Thursday, November 3, 2016

"The World only spins foreward" - On not going backwards

"The World only spins foreward"

A wise man once said that. It takes him seven and a half hours of a play to get there, but the main thing is he gets there.

That quote, from Tony Kushner's Angels in America is followed by perhaps the most important line of the whole play 'More Life'. In nearly a decade of living with, studying in various guises, and just having this play as a weird part of me, I think I've finally learn that lesson.

Like Tony, like Prior Walter (who speaks those words) I take a while to get there.

So life update, as it's been a while, I started a new job back in September. It's only temporary (until the end of February). It's fair to say it's not long-term what I want to do, and it's not kind of challenge in work I'm used to or want  etc etc BUT it's arts-related, it's not uninteresting and above all it's a job.

It's been both strange and nice to be out of the academic environment. On one hand I feel like I'm undercover, nobody really knows of my 'other' identity, and I kind of like it that way. On the other it's frustrating that nobody knows about something that has been a big part of my identity until now. In academia your work and you become a part of each other, and it feels strange being separated from that part of me in the eyes of my colleagues. But on the other hand, I feel judged as a person not as a set of academic achievements or lack thereof for once.

I think oftentimes people really didn't believe me when I said 'I'll take anything just to keep going' thinking somewhere I was being snobby about jobs. I wasn't, for the most part those jobs just wouldn't take me. Is it frustrating not being one of the people who does the more challenging work I know I'm more than capable of? sure. Is it frustrating not being able to get a job doing the things I really want to do? of course. Does that mean I'm not grateful for what I have? No.

I am in fact so grateful that someone took a chance on me. That someone looked at the wide range of experience I had and didn't dismiss it but thought they'd give me a chance to do something different. And probably that it's a very short term post helped. But it feels like moving forward, moving on.

I came back to this line yesterday. Where after days of putting myself through hell I came to the simple realization that we only move forward, and to embrace that. This was because my old job, that I had ended, was back. Sort of. Half of it. 2.5 days of it. And I had an interview for it.

It had been a rocky road to getting to the interview. I was assured when I left if they 'rescued' my job then I'd be told about it when it was advertised, but despite my chasing it up by email it seemed the job was never to be. Until I saw it...on Facebook. The person who shared it did so in all innocence, and it's not their fault. But I cried when I saw it. Both the fact that after months of unemployment, of the hard won battle that was that job, of kind of sort of wanting to go back because better the devil you know (or at least better the pay cheque). But nobody had told me about it. I told my Mum what had happened "They really don't like you do they?" she said. I think she was right.

I applied anyway. Out of principle, stubbornness, call it what you will. And I got an interview. I wanted the interview, I wanted to go back in there with all these ideas and show just how good I was for the job, I built that job from nothing and I was proud of it.

But life conspired against me. Long story short there was no way I could get the time off work for the interview without putting my current new job in jeopardy. And it was such a fight to get that job, and they are people who have been good to me. I chose loyalty to my new employer. And I guess I chose to move on.

I also chose, by default more than design, the path of not just accepting whatever can be thrown at you. That job was 2.5 days, and academia has conditioned me to grab any scarp of a job with both hands that is even slightly connected to it. Never mind the scarping around and worrying about money that inevitably comes with it, you HAVE to grab it and you're wrong if you don't. And if it were a dream job maybe, maybe then all the sacrifices are worth it. But not for dream adjacent. Not for kind of but not quite the right fit. I'm slowly learning to value myself more, and to ask others to as well. But it's a hard habit to break the one academia makes of you.

I am sad that I didn't get to that interview. But then I also think of how I'd feel if I didn't get the job. At least I stepped away on my own terms this time, even if it wasn't planned. I do feel, once again, spat out by the system, the one who wasn't quite good enough, quite valued enough for anyone to care. But also that sometimes you need a push. Maybe that was my push. Until being forced to make the decision to say no, I always had one eye behind, the 'What if' factor.

I'm not saying this is the end of me and academia fully, because as I said in another blog on the subject (here)  never say never. But I do feel as if  I have options once again. Last week I also got my first academic job interview in 3 years, and before taking this job I had 3 other non-academic related job interviews, showing that I CAN get in the room, and I do have a chance to do other things too.

So although I'm feeling once again hurt by my old job, and a little bit sad that maybe it wasn't meant to be again, I'm also feeling a sense of renewed energy in going forward.

So as Prior Walter says, at the close of Angels in America 'The world only spins forward' and with it 'More life'. The play also teaches against standing still, and I think I've been doing that for too long, and so onwards. Not backwards, however long it takes.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Start talking (World Mental Health Day)

A week ago as I type this, I was dressed up to, if not the 9s then a pretty solid 7, working as a journalist at the BAFTA Cymru. I'm good at my reporting jobs, I'm well informed, highly researched and confident both in my interview skills and my writing skills. I did a good job as ever last Sunday.

On Saturday I was performing with my choir. I'm also quite good at that. Again I'm not winning any TV talent competitions any time soon, but I'm a solid soprano, and a lifetime of musical theatre obsession gives me performance-face like you wouldn't believe.

That was Saturday and Sunday. What anyone who saw me at either of those events wouldn't know is not half an hour before getting there (actually about 5 minutes on Saturday) I was a mess. I spent the weekend alternating between sobbing, screaming, shouting or feeling like a lifeless lump. I was horrible, I felt horrible. I was horrible to my Mum. Really horrible. And anyone who knows me we’re close, and we get on really well. Seriously it’s like a re-enactment of Gilmore Girls episodes most days in our house. So that’s a sign something is really wrong. I’ve had some pretty rubbish times both recently and in my life as a whole, but I’m pretty sure this weekend ranked in the top worst ten.
Why am I writing this? Aside from a compulsion to share all manner of nonsense on my blog? Well in part exactly that. Because this is something I’ve kept very quiet for a long time.

I have mental health issues, and have done for some time. I have had eating disorders, depression and anxiety. And actually I’ve never really told anyone. Mostly I’m afraid to talk about them, seek help for them, or even admit they exist. And that really should change, for me and for anyone else in the same position.

I’m finally putting those words down for two main reasons. Firstly, the day I’m publishing this, 10th October, is world mental health day, and while we shouldn’t need a day to start a conversation, sometimes everyone needs a little nudge.

Secondly, as part of my BAFTA Cymru evening I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Rhys Evans, founder/musical conductor of Only Men Aloud. Someone I’d admired for many years for his musical work, but also more recently for the reason he was at the awards- a documentary entitled ‘Tim Rhys Evans-all in the mind’ about his struggles with mental health. During our interview, where we touched on the importance of sharing stories about mental health Tim said how the nomination gave an opportunity to talk about the film again and in particular giving him chance to talk to ‘people like you’ meaning journalists, to keep getting the message out there.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that, and other aspects of our conversation, and as a result two things occurred to me (this is a blog of twos). 1. Tim was right, there is a very basic need to keep talking about mental health. 2. If he could be brave enough to share his story in such a raw, honest way, then I could share a bit of mine too.  So here goes…

I’m not mentally healthy. I haven’t been for a long time. Possibly ever. But I don’t know for certain, because I’ve always been too scared to ask for help when I need it. I don’t feel “sick” enough to ask for help. I don’t feel I “should” ask for help. And because mostly I get by, but sometimes I have a day, or a weekend, or a week that looks like last weekend.

And I write this to say these things manifest in different ways for different people. For me one way, as with last weekend it becomes an issue of body confidence. No matter what I know rationally, nobody will convince me I am not hugely fat, and have in fact put on an enormous amount of weight and that as a result am a worthless human being. Or I will be convinced that everyone I have ever met hates me and in fact wants nothing to do with me. Ever. Or that whatever I am trying to do that day will go horribly wrong to the most extremes, and I will be utterly convinced of that-that by the end of the day I’ll be fired from my job with no hope of future employment. All of these are utter, undeniable facts to me when my head is in this state. Or in a more depressive state of mind, that nothing will ever change no matter what I do, that whatever is bad right now will always be so, and it is worthless even trying-I am worthless. I’ll remain jobless or in a dead end job, I’ll be single forever and probably all my friends will abandon me too.

