A quickie on academic work/life balance and the pressure to apply, apply, apply …

The other day, I read Rachel Moss’s post on the subject of academic work/life balance. She titles it ‘Choosing Not To Give,’ and it was timely for me, as she speaks about balancing the demands of having a baby with the demands of having an academic career, something I’m going to have to learn about in short order.

I’ve read a lot of Rachel’s posts on this broad theme of career expectations, and I remember finding her post about applying for jobs (which I came across when I really needed to read something reassuring!) really helpful. There, she pointed out that the common advice to early career academics, to stop being snobby about jobs and to look beyond Oxbridge, is based in a misconception about where the jobs are – and she noted, too, that when she got her own Oxbridge job, it wasn’t the most attractive option she was offered, it was the only option. It’s an awesome job, so her point is well made.

The two posts together got me thinking about the choices we make as early career academics. At the moment, career choices are on my mind, as I’ve just finished a 26 month postdoc as a Teaching Associate at Cambridge, and I’m currently freelance teaching on the same courses for a couple of Cambridge colleges. The transition from ’employed’ to the dreaded status of ‘Independent Scholar’ has been pretty gentle for me as a result of this freelancing. It’s let me stay in the same place, use the same libraries, teach the same courses (ish), and enjoy networking with the same lovely colleagues. I didn’t even have to ceremonially return all of my library books, though I have said goodbye to my office key. My situation is paradoxically both more and less scary because we’re also expecting our first baby in March. More scary, because – argh, a baby, what if I never write again and she screams all day and my brain dribbles out of my ears and I never get a job and we end up living in the gutter and busking with a repertoire of the more tuneful bits of Lydgate?

Less scary, because realistically, it gives me something to concentrate upon and a very good motivation for working hard. It’s made me prioritise. Yes, I could apply for exciting temporary jobs in the US, or starry visiting fellowships in European libraries. But it’s not really a good idea for me, in terms of that work/life balance. And, in the time I could have spent putting together applications for highly competitive, short-term posts, I have written two solid chapters of my book, which is now in much better shape than it was last October (aka, the end of the first trimester). I’m fairly confident that not applying for things was actually the right decision for me – so why do I feel a constant need to justify what I’m doing?

In academia at the moment, I think there is a pressure to be seen to be applying for every job, every grant, every opportunity – however time-consuming it might be, however unlikely it might be that you get it, and however much you might anticipate (deep down) a sinking cold feeling of dread at the prospect of actually having to do (relocate for, retrain for) said job if you got it. You can’t get the jobs you don’t apply for! people remind us. There’s an almost superstitious element to it: if you miss applying for one job, if you forget to salute one magpie, you might bring down the wrath of the Hiring Gods for next time.

At the moment, I’m trying to spend my time more carefully, applying for a smaller number of things. I worry that this can be seen, not just as the lazy option, but as the arrogant option. Some academics (ECR and senior) give the impression that you’re not doing every single thing you can (including, frankly, unrealistic things that waste other people’s time as well as your own), then you must be complacently assuming a permanent job will fall into your lap. So, we write defensively (as I do) about changing priorities, about the demands of our families, about the importance of self-care and health. All of these things matter, of course. But I think it also matters to acknowledge that sometimes, we apply for things because of this pressure to be seen to be applying, and that’s bad in itself, no matter what external work/life considerations we might be keeping in mind.

Applying for a Postdoc. First, imagine you are an idiot …

Ok, just a rant.

I read the Guardian HE section, on and off, and sometimes it’s quite helpful and interesting. Not so much, today. Today we have a guide to getting a postdoc. I started reading, winced at the stats (14% of Arts and Humanities PhDs end up with research posts), and got settled in to the advice section. This is advice culled (and, I suspect, heavily edited down and decontextualised) from a group of senior academics. I’m sure they meant really well, and I’m fairly sure they don’t actually believe their PhD students are idiots, but … really?

It’s easy to be mean. “Be cautious about firing off out-of-the-blue emails” made me snort. There’s a bit of a stereotype of well-intended advice you get from your bewildered family (‘she seemed so smart at school, but she’s 29 and still just reading things’), which includes ‘couldn’t you just send Oxford your CV and ask if they’ve got anything?’ I suppose it’s nice to know that this is, like, officially frowned upon, but I kinda think most of us have worked that one out.

On the positive side, reading this article it would seem that the competition for jobs includes people who’ve completed a PhD and still haven’t cottoned on that applying using the form and guidelines provided, as opposed to, perhaps, interpretative dance, would be a great start. If these really are the hurdles at which most prospective postdocs fall, then really, we should all be celebrating.

What bothers me most about this advice, though, is that I think some of it is actually wrong. Tucked in amongst snippets I think my careers advisor told me when I was 16, there’s this:

Applying when you don’t meet the essential requirements is a waste of time. It also has reputation costs. If you get a number of applications that is not huge, you will tend to remember names from one time to the next. It doesn’t make a good impression to receive the application of someone a second time if you still remember that this person applied for another job for which he or she was not suitable at all. It sends a signal that they are not attentive to detail, which is something highly valued in academic jobs. (Laura Morales, professor in comparative politics, University of Leicester)

I see where she’s coming from with this, and I bet it is really frustrating to keep getting the same puppy-eyed candidate popping up everywhere, but I think this needs unpicking.

When I started applying for jobs, I didn’t get anywhere. Nada. Not even a call to interview. At some point, my supervisor started sending me job adverts, for jobs for which I wasn’t qualified. And I’d write back and point out, look, they’re asking me to have experience supervising MA candidates, and I don’t. Or, look, they only want someone with publications, and I don’t have any. One day, I fired off an application for a teaching job at Cambridge, for which I didn’t meet the job spec.

I can’t actually remember how I didn’t meet the spec now. I was so sure I wasn’t going to need it that I deleted the job particulars from my computer after I’d sent in my application. Don’t try this at home, kids. It’s really annoying when you get called for interview and have only a hazy memory of what you’re applying for. On a related note, when you’re in the interview and they ask if there’s any reason you applied for the one-year post and not the twenty-six month one, you should probably find something better than ‘nah, I was just disorganized’. Also, when they phone you a couple of hours after the interview, that’s a good sign. You want to be listening for your phone to take that call. You do not want to be fannying around Cambridge, such that the very kind head of the Search Committee has to ring you back at 9pm.

At every stage in the process, I did not expect to get that job. Because I’ve read an awful lot of pieces like the one in the Guardian, and they all made me feel as if I was bound to fail – for the most trivial reasons – before I’d even started.

What’s telling about my experience – other than the fact that, clearly, I am an idiot – is that an awful lot of women (and, I’m sure, some men) do the same things. We don’t expect to get jobs. We read the stats and we know that only 14% of us will get research jobs (NB: mine is not a research job). And we look at our own CVs and they never measure up to what the job is asking for.

I know there are far more very good people than there are academic jobs. I can believe it’s really frustrating to come across candidates who make the really basic mistakes described in the Guardian article. But I think there is a bigger problem with articles like this one, which don’t really provide any useful advice that couldn’t be gleaned from a sixth-form careers day. They suggest we’re all failing to get jobs because, really, we’re all a bit lazy, stupid, and unmotivated. We think too highly of ourselves and expect we’ll be considered without having the courtesy to fill in a proper application form, wait for an official job advert, or bother to get to know people in the field.

I’ve no idea how you get a postdoc. Luck, probably. But you definitely don’t get a postdoc if you keep telling yourself you’re no good and might as well not apply.