Weekend coffee share

If we were having coffee you’d notice I like my coffee in strong espresso form. Black. 2 cups. You’d see me drinking out of a bright red espresso cup, thick rimmed and sturdy, with a white interior. You’d be sitting with me in my new study area, me at my desk and you in the old velvet chair in the corner. You’d notice I’ve brought 2 house plants in there because the room is bright and light filled and you’d wonder whether I’ll remember to water them because I always forget and I’m near-famous for my black thumbs. 

We’d be talking about what’s going on in my life and I’d tell you about the disappointment I felt on Friday when I opened the rejection letter regarding my first-ever Post Doc application. I’d tell you how sad this rejection makes me and how that even though I knew it was an exciting project, well constructed and useful to the institution to which I applied, that the competition was always going to be fierce. And I’d tell you that while the assessment panel didn’t seem to have issues with the project itself my submission just wasn’t as good as other applications because my publication track record wasn’t strong enough and my project’s alignment with the Research Centre research areas wasn’t as close as other submissions. 

And if we were having coffee you’d notice I would be crying because I have no resilience in the face of failure. You’d be chiding me for my distress and telling me it’s just one rejection out of many to follow and that Post Docs are notoriously difficult to get. You’d be telling me to pull my socks up, suck it up and go for the next thing, and the next, and the next. You’d be telling me about all those people in their 40s who applied for hundreds of jobs before they succeeded. You’d be reminding me about the experience of my own supervisor who for three years unsuccessfully tried to get a Post Doc, until she got lucky.

You’d be telling me to become more competitive: get that book written; publish journal articles from my thesis, be more strategic. 

And I’d be inconsolable because I know that approach might be good for younger people; people in their late 20s and 30s. People who are hungrier than me, more desperate. Try telling that to a woman in her mid forties with time running out of employability because there are people younger and hungrier than me, and HR departments filled with people who’d prefer younger employees because ageing is an impediment to job creation. And I’d tell you the sad truth that without institutional affiliation any academic work I do will lack value. 

And I’d look at you trying to make you understand that it’s not even about that; it’s that I can’t cope with failure and that I don’t bounce back and that I don’t have reserves of resilience because I think I’m just a bit beaten by life. And that if I look at my life it’s characterised by me surviving, not thriving. That at every roadblock I’ve experienced in my life I’ve not found another way through: I’ve just given up. And if we were having coffee I’d tell you how I don’t know why I’m like this. But I’d tell you how in my childhood I was always the same. That I was terribly sensitive and would withdraw at the first sign of difficulty. That I would give up rather than try to finish something if it got hard. 

And I would cry again because I don’t want to feel so damned sensitive and skittish. I would recite to you the quote from LOTR, spoken by Galadriel as she refused Frodo’s offer of the Ring: “I will diminish, and go into the West”. I would tell you about the fear I have of diminishing. Of becoming useless and of losing value; of having no worth. And you would see the frustration I feel at not having hard ambition and the resilience to get back up, dust myself off and try again. You would wonder why I have such little self confidence that one little rejection can floor me. You would ask why I chose to enter a field-music-that is so competitive you need to have nerves of steel to succeed. 

I would tell you I don’t know. 

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What do I do now?

As I approach the end of my thesis I am reminded of the words of Agnes Gooch from the show “Mame”, when her “field trip” to explore life resulted in an unexpected pregnancy. As she returned to accuse her “teacher”, Mrs Burnside, she bewailed “what do I do now?” I feel rather the same way.

I am so close to the finish line I can smell it – in fact, give me a few more days and I think I will have the bulk of the thesis complete, with just a few loose ends to tie up. I don’t actually have a few more days, but I used an unexpected free day today to do some more work on the discussion chapter and conclusion. I worked reasonably consistently and am happy to see more loose ends knotted off now. Friday is my next full day for work and then perhaps some of the weekend. Yes, that’s how close it is, folks. Weekend work on the thesis.

But my thoughts keep straying to the thing after the thing. What next? Am I willing to stay a peripatetic teacher (with a PhD) at a university, or am I meant for more? Not that teaching isn’t awesome, but teaching 40 hours a week during term time isn’t awesome. As I explained to DH, I like teaching just fine, but I am exhausting myself trying to do this much teaching for a relatively small reward.

As he himself admits, if I were working full time in the uni system I would not be doing as much teaching as this. In fact, I would be doing a range of other things, based on a 40/40/20 model. 40% teaching, 40% research, 20% service. For me, this break down of work is greatly appealing. But it shows that the amount of teaching I do is well in excess of normal teaching arrangements at either secondary or tertiary level. Add to that workshops, master classes, performances and administrivia, and it’s no wonder I’m tired.

But as I enter my 45th year (and the irony of the mid-life crisis hasn’t eluded me, folks), I’m wondering if this is it. What do I do now? I’m at the peak of my working life, cobbling together a career out of bits and pieces of consulting and teaching work, and I’m now feeling like it’s not enough.¬† There’s no forward momentum, no career pathway for this life. No sense of striving, and no real sense of belonging to my main employer, although I feel as loyal and connected as I can to the place. My boss gives me as much higher duty work as he can manage but he has to be seen to be fair and I can’t do it to the exclusion of other employees. Besides which, DH is the Grand Poobah and any work I DO get might be seen as nepotism.

It doesn’t help that I’m nearly grieving for the loss of thesis-baby as she grows up and leaves home, and that we have plans for the house that requires me maintaining my income. I can’t afford to take time off to think about it – I need to keep working. So, what do I do now?!