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!"
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".
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!
Today is World Mental Health Day, which is fitting, since two days ago I ran a half-marathon, raising over £800 for Mind, the mental health charity. I am incredibly thankful to everyone who sponsored me - I feel very humbled by your generosity and very also pretty proud of myself for having done it. There's still time to donate, if you wish: here.
Last World Mental Health Day I publicly posted for the first time about having type 1 bipolar, and I wanted to take the opportunity again to be open, honest, and giving about my illness in a way that I hope will inspire and help others.
I do a fair bit to keep myself healthy - I take my medications everyday. In fact, I take meds three times a day, because that's what works best for me. I run, and I meditate sometimes (but do neither as much as I should do, really). But I also do a fair bit that isn't very healthy, which is mainly out of circumstance, rather than desire. For instance - I love my job, and what I do, but sometimes I really do buy into the workaholic-academic myth. And my commute doesn't do much good for me either, because the time I have with my family I spend with them, and don't always take as much time for myself as I should (see the point about not running or meditating as much as I should).
Over the last year, my anxiety has got worse as well, and a part of this is residual trauma that I've associated with certain spaces, particularly in and around London. I'm also struggling to shake the inherent anxiety of precarity, which I got so used to feeling. Sometimes I have to sit myself down and remind myself I actually do have a full time job now.
I've become - and continue to become - better at recognising myself, and when I might be at risk. And with that recognition has come the ability to catch moods or panic early and do some quick restorative work.
Despite everything that has held me back - not just bipolar and anxiety, but the parenting, and general self-care - I think I've done really well this last year. Which is to say, I'm doing my best, and it turns out - my best is pretty damn good.
I love you all. Thank you for your support and kindness.
I have been thinking recently about how much of myself I should be giving away in job and grant applications. This has come because I am working on an ERC Starting Grant application. I have no idea if I am good enough for one, but this is the first year I'm eligible and the last year that the UK might be able to apply. And honestly, I think the experience of writing a huge grant proposal will be good for me. But, the thing is... I don't think I've quite done as much as I might have done regarding being excellent.
I finished my PhD as a single parent, in the middle of a serious manic episode. I struggled to get my bipolar and anxiety under control. I've struggled with the side effects of medication. In the midst of that I published an article in a pretty good journal. I got two book contracts. I've submitted another article. I am by no means prolific, but... that's not too bad.
Here's why I struggle with this.
1. In my life, this is normal. This is my normal. I have done everything I could do, within reason. For instance, I would have loved to go to Fondation Hardt, like many of my PhD cohort (and my now-husband) did. But, I had a kid that relied on me to be in London. How much of that should I get a pass for? I did other things, that were closer to home. Like chairing a year-long seminar series in London. At home.
2. I don't want to make a 'benchmark' for good, or decent, or excellent for people who have stuff going on. 'Oh, well X also has acute anxiety and has produced two more articles than Y', 'Z also had a child and finished their PhD 3 months before X'. I hope you see where I am going with this. But then, by not declaring, aren't we saying that the benchmark for everyone is the same? When it shouldn't necessarily be. X might have a parent who suddenly needs significant care, and it falls to X to take that on. How do we compare near 24hr care of a parent for 6 months (for argument sake), to the small-bits-a-day of self-care required of someone who has a schizoaffective disorder? Or myalgic encephalomyelitis (also called chronic fatigue syndrome)? We can't have two benchmarks (i.e. one for 'normal' people and one for (what?) all other people). We can't just have one benchmark, because some people have overcome significant things to achieve. I obviously don't have an answer.
3. As much as I would like to think that saying all this in a job or grant application would be taken in the spirit it is meant (i.e. here's what I've done, and here is the context of my life) it might be taken as a mark against me ('this person might have another serious manic episode' 'this person might have another child' 'this person might develop serious side effects and require sick leave'). I would never have a way of knowing, but it's a scary proposition.
The Pros List (I think the cons are obvious)
Anything I can do to destigmatize mental illness is a good thing. Calling my mental illness a chronic invisible illness demonstrates (I hope) that I treat it as a serious, but manageable (and managed) illness that would be like managing any other non-life-threatening illness. It also says (again, I hope) that I am not ashamed of having bipolar.
So. I don't have an answer. I suppose I will probably end up writing two versions of the statement and see which one passes though the research office.
Future job applications - again, totally undecided.
What an unsatisfying end.
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I have Type 1 Bipolar. I ‘outed’ myself last October on World Mental Health Day. Since then, I have spoken candidly about various aspects of having bipolar and a panic disorder, but these have usually been fleeting bursts on Twitter. Until now I have not committed anything to the permanence of this site, partly because being open in a post that can be called and recalled by anyone, at any time, is scary and worrying. I am on the market for a permanent academic job, and I am obviously concerned that this will negatively affect that endeavour.
I am worried about the stigma of having a chronic mental illness. Will I be able to be ‘open’ about my diagnosis until the stigma is gone? No. Will the stigma be lifted unless people, like me, are ‘open’ about their diagnoses? No. It’s a vicious cycle. To break it, I have to step forward and be open. This is the small thing I can do to help.
Living with bipolar isn’t easy. Twice a day I take my medications, I will take these for the rest of my life. Perhaps not these exact ones, because that’s the thing about medication for chronic illnesses (of all kinds, not just mental illness) – sometimes they stop working the way you want them to work. Everything I do is a balancing act. If I do x, I will feel like a. That means that I might not be able to do y later on. It’s Spoon Theory. Do I need to go to the supermarket with my 5-year-old? That will take four spoons. If I can go on my own, it will be two. Do I have to take the 6:55am train to Leicester to make a meeting with a student? That will be one additional spoon than taking the 8:56. If Kiddo doesn’t sleep well tonight I will need an extra five spoons, so do I want to keep three in reserve – that means it will only cost two of tomorrow’s spoons. You get the point.
Even though I take meds, I still experience the fluctuations of my mood disorder. They obviously aren’t as pronounced as if I wasn’t taking medication. I have learned to match my work to these – when I am ‘up’ I produce new research and do as much teaching preparation as I can. When I am ‘down’ I edit – I am brutal and mean, and the comments I leave on my own work are sometimes heartbreaking. When I am ‘even’, I submit work. If I can help it I never push ‘submit’ while I am up or down, because even though these are very mild versions of mania and depression I am still not as measured as I would like to be when I do the final checks of a manuscript or abstract.
This is not a glorification of bipolar. Yes, I did write tens of thousands of words in a manic frenzy during my PhD, but I also completely neglected my own health and let my marriage crumble around me. I have – like anyone who faces a chronic illness – learned how to work with myself, rather than fighting against myself.
It doesn’t always work, and I am particularly bad at preventative ‘self-care’. My ability to recognise when I need to break out of my bubble is dulled and broken. Fighting this is something I will be doing forever.
I am not bipolar. I have bipolar. That’s an important distinction. And over the last six months, I have forced myself to come to terms with having a lifelong invisible illness, a disability. It has made it easier to be open. But it will always be an uphill battle, and I will always be fighting a war against myself – I just hope for more, longer, periods of peace.
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