The insecure scholar: A soul-destroying process

Being interviewed for unsuitable posts and forms that require a PhD in splitting hairs are all part of the ‘fun’ of searching for a permanent post

December 22, 2009

After last week’s column in which I shared my frustrations, exhaustion and lack of motivation, I’d like to report that I’ve bounced back. I’m certainly more productive and the thought of the upcoming holiday season is making me a little more cheerful. Still, career anxiety never really goes away, particularly when my contract is so close to finishing. Spending time on job applications – as I have over the past few days – isn’t good for the soul.

I had some mildly good news about a week and a half ago: I was called to a job interview. It’s only a one-year contract, the pay isn’t great and it’s at a university that would mean a long and awkward commute. Still, it and the department in question are very highly rated and in any case, a job’s a job. So a few days ago, I attended the interview with a sense of cautious optimism.

I tried my best to sparkle. I’d been asked to make a short presentation and I enjoyed having a captive audience of senior academics watching me pontificate. The role up for grabs was a research associate on a large research council-funded project, and I had to make the case for what kind of sub-project I would pursue as part of the broader theme. I certainly convinced myself and two out of the three panellists, who asked me some relevant questions that showed they took me seriously. The third simply looked bored and the question she asked for form’s sake was entirely irrelevant.

When I was invited to ask the panel something, I inquired whether I would have an office. The project head said that he expected me and the other two research associates to work out of his room. This was the first sign that something was not right. The second was when they pointedly asked if I would be moving to the area. Clearly for a one-year contract, a person with a young family (as they knew I was) wouldn’t be doing that.

It became pretty clear that, while they liked me, they wanted someone who was younger and had just finished a PhD. So a couple of days after the interview, they emailed to let me know that they had chosen someone else. No surprises there.

But onwards and upwards. I’m currently working on another job application for a permanent part-time (0.75) lectureship – perfect given my health issues. The university is one of the newer ones, which will mean a gargantuan teaching load and little research support. Still, this is a post that could work for me.

But my spirit of optimism is slowly being crushed by the application process. The university uses an online form, which means that it is hard to reuse a previous application as I trudge through the various information fields.

The form poses an astonishing 23 separate questions to show how I meet the various job specifications. Not only is this extremely time-consuming, but many of the questions overlap so closely that you need to be an expert in linguistics to differentiate them.

For example, I have to demonstrate “Experience of working with students from a wide range of backgrounds and capabilities”, “Proven ability to teach students from a wide range of backgrounds and capabilities” and “Proven ability to work with students from diverse educational, cultural and work backgrounds” – these are three separate questions!

Most gallingly, after using every ounce of creativity to complete the questions, I then have to attach a supporting statement, covering letter and CV. Even if I get this job, I will never get back the time I spent on the application.

Now I should emphasise that I don’t resent applying for jobs per se. However, I do resent the excessive amount of time you have to spend on some application forms. And I resent, as in the case of the job interview, being shortlisted when I was clearly not what they were looking for.

In these insecure times, rejection is simply a part of the life of academics and people in many professions. It’s not easy to deal with but I am more or less accustomed to it. But rejection verges on the intolerable when you are asked to jump through endless hoops and give up unpaid time you could spend on something more productive.

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