All of this written down would seem ridiculous if I were writing a fictional character but in my head at any given time they are the utter gospel truth.  

And so last weekend I was both a worthless fat person, who was doomed never to fulfil professional potential, whose friends and acquaintances also no doubt hated her and wanted her gone forever. And then sometimes, as happened last weekend all of this is accompanied by endless sobbing (that’s the depression element talking) and anger (that’s the anxiety) and a general inability to think straight, and sometimes even to breathe.

Even as I write that I think of people reading this and saying to me either ‘stop being a drama queen’ (which on a ‘healthy’ day, granted I can be) or ‘don’t be ridiculous, we all have bad times, and you’ve had a rough few months, snap out of it’ And it’s true I have, a period of unemployment and questioning my personal and professional identity post PhD certainly have contributed to my current state of mind. And I say yes, this time life events have been a factor. And in a way it’s easier when there is some sort of event to link it to, because then there’s something to work towards, or away from. Those are the lucky times. It’s the irrational out of the blue for no damn good reason times that I struggle to explain even to myself. But then you look at the world, the often terrible world we live in and think ‘I’ve no right to feel this bad about my life’ and yet you do, and so you feel worse.

For me also, that I do function pretty well 90% of the time, is in fact a barrier to acknowledging something is wrong. Most of the time. I shouldn’t have to. Nobody should have to feel ashamed.
But I, like many others keep all of this as hidden as I can. Until I can’t anymore. But because I don’t talk about it, because we don’t talk about it, people don’t see the real reasons. They just see me being a bitch, or being irrational, or over emotional. And sometimes I am being those things, because I’m human as well. But sometimes I’m not, and sometimes I can’t control it, and sometimes the really bad times, it controls me.

And I like so many others keep quiet for many reasons. The usual reasons, that people will make judgements, that they will think I’m weak, or broken or even worse that there’s nothing really wrong with me. Or that I’m making it up. Because nobody cares, and everyone worries about things right? The same way everyone gets a bit sad? And how do you explain to someone who has never felt that way? It’s like trying to explain to someone a migraine isn’t just a nasty headache, or that a broken bone isn’t like a really terrible sprain.

And it's seemingly a little thing that takes over your life. These last few months, when things have been particularly rough, nothing quite works right. I can't write-I actually envy those supposed great writers who channelled their depression and other things into something great. When I'm not feeling myself I can't write, I can't do the thing I love, and it frustrates me no end. I also lose the joy I find in music a lot, I struggle to sing, or even listen to music. Everything is just a bit grey. And it's so often so very difficult to explain to people why. Or more importantly feel it's ok to explain to people why.

I don't come from a family or background where we talk about these things. I've been in a career where any sign of weakness is seized upon by vultures looking for a way to bring you down. And I've had enough, I'm exhausted. It's like fighting a battle twice over every time.

If we could all talk about it, in the same way we come into work in the morning and say ‘Sorry I’ve got a terrible cold’ then it would make things so much easier. We could all be a little more understanding, a little more honest. If we could explain that my head makes me feel like everyone hates me, in the same way that I can explain when I get a cold my eyes stream so much I look like I’m crying, then it would be so much easier.

It’s been a long, long road getting to type these words. And I think it’s going to be a difficult moment to hit that ‘publish’ button. But I have cultivated a bit of a voice in this blog, and I want it to be an honest one.

This was a BIG conversation. On 10th October, for World Mental Health day, if I could ask everyone reading this one thing, it’s to have a small conversation. Ask someone how they are, and really listen. Or tell someone how you’re really feeling. And keep asking, and keep talking. Sometimes one small conversation is all it takes to get someone on the road to helping themselves.

I found mine in a really unlikely place through my job interviewing someone who had been far braver than me in sharing the things we keep far too hidden. So please, start talking, keep talking everyone.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A bit broken

This week while scrolling through LinkedIn in the vague hope of a job lead, I saw a post which said (to paraphrase) "I'm unemployed for the first time in my life...until next week when I start my new amazing job"

Hahaha you're bloody hilarious.

Actually no, you're an utter cockwomble. I'm pleased you have a new job random stranger (it was one of those you see a connection's comment moments) and by all means shout it from the rooftops-I'm serious, yes be pleased you've probably earned it (or just got lucky, I don't know you). But don't be a cockwomble. In any climate making fun of those less fortunate isn't nice, in employment terms many good, hardworking talented people are struggling to get a job, and to them 'I'm unemployed hahaha' just isn't a joke.

People think 'unemployed' and they think either of useless bums watching Jeremy Kyle (or indeed on Jeremy Kyle) who don't want to work. Or they think perhaps of a down on luck person who is actually having a quite nice break from work until a job reappears. The number of times 'Oh what I'd give for a nice break' has been uttered in my direction.

Two things, firstly, yes a break of about a month between jobs is very nice thank you, long enough to feel like a proper pause, not long enough that you either run out of money or indeed things to do. Longer and things aren't as great. I also get a lot of 'well you should write your PhD book' or 'Use the time productivly'. I do use the time productively, in looking for a job.

An average day involves getting up, probably going to the gym then a day of searching for jobs and applying for them. Some days searching can take much of the day. Others its writing an application, maybe two if they're quick. The searching takes so long because you have to go through all the sites you know are useful. Bookmark the potential ones. Go back, read over them. Eliminate a few with things you realise aren't suitable. Go back again, read in detail, establish which ones might be suitable, make a list of deadlines. And repeat. Often of all that searching you'll get one viable job. This I do for between 5-7 hours a day. Sometimes yes I break it up with an afternoon gym trip or a break to meet a friend, but usually I return to it a bit in the evening too. I would LOVE to have dedicated this summer to writing but the reality is the need for a job outweighs that, and the pressure to find a job means I can concentrate on little else.

And yes, I haven't been a recluse this summer. I'm lucky in that I review theatre for various publications, so I get to go for free in exchange for my reviews. And that due to planning ahead I have several (paid for) events in my diary. And that I have many friends who are equally broke and happy to meet for a coffee or a cheap drink. But without work, and being careful about social engagements, days are long and it feels like the world very much carries on without you. And it can be incredibly lonely. It can feel like you've dropped off the face of the earth and nobody would notice if you ever reappeared. And it starts to feel like nobody cares anymore.

And it's a drain. It wears you down. And I confess this week I reached rock bottom. The above was an average day. Do you want to know what I did on Tuesday? I cried. I cried from around 7.30am to around 1pm. I went for a run, I cried some more. I cam back and stared at my computer screen. I did nothing. I got up the next day feeling horrendous for wasting a day.

It's not just the three months of job hunting that has worn me down-though it's enough to make anyone miserable. It's four years of a PhD and a year of the worst job I ever had. And it's broken me. I have no confidence left, and I am genuinely scared to take risks, take a leap on the next thing, whatever you want to call it. Because I have had just 7 or so years of it all going badly.

My PhD was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. Looking back, seeing how I was manipulated into it, and had that held over me by an older male academic for the next 5 years (there's a blog on that some day). To having revolving door supervisors (one through no fault of their own who I respect greatly), to supervisors falling out with each other, to being rejected by supervisors who refused to carry on supervising. Then there was the internship I worked on remotely for six months, with the promise of a summer placement in New York. I saved up, booked accommodation and flights and it got cancelled the week before. Leaving me with no summer work and massive debt. Then there was the time my then best friend got me fired from a job, for reasons I still don't know. And finally the job where I was bullied by colleagues, and nobody cared.  A job where people threw out my food and unscrewed lights above my desk, and stalked my Twitter (hello there if you still have nothing better to do). A job where the entire office felt my role was useless and indeed my whole discipline was a joke. Back in academia, there was finding a group of academics I finally fit in with, only to have their 'Queen Bee' take a dislike and drive me out. The constant rejection and realisation I was never going to be good enough finally wearing me down to give up. All of this, the last 7 years, and I am broken. And I am done.

All of that to say, it's not just three months out of work and an incredibly frustrating job search at that, which has made me the frankly miserable bastard I currently am. It's cumulative. It's not just being fussy about a job, or being an idiot, or immature or whatever label you want to slap on it. Anyone who has done a PhD knows it takes a psycholgical toll, even if you have a really good expereince. It takes time to move on from that. And I was spectucularly unlucky in that and what followed.

