Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Steps for ‘Recovering Academics’?

Ever since coming across the wonderful blog The Reading List by Canadian writer Leslie Shimotakahara, I have been contemplating the growing phenomena of the post-academic community and its potential comparison to the support system offered by Alcoholics Anonymous Fellowship. This curiosity was prompted by Shimotakahara’s self-identification as ‘a writer and recovering academic’. After enjoying her academic successes as an English undergrad and later MA and PhD, like so many other grad students, she followed the expected path of higher education adjunct teaching, moving along most likely (although it isn’t explicit, she implies this is the case), with the expectation that she would eventually land a tenure track faculty post. What else is there to do when you have had a great history as an academic success throughout your school and university life, are passionate about your area of study (perhaps so passionate that you feel addicted to it?) and imagine living an existence where you can indulge in this love and inspire the next generation of thinkers?
Luckily, unlike some of us, she taught for only two years before realising, after having ‘a breakdown’, that this dream was an unhealthy fantasy that only dragged her down. Her departure from academia led her to return ‘home’, back to the security and love of family. It is there where she began to rebuild her life while reconnecting with her father by sharing his love of reading. Throughout this time, she returned to her love of creating writing and has published her memoir recently in February 2012.
Reading about Shimotakahara’s decision to move out of academia after an emotional plummet to what some may call the ‘rock bottom’, echoes some of the discourse we often hear about individuals’ struggle to live a life without alcohol addiction. Recovery narratives for alcoholics and others with experiences of addiction, follow a similar mode. They are stories about lives that become overtaken with stress and other triggers that lead to the reliance on alcohol. Sometimes this reliance arises out of learned behaviour – perhaps from family history or friendship groups. Eventually the addictive ‘crutch’ takes over, leading to destruction of family life and relationships or the loss of a professional career. Reaching rock bottom, the breakdown, is when things need to change. But it is a long and hard road back to sanity. Those who are addicted must move away from other addicted friends and the dangerous aspects of their lifestyle that led them to their descent.
While many post-academic bloggers may not have experienced the same kind of ‘breakdown’ noted by Shimotakahara, what is often revealed in blogs is individuals have reached a point of revelation about how unhealthy their working academic lives have become up to this point where they have decided enough is enough. This moment of revelation that life has to change is the crucial time when the support of others who have experienced, or who are living through the same struggles and confusions, is necessary – these connections can be a life saver, some might go as far to say. The phrase, ‘Remember you are not alone’ has been used across several blogs that I have discovered recently, and it was these words that comforted and inspired me to set up my own blog and ‘tell my story’.
I would not go as far to make the ridiculous claim that living with the decisions about whether or how one should leave academia is anything like living through the difficulties of alcohol addiction. What I am interested in is exploring the metaphor of addiction as it relates to academic activity/ies. While we come across addiction metaphors frequently when they relate to pleasurable pass-times or enthusiasms like watching our favourite tv series as long-term fans (and thus write fan-fiction, claim membership to the wider fan community, go to fan conventions…), read certain genres or writers as fans (and thus maybe write fan fiction, contribute to discussion forums and so on…), what sense can we make of the addiction metaphor when it relates to our academic working identity, where the spheres of work/play, labour/passion-love, are now so blurred, but in an unhealthy and destructive way? While I have many ponderings swimming around in my brain at the moment, I don’t have any conclusive answers to this question.  I pose it as an intriguing territory while we are on our paths to ‘post-academic recovery’.
Many of you will be familiar, through popular references, with the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have listed the steps here, but want to make it clear that I do not want to propose that I am making a direct comparison to ‘recovering academics’ and post-academia experiences, or that A.A.’s ‘steps’ to recovery correspond completely with our own. And I am not promoting an inclusion of a connection to ‘God’ or religion in our post-academic world. If that decision suits your life-needs, fine, but I am not here to sell it. I am really just curious about how we might see ourselves and our identities as those who are in ‘recovery’ from academia. Aside from the references to God below, I can see that some of what I have been doing over the past few weeks compares with these steps. Admitting that we are powerless over the structures and constraints of the academic institution – ‘that our lives have become unmanageable’; become willing to makes amends with others (my children for example who had to witness all of my academic work-related anxieties); continue to take personal inventory; try to carry the message to others. The decision for many of us to remain ‘anonymous’ (the fear of discovery of a weakness from others in academia?) also reveals a strong correspondence here. Of course, these steps do reflect much of the moves towards self-discovery/the self-identity projects that are so common now in contemporary society. But I would love to hear from others about your take on the addiction metaphor and how your experiences of post-academic transformation might be aligned with this metaphor.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
The relative success of the A.A. program seems to be due to the fact that an alcoholic who no longer drinks has an exceptional faculty for "reaching" and helping an uncontrolled drinker.

