Just so disheartened(28 Posts)
I feel like my career is failing. I was on an "upward trajectory" until mat leave 4 years ago, and since then the discontinuity (missed out on 2 rounds of PhD students, so ended up with an empty group after one graduated right after mat leave), plus the need to care for a child has 'unmasked' serious health issues (I can no longer spend nearly all my time not-at-work asleep, like I used to), and I'm only managing to work 37-45 hrs per week. I exaggerated my hours up to 50 and told a colleague, and she said, "Oh, that's not enough". This was a single mother of a preschool-aged child. I have no idea how she manages more than 50 hours a week, but clearly she does.
I've applied for over a dozen grants in the last four years, unsuccessfully. Got another rejection earlier this week. The reviews are starting to come back with criticisms of my track record that I haven't done anything 'recently'. Without funding, I'm never going to be able to do that. I feel like I'm running in a race I can't win.
Two staff (one male, one female, both with multiple small children) who started when I was on mat leave have just leap-frogged me - promotion from Lecturer to Reader. I went for SL before mat leave and "sailed through" according to someone recently who had been on the panel, despite having been heavily discouraged from going for promotion at all and talked down from Reader. Not that I'm competing, just that the comparison is so obvious that they both have even more family commitments than I and yet are doing better.
It's so hard to get up the motivation to write more grants, which will fail. And yet I desperately need funding - my work is computational and all I have to do it on now is a computer purchased in 2010 and I desperately need a new one. The Uni, if massively pushed, would buy me a £200 laptop for word processing and email, but that's not going to enable my research. I need a grant to get a machine to enable me to do my work. I can't get a grant without doing more work. I can't do more work without anyone in my lab and substandard equipment and massive teaching and admin loads.
And outside of work, my health is shit and I'm celebrating small victories like both cooking dinner and then sitting at the table to eat it with the family -- once in a week. And that's all I can physically manage. I'm just near tears at the crashing of my dreams and seeing that this is probably the end. At least my Uni isn't doing redundancies yet, but if they ever do, I'll clearly be one of the first to go. And I so wanted to be a Prof one day. I don't know how to get out of this funk. I don't know if it's even worth it.
Does your uni have any kind of centralised funds to help those returning from caring responsibilities (parental leave etc)? There may be pots of money available for equipment (proper computer), travel to conferences, short-term post-doc or buyout of admin/teaching responsibilities with the specific aim or kickstarting your research after an absence.
Saw this in active threads. I really feel for you. You have been trying so damn hard and getting no recognition or thanks. If it's any consolation, I feel that's what academia is like now.
I work in education, and I know all too well the feeling of not being thanked or recognised. I was contracted to write several educational resources this year. I put hours of work into them - well above and beyond what was required. I was paid, but apart from that I did not receive a single acknowledgement of the work I'd done, not to mention thanks. Now I've been contracted to write some more, but with no mention or recognition (from the
rude manager) that I have done this before. It's a horrible environment to work in.
Do you think a complete mental break for a while, away from it all, would help?
Do you have a mentor or supportive HoD you can talk to about this? When I went back to work after DC1 and was struggling I nearly broke down in tears in my HoD's office. He was surprisingly supportive.
Can you collaborate with someone (at your institution or elsewhere) on research grant applications? (not sure how this works for your discipline, I'm in humanities anyway where collaboration is less usual).
And where is your DH/DP in all of this? Is he bearing his share of the load of caring for your DC?
Hi OP. Sorry to hear you're having such a tough time.
The first thing that stands out in your post is your health issue. Is there anything you can do about that to help rebuild your energy?
Next thing - don't beat yourself up too much. Some people do appear to 'do it all' but for lots of people having a reasonable work / life balabnce is more important. Whatever your health issues are, there's no point pushing yourself so much at work that you have nothing left for yourself and your family. So maybe you won't be a Professor - or maybe it will take longer than you expected - but that isn't the only thing that's important in life anyway.
Regarding work - it's daft if you haven't got appropriate equipment to work with. So start on that. Simple request surely - that you need a decent PC to work on. Do you have a Departmental Manager you can talk to about that?
Next thing - it sounds like you need some career counselling to help you get back on track. Who does your annual appraisal? Can you book an extra meeting with them and be honest - say you'd like to discuss how to get your research restarted after a break. It would be useful to have a mentor or someone else to collaborate with.
