There is no danger of me dropping out of my PhD studies. That’s simply because I went the distance and completed and graduated. My crisis of faith is coming post doctorate. I am like one of Baudrillard’s simulacrum, going through the motions, a mere copy of my former driven self as a doctoral candidate. I have gone through the PhD journey and come out the other end. My reward is this – I am an Early Career Researcher. Whatever that means.
It seems ridiculous to be still complaining of doctoral burnout when I graduated nearly nine months ago. But as this is a warts and all personal insight into the doctoral – and post doctoral – journey, I am telling you like it is.
That nebulous period of being an ‘Early Career Researcher’, of which there is no exact definition, is a hard one to navigate. I work with artists who have had to ‘PhD up’ in their long term jobs as university expectations have changed. A doctorate now allows them more security and the ability to lobby for a pay increase.
For those who have come through ‘the system’ hard and fast as young students, the ECR phase is one where they may grapple with their first foray into the ‘workforce’ and struggle to find a position.
Then there are those like me, and others I know, especially in the creative writing field, who have had varied careers, careers in the media (which has rapidly changed beyond recognition) and for whom a doctorate is no ‘deal breaker’ in the employment stakes. In fact, it may well be considered a hindrance, especially in Australia.
I know that some of the most common refrains about doctoral studies concern completing, and the anxiety of simply staying the distance. So many candidates drop out. But there is also a problem at the other end – the end where we PhD students are extruded from the system like sausage meat. And that problem is called ‘what do we do now’? It is, in short, a crisis of vision.
It’s sure as hell one your university isn’t bothered answering. Or has probably considered. Heck – they get money for simply signing you up and having you complete. You expect them to care about what happens when you finish? You want vision – that’s up to you.
Actually, I have found that if you look hard, there is actually some consideration to this ECR dilemma, and there are some universities that do offer support. And, why not? There is counselling after all for drug offenders, for alcoholics. There should also be similar support for those who have completed a doctorate.
I would like to see all universities take some of the fat they creamed from doctoral students and actually put serious effort into addressing the post traumatic stress disorder that comes from completing four years of doctoral study. And I am not joking. Post Traumatic Doctoral Study Disorder (PTDSD) is a thing.
The minute you graduate, the university is there with its begging cap cajoling for alumni handouts. The entire four years, I can guarantee most students will have had indifferent supervision and support from the university. Yet the minute you have any success, the university is there, media cap in hand, begging for a free ride on your publicity. And I must declare here that I have worked in both Alumni and media sections of academia and they are only doing their job and are not responsible for the grief your supervisor or Dean or examiners caused you!
And so it is. But doctoral students should get something from their university in return for all the financial aid they provide to its coffers, and that’s support for every single one for five years after they graduate with a doctorate. Support that deals with the psychological fall out of higher education, with the agonizing career and research issues, and help in finding a purpose and voice for their work.
Other wise, what on earth is it all about, anyway? Or is it too cynical of me to think the universities are just doing it for the money?
I actually think the most critical phase of the doctoral journey begins once the graduation gear gets handed back.
This is the nebulous phase of the ‘Early Career Researcher’. This is the point at which one may be within five years of having received the doctorate, and be, basically, floundering for something else.
It would be a job. More likely, it is a career and direction. It is a job of some meaning, it is the five year plan and future job satisfaction. It is getting published and getting published in the right places. It is impacts, and citations, and brilliantly constructed resumes and it is getting published.
It is making a name for ourselves. It is questioning why we spent four or more years on doctoral studies. It is falling in and out of love with our research. It is wondering if our research is even relevant any more. It is questioning the faith. It is, ultimately, anxiety, lack of direction, and all on top of bone numbing study burn out.
Hell – I know where I felt like this before. This wandering around in the dark in utter fear. This terrifying identity crisis of not being in control but everyone assuming you are the expert. This shattering life changing period of just having gone through an amazing, physically and mentally challenging period of generation only to be then left raising properly the thing that you have created – this squalling, demanding, blubbering, nascent bundle of knowledge called – your research.
Oh yes, I am a mother of two and I can cast my mind back almost 16 years exactly to what it felt like to be a first time mother and holding my baby and wondering ‘what the hell do I do now?’