In simplest form, the A.A. program operates when a recovered alcoholic passes along the story of his or her own problem drinking, describes the sobriety he or she has found in A.A., and invites the newcomer to join the informal Fellowship.

The heart of the suggested program of personal recovery is contained in Twelve Steps describing the experience of the earliest members of the Society:

1.     We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
2.     Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3.     Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4.     Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5.     Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6.     Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7.     Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8.     Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9.     Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10.  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11.  Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12.  Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Source: Alcoholic Anonymous Great Britain website.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Spring Cleaning

The last couple of weeks have been an emotional up and down rollercoaster ride. My Research Assistant contract ended officially at the end of February when I received my last pay cheque. That was kind of nice in many ways, as I was relieved to have some time to reflect on the experience and where I want to go next. My energy levels were suffering also right up to the holiday period, so by January I was happy to catch up on some much needed rest. By the beginning of February I felt a nice sense of elation at the start of my new unemployment status. Mid-February was okay but the days of elation were mixed with the anxiety of having to tie-up loose ends with the project that I've been involved in. By March I still haven't reach any firm conclusions and my pleasurable days are met with mixed feelings about (non) work and terrible guilt about moping around like a slacker!

What hasn't helped this moody state of affairs, for some months actually, is that I had been noticing the huge build up of papers and notebooks in my little cubby-hole of the study room that I share with my husband. As we use the room to sort out bills and other domestic-related business (letters from our kids' school, medical stuff and so on) the space has gradually become an unattractive dumping ground with piles of folders and papers delegated to the floor, hence closing up the small space even more. As I looked again at it this morning, I thought if I don't do something drastic soon then there will hardly be any space left to pull out the desk chair. The walls felt like they were finally closing in.

I have been avoiding this moment of awakening for some time now, as it has meant finally facing up to the job of going through all of this stuff and making a decision about what to do with it. Do I throw it out or file it away somewhere in the loft storage? The dust-collecting papers are (were) all mine and they were largely connected with a research topic that I had been trying to work through and write about for many months (unpaid, of course). If I am honest, it's been lying around, quite literally on the study floor, for at least 18 months.

Most of the time I came up with a good excuse as to why I still hadn't completed a good enough draft to send the intended article out to my intended respectable journal for peer-review. Teaching time and family commitments got in the way. I needed to devote time to applying for jobs so I would put it on hold and get back to it. I got the recent RA job contract and couldn't get distracted with the article because I had to get on to some new research, new literature reviews. I would get back to the article, I told myself, after the RA job finished and I had time. Well, I tried this for a few weeks in February. Wrote a bit more, tidied some of the earlier sections up - mulled over silly little details and wasted even more time. I asked a couple of close academic friends if they would be willing to have a look at a rough draft when I finally pulled it together with conclusions. But in the last week or so, in fact, since I started spending more time imagining what I could do outside of academia and found the post-academic bloggers, I decided to call it a day on this intended project. My husband thought that after all the effort I put it into it, I should finish up, send it out, it doesn't need to be perfect. This process would offer me a good point of closure. That advice, at the time, sounded like it made sense and I went along with it for a while, but after giving it more thought I realised I was only prolonging my liminal state  - the insider/outsider of academia. With all the time it takes to finally submit something and wait for peer-review (they almost certainly would have found a list of reasons to insist that I spend another 6 months writing it to make it publishable), I realised it was healthier to call it a day.