Who else can you talk to and for support / direction? If your university has Athena Swan status is there a coordinator you could talk to for some ideas about how to get restarted after maternity leave?
And finally, if a research focus isn't working for you at the moment does your university support academics who take a greater role in teaching leadership? Maybe you could change your focus a bit and look for development and opportunities in that direction.
Hope this gives you a few ideas about how to restart and rebuild your career and self confidence. Universities are generally fairly supportive and want to support staff, so please do look for help and support wherever you can.
Thanks for everyone's kind words.
jothe, no centralised funds, but now mat leave returners are meant to get priority in internal funding competitions, PhD studentships, etc. But that's only been the case since this autumn, on the heels of our Athena SWAN application last year - it wasn't in place when I came back. I've been back for nearly 4 years; I returned when DD was 16wo, as I could only afford the full pay period (and had a PhD student graduating: I'd have to read his thesis whether I was paid or not - I didn't want to massively resent him for the fact that I would have to work while draining all our savings). They're also meant to get a break from teaching and admin. I didn't get that - in fact my teaching and admin increased by vast amounts (various factors combined, nothing on purpose). Everything hit me like a load of bricks on my return and I was suffering from massive imposter syndrome (still am, but have a bit more perspective) and was terrified about saying anything, since I was BF DD who could not be bottlefed, so at 16wo still needed me very often, and I was working from mostly home. I was terrified of being seen as not coping.
But it's been so long now, I don't count as a mat leave returner. I am keeping it in my back pocket for argument if there is ever an internal competition I put in for again. But they can't retroactively give me things I got pushed out of over the last 4 years. I've managed to step down from some of the admin and last year, finally, they hired someone to take over a large chunk of the extra admin that fell on me when I returned.
Thanks, tulip. Sure, a mental break would help! But not enough. It won't punch up my track record or restart my career, and I have no hope for one until Aug anyway when I should be able to take a week off. I've got undergrads in the lab over the summer, and they need constant attention, so I'll need to be checking in via email even when on family trips.
city, I am very lucky in that my HoD is very supportive, particularly of my health issues. His son was confined to bed for over a year with CFS/ME and was tested for the condition they believe I have (son didn't have it, but it meant HoD actually knew about it and its symptoms). He's arranged with me to informally work flexitime, full time over 4.5 days (after a meeting with OH went horribly wrong; they suggested the result of an assessment could be finding I wasn't capable of my job, and the level of scrutiny into my life outside of work they said they would need to do was terrifying, and they also said things which suggested they - I'm saying 'they', but it's 'she', there's just one woman who is the sum total of support for staff - buyed into many misconceptions and prejudices about fatigue-related illnesses).
A good half of the dozen-plus grants I didn't get were collaborations I'm pursuing that tirelessly - currently one in consideration where I'd get 1/3 of a postdoc - it has made it to the 'interview' stage, so potentially hopeful? (but it's only 1/3 a postdoc!). Will be on one for next year with 1/2 a PhD student. The one I'm trying to get up my motivation for writing will be with three people - one split Postdoc between two of us and a PhD for the third, and I'm lead. Had a meeting for another one a few months ago, and she said she'd send me stuff, and never did... have to get back to her. But again, it's just so hard to carve out time, energy for writing these when the funding situation seems so hopeless.
DH has CSF/ME and is SAHD while starting up a business. We'll know in a few months now how it's going, although all estimates were 2-3 years for breaking even, so as far as income goes he won't contribute for a while. He does main childcare, and we pay for 3 afternoons at nursery (within paid-for hours, but its a private nursery to accommodate me coming to pick her up after work, so we have to pay extra to make up their fees) to give him some daytime to work. He can't do much more around the house than caring for DD, and he also does 'admin', although not very well - he did finally hire a cleaner after over a year without, which should make my life much better (they start next week).
newideas - thanks. Working on my health, but it is so slow. I was doing pretty well between last summer and autumn, but then was knocked off by a series of colds over the winter (and by 'series', I mean about 40 or so) and I'm only slowly crawling back up to normalcy. Thus the celebrating cooking and sitting once a week. And I know that I'm actually doing well in comparison to others with similar health issues - on the CFS thread people are dealing with leaving their jobs entirely, and I'm just moaning about not reaching a pinacle someday! But it still hurts, as I really did want to be a Prof.
