Some periods of life are too close and too real to write about.
For a number of months now I have been unemployed. I have been clinging by a thread to normality, in a seemingly unending precarious spiral, feeling at times the only way out was to cease existence. This felt a logical solution to the fact I couldn’t afford to live. If I just took myself and the price of keeping myself alive out of the equation, the burden would lift. In short: it’s been dark.
There are many essays to write about the unequal damaging structures of higher education and the perpetual precarity and anxiety they foster for the many that struggle for those few elusive jobs. The competition began to consume me. Feeling palpable envy of those of my career stage who got the fellowship I applied for but didn’t get, or who had more publications than me, or who won a special prize or got the job straight after the PhD.
This background noise plays out in the daily routine of job searching and job applications. Starting out with the naive assumption that if you meet the essential and desirable criteria on the person specification then you will get an interview. Envisioning the possible futures every time you submit, and then the waiting. All the waiting, checking the inbox over and over, and sometimes, often just nothing. I started to get so used to the rejections that when they came I often couldn’t even remember applying for the job in the first place. I was rejected from the type of jobs I did before the PhD, as though I was slipping further backwards, the PhD a huge wasteful burden that made me ineligible for a minimum wage.
The handful of interviews that punctuated the waiting and nothingness became increasingly more weighted with importance. I got more and more desperate and thus more incapable of performing at an interview and getting out of the spiral. I loathed the circus of interviews, the performing, all that energy poured into 30 minutes of questioning, or a 5 minute presentation. The ups and downs of glimmers of hope followed by desolation. And then hope again before desolation, and so on until the body is so exhausted and drained by anxiety and self pity.
I was haunted by the sentence: You’re just not good enough. I had tried to make my way through the system but I had failed, it was my fault. I read first hand accounts of others, academics trying to find work after the PhD, and they were all framed with a sense of individual responsibility for failure. All the comments below the line declared: you need to publish more, you need to try harder, you need to sacrifice more.
This story has a ‘good’ ending though. It might not have, the spiral it seemed to me was set to continue, and I was at a point where I had to begin considering a different path. In my powerlessness I could only have faith in an ambiguous idea of the universe that would somehow reveal, when it was ready, whatever the hell was in store for me.
Yesterday I received a phone call – from the sort of elite higher education institution I felt so sealed off from – offering me a job. I accepted. Later in the afternoon I received an invitation for a job interview at the University of Cambridge. I declined the interview. I presume that was the universe showing a sense of humour and letting me know: you are good enough.