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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At the moment I am a master juggler. It's true, I have so many balls in the air and so far all of them are still in the air. But, not for long, I fear, as something will inevitably fall.
Last week I tweeted that I had submitted a job application ten days early, but what I didn't say is that I wanted to ensure that it wasn't a ball that fell. That application is important - really important. Doing it early meant I could give it the time and love it deserved. Like the article I submitted a few days later. The article is still out, but the notice that I'd not been shortlisted for the job came this morning.*
But now I am starting to feel the overwhelming enormity of all the things - a sample:
*Let's talk about rejection for a moment: it happens to all of us, there are job rejections, and papers that get turned down, and articles that you eventually retire into the 'Come Back to this Later' folder (last opened the day after you created it). I won't lie about this - I am really gutted that I wasn't shortlisted for this job, but I also know that I did everything I could do to make my application strong. And I have to remember that I'm a pretty strong candidate for my career stage, realistically. I shouldn't be surprised, because this job was probably two steps up from where I am now. So there you go - I won't be leaving Leicester yet (which, in itself, makes me quite happy!).
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Another “CV of Failure” has (inevitably) appeared. These make me feel uncomfortable. It’s not that they don’t represent a conversation that we need to have. It’s that - no matter how well-meaning the writers are - the pieces themselves are tone deaf. They are written from a place of figurative and literal privilege: permanent positions and lofty offices. No doubt many people find these ‘Shadow CVs’ uplifting and hope-giving, they also alienate people whose plans haven’t exactly… gone to plan. They are the academic equivalent of ‘White Saviour syndrome’. The impetus to write this came from seeing this tweet, which perfectly summed up my feelings:
But I can let you in on a secret: these days we've all been rejected from jobs and fellowships and had papers rejected and not been admitted to every one of the seventeen graduate programmes we applied to. Here’s another secret: most of us still haven’t ended up with tenure-track positions at Princeton. And, for your sins, here’s a third secret: those of us who haven't ended up with such coveted positions work just as hard and have just as many stories of woe. Many of us are also being systemically discriminated against because of our gender, sexuality, skin colour, age, accent, socio-economic background, the ability of our bodies or minds to work “properly”, or some combination of these factors.
So, I could (and have) written about jobs I've failed to get: on the jobs.ac.uk Post-PhD blog and YouTube. I've also written about a “failed” publication – but that article is currently in press at an excellent journal in large part because of that initial “failure” and the reports I received from it.
I could also tell you how at the end of my PhD my marriage failed. Or how around the same time my health failed. Or how I have failed at work-life balance. Or about the times I had to choose between failing at some aspect of my work or failing as a parent. I could, and have, been open and explicit about all kinds of failure. And that’s something we need to talk about. But it’s not done best in the context of ‘Here Are All The Times I Didn't Get What I Wanted But I Have Succeeded Now And So Can You!’.
Here’s why: there are as many ways of measuring success as there are people on the planet. Probably more. I might love a tenure-track position at Princeton, but when I sit down and think about what I’d have to give up for that… that doesn't look like success to me anymore.
So – let's continue to talk about failure in academia. But we should be doing it in an ongoing, constructive, and open way. We should be letting people who have experience of being failed by the academy talk. You shouldn't need to have a faculty position to say: hey, I've failed too. Because guess what: every single person in academia has “failed”. But that doesn't make us failures. So I want to encourage everyone: adjuncts, PhD candidates, those who have lived on a string of fixed-term contracts, those who have landed tenure track positions, and everyone in the middle, to talk about failure. But not in the format of the “CV of Failures” - in everyday conversations. We should be trying to normalise failure in the academy, but a genre built to hide the humble-brag isn't the way to do it.
Huge thanks to Joe Fruscione, who read an early draft of this piece. His comments helped me articulate my ideas in, frankly, a much clearer way.
