Thursday, 22 September 2016

Helping Hands

I love it when someone writes things to help other people be successful.

Some very useful advice on how to sell your PhD experience on job application forms (especially non-academic ones) : or, how to avoid using the words 'student' and 'PhD' altogether. Sensible advice, as far as I'm concerned (having previously been told, in post-interview feedback, that I 'talked about my PhD too much',where no-one cares about it; and having been on the receiving end of the confused interviewer's glare: 'But you're an academic, aren't you?... So why do you want this job?')

I'm writing a job application as we speak, and I have banished all woolly statements and replaced them with the more dynamic-sounding examples the article suggests (in the words of a careers counsellor I once saw: 'words like "helped" and "supported" are banned'; and 'the point of these bullet points is to provide dated proof that you can do things'.)

We'll see how it goes.

Good luck everyone!

CN xx

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Working Hours

I’m sure the nice administrator in the university department where I work thinks I am an idiot. Today: some confusion over how much I should be paid for the hours of Masters student supervision I did for them this summer. I submitted a claim for [a number of] hours; the nice administrator came back to me, telling me that I can only claim [less hours than that] per student, which came in at about a third less than what I thought I was getting paid. Cue much polite protesting and ‘querying’ from me, and much copy-and-pasting and brandishing of email written by boss at the start of the summer, which clearly says how much I am to be paid, and which clearly says that I am, indeed, right. (And not an idiot).

Alas, I am actually wrong, despite being right. Apparently the boss ‘jumped the gun a bit’ in stating the said figure in the email in which she invited me to do the work; University regulations have actually set my fee at less than that, and so that is how much I will be paid.

This is a bit of a pickle, because I have already done all the work, and have indeed gone to great lengths to ensure (I don’t know why) that the nice students have got exactly as much help out of me as this time allowed. Not that I worked super hard, or anything, but still, I did the work. (Cue much apologizing from course convenor, and much promising that we will sort it out, somehow.)

This is not the first time I have had a run-in with the nice administrator over my pay – and it always seems that the fault is mine, for thinking that I am supposed to be getting paid more than I actually am. Previous run-in went something like this. Me: ‘Hi, I got your email. Um, I’m not supposed to be getting paid [5p] for this work. I’m supposed to be getting paid [10p]. Look, here and here is dated proof that I am getting paid [10p].

Nice administrator: ‘No, you’re meant to be getting paid [5p].’

Me: ‘Ummm…’ [leaves in polite confusion; thinks for a long time, counts on fingers; realizes with sinking heart that I am, indeed, going to get paid 5p.]*

Makes me feel nostalgic for that 9-to-5 admin job I had recently (which was temporary and which, alas, finished; and I wasn’t upset about that, to be honest, because it wasn’t really all that. But it did pay you for all the hours that you sat with your little bottom in that office chair… and it even offered the delightful possibility of spending a few hours every week actually sitting in the office and getting paid whilst filling out those additional hours claims forms. A really lovely ‘I’m-getting-paid-twice-right-now’ sort of feeling).

I love my few little hours of university teaching a week, I really do. I chose to do them, I willingly chose this life, I didn’t exactly fight tooth and nail to get into, like, a job in finance or something. Because I like this – I like the part-time lifestyle, and I like the feeling you get when students understand something and you know you’ve opened their minds, and yours.

And it is thanks to my links to this university that I managed, at one point, to get a whole load of money to write a book. And that was pretty special.

But note to self: maybe it’s time to move on. As lovely as this job is, earning [5p] is getting a bit boring. Arguing over ridiculously tiny sums of money is boring. Note to self: stop doing this lovely charity work for a university, and move on. Creative business beckons. Commissions slowly start coming. Step up the creative business. Start leaving the ‘underpaid lecturer’ business.

A student asked me once after class if she could come to my office hour to discuss some work, and we walked down to the office together. We chatted; she told me how much she was enjoying the course. I asked her what she might do after university.

‘This might sound silly – but before, I thought I might like to be a [insert cool-sounding job title here]; but now, since I’ve been doing this course, you’ve, like, really inspired me, and I think I want to do what YOU do!’

You’ve really inspired me; I want to do what YOU do. I basked in those lovely words, happy as pie, ignoring the thought that came to me, and only later did I really feel the pang of conscience; she thinks I have a real career where you get paid! I should have told her the truth! I should have said RUN, DON’T WALK, CHOOSE THE COOL JOB, DON’T DO WHAT I DO!... Instead, I sort of compromised and gave her the nice spiel about how she should keep both interests going, blah blah, because you never know where the jobs will be in a few years’ time, and who knows, perhaps she’ll do [cool job] first and then one day try academia.