Being both unemployed, and the afore mentioned miserable bastard, does teach you a lesson in who your friends are. I'm lucky to have some wonderful friends, who will listen whether in person or from afar. Who will reason with me, or reassure me, or just send me a video of a seal playing a saxophone (true story). And there are wonderful people on twitter who share this experience and reach out time adn time again in solidarity and for that I'm so grateful. But it's hard. It's hard when you feel very much alone, and there's no end in sight.

And then you add to that the idea that you are sitting there in your PJ's watching Jeremy Kyle. That somehow you're not working hard enough even though you're going cross-eyed from formating applicaiton forms. Or when it feels like everyone else is getting ahead but you.

I have tried this summer to keep my metaphorical chin up. To keep going. To be cheery. To know it will get better. To just keep at it.

Well this week Autumn arrived (ish) and I'm a bit broken now. I know it will pick up again, I know one day it will be all right. But that doesn't mean it isn't utter, utter relentless crap now.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

"It's not personal it's business" and other lies

"It's not personal it's business." is a great quote from 'The Godfather' (so I'm told, I've never seen The Godfather). I've been thinking of a variation on that a lot lately, "It is personal to me, it's personal to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal anyway?" Answer at the end as to where that's from. 

I've been thinking about that, and a lot of related things as I think about my job hunt, and a transition away from academia and the PhD. And the things I want to address two main themes, firstly that idea of the personal, about what you do and who you are. And secondly, how your job (or lack of) your career and personal life choices and the 'right' way to do that, cause all sorts of judgement. 

Nobody who ever survived a PhD will tell you it wasn't personal. It takes giving a lot of yourself to get to that end point. It's like no other form of 'studying' it's like no other course you do, it takes a bit of you with it, for a while at least. And for many you don't get there without the PhD being connected in some way to something you care about. Again you wouldn't read all those things, write all those words without somewhere at some point caring. It's personal, deeply so at times. 

It's also, as I've mentioned on other blogs, something as a career you throw your whole self into. It is an all-consuming profession, and lines are blurred between leisure and work particularly for us who study things like theatre, literature, music, media because our 'normal' interests fuse with our professional ones, in ways I don't imagine they do if you're say, an accountant. And you put a lot of energy into that work, into the paid work and the unpaid work (of which there's much more than the paid). And a lot of that work rests on you, your name, your work. It is incredibly personal. 

And while I maintain that work/job title doesn't define who you are, if you've done a PhD/been a part of academia it is very much a part of your identity. And when you take it away, that's a change to deal with. And when you make a decision or are forced into another path, it's not just like taking another job. Your identity feels like it has changed, it's not just business, it is personal. 

So that's in part why I plea for patience as I ride out this shift. I didn't just end a contract or lose a job. I’m not just looking for a job this summer. I'm changing, I'm having to leave something behind that I was for a long time. And it's not easy. It's not just a business transaction from one form of paid work to another. It's a shift in identity. And that's personal to me. 

Added to that is the pressure that I've somehow missed some vital milestones in life. Like marriage, children, home ownership. That these things have never meant much to me personally seem immaterial to other people. Someone asked me last week what was 'wrong' with me that I was still single. Nothing is wrong with me I've just been busy, and finding a partner has never been a driving force in my life. It's nice, sure, but it's not the only thing. 

The idea though, that I'm doing life 'wrong' simply based on the fact that I'm not hitting a list of artificial markers of adulthood. Or that I'm somehow not actually adult enough because I'm not hitting them is hurtful. The idea that I should put up, shut up and get a job any job so that I can find a husband, buy a house and have a baby and ONLY THEN am I permitted to complain because THEN I am a REAL grown up with real grown up problems. Well frankly it's both insensitive and its bullshit. 

I worry as much about money and security and my future as my friends with houses and husbands and babies. More so sometimes I think, because it's just me. On my own. No partner's salary next time a job ends. Nobody else contributing to the bills. No second family to ask for help from-hell no first family in my case. It's fucking scary out there as a single person trying to get by without a safety net. So don't tell me I'm not a grown up. 

And it's all personal, because it's my life. To outsiders looking in I'm just a person who can't get a job. And maybe they think that's a shame, maybe they wonder what's wrong with me. Maybe they've never had the misfortune to be unemployed and think it's not so bad. 

And maybe you do say 'Don't take it so personally' 

Come and tell me it's not personal when I'm sat at my computer crying on yet another Monday when there's no jobs to even apply for. When I get another email rejection for a job I know I was qualified for. That it's not personal when you apply for minimum wage jobs and can't get those. That it's not personal when your dog has to have emergency surgery or the car breaks down and you know you can't pay your Mum back for who knows how long. When it's been days since you've been out. When you have to turn down going for dinner because you can't afford to eat in the restaurant. When friends stop replying to messages and you feel like they don't want to know you anymore. Tell me it's not personal to feel like all the years of hard work were all for nothing. 

And none of the reasons I haven't found a job are personal (well actually one was, but screw them) but that doesn't mean I don't feel it personally. 

It's not personal, it's business. That is true. But it's also personal to a lot of people. 

*And the quote was from 'You've Got Mail' because I'm an uncultured swine, as this blog discusses. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

But what do you "Really" want to do (and other annoying questions)

So after last week's post about doing the unthinkable and turning down an academic job interview (here) there comes the inevitable question of 'What now?'

Well that's the question isn't it. And the short answer being:

1. If I knew I'd tell you.
2. It's not that simple.

The most, not even 'infuriating' but actually downright upsetting comment/question I get is 'What do you REALLY want to do?' The honest and also heartbreaking truth is 'This. What I've been trying to do for the past 10 years'.

I'm not saying I've done it right or even well (clearly) but I have been going after what I 'really' wanted. The dual ambition of getting a PhD-just getting the PhD itself was something I felt I personally needed to tick off- and with that thinking, at least when I started, that academia was for a time a part of that plan. Simultaneously I also wanted to work in the arts, specifically theatre. Neither was a 'back up plan' they were back ups to each other. Equally I'd aimed for both and equally I'd have felt my 'ambitions' had been fulfilled if I'd ended up in either.

I won't go over again the feelings about academia, that's well documented in the past few blogs. A combination of failure to be good enough, and the feeling it was just not 'me' anymore has led me to here. As I said last week, never say never. But I also fully accept that the person I was when I started my PhD has changed, as has the world around me. And that while sad, disappointing too, is sort of ok (or at least it will be).

The realization that I will really never work in theatre is a more difficult one. I'd always feared (and seen evidence from other people too) that those from an academic background aren't welcomed within theatre and to some extent across the arts (with the exception of the visual arts and museums sector for I guess obvious reasons). Theatre doesn't like academics. Theatre doesn't think somehow that we're as knowledgeable as those who put the work together, or that maybe we can do both? My personal take is that no, I don't have all of the knowledge that those practically making theatre have, I have different knowledge, and surely bringing different perspectives are what we're about? I can't work out if theatre doesn't like academics as a whole, or if it just doesn't like me. This week I because convinced it was the latter.

It broke my heart (and I'm not using that lightly) this week to have a conversation where it became clear I wasn't considered knowledgeable or passionate about theatre.  That conversation this week, though not intended as malicious or hurtful, broke me. Sadly also theatre is very much an industry of 'who you know' and 'your face doesn't fit' and that's also sad. But after nearly 10 years of getting that door slammed in my face, I'm done. I don't have any more fight left in me.

So in answer to the question 'What do you really want to do?' I'm afraid I don't know. Because the thing I've really tried to do I failed at on both counts. I know I'm not the first or the last, I'm not trying to make out I'm special. Just I don't have any answer to that question.

So what else? So what now?

Well I could just accept my fate, take a variety of admin jobs and poodle along. I could do whatever I need to do to return to school teaching. Neither of these are appealing, but they're alternatives to an endless fight for something I've no hope in I guess.

In terms of  maybe what I 'really' want to do that isn't the above....I don't know.

Hand on heart, all I ever wanted to do was write in some way or form. Hand on heart if I could have a 'dream' job now, I'd be a freelance writer. I'd write the most weird/mundane/awful shit if someone would pay me to. That is my 'dream' job. I've always harboured a secret desire to be a Ghostwriter of biographies, this is a weird interest I think really suits my talents. But it's another impossible dream. So what now?

