Post-PhD Life: The Darkened Road

Taking a break from the frivolous, the following article is sobering, saddening and addresses a dimension of academic life that few discuss enough:

An academic jumped off scaffolding to his death when he was only able to find a job in a call centre after finishing his doctorate, an inquest heard today.

Dr Philip Elliott, 31, who had recently completed a PhD in physics at Reading University, was seen on the sixth floor of an apartment block in west London just after 11am on January 27 this year.

Police tried to call him down but he fell from the property in Cromwell Street, Kensington, an hour later, the hearing was told.

While attaining a PhD is a cause for celebration, there quickly ensues the harsher side of academic life, in which neither a post-doc nor a job is in sight, and  support networks for unemployed academics are scant.

For the duration of the PhD, the student is supported, guided and inspired: if one survives the viva, a world of opportunity awaits.

Riches will come, publishers will bay at your bedroom window and documentaries will plague you with invitations to feature on BBC2 and Radio 4 for all eternity.

Certainly, for the blessed some this is the case and the progress from PhD to full-fledged academic is a smooth one.

Yet for others the change is abrupt: cut off from the institution that nurtured for four years, the doctor is cast into the wilderness seeking short-listing in an environment in which one post-doc attracts 600 applications and a lectureship 200.

There is no guide – the supervisor who laid the breadcrumbs is no longer in sight and the process of applying for funding and/or positions a befuddling one.

Eventually, one absorbs the rejections with alacrity – before issues of bills, student loans and subsistence press harder.

Cut off from academia and thrust under the buzzing strip-lights of the job centre, the qualification that was once prized may now attract sneers.

On a personal level, I will never forget the year of job searching, both after my PhD and subsequently, the post-doc.

After the former, I experienced on a monthly basis the taunts of the job centre worker, who marvelled at  ‘how effective’ my PhD was in contributing to my joblessness.

Questions on why I chose to do an expensive, useless qualification were expressed and quips on how I was over qualified and would therefore have to work for free in an opticians were passed.

In essence, I had strived to become too big for my rural boots and my just deserts awaited.

For two months I worked as a hotel receptionist, at times hiding my qualifications and at others being greeted with disbelief and derision – why would I be working 5 a.m. shifts if I was ‘so clever’?

Explanations that academia is competitive were greeted with knowing looks – surely, this was an excuse for my inadequacies?

The loneliness that accompanies The Years in the Wilderness (as it shall henceforth be known) are an exacerbating factor – the camaraderie of academia is gone and one is left to dwell amidst negative thoughts and comments.

Confidence is nibbled, doubts about one’s ability to write, to opine and to analyse quiver in the shadows; belief ebbs and the possibility of finding a position recedes further.

If I must give one piece of advice it is that all of this shall pass.

Undoubtedly, it is easy to say this now, but counting academics for whom I hold utmost respect for and knowing they suffered likewise – nay, more, for over two years and through 200+ rejections – among my friends, proves it so.

My experience of accessing academia post-PhD was akin to walking along a wall of doors: some you open to find only bricks, but eventually one will lead to pastures.

There will always be those less qualified who swoop down and gather the bounty; there will equally be those to whom you tip your hat and admit defeat.

What is key is that you never admit defeat to yourself: rejections will come.

As may humiliation, degradation and loneliness.

But hold fast, work hard and most of all trust yourself.

For as Tolkien once said, ‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.’

And certainly, darkness does not last forever.

6 comments on “Post-PhD Life: The Darkened Road

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany
    April 5, 2013

    I printed this out, read the story on link u provided too, whilst reading I was occupied with 1 thought, (scared)!

    I`m in my first 6 months now, my annual review is next month (don`t ask why! :D), but after reading it again, and yr 2 cents about it I thought: it is just part of the process. 🙂

    Hanging on to hope (and the very notion of hard work) is a cliche` but , well, there is no (better) way.

    • Layla
      April 5, 2013

      Cliched, but true. Sometimes the simple notions are the best.

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This entry was posted on April 5, 2013 by in Academia and tagged , , , , , .
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