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Hindsight’s hoard: What academics most wish they had known earlier

Written by: Kate Cantrell
Published on: 17 Nov 2020

Delorian car on steps of building

Source: Alamy/iStock montage

Don’t defer life too long

When I was a girl, my mother would say to me, “When you grow up, you can be anything you want.” It was a clichéd platitude, offered in complete sincerity, but I realise now that it wasn’t true. Because, at 33, I’m all grown up and what I want to be is a person with a full-time job.

In the past three years, there have been three creative writing vacancies advertised nationally in Australia. That’s an overwhelming average of one job per year. I applied for two of the positions and, on both occasions, managed to make my way into The Final Four.

After my first interview, I was hopeful. I breezed through my presentation, blitzed the informal conversation, and even managed to crack a joke – which, to my surprise, the emeritus professor on the panel appeared to find funny (although I discovered a few weeks later that he’s completely deaf in one ear). Afterwards, the chair of the panel called to say I was “the new style and future of academia”.

“You interviewed better than the successful candidate,” she said, “but he was a bit more advanced. Let’s talk again when the time is right.”

I completely flunked the other interview, but was confident about my application – a 30-page manifesto that clearly responded to the selection criteria, complete with research awards and supervisions, teaching prizes and glowing testimonials. All the things. However, after six months had passed – along with the commencement date of the job itself – I realised I wasn’t The One.

When Job #3 finally came around, I was in the middle of marking 100 essays on The Uncanny and I ran out of time to apply.

When I recently met with my mentor – a woman only a few years ahead of me in age but light years ahead in terms of success and, more importantly, kindness – she offered some advice. As we chatted over Zoom with our babies on our knees – her one-year-old son, sick with chickenpox, my one-year-old puppy, sick on chicken treats – she said in passing, and without irony, “One more thing: don’t put your life on hold for work.”

Her counsel was offered with the same conviction my mum had offered hers all those years ago. And it resonates.

It resonates because when my girlfriend asks gently, “When will we have a baby?”, I say, with more optimism than I feel, “When I have a full-time job.” And when she asks, “When we will get married?” and “When will we take a holiday?” and “When will we buy a house?”, my response is always the same: “When I have a full-time job.” Because a full-time job is paid maternity leave and annual holidays; it’s the ability to afford a mortgage and safe childcare. It’s also – although Covid is changing things – a form of sponsorship in the Academic Hunger Games.

Family at beach near Tardis

But my mentor helped me realise that there’s no such thing as the “right” time to pursue what you want – which is comforting because it means there’s no such thing as the “wrong” time either. When you’re a young woman in academia, and you want both a career and a family, you’re competing with two clocks. There’s the ordinary clock that ticks above you as you teach, reminding you that there will come a time when you’ll be considered too old for a full-time job. And there’s the internal clock that ticks so loudly it wakes you up at night. Neither clock stops, and you can’t tune them out or synchronise them.

So, in hindsight, perhaps I should have made a more concerted effort to stop deferring life for work. I should have taken more annual leave and left the marking at home on our anniversary. I should have spent more time writing and less time perfecting my lecture slides. I shouldn’t have worried about rejection because applying for a lectureship is like playing poker – you can do everything right and still lose.

Most of all, I should have stopped searching my horoscope on Google and found myself a mentor sooner.

Kate Cantrell teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Southern Queensland.