In terms of 'real' jobs. I don't know. If I could pick anything I'd probably ask to reset the clock and go back to the point at which I decided not to take a Law conversion course and pursue my PhD dream. Or reset the clock even further and do something in Policing as I said I would in school. Or reset further and take STEM subjects at A level.

But I can't reset the clock. And my 'what I really wanted to do' I tried to do, and failed. And that's sort of ok, sort of not. Because at least I tried, and boy did I try. But at 32 (well next week) to be starting over yet again. Having frankly made a right cock up of it all...that's hard.

So no, I don't know the answer to 'what do you really want to do?'

If anyone has any suggestions, the weirder the better, throw them at me and that can be next week's blog post.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Sometimes you need to walk away...

I did the unthinkable last week, I turned down an academic job interview. 

I'll just let that sit there. 

I'd been applying for a variety of jobs as a 'one last time' exercise. And if I'm honest to 'prove' that I wouldn't get them. If that seems a weird mindset I'll explain, there's a weird mindset in academia (ha! that's an understatement in general) that in order to move on, to do something else you need to 'prove' you couldn't do it. Because for many academics there is only one 'it' the holy grail of an academic job. And I guess for my own peace of mind I could say I tried enough now, and I could walk away.

When I got the email about the job I felt a real sense of dread. And then I spent most of last Wednesday crying. That's not an understatement, I spent most of it ugly-cry sobbing. Because I should have wanted it, I should have been thinking 'finally, finally a tiny chance at the academic holy grail'. Let's be honest the chances of me actually getting it were slim at best, but I was scared I would get it. Because I just couldn't have done it. 

Reasons for turning down an interview or even a job offer are firstly, very much your own, and very much within your rights-we spend a lot of time at work, and if you know it isn't the right fit and you can turn it down then do, from someone who has been there it's not worth it. But for a job like this I feel like it's even more important. We can all go to a job we hate and get by if we're able to leave it at the end of the day. It's not fun, it's not good for us but it's do-able.

 Academic jobs, aren't just a job, it's a life. My opinion personally is that it shouldn't be, and we should work to create clearer work/life boundaries, but unfortunately that isn't how things are. For those who don't know, picture a school teacher's workload-we all know what that's like right? For academics, on top of all that (which any teacher will tell you is most evenings until late, and a fair chunk of weekend and holiday time too) there's research. Because to continue being employed you need to research, research well and be prolific. You need to publish papers, pull together a monograph and attend conferences (again over weekends and holidays) You'll need to go into the next job interview with a publication list and a plan for the next things. So quickly the evening and weekend you had disappears further. As with any junior level position the pressure is on in particular to prove yourself in order to progress. 

So that's what it entails. Firstly, let's be clear, I'm not saying this is any more pressured or difficult that many other jobs. I'm just outlining it for those who might not know. What I am saying is this takes dedication, a level of commitment and more importantly to do that it takes a real passion for it. I don't have that. I don't know if it's just not in me or it's been beaten out of me, whether it's gone for good, whether I never had it, whether it will come back. But right now, I know I don't have any of that in me.  I'm not so naive also to think that another job I take won't require any additional work. As someone who has always worked incredibly hard in whatever I have done, the implication that I am somehow lazy or naive about that really hurts.

But academia broke me. There's no other more eloquent way to put it. Getting to the end of my PhD has destroyed my confidence in a way not even years of High School bullying managed. And it's so hard to come out the other side of something you put so much of yourself into only to be told you've failed. I know I can't be an academic because I'm simply not good enough. And on some days that's perfectly fine and on others it utterly destroys me again. It's something that perhaps nobody outside of it can understand, but you put everything into a PhD and most of us put our life on hold to some extent while doing it. To get to the end is an achievement, but in an incestuous field where everyone has that achievement and more it's a case of 'so what?'. I'm not good enough to publish, didn't go to a good enough University to be considered good enough for any jobs. I just don't have what it takes. And that is a difficult thing to come to terms with. And when someone tells you that yes, you wasted that PhD, I can't even begin to articulate how that feels. 

My PhD was one of passion, if it hadn't been, I wouldn't have got to the end. The plays I wrote about I still love passionately; I still have much to say about them. And a PhD was a way of getting someone to listen. Except they didn't. And post PhD you're expected to move on to other academic things. But honestly with a gun to my head I couldn't come up with any ideas, and I certainly don't have the talent to create them even if I did. And a field of academic bullies (yes I'm going that far, I've encountered several) and a field in which the best still isn't good enough, a field in which there is so much competition and negativity and one in which I simply just never fit, has done something to me I might never properly fix. 

And most days, that's alright. I have many other ambitions. I want to write. And I want to write stories, be they plays, novels, articles. I want to use the voice that is natural to me, not the one I'm forced to take on for academic writing. I want to write about the things that interest me in the way that interests me. And mostly that's good, it's ok. But it's still hard to let go of everything you worked for. 

And then there's the figuring it out. The 'what next' and the honest answer of 'I don't know'. I have a long list of things I'd like to do, but no roadmap on how to get there. I'm envious of those who have a clear career path-you train for a thing, you get a job in the thing, or those who stumbled into a job they're happy in one way or another. I'm stumbling, it's just a bit of a longer path. 

But as I'm older I make less apologies about what I want. If I'm taking a job just for a 'pay the bills for now' type job, then no, I don't want it to be the kind of job that takes over my life. I also sacrificed most of my 20s for the PhD, I like having my life outside of work back. Once again I know that in reality all jobs take a little bit of your personal time, but there's a bit of time and there's all consuming. 

I read something really interesting just a day later as well and that was 'We need to stop defining women's work/life balance in terms of children' the idea being that the only kind of work/life balance women should be entitled to/expecting is that which revolves around childcare. And this mentality is something I'm increasingly encountering. I have gotten a sense that my search for a job, career, ambition call it what you will, is somehow 'selfish' or 'immature' because I am a woman in my 30s who is single and without children. There is an implication somehow that if I was a 'proper grown up woman' (ie a married one with children) I would stop this mucking about with careers or ambition and just shut up and do a job. And that somehow my ambitions, dare I say it 'dreams' are just childish fantasies that I'd 'grow out of' if I were a real life grown up woman. Now of course not all women with children think that way, I know many fantastic ambitious women who have many dreams and ambitions connected to work and otherwise. But it's an undercurrent, and a deeply unpleasant one. 

So I make no apologies for my ambitions laying elsewhere now. I make no apologies for not knowing where I'm going next, and I make no apologies for wanting a bit of my life back. And I make no apologies for what that life does (or doesn't) include. Will I regret my decision not to go to that interview? I don't know. I doubt it. Despite what might have been, I know that right now it wasn't right. 

I feel broken right now. I feel like all those years have finally caught up with me and everything I was holding together kind of fell apart. And that's kind of ok, becuase perhaps to sort out what comes next it had to fall apart to put it back together. 

A final note, I was really falling apart last week and it was only the fact that I was taking part in something fantastic that kept me going. My Blog on GISHWES and how that helped and started to change me is  here

Monday, July 25, 2016

Job hunt 10 things I'm sick of hearing

Here's a tip, unless you've been job hunting in the last, oh I don't know let's say year/2 years let's assume you don't have any direct authority to comment on exactly how to job hunt right now?

Yes. I am annoyed. At this point I'm not sure what raises my blood pressure and/or makes me cry more, the job hunt itself or people commenting on it. So here are 10 things I am sick of hearing as a post-PhD-post-year in job- job hunter.

1. Have you thought about teaching? 

Reasons this is annoying/insulting. 1. I have a PGCE. I was a teacher, I chose another route. It's not as easy as 'just walk back into the classroom', there are fewer jobs in my subject (s) and given I trained 6 years ago those who have worked in the classroom since then would (rightly) get the jobs. Secondly it's an insult to all the hardworking teachers out there to say 'Oh why don't you just go an teach' as if it's an acceptable 'fall back' for anything. For the record, I'm a good teacher, but teaching in secondary schools isn't for me, and kids deserve better.

