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The Hunt: Clocking In vs. Signing On


While scouring of the internet for absorption of information and tips concerning applications for academic posts and publishing, it becomes frighteningly clear that the sheer amount of us out there unable to peek through a crack in the door never mind get our foot in it is astounding. Almost daily there are blog posts and internet articles featuring rants from some anonymous PhD graduate about how they can’t get work and that our institutions or the government ought to provide training or some other vague suggestion that basically hands us an escape clause from actual real life. I am in this position myself and I do not want to be associated with this expectation that jobs and opportunities should be handed to us, so I am posting my personal position – with my name against it – to show that not all postdoctorates are not otherwise workshy, whinging brats.

The dole is not an option for me. It wouldn’t even dent my monthly bills. Thankfully I have never had to sign on, and one of my life ambitions is that I will never have to. I am a worker. I earn my keep. I have bills to pay, and even if my family could support me financially I would never want to ask them to. I chose to pursue postgraduate study because I love my subject and I get such a kick out of making connections while researching. I have always wanted to be a writer. I made the decision in my teens that this was a major goal in life, and I thrive off making it happen. Self-funding my part-time MA was incredibly hard. I had absolutely no help and paid for every penny of it with my pitiful wages working as checkout operator with Tesco and my overdraft. My Christ, I hated that job with every atom of my body and soul. It is a hateful company to work for. But they were the only ones who would give me a job, and I am grateful for that. Quite a bit of my first year of PhD funding went on paying the debt off incurred over those 2 years. I tried to enjoy myself in the second year as I had never known that kind of money before, and in third year I knew my time was limited and that it would be difficult to find any kind of job in the ongoing recession with unemployment at its highest since the 1980s, so I saved every penny and lived pretty frugally. I submitted two days before receiving my last funding instalment.

I had managed to save enough to get through three months of bills at a push, plus had some casual teaching at Queen’s. However, payments come a full month in arrears, on a random date you are never warned about. Plus the Inland Revenue does not have a concept of casual work and taxes you even though you are earning nowhere near your personal allowance. Anyway, all my free time was spent panicking about getting regular income. I was applying for absolutely anything I thought I’d be capable of doing. The common perception from employers is that if you have a PhD you won’t take the job seriously or you’ll only be around a matter of weeks. Few accept that academia is as troubled by the economic climate as any other profession/industry. Plus, we all must accept that a PhD is a QUALIFICATION only, not a career path in itself, and does not necessarily lead to one. How many of us with undergraduate degrees the world over end up doing something related to that bit of paper we received while wearing a funny outfit? Exactly. A PhD is little different in my view. It is down to what we do with it...

With job success being so dependent on experience, I had to face my greatest fear. Having worked in Tesco for six and a half years prior to the PhD, I began to hone in on shop work as I was getting nowhere with admin/secretarial applications (even though a PhD is about the most in depth admin experience I can imagine!). I should point out, I have been applying for lectureships and postdocs relentlessly since September 2011 as well as this, in case that wasn’t a given. I managed to get eight weeks as a Christmas temp for Sainsbury’s. It was a boost to finally get a response that wasn’t ‘no’, and cathartic doing mindless tasks after the mental exhaustion that I’m really only overcoming now. Regular pay and knowing what date it was entering my account on was heavenly. In mid-January I was cast out. I had plenty of teaching coming up the following semester, but due to the payment structure had no income at all between the end of January and end of March. During that time my car was sick and needed serious surgery; the credit cards were maxed out. I never want to go through that stress again and would not wish it on my worst enemies.

April brought a reprieve with a spate of interviews for various things and a good success rate. I played down the PhD in applications by declaring the three-year gap in employment as undertaking a funded course of study. Many people asked why I declared it at all. Well, lies are easily found out and I prefer transparency. On a practical level, I am easy to dig up information on, as are all of us. Luckily, my manager just wanted someone who was prepared to do the work and do it during awkward hours, which I am. So I am now a permanent part-time employee of Co-Operative Food, and although I have to bite my tongue a lot with customers, and it is a shade over minimum wage, I am damn grateful for it. I work with a great bunch of people; there is never a dull moment, and some quare characters. Life experience is invaluable.

To broaden this out, I want to say that it is down to us to figure out what we want and what we are prepared to do to try to achieve that. We need to work out the best path tailored to ourselves, not what others think we ought to do. I went through a period of complete exhaustion there, and I suspect depression. Not meaning to be trite, I really do think the post-PhD blues are in the ball park of post-natal depression. I was my only goal for three years and it ended more suddenly than I could comprehend. But I have to catch myself on, because I’ve had more significant traumas than that, and I’m sure will again. Rather than drifting now I want to embrace the chaos. It’s scary but exhilarating to not know what the next week brings. Some weeks I can’t move for rejection notices, others I’ve got top academics wanting me to contribute to things. It is up to each of us to find the motivation to just keep doing what is required to progress. I’ve just proved that any eejit can get a PhD; we have to accept the extra stuff it takes to make us employable. The shop is my living, it is not what I do – I am a researcher and the shop is survival. Yes, it eats up my time, but it is down to me – only me – to motivate myself during time away from the shop to work on publications, networking and applications, i.e. the all important transferable skill of time management. The joy of having a permanent, regular wage is that I can focus on applying for the jobs that sound appealing rather than squeezing myself into guises that don’t fit, and enjoy hitting the books to work on putting my research out there.

I loved postgraduate study so much, I would do it all again in a heartbeat, but it is in the past, and I have to live in the present and try to pave a good future. What matters most is trying to find contentment in yourself and taking pride from knowing that you are doing all you can to make your own way from your own choices. It’s tough out there; populations and therefore competition is growing. Sitting around moping, getting bitter and resenting the world is not going to get you that dream career (and how do you know it’s your dream anyway?), so just bloody well get on with it. We are privileged to have had the option of education in the first place.

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