Accepting You’re Ordinary and Saying Goodbye to the Academic Career

Guest Blogger Charlotte Lauder writes about her decision not to pursue a career in academia after her PhD.

Being accepted onto a PhD programme feels like an extraordinary moment. Not everyone gets to do a PhD, or gets funding, or is even allowed access to the world of academia. Right now, it feels as if the very fabric of doing a PhD is slowly fading away: graduate teaching contracts are getting cut, conferences are cancelled and postponed, research is stalled, staff are getting furloughed. The system is broken, and it has been for a very long time. All that the coronavirus pandemic has done is pull up the rug under which the higher education system lay rotting like flakes of dead skin.

Until this year, there was a part of me that hoped I might manage an academic job after my PhD, albeit in whatever precarious or temporary form was possible. But now, I know I won’t. Accepting this is hard but inevitable. I’ve spent almost seven years learning and training how to be an academic. A lot of people have been encouraging of me, have praised my research, public engagement skills, presentations at conferences, radio and TV interviews, and so on. More personally, I am proud to be a first-generation university student.

Though these instances may seem special, they are not markers of my extraordinariness. All I am are the opportunities that I have been given: a free university education, a government postgraduate loan, a fully funded AHRC PhD with a collaborative internship included. There are, and will always be, hundreds of students who deserve the same opportunities. And yet, though these opportunities may continue to exist in the future, the tunnel which we ask PhD students to push through to get into academia is becoming tighter and more restrictive, with not a lot of light at the end of it.

For me, academia is no longer an option. Even though my hand is pressed against its door, it continues to feel like an ivory tower which only a handful of researchers are allowed to climb. This exceptionalism begins at PhD level. Why have we let a PhD feel like standing on a pedestal when, in reality, there is nowhere higher to rise? Is it because we get a certificate at the end, saying we are an expert and can call ourselves doctor? At the end of my degree, an initial is all my PhD might represent to me.

I was inspired to write this by a recent tweet from @polumechanos:

for those who want(ed) an academic career, the prospect of leaving academe is painful enough. the least we can do is not compound that with a stigma – based on flawed premises – that those who leave/are pushed out weren’t good enough to stay.

She continues to say that academia should be ‘not just for an anointed lucky few’. I agree with her. But, then again, do those in academia feel like they are anointed? Does the bad pay, temporary contacts, poor working conditions, competitive environment, and stressful managerial and administrative duties make one feel exceptional? Probably not. Who is feeling anointed then? The Vice-Chancellors? The senior lecturers? The post-doc on their fourth or fifth post-doc appointment? If departments continue to hire one out of 200 hundred candidates for a full-time or fixed-term position, they are the only ones who should feel anointed.

For me, an academic career is no longer an option and it’s a hard realisation. It’s even harder to admit that something which you feel a part of and at home in doesn’t have any more opportunities for you. I’d love to be able to fight for a better sector, for my rights, and the rights of my friends, colleagues and future PhDs, but the likelihood of a graduate teaching contract looks more and more unlikely. My UCU membership – and my contribution, therefore – will remain a student one.

This decision is entirely personal – and until this week, a private one. I am not writing this for pity and, though I wish it were otherwise, I don’t want people to tell me to keep going or to hear that ‘things will get better’. The academic year 2019-20 has proven that things have changed and academia after coronavirus will be far from ‘normal’. I’m sharing my thoughts because, as this global pandemic has shown, jobs are transient and health is more important. In terms of my own happiness and mental health, I can’t jump on the early-career bandwagon because I can’t live my life believing that I am ‘extraordinary’ or an ‘overlooked candidate’ in an overly competitive field. I don’t want to feel like I am not good enough to be an academic, nor do I want to be the workman who blames his tools. Those thoughts will not help me, mentally or emotionally.

Instead, I am going to remember that I am an ordinary person who succeeded because she got the opportunities to do so. Without those, I would still be ordinary. I am ordinary right now. My ordinariness means I am grateful for my PhD and look forward to completing it, like I would about any other job. Academia has taught me a lot about myself (and others) and has helped me grow and develop as a person. I know that I am valid and I am good enough. Sadly, I do not know if I can sacrifice this in the belief that there will be a space for me or another opportunity to get into academia, now, or in the future.

One thought on “Accepting You’re Ordinary and Saying Goodbye to the Academic Career

  1. Lar MacGregor says:

    This is as empowering as it is sad. I attained a First Class honours degree 2 yrs ago and the pressure to ‘advance’ and grow is ever present. I have actively chosen the same path: to accept that competing within a system that is littered by poor mental health, is not a competition I want to enter. Good luck with your future and with maintaining your very obvious, feelings of self worth.

    Liked by 2 people

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