2. You're being too picky

I can assure you I'm not. Have you seen the job market? there's not a lot to be picky from.

3. You think you're better than some of the jobs, if you needed a job you'd take anything.

Listen, I have no shame when it comes to paying my bills. I have worked in supermarkets, coffee shops, pubs I have even shovelled horse poo to earn money. As a Support Worker I took notes on lectures I had WRITTEN for nearly minimum wage. I worked alongside students I was teaching pulling pints, and a pulled pints for my students. I just toughed out a year in a job where I frequently went home crying. I repeat, I have zero shame and zero standards when it comes to just getting by.

4. You want too much money. 

Firstly, see above. When it comes down to it, I will take minimum wage, zero hours, whatever I will get.

Do I think I deserve a salary that is, as they say 'commenserate with my skills and expereince' yes, of course. Do I think that's a lot of money? no not really.

5. You've been a student forever you have to go in at the bottom. 

I respectfully disagree. I have over 8 years of (consistent) professional experience/employment. I did a few years as a basic admin person, I am as mentioned a trained teacher, I taught in HE for 4 years (while doing other jobs alongside) and I have also a year in a higher-level development role. I don't expect to go in anywhere as head of department (hell I don't want that job anywhere anyway!) but I do expect to do a role that fits my skills and experience. But again, see 3, I'm not that fussy when it comes down to it.

6. If you're not willing to move, it's your own fault. 

Firstly, it's more complicated than just 'up and move'. Moving costs money for a start. Secondly there are all kinds of reasons why a person might not/could not move. Thirdly, sometimes a life is more important than a job. Fourthly, I've never said never, BUT I'm also not moving for just any old job. (For the record I constantly look at jobs all over the country, and apply for them but just because they exist doesn't make me any more likely to get them than ones on my doorstep less so in fact, because if a job is 5 minutes away an employer knows you can start pretty soon)

7. What about moving abroad? 

Sure, I'd love to! except most countries have preferential hiring for their own citizens and I'm also then competing with all of the USA/Canada/Australia as well. Oh and Europe is already becoming a bit skeptical of British applicants, thanks Brexit people.

8. So have you tried applying for jobs as a lecturer?

No really, it never occurred to me.

9. How about temping?
I'm aware of it thanks. First of all it's a hellish experience I wouldn't wish on my enemies (well some of them). Second since I last temped (7 years ago) I don't know if you noticed but our economy kind of went to hell? so whereas then I could walk into an agency at 8 and be working by 9, now agencies ignore emails and there's 3 listings on their websites. Sure in London you can kind of still do it, and yes I am registered with agencies but it's not an easy way to pick up work anymore.

10. Oh I'd love to have time off like you
Don't get me wrong, after a really tough few years I'm enjoying  a break. However a break is hard to enjoy when you have no idea when you'll next earn something.

Now don't get me wrong, I like people asking how it's going. I actually do, because it shows they care, it shows they're interested. And a sympathetic 'Oh I hear it's tough out there' or even a 'My (friend-son-husband-wife-whatever) had a really tough time of it too, but they did find something' those are great, that's empathy, it's sympathy and it's not forcing an opinion. And of course if I ASK for advice and/or want to talk and you are willing to lend an ear, brilliant! I have a friend who is a nurse, we work in completely different sectors but she is always willing to just listen and offer general sympathy/commiseration. That's all brilliant.

But the thing is, I have already gone down every avenue, done all the research I can. I know my area, I know where jobs are advertised. I've read all the guides and 'tricks' to getting hired (like putting employment first before qualifications so people aren't 'scared off' my by PhD).

And I also know that some of you sit there and judge me. Think I was 'just a student' while I did my PhD and now 'deserve' the 'reality' of the 'real world'. I never stopped working, I continued professional and survival jobs while I did my PhD. Once more for the cheap seats in the back I HAVE ALWAYS WORKED.  What's more I've always gone from job to job with barely a break in between. Unfortunately the economy keeps going from bad to worse, the sector(s) I work in keep getting hit even harder than others so it's even more difficult than even just a year ago.

Also for the record, I didn't lose my job because I was bad at it. It was a fixed term contract that many people fought hard to renew/extend but it just wasn't possible.

Now all that said, the support from fellow post-PhD types, other HE types, other arts sector types has been glorious. The sending of potential jobs, the other blog posts that echo my experience the tweets and the coffee dates. All glorious. Help and support is SO appreciated. BUT if I politely say I've tried X or Y or it's not for me, please accept that.

And one last thing, if I say I've applied for a job that I don't really want but it 'will do' the nicer response is 'I'm sure it wouldn't be that bad' or 'well it would only be temporary' saying 'Oh god that sounds awful, oh no really awful' is not a bloody helpful response.

Monday, June 27, 2016

I'll calm down when I have a reason too (Brexit thoughts)

"Calm down it'll all blow over"
"Don't worry you'll still be able to go on holiday"

In a week of infuriating things thrown about in person and in the media, these are my top two currently. 

Firstly, to quote my (joke) reply to a friend and the title of this post I'LL CALM DOWN WHEN I'M GOOD AND READY (dear). Secondly I'll calm down when someone gives me a reason to calm down. And with the Prime Minister stepped down, Brexit itself in an uncertain mess with Europe saying 'go on then if you're going' and the government seemingly playing rock paper scissors for who gets to push the button, well there's not a lot to be calm about. Oh and did I mention that I can't even mention what the Labour party is up to because by the time I finish writing this more of them may have resigned/forced a leadership battle/decamped to Australia. 

I joke. Well invoke mild sarcasm. But I am truly devastated, confused, angry and yes scared about what the vote to leave means. I say this with no hyperbole. After one Facebook comment hit a nerve to far on Friday I sat in my car and cried. Because for all of us this decision may have very real, very dire consequences. And I only say 'may' because the main fear in all this is that we just don't know. 

Let me say one thing before I continue; this isn't a personal attack on anyone who voted leave. As in any vote I 100% support the democracy and free will that we have, indeed I celebrate it. But with that free will and freedom of speech (freedom of, not abuse of or hate speech) I also retain the right to question and express my dislike for the decision made. Be that by political action of my own (writing to my MP) discussion with friends, family, the internet or by writing my thoughts down. It's also worth noting that it's possible to respect a democratic process and disagree with the outcome: I'm still angry that the Tories got in at the last election, and by saying that I'm not impacting anyone's right to a free vote. 

So this isn't a personal attack, it's a personal response. 

My personal response is based on what I fear for my life, career, for my friends, for the sector/industry I work in, and for the country I was born in. 

I'll start on a personal level. It's not news to anyone who knows me that I'm job hunting. I have been for 7 years working in Higher Education. A sector that is being slowly and surely decimated by government cuts and mis-management from within. Things are already pretty dark in Higher Education. The UK's HE research gets approximately £730 million a year in EU research funding. That's just straight up research funding. That isn't other means of income such as tuition fees, or money that contributes via collaboration on European projects which support UK research and Universities. That figure alone though is around 15% of income. Which doesn't sound like a great deal, but if you translate it to cutting (already struggling) staffing by 15%, or wages by 15% it starts to sound a little higher right?

And it's so much more than the black and white figures. It's the fear of the future this creates, and a reticence to start new research for fear it won't get funded. It means recent graduates won't be employed as the research won't be there to continue. It means a lack of progress. 

And that's before we get to the students. Before we consider the 1000s of EU students who come here to study (and the same for British students to the EU). It's before we consider, yes their fees, but also what they as people bring to the University. It's all the exchange programmes that give such valuable opportunity to young people, which may now be in danger. It's not about student numbers or just about employees (exchange programmes also give many people jobs, as do looking after interests of international students) It's not just about statistics it's about experience. The expereince that has been possible for students across Europe through our open doors. Not just in Higher Education but the change to up and move abroad has been a welcome option for young people on both short and long term basis. And now something many will never know. 

The same with our staff. Those 'immigrants' who are 'stealing' jobs? they are researchers with specialist skills who lift the UK research profile, who make real progress in the world. They are people who are able to contribute in a unique way to research, to collaborate, create and keep progress moving. And they are teaching our students, and bringing with them a cultural insight and a broadening of minds...which, oh wait was always kind of the point of Universities. 

