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 https://postacademicinnyc.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/the-crushing-shame-of-applying-for-unemployment/#comment-220 ) 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.