Again – a doctorate is like childbirth, pregnancy, parenting – it is the closest thing men (and many women) have to knowing what it is like to create and birth and then be solely responsible for something. And for the mothers with doctorates, it is a strangely familiar place to be. The academic world for ECRs is as competitive as it is for new mothers. Who has the more glamorous role? Who can afford to outsource? What name did you give your research? Is it the best dressed? Is it going to the best journals? Or is your research that kid with the name no one can spell, with snot marks over its face? And are you the mum who looks like they slept in their clothes after a rough night of teething? Or the sleek corporate mum who can afford to take a little sessional teaching on the side while spending their time submitting polished pieces to top journals while the pesky aspect of working for a living and supporting the family is taken care of by a separate primary breadwinner?
For the record, I’m the mum up all night blogging and submitting to journals and scrambling the get the kids to school on time and then writing and blogging for my day job in a university gallery. I know the hell that is multi tasking, and the plight of being an invisible ‘mummy track’ Early Career Researcher without an academic position or tenure. Or that mythical ‘research day’. Strange, though, that I have published far more than those lucky sods who have this research day. No points for guessing which mum I empathise with in the movie ‘Motherhood’.
If my thesis holds correct, then there will be a way through the forest. At some point – hey, that mythical five years down the track time when I will no longer be an Early Career Researcher – my ‘research’ – my ‘baby’ – will be at school. Able to trade sandwiches, bully and get bullied, start standing up for itself and be independent. Yes. My baby – my research, will have a name for itself, and make my name in the academy.
Then again, there are many parents who do a crap job and ruin their kids chances for life. If you ignore your kid and never speak to it or never socialize it or spend time with it – well, bad things happen, right? Said kid will wither and perish one way or another. Same thing with your research and academic career, I suspect. Except there is no State Care or welfare organization to take the research off you for being negligent. No, that’s it, unless you make an effort, your hard doctoral work can just go to hell and be forgotten. There is no such thing as a doctorate being a ticket for life. It is simply the start of the whole journey.
Have I made you feel really anxious yet?
That’s how I felt at a workshop on the perils and pitfalls of being an Early Career Researcher. I came away feeling defeated. Like I had already failed my research by not sending it to the best A Star Preschool (journal). That I hadn’t organized my research enough play dates with the Cool Kids of Academia. My research had to get by with bursts of love while I dealt with its siblings – my actual biological human children, and my actual day job/career that supports everyone. Poor research, it gets attention lavished on it and then has to fend for itself.
The only glimmer of hope was being told at this workshop that ‘you have to start somewhere’ when getting published. And that having some sort of profile – like a blog – was a good thing. And that all the others in the workshop felt the same as me and none of us had the genius research-child, we all had the kids that didn’t sleep through the night and were on the lower percentile growth chart when it came to stellar publication success and giving us all a leg up in an academic career.
We were also, just like a new mothers group [and an Early Career Research group is just like a suburban new mothers group] in that post birth, traumatic stress disorder state. We had burn out, apathy, and a major amount of fear.
Let me tell you – no one and I mean no one at that workshop was confident, focused and optimistic about a tenured position as an academic in the field they wanted to work in. Those with children or commitments were mired in one city – in this case Melbourne – and grateful for whatever sessional work they could get, or unrelated professional work that wasn’t face to face teaching. Others had a coveted ECR position – in which the clock was ticking, in some cases very loudly before funding ran out.
Those who were young (ish) were prepared to chase three year contracts around the globe. Regardless of where they were job wise, everyone was in the same position regarding publication. Oh research – our research babies – are so demanding, and the field is so competitive. Just as well we love you, research baby. We have a big journey ahead.
I feel that by attending the ECR workshop, I avoided the common pitfall of wandering around in a post doc wilderness for longer than necessary. I am not sure I have a compass yet, but at least the workshop pointed me to a door and said “that one – ”
I was reassured that having had the door opened, anyone can do very well if they decide to! It’s hard work, but the main reason many academics do not do as well as they could, is because the door is often not opened for them.
I do believe that just as parenting skills need to be taught post birth, so should universities offer Early Career Researchers similar education classes about navigating the stormy uncharted waters of their careers ahead. And for the record, I believe that the definition ECR needs to be those who graduated from the university and not just those lucky enough to score a job in one after graduating.