t quite see it properly. You blink, hard, several times. The figure moves towards you. Who is it? You can’t tell. You try to speak – but the words don’t quite come out the way you imagine. Your brain spins. You breathe in. Blood. Smoke. Sweat. Shit.
Whispers in the dark that you cannot make out. The figure moves, shifts, swaps, slowly levitates. A different figure comes out. You are disoriented.
You think you ask the questions you came to ask. You think you get an answer. You’re not really sure. You fall into some kind of black oblivion.
Some period of time later, a man – the priest – enters the room and helps you up. He asks if you got the answers you wanted. Confidently, you say yes – and that feels like it’s true. In your sleep you had a vision of the future and you know what you must do.
The priest helps you out though a different door, and leads you to a room – bright, clean – and lays you on a bed. He helps you wash, gives you clean clothes. He lays you down and tells you that you’re back from the other side. You must stay here to cleanse that miasma of the dead away from your skin.
Breathe in. Sweet, bright flowers. You hear the river in the background, gurgling the dead into the Underworld…
Image by Samuli Lintula CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227193
Two weeks ago I asked classicists on Twitter for their advice to incoming classics students:
Sometimes I get asked if I'd 'recommend' having a baby during a PhD. That's a difficult question for me to answer for a few reasons. First, I haven't done a PhD without having had a baby in the middle of it. I don't know what that experience is like. Second, the right time to have a baby is always when you want to have a baby - if that's mid-PhD then you will make it work. Like I did:
I started my PhD on Monday 6th September, 2010.
I had Kiddo on Friday 11th October, 2011.
My PhD viva was on Friday 14th November, 2014.
I graduated on Wednesday 22nd July, 2015.
Having a baby during your PhD and finishing "on time" is possible. It's doable. I did it. Would I recommend it? Probably not. There's a lot of time that goes into a child, and a lot of time that's needed to go into crafting an academic career for yourself - if you (like me) get a teaching only position out of your PhD, how and where do you find the time to do the publishing required to get a permanent job, for instance?
And there's a difference, too, between having a child and having a child and a chronic mental illness. The latter necessarily makes the former harder, and together they make crafting the academic persona much, much harder. Trust me when I say that there is no instance in which a mental illness does not make a pregnancy, birth, and parenthood more difficult, and no instance in which a mental illness does not make crafting the academic persona more difficult. So...
Some days I feel like a total superhero. I want to shout from the rooftops: I did it, I survived! Hoorah!
Most days, days like today, I berate myself for thinking about how much easier my life - and particularly getting into my chosen career - could have been. I do feel jealous when people who haven't had the kinds of set backs I have get permanent jobs. Of course, if we're all honest about it jealousy is another huge part of the early-career run-around, so I don't think that's a particularly wild statement to make. But it's being hung up on how unfair the whole thing seems. Not that academia was ever fair.
I would never give back my child, obviously. She is a joy. But being a person who survives in the world with bipolar (type 1), or BPD, or chronic dissociation is hard enough. Keeping up with a bright, excitable, energetic, wonderful, six-year old when one feels completely removed from the world*... that's tough. Trying to finish my book - a book I have been trying to finish since I finished my PhD - as well as writing two grant applications (because - lets be honest - my 10 month job will come to an end before I have time to sneeze) and trying to get my two 'new research' articles through seemingly-endless revisions.
When I think about how much further behind I am because of my illness and my Kid I don't get angry. I feel a resigned hurt in my chest that these are the things which probably will cost me my academic career. But there's nothing much I can do about that but just keep plugging away.
*This is how I described it to my husband in a text message this morning: "I feel like an astronaut. I mean, in actual space. Like inside a life support cage in a totally alien and unknown environment where I have really limited vision and no understanding of the change of gravity so I can't really walk properly".
This will be the third incarnation of the Academic Kindness Gift Circle - but given some of the issues I've had with past gift circles (time, resources, cost, and - most importantly - people not receiving gifts! This is a totally unacceptable situation - I run the Academic Kindness Gift Circle based on trust and kindness!
This time I've decided that the gift circle will be a postcard exchange. There will be an international pool - however, there is an option to tick if you cannot afford the cost of international postage, to ensure you are matched with someone in the same country (or as near as possible) as you.
Please feel free to post your postcards on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #AKPE and #AcademicKindness
So, as always, the rules:
Yesterday, I watched a Facebook Live with Karen and Kellee from The Professor is In. You can watch it here. In it, they spoke about how to know when it's time to leave academia (don't worry, I'm not adding to the pile of quit lit just yet). Something they discussed at several points was setting and sticking to your own limits. And peoples limits are different. This really struck a chord with me, because recently Andrew and I have set a very hard limit on what we'll do to keep my academic career afloat. And perhaps this thing will be the death of my life as an academic.
We bought a house. We have discussed leaving London several times, and each time we come back to the feeling that we just don't want to leave London. We love London, and we want our daughter to grow up in a stable environment, where she can make friends and not have to move half way though primary school. And we were in a very specific place where (with lots of help, specifically with a government Help to Buy scheme) we were able to purchase a house. So we did.
It's terrifying. And wonderful.
I also made a commute limit, and won't apply for jobs outside that line on the map. I don't want to keep spending nights away from my family just to keep my career as an academic alive. I've spoken recently (predominantly on Twitter) about the pull I feel between loving being a researcher and a teacher and an ancient historian but hating academia. Between the strike and the emails my VC sends about cost cutting and what's happening in other classics and archaeology departments, and recently taking a 10 month contract, and basically all the permanent jobs going to Oxbridge or internal candidates (yes, that's a slight exaggeration, but it's not far off the mark), and everything else. I just... don't want to keep moving around (both figuratively and literally) in order to keep doing the things that I love, while I have no power to change the things I don't. Precarity is that double edged sword.
