Dr Victoria Stiles graduated from the University of Nottingham in the summer of 2015. Her research focuses on representations of Britain and British imperialism in books which were in circulation in Nazi Germany. She blogs at tattyjackets.blogspot.com
“So what do you do?” he asked, choosing the worst conversation partner out of hundreds. I was stumped, partly because I thought that question had gone the way of gentleman’s suspenders but more because my usual answers no longer applied. I’d been a student, teacher or both for thirteen years. This hadn’t been what I did so much as what I was; cut me and I bleed a mixture of red ink and tea. At that point though I couldn’t honestly say that I was either of those things and so the answer I offered this well-meaning person was “mostly panic”.
I passed my viva nearly a year ago. I had expected a thorough grilling, a disembowelment and dismemberment of my ideas worthy of Game of Thrones, followed by months of working to get things just right. Instead, I was suddenly done. I was (jokingly?) told to crack on with publishing so that people could get annoyed about my findings. Clutching my celebratory whisky, I felt like I was being chivvied out of the trenches to face the heavy artillery of real academia. After all, this was what I’d been training for. My brain’s response: “wibble”.
It turns out that all of my coping strategies are calibrated to manage the panic attacks and migraines which I’ve had, on and off, since my mid-teens. I’ve trained myself how to disengage when I’ve taken on too much and to focus on easier, routine tasks when the brain gremlins begin to riot. For me, teaching is a diet of mundanity and mayhem on which I can thrive, offering regular small victories – mine and the students’ – to give me a reason to get out of bed. I thought that these strategies would continue to work for me, not realising that they aren’t designed for dealing with unemployment and the sudden loss of a long-term project. I fell apart.
It made no sense to me. I’d passed, got the title, and worn the floppy hat. I’d “won” – didn’t that feel fantastic? Wasn’t I relieved that it was all over? Mustn’t it be wonderful to have all of these opportunities open to me?
Numbness and wretchedness. What the hell was wrong with me?
Days and weeks and months of putting together applications to no avail. Months of joking that I’ve gone from trainee academic to unemployed person who swears they’re working on a book. Months of feeling dead inside for days at a time or panicking at the idea of reworking my thesis (the particularly grim subject matter doesn’t help). Then September rolled around, I still didn’t have an academic post and I felt like that was it, I’d missed the window. I was never going to be an academic.
Except… please bear with me here because I’m a cultural historian and I’m compelled to deconstruct, like a puppy chewing the furniture. What I’ve done this year is much of what I’d want from academia but deconstructed (and frequently unpaid).
I’ve completed a major piece of research and received positive responses. I’ve marked exam scripts (two-week contract). I’ve taught, supervised and offered pastoral care to students (twelve-week contract, pre-sessional English tutoring). I’ve delivered lectures (in pubs, as a volunteer speaker). I’ve invigilated exams (two short contracts) and acted as consultant to a museum (self-employed with a one part-time client). As a volunteer I’ve been involved in some fantastic events and discussed big ideas with lovely, interesting people. I’ve attended local research seminars, tried to keep reading and attempted to stay in touch with other researchers despite feeling like an outsider and a failure.
For the moment then, what I “do” is whatever comes along. What I “am” is a researcher and educator as always. What I’ve finally learned is that I can give myself permission to be proud of these things even though what I’ve achieved isn’t neatly tied up with a job title and a salary. I wish that somebody had warned me how much things would change and how little the previous years would prepare me for this. I wish that someone had handed me a note to that effect along with my thesis receipt. This isn’t a criticism of the graduate and postgraduate support provided by universities, but this is naturally geared more towards strategies for getting into a post rather than how to handle the potential effects of such a huge change in circumstances.
So I’m telling you now: whatever you “do” and whatever you get done, you can give yourself permission to be proud of it. You can give yourself permission to talk about how you feel and to seek help. You can give yourself permission to tell people (myself included) that their proposed solutions won’t work for you. You can change the conversation from “what do you do?” to “what are you excited about?”. You absolutely can give yourself permission to be kind to yourself.
Disclaimer: The fact that I seem to do better when I’m working should not be taken as anecdotal evidence that “being in work cures depression”. Being busy and making myself useful to people (as Jane Austen would put it) alleviates or distracts me from some of the symptoms. If you are struggling to cope at all then I urge you to be more sensible about it than I have and look up mental health / emotional wellbeing services in your area. The NHS website is a good place to start.