Life in the Wilderness: Two years after the viva

In a previous blog post I wrote about my tips for surviving in academia as an early career researcher (ECR). Written some six months after my viva, I still stand by the majority of the statements I made in it. But time brings new perspective, so I wanted to share some more experiences that I’m finding common amongst early career researchers. Please let me know by commenting at the bottom of this blog post if you have had similar experiences or have anything to add!

1) The boat is pretty big.

One of the most ambivilent statements people make about academia is that there are so many people ‘in the same boat’. You could take this as a damning remark about the oversaturation of academia and the sheer volume of applications for jobs that are few and far between. Indeed, it is tempting to wonder how many people it will take before the boat starts to sink from the sheer weight. But you must also find comfort in the fact that others are struggling to establish themselves too. Yes, you are all applying for the same postdocs and ECR posts, but it is vital to network with people at a similar stage in their career for your own sanity. Everyone loves a good rant to clear their head, and no one will understand your woes better than someone who is in the exact same position. Who knows, these people might one day become department collegues and research partners!

2) Job hunting is soul destroying.

There is no way to sugar coat it- job hunting is horrible. I’ve submitted at least 50 applications since I started job hunting after my viva. I’ve been shortlisted once, for a postdoc at Liverpool, which I came very close to securing. The other 49 or so jobs have all been outright rejections. All of them have included the dreaded phrase ‘given the volume of applications received, we are unable to provide any feedback’. Outright rejection and no feedback can become a demoralising tag team. But jobs are so finite that you have to keep applying. Jobs.ac.uk have some great tips on how to adapt applications for each job. As with all of these tips, it is vital not to take rejection personally. The state of the job market means that hundreds of other struggling candidates will also have received the same impersonal rejection as you.

3) Rejection, rejection, rejection…

Rejection is everywhere. Not just jobs, but also funding bids, book proposals and journal submissions. Like job rejections, you have to try hard not to take these things personally. I’m very lucky to have secured a book contract with Boydell and Brewer, but it took a few false starts before my monograph found its rightful home there. The same goes for journal articles. I’ve had one article accepted immediately, while the others have needed revision before acceptance. I also have an entire article sat in my Google Drive that has suffered rejection (and is still looking for its forever home). The main message here is not to be disheartened and keep going. Publication acceptances and funding success will come eventually.

Even Heller’s great novel was once described as ‘giving the impression of having been shouted onto paper’.

While REF submissions are pressure enough for established academics, the need to publish turns into a bit of a Catch-22 situation for ECRs looking for work. Resources such as primary databases and journals are often behind paywalls that you can only unlock by working at a university. But in order to get such a job, you need to publish work based on such resources. See where the problem is? As an ECR with no affiliation, this lack of access can really hinder any efforts to publish your work. Networking with others still doing their PhD, established academics, and ECRs visiting archives you also need resources from, can all be vital lifelines. There is no shame in asking for favours, especially if you promise to pass the favour on to others when your lucky break finally comes. I’ve had so many friends and fellow twitterstorians help me out with resources I could not have accessed without their help.

This pressure can be very intense and can make ECRs rush to publish. While articles are important, you shouldn’t publish something that might prove to be a source of embarrassment later. Making sure an article is well written, well researched and importantly suitable for the scope of the journal will stand you in good stead, even if it means spending a month or two longer working on it before submission.

4) Form a (dis)orderly queue for jobs.

My last post about job hunting included the phrase ‘academia is a game, and you need to be willing to play in full knowledge that the rules are very often broken’. This proves itself true almost daily. People with no publications get jobs that demanded a strong publication record in the essential criteria. Some ECRs cherry pick jobs when they’ve already got a position others would kill for. Some find a permanent lectureship without a monograph to their name. The rules and requirements of academic employment are very often bent to the point of being almost unrecognisable. Some PhD students get ready made post-docs as soon as they pass their viva. Junior research fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge are fairly common each year, but often the odds of getting such a fellowship are the same as winning the lottery- even worse if you happened to study at a university that didn’t have bricks of a certain colour. Often people get jobs you are convinced weren’t even advertised. Mild paranoia soon follows. The challenge is to try and not let this leapfrogging the queue or pushing in at the front bother you too much. Keep focused on your own applications and opportunities and keep applying for jobs regardless. The situation isn’t likely to change any time soon.

5) Independent isn’t a dirty word.

Critics will be required to provide their own uniform.

Most people think that acknowledging you are an independent scholar is like admitting you have the Black Death in a room full of plague doctors. But you aren’t going to be lynched or locked away for it. In fact, it is becoming so common in academia now that most academics don’t bat an eyelid. Many are supportive of your plight and understand the pressures facing ECRs. It is best to surround yourself with those who are willing to help and support you. It is these people that will help you weather the storm.

6) There is life (and employment) outside of academia.

Gaining employment outside of academia caused me a whole world of anxiety at first. How was I going to find time to write, research and rewrite? Finding the time to rise and repeat this process ad nauseam was surely impossible alongside full-time work? My experience is that it is tough to find time, but you can find it. Evenings become office hours, lunch times are reading time, and weekends are for researching. All of these things have to be done in moderation (we are all only human after all) and paired alongside some time for rest and relaxation. I’ve published several articles and even revised my entire PhD for publication while also working a 37 hour full time job. While this isn’t ideal, such a situation also has positive apects- job security, consistent hours, work/life balance and quick promotion to name a few!

7) Look after your own mental health (no one else can!)

I’ve written posts before about how academia and good mental health often aren’t compatible bedfellows. Constant obstacles, pitfalls and rejections can cause ECRs to slip into an almost constant anxiety loop. Imposter syndrome, sometimes carried over from PhD study, can also intensify if you fail to secure a position quickly. Negative experiences can often produce negative emotions. One important tip when dealing with rejection (either for a job or publication) is to give yourself some breathing space. Read the feedback (if there is any) and then give it a day or so before addressing any criticism and devising a plan of attack for getting back in the ring. Both PhD students and ECRs need to give themselves time to breathe, both mentally and physically, in order to sustain good mental health. This could be a few hours off from writing or researching, having a day off from academic reading, or simply spending an evening watching something trashy on Netflix. Getting enough sleep, not burning the candle at both ends, and giving yourself permission to fail once in a while is more beneficial in the long run than running yourself into the ground now.

8) Academia is a lottery.

I mentioned this job lottery in a previous post and stressed that the ‘process is no reflection of you or your work’. These words are still true and central to looking after yourself while struggling as an ECR. Always remember that you are not your work. Rejection isn’t a condemnation of you as a person, your intelligence, your work ethic or your research. Articles can be rewritten, proposals restructured and bids reworked. There will be more jobs to apply for. None of this changes your own self worth. Try to stay positive, keep writing and submitting and let rejection glide off you like water off a duck’s back. Have faith that your day will come!