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.