So when I walked into the study today intending to get onto the task of writing some stuff that is needed to complete my part of work for the RA job I've just finished, I looked at the dust-collecting piles and began the process of spring cleaning. The job isn't finalised yet but it's a start and the soul is already feeling a bit more clear.

After running out of shelving space in the last year I dragged out a storage box to tuck in the corner of the room - this is what held many of the teaching materials I've used and adapted over the last 5 years or so. Oh dear, I just looked up now and discovered another pile that I forgot I had squeezed into a space at the top of a storage cupboard - that'll have to go after I finish this post. Without too much pain and indecision, large batches of paper with course schedules, reading lists and overviews, have now gone into the recycling bin outside. I now have lots of empty folders ready to refill with other important things that will inevitably come up!

Going back to the start of my PhD study, I came across conference packs, more reading lists and teaching notes. Academic journal references and photocopies from chapters and articles. I can't quite allow myself to chuck all of that (the academic in me says, 'But what if....?'), but I have allowed myself to put them in large bags (need to get some boxes) and they are on their way up to the loft area for storage so that they are out of sight. A blast from a longer past revisited me when I discovered a folder of some creative writing I did as an undergrad student in the late 80s (yes I am that old). It is typewritten from a manual typewriter, revealing the many hours of effort that I would have had to put into the endeavour. My very sweet, hard working past self! That folder still sits in the corner of the shelf now, but it isn't surrounded or suffocated with the later PhD work and teaching folders.

I am already feeling better after initiating this cleansing process, which I think really started when I decided to say goodbye, finally, to the topic of the never-finished academic article I thought was so important. It's a beginning. I'm still left with the job of wrapping up the RA work and this requires non-paid intellectual labour hours that I do resent. I guess the closure will begin to happen more concretely when I fulfil this end of my commitment to the project. I also feel a bit stronger in the sense that I am more confident that I can allow myself to only do so much and not over-extend my services in a way that is not too self-exploiting. Soon I will be setting up a time to talk to my manager about my future intentions and ambitions. This will be hard. I anticipate the usual response that I need to give it more time, putting in extra is what this life is all about, don't give up now, blah blah blah.

Heavy sigh.... The days of March are longer now and the sun is shining more. Spring cleaning has begun but isn't finished yet. At least my view isn't obstructed by all of the overwhelming stacks of history that were collecting, not to mention the dust that stifled my breathing.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Academic Confessions of Success and Failure

‘Academic work is publicly and correctly viewed as having a sacred quality involving the pursuit and transmission of truth. But it also involves a job or career carried out in a competitive milieu where the usual human virtues and vices are never far from the surface.’
Gary T. Marx (1990) 'Reflections on Academic Success and Failure: Making it, Forsaking It, Reshaping it'

