Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Why I'm exhausted

There's a thing I've noticed. People who got into jobs just before the going got REALLY shit, think you're making it up when you say it's hard out there.

And I'm tired. I'm tired of wondering where my next job will be and how long it will be and whether I'll have to move and whether I'll have to move again. And will I be paid enough. And can I do this thing in six months because I don't know where I'll be working then. And should I buy this thing because how long before I'm between pay again because if there's a gap between contracts....and what if and what if and what if...

Let's put aside the 100s (and I'm not exaggerating this) of jobs I've applied for in the past 2 years alone. It's also the endless short term contracts. And the resulting insecurity. Because it's alwasy about hunting the next thing. Worrying when the current thing will end.

I'm exhausted and it's making me ill. But I know I can't be alone in this. So here is my litiny of regret, my list of employment (not counting even shorter gigs and freelancing moments that have filled the last 5-6 years as well) These are the places where I waited for contracts or jobs that never came, while still hunting the elusive White Whale that is a "Proper Job".


1998-2002 (Ages 15-18) Stable Hand. Working for riding lessons we couldn't otherwise afford.
2001-2003- Checkout Assistant ASDA (First real job, as soon as I was old enough)
2002-2007- The University years. I won't bore you with the details. It involved a lot of customer service and a lot of coffee spilled on me.

So far so normal.

2007 Civil Service: Three month temporary contract. Extended month by month for another 6 months. I could have stayed longer (month by month) but a particularly sexist pig motivated me to take my chances elsewhere.

2008 University Admin Department:  Two week temp job. Extended to a month. Then two months. For an entire year I lived with month to month extensions, promised a Full Time job would be advertised soon, that I was welcome to apply for. It never came.

2008 (as well): Dresser. Theatre. Zero hours contract.

2009-2010- Trained to be a teacher. Random supply days for a few months after.

2010-2014- The PhD Years. Jobs here included:

Teaching at the University: Zero hours, term time only. Number of hours and therefore income decided only 2 weeks before term started most years.
Front of House (Theatres): Zero hours, minimum wage. Show dependant. Since leaving one of these has changed it into a volunteer job, another shortly follows suit.
Support Worker (University) : Zero hours contract. A little above minimum wage. Pay cut in 4th year of employment due to Government cuts. Term time only.

2014 Theatre: Two week job, because former friend told a lie that got me fired.

2014/15 University: Support Worker. As above.

2015/16 University Administrative Support 12 month fixed term contract. Told there was possibility for renewal at the end. After contract ended it was advertised at 0.5 of the contract (so half the pay)

Current Role: 5. 5 month contract. Extended by 4 months. Extended by another 2.

I don't say any of this to attack the employers, many of whom have been as sympathetic and supportive as any could be.

And this is not through lack of trying. Of course I try to get permanent jobs, but statistically they just aren't there. And employers are either forced to offer these contracts, or simply can get away with it.

And why stay? because often you are promised if you stick around long enough, get the experience, do good work, "when" a job comes up your name will be on it. But the job never comes up. And you can only stay so long, mainly because the contracts end. So you move on, to another, 'one day my job will come' situation. And again, and again.

And I'm not including here all the odd days of work here and there, and hours upon hours of volunteer work designed to get me 'a foot in the door' ready for that elusive full time job that lasts more than a year.

And what does all this add up to? exhaustion. Myself and others fighting this fight never get a let up from job hunting, we also never get a let up from worrying. It affects my health, physical and mental and what's more I can never plan for anything. I can't book a holiday in advance, I don't know where I'll be working. It's all the stress of being a freelancer without any of the benefits.

The culture of short term jobs isn't resulting in a good workforce- when everything is just 'for now' it's hard to really commit- for employers to train and for employees to give their all. Because for us as employees our eye has to always be on the next thing.

People who got a job after Graduating, and peacefully went from one to another. They don't get this. They also don't get why I go up and down in terms of seniority and type of job, or why I never seem to have a 'proper' jobs. I'm trying to do all the things you're supposed to do to get a 'proper' job. It just never seems to quite pan out.

Above all I'm exhausted. So next time someone asks why you're just on a temporary contract, or why you still live at home, maybe don't feel like you're alone. Because I'm there and I'm exhausted too.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

It's not your fault (and other things to tell ourselves when nobody believes us)

Firstly, hey, hello, yes this blog has been resurrected from whatever depths it's been languishing in.

This could have been a rant. I'm upset, I am, for reasons apparent in the rest of this. But I'm choosing to turn it around. So to that end I say to anyone out there in PhD land, alt-ac land, with-a-PhD land or just the general 'where did it all go wrong land':

It's not your fault.

Even if you think it is. Even if you could have done things differently (and we all could) even if you just think the whole damn thing is a huge mistake: it's not your fault.

Things I'm declaring not my fault today: 

1. That the economy went to shite in 2008. Around the time I was looking for my first 'proper' jobs. I finished my Masters in late 2007. By the time I was ready to move on from 'just give me a job for my CV and some damn income' to 'Hey career move' things were already going to hell. That was beyond my control.

