Most of my life has been spent in education. Barring a year out due to illness, I moved from GCSE to a PhD Scholarship with comfortable ease. Whether through ability, luck, or both, I was rarely rejected for any opportunity I applied for. It is only now that my PhD is over and the funding has ended that the harsh teeth of reality are beginning to bite. Reality has many teeth: the sharp incisors of economic necessity which grab you and pull you into the job market, even if you can’t see anything you want to do; the dull blunt molars of boredom, ennui and intellectual atrophy which, if you let them get you, will slowly grind you down.
But here I want to talk about the canines – the teeth with deep roots, which grasp and tear, the teeth which hurt and leave marks. For me, currently, the biggest of these are feelings of rejection, and they come in many different forms from many different sources, some intentional and some not.
Perhaps the least intentional is the feeling of rejection which occurs when you leave a department and a community you have been a part of for a long time. It’s an almost inevitable part of finishing a PhD, and an important way of moving on and growing as an academic. My advisor always encouraged me to adventure elsewhere after my PhD; it would develop my personal skills and knowledge, and take my own work outside the enclosed world of my department. I’d come to terms with the idea of leaving sometime late last year, and the idea of venturing further afield was an appealing one. But now that I have begun that process, I’ve realised how much that community meant – and still means – to me. Even though it was inevitable that my PhD would end, I never quite imagined how that would feel; and actually, it’s a very specific kind of rejection and loneliness.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not lonely through want of company, having a great partner and wonderful family and friends. It isn’t as though I have been ostracised; I still see many of my friends from my old department on a social basis. But I am no longer a part of that specific community, that very particular set of people going through similar experiences and working on projects in an environment that is, it seems, quite hermetically sealed. And that separation produces its very own, quite dully painful and chronic sense of solitude.
But there’s a form of rejection which is more acute and specific – that which occurs when job applications are turned down. Since submitting in December, I have had one job interview (unsuccessful), and multiple rejections without interview. Opening every rejection email, no matter how nicely it is phrased, brings with it all the nerves, all the disappointment and then all the numbness that I remember from when, aged ten, I opened the letter that informed me that I had failed my grammar school exam. I’m not that different now from that child, and every rejection still makes a toothmark on my sense of self-esteem. I wonder if I am valuable outside my previous academic context, if I do have anything to offer to that wider world about which my supervisor used to speak, whether that wider world is at all interested in anything I have to say and how I say it.
But this is something it is necessary to get used to. With so many applicants for every academic and postdoctoral position and a worryingly low number of successful applicants gaining permanent posts in the end, it doesn’t look like life as a post PhD, pre-academic-career individual is going to get easier any time soon. But in the end, you just have to keep trying, and using your available time whilst job hunting to keep your academic hand in and make yourself as attractive as possible. It’s something I’ve yet to learn to do successfully and fully.
Rejection bites for many different reasons, not all of which the person rejected can understand or know. As someone who takes dismissal quite personally, I can’t legitimately tell you to not take it to heart. But I can tell you to constantly evaluate how much this kind of career is worth to you – and that if it is the thing you most want in the world to do, then no matter what, you simply have to persevere: and know that it can take months, even years, to get there. However, you should also know that, in the meantime, there are things that you can do.