I’ve recently started taking self-portraits as a method of self-care. It’s a way to keep hold of my corporeality – although that sounds very dramatic, it’s an important thing to do for a person who spends most of their time living in their own head. A lot has been written about selfie culture: see the tag Selfie Culture on HuffPo, and (particularly) Laura Bates's (of Everyday Sexism) Guardian article about selfie-taking as (teenage) feminism and image reclamation. I don’t agree that selfies and self-portraits are different things – they are both about holding onto one’s own image and cementing it in a place and time. Sometimes that place and time is frivolous, sometimes it’s serious. Both are okay and both should be encouraged.
For me, the idea of placing myself down, looking in at myself from the outside, seeing one or many of my selves together, is a form of self-knowledge. From Delphic Maxim to Self Help tool in one easy step. Though, I admit, I find it uncomfortable to see my own eyes, grey and hard, staring directly into my face. It forces me to confront myself - but in that confrontation to also understand.
I didn’t think this had anything to do with my research until recently. In my work I try and find people. Real, individual people. And in taking self-portraits I am really doing the same thing. Except the ‘real people’ is me, it’s just that the discovery is ‘self-discovery’.
Yesterday, I ran a workshop for third-year dissertation writers at King’s, and I wanted to get some thoughts about the experience while they’re still fresh in my mind.
When I was asked to run a workshop on abstract writing, my entire body spasmed with no-ness. I am a notoriously terrible abstract writer. All of my thesis abstracts have been bad. Plus, a large number of my conference abstracts. But actually, I reasoned with myself, this might be an opportunity for me to learn something as well. Maybe I could end up with a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ style class.
So I thought. I thought about converting a proposal-writing game I had developed a long, long time ago at Monash – but without having long enough lead time it wouldn’t work. That is to say, each of the students at Monash already knew what they wanted to write about, and had written proposals – the exercise here was to make their proposals sharp. So I went back to the drawing board.
Alongside this, I’d been doing quite a bit of reading and experimenting with creative non-fiction. This is part of my ongoing goal to make my writing better: more simple, more clear, more precise, more fun, more entertaining – in short, more enjoyable for me to write and more enjoyable for someone else to read. But it wasn’t until we were at a Thanksgiving dinner playing an online Pictionary-style game that this all kind of came together.
Pictionary is a game where you have to draw something, and another person has to guess what concept or thing your drawing represents. Drawing is quite a bit like writing: it relies on a reader having all the information to put your idea together and come out with the right answer (that being, the answer which you – the creator – intended). I’m sure we have all come across scholarship that we have to pass over things two or three times before we can feel like the information makes sense, and times when the information is so obscured in the complexity of the prose that it just makes no sense.
Creative non-fiction is about clear engaging prose, that’s entertaining and informative. A big part of the concept is about not distorting or adding to the facts. So, this all came together in my mind and finally formed itself into the workshop I would eventually run.
To start with I got the participants into pairs and gave each person a quote to illustrate. Each pair got the same two quotes:
It would not be fitting for the Athenians to prove traitors to the Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life. (Hdt. 8.144.2) [i.e. Greeks have common blood, common language, common gods]
I had assumed (perhaps because of my own fascination with how it’s used in scholarship) that the Herodotos quote would be much easier to draw, but I was wrong.
No one got the exact right quote, but one participant came really close to guessing the Cicero quote (‘something like, if you have loads of books and a tree then you can be happy?’). The point, really, was whether or not the drawings made sense once the guesser had the information – that is, once they knew what they were meant to be looking at did it make sense. And yes, I’m pleased to report, it did.
All in all, this activity was meant to be more of an icebreaker and a fun introduction to the need for clarity and brevity and giving your reader the right hints than anything. We moved on to some more detailed abstract writing activities, some chat about creative non-fiction (which I’ll be writing more on) and some prompted free writing – I will write the session up in a modified form and post it in the Teaching section soon!
I think this activity could probably be modified for all different kinds of things, and if you do happen to use a Pictionary-inspired activity in your classrooms I’d love to hear about it!
