Thursday, 19 July 2012

Surviving commuter cycling

After visiting Literary Emergency's blog with its post about cycling to the new alt-academic job, I was inspired to share my commuter cycling enthusiasms and my joyful feelings of managing to find a job that is only about a fifteen minute cycle ride from home.

When I lived in the Boston area years ago in my younger, carefree days, it was common and accepted that most working people would just have to get in their cars to get to work if they didn't work within the busy city borders where you could rely on buses or trains. I worked a few jobs that were located in the suburbs around the major industrial parks, with my last, desperately needed job taking about a 55 minute car journey. I hated the traffic filled journey (and wasn't crazy about the job either), but I couldn't escape it. I used to dream of having work that I could walk to or take a short, uncomplicated bus journey. Later when I lived and worked in London, I relied on the underground system to take me across the city to my first job. My next job was a bit closer but still required a long-ish bus ride in constant London traffic. In my later job when I was teaching I had the option of driving a 50 minute journey, and could also get on a train then bus if I wanted a change. We lived in a very busy part of the inner city then and with the work commute I felt there was never a moment of a slow pace in life. By the time the weekends came, the thought of just staying indoors for two days was quite attractive. As I said in my last post about babies and post-grad study, our move out of London at the time was very welcome.

One of my other teaching contracts in higher education years ago also meant a long commute in. It was another stint that I hated and  I wasn't overly excited about the teaching deal there either, so was very happy when I accrued more hours at the institution that was closer to us. By the time I was thinking about PhD study, I was determined that it had to be somewhere I didn't have to spend my life struggling in traffic to get to. At that point I just didn't had the luxury of extra time for it, and my patience had run thin.

This terrain of the question of how far would I be willing to commute in my future employment prospects has been a difficult one. It certainly played a large part in my decision to give up on a teaching/research academia career. I have come across many others in academia who work away from their homes and come back for a few days of the week when they are not required to be there for teaching or in meetings. I contemplated that possibility and after some time realised that with all of the other demands and pressure I would be under, this wouldn't be a good option for me. My domestic situation with two young children and an academic husband who is required to be away (sometimes frequently) just wouldn't accommodate it. After living with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis for some time, I also accepted that my health would suffer and my condition would probably progress and go downhill if I wasn't careful. It's been a relief to accept that if I want to continue to be upright, on my feet with some energy that something else in my life will have to give  - and the prospect of an academic first permanent job away somewhere else across the country was what I was willing to give up. But what about non-academic work? After researching some of these possibilities for some time, it's been clear that with the recession there are few good/appropriate jobs out there and many people have to be willing to travel if they want to stay employed. One possible contract position that looked interesting and got me a telephone interview some time ago was over an hour's drive away. Another prospect was full-time and an hour or so train travel and bus ride on the other side. I have often thought that my increasingly narrowing list of expectations for the ideal job will just result in long-term unemployment - it would all be my own fault as I was simply asking for too much.

I promise I am getting to the cycling part now and I apologise to readers as I've noticed I've tended to go on   a bit too long now. Anyway, last year in June I managed to secure a short-term research job based it the city centre here, only a fifteen-twenty minute cycle ride away. Walking is manageable but about 40 minutes one way and I worry a bit about using up my energy reserves this way. This prompted me to finally get out there and look for a bike that would replace the one that was stolen around the same time that I was really ill and had my RRMS diagnosis. After the diagnosis and long recovery time, I really felt that I'd never be able to get on a bike again. Maybe on flat ground but certainly not in my very hilly city where even mega-fit cyclists seem to struggle on. But, not to despair, the electric bike has made it's way here! One of my work colleagues from the university got one and it began to open my eyes to the freedom I could have to pop in and out of the city. After some time looking around and being very indecisive (they're not a cheap option) I decided to go for it and started riding again last June.

For us it's been a perfect commuting option. We have only one car that I use more as my husband can cycle quickly to his office. So, without the extra burden of a second car with increasing petrol prices and car insurance, maintenance etc, I could justify spending a bit more on the electric bike to help me up the hills around here. I use it mainly just for short commutes but the juice will go for about 40 miles before it needs a recharge. The battery comes off and you just plug the charger into it over night to go the next day.

