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.

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!