On rejection, confidence, and breaking in pumps

Hi folks,

It’s been a rough few weeks for me here in the precariat. Since I submitted my PhD (well, actually, going back earlier than that) I have been pushing very hard. I have been hustling for casual work, applying for jobs (in academia nationally and internationally, and in government departments and NGOs), writing papers, and applying for grants.

Every time I take one of these tasks on, I have to build up my confidence. I have to tell myself that even if the casual work is in an area new to me, I’ll get across it just fine. This one, at least, is usually a safe bet, as I have multi- and inter-disciplinary training, work hard and I’m a quick study. Writing articles, book chapters, and chapter proposals is tough, time-consuming and it’s always a long time between starting and succeeding, but writing is also a reasonable bet – I’ve had few rejections in this arena, and the rejected work isn’t wasted, it’s always been re-workable and re-submittable elsewhere.

But grants, and job applications? Not so much. Rejections are frequent (thus far, universal) and the work is at best partially salvageable for another long shot application. When I apply for jobs and grants I have to tell myself that even if success is unlikely, it’s possible, despite my complete lack of success so far. I have to believe in the possibility, and believe in my own capacity to succeed, because otherwise it is impossible to put in the hours (days) needed to write a solid application. A degree of confidence is essential to the process, but often hard to muster.

Confidence is essential despite the evidence to the contrary. Despite the fact that every competitive research grant I have ever applied for or been involved with has been unsuccessful. Despite the fact that I have yet to have any success in the competitive job market. The piling up of rejections pretty firmly suggests that I’m not capable, I’m not enough, I’m not what anyone is looking for. The confidence that is essential for each effort gets harder to scrape up.

Here’s the thing: I know, on some level, that the rejections aren’t necessarily a reflection on me personally, or not entirely. They reflect a lot of things: an oversupply of PhDs relative to the increasingly casualised workforce and insecure funding environment in higher education and research. They reflect that for every post there are hundreds of qualified applicants from all over the world, many of whom will have years of experience on me. They reflect the fact that I don’t actually have my PhD yet – it will be conferred any day now, but for every application so far I’ve had to select the ‘Ms’ option when giving my title – and ruling out anyone without a PhD is a pretty straightforward way to thin the pile when you’ve got hundreds of applications. It’s also a reflection of the fact that my publication record isn’t jaw-dropping. I’ve got a pretty decent number of publications for someone in my field who is just out of a PhD, they’re in high quality journals, and they are (slowly) getting cited, but my record isn’t exceptional. I need more. And it also reflects the fact that in many grant processes, success breeds success and failure breeds failure. The first big grant is the hardest to win, because many selection panels consider previous grant success and productivity in their decision making.

I also know that really, I’m not doing so badly. I’ve had one interview so far, and I’m part way through a multi-stage screening process for another job. In fact, I’m typing this at my desk at home, incongruously dressed in daggy work-from-home clothes with thick socks and a pair patent leather pumps, which I’m trying to break in before a group interview and work test later this week. I’ve had two publications accepted already this year, and will be submitting another in a week or so, and have a long list of others in various stages of formulation. 2015 will be a fabulous year for me, publication-wise.

But right now, none of this is enough, I’m not enough, and so the rejections keep coming in, one after another. Honestly, it just hurts. Well, the rejection, and the pumps.

It’s the horrible reality of job hunting and grant hustling: the more you push, the more you apply, the more you will fail, the more you will be rejected. The more you fail, the more you have to push and hustle to try and get that first win, despite waning confidence and pretty desperately low morale, and sore feet.

ETA: Sorry to be a bit grim. Early May is a tough time for me, and there have been a lot of disappointments recently. Next post will be more cheerful, for sure.

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Lost identity

I have been a student for a long time.

I didn’t come to university straight from high school, but I have been a tertiary-level student for the last decade. Yep, decade. There are a few gaps in that timeline (one semester deferred for family reasons, one semester between graduating from undergrad/Honours and starting the PhD, one year “off” the PhD to take on a full time faculty contract), but I always knew I had further study ahead, so I never quite shook the ‘student’ label or identity. For a decade, I’ve been an ‘environmental planning student’, and ‘Honours student’, or a ‘PhD student’.

