There’s a post I tend to share when major grant round results are announced.
It’s ‘Picking up the pieces‘. In it, I emphasise that “I can say that I truly understand how you feel. I threw my hat in the major grants and fellowship rings many times; very few times was I successful.”
I always thought those sentences failed to convey the howling disappointment, derailment of career, and emptying out of all confidence that these results can bring.
It is hard, after all, to capture the sound of your professional self decomposing in half a second after realising you’re not a named awardee.
This post, below, was originally published on my personal blog at the end of 2010, seven years ago. It felt like my lowest point, career-wise. I was not in a good place.
I wanted to re-publish it to the Research Whisperer audience as a collegial artefact, to share my thinking about academic identity and scholarly life at a very raw time.
22 November 2010 – In and out of the Bog of Despond
Dramatic title, right? I should emphasise that I’m currently out of the bog of despond. Ok, I’m mostly out; my toes may still be trailing on the bog’s surface every so often.
I found out the other day that my Future Fellowship application didn’t get up; that’s two strikes out of two. Again, as with the ARC Discoveries, my institution had a series of great outcomes. The university/faculty/school were seething with (self)congratulations. It’s hard to take institutional spin at the best of times but, when you’ve put in the hard yards for those convoluted and extremely time-consuming grant applications and had it all come to nought PLUS it was your last chance to stay employed in that institution, it’s exponentially worse. I tried not to stay flouncey and sullen for too long because it’s never a good look.
My foul and resentful mood lasted about a day and half; it was finally broken by some good news about another iron I had in the job-hunting fire. I can’t detail that yet as it’s not all tied up (not being coy, it really isn’t).
For the duration of the foul mood, I have to say I felt awful. In academia, one has to develop a thick skin to withstand the eternal critiques, hoop-jumping and hierarchies. I thought I had, until the recent three academic rejections in a row. Being unsalaried never helps; it’s the kind of liminal zone where all my insecurities expand and prosper. All in all, it made me want to abandon academia altogether. As mentioned before (perhaps 100s of times), I’m ambivalent about academia. I think any sane person should be. It’s an odd place, with many perks, extreme internal politics, and – particularly in the humanities – a constant sense of persecution. Having worked outside of universities several times, I know this isn’t always the way workplaces are. I’ve ponced around often saying that I’d be as happy, if not happier, working outside of universities.
Faced with exactly this prospect? I felt very much at sea. I lost a sense of what I was good at, where I might want to work (that wasn’t a university), and maundered about the amount of time I’d devoted to a career that had suddenly ground to a halt.
The thing is, I’ve always known that being able to forge a life-long career as a full-time research fellow in the humanities was a huge ask. I’m starting to realise that telling everyone else about the near impossibility of a research-only humanities career does not necessarily mean that I believed it wouldn’t happen for me. Ah, self-delusion, I often mistake you for optimism!
In that day and a half of despondency, I’d decided I wanted to take time out of the workforce altogether. S. and I had a couple of long conversations about it, which were excellent to have even though the ideas may not be developed for the time being. We wanted to be around for the kids as much as possible in these early years, at least until they start school. E.’s only going into four-year-old kindy next year, and G.’s not even two. It’s true what people say about these very early times going quickly, and it’s the kind of closeness with the kids that I don’t think you ever have again once they start forging their independent networks of contacts. A necessary step, but one that irrevocably alters how much time you get to spend with them. We’re not having a third, so G. is our second and final child, which makes this time all the more enjoyable and to be savoured. Upshot of the discussions was that we’d juggle part-timing some work, S. would get to road-test a few of his hobby/employment ideas, and we’d basically be down-shifting our lifestyle.
There was a thrilling on-the-edgeness to those hours.
That said, the ‘bird in the hand’ adage is gaining ground at the moment, post-recent-developments. There may be news on the morrow.
That news, dear readers, was that I had indeed gotten the job as a research grants advisor at RMIT University. Another person who had also gotten this job, in a different college of the university, was Jonathan O’Donnell.
Six months later, we started The Research Whisperer.
I have just stumbled upon this post. While my entry to the ‘bog’ is not related to unsuccessful funding applications (although all too familiar) it is with publications. I think I have achieved some sort of very undesirable record for an academic – seven, yes seven rejections for a research paper. Although an Early career researcher I am no spring chicken. Having held some very senior roles in education I find myself barely making the grade. I have questioned my move to academe more times than is healthy. How can I have plummeted to this …unable to write! I am buoyed by your posts – thank you.
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I’m an experienced academic. Please don’t give up. With each submission you get closer to a record that has less rejections and more acceptances. Character is good for scholarship.
Thanks Tseen. I am in exactly the same mind frame as you would have been a while ago when you wrote this blod. I have no idea how to get out of it or how long this state of uncertainty is going to last. Its surcely killing me from inside.
It’s a hard place to be in, and it can feel like there are no good choices. While it doesn’t give a ‘cure’ for what is a systemic issue, Jonathan O’Donnell’s post about the ‘Tyranny of the timesheet’ may have some good reflection points for those in precariat / fixed-term positions: https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2015/02/24/the-tyranny-of-the-timesheet
Best of luck with finding a way forward and staying well.