I can’t really complain about this year. After all, my PhD was awarded, which was great, obviously. But it was also really strange and disappointing. It has been a long time since I actually stopped working for more than a brief holiday – both through circumstance and (also) design. And I certainly didn’t stop working after submitting (I started writing a book proposal), and I didn’t stop working after my viva (I started writing a book), and I didn’t really ever stop working. It’s like the thesis bled into the book. Once you throw in all the time it takes to get job applications and research proposals written and that’s basically the entire year. It was also disappointing because this was meant to be the big thing I’d spent the last ten years working towards and here I was, finished, with no job and no real plan beside ‘finish book’.
So, submitting the book manuscript felt like a much bigger achievement than the PhD. It’s currently out for review, and I’m sure there’s still a fair way to go before it’s finishing. But I completely overhauled my thesis and added some new sections, and I’m actually really proud of it. Much prouder than I am of the thesis itself.
Some not so great stuff happened as well – but it’s stuff that happens all over the place. I had an article rejected (although the feedback was very helpful, and the journal is open to looking at it again after revisions). I had some conference abstracts rejected. I didn’t get a full-time job, which is much harder after having interviews that I now replay over in my head to try and figure out what I should have done differently (but, I also got some good post-interview feedback too).
And, I’ve now finished teaching for the academic year, which actually is really sad. I enjoy teaching immensely, and I’ve had four particularly wonderful classes of students this semester. I have also tried out some interesting new activities, and generally been significantly more reflexive about my teaching than I’ve ever been. Related to that, I’m currently applying for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy, so I am writing more formally about my teaching, which is making me (pre-emptively) miss it even more!
I find it really difficult to think about goals and plans for the year ahead simply because I do not know what situation I’ll be in. My two big goals are obviously to get the monograph finalised and to get a full-time job for the 2016/17 academic year. I have a few things in the pipe-lines that I would like to get finished fairly soon in the year, including an article about the cult of Demeter Chthonia in Hermione that is almost done. And, of course, in March I am giving a paper at the Early Career Seminar series at the ICS on ‘classical monsters’ in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I have a few applications for postdoctoral fellowships out or in the works, so right now I am most focused on those.
Thinking about 2016 fills me with hope and anxiety. Being a newly-minted PhD without a job is a difficult place to be, but one that is certainly not unique to me, nor uncommon more generally. I would be lying if I wasn’t spending my holiday thinking about heading home to no job, and no more teaching. But, all I can do is put myself in the best possible position to be a strong candidate for the next job round, and that’s my goal.
What are your 2015 achievements and goals for the coming year?
Recently I was reminded about the strange circumstances that led to my being an Ancient Historian. The University of Nottingham Classics Department ran a Twitter hashtag #itsaclassic, which asked people to post a picture of a book, person, or site that influenced them to study Classics. As you can imagine there were lots of things about reading myths as a child, or historical fiction, and the like. I’m sure there are more than a few current undergrads who were influenced by movies like Troy, Gladiator, and 300.
I was never influenced like that. Growing up I intended to go to art school and be a painter. My last two years at school were all geared up for this. For various reasons that mainly had to do with being caught out in a year where government mandated admissions requirements were changed, I repeated the last year of school to boost my overall mark (what was then in Victoria called an ENTER score). One of the subjects I took was Classical Civilisation. It fit into my timetable, sounded interesting enough, and was weighted up. We studied Iliad 22, Trojan Women, and something political that I (embarrassingly perhaps) can’t remember.
At the end of the year, as I was putting my folio together I added a Bachelor of Arts at Monash University to my application. I had been to the open day to look at their Fine Art programs. I met Jane Griffiths, who was the convener of the Classical Studies program there. But my first choice was the Drawing program at the Victorian College of the Arts, and because of the way admissions to art schools work I ended up getting two offers. One from Monash, and one from the Drawing program at VCA. I had thought about this happening and decided that I would obviously go to VCA. I filled out the program acceptance form, but I didn’t post it. I don’t know why I didn’t, but the more I considered it the less sure I felt.
