Well, I am now one of Maggie’s Millions, a One In Ten, a... actually I can’t think of any other cool euphemisms for unemployment. There’s no hiding the fact that, as of this week, my contract has finished and my income has fallen precipitously. I still have a small amount of teaching left and the occasional bit of paid writing, but basically this is it – I’m back at ground zero after nearly three years of gainful employment.
My contract ended with a whimper rather than a bang. There was no exit interview, no farewell party and no clearing of my desk (I never actually had a desk to clear). In fact, there was nothing to indicate I’d “left” at all and I suppose there won’t be until my P45 comes.
A lot of the blame for this bathetic state of affairs lies with me. I never really invested much time in becoming a fixture in my department. It was happy enough when I came to it in the first place with my research idea and was happy enough when I won the grants that provided my salary. It didn’t really demand anything from me and for much of the time that was fine with me.
My research didn’t require me to come to the university and given that it’s quite a distance from my home and my health is poor, I didn’t take the trouble to come in that much. I went to a few departmental meetings and collaborated closely with one member of the department, but most people didn’t know who I was. The department and I were both happy with me doing my own thing – it got the grant overhead and I got the kudos of being attached to a university.
It’s no surprise then that when I actually needed the department to put itself out for me – when I asked to be put on a “zero-hours” contract when my deal finished to allow me to apply for further grants – help wasn’t forthcoming. Yes, the head of department could have been more accommodating, but I know that my acting like a semi-detached staff member didn’t win me any friends (it didn’t win me any enemies, either).
This wasn’t like me. One thing I am good at is networking and getting to know people. Somehow though, the temporary security of a contract made me complacent. I thought that bringing in the cash and not asking for much would be enough to make me a fixture in the department, and this was dumb. People, people, people – that’s what life’s about.
I’m not just in the self-flagellation business: I recognise that, despite my complacency, the department didn’t do enough to draw me in. No one responded to my offers to teach or present seminars. There was no sense that I was a resource worth investing in. The smart thing for the department to have done, when faced with a slightly mysterious outsider who brought in money but didn’t show his face, would have been to try to draw me in. That didn’t happen. It appears that it’s the conventional academic species that are important, rather than temporary contract researchers.
So I’m trying to be wiser now. I’ve just closed the deal with another university for an honorary position, which will allow me to bid for grants and to have an institution to put on my CV and conference name badges. I meet the main players in the department later this week and I’m going to try to be enthusiastic and willing. This time, I want to give something to the department and demonstrate that I am someone worth investing in. I will try to be around more. If and when I get a grant and that grant ends, I want the department to want to find ways to keep me around.
I can’t help thinking that the mistakes I made with my former university stem from a fundamental lack of preparedness for the insecurity of my career. I didn’t expect that I would be temporarily employed at this time in my life. Now I know. If I am to be an insecure scholar for the rest of my career, at least I will be an insecure scholar who contributes something meaningful to the institutions that I pass through.