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I feel like such a failure

39 replies

shmivorytower · 05/06/2019 10:41

Hello all,

I am really struggling with what’s happened to my career.

Quick overview (I am in the humanities): sailed through education (highest first at Oxbridge, distinctions, passed viva with no corrections), have been very successful at getting postdoctoral fellowships after PhD (think two things like British Academy and a shorter but quite prestigious one). I have a good publication record ( 7 years post PhD I have 6 peer reviewed journal articles, two of which in top journals which I had previously been told would be career making, an edited collection, a monograph with a good UP coming out this year, another in consideration elsewhere, as well as working on a third). I have extensive teaching experience (albeit not at super prestigious unis) including setting up and teaching on a MA. Oh, and I have had two children as well!

Despite all this, I am just not getting shortlisted for permanent lectureships.I have had people look over my applications and I am told they are good.

I think this lack of success if mostly due to my specialism which js both very theoretical and extremely interdisciplinary; but there is not a lot I can do to correct this. Having children (hence not being very flexible location wise and not being able to produce work at the same rate as before) also does not help.

My fellowship ends this year, I have lined up some casual teaching for after, so financially I will be ok. But I just cannot help feeling so disappointed that this is where I am at after all the hard work I have put in.

I also feel a bit bitter (I am ashamed to say) when I see other people with far less good CVs succeed. Or when I see people with connections or proper institutional support (which I did not have, my supervisor basically has washed her hands off me even before I graduated) get permanent jobs.

I am going to stay in the job market one more round (hoping that REF will play in my favour) but then realistically I am going to not be competitive for research heavy positions anymore, because of all the adjuncting I will have to do to stay in the game.

I am not sure what I am hoping for in terms of responses. Perhaps, how do I get over feeling like such a failure?

OP posts:

SarahAndQuack · 05/06/2019 23:19

(Sorry, prob obvious, but that was to woodcut).

shmivory you sound as if you're doing brilliant things - maybe you need to tell yourself that more? Clearly, objectively, you are good.

(I have to say, I bet it doesn't change with permanent jobs! I bet it's just the next stage of 'argh, I didn't get that grant and I didn't make promotion ...' stress.)


woodcutbirds · 06/06/2019 18:03


I'm not angry, actually. Not at all. I was angry with myself when I got snared to teach online for a pittance but I extricated myself and now teach far fewer hours for better money. No tenure, which I used to hanker after, but less and less these days. I love teaching, so really enjoy waltzing in to teach and out again without the drain of departmental meetings and rivalry. I also admit I am lazy. Very lazy. I earn just enough to get by because I adore my free time. Ambitious people deserve success far more.


SarahAndQuack · 06/06/2019 18:44

Ah, ok, not angry, but clearly something.

I don't believe ambitious people deserve success. Nor that bright people deserve success. Success is a matter of a lot of luck and a lot of hard work.

I love teaching too, btw.


woodcutbirds · 06/06/2019 23:44

I suppose that's what I meant by ambitious: people who are prepared to work far harder than I do to succeed. Like the OP has.


Whoknew2014 · 09/06/2019 08:38

Late to this but wanted to ask ... without outing anyone, I always advise PhDs in my field to consider the part of their field that has the greatest shortage.

So, in my field there are some subjects that recruit more often and have much less competition (either subjects that ppl find boring or where they can make more money with them in the private sector). Or methods in some other fields etc.

For us it's much more about about teaching than is sometimes assumed.

Is your field is different?


Loopytiles · 09/06/2019 08:44

Am not an academic.

Sounds like you’re disadvantaged because you’re a mother, won’t move location, and are doing all the parenting Monday to Friday.


Nearlyalmost50 · 09/06/2019 16:51

Whoknew2014 this is how I got a permanent job, I took on a shortage teaching area in which I wasn' t a great expert but was plausible enough. Similarly if I were to try to move jobs I could recreate myself in several different ways, one of which always has lots of vacancies, one of which I wouldn't stand a hope in hell of ever being employed in. It is also luck though that I was in the right shortage place at the right time with a good track record.