So, this is what I have. I said I would keep going until I didn't have a job and I might do that. Or I might not. For now, I am writing my book (and actually enjoying it!) and I will settle down into life in my new house, watch my Kiddo settle into her life, make friends, grow up, be a force for change in the world. And hopefully I can also be a force for change - in some way or another.
Update: A Twitter thread I made about buying a house in London
Yesterday I got (yet another) message of thanks from a viewer of my YouTube videos. This person talked about how my videos have helped them see a life in academia even with their severe anxiety problem. I get messages like this all the time. I get emails, and DMs, and cards in the post. I love these things. But today I feel like a fraud.
Two days ago I went to see my community psych. I'd rung for an appointment with my regular doctor about a month ago and got a locum. She didn't make me a same-day appointment, but rang me back late in the afternoon to say that maybe I could just increase one of my medications. Even though my brain was a storm, I tried to be calm as I explained that I didn't want to do that. I wanted to talk to someone about the way I was feeling. The new symptoms. I began pleading with her to let me see my doctor. She put me on hold and eventually gave me an appointment with my doctor the next morning.
This set off a chain that resulted in my appointment with the community psych and a new quasi-diagnosis. A new thing to add to my plethora of issues. I have BPD, but not really. Rather I "would be diagnosed with BPD if you couldn't hold your life together". What I took away from the extensive conversation I had with the psych was that, because I am high functioning in both my bipolar and my (now) BPD then she doesn't want to diagnose me with BPD formally. The medical intervention is similar to bipolar - one of my meds will be switched for a new med from a parallel group - and I can start the 'right kind of talking therapy' for BPD without needing a formal diagnosis. To be honest, I don't mind about the formal diagnosis thing or not, because I am in the very fortunate position of having a mother who is both invested enough and wealthy enough to pay for private therapy. On the NHS I might be waiting up to 2 years for the 'correct' kind of therapist to come up.
So, that was the third thing that happened.
The first was the industrial action over pensions. Taking out the picket-line-awakening of the plight of early career academics and how genuinely insulting that was (you mean you didn't think about it beforehand?!?), what I have learned from the USS strike is that the people who have the money and the power don't actually give a shit about me. Or academics in general. We are cogs in a machine of some kind of Degree Granting Business.
The second thing was writing my paper for the Classical Association conference. It's made me realise that I used to have a lot of creativity in my approach to my research. I used to want to do weird and amazing things. I still do, of course. But I'm also hyper-aware of trying to produce 3* or 4* research. But no one else gives a fuck about REF ratings. The REF has killed my creativity and I'm not even returnable.
Finally - this morning I got a job rejection. It was a job I applied for mainly because I spent a lot of time at the end of my PhD and the start of my career wanting to go this particular department. I've applied for every possible job that's come up there. I nearly got a Leverhulme ECF there. But I've never been successful. For this reason I'd broken my recently self-imposed commuting-time-from-London limit to apply there. So, I almost don't care about not getting shortlisted there. But I do care about not getting shortlisted at all.
So, I think I'm going to put #projectpermanentjob on hold. At least until my book is published (in the last 5 years in my field the only people I can think of that got permanent jobs without a book-in-hand were internal candidates...). And to think about whether actually my strong desire to be an ancient historian, to do my research, to teach, and to learn is actually worth the price that academia wants of me.
So, here are some ways you can cheer me up:
1) Make a donation to Arts Emergency. And follow them on Twitter.
2) I would quite like this t-shirt... (in a women's large, thanks!) 😉
3) Head over to my YouTube channel, and watch some of my videos about mental health, research planning, or early career academic life. Oh, and please subscribe!
4) Come and say hello on Twitter!
5) Support me over on Patreon!
A twitter thread from my week at @wethehumanities (July 2017) - and prompted by Storify closing:
The 2018 #AcademicKindness project is going to kick off with a notebook exchange! I hope there will be 6 notebooks flying around the world! Here's what they're all about:
Each notebook will contain a title page with 'instructions for use'. The purpose of the books is to create tangible works of academic kindness that have travelled around the world. Only accept the book if you are willing to participate and pass the book on.
What you will need to do: write, draw, or otherwise decorate ONE page of the notebook (that is one side of a page, not an entire spread). You can do whatever you like on the page but it should include the following information:
Once you have finished your page (and, if necessary allowed adequate time for your page to dry before you close and pass on the book) please take a photograph of your page and post it to Twitter with the hashtag #AKnotebook followed by a space and the number of your book (this will be found somewhere on the cover or instruction page of the book). Tag the person you have given the book to (if they are on Twitter) and include the date you handed the book on and your location, including latitude and longitude coordinates for your city (you can get them at: whatsmygps.com).
I will make an online gallery of the pages and a map so everyone can see what's in the books and where they have been.
The project will, in the first instance, run though 2018. It might keep going past that - who knows!
If you happen to be the final page of a notebook: please get in touch with me so I can arrange for you to send the notebook back to me and we can organise for you to start a new one. Each subsequent notebook will be marked with a letter - notebook 1 will become 1a then 1b etc.
I am currently looking for volunteers to start notebooks around the world! I am hoping for someone in eastern Europe, Asia, Australia/NZ (filled), and South America (or the southern part of the USA). These will go with the book I will start in London, and a book already being planned in Canada. Please note that if you volunteer you will need to purchase a notebook with good quality paper pages (I suggest a dot ruled, hardback Leuchtturm1917) and set it up with the instructions (I will send you the text). Get in touch with me on Twitter or email if you're interested.
You can now sign-up on (public) Google sheets - or check the sheets if you're looking for someone to give the book to!
UK and Europe
Australasia and Africa
If you like what I do here, and on YouTube and Twitter, you can buy me a pinch of fairy dust.