And they are people. People. Let's not forget that. I look around my Facebook feed and I see so many friends from Europe who work here, who live here or who previously studied here, and they are fearful. More than that they are hurt, that we as a nation decided they are somehow defective and not wanted. To those friends I say again, you are wanted, you are needed and there are those of us who will fight with you. 

And then there's the arts. The EU brings millions to the arts. More importantly it allows artists to collaborate. It allows artists to travel, to share their art. And yes while we will probably all be able to go on holiday to Spain still, freedom to work will never be the same. That's all well and good if your big multinational company wants to send you to Germany to work. If you're a theatre company with 6 employees and an arts council grant of £5, 000 that visa to work and travel will be a barrier to sharing your work. 

And then there's Wales. I look at my country, my own piece of the UK and I just ask 'What have you done?'. You only have to take a short drive around some of our most deprived struggling areas to see what the EU has done. Rejuvenated civic spaces, allowing community projects to continue. The South Wales Valleys are full of those little plaques with the EU flag that tell you something there wouldn't exist without the EU. This article  gives a really brief insight into that

And I'm scared. And upset and angry. There are many reasons for wanting to vote leave. Some of them rooted in real concerns, real sense of opportunity in something else, but also far too many of them I fear rooted in xenophobia, unfounded fears around immigration and at times outright racism. I can't speak for anyone who did vote leave, but I can speak of the campaign I personally saw run. And in that campiagn I saw much pandering to those elements. It saw people involved who have previously made clear they support those factors. And that is a scary reality. 

And racist incidents are already on the increase. There are many articles on that floating around, to keep with my locality here is one that focuses on my area. 

So when someone says to "Calm down" or that it'll all be fine because we can still go on holiday, I guess I ask the following questions: 

1. Have our Government figured out a plan yet? because I'd really like there to be a plan. 
2. Can you help me find a job in a sector that was already stretched to breaking point? 
3. Is it fine that our research and University landscape will be changed forever? 
4. What about the arts? do we just wave them goodbye? 
5. What about Wales? what about all the money that made it a better place to live and work? 
6. Can you tell my Czech neighbour, my Dutch friend, my Hungarian colleague that it will be ok? Tell them they won't be deported? Can you stop them getting racially abused as they go about their day? 

If someone can answer me all of those things, then maybe I'll calm down. And then maybe I'll book a holiday as well. You know once I get a job. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Disappointed in myself (job search continues)

I don't even know what to call this blog, so I went with the above because it's how I'm feeling right now. 

"What are you leaving to do?"

I had variations of that conversation for weeks before the end of my job. Now I'm having similar but different:

"Oh so have you got something lined up then?"

Each followed by awkward silence. Or worse the suggestion that I can now "Do something you really want to do"

Firstly, thanks because previously obviously I was deliberately trying to do things I really didn't want to. Secondly, yes, I'll just snap my fingers and a dream job will be invented/appear. 

So no, 2 weeks after finishing my job (yes I had plenty of notice it was ending, yes it did occur to me to look for a job before it ended funny enough) and I'm no closer to finding another job. I spend much of my day searching for, bookmarking and more often than not having to reject jobs for various reasons. (Part time salaries that aren't enough to live on, actually not being qualified when looking at the job description, sometimes the revelation the employer is actually an evil warlord, or Trump.) And as ever, like today, end the day in tears of frustration. 

And yet that's not the worst part. Job hunting, I can do, I know job hunting all too well. Being of that lucky generation that seems to hit every possible barrier to gainful employment, fixed term and zero hour contracts have long been my friends and enemies. I get the job hunt. I know I write a decent application; I know I interview well. It's finding something to damn well apply for in the first place that is the issue. 

This is in part due to an increasingly dire employment market. It's due to being over and under qualified. It's due to employers being able to be incredibly fussy about who they take due to sheer supply and demand. I know all this, I've been there done that many times, and something does indeed always come up. 

Except this time, it's different. It isn't just another job this time is it? This time it's accepting and attempting to move on from the fact that everything I've tried to do I've failed at. It's about accepting that I will never be an academic (you can read all about my failure here if you so please here ). It's about realising that after years of trying to get a foothold in the arts/in theatre that it's time to accept that will never happen also. 

The latter partly because I'm just so tired of the fight, and at 31 I'm not willing or able to live off 10k a year again, I'm just not. I've done that. I can't afford to sustain a starving academic/starving artist lifestyle is that I don't have a partner or parents who can support me to do so. So taking the unpaid work, the barely paid work for that foot in a door just isn't an option anymore. 

I also know that I do have transferable skills. I do have a lot of professional experience. I'm a qualified experienced teacher for one, I have lots of administrative experience, I'm a skilled and experienced researcher, I have development and fundraising experience, I'm an experienced published writer. I can do many things and as a person I have much to offer. My problem is not that I am not/do not think I can offer much to any number of organisations. Probably, who knows until you try. 

But there is so much pressure for this move, if this is the move to the great 'something else' to count. And everything else feels as much a failure as my inability to do what I set out to do. 

And figuring all this out, now once again from scratch is hard. I'd always had options, I was going to do academic jobs. Or I was going to work in the arts. Or a combination. I've failed at both of those things and it's now a case of starting completly from nothing. And honestly I have no clue anymore what I should even try to do. Which is fine when you have the security of a job for the moment, but less so when you really needed a job a month ago. And when the pressure is building from all sides to have the answer to the immortal and incredibly irritating question "So what do you REALLY want to do" 

Because it is a failure in my eyes. I cry when I remember that I will probably never teach again. I get really, really depressed when I think my future is a 9-5 office job-I trained as a teacher and did my PhD because 6 years ago I knew without a doubt that kind of job wasn't for me. And yet now it seems to be my only option. Except I can't even seem to find anything there I can apply to. 

If I was to describe it all with one word it would be 'disappointment'. That is disappointment in myself, for not being good enough to achieve anything I wanted to. For not trying harder or figuring things out quicker. 

And I want to stress none of this is because I think highly of myself or think I 'deserve' some kind of magical perfect job. Not in the least. I've done dozens of jobs before just to get by- I served drinks at a bar not just to, but alongside my students at one point- I have no pride where a job to pay the bills is concerned. Today I’ve sent off applications to well known coffee chains and to temp agencies. In order to get by work is work and I’m fine with that. It’s the pressure on a career that is slowly breaking me.  

All I do have is a sense that I wanted to, and have worked so hard so far, do a job that I could be passionate about or enjoy, or feel a sense of achievement in. Just a job to be happy in. I've gone after everything I thought I could to try and make that a reality, and I've found myself once again with nothing. So I'm disappointed in myself. 

I do plan a more enjoyable, lighthearted look at what I'd you know REALLY want to do next time around. But after a frustrating week, this was more where my head and blog space was at. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A year on the 'Alt-Ac' Track

I'd say forgive the Americanism in the title, but I think it's a good phrase, and one in Britain we haven't coined an alternative for. In case you don't know 'alt-ac' or 'alternative academic' is a descriptor for jobs within academia in the broader sense- those that aren't 'traditional' academic roles of lecturer or researcher. Personally I believe that perhaps we shouldn't think in such narrow terms as 'this' or 'alternatively this' with a PhD, but more on that at the end.

I graduated almost a year ago, and about a month before, I started my first full time job since finishing the PhD. In a University, but not as an academic. That job ended last week as my fixed term contract ended, so now seemed as good a time as any to reflect on the first year post-PhD and a year in an alt-ac (alternative academic, jobs in Universities that aren't traditional 'academic' roles) role.

Firstly, I will say this: this year was the hardest I have ever had. Given the option of re-doing my last year of PhD or re-doing this last year, I'd take the PhD. And it only takes a glimpse over this blog (or passing association with a PhD) to know that says something.

I've wrestled with how to write this blog. I don't want to be rude to my former colleague/employer (indeed I have no reason to) but I also don't want to be anything but brutally honest.

So let's lay it out honestly. This year I cried more than I think I ever have. I spent more times hiding in toilets trying to get my shit together and get back to my desk than I care to remember. I cried driving to work, I cried driving home. I cried walking the streets of New York on my first holiday in 4 long years, because I already couldn't face going back. I spent more sleepless nights than my PhD ever gave me.

