‘Thank you for your application…. The selection committee was very impressed by your skills and list of publications. However…. We wish you every success with future applications.’
Sadly, for most aspiring Early Career Researchers, this is all too familiar.
After another six-hour round trip to a prestigious university town for another stressful (and ultimately unsuccessful) job interview, I was exhausted, a little train-sick, and rather more than a little frustrated. But I was also brimming with thoughts for a new blog post. After all, six hours on a train gives you plenty of perspective and plenty of time to think.
In recent months there have been a number of insightful articles and blog posts published about the tribulations of being an (unemployed) ECR. As one such fledgling ECR, I am slowly discovering to my chagrin exactly how stressful this experience can be.
Compared to some others, I have been very lucky. I have a supportive supervisor and a new department into which I have been warmly welcomed. I also have some publications that, as we were constantly reminded as postgraduates, would be essential for establishing an academic career. Most importantly, I have support from my friends and family.
This blog post is not an intended criticism of the job market, but simply an opportunity to share thoughts and experiences (some funny, some stressful), and hopefully make other ECRs feel less overwhelmed by their own hunt for academic employment. Put simply, my fellow ECRs, you are not alone!
Over the past months, it has felt that many jobs designated as ‘early career’ are seemingly inaccessible to those who are in the very earliest stage of that early career. As a researcher straight out of your PhD, with a limited list of publications, you are at a disadvantage compared with ECRs with postdoctoral experience – experience that has allowed time to publish a few more of those precious peer-reviewed articles, time to possibly secure a book deal with an academic publisher, and time certainly to acquire an array of additional research-based skills.
I have lost count of the number of Research Assistantships and Fellowships for which I have received very courteous, but nonetheless very disheartening rejection emails. To streamline the rejection process, I created a folder on my desktop labelled ‘Rejections’ (to be honest, it is probably not the most healthy folder label). By November last year, after several months of constant rejections, I decided to further streamline this process by putting all cover letters and statements of research immediately into that folder. My reasoning was that, when (not if) my application was rejected, I wouldn’t have the added gloom of transferring the relevant documents to the ‘Rejections’ folder – it would have already been done.
But I eventually realised that, although I may have been wallowing in masochistic self-imposed misery, I was nonetheless keeping the documents for these unsuccessful applications. I kept them because I knew that, at some point, I would want to return to these cover letters and statements of research, dust them off, reshape them, and resubmit them as part of a fresh new application.
And it’s that little malformed kernel of optimism, even if terribly misplaced, that keeps us all going.
For example, last September I was speaking with a fellow ECR who could not understand my preparedness to relocate to another UK city (or indeed, overseas) for the sake of an academic job. They loved their university and were determined to stay, regardless of whether they were able to secure continued academic employment. This was certainly an unsustainable decision, but it was a decision based upon the beautifully optimistic belief that, because they loved their university, the wherewithal would be found to keep them. By the end of September, as the deadlines for external funding began to loom, they had revised this decision. But they were also much happier about the decisions they were making for their academic future. Basically, new reasons for optimism had emerged.
I’ve also had to radically revaluate my own expectations. I assumed that, although it would take time and many hysterical tears, I would eventually get a Fellowship – a nice full-time, fixed-term Fellowship that would excite the little grey cells and pay the bills. Although I’m still optimistic, my bulging ‘Rejections’ folder has persuaded me to start preparing for an indefinite time without an academic post. I’ve embraced the likelihood that I will be spending much of my time in part-time, piecemeal employment, be that teaching or short-term research.
Many of us struggle with this uncertainty. One colleague is reluctant to persist with academia if it means more than six months without secure employment. They simply cannot see themselves coping in this situation. By contrast, another just jokingly says that they would run away and join the circus.
So what to do, when you have little else (academically speaking) to do? Well, I’m doing my best to keep publishing. This is being done in addition to a seemingly never-ending succession of job applications, each needing to be tailored to a unique list of person specifications. Currently, I’m drafting a monograph proposal. If I can get it published, a book will be a valuable addition to any future applications; it will keep the CV ticking over. But of more immediate importance, writing a monograph proposal is giving me a renewed sense of purpose and allowing me to feel that I am still engaged with academia.
I hope this post has helped you, as much as it helped me to write it … to get a few anxieties and frustrations off my chest. I’d be interested to hear how you’re all coping in your own ways. Are you quietly anxious? Storing up your optimism? Or planning to run away and join the circus?