Now, back to the issue of job searching and getting lucky. The non-academic staff job I've just managed to secure a couple of weeks ago is based at the university where I did my PhD and is close by. The pay is much lower than I wanted but it has lots of benefits that for me cancel out this problem. I don't have a long commute that will stress me out and exhaust me. I am actually going to save a fair bit of cash this way by not having to spend on train fares or petrol costs. Commuting to another major city where some academics go for top jobs around here, for example, would run costs up to at least a couple of thousand more pounds a year. They have offered me the option of part-time hours, which had been on my list of outrageous and unrealistic preferences for a long time - after a while I crossed off this preference, assuming it was just too unrealistic and I'd just have to see how I got on in terms of my energy levels. The team of people I will be working with are accommodating, nice and professional. I discovered that one woman left her work as a lawyer in a swanky law firm because she wanted to work in a more civilised atmosphere. So, I'm not the only one compromising! The job can grow - it also includes research and will make good use of the skills I've been acquiring over the last several years. Later I will have the option to apply for other internal only jobs where there will be less competition. I can get back on the bike again and give up the car. This prospect is a good one, but of course, I do live in a country where we have had the most rain this summer in British history. Cycling in a down pour is not fun at all, and I have begun to invest in more cycling rain gear - some of it quite stylish,as you can see here:

These fancy things are called Leggits and I've got them online from Georgia in Dublin, where they have their fair share of rain. They had some other cool, stylish stuff but thought I'd wait a bit before spending all of my first pay cheque before I've even earned it. These leggits are meant to be worn over any kind of shoe to protect shoes and trousers from rain. I've run them under the tap already as a test and they are completely waterproof. Good stuff in summer showers when cycling in sandals! Here are some shots of my electric bike. It's the 'Diva' women's design from the Oxygen brand:

I've got waterproof trousers and waterproof gloves now, as well as a stylish long cycling coat which claimed to be waterproof but after a major heavy rain, I discovered it was 'resistant' which isn't quite the same! If pushed I could drive the car to the area of my new job during a heavy rain and walk a distance to the office, as parking is extremely limited, if not impossible there. I'm hoping that after the very wet summer we've had, the colder season, like this past winter, will be drier. The saving grace is our mild temps in winter here, so winter commuter cycling is feasible outside of the really heavy rain conditions that is! My message here then is, if you're hesitating about getting back on your bike (in hilly cities like mine), don't despair. The electric bike is amazing and liberating. I highly recommend it to all. And who knows, maybe your list of future job expectations is not as unrealistic as you think it is at the moment. The right job may just be right around the corner waiting for the right time to surface!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Babies and Post-Grad studies

Today is my son's sixteenth birthday. This is a pic of him after we brought him home from the hospital and tried to get our heads around the reality that our lives would never be the same again. His impending arrival sixteen years ago was the start of many new things in my life at that time. My husband was offered a new job which entailed a much welcome move away from an inner-city London area where we lived for some time. My husband was a Londoner since the age of three and loved it there, but the time had come for a positive career move for him and a good move for us to start a new family with a baby. I left a secondary school teaching job that I enjoyed, but I was feeling pretty fed up with a very busy city life that was never quiet. Coming out to the South West of England to a nice, manageable city was great for me. We had already established a couple of sociable connections through his new workplace and found a great flat with amazing views. The problem with this flat was the extent of the physical work that one needed to do to get to the views at the top of this Georgian terraced building. These amazing old places don't have lifts/elevators and there are many stairs to negotiate to get to the top flat. I did feel a bit skeptical about this, knowing there was a baby on the way and we'd be carrying extra loads (more me, as husband would start job straight away), but husband talked me into it as we hadn't seen any other places that were as nice as this one. Another crazy decision that added to the exhaustion that took over my life much of the time. Well, one positive point was that I managed to stay pretty fit and tone with all the stairs and lifting, not to mention walking extensively with baby in pushchair in a very hilly part of town.