I also agree once you are a mum, if you want to stay put, you end up with far fewer choices- I know loads of women this has happened to and I won't move for promotion for the same reason.


Nearlyalmost50 · 09/06/2019 16:52

Or I might say not just a mum, I have a good friend who doesn't want to move institution as she says all her family, friends and partner are in that place now and you don't want to start again in your 40's elsewhere.


hungergame · 09/06/2019 20:39

I think you've hit the nail on the head with the connections thing. Being an unknown candidate is so much harder than when your name or face is known. Can you get to conferences? or get invited to do a talk at local hiring departments?


uzfrdiop · 09/06/2019 20:45

I would suggest asking for input and advice from experienced academics in your field (or nearby fields). Reading your post, I have many questions that I would ask if I were mentoring somebody - but clearly you can't give too much identifying information on a public forum.


shmivorytower · 13/06/2019 23:33

Hello everyone. Thank you for all the excellent points raised

@woodcutbirds I actually don’t think that ambition is enough. I think it’s about supply/demand. I am obviously supplying something that the market does not want or need. Which takes me to

@Whoknew2014 I think that’s a great thing to do for your phds. No one did it for me, even if my field was quite obviously in decline/ as in out of favour even when I started. I was told that as long as the work would be good, I would be fine. But the issue is is that often professors etc got their jobs in a very different environment and so are not often placed to give good advice

OP posts:

shmivorytower · 13/06/2019 23:37

@Loopytiles and @Nearlyalmost50 I do think that being a mum (particularly one who is not the main breadwinner, hence whose career takes more of a backseat after children; or even a mum who want to be more involved) is a total disadvantage in a profession that is a vocation’ and where people never ever take all their vacation days and work every weekend. I just cannot compete with that time input anymore. And i don’t want to. I suppose it was my choice to have children...

OP posts:

Whoknew2014 · 14/06/2019 08:23

It's so hard to know what to recommend in the abstract. I'm struck by two things you say, (i) that "my specialism which js both very theoretical and extremely interdisciplinary" and (ii) it's about timing and fit. I'd hazard that this is where the difficulties lie.

Departments recruit according to what they need, at this time of year, focusing on providing teaching in Sept/Oct. There may come a point in the REF cycle where publications will be critical (and of course they're always required) but I wonder whether you can reframe your specialism into some more traditional formats, perhaps in different disciplines. I guess we all propose what we have done but I teach something compulsory and basic and huge but my research spins off that in unconventional ways. For me, it was the teaching that led to the research (on top of an interdisciplinary background) but I wonder whether it might be retrofitted in your case? Even just saying "my research has raised my interest in [maths and english teaching, perhaps with feminist perspectives - or whatever] can make you look like a better fit.

Can you look at some core curricula for disciplines you might apply for - especially disciplines where it's easier to get into bc let's face it there are some, mine included - and see if you can frame your cv differently. And perhaps get some GTA teaching in those basic subjects? It may feel a bit beneath you but once you have the right courses under your belt you can get recruited quite quickly.

I think it is true that people are often told, keep doing what you're doing and the lectureship will come. I've never been convinced by that advice, particularly in more theoretical fields and I very much hope you will prove me wrong! So if I were you this is what I'd try.

And please, don't think you have failed! We are producing so many more PhDs than permanent jobs. The system is structurally extremely problematic. But getting a job in an educational environment is very different from succeeding in an educational environment, if that makes sense. The freedom you have as a student and even as a post-doc you just don't have in the early days of a lectureship, though you can (though it depends on admin loads) regain some if not all of that freedom when promoted.

Not sure if this helps at all.


ChiaraRimini · 18/06/2019 20:07

Obviously I hope you get the academic career you want but if not would you consider going into research administration or similar in a university? That's what I do and we have lots of ex postdocs as there aren't enough academic jobs to go round. If you can make the mental adjustment to being part of the support services, it can be reasonably well paid and far less stress. Certainly no one would tell you to leave your PhD off your CV.

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