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".
I originally wrote this post for jobs.ac.uk, but I decided it might be better here. I also am wary about posting another rejection-based blog post (anywhere!), but I think it's the right time for this one in particular.
Rejection is built into the fabric of academia, but rarely does it hit so many early career academics at it does the day that Leverhulme ECF decisions come out. For a lot of reasons, I didn’t submit an application this year, but I remember the pain of last year’s rejection so vividly. ‘We’re sorry to tell you that your application was not successful. However, your proposal made it to the final shortlist, and this is clear evidence that the panel thinks your research project is very promising’. Egh. This was my second Leverhulme rejection, and add that to two British Academy postdoc rejections I felt like I knew the lay of the land. But that one hurt. A lot.
So, today feels like a day where a lot of people could use some encouragement. So here it is. My career story.
I graduated from my PhD in 2015.
For the 2015/16 academic year I applied for twelve jobs. I got one interview. I ended up doing hourly-paid teaching at my PhD institution. I ‘invented’ a non-stipendiary postdoctoral fellowship for myself at a research institute. I worked on my book (that’s another post for another day), and I worked on an article. I applied for and got Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy.
For the 2016/17 academic year I applied for fifteen jobs, and I had three interviews (for four jobs). I didn’t get any of them. I made the final shortlist for the Leverhulme ECFs. I kept my non-stipendiary position at the research institute. I continued working on my book. I had my first article published in a major journal. I did a term of hourly-paid teaching at my PhD institution. I gave up. I didn’t want to do this anymore. I love teaching, and I absolutely love my research. Being an academic is part of the fabric of my being. But I realised that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how much I wanted it.
A teaching fellowship was advertised in the ‘off season’ to start in January of the 2016/17 academic year, that was for 12 months. Meaning, I would be tossed back out onto the job market in the off-season again. I applied. I got an interview. I went, I was 100% myself, with no feeling of intense desperation. I didn’t feel like I had to make it. I got the job.
I signed a book contract but not for my PhD book. I hope that will come in the next month or two (I’ve done the required revisions to the proposal and sent it back recently).
I have applied for three jobs so far since getting my job – two permanent jobs, one two-year research fellowship. I got an interview for the first permanent job, but I didn’t get it. I think my presentation went well, but my interview was awful – I think because by that stage I was pretty sure that I wasn’t the candidate they wanted, and that got to my head. I was long-listed for the second permanent job, and am waiting to hear further details about the interview. I’m still waiting to hear about the research fellowship. This second - the one I've been long-listed for, at least - is the one I want to get, and I'm trying not to get too weird and over excited about it.
I’m still in a precarious position, but much less than in the 18 months since submitting my PhD. I have been privileged enough to be able to play the waiting game. But this isn’t that article. This isn’t the ‘just wait it out and you’ll succeed’ article because frankly, that’s terrible advice.
I also don’t want to advise you to ‘just be yourself’, because that’s terrible advice too. The times I have tried hardest to BE MYSELF are the times I have come across as the most desperate and over-enthusiastic.
I don’t know what my advice. I suppose I don’t have any. There are people who have applied for more or fewer jobs than I have, who have been luckier or unluckier, who have had an easier time of publishing their PhD book, and who have had a harder time.
Right now, I’m trying to find a permanent job. I’m going through the round-about again. When (if) I get there, I will go through it again with grants, and books, and articles, and it just doesn’t stop. I’m okay with that. I think you have to be okay with that.
But this story isn’t about me. It’s about the fact that every person who has a story of the academy has a different story. Maybe you weren’t meant to get the Leverhulme. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. I adore my department now. I’ve been interviewed for a permanent job in what would have been the first year of my Leverhulme. We’re all different.
And, we all experience rejection. That’s what binds us together as academics (whether we have institutional positions or not!). We need to be there for each other in those times. Because we all know rejection is the worst part of this game.
Today I began vlogging my week, and I’ll be posting a new video every day chronicling my life as an un/under-employed academic. I’ve decided to do this for a few reasons, but primarily because it became obvious to me, in a few separate incidents on Twitter and in real life, that a lot of people don’t actually understand what a typical week looks like for an un/under-employed academic.
