In our first guest blogger post about ECR life and issues, a recent PhD graduate talks about life after thesis, that is, the emotional and psychological side of it. Whether you have just submitted or are still in the last stages of writing up, it is worth bearing in mind that the process outlined in this contribution is, though of course depending on your individual situation, nevertheless a) likely to happen, b) completely normal, and c) might repeat itself. The post-viva stage is challenging to navigate for a variety of reasons, especially if you are facing the long summer months with their few (academic) information and fewer job advertisements. Being aware of the psychological challenges and knowing you are not alone feeling this way will hopefully help in enduring the five stages of early post-doc life.
How I learned to stop worrying and love the academic job search (ok, tolerate it)
By Caitlin Vance
If you’re a film fan, you’ll have likely recognised my winky reference to Stanley Kubrick’s cult film of 1964, “Dr Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”. Which makes this post detailing my experiences as an early career researcher navigating the post-PhD waters seem awfully grim. Even vaguely self-punishing and nihilistic.
My story is admittedly far from tragic. But to say it hasn’t been easy would be something of an understatement. In the six months since I successfully defended my PhD/DPhil in Modern Languages at Oxford, I’ve unwittingly gone around several times on a familiar roller-coaster of academic and professional anxiety, one recounted in excruciating, horrifying detail by far more experienced bloggers elsewhere on the interwebs (see here and here for particular hair-raisers).
After a particularly bad summer following my viva, in which I seemed to go through the stereotypical 5 stages of grief as I realised a PhD from Oxford was not a meal ticket to even a temporary lecturing post, I’ve finally come through to the other side. Here’s how I learned to stop worrying so much and accept, if not love, the awkward and painful transition out of the PhD and into the murkier waters of the job market.
Stage 1: Shock
In April, I passed my viva with flying colours. My examiners liked the thesis; nay, they seemed to love it. They saw a book in my future. They recommended publishers. They said they’d be “happy” to write letters on my behalf.
I emerged thinking I had made it, baby. PhD in pocket, the sky was the limit. I beamed at my viva drinks. It was time to finally start the career of my choosing.
Then, kerplunk! Splaaaat. All that. Since I’d chosen not to start the draining process of job and postdoc applications until the thesis was done and dusted, I left my viva a fresh (if not exactly young), naïve candidate convinced I should be able to land a temporary post without too much trouble. Sure, the market was tough: I read the Chronicle and the Times Higher Education Supplement. I had heard the woeful tales of underemployment and perpetual hourly teaching gigs (and seen them circulated like pulp horror fiction on Facebook). But people tended to exaggerate. I sent out a first set of applications for lecturer positions and for a postdoc. Someone at a European University had agreed to sponsor my project, and she seemed confident that I’d nab that particular postdoc with her help.
When I didn’t even get shortlisted for the postdoc in question, I burst into tears. I’d imagined myself at this particular university, working with this particular person, in vivid detail, and she had seemed so assured I’d at least get an interview. Holding the thin letter in hand, something crumbled in me. Call it the dream of a smooth transition, of smooth waters ahead as I reaped the benefits of a world-class degree in my field.
A few more rejections followed that same week, as did many tears and listless days listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, wondering how I could have taken what seemed like a spectacular fall (full disclosure: I’m occasionally a bit of a drama queen). I applied for more jobs, and more rejections (or radio silence) ensued. Repeat cycle of tears, Nick Cave, bad TV.
Stage 2: Anger
Coming out of the wilderness of shock and raw disbelief at the realisation that I was on a treacherous and uncertain professional path, rather than embarking on my dream career, stage 2 of the grief process hit me over the head like a blunt instrument. I was furious. Furious at my advisors and examiners for not warning me it might be like this. At neoliberal capitalism for co-opting the university and turning it into what seemed like an elaborate pyramid scheme, recruiting more graduates than it could possibly employ. At the Faculty, for what I deemed their lack of moral backbone and determination to stop the wholesale casualization of education, and for exploiting early career researchers.
I spent sleepless, fitful nights reading the excellent analyses of Sarah Kendzior and Rebecca Schuman, two ex-academics who are fierce critiques of the neoliberal takeover of the university system, and the plight of the untenured (for the record, I still agree with most of their points). I announced to anyone willing to endure my ranting that I was considering telling academia to kiss my &@S. I took up coding, imagining an alternative career as a programmer (huh?), and bought a book on alt-ac and post-ac careers. I fumed. Until….
Stage 3: New hope…and negotiating
I finally got an interview! An actual interview! In rubber-band-snap motion, I swung from bitter renunciation to a sudden sense of new hope. I could give this academia thing a try after all—my imagined outcome was still, perhaps, not out of reach. Someone out there had noticed me, and shortlisted me for an interview. I spent weeks preparing the sample syllabus, investigating the university. I stumbled a bit through the actual interview (I had not done my homework on what the format—actually quite predictable—of a typical interview for a Lectureship in the UK was.
I was nervous, but thought I did well enough. Leaving the interview, I remained full of hope. They seemed to like my syllabus! And said I should hear back by Monday at the latest. So I waited…
Stage 4: Depression
I waited, but heard nothing. Crickets. Two weeks after my interview, I wrote a friendly e-mail to the HR rep asking for feedback, but received no response (and still haven’t).
Despite knowing that it’s very unusual for a first interview to yield a job, I sunk into a mild depression. I would be starting the school year with no academic post or postdoc to my name. I felt ashamed. On the phone, my grandmother asked, “Have you found a real job, yet?” Lucky enough to have a decent income from freelance writing and editing—I’m a small business owner—I nevertheless felt like a total failure. What good had this PhD done, anyway?
You can guess what came next: more crying, more Nick Cave (plus some vintage Leonard Cohen and Cocteau Twins for extra-melancholy measure), and more numb searches on alt-ac and post-ac sites. I felt like Sisyphus, but no longer wanted to roll the damned boulder back up to the top of the mountain.
Stage 5: Acceptance, and moving forward
Somehow, in the ruins of my imagined post-PhD life, I found something like a pragmatic middle ground. I continued to apply for positions and postdocs, and found ways to improve my job application materials (I noted, for instance, that my CV had been lacking some important details, which may have hurt my chances). I networked and landed some teaching for the year at Oxford. I managed to secure affiliation with an Oxford Institute after asking a sympathetic Fellow there whether they’d be willing to have me as a Research Associate. They said yes. This affiliation has eased things for me in what feels like a self-styled, largely self-funded postdoc year.
Things still aren’t “ideal”. I still don’t know where exactly I’m going. I continue to be highly critical of current trends in the academic job market: ones that threaten to crush the souls and hopes of a whole generation of new scholars, and keep many in long-term precarity. I may opt to do something else, in the end.
But last week, I had an interview for a permanent Lecturer Post at a university where I’d be happy to work, and am waiting to hear back as this goes to press. It was a positive experience, and as I left the interview, I was pleased to note that I had gotten my groove back. I believe I’m a good candidate, and I’m willing to fight a little longer and a little harder for the right job. The important thing? I came out the other side of Post-PhD grief, and I feel stronger for it.