If my computer dies, I will perhaps have to play the mat leave card. At the moment I'm saving that for an emergency, as I can still manage, barely. My Dept isn't mainly computational, so they don't understand - a 'good' comptuer would be £500 for them, and my bare minimum requirements are more like £2K (a really useful machine would be £4-5K, but that will definitely wait for a grant, and would be for personal use of a postdoc, not me).
I do have good support and have been following advice - I'm just not getting funding, and thus not doing research, and thus falling deeper and deeper into the hole. Also came out of last year's appraisal feeling like I did before my last promotion - being actively discouraged, where they suggested I could apply for promotion to Reader a few years after I get a new grant - whereas I'm thinking as soon as funding comes in, go for it. My track record will only get worse the longer I wait. But that's clearly the pattern here, given I was discouraged last time but "sailed through" when it got down to it. My track record right now is actually pretty strong minus the last two years (as papers kept coming out with some delay after last student and postdoc left) - as they only look at the past 5 years, the more of those earlier years I can keep the better.
You can turn to mainly teaching, and they'll keep you on and say nice things about you, but those people retire as SL (on the same salary I am now). I know several, and they're very nice (and less stressed). But I'm not sure I've quite reached the point yet where I'm willing to say this is as far as my career will get, and do this for the next 30 years. I think I need something to look forward to and strive for. I enjoy research, and I'd like to keep doing it. And it's clear a 'break' from research is a disaster; even my unintential break is already having a repurcussions. Turning to mainly teaching is a one-way street.
Although, I don't know - perhaps making an active choice before being squeesed out is better? But not ready to do it yet.
I'd probably network my way out of this. Some things I'd do would be...
Can you try and get on a bigger interdisciplinary grant with others in your uni to get your grant record improved?
Have you got colleagues you can help write papers with to get your publication record up?
Could you write up some theoretical papers or reviews/meta analysis that don't require data collection?
I see everyone is providing some nice, concrete ways forward, whereas I want to flounder in a big emotional funk
Although I guess the problem I'm having is that funk. I'm really quite well set on what I'm doing - just discouraged it's not working. Over the last 4 years, I've been on no less than 4 massive, interdisciplinary grants across our Uni full of Profs and HoDs; 5 smaller interdisciplinary grants across the Uni (one of which went in -- and was rejected -- twice, and one for which I was lead); one UK-wide grant for a research network; 2 smaller interdisciplinary, multi-University grants; and one massive, international grant.
All were unsuccessful -- although the last can be resubmitted and we've heard groups are often funded on 2nd or 3rd try (that's my 1/2 PhD student one). Off to a meeting this week to talk about the resubmission! There's also an interdisciplinary, multi-Uni one where the PI is going for interview next week (1/3 a postdoc for me in it). And there's another massive international one in the planning stages, which will be submitted next year (I'm supposed to be writing a paper for that group...). There's the grant I'm lead on and trying to get up the motivation to actually finish a draft of and I've just agreed to work with someone else on a related proposal (he's on mine, and clearly got the idea from it, and needs my expertise to make it work). I did decline to be involved in the reformulation of the research network grant - it seemed like being a driving force on that was not worth my time and it wouldn't result in any actual research funding (just more admin for me if successful!).
I've also got a papers that are really only awaiting my time and effort to finish -- but I've been prioritising funding applications (and, of course, the necessary teaching and admin which takes up oodles of time). I was actually advised off finishing an almost-completed paper at my annual review last year. I'm now thinking that was quite bad advice (REF-motivated, not my career-motivated: we're only submitting 3 or 4-star papers, and it's sure to be 2-star; but it shows my work in a field I'm trying to move into and have no other record in) and it will probably be the first paper I turn my attention to (or maybe that one for the new international project - or maybe I'd better try to do them in parallel).
I guess what I really need is someone to tell me all this effort has to eventually pay off. But I don't think anyone can -- big Prof's here (Heads of Department, Directors of Research, Interdisciplinary Centre Directors, etc.) are not getting major RC and ERC grants, and while it makes me feel in good company, it's not particularly encouraging for my ability to succeed.