I reached the deadline, and I still couldn’t decide.
I flipped a coin.
I flipped a coin and twelve years later I have a PhD in Classics and I live in London.
I flipped a coin and I constantly wonder what would have happened to me if I had flipped differently. If I had posted that form.
I still have the form. Filled out. Sealed in an envelope. A parallel life that might have been mine.
This was a very strange post for me to write, and I considered not posting it because of the impression that it might give about my dedication to Ancient History. Which is nonsense, of course. Regardless of a person's original motivation for choosing a subject at high-school, or even at undergraduate level, you do not go on to do a Master's and a PhD in a subject you are not committed to pursuing.
In a way, I was more worried about the impression that the end of this post might send. That I long for that 'other life' or that I feel I made the wrong choice. I do not. To both. Keeping that envelope is a part of who I am. It represents passion, longing, gain, loss, love. All the things that are also represented in the other bits of paper, envelopes, drawings, found objects that I have kept over the years.
Unrelated to that, please note that the Australian twenty-cent piece (pictured above) is the best coin to flip in any given coin-flipping circumstance.
While in Australia over Christmas I pulled the acceptance letter out its box to take a look. I hadn't looked at it in a (very) long time. It was strange how detached I felt from it - I am a different person now, really. Not an artist, but an ancient historian. Perhaps writing this post has allowed me to let go of that alternative life?
I’ve been reflecting on teaching recently, a combination of the start of term (and a fresh batch of undergrad rookies), preparing to submit an application for Fellowship to the HEA, and writing cover letters.
While the teaching of my BA wasn’t bad, it was largely traditional. There were some wonderful outlying seminars (predominately taught by Jane Griffiths, who was the entire Classical Studies programme when I began by degree), but it mostly followed the ‘canonical method’: lectures, seminars mainly consisting of group discussion with ‘reporting back’ at the end. The first seminars I taught, when still an undergraduate myself, followed the same pattern. I didn’t think much about teaching method or how and why I should or could change this ‘tried and true’ formula.
Fast-forward many years, the award of three degrees, and many more hours of leading seminars. Last week my two-weeks-into-uni ‘Intro to Ancient History’ classes wrote newspaper articles about Greek tyrants using select bits of Herodotos as sources. I was very open with the style, format, and perspective they took, and specified they should be around 400 words in length. These were done in groups, ranging from 2 to 5 people in size, and students were able to self-select into the group they wanted to (we focused on Periander, Polycrates, and Peisistratos). I suggested a few things, but largely left the groups to their own devises, for around 30 minutes. These obviously weren’t meant as assessable pieces of writing. The range of responses I got back was astounding! Daily Mail-style sensationalist exposé, Onion-esque political satire, serious political journalism, a BuzzFeed list. These young students were not only thinking critically about Herodotos as a source, but deconstructing the way the he put his narrative together, and – critically, I think – writing about a primary source.
I am a huge advocate of ‘doing’ Ancient History. What I think my job as a seminar leader is all about is enabling students – even first-years with no Classics or Ancient History A-levels – to get in a actually ‘do’ ancient history as soon as possible, at the appropriate level. One of the things I felt was lacking in my own undergraduate degree is the idea of writing as practice. Just writing essays or exam scripts is not enough. Students should be used to writing in all kinds of different styles about both ancient sources and scholarship. Most, if not all, of this ‘extra’ writing shouldn’t be formally assessed. That’s not the point. The point is to practice thinking though specific aspects of a source and writing it out into your own words. Writing in your own words leads to greater understanding of sources (see, for instance, this list of strategies for critical reading. Note, number five: ‘Outlining and summarizing: Identifying the main ideas and restating them in your own words’).