Before I started this blog I searched the Internet every day for stories from others who may have been writing about their ambivalent experiences of Post-Grad study or work in academia. I was amazed at the amount of information I found, and as I have already stated, it was these accounts that prompted me to ‘come out’ and start writing. I came across a chapter published in 1990 from American Sociologist Gary T. Marx, Emeritus Professor at MIT, and since I've read it I find I keep wanting to go back to it to help make sense of some of my post-academia feelings. Maybe others too can relate to some of what Marx is sharing here. 
Marx offers a touching and honest account of his own ‘academic success and failure’, charting his long scholarly history from the early 70s to the 90s, when his chapter ‘Reflections on Academic Success and Failure’ was published. One of the hooks for me as a reader was his introductory address to two different reading audiences: ‘persons beginning their career, and those at midcareer sorting it all out --the former because I wish someone had told me these things when I was starting out, and the latter because they may believe them.’ I have always wondered why some of my experienced academic friends have never ‘told me’ certain things, with honesty, about what it’s really like to start out in an academic career. I have also wondered about the stories that are told about academic life by those are steeped in the middle of it. Do they only reveal half-truths? Do they hold back when talking to others who are just starting out because they don’t want to frighten the next generation? Do they even know where to begin in telling a story that is full up highs and lows that often depends largely on historical contexts and ‘luck’ of the draw?
Marx writes about his promising start of success, beginning his Post-PhD life three years after completion, with a great salary and light teaching load at Harvard University. His book, Protest and Prejudice, presumably extended from his PhD, was a big selling hit, students loved him and many later became established scholars in their own right. Research fellowships offered more teaching relief. Invitations to speak and serve on a range of editorial and advisory boards offered positive affirmation of his academic identity that many early academics desire. Life for Marx was at an enviable high point and it seemed it might never end. Why should it? He was smart, hard-working, researching and writing about what was important. But this wasn’t to last, Marx reflects. The decline wasn’t a quick and sudden one.
‘[G]radually the sweet smell of success turned slightly rancid. As traditional achievements became less satisfying and little failures accumulated, stalagmites of disillusionment, anger, and confusion built up over several years. What I had naively assumed to be the natural order of things turned out to be but a passing phase conditioned by historical factors and luck.’
The journey of failure for Marx feels quite uncomfortable to read, although certainly refreshing. I’m sure it was even more difficult to write and expose his vulnerabilities. His ideal tenure job never surfaces and is offered to another less experienced colleague. The hit success book finally goes out of print and the next book doesn’t sell. Another prospective collection is rejected by the publisher. Grant applications are rejected and The Republicans get into office. A new historical era begins – yes, successes and failures often rely on history and structural regimes.
The need to ‘display’ academic success, Marx reveals, may be ‘part of the American achievement ethos’, but for many of us, like Marx, it also can be an expression of some of the complexities of the parent-child relationship, in which the child seeks the approval of the parent who is difficult to please. Of course, this can be an illustration of the cultural forces of the ‘American achievement ethos’ acting upon us on the micro-level, but the effects of them are highly emotional. Marx writes about the impact his father had on his desire to succeed:
‘His own needs were such that he made me feel very inferior. As a result I had a strong need to prove myself. Seeking the external symbols of success was a way to demonstrate to the world and myself that the inner doubts I harbored were mistaken.’
Self-reflexivity seems more acceptable in academic writing now (at least in the Arts and Humanities and some social sciences) since the early nineties but for many disciplines the question of how far one goes in their revelations is still unanswered, especially when the revelations are concerned with challenges to academia and doubts about one’s academic career and livelihood. Marx’s consideration of his journey of academic success and failure leads him to confront the realities of the myths surrounding success. It never lasts. Your publications cease to be read after a while and when your generation retires, the younger ones forget you, or never knew of you in the first place. The tendency for academics to self-punish for not being as successful as they should be is rife:  
‘You can never be successful enough (at least in your own eyes). No matter how good you are, there is always someone better. Whatever you did, you could always have done it better and done more, or done it earlier. You never were as important or well known as you thought you were. Even the truly famous are not exempt.’
This means that efforts towards success are never-ending and they only become harder to achieve as you move up along the academic career path. This is a point with which I can really identify. In my previous life when I was working outside academia, there were many times when I felt my achievements and successes in the workplace were recognised and praised. Why wasn’t this enough for me at the time? Perhaps my reasons were like Marx’s, harking back to some need for parental approval which leads more to a personal mission of self-disciplining and self-approval (I’m not good enough; I will never be good enough, but my hard work and hard efforts can show that I’m not lazy; I have at least tried my best; I will strive to do what I haven’t yet done; There will always be more that I can and should do.).
For me, the most valuable lesson that Marx’s chapter leave readers with (his final section is titled ‘Practical Lessons’), although I’m not convinced it is the easiest one to achieve, is ‘do not make your career your life’. Most academics I know seem to be able to appreciate his first bit of advice, which is to ‘value the process of creating as an end itself’. The pleasure in the journey of the investigation, the ‘process’ is often what carries many academics along, what keeps them motivated. However, this intrinsic value is endlessly complicated by all of the other constraints that the academic workplace puts on scholars. And we often don’t have control over these constraints. It seems that the easy phrase, ‘do not make your career your life’, most of the time, feels unachievable for many academics whose passion for their subject area arose out of their personal desires in the first place. In the Arts and Humanities, in particular the areas of culture studies in which popular culture, film, media and television are studied, these topics for lectures and papers are indeed emerging out of the lived experiences of those academics. They wouldn’t have written whole PhDs on the films of so and so if they weren’t excited by watching them in the first place. The separation of work and play and emotions, becomes far more of a challenge for many Post-Grads in the Arts, but one that needs to be addressed. For the increasing number of post-academics out there from Arts and Humanities subjects, I would guess that it must be the struggle they have to separate those areas that they find most difficult in their search for a new direction and career.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