Sounds like you're doing well getting out there then you just need some luck and to get stuff wrapped up.
If I were you I'd blitz that 2* get it out there so it gets citations and that will allow you to move on. I think maybe spending one day doing a 6 month plan of what you're going to do will help you feel more in control and put you more into action and less into that feeling of waking through mud.
Thanks, fluff. Yeah, I should put in for a fresh pot of luck
6 month plan is a good idea, perhaps being more concrete than I am at the moment (which is a vague - get this grant in, get prelim work off the summer undergrads and then put in another grant in the autumn, get those two papers out). I'm off on family holiday in two weeks, so currently I really need to push through the current grant to a stage I can send a draft to my collaborators.
Ugh, more disappointment. Fought really hard to get some PhD funding - candidate has decided to go elsewhere. I'm not upset with him; he needs to pick the best of his options. But that project won't be going anywhere.
I know I won't win funding if I don't apply for it, but it is so hard to get up motivation to do all this and have nothing come of it -- even this PhD project I spent a great deal of time writing the internal application for funding, then reading and interviewing candidates, and meeting them, and dealing with lot of deals to squeeze money out of places - and all for naught. If I could just tell what effort wouldn't come to anything I'd concentrate it elsewhere - but you can never know. It would have been a great project.
Sorry to hear that, OP. You really have had a run of bad luck. It's bound to change soon!
Is there anything you can do to give yourself a treat to take your mind off things, however briefly? Say, in the great outdoors? What I like to do occasionally is take myself off for an afternoon/ evening and have a swim in the sea (even if it meant driving some distance to get there.) It's amazing what that does for my mental health.
Was there a runner up, or second candidate murmuration ? I've learnt always to have at least one reserve. For some jobs last year we were interviewing candidates with at least one reserve for each post.
The problem with treats that involve doing something is my health - I might feel good at the time, but a two-week recovery period later when I’ve managed barely anything at work and I’m even more in the dumps. I do small things like have nice baths and meditate and stuff. We’re off on holiday on Fri, but because of the students in the lab (one of whom only just showed up to due to visa issues), I’ve set a quite complicated procedure of using google docs to give them guidance about what to do each day and for them to report back how things are going. It should still be a good break - seeing family and doing fun stuff, but will be quite exhausting, too.
No back-up candidate You’re only allowed to pick your top one, and then the top choices for each project duke it out. The committee picked my student but wouldn’t full fund him, so I did a bunch of rapid negotiation and got the rest of the funding from elsewhere including a weird time-lagged pay-it-back setup (can’t even begin to explain), but now that he’s declined the funding will be offered to the next best student, who will be on someone else’s project. I feel a bit like I’m at a disadvantage because my work isn’t what our Dept is known for, so often the best candidates don’t have me as their top choice (but you want to pick your best applicant!), and I feel like that happens more often for me than others. Students I’ve had have done very well, but I recognise they can get a more rich environment in our field elsewhere. Although I’ve now got agreement for that part-funding starting next year, so I can go into our internal round with that in my pocket which will bump me up on the getting a project advertised competition.
Just got back from family trip to the news that one of the big grants I'm a part of wasn't funded. And the other two big ones in preparation are EU bids, so no idea if they'll even be going forward.
Need to get up some sort of motivation to attack new proposals, but it is so hard. Family trip was emotionally exhausting, and I was remote-supervising my students at the same time, so also constantly at work. I'm jet-lagged and worn down, and I just want to crawl under something and cry.
Also while on the trip got news in our departmental news letter about a whole bunch of newish staff being appointed to a particular measure of esteem which required nomination of your Dept. Took a look at it, and while I'm near the upper age rage, I'm not yet out of it, and the rest of the criteria I'd be very strong for. No one mentioned it to me. I suppose it's my own fault for not finding info about it on my own, but also now feeling embarassed about even the idea of mentioning it for next year. Clearly I'm old and unsuccesful and not a person anyone would nominate for anything.
On the phone atm but hold on in there murmur. I will reply properly later.
Arrghh, that all sounds very hard Murmur. Not much of a holiday at all by the sound of it. Coming back to work not feeling refreshed makes everything seem even harder I think.
