Thursday, 8 March 2012

Where to start?

Writing a first post for this blog feels a bit tricky. Where exactly do I start?

I guess you can say I am kind of still in a transitional phase as I have just finished a short-term contract as a Research Associate in which I was a participant-observer and interviewer in an organisation. I've enjoyed this work and contributed quite a bit to the conceptual ideas and data report writing. The expectation with much academic research is later peer-review publication, of course. I am not expected to be sole author, but any more time I put into this is unpaid, and this is where my uneasy feelings begin to set in. After putting in several years of Higher Education contract teaching on a piddly pay-cheque my patience has run a bit thin. My project manager is very supportive and does not want to exploit me. He wants to chat about what I want to do at this point now. Do I want to pursue this line of academic enquiry? What is the five-year plan?

Like so many other post-academic bloggers I have come across recently, I find that my hesitations and anxieties about remaining in academia are not unusual. A google search for the phrase 'Is there life after PhD' shows up pages and pages of similar blog titles. Many of them are written by previous Post-Grads who decided to drop out of their studies before completion. As I write 'drop out' I feel a bit of a cringe and the desire to apologise, as the phrase has terrible associations with the uncommitted or 'failed' student who has given up and will pay some dire price for not sticking it out.

I did manage to complete my PhD studies, but the experience was no easy ride (is it for anyone?), to say the least. Yes, I felt inspired and excited by my questions, even though they were surrounded with many confusions; that's all part of the learning experience. When I went along to my first academic conference early in the day before starting my PhD (the institution where I was teaching was uncharacteristically generous and offered to pay for some part-time staff to attend conferences that year), I felt elated to be around such well-known, respectable scholars. I was suddenly inspired with new ideas and was gaining more confidence about my abilities to conduct interesting academic research. It was an exciting time and I enjoyed the feeling of being part of this community.

I managed to receive funding for full-time PhD studies. At the time I was warned by many, including my prospective supervisor, that funding was highly competitive in the Arts and I shouldn't count on getting it - be prepared to be disappointed. I had already planned that if I wasn't successful then I probably wouldn't carry on, in spite of encouragement from friends and my partner. At the time, my daughter was only three years old and her brother only six. I did cherish the intellectual growth I experienced when I did my MA study part-time, but I was in a perpetual state of exhaustion it seemed, mental and physical, as I tried to divide my time between a baby (my daughter was born just after I submitted my MA Dissertation) and diligent studying and writing. What was I thinking? I was drained by the desire for perfectionism and yet at the same time driven by it to succeed academically and do more.

The funding came through. The continued tiredness and stress that came along with PhD study, a bit of teaching, and trying to attend to my to children (and husband), eventually took its toll. I need to qualify this though by saying that with the tiredness I also felt excitement - the two emotions seemed to go hand in hand with each other. But toward the end of my second year of my studies I became seriously ill and eventually was diagnosed with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. The details of all of that may indeed be saved for another MS blog that I am thinking of starting after I get this one established. I do, however, find it incredibly difficult to separate my feelings about not wanting to establish my academic identity with the feelings I have about my health condition and the way I want to live my life. MS is certainly not a good match with academic life and academic life is not good for MS. You may say this about a lot of professions but there is something about the academic culture of self-disciplining and self-blame that so often leads to stress-related illnesses. And stress and lack of sleep for me have not helped my MS condition. So if you come across this blog and read a bit about my MS here and there it is because, perhaps, I have found that part of my life has been important in helping me to make decisions about academic life.

After my initial MS symptoms (double vision, numbness across the side of my face and body, tingling) I eventually had a second 'episode' which put me out of action. I could only describe the feelings as something like what it must be like to be hit by a bus and you've survived and are recovering in bed for a long time. This was then the time that the PhD was put on hold, but when some energy returned I managed to finish off the term of teaching and MA supervision I had been committed to. In all, I took a year off my studies. Upon reflection I think that time had a special quality about it. It was mixed with a sense of great relief and sometimes even elation on the days when my energy levels seemed normal (although that was always up and down). I found it extremely difficult to return to the PhD project after a lot of loss of confidence and just loss of energy, I guess. But I pursued and completed successfully and had a positive viva experience. Eventually I published an article out of it too, but this took some time. There was a large part of me that just wanted to get onto something new, a different line of enquiry straight away and put this past behind me but I was advised, rightly, I guess, that I should publish something after all of the hard PhD work. Surely I could have got a couple of more papers out of it too I was told. But I kept finding excuses not to develop any more of the chapters into articles. In hindsight now, I think this holding back was a sign that my other voice inside me was questioning whether I should invest so much time (unpaid) into an endeavour that I wasn't sure about. At the start of my studies I had chats with my supervisor about the future, about job prospects, about whether or not she thought I was up to academic scratch. She was encouraging and when I expressed my naive surprise or displeasure at the reality of some young academics having to move across the country, leaving partners behind, she nodded that this was expected. By the time I finished and my children were older, she said, I would undoubtedly do this to secure my first job. I had to remind her that I wasn't one of the young ones - at the time of that conversation I was 42 - and I wasn't getting any younger.

My supervisor decided to retire early after I had been off ill for the year. She carried on supervising me as an honorary scholar for the department, and this was when her advice seemed to change. She was suddenly a different person altogether and advised me to slow down, to think of my health; nothing was as important as this. She also began to enjoy her own life more, travelling, having time with friends and family which she could not do before. Since this time I have found that my academic career expectations have shifted, going up and down in strange, unpredictable cycles. As I was aiming to publish I was encouraged more by academic friends and colleagues whose lives were defined through their academic identities. Some were struggling a bit too, in terms of trying to achieve the work-life balance, but they embraced critical thinking and being around a community of other like-minded, intellectual people. They were passionate. They were invested in their subjects. But these were friends who had stable, permanent employment and who were established in their roles. Of course, now with the many challenges facing UK Higher Education no one's academic careers are safe anymore, especially if they are in Arts Faculties. Many work-related friends are looking for other posts in better universities (UK Russell Group Universities seem to be in a better situation than the newer Universities). Others are worried their courses may close if they don't recruit enough students. And if this happens many are asking themselves what they would be able to do next? What kind of work can they do after being a successful academic who has published long lists of articles, chapters and books? They can't see any other possibilities. I find this worrying. I'm hoping that if I get out at this early stage after years of part-time contract teaching then there may be some hope to come out of it and I can still smile.

I have come across a great article about illness (anorexia) and academic life (Psychology Today), and one story of a UK academic who was made redundant in her fifties and then started her own Adult Education College business (Guardian). I hope others can read this blog and make some use of the links I aim to add regularly. And if anyone out there is just starting their personal journey after years in academia, remember you are not alone in your hesitations. I hope you will enjoy being part of the post-academia community.


  1. Hey, welcome to the world of post-academic bloggers. I found your blog from a comment you wrote on mine. There are lots of people out there who are moving on from the insanity of academia. You can do it too. I look forward to reading your posts.

  2. Thanks for having a look over here and thabks for your encouragement. As I'm kind of still in the middle of things I suspect I'm going to need to work through some confusions. I'm very happy though in my decision to give up the teaching - what a weight that's been lifted. A nice first step.