In ten days it will be five years since a cold January morning in York, where I put on a white suit (always resistant to the graduation trend of black, black, black), met my family, got gowned on campus, and took a short walk across a stage to become Dr Moss.
Five years. Half a decade. With every anniversary of my PhD graduation I have a few brief hours of disbelief, which are normally accompanied by a sense of disappointment in myself for not having Achieved More. As academics go, I’m actually fairly unburdened by self-doubt – which is less due to any superiority on my part (indeed, it’s often the best academics who are most self-critical, don’t you find?) and more because I just don’t think it’s part of my personality. For someone who spends most of their working life talking and writing about the past, I don’t actually spend a lot of time raking over the coals of my own history. All the same, there’s nothing like an anniversary to make you take stock – and in an industry that’s now so focused on outputs, one can be left feeling as if that stock is rather meagre indeed.
This year that feeling is particularly keen. If I had my viva only a few months earlier, I wouldn’t have qualified for the Leverhulme Trust’s Early Career Fellowship scheme last year, and so I wouldn’t have my current job. I’m beginning to age out of the “early career researcher” phase of my career – not through age, but in terms of years-post-graduation. I have actually been very blessed in the progress of my career so far: a mere year in the wilderness was followed by one year as a postdoc on a group project in Paris, three years as a lecturer in Oxford to fill in for a colleague on research leave, and now a fellowship to work on my very own long-term project.
But we all have our Achilles heel, right? I have a pretty huge amount of teaching experience now, including postgraduate teaching; I’ve worked abroad; I’ve spoken at dozens of conferences. And… I have not published enough. I really haven’t.
I tell this to people sometimes, and they say – but Rachel, you’ve published a book! And you know what? I am immensely proud of my book. It’s getting good reviews, and when I see it on my bookshelf I feel hugely satisfied that all this stuff came out of my head in a coherent enough form that other people can read it and understand what I was getting at. But aside from that, all I have out is a couple of articles and a bunch of book reviews, and in academic job market terms, that’s no longer enough. After all, for the most recent REF, my 90,000-word book only counted as two items – as if it were two articles. I’m not going to get into the politics of the REF, because no doubt the British academics reading this have had their fill of that lately! But the bald truth about academia these days is that articles are a better bet than books. I don’t know how I feel about that, really. While reading an excellent article is intensely satisfying, a full-length book (if it’s any good!) can take you on a deeper and stranger journey, where you come out of the woods into a whole new landscape. Of course, brilliant articles can offer transformative moments, too, but they often leave me wanting more.
But that’s an aside. I have two articles on the go at the moment, and have some plans for a third. Since I’m doing far less teaching right now, I have more space to write. So I’m pretty certain that by the end of this fellowship, my CV will feel plumper in the Publications section. And yet the anxiety remains. Perhaps it’s because this is an industry where it’s hard to say you have ever “done enough”. There is a culture of doing more, trying harder, of making a virtue out of being run ragged. The physical and mental effects of this culture have been well-documented. Academic culture normalises success and highlights failure, I think. It’s normal to be self-deprecating, and we can tend to enable each other in unhealthy behaviour. For example: how many of us have sent work emails at midnight? Maybe we feel like if we don’t do it at that moment, we won’t have a chance later. That’s probably not as true as we think, and besides – it gives our colleagues the tacit message that working at midnight is normal and even desirable. We all talk about how busy we are, how much we have to do, and we rarely seem to have conversations where we say how pleased we are with how something we’ve done – a class we’ve taught, a paper we’ve given – has been received, and rarely take time to find out what our colleagues’ everyday successes are. Maybe we should, though. Because this job is full of joys, isn’t it? Some incidental, some profound. From a student saying our essay feedback has made a difference to reading an excellent review of our work. Let’s shore up these moments of happiness and share one another’s achievements – not just at obvious moments like book launches, but day-by-day.
Five years ago, I remember my heart filling with that feeling of joy that’s close to pain: in knowing that one brilliant, difficult, satisfying, frustrating chapter of my life had closed, and that another was beginning. I had no idea where life after the PhD would take me. I knew what I wanted – an academic job – but I had no idea if I would get one, and no clue what I would do if I didn’t. In many ways, my life has followed a path that seems well-trod: postdoc, temporary teaching post, etc. And yet despite that, it has been a journey full of surprises. I am still becoming an academic. I hope I will always be in a process of becoming. In these five years, I have peeled back layers of myself; I have shed my skin, and I have grown a new one, again and again. Sometimes that’s been a painful sloughing; other times it has been so subtle and easy that I haven’t noticed until much later that it’s happened. I don’t know what kind of academic I will be in five years, when it’s time to think what I have done in a decade post-PhD: but I’m looking forward to finding out.