2. That by 2010 Education was nose-diving along with the economy and that was the profession I'd ended up in. I made a deliberate choice in 2009 to undertake my PGCE. School budgets are being slashed, arts and humanities are always the first to go. So what was an investment into a secure career became a risky gamble.

3. The Conservatives got elected. Which made 1 and 2 so much  worse. Then Trump got elected and well...

4. Higher Education is a system at breaking point. I decided on a leap of faith to do my PhD and use my teaching skills there and follow a dream when 2 took effect.  And I joined it as the cracks began to show. By the time I'd done three years on zero hours teaching contracts there was no more money for adjunct teachers. And every other local University (because you can't commute or move for adjunct teaching) was in the same boat. Full time jobs were cut, fixed term ones fewer and fewer. Funding less and less. Restructures happen left and right so even the alt-ac jobs are at risk.

Genuinely the above are things that happened to happen as I was doing my damn best to shape my career. Now here's some more particular to me that aren't my fault:

1. I was born in 1984. Not say 1974, 1964, etc etc when the above might not have aligned with key moments in my life and career. Thems the breaks. I also happen to be not quite 'Generation X' and not quite a 'Millennial' which apparently makes it hard for the media to put my failings and political views in a box. So there's that too.

2. I was born into a poor family. My parents never had spare money. Often we didn't have enough money. Oh and my Dad died when I was 19, when I was in the middle of University, my Mum was working part time for minimum wage. There was nothing spare to go around. There still isn't. I was never going to get my tuition paid or a house deposit.

More importantly there's nobody to bail me out. Ever. If I get into debt, if I can't pay my rent, there's no bank of Mum and Dad to bail me out. The only safety net I have is a literal roof over my head at my Mum's . Which while I use it, I help pay for.

Those of us from backgrounds like this earn our keep (I've been working since I was 15) and we pay our way (I pay rent, I pay for everything else I have). Most importantly we work damn hard, because the fear keeps you going, as does the ethic passed down.

3. I'm willing to do anything to keep going. Because of the above I don't have the luxury of sticking to a 'career plan' I just have to work. And if that means taking a minimum wage job on top of teaching, or taking a job that pays 1/3 less and is about 4 steps down the ladder, you do it. And it's not your fault to need ot keep going.

These are just my examples. All of you out there have them, whether it's taking a career break to have children, taking a job because it fits being a carer for someone else, you moved because your partner did, you can't move because you don't have the means, you were ill, you are ill. Or even damnit if luck just isn't on your side.

It's not your fault.

If you're sick of hearing any of the following (And I know I am)

People complaining about their jobs that they've had for 10 years
People being surprised that you can't get a job doing whatever it is you're trying to do
People being surprised you're doing the job you're doing
That you're simultaneously over-qualified and under-qualified for a job
That you just missed being hired or shortlisted

If you're sick of people not understanding that:
Having/doing a PhD doesn't mean you've never worked
That it's an easy ride
That you should be able to easily get a job in academia
That you're not qualified for anything outside of academia
That you've not paid in cash, time or other sacrifices to do it.

If you're just plain sick and tired of:
Not being able to plan for 6 months time. Because you don't know what you're job situation will be.
Not being able to afford well...anything because of the above.
Feeling like you suck at what you're doing for a living
Feeling like you wasted your time, effort and money.
Using every spare waking hour trying to change the situation.

It's not your fault. None of it. As much as we tell ourselves we could work harder, as much as we compare ourselves to everyone else. It's not our fault. The world, our industry and plain old luck went to hell in a handbasket while we were all trying to contribute to society and do the thing we felt we were good at.

That's easy enough to think, when not confronted by someone who got in before it all went to hell. Who can't understand why you haven't paid off your student loans and bought a house. Or why if you're so clever you're doing this crappy job (which you clearly aren't good at). But it's not your fault. We're all working bloody hard out there.

And if I say it to my fellow PhD-ers enough, I might just believe it myself next time. Instead of crying in the toilets. Again.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Time to Talk- Talking about mental health

Not strictly a PhD blog, but certainly one that impacts. Today (Time To Change are holding Time to Talk day, a day to promote talking about mental health. I talked about mental health for the first time on this blog, and anywhere really here ( here)

So firstly PhD/academic life and anxiety/depression/mental health. I probably didn't realise how much I was suffering through my PhD and how much damage was done by it- that's something I'm still realising. Luckily on the flip side I've found younger academics I've met to be some of the most open about mental health and it's them who have led me to be able to write this for Time to Talk day.

So how did a PhD impact my mental health? well it didn't create issues, but it certainly brought to the surface and made worse ones that were already there-mostly because I felt I had to keep them hidden.