My activity levels were challenged even more, because for some crazy reason I also made the decision to start an MA course part-time. It was going to be a difficult time for me to begin looking for new work, as I was pregnant when we arrived, and I wanted something else in my life to 'challenge' me. As I type I am chuckling cynically at this idea now - what was I thinking - all I can say is that I was properly warned by many that this idea was not exactly practical, as once baby arrived I would realize how much pressure I would be under to keep up. My crazy husband, also an academic, was one of the few who encouraged me to give the MA a go as it was 'only part-time - sure I could manage it if I approached it realistically. Well, it must have been hormones doing strange things to me at the time. I started the course in the October after my son was born on the July 17. I found some part-time baby care and sorted out a schedule of class and study time for myself, and cracked on. After the initial struggle with confusing ideas and academic challenges, I got the hang of it and felt excited by academic work. But this 'excitement' seemed to be mixed totally with a tendency toward obsessiveness and compulsion toward perfection, to succeed at all costs. As I read more current debates in the field, I convinced myself that my own essays weren't as good - they too had to be of publishable standard. I am amazed that I actually managed to finish these essays by their deadlines. Of course, I did manage this but only because I would be working at crazy hours throughout the nights to achieve a high standard. Nothing was ever good enough. Hmm, I'm sure post-academics reading this know exactly what I'm talking about. Over the years I have recognised that these obsessive qualities seem to define many features of the academic personality. I think it may take me many years to break away from these tendencies and relieve myself of these pressures. Oh how liberating this will be. I've been allowing this to happen slowly since planning my post-academic transition and feel a great weight is being lifted from my shoulders.

The pressure of perfectionism in some personalities also extends into other areas of life too, especially for the middle-classes whose horizons of expectations are high. My biggest challenge was living up to the expectation of trying to 'have it all' and mastering everything. What a heavy burden it was to try to make new friends in new city while pregnant with my first child. All of my MA peers were younger and single, no kids. There was one other student, single mother with two older kids, but they weren't babies and somehow she seemed to have a grip on things a lot better than I had. New mothers, especially the middle-class ones, are also expected to cook fresh food, pureed when the babies begin solids, and I haven't even mentioned breast-feeding, which was a constant, on demand activity. With my son, we suffered the extra strain of very bad colic, which was at its worst in the evenings and night time. There was not much sleep for many months. When I left him with someone else I struggled to get little bottles of expressed breast milk for him and stressed when there wasn't enough. When I was away at class or at the library, I'd have overly engorged breasts and would need to rush to the bathroom to push some of the milk out for some relief. What can I say, there was never any easy way to get around the business of feeding baby when away in the early days. When I weaned from breastfeeding I had the same over-engorged problems - with my second baby this resulted in painful mastitis.

In the final year of the part-time MA I was working on my dissertation. This was the year when my husband and I discussed whether we should think about having another child. Wow, this decision was very difficult indeed. Finally, I felt I was getting to a point where life's pressures seemed to ease up a bit as my son was getting older. I haven't mentioned how extremely active he was. Compared to other boys and girls his age, he was certainly the busiest and most distracted, with the tendency to take more risks than other children. The playgroup he went to advised me not to try to 'full-day' as they thought he wasn't ready/mature enough and needed to be with me. My translation was that they couldn't cope with his activity levels and left it to me to deal with. I was desperate for a break and only got little bits that I treasured. Suddenly, there was talk about having another. I was 36 at the time and felt I needed to be clear about what we were going to do - I wasn't getting any younger - pressure, pressure. We did try and after I finished my dissertation in May, I had my daughter a few months later in September. Sometime later I started the adjunct teaching path and then was talked into starting a PhD. I applied for funding with the expectation that I wouldn't get it, but surprise came when I did. I felt compelled to carry the obligation through - with such competition for funds I saw it as my duty.

I cannot ever make the claim that my PhD study was a waste of time. I am the person I am today because of this unique experience and I've grown intellectually in ways I would not have if I hadn't done it. Having said that, I may have found other avenues for intellectual challenge outside the expectations of a PhD if given the chance. I also may have had a less self-inflicted stressful, anxiety ridden life if I avoided PhD study. Or would I? Perhaps, considering my somewhat obsessive personality I may have sought other ways to put myself under pressure. I've said in earlier posts that I have some residual guilt about how academic stress may have been passed on to my children. Being completely honest, I have to admit I would have been more productive academically had I not had them. If we decided not to go forward with having our second child I probably would have gone straight into PhD and had more energy to devote to my academic career. I may have secured a job at a time in UK Higher Education when there were more jobs available.  Have I taken some sort of resentment out on my children. Probably. Probably out on my husband too. I am only human and living during historical times when there are just too many expectations to try to live up to. As I'm getting older, I feel I can let go of many of those expectations now and appreciate the other great things in my life, including my family - I'd be pretty lonely without them. Would an academic career, where nothing is ever 'good enough' be worth sacrificing them? As I'm writing this, I want to make clear that I'm not taking a dualistic position on family-good, no family, career - bad. I'm just working through how some of my own difficult feelings around this have surfaced over the years. 