I would love to offer some wise and magic words but I don't have any. Do you have a mentor or at least a colleague that you could offload on and/or ask for a little help in terms of moving forward? I have found that this works well but it can take ages to find the right person/people. I have really struggled with this over the past few years but hopefully am heading in the right direction.
I have recently been on a lab visit elsewhere and this has really helped me actually in terms of making more contacts (grants, conference apps etc) but also giving my confidence. I was feeling very jaded for lots of reasons and was really pleased that people were excited about my work. It might sound like I think I am fab but I truly don't. I very almost left academia for personal reasons and have practically clawed my way back. Is something like this possible? It was part funded and only for a week but good for personal and professional reasons and good for raising my profile at the uni in terms of getting funding etc. A very tiny 'win' in terms of money of course.
Not sure what to say re the grants, do you have anyone to talk to in research support about other options if the EU ones don't work out (an issue clearly)? I am about to move unis and one uni will provide this whilst the other one is happy to support once you have found a funder. It's variable I know.
I am wittering now but totally get why you are feeling down. It's tough when you are working so hard but feel like you are getting nowhere and that others are being recognised. Definitely ask for next year, you don't have to do it now.
Thanks, purple. Yeah, not much of a holiday, and now that I have a child it's become a yearly chore to spend a week with my parents. And it was such a constrast this year, as we spent the preceeding week with the in-laws and I saw how a family visit could actually be fun and restful.
I think the issue is more my own motivation and self-image than what to do. I need to work on the smaller proposal currently in the works; I need to make sure my students are on track to get some good prelim data this summer; I need to follow through on finishing the paper I've decided is actually in my best interest if not the REF's; and I need to get that paper started for the EU project that may or may not be going anywhere, but a paper surely won't hurt. I'm also coming to the conclusion that I need to find independent PhD funding as the chances of getting a student through our Dept mechanisms is poor.
And then I get into work and I do admin for teaching (still! a major issue came up during my trip, plus I'm on several teaching-based 'working groups' over the summer), urgent things, and my day is over. I've been offerred a reduction in admin load: pulling me off the one high-profile committee I'm on, which has almost no work involved (something like 15 minutes of email a month). I declined, as this seemed far from my best interest.
Sorry, waxing into bitterness. Perhaps I can get remotivated over the weekend. Things will surely look better when I'm less jet-lagged! And maybe my students will have wonderful things to show me
I think the issue is more my own motivation and self-image than what to do
But I'm not sure I've quite reached the point yet where I'm willing to say this is as far as my career will get, and do this for the next 30 years
Murmur out of everything you have written, and you do write a lot just like me these are the two things that stand out for me. You are in a 30 year career, and in my experience, and I am at the same level just about as you, you do have purple patches in academia where nothing seems to go your way, and other patches where everything just flows. If you think about it though in terms of 30 years, this is really not a make or break time, it's just a lull, a bit stagnating, but nothing that need to bring you to question your career path.
I completely agree with you to do the paper that will work for you, and don't worry about the REF. I have found our internal REF marking erratic and the paper that clinched my last grant was ranked quite poorly, conversely others I don't rate have done better. So, doing the things you want to write about and make sense career-wise is the best thing to do in this circumstance.
You do sound exhausted though, and burned out. I think you have to get away from thinking that this summer is make or break, it isn't and perhaps you need to get this one paper done and then have some more holiday.
I try not to compare myself to the 50+ hours a week gang, that's not realistic for me as I have lots of caring responsibilities, not just children, and it's not possible for me to over-work myself into the ground and for someone else to pick up the slack, so I don't. I'm going slower than some who did their PhD straight away out of graduating, and who work intensely long hours. That's ok. Great for them if they get their professorship earlier, but us slightly slower ones will still get there, and won't be bored when we do. I have also made my peace with my job as in these uncertain times, having a permanent job with flexible hours, even if they are long on occasions, is a great thing. Every time I look at jumping ship, I talk to my colleagues in the private sector or in public service, and see their futures are more uncertain than mine.
What would you say if a second year student came to you with your problem? They were having a bad patch of 67/68's but wanted a first, and had lost motivation? You are basically that student, needing a gentle kick up the backside to recognise what you have achieved, and treat yourself nicely so the first is still on the table.