You see, I seem to have this thing where I sort of pretend to my students that I am ‘better’ than I am. I might wear a suit jacket to class, to give them the idea that they are being taught by a proper grown-up (the suit jackets are actually hand-me-downs from my Mum; I realize that wearing them makes it seem like I could actually afford to buy lots of them myself). I prepare well. I try to give the impression that I am a ‘real’ lecturer. (Maybe I’m just giving MYSELF that impression.)

But maybe sometimes, like that one time, I should actually say: You know that I’m a part-time lecturer paid by the hour, right?... It’s a lovely life and I chose it, and I have a great time teaching you and I never wanted a full-time academic job, but you should know that I don’t earn a proper salary from doing this. I have to do a whole load of other things on the side to be able to do this.

I hope her other career really takes off, and she only thinks of academia nostalgically, when she is a bona fide [cool person], on holiday somewhere nice, swilling her glass of wine and telling her cool friends that she used to like writing essays and what a shame she never stayed on to do more; safely protected from my own fate by a devastating wall of ‘I wish’, and ‘if only’.

Hell, I might get her to hire ME one day.


Disclaimer: This is not a rant against academia in general, and should not be read as such. Like I say, I don’t want a full-time academic job, I’m certainly not doing the things that would get me one of those, and so if I am indeed earning 5p an hour,* this is by my own choice. (I might just make a different choice soon, that’s all.) Although it is a shame that universities have figured out at some point that you don't need to pay hourly academics properly and they'll still work hard to do a good job. That bit was our downfall.

*About that 5p thing: obviously, I exaggerate the small size of my paycheck for comic effect. However, this number does adequately convey my frustration at having spent my morning arguing over a relatively small sum of money, after previously negotiating that small sum and then being told that I won’t even get paid that. Think I might start valuing myself more. Might even ask for 20p in my next job.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Finding a Job You Love

Was excited to come across the following article in The New Yorker: 'The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love'.

(Yes, I am *still* looking for work. No, I haven't found that permanent job yet. And yes, I'm still optimistic.)

I like it where it says that the key to finding interesting work and getting paid for it is to become an expert at something - and the best way to do that is pick something you can actually stand:

'The psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his co-authors have estimated that many thousands of hours of difficult practice are required for true expertise at any task. That’s why my first response when students seek advice on how to succeed is to ask whether any activity has ever absorbed them completely. Most answer affirmatively. I then suggest that they prepare themselves for a career that entails tasks as similar as possible to that activity, even if it doesn’t normally lead to high financial rewards. I tell them not to worry about the money.'

'My point is that becoming an expert is so challenging that you are unlikely to expend the necessary effort unless the task is one that you love for its own sake. [...]'

'The happiness literature has identified one of the most deeply satisfying human psychological states to be one called “flow.” It occurs when you are so immersed in an activity that you lose track of the passage of time. If you can land a job that enables you to experience substantial periods of flow, you will be among the most fortunate people on the planet.'

... Remember 'flow'? Remember all that stuff we learned from the Procrastination Bible, how we tried to manufacture a flow state to get some work done on our PhDs?... When I first went to see my lovely therapist, she ended our first session by asking me what I am doing when I am really concentrating, when I am working effortlessly. I found myself telling her excitedly about my more creative, unpaid, fun projects. She thus sent me away from that first conversation with my head filled with thoughts of activities which I am good at, and which make me really, really effortlessly concentrate. It was a very clever trick which meant I left ever so slightly cheered up (see, I am good at some things.... Just not PhDs... )


I had once heard a friend tell me that, when she was setting off to go to university for the first time, she mentioned to a family member that she might try and sit in on some 'classes in economics' - 'because then I can get a good job'.

He asked her, 'Do you WANT a job for which you need to know economics?...'

And she replied 'No...'

And then he told her, 'Just do whatever it is that you want to do, and give it 100% - and you will succeed.'


... Alas, whilst one is figuring out what it is one wants to do and succeed at, and learning how to do it, one does still need to pay bills. I came across a picture of a cushion on Pinterest the other day, and the slogan on the cushion said

"I do many things well, none of which generate income"

Was a bit relieved to think, guess I'm not alone.

CN xx

Sunday, 12 June 2016

‘Lascia ch'io pianga’

A visit to my Mum this weekend. She and I were briefly reminiscing over my PhD days. She remembers, in particular, how I used to wonder around the house complaining about my PhD, but in a silly, jokey way, interspersed with comedy wailing noises (my trademark was a sort of whingey, nasal ‘Waaaaaah!’… sound, obviously exaggerated, to let off steam.) (If you’re going to have a whinge, you might as well do it properly, with good sound effects.)

Anyway, she remembers one weekend in particular, when I was home, and she thought she could suddenly hear the whingeing noise, the ‘Waaaaaah!...’, issuing in one loud and continuous blast from somewhere in the house. She remembers thinking, oh God, if she hates it this much then maybe she should just stop this PhD!... Then she realized it was actually a car alarm that had gone off in the street.

