The insecure scholar: The calm before the storm

It’s difficult to relax and enjoy the holidays with unemployment looming ever closer.

December 29, 2009

Holidays are strange times when you are nearly unemployed. I’m currently in the midst of a peaceful family festive season: spending quality time with the kids, visiting relatives, going on outings and eating too much. It’s all very pleasant and relaxing, but I can’t seem to shake the recurring feeling of panic at the back of my mind. My research project is nearly completed, my contract runs out in mid-January and I receive my final pay cheque at the end of that month. After that, bar the odd bit of teaching and freelance writing, I won’t be bringing in a significant income.

Of course, as I’ve documented in previous columns, I have done plenty to try to prepare the ground for further employment. I have applied for jobs and am awaiting news on whether I have been shortlisted for one of them. I have had a lot of meetings with potential research partners and have started to put together some outlines for possible grant applications. I’m trying to negotiate an honorary position at a university that will give me a berth when my current contract finishes. I am satisfied that I haven’t taken my situation lying down and that in the new year I will be back out there hustling with (hopefully) renewed vigour.

However, the fact remains that none of this work has thus far paid off and if I don’t get the permanent job I’ve applied for, which is a very likely possibility, none of the research grants I intend to apply for will pay out for several months even in the best-case scenario. My probable fate is several months of unemployment or underemployment.

Usually I keep the resulting anxiety in check by burying myself in activity. In the holiday season though, this option isn’t available. Without being able to actively do something about my situation, I have no alternative but to reflect on it. As the holiday continues, my suppressed panic is rising as I feel impotent and frustrated. Sometimes the kids distract me, but often they don’t as I try to ignore the siren call of my laptop.

Of course this is part of the reason why temporary research contracts are not a good idea: they never allow you to rest. Whether or not a contract includes holiday time, the ever-present possibility of unemployment means you can never entirely “clock off”.

I’m well aware that academia in general is not a good profession for those who value downtime. Even if you have a permanent contract, the pressure to raise money, teach, administrate and research never stops. Over and above all that, academics face a constant flood of new information that they have to try to stay on top of if they want to remain experts in their fields of study. We all face a constant torrent of papers and books and there never seems to be enough time to read them all. For many of us, holidays are a time to catch up on reading and to try to do some actual thinking. To misquote Gordon Gekko: “Knowledge never sleeps, pal.”

The lack of true downtime is a price that academics must pay for the privilege of being able to pursue their own interests. There are many jobs that you don’t have to take home with you, but plenty of them are stressful, uninteresting or alienating. So I don’t moan about the “always on” life of the academic, but I do feel that the temporary academic is burdened with further worries that make the difficulties of switching off even harder to handle.

I’m going to try to see this holiday period as a time to gird my proverbial loins for the fight ahead. I have a tough few months – at least – to come and I will have to struggle to keep my career going and my morale up. This is the calm before the storm and even as I enjoy the quiet, I await with apprehension the approaching tempest.

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