By Michael Munnik |

Look at this picture. It’s me on graduation day – the very image of success. Lots of people, in robes like these, posed for similar victory shots this summer, as they have year on year for generations.

If you’re in the throes of your doctorate, such images might sustain you through the many challenges you most certainly are facing. You might mentally photoshop your face into this picture at a strained moment and say, “This is what I’m working towards. At this point, it will all be behind me.”

I hate to douse that warm ember of hope with the cold water of pessimistic reality, but it ain’t necessarily so. And if you’re completing or have completed your thesis and you’re seeking the next step – perhaps even if you’ve been cuffed by the vice-chancellor and presented with your degree – it’s likely that you know this to be the case.

It’s a bit rich for me to write about hardship, because by the time that picture was taken, my next step was already in place. In fact, it’s now begun: this week was my first in my new job as Lecturer in Social Science Theories and Methods at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. Lovely title, reputable institution, relevant environment. That qualifies as success. But I don’t want this peak to occlude the valley I toiled in before getting here. That’s what I’m writing about: honouring your valleys.

Munnik alt second photoValley.

Here’s a bit about my valley. I’d spent the last year or more fretting about work. I don’t believe in a teleological link between higher education and “a job”, nor do I imagine that PhDs who don’t have their next step lined up have failed to “make good” on the degree. But if I hadn’t secured a job by graduation day, it would have sucked the wind out of that celebration. I have a family, and I needed to start working again. Soon.

Really, I started applying for work too early – the November before the summer when I submitted. I knew it was a long shot, but it was to my alma mater back in Canada, and I thought it would be a good way to let the department know what I had been up to in the last dozen years. I didn’t get the job (of course), but I did get started at preparing CVs and letters and simply presenting myself. Becoming aware of the holes between my experience and the expectations of hiring boards.

Not that this learning helped, however. For all the jobs I applied for since submitting my thesis last July, for all the ways that I made my self-presentation sleeker, it made no difference. I was still not-yet-post-doctoral. At each stage – the long-awaited viva, the submitted corrections, the published chapter – I thought things would improve and I would at least get interviews. Nothing. And the months went by, with no certainty about when change would come.

The big post-docs with their tiny success rates were more work but no more encouraging. And it got ridiculous: one university posted a two-year fellowship, really an apprenticeship for writing grant applications. Seeking potential mentors for my project, I received the daunting reply that unless I had a book and two articles in hand, unless I had the impact and knowledge exchange not merely planned but already in progress, there was no point in applying. Because out of the 90-odd applicants so far, some were at that level. And this department could only choose a handful from among them to compete with candidates from other faculties for two positions. Two positions. For a two-year job. At post-doc wages.

It struck me then that I would need a post-doc in order to do the things that would get me a post-doc, let alone a lectureship. It’s just insane. It’s not exactly a catch-22, because there is a way out: you support yourself while doing these things – going to conferences, converting your thesis into a manuscript, writing grant applications. Because you’re superhuman, right? And you don’t need to eat much.

It’s like freelance journalism: the work of academia is your life, and you then try to convince institutions to pay you for parts of it. I shared this thought with a colleague, himself only recently hired into a permanent job, and he laughed a gallows laugh at the comparison.

This all seems very depressing. I don’t mean to wallow in it, but this kindling stage before the flame of employment takes hold is common. And whilst I kindled, a friend cheerfully (placatingly?) said he was sure it would all be behind me soon. I replied that yes, it might, but it would be easy once that happens just to forget this trough, dismiss it as a curious eleven-month blip between submitting my thesis and getting a job offer. Easy but dishonest.

We need to puncture the idea of the doctoral researcher as superhuman, defined only by her achievements. The image of success that accompanies graduation feeds that myth – my, how well you’ve done. If we only trace the nodes of strength, we distort the line that marks our journey. I don’t want to be at a drinks reception years hence, soothing a distraught PhD with the mantra that soon this will be over, better things are around the corner, &c.

My advice, such as it is, is this: You will have many peaks in this journey. Perhaps you’ve had some already – passing the first-year review, a positive discovery in fieldwork, completing a draft of the thesis, submitting the thesis. More peaks lie ahead, like graduation, publishing, a grant, and yes, a job offer. Valleys define those peaks, and it’s worth noting (if we follow the metaphor) that they’re also where more people live. Honour those valleys, fraught though they may be. To do otherwise is, in the most positivist language possible, a manipulation of the data to reach a desired conclusion.

Michael Munnik is the newly minted Lecturer in Social Science Theories and Methods at Cardiff University’s Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK. He completed his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, examining relationships between Muslims and journalists in Glasgow. He tweets at @michaelmunnik and posts periodically at An Earth Without Grammar.

Images (c) Gina and Katie Munnik

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