I started writing this post near the end of April. The fact that its taken me nearly a year to finish it isnt due to writers block in any normal sense. Its because what Im writing here is the obituary of my academic career, and its always tempting to tell myself that its not really dead yet. But I might as well admit it, since the facts bear it out. In the last four years (since near the end of my PhD), Ive applied for nearly 50 lecturing/fellowship jobs, Ive had 3 interviews, no offers. My total income from part-time teaching (for the whole period) has been under 4000 GBP. I can see no point in carrying on trying to become an academic.
Im sure there will be readers (particularly from the US) who have applied for more jobs and tell me to keep on soldiering on (Im aware of how many applications are required in the US system). The problem is that its taken me 4 years already to accumulate this many applications. Yes, there have been jobs I havent applied for, but there just arent the same number of jobs going a year that there are in a much bigger university system. To accumulate another 50 or 100 applications, unless I apply for things for which I have no chance, would take years.
But the real reason for stopping applying is simpler: I have lost my belief that I can get an academic job. To apply for a post when you no longer have faith that you might, just possibly, get the job, is futile in itself. If you can no longer believe in yourself, if only for the hours required to fill in the application, you are not likely to be able to convince the person reading the application.
What I have found particularly damaging to my morale was how personal the procedure was. When I applied for library jobs I was almost always up against a sea of anonymous candidates. When I applied for jobs as a medieval historian I was competing with my friends and acquaintances: there were occasions when the first time I know I havent been shortlisted for a job is having to congratulate the friend who got it. When I saw my friends (with less or the same experience) getting interviews that I didnt, it was hard to keep my belief in myself.
Instead, I am now applying for jobs as a professional librarian, the job I did before my PhD. I havent got a job yet, but I have had several interviews: sooner or later, one will work out and I will be employed again. It is trickier, because I want to get something part-time so I can still look after L and do some research, and so it may not be soon, but I am confident that I can find something.
At this point a sensible person would put the past behind them and not dwell on my lack of success. I am, however, a historian (even if no longer a professional one). How can I not look back at a past event, analyse the reasons for the outcome and try and decide if my failure was or was not inevitable?
One obvious answer to why I failed is that I was simply not good enough to make it in a competitive job market. All I can say is that my PhD supervisor (an expert in the field) thought I was good enough and Ive had positive comments from other academics. I dont think Im in the very top flight of early medieval historians (as some of my friends are), but Im not obviously unsuitable for a lecturing post. There are people with more publications than me, but there are people who have got permanent posts with less published than I have (admittedly, those are usually those with exceptional promise). I havent got an enormous amount of teaching experience (and I would see myself as a competent rather than inspired teacher), but in the UK decisions on jobs for medievalists arent normally made primarily based on teaching ability.
What other reasons are there for my lack of success? I dont have a brilliant interview technique, but since most of the time I wasnt even getting interviews, that cant be the key factor. Im fairly confident that my application forms were good: I have a lot of experience from applying for library jobs on how to read and advert and slant a reply to show that you meet their requirements. What Im less sure about is whether my application strategy was correct. Looking back, there were probably some jobs I should have applied for that I didnt. In particular, Ive found it very hard to know when its best to apply for a job and whether a job is suitable. Because there is no proper career path for academics in the UK, you can have quite senior academics competing for posts alongside new PhDs. Similarly, I possibly applied for Oxbridge Junior Research Fellowships at the wrong stage, before I had my PhD, rather than after. And yet I know people who got JRFs at that stage. Should I have tried applying to the British Academy several years running, when Id been shortlisted the first time? Or would I just have been wasting my time (and, even more significantly the time and goodwill of my referees?)
Possibly then, there is a simple explanation for my lack of success: that I needed a superb strategy to make up for my weaknesses as an applicant, and I didnt have that. But lurking unanswered there is always the question: was I really getting turned down partly because of my background and circumstances? Because I did my PhD as a mature student and I was a mother?
Theres no question that trying to make an academic career with a small child has often felt like working with one hand tied behind my back. I couldnt get to as many seminars once I had to arrange childcare. I couldnt just pack up and take a six month temporary contract in St Andrews, or even do tutorials in London without working out whether the child care costs would swallow all my fee. Ive spent hours that could have been used for writing articles discussing My Little Ponies or walking to and from school.
When I am being interviewed for library posts or in general conversation, I often find people impressed that my first degree was in mathematics rather than history, and that I did my PhD part-time while looking after L (completing it within six years, whereas full-timers often take four years). To them it shows versatility and dedication to my research, as well as time management skills. To academics reading my application to be a lecturer, however, was this taken into consideration or was it even seen negatively? If I have not always been a historian and nothing but a historian, am I truly committed? Wouldnt they be better off with someone whos gone straight from first degree in history to a full-time PhD, a normal candidate?
I cant know whether such views existed, but there are times when I’ve had my suspicions. When Christs College Cambridge refused me permission to apply for a JRF because I was above their age limit; when other Oxbridge colleges refer only to how much full-time experience a candidate may have or require you to prove that you have not been researching since you took your first degree, its hard not to wonder. The giving of JRFs does seem to be biased towards those who have done their PhDs at Oxbridge, which is not normally possible for those who need or want to do their PhD part-time. This is particularly significant because the JRFs are an important stepping stone for many people onto the academic ladder, giving them paid time to concentrate on their research and publishing at an early stage in their career.
Its the possibility that this is going on (and I havent seen many medievalists get permanent jobs who havent had this kind of conventional career) that gives a wider significance to my case (and what good, after all, is a case study of an individual unless it has wider significance?) If I personally dont have an academic career, its not a major loss to medieval studies (especially as I may be able to continue as an independent scholar). If people like me are systematically excluded from the academy, that is a loss to the profession. The end result may well be a narrowly-defined class of medievalists with little experience of the outside world; that is not conducive to developing truly original scholarship.