Thursday, January 26, 2012

Doing everything right and still not getting a job: Or, what every graduate student needs to know

Today I thought I would follow up on a suggestion made on one of my previous posts by recent Phd on how doing everything right is still no guarantee to getting a job.

I am not sure though that I have anything much to add to the already well-documented issues that everyone who is struggling with the question of what to do next will have already encountered. There is an oversupply of graduates for the number of jobs; graduate programs are not honest about the job prospects of their students because Universities are focused on recruiting more students who finish more quickly in order to increase funding; governments are spruiking an innovation policy approach that is increasingly deregulating any caps on student numbers in order to enhance competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy on the premise that 'a clever country is a lucky country'; there is a rise in so-called 'creditionalism' that means that for even the most generic job you need a qualification; and, here's a new one that I heard at my last aca job interview: there is a decline in student numbers as the demographic profile associated with the baby boom means less new students each year, and thus, correspondingly, less staffing requirements (ha! tell that to the overworked and underpaid responsible for teaching those students).

Here are a few other random justifications I have heard for why there is no job security in higher ed: international students are being put-off by perceptions of racism so we don't have enough demand for teachers (yet internal documents show inreased numbers of international admissions); providing first-class facilities is a first-order priority necessitating budget cuts elsewhere (the argument currently used by the most prestigious university in Australia); and, of course, that tired old line about the looming skills shortage when all the baby boomers retire (who are, in actual practice, never replaced).

However, the single biggest hurdle for any graduate of any discipline at any level is this: the job market sucks right now. The global financial crisis, the European debt crisis and rising levels of unemployment globally are chronic, systemic issues that are having an impact on everyone, everywhere.

Thank you corporate wankers, I mean, bankers. While you file away your taxpayer funded bonuses in various tax evasion schemes, the rest of the world is drowning in poverty, unemployment and uncertainty.

So that means that competition for those few jobs that do exist is extremely fierce. The people who have gotten jobs over me in the past have track records that are unheard of. They have better track records than many a tenured Professor. This means that where once upon a time (ie the late 1970s, when most of our PhD supervisors would have been appointed) you might have been able to get a job with just a PhD in hand, these days you need a PhD, at least one book, a long-list of peer-reviewed publications, an established record of successful competitive external grant applications, significant experience in undergraduate teaching, including, preferrably, a qualification in teaching as well as exceptional student evaluations, ideally, experience in attracting and training postgraduate students, significant experience on committees, excellent interpersonal and relationship-building skills and outstanding expertise in community engagement.

I am sure I don't need to mention that the ability to build many of these skills is dependent on actually getting a job in the first-place. Which is of course a typical chicken-egg scenario - how do you get the experience you need when you can't get a job?

I have heard recent PhD graduates talking about how it will take them around 5 years to get a proper job. In the meantime, they can expect to work on short-term teaching contracts at most and spend their 'free' time writing publications. If you factor in 5 years as the average completion time (for a full-time student) and then another 5 years on top of that, then you've got ten years of marginal pay, fractional employment and working for free. In any other industry, it would take you 2 years for a postgraduate qualification, and 5 years out from graduating you would be well-established in your career and earning a respectable salary.

I would also like to add here that the post-PhD years are in actual fact the most critical. No-one cares what you do during your PhD. Ever. What you do post-PhD is going to make or break your career.

So for heaven's sake, don't go and have a baby in those critical first few years after a PhD. That way you will be "throwing it all away". Quotable quote from the arsheholes of the year. This is what happens when competition is so tough that things considered quite normal in other professional contexts are regarded, not just as, (the equally abhorrent) "mummy-tracking" but as "Throwing. It. ALL. Away." As though child-birth is equivalent to having your brain removed and that the only job worth having is an academic one.

I am beginning to rant...

To conclude: this is what every potential graduate student needs to know:
-the market sucks and there are no jobs
-competition is so tough that it will take you more than 5 years post-PhD to get a job
-the post-PhD years are the most vital so do not think that you can have a life once you finish your PhD
-you would be better off doing a trade instead.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

On being angry.

As I lay awake last night thinking how crappy it was to listen to the neighbours having what sounded like an aweseome party that I wasn't invited to, I guess I got a massive lump of the post-academic blues.

