That Fourth-Year Feeling I: The World of Work

OR the final countdown, how people in Hampstead don’t buy nuts, and the tiniest Hobbit spoiler (for the film, that is) you ever did see. Also, an obvious gif.

Firstly, I apologise for the horrible quality of the pictures here. Still no scanning technology (I should probably go out and buy some) so they’re rubbish phone photos. Secondly, sorry there’s so few of them. I got bored, and fed up of stupid brown pictures.

I am in a seriously odd position at the moment. Possibly an unprecedented one, or at least one I wasn’t expecting. I am in my fourth year of a PhD, going into the second term. I still have a whole heap of stuff to do to it. I have plenty of teaching, too. I filled much of the previous term with conference organisation, marking, and illness.

But against all the odds (sorry. I have been watching David Attenborough documentaries this new year and that sort of phrase seems to crop up a lot), I appear to be enjoying my PhD. In this I am being crazy and out-of-character and possibly delusional. I’m sure I will crash down to earth with a bump at some point (probably the point at which someone actually reads my recently-completed, wildly idiosyncratic chapter draft, and just writes a note at the top saying ‘What in the hell?’). I am absolutely certain that I will read this back at some point and go ‘Ohhh, past Kirsty, your innocence is so galling’, and then hurl my computer out of the window of my garret and bury myself in chocolate digestives and sadness.

Don't mind what biscuits just BISCUITS

Don’t mind what biscuits just BISCUITS

Currently, however, I am skating along on the top of such worries, feeling pretty happy because I’ve managed to get Thomas Dekker into my final chapter. Dekker! Four years and I’ve finally managed to get a writer included on actual English Literature reading lists into my English Literature PhD. This is what we were working towards, people. (Actually, it’s a fairly snap decision based on the fact that I am now writing about plague for a bit because plague is interesting and it’s my damn thesis. I might work Donne into the previous chapter, and thus convince my examiners that I’ve only read the parts of the reading lists beginning with D).

Such chirpsiness was commented on during my recent trip to the sodden corner of southwest England from which I hail. As was the unavoidable fact that this whole PhD malarkey will soon be coming to the end (my university, rather sensibly, requires full-time PhDs to be completed in four years, maximum. I’m cool with this, at least, right now I’m cool with this) and that I would, apparently, then be entering the ‘world of work’. ‘World of work’ got repeated a number of times, so much so that I a) had a dream that I had to return to my old job at the same time as finishing my PhD, and couldn’t find my lovely boss even though I looked for him everywhere; and b) the phrase began to take on a similar meaning to ‘World of Warcraft’, i.e. a largely virtual place of no importance to my life, in which others seem to thrive but I don’t imagine I’d be a whole lot of use.

Not that I want to suggest that HR people are trolls, because come on, no. ...oh dear. That went wrong.

Not that I want to suggest that HR people are trolls. Oops. I don’t mean it, HR people, honest.

One of the curiosities of returning to study is that people seem to forget that you’ve done anything outside of it, and start to talk of your future as if you’re a confused window cleaner who’s entered Total Wipeout in the belief that it’s a reality show about your chosen profession. One day you’ll have to leave your ivory tower, hah! And maybe work in an office! With Post-Its and cubicles and ergonomic chairs that are designed for six-foot blokes and give you a bad back! And one day the photocopier will get a paper jam in two different places and then what are you going to do, Dr McSmartypants?

Not sure what the lowest grade I've ever given actually is, but it is not as low as this.

Not sure what the lowest grade I’ve ever given actually is, but it is not as low as this.

OK, I’m jesting, and I’m sorry. There are no easy jobs, except for that time I worked in a nut shop and we had no customers. People who blithely say ‘Oh, if I can’t get an academic job I’ll just go into publishing/banking/teaching’ rile me up from here to Sunday because you’ll ‘just’ do that? Seriously? Have you ever even spoken to a publisher, banker, or teacher? You are everything wrong with PhD students and please can you shut up. My point is not that the ‘world of work’ is easy, but that it’s not alien. Most people doing PhDs have had jobs outside academia in the past, and many have them at the same time as doing a PhD. I may not have had the directorship of a major company or a spot on the Dragons’ Den line up or an abortive pop career, but I have done things and had salaries. I didn’t mess them up, either – the only time I’ve been fired was from putting-away-the-books-after-reading-time duty in Year 3 (I read the books instead of putting them away, in a hugely surprising development. My friend Claire and I then got put on watering-the-plant duty, and the plant died. I have become more responsible since leaving primary school).