From the desk job to the kitchen

I've been thinking about the pleasure I had in reading Po Bronson's book What Should I Do with My Life? last spring when I when in such a state about what to do with my own life. What amazed me was that it was my husband who actually recommended this book to me after he had been listening to my teary-eyed whinging for a while. I was taken by surprise because he had admitted that he too had been going through a difficult time with work (he's an academic too) and wondered if there were any alternatives. I was amazed he kept quiet about it so long. At the same time I guess this isn't too unusual. Men, in particular, haven't been allowed to express openly their vulnerabilities and insecurities for fear of being seen as weak. I think this must be worse when the insecurities have to do with the workplace, as this is where so many men are expected to define their identities. So, on the night when he took this book out from his bedside table I was speechless.

Bronson's book focuses on a selection of a wide range of people he has interviewed. They share with him their experiences of how they made the decision to transition into another profession and leave the one with which they were uncomfortable. He states at the start that some of the stories have happy endings and some do not. Some are still left in the moment of their decision-making. While I found there is a bit of tendency towards a sense of repetition across the book, I was moved by many of the chapters and could really identify with the some of the individuals.

One story, in particular, has really stuck with me. I can't remember the name of the guy and I've lent the book to a friend now, so can't check. But it is one that a prospective Post-Academic reader will recognise immediately. It's a story about a post-grad male from the US who is maybe in his late twenties and is studying for his PhD on an English topic. While he is in the middle of his PhD he discovers his brother has committed suicide and his world comes to a halt. He is forced suddenly to rethink his work, his life, his purpose and what makes him feel passionate. He decides to give up the PhD completely and never returns to it. He discovers a love for cooking, an activity that is physical, nurturing and constant. It involves others and we need it to sustain our bodies. He decides to go to cooking school to become a chef. He eventually works, works very hard indeed, in a busy restaurant. He is exhausted but thrives on his new found profession and can't imagine ever returning to a desk or sedentary job again.

I was inspired by this story and others and felt there was a great sense of hope in them, even when the people were left in a state of uncertainty after giving up an occupation that made them unhappy for so many years. The post-academic community bloggers offer this sense of hope to me also, and even more than the book because they share the ongoing 'in-process' narratives with which we can identify.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Post-PhD and the path of internships?

About a year and a half ago now I finally made the decision to see the careers advisor at the university where I completed my PhD. I resisted for a long time after completion because I just thought I had enough experience of studying, life and the working world to get by on my own and manage the job application process and interviews without the help of others - beyond accessing a few sites on the Internet. Well, after several shots at applying for academic teaching jobs, one with an interview and others without a look-in, and after finally admitting to myself that I wanted to look at other alternatives, I made an appointment. My name and details after the session were then put in the system and every now and then I get emails about career fairs at the university, workshops and other things. Before I mention today's email I'll just say a little about the session with the advisor.

I wasn't exactly sure what I was expecting when I went there, although I did bring my 'academic' cv with all of its details about qualifications, awards, teaching, conference papers that I felt so proud of, and a start with my little list of publications. It became immediately clear to this woman that the cv was too academic and I needed to redesign it and perhaps think about using the 'skills-based' cv. She was very helpful here and showed me some good websites for Post-Grads who had switched from the academic cv to the skills-based one. What was funny about this was that part of my undergrad Level 1 teaching was devoted to helping students see the value of the 'transferable skills' they were acquiring through their academic studies and which could be a good selling point for future employers. I never quite spent the time thinking about how exactly I would have to sell my own skills.

