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. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

International Women's Day (why we need it, why women are fabulous)

It's international Women's Day. Now on one hand I say 'I wish we didn't need a day, I wish we were just equal' on the other hand I say 'Women are fabulous damn right we're having a day to celebrate'

So let's start with the negative. On a most micro 'first world problems' level the reasons behind a need for 'International Women's Day' were perfectly illustrated yesterday when I shared this article from a fantastic women-centred magazine 'Standard Issue' Everyday Sexism Subversion's. In this article one of the light hearted but with a serious undertone comments were 'become a Dr then you'll have a gender neutral title and get better jobs' Having been awarded my PhD and therefore the right to use 'Dr' I commented that it was indeed useful not to have to be defined by a) gender and b) marital status. Among the 'charming' responses I received on twitter was the notion that 1. only angry feminist like myself would 'demand' to be addressed as Dr and 2. I should be using Miss or Mrs so people know I'm available.

So far so 1920s right? In the scheme of things this means little, I had a little rant. Some friends and I firmly put him in his place, it passed a bit of Monday afternoon and inspired a blog post. It didn't hurt me personally in any real sense because I know his opinions don't matter personally. But it does hurt me and women in a wider sense, because it demonstrates the ingrained everyday sexism that leads to our bigger issues.

Because the micro aggressions and everyday sexism is the wider issue. And that we so often just 'put up' with it because it's easier is part of the bigger issue. Now in no way am I saying you have to fight every battle, not at all. Women we can't do that; we'd be existed for a start. But that's why days like International Women's Day are important, because it gives us a chance to stand collectively and say 'This isn't ok'.

And International Women's Day lets us talk about the bigger issues as well. The pay gap, the glass ceiling, sexual violence, women's health care. All of these are vital conversations we should be having more often, but if a day in the calendar helps us to focus, gets the world's attention, then even better.

Now for the other side of things, this day should also be about celebrating women. Yes, we should be challenging the issues, commemorating our history and fighting for our future. But also what's so wrong with stopping for a day and saying 'Women are brilliant, here are some of my favourites'.

And your favourites don't have to be suffragettes or famous scientists or women who died for a cause. Those women are important and fantastic, but they might not be the women who influenced you. And that's ok. This day is about saying ANY woman is important, influential and to be celebrated.

I admit as a woman on international women's day I felt a bit rubbish this morning. I had a piece published on 'Influential Women in Culture' as part of a compilation piece. All the other women were artistic or 'important' women from literature, politics, art. And mine? Well mine was Gillian Anderson.

I admit I felt like the grubby low-brow working class eejit I am. Clearly I was stupid, non-intellectual and everyone would laugh at me for picking a TV actress famous for, even worse, a Sci-Fi show. I felt like 'my' woman and therefore me as a woman weren't good enough.

And then I thought fuck it. I was honest, I sat and thought about that article and what woman culturally I'd like to write about. And sure there are lots and lots of really awesome theatre women, or women academics or authors I could have gone with. But I thought back to when I was a teenager and the first women who influenced me to be strong and clever and eventually to choose my career path was Gillian Anderson. She taught me about accepting my body for what it was, that beauty was relative, and that to speak your mind was good. Maybe I didn't grow up reading Anais Nin. Maybe my choice is a bit 'low brow', but I'm still damn proud of the woman who influenced me, and the woman she influenced me to be.

We should be celebrating all women. From the big 'important' women who break down barriers, who are first to do things and lead the way in their careers, and for women. To the characters on TV and film and books and theatre that inspire us. To the actors who play them, to the singers or performers who we love. To our friends and family. All these women are brilliant important people. It shouldn’t be a sliding scale of importance, we shouldn't be ashamed to say 'this is the woman who influenced me' there are enough men out there who want to put us in a box and hide us away, we shouldn't help them.

So to all the women on International Women's Day: you are fabulous. Do what you do with pride, love the other women around you. And let's start moving towards this day not needing to be anything more than a celebration of how brilliant we are.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Another Suitcase in another hall (interpreting job market via Andrew Lloyd Webber lyrics)

I'm never one to miss a chance at a musical theatre reference/Madonna impression (I'm a child of the 80s..) but this song has been running through my mind a lot lately...

(and yes I know Eva Peron is not exactly a shining role model, but, like I say,  I'm a child of the 80s and a child of musical theatre, bear with me...) 

So it's all become a bit 'Another Suitcase in another hall' since I got official notification I'm losing my job in June. 

It wasn't a surprise, it's nobody's fault (except the Tories, it's defiantly their fault somehow) and I'm fine, I really am. But this song has been running through my head a lot lately. 