Furthermore (furthermore! I am ranting, it seems), a PhD is a professional qualification, and you need to be professional about it. You have to produce specific things for specific deadlines, and more often than not balance these requirements with other commitments (teaching, research jobs, organising events, crying softly into issues of Past & Present). One thing I’ve noticed about graduate study is how professional it is. The academics and graduate students I know don’t tend to conform to the usual belittling stereotypes – they’re not batty elbow-patched teaching-avoiders or drunken Young Ones-esque delinquents (well, aside from that point in 2011 when everyone seemed to be buying elbow-patched tweed jackets and claiming it was ironic). I mean yes, we read books, but everyone seems hurtlingly aware that we have to do things with them and then write our damn own. Most academics I know are not, necessarily, great at the whole work/life boundary thing – but this more often leads to work swamping life than life swamping work. I don’t want to get into a moral tangle here about the worth of the things we produce, or that we teach – because oh, blimey – just to assert that a PhD, or indeed any other academic position, is a job. I know we keep bleating that. It is A Job. Stop laughing.

Again, I do not want to claim that what I’ve said above about work/life balance is restricted to academia. I’d imagine that this goes for most jobs – any job that the person doing it cares about. It certainly goes for most of what I’ve done before (with the exception, if I’m honest, of the nut shop job. Also, probably, that time I worked in a greasy spoon. And probably the pudding factory job. Look, I’ve had some weird jobs). You step up, because you care about what you’re doing, and you want to get it done well – all the bits of it that you have to balance. That’s the most important element in doing any job (OK YES training is, as well. Particularly if you’re a surgeon or something. But go with me for a bit). A PhD is damn good training for this, because if you don’t care about what you’re doing, and if you can’t organise your time between different commitments, you just won’t ever do it. Look! Transferable skills!

So, having argued that academic training is the ‘world of work’, damnit, or at least pretty good training for it, I find myself in what might be a bit of a false position. Because actually, the important part of the whole misty-eyed ‘You’ll soon be entering the world of work!’ thing is not the implicit assumption that I’ve been sitting on my arse making balloon animals for nearly four years, but that – hey! – once I’ve graduated, it’s Job Time. A lovely university will sweep me up into its caring embrace and we will make undergraduate courses and monographs together for many happy years to come. This is what is known as a Charming Academic Fairy Story and it is about as likely as the other kind.

I’ll go more into this in my next post (this was all going to be one post, but then I remembered that this is a blog post and not a three-volume Victorian novel. I cut the scenes in the debtors’ prison and the blacking factory for the same reason). Suffice to say here that as anyone involved with academia knows, the job market ain’t no bed of roses, and happy fantasies of strolling into permanent positions are rarely fulfilled. I have tried my darndest to cushion this blow, to explain that financial security and stability is not necessarily on the horizon, but what cuts me up a little bit is that I’m not sure people actually believe me. I’m probably reading a bit too much into comforting expressions here, but it feels a bit like that moment at the end of Part 1 of The Hobbit (very slight spoiler here for a bit of the Hobbit film that doesn’t even happen in the book) when Bilbo says something along the lines of  ‘If I’m not mistaken, the worst is behind us’. Oh, Martin Freeman! You’re in two more films of this, and not just to eat seed-cake and plan your birthday party! So yes, extrapolate that to the academic job market as you see fit.

Hmm.

Hmm.

It’s the comforting assumption that everything will be alright in  the end. It’s a bit heartbreaking. I wouldn’t train all these years and then not actually get an academic job, would I?

Would I?

More to come in the next post, in which I bite the hand that fed me for three years. Repeatedly. But out of love.

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