I left the appointment feeling some kind of relief that I had finally got there and had this session yet it was mixed with feelings of more anxiety. Now I had to actually sit down with myself and try to figure out what I wanted to do. What was my ideal job? she asked me. Oh dear, that was a tricky one. I honestly couldn't answer. Is there any ideal job left to have, I asked myself. Are my expectations too high?

Editing down this story a little bit now, I made the decision to look at some of the internal jobs that were advertised through the university. My newly designed cv was a hit and I actually got an interview for what I thought was a promising fixed-term post. It was part-time, just what I wanted, and had lots of potential to learn new stuff, while putting to use many of my 'skills'. I found myself quite surprised at the interview though. The pay wasn't great. It wasn't on the lowest end either but I hoped I could have applied for a job with a better salary. Anyway, what really surprised me was that the interview included a panel of four people, including one from another department, so an external person. I was drilled as if they were interviewing me to run the project (the role was to assist the Project Manager). The expectations were very high and seemed comparable to a Post-Doc research post, for someone with a PhD. However, the actual job spec and the essential qualifications expected that candidates should at least have an undergraduate degree, not a Post-Grad. I'm reliving the frustration of this interview now as I type away.

When the other candidate got the job I felt quite a bit of relief. The office was situated in the lower level of the building in the basement and didn't seem to have any windows. The campus was huge and overwhelming. For drivers, you had to park in an area that seemed miles away and pay, and then find your way to this nowhere land eventually. The poor students, I thought.

I continued to look for other roles at the university but nothing suitable came up. And much of my search on a UK graduate jobs website advertised for graduate internships. So many of my students would have been taking those up, in their desperate desire to get experience.

I'm reminded of this today as the careers office has sent me an email, personalised with my name in the letter, asking me to consider the value of doing an internship. Come and find out about those ones that are not advertised, come and see what it's like to work in this area, gain experience doing this and that. I am soon to be 49, have previous years of hard work experience in printing/publishing industry. I trained as a secondary school teacher and can manage a classroom of 32 pupils from ages 11 to 17. I have taught university level students, undergrad and post-grad MA students. I have had two children and managed my work and studies around them. I have somehow managed to complete a PhD research project and write around 80,000 words of a cohesive academic narrative. I have taught myself some complicated new software packages when doing my PhD research. Somehow, I should be able to bypass the need to do an internship as a means of proving myself? Is there no way that the careers office can hone in on Post-Grad talent and help us in our search for meaningful work? Couldn't they even just think about the right kind of recruitment agencies to point us towards? They seem to be spending so much time and energy liasing with local employers for undergrads that they have missed an amazing opportunity to help build a stronger reputation for the university employment statistics through us older, more experienced Post-Grads.

I know that all I can do is keep trying and keep refining that skills-based cv and strengthen my personal statement. But I'm not convinced much of the time that it will solve the problem of the Post-Grad who may be too over-qualified for many jobs, and perhaps just too scary for employers who want to stay away from hiring the old 45-plus people like me (now with lots of grey in my hair!), who may have been their lecturer in their uni days who gave them a bad mark on an essay and a hard time for never showing up to seminars. And I'm not sure I'd blame them. Would I really want to work for them anyway?

Friday, 9 March 2012

Once Working-Class Academics

This post has been prompted by A Post-Academic in NYC who is sharing her 'adventures in secretaryland'. A comment by James from selloutyoursoul and his blog post mentions the expectations that have been put upon young people now from their parents. 'Our parents went to university to escape the factory', he writes. Yes, for many this is true and this would seem to capture the experiences of many adults who are parents and are my age now - I am coming up to 49 in June. In 'my day' I aspired to go to university to avoid repeating the life of my working-class parents and family who spent a lot of their working lives in factories. While I live in the UK now, I was born and brought up around the Boston area and studied at University there also. But I was not a child of parents who urged me to get a university education to avoid the factory. Well, I can't say that my mother didn't encourage me to carry on my studies after high-school, but she wasn't in a stable middle-class financial situation and didn't have the resources (time or the creative capacity to know which university might be the best one, etc.) to push me on. At the time I fancied maybe going to art school and she thought this was a nice idea but didn't have a clue where to start and my school never offered any advice in this direction.

