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".