My mum also remembers how I took my complaining to new levels: at one point, I was wandering about the house singing bits of the aria ‘Lascia ch'io pianga’ (my own, operatic/disco version, obvs). The words go

‘Lascia ch’io pianga mia cruda sorte/ E che sospiri la libertà.’

(Let me weep over my cruel fate/ And let me sigh for my freedom…’) (Appropriate, no?...)

It is a great song which I dedicate to all of you who are struggling with (or hating) your PhD thesis today.

Happy writing! X

Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Ghosts of Decisions Past

I was reading a beautiful thing the other day, which talked about how it feels to not yet know what you want to do in life, and to be unsure about the life choices you’ve made so far.

(For those of you who read this blog regularly, and who might have wondered how I got on the other day: by the way, I did not get the job. The interview wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t great, either; I’m just… not that good at research, and in interviews it shows. Applying for that job was a bit of a waste of time. I should just tattoo across my face: ‘DO NOT APPLY for academic jobs because YOU DO NOT LIKE THEM’, and every time I am tempted, I could run to the mirror and read it, over and over again. … Maybe I should just put a note on the mirror instead…)

Anyway, the thing I liked said this:

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come… We live everything as it comes, without warning.


All the while, we walk forward accompanied by the specters of versions of ourselves we failed to or chose not to become.'

The ghosts which walk beside me. A beautiful and eloquent metaphor for indecision, the kind of life-indecision which often plagues me, if ever there was one. The PhD, and several of the life choices that led me to it, sometimes feel like a total waste of time; no career, no income, no job security, no maternity leave. (While I know that material wealth isn’t the only form of ‘capital’ there is, still, it’s a bit rubbish that things are still so touch-and-go...) Sometimes I can’t help but wonder where I might be in life now, had I only been ‘braver’ and had had the guts to leap into something more interesting. It’s at those time that those spectres of what-could-have-been sidle up to me and whisper in my ear: you could have been ME…

Some of these spectres look like this:

- There’s Corporate Cloud Nine (I went to a good university, I got a good degree; occasionally I run across an old classmate on LinkedIn, with a job title like ‘Director of Cool Programmes at the BBC’, or ‘Partner in Huge Law Firm’, or just generally something big and important.) This Cloud Nine, clad in an expensive suit, says ‘You could have gotten something done in this world and made enough money by now to be able to retire soon… Wouldn’t that be nice?’ (Occasionally she reappears as Diplomat Cloud Nine, who thinks I could be having adventures in foreign countries while getting paid properly for it.)

- There’s Arty Cloud Nine. This one pops up frequently, and asks ‘You sure it is too late to get started?... In a year or two, you’ll wonder why you never did…’ (This one is still mad at me for not letting her go to drama school when we were both eighteen. She’s convinced my life would have been a breeze if I hadn’t chickened out.)

- And now, Academic Cloud Nine has joined the throng. ‘But what if you did just apply for that job that’s come up at [The Nice University] – what if you did just work your ass off for a few years, staying up til 3 a.m. writing lectures? So what if you hate it, and it leaves you tired?... Isn’t this the best-paid job you can realistically get?...’

(And there’s a bunch of others, of more transient Cloud Nines; from other jobs I’ve had and not wanted to commit to, and also from other, more trivial decisions I’ve more recently made. ‘You should have had fish and chips for dinner; why did you order that crappy salad?...’ Or: ‘You’re wasting your time sitting here writing/ daydreaming; you’re on holiday! Shouldn’t you go to a museum?’ And, if I choose the latter, ‘Why are you going to a museum? Isn’t that a waste of time and money? Go sit in a coffee shop and write!’… )

So they walk beside me, these Ghosts of (In)Decisions Past, and I can’t seem to evade their company; maybe because the present Cloud Nine doesn’t have a strong enough sense of self, a strong enough outline, to make the others fade away? – so they keep coming up to me and whispering: ‘Are you sure it’s not me?...’ Thing is, the reason I don’t just tell them to go away is because they’re right about one thing: I’m not completely happy where I am in life, and I don’t always know where to go. I need to pick a ghost.

And I have. I’ve picked the one I want to be, for now at least, and I want to give this one a proper chance. I don’t need the others coming up to me and distracting me right now. I want to become really good at one thing, and do it nicely.

 The PhD was basically an exercise in indecision. It wasn’t a sound career move as much as it was just me clinging desperately to the ‘stay in school’ option. I have thus faffed about for nearly a third of the century, too scared to commit to ‘the wrong thing’. (Read Barbara Sher’s chapter “Help! I’m Not Ready to be Born Yet” in her book I Could Do Anything […] if this sounds like you.)

So I’m liking this writer’s idea of the ‘spectres’ very comforting much now; I feel a bit better knowing that maybe I’m not the only one who goes through life terrified of making the wrong choice and unable to give up these ghosts – the ghosts of successes that could have been, but never were.

