I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the post of my fellow Post-PhD life blogger, Ellie Mackin on her experiences of job insecurity one year out of PhD and the bitter-sweet success of getting shortlisted for a major postdoctoral scheme and receiving very positive feedback from reviewers, alas no job. I’ve also been thinking about what yet another Post-PhD life blogger, Emily Garside shared on her personal blog where she wrote quite frankly about the loneliness of job hunting and surviving what sounds like a fairly rubbish summer of unemployment. And I remember feeling similarly broken during what felt like an interminable job hunt last year, going up and down the country for interviews, getting radio silence or canned feedback in the form of “unfortunately, on this occasion, we went with another candidate”. Or even worse, receiving feedback that “my enthusiasm for the role wasn’t shining through” and not even having the energy to laugh or be angry given that I had travelled five hours for that interview, prepped for days and gave them all I had during the various assessments on the day so I felt I was enthusiastic enough. Last year, I had a fairly rubbish summer myself and feared that this would lead to an even worse autumn followed by disastrous winter as I was being made redundant in December. In the end, I did find a job by the end of the summer but I haven’t forgotten the pressure of the ticking clock and the fear of ending up unemployed, having to rely on my partner even though that obviously was a privilege in itself.
I also remember that there was a certain point during the summer when I still felt stuck and very much in limbo but had a glimmer of hope even though I wasn’t naïve enough to think that positive thinking was going to do it; just to set the record straight, that is absolutely one of my pet peeves. But what I wanted to share in this post is that during my darkest moments I weirdly found solace in what felt like the most unlikely place, online discussion forums devoted to infertility. I am not a parent nor was I ever interested in even attempting to be a parent, I can’t even remember what prompted me to start reading the discussions in the first place. I’m guessing it could have been something as random as idly clicking on links from an article I was reading as a means of escaping from feeling down about job hunting. However, almost immediately I found myself nodding and seeing parallels between my situation as someone struggling with redefining myself as an ex-academic and a job seeker and the posters who wrote about the shock of losing the certainty that their path to motherhood would be a linear, straightforward one. Their identities were equally shaken and they felt exhausted from the effort to try to endure the often painful treatments, staying upbeat and coping with well-meaning but often ignorant and hurtful comments from friends and strangers alike. A bit like people telling you to relax about a forthcoming job interview and “just be yourself”. What if current version of yourself is fairly angry at the organisation that is making you redundant and/or really depressed about the prolonged agony of the job hunt? Equally, the women sharing their experience of infertility talked about having to field comments “just relax and it will happen” or “have you tried X yet?”.
I realise that a lot of people may cringe at my comparison of choice and whether you can really compare (academic) job seekers with those experiencing infertility, but the parallel I saw fairly clearly was that for both groups hope and effort weren’t necessarily going to be enough or bring the results that they wanted. That is, you could have all the hope in the world and put all the hours there are in the day into the effort of job hunting or identifying yet another potential treatment but you still may come up empty-handed. And that option is not something that is very comfortable to consider and maybe that is why as Ellie noted, “there also a lot of people who forget that PhDs-without-full-time-jobs are a thing”. By all means, I am not trying to say that currently unemployed PhDs are doomed to a future that consists solely of more unemployment, quite the contrary. After all, one of the reason why I write about post-PhD transitions is to give others tools to take action and perhaps consider alternative routes. But before that happens, sometimes there isn’t much more that can be done other than to listen and make space for stories which are painful and uncomfortable. And maybe that is a start for better post-PhD lives which have meaning, even if the academic system is somewhat capricious and mostly broken.