This year was hard for so many reasons, some related to the situation of the job, some to shifting my head from one set of things to another. 

The job was within research development/funding. Not a field I'd ever envisioned myself in, but the particulars of this role meant it was suited to my particular field/experience. And by the end of my year's contract I could genuinely see the potential, and find the interest within the job that could/should have been there at the start. But as ever with a new position as this was, it takes time to bed in, and unfortunately when a new position is a year fixed term by the time things start gaining traction it's over. Add to this a whole lot of logistical and instructional hurdles that are nobody's fault, but all those in HE will be familiar with and it was, for the first 6 months in particular a really very difficult role. 

Add to this an academic going into an office that is predominantly filled with non-academics. It's like cats and dogs at times-neither quite understands the other and is a bit suspicious, neither is wrong or means the other any harm and they can be friends but neither is quite sure what to do with the other. Added to that research development support can be quite fractionalised into 'What those crazy academics think they can do' vs 'What support staff think is realistic'. Putting an academic into that role has its advantages-knowing how academics think, what they want from a project etc., but it also means that person (me) tends to think like the crazy academics. I also have a real problem with the monetarisation/business driven model of Universities so this was far from the best environment to be in day to day. That and fighting a losing battle- my role with humanities academics was never going to bring in 'big bucks' research money, meaning everything felt like such a struggle. 

I struggled personally, I'm not ashamed to admit. It has been a long time since I was in a traditional office environment, and that combined with years in the arts/academia meant I was used to being with my fellow oddballs and not cooped up with those oddballs for 8 hours a day. I felt like I had to pretend to be normal, that I had to hide much about myself for fear of everyone hating me and my life being miserable. Well lesson learned, it was miserable for a time anyway so you might as well be you. I still don't think office life long term is for me, but in the future I'll let office life take me as I am from the start and I'm sure I'll be the happier for it. 

Then there's the feeling of being on the outside looking in. Of hearing about exciting research projects you'll never be a part of. Of feeling like you're 'just support staff'. Not that for a single second a member of academic staff made me feel that way, they were all universally lovely, appreciative and interested in my work before this. I'll say it again, not once did an academic in my workplace make me feel any lesser for not being in an academic role. All of them appreciated the work I did, and that it was a challenging and valuable role. I wish I could say the same for academics elsewhere, those for whom the only marker of success is securing a full time academic post or better yet to be seen sacrificing your sanity, finances and anything else in the attempt to get one. Because for some there is no alternative: only full academic or failure. 

A pause as well for the academic who went out of their way to tell me that the reason I was a failure as an academic is because I, and I quote "Don't want to play the funding game". To which I answered "Funny that, because currently a University pays me to do exactly that". Thankfully such idiotic ideas are far between, but as ever the village idiot has the loudest voice. 

Now this might have been in some respects the hardest year imaginable, but as the saying goes what doesn't kill you makes you stand up at the end and say a big fat: up yours you pretentious idiots to those aforementioned academics. 

Because yes, it was a hard thing to get my head around. Do I still struggle with that? the feeling that I didn't quite "make it" somehow? yes, every day. But that doesn't mean I'm any "less" or any kind of a "failure". Is what I did this year for me as a long term career plan? probably not. Am I damn good at it? You bet. 

Oh and you know what else? I still spoke at a conference and finished two publications this year. And I really wasn't trying to keep up output-just the opposite. Imagine what I could do if I was trying. 

All of that while making a good wage for the first time in 4 long years, and working a reasonable working week. 

Alongside my academic outputs I wrote copious amounts for non-academic publications, re-worked a play, did some theatre post-show talks, put wheels in motion for some future creative endeavours went on 3 holidays (this I admit was excessive, but I was making up for lost time) and, oh, had a social life for the first time in years. 

When I write it down I can see on balance it was a good move. It's good for my CV- let's face it nobody sees development/funding experience as a bad thing. On a personal level I got to hit pause for a year and recover from the PhD as well, and I truly appreciate that I was lucky to keep a foot in the academic world immediately after my PhD. It felt like a year's grace-not having to decide that second whether to plough on with no income in the hope an academic fairy godmother would appear and help me kick start a career. 

We should not underplay either the significance of being able to earn a living wage. It's terribly un-British I know to talk about money, but after 4 years of zero hours’ low pay contracts I cannot tell you the relief to know that the same amount of money, and an amount that was more than enough to cover bills, was going into my bank account each month. In academia, much like the arts, much is made of 'sacrifices to be made' in order to get ahead. Well you know what? I'm 31 years old, I'm very much over the 'bohemian' lifestyle, and while I'm not looking to buy an Audi or holiday in the Bahamas, I'll take paying my bills over being 'worthy' any day. 

So is alt-ac for me? very possibly. I worked in a University before doing my PhD and during in different departments, so it wasn't like going in cold. Is my future in the same sort of role? possibly not, though I was accidentally good at it. My passion has always been students and teaching though so my ideal alt-ac job would be within student services or similar. Will I stay in Higher Education forever? again possibly/probably not, but that is a natural evolution I think rather than a desire to escape right this second. 

Is that it for a 'real' academic role then? well never say never as with anything. I have another post to write on that in more detail. There will always be I think, at least for a while, that sense of nagging shame that you haven't done the thing you're supposed to. And it is harder to deal with from within academia, you do sometimes feel like you're looking through the sweetshop window but you aren't allowed to go in. But the thing is actually you are, you can still attend conferences, write articles etc. etc. if you wish. Is it harder? yes. Academics work more hours than me yes, but they have a flexibility of working that those of us in the 9-5 alt-ac departments don't. So it's harder, but not impossible. 

But that said, I have a very finite list of academic things I want to do, and a very long list of other things I want to do. In working in an alt-ac job I get to work at those things in my spare time, I get a (semi) secure job and I get to use skills and knowledge from the PhD. 

At the moment I'm unemployed, as my contract ended, which is obviously less than ideal. But this year has given me options, it's given me time to think. 

It's also shown me I'm tougher than I thought. The PhD really broke me down, and at times this job broke me down further. But I toughed it out, and I came out stronger, more assured of who I am and who I want to be. Right now I'm having days of deep insecurity and uncertainty again, but it'll pass. To go full circle back to the play I studied for my PhD "The world only spins forward". 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"Will you move for a job?" and other irritating questions.

Today I came home from work and cried. Not that this is unusual, I'm a known crier. But I cried out of sheer frustration after three conversations about my job hunting and lack of success.

It's no news that job hunting is exhausting. It's no news that it's no fun. What's even more exhausting though is the constant interrogation about it when people know you'll be looking for a job.

Now, there are various types of people in this scenario.

  1.  Genuine friends who listen to your answers and make comments/suggestions based on their    knowledge of your situation/personality.
  2.  People who genuinely mean well but don't know much about your situation. 
  3.  People who want to feel a bit better about themselves

1 and 2 are great. They mean well. 2 can get tiring when people don't get it, but it's not their fault, they genuinely mean well and wish you well. 3 well they're a pain in everyone's butt.

Let me give you an example of a conversation with someone from 1:

Friend: How's the job hunt going? or alternatively tell me to go fuck myself.  
Me: Go fuck yourself. 
(it's worth noting we then did have a real conversation about it, but the point still stands)

An example of 2:

Person: How's the job hunt going? have you tried X and Y thing?
Me: Bit rubbish, it's tough out there. I tried X thing but no luck and Y thing doesn't really help in my field. 
Person: Oh that sucks. Still I'll keep my eye out for you in case I see anything suitable. 

Person 3 however, will inform you of all kinds of 'wisdom' about what you're doing wrong, about where to look for a job, what to do when you apply. As if you never applied for a job in your life.

Person 3 will also make judgments about the kind of job you're suitable for, the kind of job that you're applying for. And many more things.

It's worth noting that none of today's job-interrogators were person 3. They were all well meaning person 2 types, who genuinely (I think anyway) want to see me succeed. But it's exhausting. And in every long conversation someone will utter the words;

"Well are you willing to move?"

Depending on the person type (see above) this is either a well meaning gesture to see if there are opportunities elsewhere. Or in the case of person 3 a judgment on your commitment to the cause of getting a job. Probably I might add having never moved further than the end of the road themselves.

