This post is by Ella o’sulllivan
Last autumn I made a decision. I was getting out of academia. I wish I could say that I made this decision sitting in my book lined office overlooking the ivy clad university quad, but no, I made it sitting on my bed, with my laptop propped up on a pillow in front of me and a list of edits as long as my arm that needed to be made to an article if I wanted it to be published. I was used to making any number of changes to get an article published, but this time the referee so flagrantly disagreed with my opinion that she had even thrown in recommended changes that were factually incorrect. So much so that she had confused a digital format of an existing book as a new edition, and admonished me for failing to reference the more “recent” work. I could almost see her googling furiously, glass of wine in hand, laughing manically at having found an extra point to add to an already four page list of criticisms. I wouldn’t mind, but I wasn’t even getting paid for this. I wasn’t getting paid for writing the article or for being a researcher. I was essentially working as an academic for free. If I wanted to be insulted for free, I could go on the X-Factor! So instead of going for another academic interview I chose to go to one for a temp job in the Irish Civil Service instead.
I had been interviewing for nearly three years at this stage and the final few months had been the toughest I had experienced. I had done everything I could. The first year I went interviewing I had only one publication- well two including my thesis. So I wrote furiously to make up for this gap and took on teaching work which paid by the hour but took up whole weeks in preparation. I went interviewing for the second year having won an essay competition for one of my articles. If all else failed, I would surely get more part-time teaching work this year, after all my students had performed well in their exams and rated my classes highly in the student evaluation. But no, when I enquired about work for the coming year, I was told that my existing class wouldn’t even be running and all other teaching had been allocated. It couldn’t have helped that the person who hired me was on maternity leave. I was basically starting from scratch trying to get work from someone who didn’t know me.
I continued to interview, to write articles, to sit up at night planning the articles I should be writing, so that someone would hire me. I went abroad, naively thinking that no college would agree to pay expenses for someone who had to fly in if they weren’t serious about hiring them. I met people from China with similar ideas as we sat next to our competition in the UK- people who were already teaching in the college and hadn’t even bothered to dress up for the interview. Sometime last September I went for my last academic interview. It was a disaster. By now I had lost all my confidence. To top it off, when the head of the department came to collect me from the holding room I had been waiting in for nearly an hour, he informed me, in passing, that the presentation was for 20 minutes. The invitation to the interview had stated no more than 10, in bold, as if to say, go over this time at your peril. I showed a print-off of the emailed invitation to the head of department expecting him to say that he had made a mistake. But no, he seemed to consider the human resources’ error as entirely mine. I gamely said that I would just keep talking (i.e. double the length of my presentation) with a smile. I failed miserably at this. The whole time I was talking I was trying to think of ways to extend the presentation so I ended up stuttering and stumbling over my words as if I wasn’t familiar with my research at all. I left knowing I had blown it. I couldn’t even go home with my tail between my legs as I still had to sit through the interview the following day.
Two months later I took up the temp job in the Civil Service. It pays badly, but it pays something more than academia was paying me (not difficult when your starting rate is zero). And it turned out not to be too bad. I have met people who are friendly and are willing to talk to me. All through my time in academia I had had to eat my lunch on my own and was forever running into snooty academics who would pretend not to see me when I said hello. Even when an academic might say something to me, it was often something bizarrely catty like “you strike me as a sad person” (yes, a grown adult did actually say that to me). But the job is temporary and because it is the Civil Service, temporary jobs cannot be made permanent. And I am thirty two, going on thirty three. I live at home with my parents (no boys allowed). My boyfriend also lives at home, albeit with more flexible parents. But it’s not fun having to traipse out every weekend to spend time with my boyfriend in my thirties. My aspirations are low. I would like to be able to rent my own small place and pay for my food. At the moment, I just want a job so that I can afford to look after myself, but I would like to have children someday, and as a woman, I have a count-down clock limiting my opportunity to do so.
For me, and many others, not being able to get a job in academia has more serious consequences than just not being able to get a job in academia. It’s about not being able to live your life without being dependent on other people. It’s about other people not wanting to recognise the qualifications that you worked so hard to attain, because people who don’t have a PhD often quite like to think that a PhD is useless. And although it is pretty worthless when it comes to job hunting in a non-academic world, it has equipped me with some pretty useful skills (which I highlight in the many versions of my CV cluttering up my desktop). Like all PhD graduates, I am a wizard at fact checking, can write up reports quickly and proof-read in my sleep, am an excellent problem solver and tenacious when it comes to getting large volumes of work done accurately and efficiently. But with that PhD around my neck, I don’t know if I will ever be able to catch a break.