Yesterday was my birthday. For the entire week before hand, I was sick as a proverbial dog (what does that expression even mean?). I was so sick I had to cancel the party I had planned. I was so sick I had to carry kitchen towel with me to the interview I had so that I could periodically rip sheets off and wipe down my sweat on my way there (I even had to stuff pieces under my armpits, not that it acheived any better result). I was so sick I couldn't do any cleaning/cooking/looking after myself/job applications/exercise. I just lay in my own filth instead. Disgusting. I was so sick, that even when I went out for brunch yesterday for my birthday, I couldn't taste anything so had to give up on the idea of any other plans involving cake, wine or dinner.

Anyway, you get the point.

I am kind of glad I didn't have a party in the end, 'cause I realise that I am in no mood for explaining to people why I don't have a job, what kind of jobs I am looking for, and trying not to feel resentful at those happily employed people who make well-meaning but deeply hurtful suggestions about things that I could be doing better/differently/instead.

Like the person who said "oh, don't worry about your career. Just let your boyfriend support you since you're so lucky to have one."

Or the person whose first question everytime we speak is: "Have you got a job yet?"

Or the person who suggested I move back to my home town and get "an entry level job".

Or the person who tells me: "You know, if you were like other girls you would carry a make-up kit around with you and have that swirly stuff that would have made you look so much better for your interview the other day."

Or the former student buddy who said "Oh don't give up writing!" while telling me about all the cRAzy work that they're doing (unpaid). 

Or the person who said "Oh don't give up on an academic career - you're so good at it" at the same time as mentioning that they've switched to an adjunct position.

There's more along these kinds of lines, but honestly, I can't be bothered going into it anymore. I guess late at night these things seem more important than when you put them on paper. (That's a good sign!), but honestly folks, here is what I want to say:

a) I am a career girl. Work, autonomy and being financially independent are important to me.

b) It takes time to find a job. I have been working on a very solid plan of action that will produce a good outcome in due course.

c) I am not that desperate. Yet.

d) Since you know so much about being a woman, why don't you take up cross-dressing?

e) I haven't given up writing. I am writing job applications.

f) I know I am good at it, but there are no jobs. One cannot live off air alone.

Reading between the lines (and the insensitive comments) there seems to be a theme here - not one of these people appear to actually care about what I AM doing and aren't actually very tuned into what I have been saying and doing for some time. I guess I am struggling with the lack of support from people who I wish could be a bit more tuned into the realities of the situation I am in. I am probably being unreasonable in expecting more sensitive treatment, and I am probably being over-sensitive myself, but... well...

but nothing really. I am just sulking. I am angry that I spent so much of my time working towards a career that is not going to happen. I am angry that people who know how hard I have worked towards this goal don't seem to realise that it's depressing to not achieve your goals and that I might need to be treated a bit more gingerly. I am angry at the suggestion that if I was just a little bit more... (fill in the blank: grateful/feminine/productive/ committed/whatever)... then everything would fall into place.

blah blah blah... I guess the anger is just part of the grieving process that other people have mentioned about making the transition from building an academic career to working out WTF comes next. Plus I hate being sick. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What if I am doing the wrong thing?

I was planning on following up on a suggestion made on my last post, but something happened to me yesterday that has become more urgent.

I've got an interview next week for a research position with a not-for-profit organisation.

So this all sounds good right? 5 weeks in to my non-academic job search and I am getting interviews. (actually I had some interviews last year too, long before I really committed to the job search, so I should be hopeful that it's just a matter of time).

Yet all last night I was consumed with anxiety about whether or not this was the right course for me. (NB: they actually haven't offered me the job yet, I know).

My thought patterns went something like this:
- "oh my god - I would have to commute!" (only an hour, but still, for someone used to working from home this is a challenge)
-"would I ride my scooter or catch the train?" (hourse of fun figuring out +ves and -ves, traffic or new bigger bike versus reading time and length of journey)
- "The salary is way less than what I would get at my level if I was employed full-time as an aca" (academic salaries are actually really high here - if you're lucky enough to get a full-time job, that is. See my earlier post about 50% of university staff being employed on a contingent basis)
- "but there are tax adavantages to working for a charitable organisation" (get out the calculator)
- "how would I fit in workout time?" (not that much of a crisis, I admit, but still, requires thought - a healthy body = a healthy mind. Most important for morale maintaining in stressful times)
and then the really big clincher:
- "this would really mean leaving academia behind. Am I ready for that?"