I attended a vocational school (I see these schools still exist across the US) and there was big label attached to them - they were non-academic and really set up for those who would not go on to study. When I graduated from 'Applied Art and Design' (lofty term indeed) we were encouraged to get jobs as 'paste-up artists' (another lofty term!) at printing companies or the like. Okay, so now there is desk-top publishing and anyone can design their own newsletter with good effect.

Anyway, I have found that my path to higher education emerged more out my own struggle to prove to myself and to my family that I had more going for me than just the 'vocational school' label. It was pretty tough though. No money, working part-time the whole way through (got fees paid but had to live on my own - was older and out of the home), prefaced by lots of courses at a community college  at night to muster up the basic skills and confidence to apply to full degree programmes. And my mother later on wondered why I didn't try nursing school - good question! She did that later in her life (after many years of factory work) and did very well financially. Well, that wasn't my cup of tea. I felt I needed to soak up all of this knowledge about culture and the world.

But while studying with mainly the privileged crowd of middle-class kids at my Ivy League university, I learned how to perform as middle-class. I learned how to speak like the rest of them. My Massachusetts, Bostonian accent that all of my family have, changed to the kind of standard one that Post-Academic in NYC talks about. I liked the middle-class life (I guess I still enjoy its privileges!), and my performance as a smart middle-class, university education type from an Ivy league place got me the attention I wanted at that time. Well, some of my family didn't seem overly impressed by it. I didn't exactly fit in anymore.

My Post-Grad study in the area of Cultural Studies, Popular Culture also appreciated the other 'working-class' identity that I was trying to figure out. And this was affirming. But I always felt in-between worlds too. Some of my friends in the academic world did come from this kind of 'factory' background, but most didn't. So I felt a lot of the time that academia came easier or more natural for them. And the 'once working-class academics' who were very successful seemed to possess the kind of strength and stamina for the life that I felt I couldn't grasp.

As a 'middle-class' parent now I feel anxious for my middle-class kids. Yes, I want them to have a good education, but I want them to be able to see through some the game of the higher education institution 'factory'. I do not regret all that I have 'learned'. I have grown intellectually in a way that I might not have before my post-grad stint. But perhaps if I didn't do this stint I could have acquired other valuable kinds of knowledge and experiences. I had an uncle who was (uncharacteristically for my family) a political activist and he devoted his life to a range of causes. He challenged me one day by asking why didn't I become more active and teach others outside of the university walls. There is that possibility, it is not formalised in the same ways as in the university institution and there may be more benefits. This conversation has stuck with me. I was reminded of it when I chatted to another PhD student the other day who is near completion. He is pondering whether he should take up the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and work with an NGO there or whether he should stay in the UK, try to publish his PhD as a book and find an academic teaching job. My advice was: 'Get out of here and go to Central America. It's a war ground here. You're not safe!'

Off for the weekend to Cornwall now to not think about academia!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Other Great Blogs

I would not have taken the step to set up this blog if I wasn't inspired by a list of other great individuals who are writing about their experiences of Post-Grad study and teaching in Higher Education. Many of the blogs I've come across are written by people in the US. There are of course many similarities between UK and US academic work but also differences. And as it is only recently that UK government funding to subsidise universities has been cut, we have not had the long-term experience of a culture of paying students and private universities. All of that is now changing with increasing fees here in the UK. How long will it take before universities like those in the Russell Group (like the 'Ivy League' universities in the US) start charging £50,000 plus each year?

Okay, enough of that. My purpose here is to add some Blog links for futher reference. This is only a starting point short list. As I have more time to read through them I'll offer some brief descriptions to entice you.

I'm sure you'll find them as helpful as I have. Happy reading!

Worst Professor Ever
Alternative PhD
Sell Out Your Soul
Life After the PhD
From Grad School to Happiness
Post Academic

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.