The constant criticism that's inherently part of a PhD/Academia will wear anyone down. Throw in someone prone to anxiety and depression and you can end up locked in a spiral of crippling self doubt. The constant competition in academia is also no good for mental health of those with anxiety issues, the constant comparison to other people, and the fear-nay the knowledge- you will never be good enough leaves you in a constant state of anxiety. And gives you a feeling of worthlessness. And the fact that you come out the other end not with a feeling of accomplishment so much as a set of things you haven't done as well as you could have and a knowledge of all the people out there better at it than you.

Academia didn't give me mental health issues, but the culture has exacerbated it. And if we were able to be more hoenst about the damage we were doing to ourselves, we'd be better equipped ot deal with it, adn life after the PhD.

Son as it's Time To Talk day, I thought I'd be honest about how anxiety and depression affect my life.

Depression is the easy one, I'm prone to fits of dark despair, of feeling worthless, lacking motivation and that nothing will ever be right again. I mean that's about it. I'm lucky I don't suffer that badly, I can usually pull myself on through after a few days. That's how it is for me. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth talking about.

Anxiety for me is the big one. Here's a few everyday things that send me through the roof:

1. Phones.
Hate them. Been known to drop it when it rings out of sheer 'get it away from me'
2. Driving.
I'm going to crash. I'm going to get lost. Multiply by 10 if I'm driving someone I don't know well. Or my Mother.
3. Being Late.
I'm always early. But I live in constant fear I will be late and the world will end.
4. Plans.
This can be plans I've made. A lack of plan. Plan being cancelled. All of these make me anxious.

Add these to an overriding sense that I'm always *this* close to being fired from my job, that I'm therefore going to run out of money, never be employed again etc etc. It's pretty exhausting.

The big one for me is relationships. I will remember the most flippant innocuous comment from years previous, and be convinced that a) I am an idiot b) that person that heard it still hates me for it.

That's the most superficial level of it though, I can kind of turn the volume down on that a bit. The biggy is this: I'm only ever one message or conversation away from thinking my friends hate me.

I'm lucky that some of my closest friends share the same issues I do. I can go to them and say 'Do you hate me? because you didn't answer my text last night' and they will get it. Other friends, who don't share it, will understand if I do a more 'normal' version of that, saying 'Hey we haven't talked in a while is everything ok?'

And then there are those who don't. I've been called annoying, even manipulative for asking the question or raising the concern that I may have done something wrong. Because that's what my brain tells me, that I must have screwed up. And logical me wants to fix the thing that illogical me is essentially making up.

So that's my anxious brain. Now maybe, just maybe if we really did make Time to Talk then instead I could just turn to friends and say 'Hey, my anxiety is really bad, and I'm thinking like this can you just reassure me it's all in my head'

Maybe if we could make Time to Talk, make it normal, I wouldn't have lost a friend of 8 years reccently because my anxiety made me insecure enough to ask one to many times. If we made Time to Talk maybe they'd have understood it was my anxiety talking not me.

Maybe if we made Time to Talk we'd all understand each other a little better.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Rejection hurts (especially five months later)

Today I received a job rejection.

Nothing new about that. I actually couldn't tell you how many I've received over the last say two years. What was unusual about that rejection it was for a job that I'd interviewed for five months ago.

Five. Months.

Now if I'd applied, not heard a thing and eventually got an automated HR email months later that's one thing. Often for application stage you don't hear a thing. That's annoying, but fine. If however I've interviewed, I've prepared, presented, taken time out of my existing work and often travelled. Then I deserve the courtesy of a personal response in a timely fashion.

What I got was a formatted HR email, with the option of "feedback" from someone in HR. Not even someone in the room. I'm going to come out and say it: it's disrespectful, to me, to the work I put into the application, the interview and everything that led to that point. At the very least I should have been offered feedback from someone on the panel, at the very least I'd usually expect a phone call. At the very least I'd expect all of this before five months.

Now this is unusual. It's extreme. But it's indicative of the way a sector is going. Academics, particularly early careers ones are now so many, we've become disposable.

And this is where the dichotomy becomes weird. Because to the wider system we're nothing. Nobody. Ten-a-penny and worthless. I get that, most of us get that who are out there now trying. But at the same time nobody can see us as anything BUT academics. So we're nothing to the wider world, and failures to the academic world.

This is also important when offering condolences to friends who have had rejection. I took this, which was my last ditch attempt at an academic job, as cementing proof of my failure. People on twitter were quick to reach out and assure me it wasn't failure, just re-framing my life.

Here's the thing. When that comes from someone who is a PhD doing something else (and happy)it means the world. More often it comes from a PhD who is an academic, who 'made it' and actually can't imagine doing something else.  Many of them also often lament how horrible academia is, how they 'wish' they were doing something else. And yet, they don't leave. And yet, I know they'd have framed any other path as a failure.

And so what now? I got an interview in my last ditch attempt before taking a temporary job out of academia. That I got that interview made me re-think applying again when something came up- I was a great on paper match for that job, but really what is the point? What is the next move?

Well it's resigning myself once again to failure. I always knew I wasn't good enough. But not being considered even a person enough for a polite timely rejection, that's the stuff that hurts.