Cue panic stations and  awful butterfly feelings. I couldn't even laugh out loud at 'Wipeout', one of my all time favourite TV shows because it is so ridiculously funny watching people fall off really stupid obstacles. Kind of like 'Funniest Home Videos' although funnier.

Anyway, I digress.

To summarise my position: despite spending every day writing job applications for non-academic jobs for weeks, I finally have an interview for a great position, but am now doubting whether this is the path I really want to take.

I started thinking: maybe I should keep working part-time so that I can write more articles in my spare time. This is also in part prompted by a senior colleague and mentor offering to get me an unpaid gig at the institution they work at so that I have an institutional address and library access. And also the fact that in the middle of a period of non-sleep last week I came up with some new article ideas for the project that I started at the end of last year that was meant to get me the next position.

But am I being ridiculous? Is a few more articles and another year of job insecurity really the answer? Or should I just get on with it and accept that there are plenty of great jobs available with more job insecurity and better benefits and that I don't have to keep treading water in the hope that one day I will get that elusive full-time aca role?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On not applying for jobs: missed opportunities vs. career planning

I have been thinking lately about where my career has taken me and, more specifically, the jobs I haven't applied for. A few years ago I had just started a great postdoc position when a job EXACTLY in my field opened-up. I didn't apply. I thought - I have a great job, there will be others, I have a plan of action, and everything will be fine.

Yet now I find myself second-guessing what I thought was a reasonable decision at the time. What does that mean? Did I make a mistake in thinking that I could do something as naive as plan my academic career? Was it unrealistic to think that I didn't need to apply for everything going? After all, as has been pointed out plenty of times elsewhere in the postacademic blogosphere, you are expected to be desperate enough to move anywhere, away from your partner, your family, your friends and your life, to teach a million courses a year not in your discipline for a salary that is largely insufficient. I guess I didn't get the memo back in those heady early days of a gloriously long postdoc. I had also, at that point, already done my time in the middle of nowhereville. The postdoc was supposed to be the start of less desperation, not more.

A story told to me by a colleague focused on a similar point - someone who had been unsuccessfully applying for years and years, only to not apply for the one position everyone thought they'd be a shoe-in for. They'd apparently tired of the game and moved on to more interesting things. A wealthy (ie gainfully employed outside academia) and supportive partner helped ease the pain too I'd imagine. I don't have a wealthy partner, so that rules out that option. I do have a supportive partner though, so that does help somewhat.

I've also heard tales of the exact opposite as well - people on fantastical and glamorous research fellowships that have immediately chucked it all in for a much less glamorous position with a more secure future. I think the lure of security vs. unfettered research time must have been just too enticing. Needless to say, little research has been done since. So what I gained by staying in my postdoc is a long list of publications. And a book. Which, as we all know, is the truly essential aspect to gaining a good aca position. If there were any jobs, that is.

My current semi-obsessive reflection on these stories at the start of a new year are obviously indicating to me that the crux of my postacademic existence at the moment is to sort out what I want (a new career) from what I need (gainful employment). Actually, what I want is for the budget crises and the financial crises that ensure that positions for which I am well-qualified for go to people who should be applying at a much higher level themselves to abate. I want the over-qualified to get the jobs that they deserve and leave the suitably qualified to compete for jobs at the appropriate level. Not going to happen any time soon apparently. So. Option 2 is a new career.

It's tempting when your unemployed, I think, to just apply for anything that you think you can do (or that you think you have a chance of getting) to stave off the demons of self-doubt, judgement from others, fear of the dole queue (see ) and anxiety about cash flow.

But I am also thinking about the long-term - instead of thinking about WTF have I done with my life, I am focusing on WTF am I going to do with the rest of it? Reading around postacademic blogs, attending career transitions events, talking to as many people as I can about their careers etc - planning and a little bit of luck seems to be a central component. So I am not going to give up on the idea that I can determine the outcome of what I do next. Baby steps first though. Watch this space.