How I stripped away postdoc depression

September 20, 2002

Simon Francis found himself with a PhD in one hand, a toilet brush in the other - and no desire for academic life

A year ago, the sense of achievement that my doctorate had once given me had reached its nadir. I was still, 18 months after I'd submitted my thesis, a dole claimant and a cleaner. It did not feel right to be plunging my arm into toilet bowls for a living. At work, I could cover my annoyance only by cracking jokes about being the highest qualified cleaner in the country.

From the day I passed my PhD until now, my life has been like a long journey out of a hermit's cave and back into the social world. My physical and mental health had suffered during the last frenetic months of my thesis. I'd lost half a stone and I was still on Prozac. I had to restore my balance, I resolved, by making my life as un-academic as possible. All things mindless were my self-prescribed regimen. For weeks, my average day was made up of This Morning with Richard and Judy, followed by hours sitting in a cafe, then a sweaty workout in the gym, and finally home to watch lots more mindless telly. It was great.

But this idyllic slothfulness began to pall. Increasingly, I wanted to do something useful . I was also broke. Worst of all, the dole office had informed me that I was now "eligible" for the New Deal. I'd been warned that the New Deal was not about help - it was punishment for having been on the dole too long. My friend Harry, who had finished his PhD a year before me, had had to spend 13 weeks ironing clothes in a charity shop as part his New Deal "Intensive Work Experience".

So I had to go out and seek the rewards that were not, it was becoming apparent, going to come automatically as a result of my qualification. But first I had to deal with that most debilitating of symptoms of post-thesis life: a profound feeling of half-heartedness about everything - including lecturing. In fact, the thought of lecturing horrified me, evoking as it did memories of student life - a life I was damn sure I did not want to re-create. Nevertheless, I felt, I had to investigate it. A small voice inside told me that I might be suffering from prejudice.

I soon discovered the main barrier to full-time employment in academia: the research assessment exercise. Departments need to show the government that their lecturers publish a lot. You need at least three publications, I was told, to convince prospective employers that you will be a useful part of the team. But after a year pestering publishers with a synopsis of the book based on my PhD, I had had only one slight spark of interest.

So, misery persisted. However, over one week last summer, my world suddenly changed. On the Monday I met my friend and fellow cleaner, Tina. I'd spent so long controlling my mind, she counselled, that I now needed to "free it up" and get creative about my job search. On the Thursday, I was collared by my former PhD supervisor. A part-time lecturer was needed for an MSc environment course. The subject, I reasoned, was my specialism and it was postgraduate level. If ever I was going to try lecturing "just in case" I might enjoy it, there could not be a better opportunity. So I agreed.

As a result of that week, my time is now divided between part-time lecturing and what I call part-time "creative work".

I started lecturing last January. At first it was terrifying. On my first day, I was faced with a bunch of very bright, very keen students. I feared that I would be roasted alive, but I was surprised to find that they did not know much. Some time later, older lecturers told me I had made the standard misassumption of first-time lecturers: you do not realise how much you have learnt since you started your PhD - not just from formal study, but from life.

The biggest surprise, though, was that at no time has lecturing felt like doing a PhD. For a start, the other lecturers became chummy. Perhaps they had always been that way - but as a PhD student I had been unable to be chummy back. Now, the relationship between me and them just felt much less heavy. What has made my first stint as a lecturer best of all, though, has been my students, who are always polite and friendly.

To be sure, my first lecture was dire. Not trusting my knowledge or my nerves, I had written out everything so I could dictate it in class. Result: I droned for 90 minutes. A third of the students did not return for the next session. But after a few weeks, my anxiety began to disappear. Correspondingly, my ability to ad lib increased. It hit me recently that lecturing could be a wheeze. At its best, it is like having a deep, enjoyable conversation with old friends - except as a lecturer you get paid for it.

So now I do, wholeheartedly, want to lecture full time. But what of that "creative work"? I have applied for fun-sounding jobs or advertised in shop windows to do them. So far, I have been a stonemason, painter, builder, gardener and strippergram deliverer. Some of it has worked out financially, some has not - but it has all been enjoyable. It has helped me off the Prozac and now the future looks brighter.

My lingering gripe, though, is with the RAE. Somehow, I have to find the time and the inclination to write journal articles. These are unpaid, and I just do not feel like burning my brains out for nothing anymore. Mind you, I would write for free and at length about the stupidity of the RAE. The catharsis alone would make it worthwhile.

Simon Francis lectures in politics at the University of Bristol.

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