And today I came across something cool in a public library’s gift shop, which kind of tells me how to make the ghosts get lost. It’s funny how sometimes when you are mulling something over and need answers, the universe just sort of throws them your way.

I found the following advice in a book in the shop; this is advice to young creatives starting out, and it goes ‘Build best-case scenarios in your imagination’.

The writer says,

‘One of my favourite thought exercises is the projection of multiple futures. It’s about revisiting your personal past and constructing branches of five, six, or seven possible futures. What decisions have I made in my life that have led up to this moment? […] No matter what we choose, a future on the other side of the fork in the road happened. That reality exists; it is just not ours. There is no sense stewing in regret because your best hopes and wishes exist in that other world out there.

With this knowledge in mind, we can preemptively construct these plural paths. Is it possible to open an exhibition this year? Can I be friends with these people I admire? Will I move to a city of my liking, working in exactly the ways I would otherwise envy? The answer is always yes to every possible future. If you have the courage to build a best-case scenario timeline in your imagination, that reality is already as good as real.’

And he says

‘My advice is: write a few fake CVs for versions of your future selves – craft them, let your ambition run wild, project a few futures. […] I promise you, as you print them out and hold your plural futures in your hands, you will gain a deep sense of clarity about what you want to do and what you do not care to do.’

(from Don’t Get a Job, Make a Job: How to make it as a creative graduate, by Gem Barton.)

I read this and it cheered me up. And the ghosts – even the most persistent ghosts – backed off for a minute. And the contours of the real ‘me’ seem a bit stronger.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Believing and Performing

Is there anything more stressful and more horrifying (in our pampered, otherwise happy, comfortable Western lives) than a job interview?...

Yes, yes there is: it’s the academic job interview.

‘Candidates will be expected to give a 5-minute presentation outlining their research intentions over the next four years…’

Or, also scary: ‘Candidates will be asked to deliver a 5-minute presentation on the outline of a course they would like to propose to the Department, based on their research…’

That insignificant, small, perfectly doable-looking thing (5 minutes, no problem, I can do that easy) completely takes over your life for the next week or two, or however long it is that you’ve got until that interview. Maybe I’m just sensitive, or slow, or terrible at research; I don’t know, but planning that 5 minute speech opens up can after intellectual can of worms: I realise, to my horror, that I don’t know anything.

It’s that thing where a teaching job is advertised, and you can’t quite resist the lure of it; you hesitate, because the job advert makes clear that research will be expected of you, and you're not convinced that research is your friend (cf. the entire body of writings here on ‘I Hate My PhD’); some well-meaning colleagues urge you to apply, telling you the job has your name on it; finally, a compliment from a student about your nice teaching makes you decide to go for it; you wade bravely into the sea of uncertainty and confusion that is writing a research proposal; before you know it, you are miles from the shore and you feel like you’re drowning, but you carry on, telling yourself, like Macbeth, I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as go o’er… (cf blog post where ‘I wonder what would have been a good time to quit.’)

And you carry on (no, it's fine, I can do this), and you watch, in horror, as the clock ticks on, and the time available to you for all the other things you have to do – prepare answers to questions about your teaching, research the institution, and so on – shrinks and shrinks, because that bloody 5-minute presentation is just not ready. You’ve needed so much time, so many days, just to get to grips with that 5 minute bit that you’re now wondering, shit, what about the other 40 minutes of the interview??...

Yes, I’ve been lured into it again: another academic job application. For a teaching job that I would really, really like to have, teaching things that I would really like to teach. But they want research too. So I’m sitting here, preparing to give it to them. I sometimes question the sanity of my actions.

I could go on and on about the horrors of the academic interview; the words they use, the myriad of topics you must be ready to talk about, the almost surreal scenario where you have to hold your own in front of, like, five senior academics who are experts in their field and yours… I won’t go on, because I haven’t got time, and also because I want to convince myself that I am amazing. Because there’s no point going in there unless I am going to go in there feeling utterly certain that I am God’s gift to scholarship and learning. So I refuse to say anything negative about this interview. I am amazing. I am God’s gift. I’ll be great tomorrow.

Here is a nice quotation from our friend Nietzsche (from his work Human, All Too Human…) which I think goes rather well with interviews (and vivas!).

'If someone obstinately and for a long time wants to appear something it is in the end hard for him to be anything else.

[...] With all great deceivers there is a noteworthy occurrence... In the actual act of deception, with all its preparations, its enthralling voice, expression, and gesture, in the midst of the scenery designed to give it effect, they are overcome by belief in themselves; it is this which then speaks so miraculously and compellingly to those who surround them. [...] Self-deception has to exist if a grand effect is to be produced. For men believe in the truth of that which is plainly strongly believed.'