Ok I'm a tad mellow dramatic, but actually the more I think about it, the more this song is a good breakdown of the end of job scenario I keep ending up in...

'Being used to trouble I anticipate it, but all the same I hate it, wouldn't you?'

Sums up what I've been telling everyone. I'm used to it, it's the way things are. It's just what happens. And it's all true. It's out of everyone's hands, and that's fine, it really is. But that 'wouldn't you' betrays how I really feel. In rooms full of people with secure permanent jobs, who have long since forgotten what it's like to have to search for the next thing, hope that the next move is a good one. I might be used to it, I might be 'hard through and through' but all the same I DO hate it. Getting back on that job train yet again, not entirely sure where it leads. The feeling that people who are secure in their jobs interpret as YOU that is faulty not a system/market that churns out fixed term contract. 

And I am used to it. Whether through my own damn bad luck, to find myself at the height of job hunting at the height of economic troubles (over and over again) or my own poor life choices, or whatever. I'm used to it. The bits that are my fault and the bits that aren't. But all the same, it never gets easier. 

Suddenly everyone else's success/security seems that much magnified. And having not secured yet the next position is yet another failing in their/my eyes. And so the spiral of self doubt comes. And I keep saying 'I'll be fine, its just how it is' and I do believe it, deep down, because it always has worked out eventually. But all the same I hate it, wouldn't anyone? 

And then there's the bigger picture hangs over this whole proceeding, leading to; 

 'I never fool myself that my dreams will come true' 

Because with every knock back it's easy to feel like it's all doomed. Even though in this instance it's out of my hands, it feels like starting over yet again. That once again it's a sign that it's never going to work out. That dreams never come true however hard you work. 

Which in the cold light of day is ridiculous. This was never my 'dream job' and actually if you think about it, leaving it is more likely to lead to my dream job...because I will have to do something else, which might be utterly brilliant in itself or which might lead to the something else that is utterly brilliant. And I know I know these things-I just wrote them down. But at this moment, it doesn't feel that way. It feels like another notch of failure, and although 'You'll get by you always have before' it's harder to keep picking yourself up from the knock backs. 

It brings up every insecurity, every thought of 'what have I done wrong' or more accurately 'what have they [everyone else out there who of course seems to be doing even better than normal thanks very  much] done that I haven't done. What have they got that I don't? I didn't think I could work harder, but clearly everyone else is working harder. But then perhaps it doesn't matter, probably I should just give up, because dreams don't come true, not for you. 

And so on and so on. 

But it is just Another suitcase in another hall it's not the end of the world. And I know, do know I will bounce back, it will be a case of; 

'Call in three months time and I'll be fine I know, well maybe not that fine, but I'll survive anyhow' 

I have to believe I'll look back, maybe not in three months. But in six, or a year, and this time around it will have been the best thing to happen to me. Because good things will have happened by then. And even if more awful things do happen, I'll survive anyhow, I'll be fine anyhow. I always am. 

And you know what I'd rather find myself bouncing from job to job until the right thing finally happens, than wake up after 30 years and realise I'd made a huge mistake. I'd rather these jobs force me to keep looking for the things that really click, than make me comfortable and safe, and not willing to take the risk and change. It's making me a better employee, it's making me a better person. Certainly a more resilient, stronger person. I keep surviving because honestly what's the alternative? You keep going, keep moving on, and hope that it works out, somewhere somehow. And so far it's always been some version of 'fine anyhow' somewhere along the line, until the next time. So I keep moving. 

It doesn't make it less, awful. The mantra I've been using is 'It's not personal, but it is personal' the mechanisms that keep me in fixed term jobs, or chasing jobs that don't exist, aren't personal. Losing a job at any stage (application, interview, in it) is rarely properly personal. 

But that brings me to another slightly embarassing mantra of mine, You've Got Mail. (Judge away I don't care, I love it) When Kathleen Kelly is told "It's not personal it's business" she responds with:  

"What is that supposed to mean? I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn't personal to you. But it was personal to me. It's personal to a lot of people. And what's so wrong with being personal, anyway?"

It is personal. It does hurt every time. Every damn time there's dispair-whether it's a failed job application for the one you really wanted, or the end of a job, that feeling of being spat out once again. Sat on a doorstep with your career suitcase in hand. Another career suitcase in another application cycle hall. Wondering what was so wrong with you to end up here again. 

But, I'll get by I always have before. And eventually, one day, my career will look less like the clip above, and more like this (again, no not an ideal career role model, it's a loosely constructed musical theatre metaphor people...)