The insecure scholar: Coming clean

When do you reveal personal reasons behind career choices?

November 10, 2009

Looking back over the comments made about the first weeks of this column, I am really pleased that my experiences have sparked some interesting discussions. Not everyone identifies with what I’ve written and there have been a few accusations that I’m too negative about my situation. Fair enough – sometimes I am too negative. There have also been some comments implying that I have made my situation worse by, for example, not concentrating on producing journal articles. Again, fair enough – I certainly have made mistakes.

However, there’s another issue in my life that I haven’t mentioned before that may help explain why I have ended up in the situation I am in: I have a long-term health condition, fibromyalgia, which causes me periodic difficulties in my working life.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic, non-fatal condition whose primary symptoms are pain and fatigue. Fortunately I have it mildly and during the time I’ve had it (11 years and counting) I’ve developed various coping strategies and made use of treatments so that, for much of the time, I barely notice it. I have good days and bad days and I can struggle through the latter, more or less. I do have to rest a lot though, particularly on the bad days and, together with my considerable family responsibilities, all this cuts into my working time.

I can work – and work hard – but as my condition fluctuates and is affected by how much I do physically, it’s hard for me to fit into full-time employment. One of the best things about universities is that it’s common for academics to work from home for some of the week. When I work at home I can be as productive as anyone else. But the inevitable trips into the university do at times exacerbate my condition. I can work full time, but anything with a long commute or that obliges me to be at the office all day, every day, is not really an option. With many permanent positions effectively closed to me, I focused my attention on developing a research-only career.

In many respects I’ve been lucky. Since completing my PhD I’ve been able to juggle bits of work that can fit around my condition with few problems. I had hoped that if I waited a few years and didn’t take on too much work I would get better, but it didn’t happen. In eschewing conventional lectureships I created problems for myself. Working from contract to contract is fine when you’re single, but now I have a family it is not fine at all. Being flexible seemed great at the beginning as I watched my contemporaries complain about their daily commute and long hours, but now they are ascending the career ladder while I am still stuck where I am.

So now I want a more secure position and I’m rethinking just what my health will allow me to do. I’m going to start applying for permanent jobs and see what will happen. If I get one, I will have to negotiate an arrangement that will allow me to work at home a lot.

Even if the specifics of my situation are unique, in a broader sense it has much wider relevance. It’s not just that there are plenty of other academics with health problems, universities are filled with staff who have personal issues that make working life difficult: caring for a disabled partner, coping with mental illness, dealing with pregnancy and childcare, etc. Yet the path to academic security seems to go in one direction only – the full-time lectureship. I’m certainly not the only one whose personal circumstances have made it hard for them to progress in the “one-size-fits-all” UK university system.

I didn’t mention my health condition earlier in this series of columns because even in my working life not everyone knows. The dilemma is this: if I don’t mention my health condition then no one can make appropriate allowances, but if I do mention it there is a risk that other academics won’t consider me for work and career development.

So now, I’m “out” (albeit anonymously so). Maybe coming clean in this column will spur me on to changing my life offline.

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