This post will serve as both a short introduction and some context to my situation – people who have read this blog, follow me on Twitter, or know me in real life may already know some or all of this context.
That’s pretty much the background. I will be posting the vlogs to my YouTube channel (youtube.com/EllieMackin) and on Twitter (@elliemackin) from this evening.
Feel free to leave questions or comments below, or on the videos. And, thanks for watching!
My latest post over on jobs.ac.uk, about my tumultuous relationship with academia.
This is a companion to Welcome to Job Season! on the jobs.ac.uk Post PhD Life blog.
Here is the link to download the academic job tracker spreadsheet. It's quite simple, but if it saves you a little bit of time then it's worth it. Please feel free to modify it as necessary, and pass it on if you wish.
When you click the 'Download File' link, it will open in Excel Online. Please note that the drop-down lists won't work. From here you need to download the file, and then everything will work fine. (Also, I'm not sure exactly why but when the file opens in Excel Online you need to scroll UP to actually see the content. I will try and fix this soon).
Lists for the drop-down menus can be modified on the second workbook, unless you want to add additional categories all you need to do is replace the text of the existing category with whatever you need. I originally included 'online form' in the 'Materials' category but felt it was redundant as so far every job on my list requires an online form.
The example line is this Teaching Fellow in Roman History at Royal Holloway, and you will see that I've linked the text to the job advert. In my own spreadsheet job positions are actually linked to the folder on my OneDrive that contains all the relevant info, including a saved version of the job description and person specification (which you should always do, if you don't current, because the ad will disappear after the closing date!)
I like the internet. That might seem like a bit of a silly thing to say, but it’s true. I do. I like that I can find information, waste time, watch movies, keep in contact with friends and family. And, I like that I can find voices that resonate with me, voices that make me feel less alone and vulnerable – particularly in the big bad world of trying to land an academic job.
But, increasingly, I am frustrated by the fact that I cannot find a voice that reflects my situation. And, in many ways, I’m not surprised. Let me explain.
I have a PhD. It’s been examined, corrected, awarded, and I have walked across the stage. So, from that perspective, I am not seeking ‘what can you do in graduate school’ style blogs and articles. That ship has sailed, whether I did the right things or not. I’m also not interested, at present anyway, in finding a permanent non-academic job. That is to say, I want to stay in academia and I want to find an academic job. So, the voices of those negotiating the shift from academia to industry are – while interesting and helpful in many respects – not what I am looking for. And, I don’t have an academic job at present. So, while I do (sometimes) like reading about early career academics and negotiating fixed term contracts and heavy teaching loads (for instance), it’s also not exactly what I am after.
As for not being surprised that I can’t find a voice like mine, I think that’s obvious. It’s perilous, the job hunt. That’s true, I suspect, across the board and not just in academia. People probably don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they haven’t got a job straight out of graduate school, so perhaps it is best to stay quiet. We are trained, in so many ways, to be both insecure and over confident, and drawing attention to the fact that one has not been ‘selected’ already certainly brings out the insecurity.
And then, I think: I have been so very privileged in the position I am in currently. And by that I mean that as an un- or under-employed ‘academic’, I have had the opportunity to not have to work full time in a non-academic job. So, I have spent the time since my viva working on a monograph version of my thesis, which is now under review. I have been able to devote time to working on other publications, on some new research, on writing a(n extended) proposal for my ‘next big project’. (But, I am also acutely aware that I might never get the opportunity to do that project, but I obviously don’t like to think too much about that…). The flip side is that I don’t have the institutional support to, for example, go to conferences. I simply can’t afford to pay my own way.
I know that I'm not the only person in my position. Even if I didn’t personally know people who were then I would be able to hazard a pretty accurate guess about it. Right now, I don’t want to revolutionise higher education in this country, I just want to be able to teach and research the things that I am passionate about.
So, I would love to hear from others in the same position – and I want them to know that they’re not the only one.
If you like what I do here, and on YouTube and Twitter, you can buy me a pinch of fairy dust.