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.