And it’s been fantastic. It’s been difficult at times, and it means I’ve been living on a shoestring for basically my whole adult life, while friends, siblings, and cousins have been going on glamorous/long holidays, buying property, having children. But it has been such an immense privilege, and one I’m very grateful to have had. Despite so much stress, pain, insecurity, and poverty, I’ve enjoyed it enormously.

But a couple of weeks ago something happened, and it really hit me that this part of my life is nearing its end – for all intents and purposes, it has ended. What happened, you ask? My student travel concession card expired…for good.

And I realised that in addition to having to ration my travel (my city has some of the most expensive public transport in the world*), I’m not a student any more. I need to start thinking about myself differently. That, however, is the subject of another post. For now, I just want to say farewell, Student Nat**. It’s been great.

* Hilariously, the week my card expired was a week I was working on a paper on how the costs of public transport can affect women’s ability to access the workplace.

** Of course, I’m sure I’ll be a student again. I already know what I want to study next…but this time, I’m waiting until I’m in work and can pay my student fees upfront, because my HECS-debt is terrifying enough as it is. And it will probably be part-time, and thus less immersive.

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Rejection and acceptance

The thing about academic life – especially casual/un(der)-employed academic life – is that you are constantly putting yourself, and your work, out for judgement and scrutiny. It’s tough, unpleasant, and uncomfortable, and it’s hard to maintain the confidence necessary to keep at it.

Opening my inbox(es) this morning, I had received two emails that illustrated this nicely.

Firstly, I had an official rejection letter on a job application I submitted some months ago. Given the delay it was pretty clear I hadn’t been shortlisted, so it wasn’t a surprise. It was still disappointing – it was a contract post at a university with a department full of really exciting thinkers, I would’ve loved to have been a part of it. It was also in a city I’d have loved to live in. So, a bit disappointing, but not at all surprising.

Secondly, I had a paper accepted to a journal. We’d done the revisions a few weeks ago, and I was expecting that they’d ask us to make further changes. But nope – it’s accepted, and I’ll have another first author publication in a well-regarded, international journal. I need more emails like this, especially if I am to reduce the amount of the first kind of email I receive.

But of course, even if I get an academic post, the rejection will keep coming. Papers will be rejected. Grant applications will be rejected. Promotion/tenure applications will be rejected. Papers will be published, but ultimately rejected by the field. It’s the harsh nature of academic life, and it makes the moments of acceptance all the more important, and all the more precious.

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I may not be a Doctor (or The Doctor), but don’t call me ‘Mrs’.

I’m still a few – or many – months away from being a Doctor. If it ever happens.

However. A word of warning to the predatory, vanity publishers currently chasing me and my unpublished (and still unrevised) thesis:

Don’t call me ‘Mrs’.

You may call me ‘Ms’. Or ‘Nat’. Or ‘To Whom It May Concern’. Or ‘Dame’ (I’m not a dame, but it’s a pretty cool title).

…that said, I still won’t let you ‘publish’ my thesis. But I’ll be slightly less snarky about it.

…actually, I probably won’t. Scammers preying on desperate, struggling, un/der-employed early career academics don’t warrant any particular politeness.

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Writing hard

First of all – sorry for the big gap. I had some pressing deadlines and a job interview, and as such had even less time than usual for introspection. The job interview was on Friday 13th (yeah, good thing I’m not superstitious, I am only a ‘little-stitious’ – HT to Michael Scott). I’m not particularly optimistic but it was good practice and all that. It was my first proper academic interview, so honestly I’m just proud that I didn’t fall on my face. Anyway. Moving on.

I’ve been focussed on two writing projects of late: the first is a paper that was at R&R stage, which a colleague brought me in on to help her address the feedback; the second is a book chapter with the same colleague. Once these are done, I have probably, oh, 7-8 other collaborative papers with friends and colleagues at least at abstract+outline stage, and I’m excited about all of them.

