Initially, I only wanted to post a response to Emily’s post on failure but once the comment went past a couple of paragraphs I decided this probably deserved a proper write-up, especially given how much time I spent over the past week reflecting on that piece. It is after all, such an emotive subject and such a pervasive story which makes me think of heroic quest where the hero, with a fresh PhD in their hand, embarks on a journey to secure an academic post and has to overcome numerous obstacles, including but not limited to un(der)employment, insecure contracts, having to cope with rejection and uncertainty. The assumption seems to be that if the hero persists long enough s/he will finally be rewarded and that the academic job is the ultimate prize, or as I heard it described so many times, “the best job in the world”. And then conversely, if the hero decides to abandon their quest prematurely or decides to change direction, then that signifies failure. This is something that I wonder about the path I have personally taken and you could argue I failed to be an academic as well. After all, I don’t really need a PhD to implement software although the ability to speak “academese” does come in handy when working in a university IT department. There are days, I must admit, when I wonder about the choice I made and about the paths I haven’t taken, especially as I haven’t veered that far off academia in physical sense. The building where I work is no ivory tower, more a drab 70s building but I am not out there teaching or researching and the more time I spend on professional services side, the less likely it is that I will resume on the academic path. In that respect, you could argue that my experience could be subsumed under that failed quest, failure to be and to become an academic.
Except the story doesn’t really paint the full picture and something that my academic training has given me is the ability to critique certain narratives and ask myself and others about whose voices are getting silenced and which elements get missed out. To start with, there is the socio-economic context and the brutal laws of supply and demand, there are simply too many PhD graduates in proportion to the amount of academic jobs available. Most importantly, over the past couple of decades, the UK Higher Education systems has undergone vast changes, with introduction of tuition fees, a move towards a more managerial approach in terms of how universities are run, with students becoming customers and universities aspiring to become more business-like and that also involves a shift from permanent academic positions to “more flexible forms of employment” (such as fixed term contracts, teaching only contracts, zero hours contracts). Permanent academic roles are changing as well, and not always necessarily for the better, with increasing pressures put on lecturers who are forced to juggle research, teaching and administration whist having to engage with various external quality frameworks such as the infamous Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework looming on the horizon. So at the end of the journey the hero may find that the quest did not necessarily result in reaching “the life of mind”, more like a place where there are never enough hours in the day to finish the work that is required and where flexibility means that instead of being constrained to working 9-5, you can choose to work all the hours you possibly can and some more. Which obviously is a bit of an exaggeration but the problems of overwork in academic roles are definitely real and well documented for instance by UCU in their Annual Stress Survey.
There is something else about the failure story, that stubborn quest to achieve the goal no matter what, that bothers me. It seems to say that if you try hard enough, you will succeed in the end which implies that if you didn’t succeed, surely you didn’t try hard enough. But how much should anyone be willing to sacrifice in the process of trying to get a job? Because at the end of the day, it is just a job, not an identity or the essence of a person and that is where I believe the story becomes really insidious by equating failure to secure a specific type of a role with a more global sense of failure on a personal level. When I was initially considering my options as I was nearing the end of the PhD, I remember the messages, some of them out in the open, some of them unspoken from the academics in my department and then the department where I later worked as a research assistant and they all boiled down to positioning the academic career path as the most superior choice. The research assistant role was rather insecure and low-paid but at least it was a step in the right direction, and I still remember how hurt I was by the principal investigator reacting extremely negatively when I decided to take up a role as project manager within the HR department. It didn’t matter that there was no funding to continue my role and I would be made redundant, he made it clear to me that I was making a mistake and the move into professional services meant I was wasting my PhD and my research skills. He didn’t have to mention the word failure, I knew he felt I should have held out for an academic role and not take a job that moved me further away from being able to secure a lectureship further down the line, even though at that point I knew I didn’t want one. Once again, in his eyes, I failed as an academic, even if that move meant that I took a step towards carving out a career in project management which makes me far happier and more balanced than trying to continue down the path that others have decided I should follow.
Last but not least, if we talk about failure, then we should talk about its opposite, that is success. If we define success as securing an academic role in X years out of PhD then yes, I have failed and perhaps so has Emily. If we define success as the ability to adapt to circumstances and create a life where work is just one aspect, where it builds on our strengths and values then I would suggest that maybe it is time to rewrite that particular story and celebrate a myriad of alternative endings.