The golden time of academic life here in the UK has passed now, of course. If I had taken the path where I din;t have my daughter, I may also have got to this point now, where academic labour may feel less favourable to me. Many academics I have come across are very unhappy with working conditions as they are now and are dreaming about retirement time. Others are losing their jobs from forced redundancy and are wondering how they can now make a living.

Fast forward now to the present. Sixteen years later my son last week had his secondary school 'prom'. Not quite the standard of the overblown US high-school prom, (no date, not lots of pics) but enough to warrant spending some dosh on renting a tux (opted out of bow-tie, and went for Mafia style here!). When he was seven, after years of struggling to keep up with his pace and endless negotiations with his school about his unusual level of distraction and hyperactivity, yes, you guessed it, he was diagnosed with ADHD.We opted to try the meds and life began to become more manageable for all the family (too many details to discuss here - life was very, very hard for a while). He's an A star student now aspiring to get top grades to go to Cambridge where they teach top Maths degree. He's picked up on my husband's and my obsessive academic qualities and spends hours on his own trying to figure out bizarre Maths' formulas and problems that are a completely different language for me. My constant advice to him is to take great care and have a balanced life and to focus on having strong relationships with people. Hopefully he'll manage this.

My daughter is a high achiever too, growing massively upset if she can't sort out her homework on time or to the best standard. And she happens to be pretty good in everything - her choices will be extremely difficult to make. My advice to her is the same - keep life balanced! These days are tough, with their school expectations very high, wanting good exam results for survival, and with the potential for many girls to play the 'good girl' compliant academic routine. She and her friends simply want to please their teachers all the time. Academic danger signs are there for sure.

My experience of academia as a mother  bringing up two young children has been a great challenge, to say the least. I don't think I ever managed it that well, but this isn't to say it is impossible as I've met other women who, at least from a distance, seem to pull it all together. In my case, my personality, the over-worry, over-anxiety led to over-work. My over-work eventually led to very bad health and a diagnosis of Relapsing-Remitting MS when I was mid PhD study. The lack of sleep certainly triggered the first and second MS episode - a recipe for MS disaster, which made me stop dead in my tracks and rethink what I was doing, and what I wanted from life. If there was anything good to come of out bad health, then a new revelation about the direction I wanted to take in life was it. But it's taken my still, a very long time since then to get out of academia. I'm hoping now that I have a new non-academic career ahead of me, that I put some of these bad working habits behind me and enjoy the work-life balance more.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Today's tooth extraction: A metaphor for post-academic life

Well, as I have such a long history now of life as an academic who has had some great pleasures in reading interesting scholarship, attempting to build my own research and scholarly identity, I now see that I will forever be 'thinking' about intriguing metaphors. It has become a habit now that I think will be hard to break, so I'm just going to go with it and see if takes me to some other creative places outside of the academic sphere. This is what is leading me to share my experience today at the dentist's office.

I have a had a bad tooth that has been causing me problems for actually quite a long time now. I've begun to lose track of the start of the issues with this problem back tooth, but I believe it caused me some basic headache years ago when I discovered that I had got into the habit of 'grinding' at night. This terrible way of dealing with stress (unknowingly) I think introduced problems with old fillings, and led to paying for an expensive root canal later on. Even using the dreaded mouth guard (another term for this is called 'birth control'), I still hadn't quite overcome it. Last year after having more toothache there I saw my dentist who put in a massive filling. It really just about covered most of the tooth itself on the inside area. I was desperate to have this done before my family and I went on vacation to the US last summer. Unfortunately, into the first week of the holiday when I bit down on something with that tooth, I ended up with growing pain and a gum abscess which had to get sorted immediately, and not so cheaply, by a local dentist there. Eventually when I got back to the UK and saw my dentist, she went into a very long technical explanation about this previously root-canalled and now thinly cracked tooth, how important it was to try to save it but if more filling wouldn't last, it would need to come out or have another expensive procedure that would call for specialist treatment, blah blah. At that point in the conversation I couldn't really hear or understand any more. It was as if she was speaking another foreign language. I basically planned to try the other type of filling and if it failed or didn't last, I was happy to have her take the dreaded thing out and be done with the problem.

