On no longer being an early career researcher

I haven’t published anything on this blog for over a month. However, I wrote the following post in the first week of January but never got around to posting it due to the pressures of various deadlines. Since writing it, some of the points raised have been overtaken by events, but I am posting this now as it is relevant to what has happened to me over this past week, which I am still digesting. I will write more about that next week, when I have had a chance to reflect further.

Before Christmas I wrote a post looking back over the past year, attempting to take stock of the range of activities and opportunities that the centenary of the First World War presented to an early careers fellow researching the period. In the end, the post ended up being as much a moan about the exhausting, prolonged nature of applying for research funding as a celebration of concrete research achievements. Nonetheless, I was able to end my working year on a reasonably positive and hopeful note, even if one which brought with it rather a lot of work over the Christmas holidays.

So now, at the start of the new year (and having done only about a third of the work I set myself over the break), I pause again, this time to look forward to what the new year has to offer. And with this pause comes the realisation that, for me, 2015 will, above all else, bring the end to the ‘early’ phase of my career. As of July, it will be ten years since I was awarded my PhD. Even taking into account the generous 18-month allowance that many grant-making bodies now give as credit for each of my two periods of maternity leave, there are no early career grant schemes that I am aware of which accept applications from candidates with that amount of time elapsed since the award of a PhD. From this summer onward I am no longer an ECR, at least as an applicant.

So what will I become this year? Well, as it stands, possibly unemployed as of the end of April, although enough opportunities are still outstanding that I am hopeful this won’t be the case. But the possibility, presented just on the cusp of this loss of career-progression identity is rather terrifying. While I can now lay claim to a number of publications and a wealth of experience that I have accrued since I was last on the job market, the limits that no longer being able to define myself as an ECR place on my ability to apply for specific grant schemes make me a potentially less attractive candidate. With two small children, one happily settled in his school, and a mortgage, the fallback of temporary teaching contracts at whatever university will hire me looks even more unattractive than it did at the outset of my academic career (and that is before you factor in the growth in the use of zero-hours contracts in academia).

And yet, for all the fear that this change in status induces in me, I remain hopeful. Because if ceasing to be an ECR means anything it means that I am not starting afresh. Whatever my new identity will be as of July, it will be backed up by the experience I have accrued over the past ten years and the confidence that that experience brings. This is more than the items listed on my CV, although reading through it can give me courage, even after the twelfth revision in as many months. It comes from the good working relationships with colleagues I have developed, the esteem expressed in grant referee reports for my ideas, the invitations to speak, the requests to supervise. These are all things I have achieved as an ECR, things which will stand me in good stead as I embark on becoming whatever it is I am yet to become.

Imposter syndrome is rife in academia and yes, most of the time I remain incredulous that I should be taken seriously as an academic, a situation exacerbated by the rather convoluted route I took as an ECR which saw me taking a five-year break from academic employment. But right now, for this moment of looking forward, I do so with the belief that, wherever my career eventually ends up, I have made that most of the ‘early’ stage of my career, and the hope that, whatever the next steps may turn out to be, the next stage will be as fruitful and productive.

Bring it on!