A Race Through Dark Places

NOTE: This is part of my JustHigherEd series, and will be linked to my blog on jobs.ac.uk shortly.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, I go for a three and a bit mile run. The Leicestershire Plain, where I live, is perhaps one of the most variedly beautiful places to do so. This morning, I headed down to Rothley Railway Station, part of the preserved Great Central Railway, past huge and beautiful houses I wish I had the money to own. It’s verdant around here: the greens are the lime colours of late spring, and over the top of swathes of grass, aquilegia, bluebells and forget-me-nots dance in feathered violet. The cherry blossom has fallen, and the corpses of the flowers produce a dapple of light on the shadowy pavement.

I think that it’s not too much of a stretch to compare the post-PhD job-limbo with a long distance run. In the early stages, you’re eager, fresh off the blocks and possibly moving too fast for your own good. I know I was applying to everything, saying yes to doing everything, and generally revelling in the freedom to fly.

In the middle stage, you realise that you can’t apply for everything, and that you have to slow your pace, be more selective and strategic. You find your level, and you keep with it. You work out where you want to be, develop a more strategic plan for getting there, and then work and work and work on it. This middle stage is the longest, and it has, like my runs down to Swithland Water, ruts and bumps in the road as well as patches of remarkable beauty.

There are times, when you’re looking for work, when you hit the wall. Your psychological glycogen stores become so depleted that you feel as though you can’t keep going. It hurts. You have two choices – to push on through that, or to stop, rest, recuperate, and start again. My Dad, who was a time trial cyclist, has told me about a habit himself and his team mates had of carrying a bar of Fry’s milk chocolate in their panniers. If they hit the ‘bonk’, as it were, and fell off their bike, a team-mate would stop, shove the chocolate in their mouth, dust them down, stick them back in the saddle, and send them off again. I think what I’m saying is that sometimes you need to take care of yourself, and let yourself be taken care of, when you hit the Post-doc wall.

Running is essentially a very solitary activity. Despite the fact that you are out in public, you are concentrating most of all on the movement of your own limbs, the weight of your muscles, the rise and fall of your chest. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in that insular self. The same is true when looking for a job: it would be so easy, and it is so easy, to place yourself inside an insulated rut of application after application, or of denying the reality of your situation, and continuing along in a haze. In the case of the latter, however, you’ll occasionally break out of your own denial, realise that you’re still running, and find that hard.

However, there are times when the emergence from the monotony of your own embodiment produces a vista of stunning quality. The act of running itself can be depressing – sometimes it hurts, sometimes you don’t feel like you’re trying hard enough, and sometimes you get so disheartened with the activity itself that you just want to stop. But then something cracks, and you emerge into a beautiful landscape, a living, breathing, vibrant place, in which you wish you could stay forever to gambol and play. I’ve sometimes lost faith in what I do, lost my enjoyment of it: but then, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, I find a joyous new piece of knowledge, a new idea, a new concept, and I’m off and running again, a child in an intellectual sweet shop.

The difference of course, between running and getting a job, is that you know how long you’re running for – whether it be a marathon or just a trip around the block. Your long-distance job hunt, however, has an end that is to some extent dependent upon the choices of others. That you can’t control, unless you take yourself off the track. I think it’s why that monotonous phase happens, and why it is so frightening. But it too will pass.

I’m not into big running. I don’t wear those fancy five-toed shoes, log the miles I’ve done, measure the time, vital statistics and calories on some fancy monitor watch, or log it on social media. I run because I love it, because I love the way it makes me feel, because it lets me think, because it loosens my frustrations, clears my head, because it lets me move in collaboration with the world around me. I am in my truest and happiest relationship with academia when I hit that point: when I may be working hard, dog tired and struggling, but when I am also at play.

Balance of Terror

NOTE: This will be linked to my blog on jobs.ac.uk shortly.

First of all, I wish to apologise for my absence the last couple of weeks. As I said in my previous post, I’d been in Aberdeen for the MEG conference, and the following day I headed into Norwich to have a meeting in regards to another project I am currently working on. Then I had an emergency job to do, which I worked on for most of the following week, along with the MEG post-conference treasury work, the accounts and admin for Leicester Hackspace, and another meeting about another project in which I appear to be becoming involved. Then the passwords system for the jobs.ac.uk blogs broke. Whilst I don’t intend any of these things as an excuse for my failure to blog, I would like to offer it as an explanation, and also as a lead into the main topic of my blog post today.

Early career academia is a tentative and unruly place. The ground you are standing on is never certain. Every choice that you make in regard to taking on work feels like it is potentially closing the doors to other things, as well as opening new possibilities. How do you make sure that the choices you make are the right ones? How do you know where to run the risk? How long do you dare to hang on for something more ideal?

I’ve been wondering this recently. I’ve become involved in a lot of things since my graduation, and I’ve begun to wonder if they are the right things to be doing. It’s the mercantile part of my mind playing these games, telling me to think if any job or activity has any benefit for my career. The irony is that I imagined, after my PhD, that I would feel less guilty about taking time out of ‘work’ (paid, or career focussed), to do something fun. And for a while, I did. I was happy taking time out during the day to watch films and sew. But, unfortunately, the guilt has returned, sneaking up behind me from two angles in some kind of covert pincer attack. One of the creatures whispers this: you aren’t spending enough time hunting for work. How do you expect to get anywhere when you aren’t spending all your time hunting for a job? The second creature creeps over the other shoulder, and whispers: you aren’t spending enough time exercising your brain, working on personal research projects. You aren’t developing your intellect further. And both of them whisper: you’re ignoring reality, and spending your time doing things to distract yourself from your pitiable state of employment.

So I’ve been wondering more and more if the things I am doing are the right things. Are they worth the risk? Am I failing in some way? Have I missed something? Are my present activities some kind of semiconscious self-sabotage? Ultimately, am I frightened of having a real job?

The answer to the last question is easy. Yes. I’m terrified. I love it when I get given responsibility, when people have faith in me, but it also terrifies me in case I can’t live up to it. I suspect, however, that I’m not the only one who feels small when faced with work, and has to plough through it with a mask of confidence.

Getting through the quicksandy, quagmirey landscape of early career academia is basically a giant game of poker. Poker requires that you both take risks and hang on if you want to win. And sometimes, you have to play your face, take a risk, and make a strategic manoeuvre that you aren’t sure is going to work: because it is genuinely possible for your big break to come from an entirely unexpected direction. That’s not to say you should sit back and wait for chance to find you – you shouldn’t. You can’t wait on your laurels, because chance is what you make it.

A very interesting game, this poker.