So, fast forward now to the next year - present day, when two weeks ago this damn tooth filling chips at the corner on a Saturday, no pain, rush into see her as soon as I can - happens to be on the day of my birthday (yes, as you get to my age, you fear losing all your teeth) -and a patch up does the job, with a reassuring smile that all is okay now. Unfortunately, another week passes and eating a similar type of food as last time (just ordinary chicken thing, not hard or crunchy) and it chips off again, close to the same spot again. Rush in again but have to see another dentist as she's not there and his discouraging look tells me, there's no hope left. The tooth is cracked. There's an infection starting. It's got to come out (confirmed fear of ageing and losing all my teeth). He could have done it then, or I could have seen my dentist the next day, but the next day was my job interview. Hmmm. Scary thoughts were going through my mind. I won't get through the night. I'll wake up with a massive abscess and pain. I'll have a high temperature. I will need to see some straight away and hence, I must withdraw from the job interview as I won't get the job anyway - self-pity, self-pity and more self-pity.

Well, I got a grip and carried on and as readers know, I did get offered the job, another year older, cracked tooth, self-pity and all. This has meant that I had to wait a whole week before I could see dentist today to get rid of the thing. I am now back home after the lengthy time of the extraction and feel compelled to share the thoughts that have been running through my mind while sitting in the waiting room and then while holding my mouth open and being pulled around and drilled at for at least 30 minutes.

This tooth and the extraction has become a metaphor for some of my recent post-academic in transition experience. So last year, I resigned from teaching and took up the RA contract. Not quite 'out' of academia, and wondering if the job would turn things around for me a bit, get me into a better academic position to look forward and maybe apply for other academic posts afterwards. The job was fine, it held me over but I wouldn't say it wowed me. In retrospect, I guess I could say it was like patching up the problem tooth for a while. The tooth was never really completely fixed after such a difficult history, but it was fine for the time being.  But then a little chip here and another chip there, revealed the bigger problem that never really went away. The crack got worse, started an infection that was only going to get very bad if it wasn't extracted. Thankfully I don't really need to go the expensive crown route as it was at the very back. As she was yanking out as much of the tooth as she could, although she had to break it up and take it out in pieces, she said, reassuringly, 'You won't feel any pain, but you will definitely feel lots of pressure and force'.

This, I guess is how some of the transition out of academia has felt. At the very beginning when I had difficulty deciding if I should carry on or stop, it was very painful, with lots of tears and anxiety, and maybe I was grinding again too, creating more of a tooth problem! After leaving teaching and doing the other job, I began to really think about other options and read a lot of books and sought advice about career transition possibilities. The painful element of leaving was a bit less intense but it wouldn't say it was emotionally easy during the job-seeking process - lots of self-doubt pressure was there but not constant, at least. The final crack in the tooth happened at the same time as the recent job interview. The extraction that I have now been looking forward to so much for the last week, so I can put this bad tooth history behind me, now coincides with the new job prospect. I'd like to see this final, drastic extraction as a nice metaphor for the removal of many of my post-academic struggles that grew out of years of hard academic work and uncertainty, not to mention, accompanied with the side-effect of teeth grinding! What I do realise though, is that there is a huge gap in my mouth - and it feels bizarre, strangely inviting, to run the tongue across it - it's so hard not to. I think I've accepted that there will always be some kind of post-academic gap in my life too. Academia has taken up a large part of my life and made me who I am today. It will find ways of enticing me to have a look now and again at what's happening in academic life in my PhD field, I'm sure. This will be hard to escape - a couple of good friends are academics in closely related fields, my husband is an academic in another field and I will be working at the university where I did my PhD - how will I ever be able to completely avoid it? The gap will be what it will be. I've decided I shouldn't be too worried about trying to fill it, but see it as something that was part of me and my history but had to be taken out because it didn't serve it's purpose anymore.