I hope I don't come across as patronizing, I recognize myself in a lot of what you say, and have been through exactly the same stage after mat leave, and it did take me a while to kick start things, but it has eventually lifted off. It will be the same for you too, I'm pretty sure of it.
Thanks, wind. Not patronising at all!
in these uncertain times, having a permanent job with flexible hours, even if they are long on occasions, is a great thing
is what keeps me going. I do recognise how great my job is, and talking with others just in academia, has made me realise how great my Dept and Uni is. Yes, they do some have some issues with treatment of part-time staff (and talking with part-timers has shown me I made the right decision to stay full time) and women tending to get more admin, etc., like many other places, but I have an amazingly understanding Head and people are kind.
And perhaps being physically unable to work beyond 45 hours a week in extreme times and typically doing 40 or so could be a bonus. On my trip, I did catch up with an old friend (male) who left academia last year to a 40-hr a week a job. He loves it, and loves that he spends weekends with his family. He talked about being amazed last year when I talked about taking weekends off, wondering how I did it, as he felt so pressured to keep working that he just did. Having no ability to actually meet the pressure, I just don't do the work. And so fall behind, or go slower.
I just hope it does mean I'll get there slower. As the thing that scares me is all this "what have you done recently" rather than just "what have you done".
But then remembering a colleague who just got a big ERC - first grant since her mat leave 8 years ago. So maybe it could be another 4 years. Or more than that. You're right, I'm playing the long game and have luxury of doing so: I have a job that I can keep, and hopefully claw my way back into research.
And definitely planning a true holiday later in the summer! I'll crash and burn in Sem 1 if I don't, for sure.
I think many of us are playing the long game. Hard not to with a young family too. Or, it is for me anyway.
Good luck to all.
I still think you are being a bit harsh on yourself, even taking weekends off, you still managed to get a lot of grants out over quite a short period of time. Grants are very very hard to get at the moment, as you say, I know lots of professors who used to have great success but are now coming a cropper. However, your strategy of lots, and with different colleagues, is the right one. I wouldn't bother too much with PhDs though, but that might be in my department/social sciences, as they don't bring in big grants for us, and although I do like having them, the funding for them is equally hard to get now and personally I'd rather get a funded post-doc on a decent project. This may be a disciplinary thing though, as we tend not to publish with PhDs so there's no obvious 'pay back' except their small grant money.
Yeah, we publish with PhD's, so the nice thing about them is getting papers out - and papers that someone else writes the first draft of! It can take longer in the first years to train, but usually by the end the students are putting out pretty good work. My most recently ended grant was obtained on the back of papers from a PhD.
My 'epiphany' this year was that I need to back up and return to how I got started in the first place: prelim data off of undergrads, leading to proposals and PhD students, which then led to grants with postdocs. I'd been concentrating on jumping to the stage I'd already reached once, but I'm now more back in the situation of a brand-new ECR: no recent track record as PI, no one in my group, but undergrads happy to find someone who is willing to give them research experience. It just feels like I did this once already, why do I have to do it again? And this time I don't have all that boundless optimism of a new start, nor any of the opportunities of targetted funding (I got several 'new start' grants when I began).
Yes, that is different than for me, we never publish with ug, and only rarely does a PhD write anything with our name on it, although I come from a discipline where that model is more common and I actually think it has a lot going for it in terms of training the next generation, the stealing of work by olders and betters not withstanding.
It sounds to me like you will work this out, but your physical health has to take priority, even if that puts the professorship timeline back by a few years. I have colleagues going much faster than me, who were professor by the same age I completed my PhD but also colleagues going slower or really finding they are not on the career track at all. You sound well-positioned to me, and I don't think it's a bad thing to be made to slow down in this profession, so many people are obsessive and it's not at all healthy, I don't think that's the only road to success.
wind, you say you went through the same thing and came back? How did you manage it? Keep applying?
Feeling especially down as I've now developed a fever and couldn't manage to get in this week yet. I absolutely have to get in tomorrow, though. Having trouble thinking and actually focussing on my computer much less taking charge of my career! I think I'm just beaten down health-wise and all I can see in front of me now is a daily struggle until my planned actual days off in Aug. Which will probably just be lying down and hopefully getting back to baseline.
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