Sunday, July 8, 2012

Anatomy of a career gone wrong

Reading some links from Dr. Piglets blog, I now realise that the reason I haven't got an academic job is that I did exactly all of the wrong things! So silly in hindsight. It's a pity I can't go back and fix it.

First - I stayed at my home institution for my PhD. I was suckered into it by an advisor who I was too naiive to realise was firmly in recruitment mode for the higher ed money machine.

Second - I picked an obscure and interdisciplinary area of research. Instead of picking something sensible and unambitious in scope, I thought I was there to make an original contribution to knowledge.

Third - I lacked the professional ambition to promote myself via every available outlet. I was, in fact, too busy thinking and reading and writing my thesis to worry exessively about conferences and publishing.

Fourth - I was blissfully ignorant of the need to build networks. Stupidly, I hung out with people I liked, regardless of their ability to influence my career.

Fifth - I was largely clueless about the enormous necessity to secure grant income. I was several years down the track before I realised that without grant income, I was going nowhere.

Sixth - I rather stupidly relied on the idea that the academics who taught me must have known what they were doing. It took me a long time to access some teacher training that ultimately made a significant difference to my emjoyment of teaching.

Seventh - I made some questionable personal choices about how I would negotiate my career opportunities. I would, however, probably make the same mistakes again.
Eighth - I let myself be blinded by the cultish aura of academia. In short, I focused too narrowly on my obscure research area and didn't allow myself to be open to ideas from elsewhere.

Ninth - My teaching has been in programs that have been axed, rather than boosted.

I am not that remorseful about what I did or didn't do - after all, I am a forward-looking person who can only work with what is to come rather than worrying about all the mistakes I made. But it is useful to reflect on what I did do, versus what other's might have done and think about how complicit I might have been in the unmaking of my academic career. While there are a lot of systemic issues around too many graduates and not enough jobs, I think that if some people get jobs, but others don't, then it is a little bit too convenient to blame 'the system' for all the damage done. In short, although I have a good track record and am pleasant to work with, there has to be something that distinguishes me from the other candidates who have gotten academic jobs.

That is not to say that it's eniterly my fault either. As has been mentioned plenty of times on different post-academic blogs, it is far too easy and too convenient for our former academic colleagues and/or advisors to say we weren't committed enough, we weren't dedicated enough, we didn't try hard enough, etc etc. But if I have a good track record and plenty of evidence that I am actually ok at what I do, and that I have tried hard and so on: how is it my fault that I don't have a job?

So somewhere between blaming the system and blaming myself, there has to be a more nuanced explanation of the experience that has led me to this point. And yes, it's ultimately a combination of systemic issues and personal faults, some of which may have been avoidable and some which couldn't have been. However, lacking a crystal ball to tell me what was going to be important, and without many structural remedies offered at different times, I blundered along as best as I could.

Now wonder it's often said that "hindight is 20-20".

Anyone interested in a scathing critique of Australian academic life should read Richard Hil's (2012) Whackademia. UNSW Press. It's got a lot of inside info about Australian universities that may not translate that well to an overseas audience, but it certainly highlights all those systemic problems for people still working in academia. And makes me feel more like I have dodged a bullet than missed out.


  1. I had a look at the links in Dr. Piglet's blog too and thought about where things went wrong, so to speak. For me, I think I always had some (silent) doubts about academia and how many sacrifices were required to really thrive, one of them being that you have to accept that you will probably need to move across the country to secure your first, and perhaps future posts. I knew all along I couldn't do that with two young children at home. Some couples agree that the academic one can live in the job place for half the week and come home on weekends - this was never going to work for us, as mt partner is an academic and often away, leaving me to sort out the domestic/kids' stuff. Aside form those realities, I guess I always felt uncomfortable with a lot of the necessity to play the games of academia that are required. For a long time I seem to have carried on in the hope that I may change my mind or get lucky, but now I am just feeling a sense of relief that I have let go and feel ready to start something new that doesn;t ask the same things of me as an academic job would have. Whakdemia sounds like a good read - will add to my long list!

  2. It is so difficult. I have got so angry in the past about all these systemic 'rules' of academia - right institution! right topic! - which of course barely anyone finds out until after the fact; but you're right, there's also personal choices there too. Weekends are nice! Choosing where to live is nice! Not sucking up to the terrible prof with a history of misogyny is nice! The difficulty is knowing how much these things play off against each other - will all the work in the world overcome a PhD done under a not-very-famous supervisor? (Maybe). Will a PhD from Prestigious U make you more likely to get to interview, even if your publications aren't great? (Likely). Universities have such a responsibility to make this stuff more visible, and I think they are failing badly.

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