Rumour has it that, back in the day, it was easy to establish oneself as a researcher and academic. One finished a PhD, one got thyself an academic job, and one proceeded quickly through the ranks on one’s way to professorhood. This rumour may or may not be true. What we can be sure of is that this career model no longer applies to the majority of early career researchers. And that, for most of them, the end of the PhD means the start of a period of uncertainty.
Economic uncertainty, because jobs are few and far between. Proper jobs, that is. There’s an abundance of fixed-term contracts and there’s an even longer list of hourly paid and freelance jobs to be had. The result, should you be “lucky” enough to get one of them, is a chaotic CV and a hectic work week which tends to leave little time for publications, conference presentations, networking, and other activities which are crucial if you intend to build a career. Academics tend to dislike discussions about money, but let’s face it, we all need to pay our bills, and most of us do not have access to a hidden trust fund to help us get through these years. More importantly, many of us have families, partners, and other responsibilities to consider. Who can afford to work for little or no money with no guarantee that this will result in a more stable form of employment?
And then there’s the mental uncertainty, also known as confidence. No longer a student, not quite in stable academic employment, it is easy to lose heart and difficult to keep going. After all, there’s no guarantee that all your hard work will ever pay off. How frustrating it is to see your old classmate broadcasting their amazing new job on LinkedIn, while you sit at home eating Pot Noodle. Life’s not fair.
I’m not the first to discover that the life of an early career researcher is tough. And I’m not the first to think that something needs to change: that universities should resist the zero-hours-contract, and give the academics of the future the opportunity to develop those much-needed skills and experience. But on the other hand, I’ve heard similar stories from friends who work in different sectors. It’s difficult to find secure employment, no matter what you do or how good you are. There are exceptions, of course, but those are rare. It’s a jungle out there.
Giving up is not an option, and progress is made one step at a time. So I’m using this phase to explore my options, to properly consider where I want to be in five years time, and what steps I need to take to get there. I’m spending time with neglected friends, I’ve rediscovered old hobbies, and I’ve discovered some benefits to finding yourself in limbo. At last, I have some time to breathe, to recap, and most importantly, to have fun. I’ve started painting again, I’m writing fiction, I’m reading trashy romance novels just because I can. It’s a jungle out there, but at least it’s got some pretty cool trees to climb in.