I enjoy writing collaboratively. I like blending my ideas with other people’s and seeing what happens. I like the extra support and motivation it provides – I keep my commitments because I don’t want to let anyone down, and having writing buddies helps me deal with feedback from reviews (otherwise I’m prone to a severe bout of ‘I clearly don’t belong here’).

I’m also enjoying working on stuff that’s not ‘mine’; so far, none of the papers I’m working on are using my data or my case studies, because honestly, I’m not ready to go there yet. Rather, I’m bringing the theories and lenses I’m adept at using to other topics, other people’s research, and so far it’s fun.

Because of the Job Hunt, however, it’s impossible for me to not relate everything I do back to some future job application. How will this look? Will experience writing in this field make me more competitive? What writing projects should I prioritise? Which journals will be the most prestigious AND quickest turn-around? What selection of journals will make me look appropriately interdisciplinary but not like a dabbler?

These concerns, unfortunately, take a little of the joy out of the creative, collaborative experience that is group writing.

I’m also acutely aware that this work is, in a financial sense, speculative. I have a few hours’ work each week as a research assistant, but, unlike a full-time academic, I am not paid to write papers or book chapters. Some of my collaborators are (lucky, well-deserving ducks); I am not. I am doing all this in the hopes that this work will make me more competitive in the job market.

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing, and even if I never find academic work I will continue to write. But the only reason I’m pushing so hard now, straight after PhD submission and while I’m still burned out and tired from the Giant Thesis, is because I must. Publishing is the only thing I can do to make myself a better candidate; the only part of the whole process I have any real control over. And it’s labour that other people (academic publishers, mainly) will profit from directly – the best I can hope for is indirect profit in the form of a job. At some point.

Thus, I write. And I write hard.

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Got a letter in the mail…

I got a letter in the mail on Friday from a regional council I applied for a job with a week or two ago.

I was at the office spending the day working on a paper with a friend and colleague, and my partner calls me, all excited, to let me know. I said, “If it’s a letter, it’s a rejection. They wouldn’t be sending me a letter to arrange an interview”. Bless his heart though, he was so optimistic.

Of course, readers, I was right. Rejection. No reason – not even a hint of reason. Just, “thanks but no thanks”.

I honestly didn’t mind because it wasn’t a highly desirable position for me and would have involved a relocation to a part of the country I’m not super keen on, but I thought the first official rejection of Job Hunt 2015 deserved a blog post in its honour.

Now, back to that paper.

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Horror Stories

Turns out, the PhD examination process is a lot like pregnancy/birth.*

Why? Two reasons. Firstly, because you hear a lot of horror stories – indeed, everyone has one, if not their own, then their supervisor’s, or their student’s, or their friend’s, or their colleague’s. Secondly, because you never hear the good stories – you know, where it all goes pretty much as expected, the examination is on time, even handed and insightful. The reports are consistent. The changes are straightforward to make. Much like during pregnancy, people will tell stories about their cousin’s friend’s sister spend 72 hours in labour and it was surprise twins who both came out sideways. You don’t hear about when it all goes fine.

I don’t want to hear stories about those examiners who disagreed so vehemently the whole process stalled for months. I don’t want to hear about how the examiners found a massive problem that the student and their supervisor’s had (unbelievably, in hindsight) missed. I don’t want to hear about that person who will have months and months of work ahead of them. I certainly don’t want to hear about that person who was bumped to a Masters, or failed outright. Do. Not. Want.

I just want to hear warm, fluffy tales about encouraging examiners, efficient Chairs, engaged, detailed and consistent reports, swift and doable corrections. Please. Tell me about those.

Or, better yet, let’s not talk about it at all.

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*Not that I’ve ever been pregnant, but I’ve had this discussion with a few friends who’ve had kids. They heard a lot of horror stories, not a lot of ‘I had a comfortable pregnancy followed by a reasonably quick and complication free labour, and a swift and total recovery’ stories.

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