By giving students access to a wide-range of ancient and modern sources; by showing them a way of reading those sources, of getting the information they need out of those sources, of getting them to figure out the strengths and limitations of those sources and how to fit those sources together – all of this leads to a constant ‘doing’ of ancient history. From writing newspaper articles to research dissertations, from reading small passages of Homer to reading the Wall Street Journal (because, after all, most of our students will not go on to further study, but the skills they learn in our classrooms are still important for the ways they approach their lives and the various kinds of texts that pepper life).
When, at the end of the newspaper writing activity, I prompted the classes to reflect on what they had gained from it, the range of thoughtful responses that came back at me was astounding. Students said that in that half an hour they rethought about Herodotos as an historian, they felt they were more able to pick out the reality and the ‘fantasy’ in his writing, and felt more aware of the limitations of the genre of ancient historiography.
The week before I’d asked them to go home and watch Tobias Menzies reading part of the Iliad, from the British Museum/Almeida reading during the summer. I wanted them to think about the orality and aurality of Homer, and think about the context of genre. I wonder how much this helped them recast Herodotos from ‘reliable historian’ into ‘text we need to read critically’. A few students did mention that they were more conscious of thinking though genre and author-intention after watching the Iliad reading, and I’m sure this must have had some influence on them during the Herodotos article activity.
I’m looking forward to this week, and looking at a whole different kind of text with them – some Near Eastern texts, including the wonderful Cyrus Cylinder!
And, of course, continual reflection on my own teaching. As, I suspect, academics are wont to do.
I have much advice to impart on anyone who is enrolled in a PhD. Every person who has finished a PhD – recently or not – has a lot of advice to give. But we don’t go around giving it. That’s because the first thing to realise about a PhD is that it’s a fairly unique experience for every person. And I really, really loathe the word ‘unique’. That’s why I’m so annoyed by the glut of articles giving advice about finishing a PhD (I’m sure you can all guess which specific recent article *cough*THE*cough* has sparked this post).
My own experience led to a complete disconnect between achievement and celebrating (I don’t think this is unique…), and like many people I came out with a pretty mixed bag of good and bad things to say. I cannot claim to have gone through everything possible, though I did do a fair amount of stuff during my PhD (both directly and indirectly related to my work at a PhD candidate). So, I don’t tend to give advice unless asked. Or actually, I think I am fairly fond of giving advice, and will sometimes do so unasked, but only if I feel my particular situation matches the particular situation of the person I am talking to.
That is the crux of my problem with this/these articles. It’s fine to give advice when asked, or when you think it will actually help a person and is relevant in their context. But articles like this are so rarely relevant to everyone’s context that they cannot really be taken seriously. I think authors of posts like this realise this fact, which is why the most recent offender is written in a style that, I guess, is meant to be funny. How to fail your PhD?
With the amount of mental health issues (from both the acute and chronic to the temporary and more ‘mild’*) that are rife in academia, particularly among PhD candidates and early career scholars, it is absolutely not funny or clever to frame an article so negatively. What PhDs need is advice about how to compensate for possible shortfalls. If a student must stay at the same university because they have caring duties, for example, then what they need is some advice about how to network widely and what social networking or other digital tools can do to help them achieve the level of networking they need. If a student decides to fund their own PhD (and I don’t want to say anything about the ridiculous notion of a department not being ‘invested’ in a self-funding candidate…) then what they need is some specific advice about how they can work their studies around other financial commitments they have, and how they can perhaps supplement their income with smaller grants. This list could go on forever.
This brief post actually began because I wanted to make a plea for THE and others to stop sharing that article on my Twitter feed, because it’s driving me crazy. It’s not helpful. It wouldn’t have helped me during my PhD, and all I can see is the ways that is shames PhD candidates for the ‘choices’ they might not even be able to make for themselves. Without individual context advice is meaningless. So, stop giving advice.
*I want to be EXPLICITLY clear that I think that even ‘mild’ mental health issues are serious, because they absolutely are. What I mean by ‘mild’ is something that is not debilitating, does not necessarily require medication or medical intervention, is temporary, and perhaps induced by a specific event. For example, anxiety in the days leading up to a conference presentation, or similar.
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