Now let's put something out there: moving for a job is all well and good. But it's not as simple of  'I see a job in yonder field I shall to to it'. In particular being a single young-ish person it's assumed I'll happily bounce from city to city for a job.

But it's not that simple. Firstly, moving costs money. The 100s of pounds it costs in letting fees, deposit and physically moving is either a big investment or a whole lot of debt. Secondly doing all that again in 12, 15, 18 months isn't a practical or pleasant way to live. And given the perpetuation of fixed term contracts, it's likely that's the case.

Secondly I have a life here. I've been here 8 years, I have a life. Making friends and integrating into groups is hard as a grown up. I'm not sure I want to do that again. And as a single woman I would be alone-I'm not taking a partner or family with me. And you're either left with a great job and no life, or worse a job you don't like and no life. It's hard. And I'm an only child of a single, older parent with no extended family. And while my Mum would never stand in my way, that factors in to a decision in ways that people with siblings, two parents and extended family can't understand.

And where do you move to? it's always a gamble. I live in a pretty damn good city. Cardiff gives me culture and amenities, and being close to countryside if that's your thing...and it's a little thing but I can be pretty much anywhere I need to be in half an hour. I just like it here. So sue me.

So "Are you willing to move" isn't so easy. And it isn't as black an white as "If you wanted a career you'd do it"

Yes I want a career, but I also want a life.

And then there's the question of "Well what do you want to do then" well as I talked about in my last blog here I'm coming to terms with not succeeding as an academic, and you know what I don't actually know what to do know. I have some thoughts (which will be my next blog) some more serious than others, some more realistic than others. But honestly, right now, right this second, it's all fallen apart a little bit and I don't know. And some days that's fine, and some days it's terrifying. I feel like I do nothing but make poor choices in my career, and that it's already all too late and I've sacrificed everything for nothing. And I'm terrified of making a wrong decision again. And I grew up never having much money, and so the thought of being really poor always terrifies me. Not in a greedy way, but in the knowledge that you need money for security that comes from having times when there was none. And it's all consuming, and lends itself to fits of extreme anxiety and if I spend too long thinking about it all it's hard to breathe. So a lot of the time I have to force myself not to.

And to do that I try to make peace with it all, I make peace with the frustration and I just have some kind of blind faith that it'll work out. Because it always has, ish. I keep telling people I'll just get a temp job (or three) for a while, and they recoil in horror. But you know worse things have happened, no really they have.

Last week I was reading Matt Haig's brilliant book "Reasons to Stay Alive" and listening to Glee (which is probably proof positive I needed to read that book) and this mash-up came on:

Glee-Survivor/I will Survive

And I remembered that three years ago I started learning that in choir on the Monday. On the Tuesday my (then) best friend got me fired from my job.

Three years later I've got a PhD, held down and been good at and survived two more difficult jobs. Three years ago was job rock-bottom. This, this isn't even close.

So go ahead Person Three, ask me the stupid questions. Imply I'm lazy and not motivated if I don't move to Bolton, or the Shetland Islands for a job, be horrified at my return to temp jobs or a job in Starbucks (don't knock it I loved that job, other coffee multinationals are available...). Because I've been knocked down harder, and more often than this.

And of course if you hear of any jobs do pass them on, it's always appreciated. None of this is to say that genuine help isn't greatly appreciated. And I'm so very grateful for all the genuine offers of keeping an eye out for jobs, for suggestions of places to look. Or just the offer to tell someone to go fuck themselves. In what is undeniably a right shitter of a time in anyone's life, it's the good people that make it all bearable. So that's Persons 1 and 2. You make me less likely to cry.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Coming to terms with academic failure

So the job hunt is in full swing. Except it isn't. Because I've found nothing of substance to apply for, and this is an addition to the (now frankly lengthy) list of my failures. Almost daily I'm being quizzed on how many jobs I've applied for, and which ones. Some from well-meaning sources who probably don't realise the amount of additional anxiety this causes. Others less well meaning, and frankly smug at my apparent lack of effort. It's not through lack of trying, but more being stuck at a crossroads and taking my time to figure out which path to take. 

Because on top of this almost daily reminder of my own ineptitude at magic a job out of thin air I am having to come to terms with my failure as an academic. 

I've written many times on this blog about the struggle with whether to continue in academia. The truth of the matter, and probably what I've spent a year hiding from, is much more simple: I failed as an academic. 

The reasons for failing, as with most things, are many and complex. Had I gone to a better University, had better supervisors I'd probably have stood more of a chance. My choice of University was poor, but so was I and it was the only one I could afford (they offered me enough work to support myself for 3 years...ish). Sadly it's who you know or where you went not what you know. And so despite attending two top Russell Group Universities previously, it's my post- 1992 University where I earned my PhD that gives me a black mark and little hope of finding an academic role. Perhaps I could have waited a few more years, gone somewhere else (I feel compelled to point out I was accepted to two prestigious universities at the time but couldn't afford to go) but then who knows? It is what it is and there's nothing to be done. 

But also I'm to blame I know that, I take responsibility for that. Perhaps I'm not naturally gifted enough to 'make it' perhaps I just didn't try hard enough? I think I did my best. I worked as hard as I could to get the PhD done, I muddled my way through conferences and got better and better. I submitted articles for publication, got rejected, got a bit better and eventually have a couple I think will make it to publication. I'm reminded that I know I'm a good writer, just perhaps not a good academic. 

I failed at the networking. I don't seem to have the gift to get in with the right people. Or to even know who the right people or the right actions are. I never had a mentor, not someone to open doors but someone to show me which doors to try. Instead I've been bumbling around making poor choices and trying to beat down the wrong doors. 

And I feel the eyes of fellow post-docs on me. I feel their pitying judgement at the fact that I gave up even before I graduated by taking a non-academic post in a University (again I was poor I had no choice, and it was more money than I've ever earned before). I feel their judgement at all the work I've put in to non-academic pursuits here. All the articles I've written for non-academic sources, no work but academic work is worth doing they say. All the work I've done trying to get a foot in the door with other areas, because having a backup plan is already giving up, a sign of failure. All the holidays (well 2) and weekends off I've taken, because real academics and especially those trying to be one shouldn't take a day off. And maybe then it's a good thing to get out, to escape that attitude. 

And it is true that I say I don't think I want that life. That I don't want to spend another 5, 10 years waiting for a job. Or bouncing from one part-time fixed term job to another. Or worse to just keep applying for years and failing. To hang on with hourly paid lecturing and temp work in the vain hope that a full time job will emerge. 

And I like having a say over what my life is again. I like writing for and about things I want to. I like having evenings and weekends to do things. I like a work life balance. What I don't like is the judgement of academic 'friends' that it's giving up without a fight, or that it's confirmation I just never had it. 

But that doesn't mean it isn't hard. Imagine training for anything for 4 years and then not being able to do it. Imagine thinking that this was what you were going to do, putting everything you had into it (and I did, I really did) and it not being enough. I love teaching, and teaching in a University was the best job I've had. It's also not 'cool' to say that as an academic, it's supposed to be the thing you 'endure' to do the 'real' work. But I did love it and I miss it. I also to a degree enjoy research and writing. I do lack the natural talent for academic writing that I, without ego, say I have in other styles of writing. But still it's a job where research, writing and teaching come together. And I enjoy that. But I'm not good enough at the way that world wants me to do it, I don't fit somehow. Simply I'm not good enough. 

And it's hard to admit. And it's harder still to know that others are whispering about you. When they say 'well never mind you didn't really want to do it' that doesn't mean I wouldn't have liked the chance to find out. To feel that others are saying 'well we knew she never really had it' breaks down an already broken confidence. 

And to spend so long singularly chasing one thing, the question of 'what now?' is terrifying. With every job I look at (and determine I'd be rejected from) I ask myself 'I did all that work for this?' and it's not out of snobbery. I don't think I'm better than any job. But like a highly trained chef who ends up taking a barista job at a coffee shop, you end up asking 'All that for this?'

Failure is a hard thing to accept, and an even harder thing to pick yourself up from. So for me and all the others with a PhD trying to do something else, go a bit easy on the job interrogation. We might not know where we're going yet.