A few last thoughts on the ‘tunnel’; or a love letter to my colleagues

I quite badly want to start writing about writing my book, my next big project now that I have landed a job. (And yes, it is official, my letter of employment was signed and delivered to HR two days ago.)

But before I do, there are, I discover, a couple more things to say about my experiences over the past month and, in particular, about the experience of academic rejection.  Because while I do now have a permanent job, of all the certainties I have in life, none is more certain than that I will again experience academic rejection of the sort I experienced when my Wellcome application was turned down.  It may (and indeed probably will) take the form of a rejected article or book proposal.  It may (and again probably will) take the form of a rejected grant application.  Because while a permanent job in academia may seem like a holy grail from the far side of temporary contracts, the reality of the academic marketplace today means that in-and-of itself such a position does not bring complete security.  Tenure-track is not tenure and any academic job, even a tenured one, brings with it expectations that you will bring in research funding.  This expectation may not be as onerous as some recent terrible examples, most dreadfully the case of Stefan Grimm, but it is nonetheless there, stated plainly in the terms of my probation, that at the end of three years I will have secured significant funding and by the end of five years have a ‘sustained record’ of grant funding.  I know I will be supported, and on the evidence to date, the likelihood is that I will meet this probationary requirement, but the funding landscape in this age of austerity is pretty bleak, so the experience of rejection of carefully crafted, passionately believed-in applications is also likely.

Of course, I won’t be faced with the elemental fear that accompanied my last rejection in the sense that I will have, at least for five years, a job even if I don’t have research funding.  But how much consolation does that offer in the face of rejection of a project, an idea that you have poured your heart and soul into?  Academic projects can be deeply personal, especially ones which require immense effort and time to put together (as almost all do).  And the ways in which projects are examined and critiqued as part of the evaluation process, generally with rigorous knowledge and attention to detail, can make subsequent rejection feel even more overwhelming.  No surprise then that not only have I experienced rejection as a flattening process, but I have also seen colleagues with secure jobs shattered, at least temporarily, by the experience of being turned down by a funding council or a grant-making body.  It is simply part of academic life, learning to deal with that sort of rejection. Again and again and again.

How do we cope?  Because we do have to learn coping strategies if this cycle is not to destroy our mental health.  And not all of us do terribly well, as the extensive literature on mental health in academia illustrates.  Most of the rest of us find personal strategies – temporary retreat to a dark room, exercise, a bottle of gin, compartmentalizing, a sympathetic non-academic spouse or partner.  In the case of my Wellcome application, I was force to compartmentalize due to the timescales I faced, but running probably helped keep me sane.

However, in the end, it was not my own resources, or even the looming deadlines, that kept me from despair but the immediate support of my colleagues.  From a sympathetic coffee and slice of cake to an advice session with my mentor, from the quick ‘Are you alright?’ in the corridor as I struggled to keep my emotions in check to allowing me (when I was ready) to dissect at length what had gone wrong with the application, work friends and colleagues provided the time, space and emotional energy which kept me going.

If the negative side of academia is the intensity, pressure and scrutiny of the grant application process, then this collegiality is the flip side of the coin, one of the things that, where it exists, makes academia an extraordinary and desirable place to work.  In myriad ways it allowed me to feel that I and my ideas were valued above and beyond the financial value of the grant itself.  And yes, it made the eventual success in gaining a fellowship all the sweeter in two ways.  In the first place, knowing that I will be working with such supportive colleagues in such a supportive atmosphere is both a joy and a confirmation that this is the right job for me. And in the second place, I now have the opportunity to contribute to that collegiate atmosphere myself, to pay back the support I have received by supporting those around me. So I start my new role with my own small probationary requirement for myself – that I do all in my power to support those who were so supportive of me.

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