Confessions of an unemployed academic


I have had versions of this post topic rattling around in my brain for many months. There are various reasons for me not writing it but ironically probably the biggest one is that I am unemployed.

My story goes like this: I had a position as an assistant professor in Sweden that came with a 4 year contract with no extension possibilities unless I was to bring in my own salary from grant money. Long story short, I applied for grants and other jobs over the 4 years and didn’t get funded or a permanent position. So in January this year the money ran out and I was officially without a paid position. It has been a complicated year since then with a mix of good and bad. Looking back some things have gone as I thought while others were unexpected. Here’s somewhat random list of some of my confessions.

I stayed home. I live a commute away from my university and although I was able to keep my office I didn’t go there as much as I thought I would. I knew it would be good for my mental health to be around people but because it is a commute it became a different equation to justify going in. Without a position it felt like I should contribute more to our daily life as well and my commuting takes a toll on the family because it means my husband does most of the dropping off/picking up of our girl. So with the balance shifted it became easier to just not go. Once I didn’t have a monthly bus pass going every now and again felt like a financial cost. Isolation is tough but

I wrote less than I planned. I had a bit of a daydream that the months I was unemployed would mean that I would have time to write up manuscripts I’ve been meaning to get to. It didn’t happen. Without a position my priorities shifted. Although I had also spent time applying for money, applying for positions and interviewing while I had my position these activities became even more urgent when I didn’t. I know that another manuscript published would help any application but my own work got pushed to the bottom of the priority list. So writing to get my own data didn’t happen although papers I am a co-author on happened because there were other people depending on me.

I didn’t blog. This one surprised me but in retrospect it really shouldn’t have. I consider blogging to be an important but extra thing that I do so I thought I would take the opportunity to blog more without the demands or expectations of a position. I found it didn’t work that way for a few reasons. First, blogging here is about academia, teaching etc and true or not I felt on the outside of all of that. Sure I was still doing a lot of the same things I’d always been doing but I wasn’t inspired to write about them in the same way. Plus without my daily bus commute where I could often write, I didn’t have the same structure and time for writing here.

I was conflicted about what to do with my time. On the one hand I know very well what I need to do to succeed in an academic career, even if I can appreciate that doing those things doesn’t guarantee a career. But on the other hand I don’t have much experience outside of academia and what is needed to have a career there. I felt the pressure to use this year both to improve my academic CV as well as explore non-academic routes for a career. This internal conflict made it more difficult to know what I should be prioritizing. I think this pull was a contributing factor to not getting any of my own manuscript writing done. I did spend time doing both things but of course being pulled in different directions meant I was probably less effective in both.

I didn’t do any Victorian science. Another daydream was that I might do a little experimenting like Darwin although I am not arrogant enough to think my science would equal his. But I thought I could do some more urban surveys in my city or putter around with some backyard science and I always liked how he involved his kids. I enjoy fieldwork when I do it but I didn’t choose to do any fieldwork this summer. For me it turns out that uncertainty makes it difficult to focus on independent studies like I could have done. I was too focused on getting the next gig, being pulled in multiple directions and feeling like I should also write up old data. Maybe if I was independently weathly it would have been different but I am not. I need a job.

I just heard back from one of the grants I applied for and thankfully got funded. I have a job! Now that I know the end to the story (at least in the short term) it is a little easier to reflect on my unemployment. There were a number of things that helped keep me sane through this time.

Twitter and facebook. I wrote last week that these kinds of contacts have helped me too much to give them up and it is true. I was honest about my unemployment and received lots of support and advice when I needed it (for job interviews for example). Twitter is also a great place to just keep in touch with the cool science that is going on and checking in there reminded me of why I am a scientist in the first place.

Real life contacts. Social contact is important and of course friends and family have helped keep me balanced (they might disagree that I was J). But seeing colleagues also has reminded me that I am a part of something bigger. I spent May and June hired back by the university to teach and that schedule helped break up the year. I also attended a few conferences and took a course. Support and understanding from those who really know the system was a real booster for me and hearing that people appreciate what I do is really nice.

Having a diversity of people. My twitter feed isn’t limited to research intensive academics and neither is the rest of my life. It was helpful to me to hear others stories and see alternative ways of being involved with science. There is a lot of inspiration out there and although I didn’t find my perfect non-academic path I was starting to see possibilities. Knowing that other people struggle is also helpful and is part of the reason I don’t just post about successes.

Giving myself a break. This was the toughest thing and I probably failed at it. I did try to be kind to myself and not spend the time beating myself up about the position I was in. Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon to experience breaks and I’m not alone.

Getting back to things I enjoy. I’ve read a lot more fiction this year than I often do and that has been great. I’ve also been knitting and gardening more. I took a lot of bike rides with my girl this summer too. I hope I can maintain some of that balance when my position picks up again in the new year.

Being open about it. I decided that I wouldn’t hide my unemployment. I had a couple reasons. First, it felt weird to hide my status although I didn’t always bring it up. I’m not sure whether this was a wise strategy or not, especially in my job interviews. I guess it could seem like I was not as strong a candidate but since I have a hard time being particularly clever about that sort of thing it was just easier to be honest. The second reason is that I think the gap between positions is rarely discussed in academia and it shouldn’t be a shameful thing. Quite a few people I talked to had some stage when things didn’t work out perfectly and they were unemployed. There is a part of me that does feel ashamed that I failed to secure something at the right time and that I was unemployed but I try to fight that. One way to fight my own feelings of failure was not hiding the fact that I was unemployed.

I should note that the only reason that I have been able to spend the year mostly unemployed and searching for the next thing is that I have a supportive partner and a supportive government. So as I’ve taken time to travel all over for interviews and write grants and applications I have not been without a salary (although it is reduced). However, I was about to get a lot more invested in a non-academic career if nothing came through this year. Facing down the unemployment insurance money running out meant that this was a real possibility for me. Truthfully I am so happy I get to do academic science for a while longer because I do love it.

Do you have an unemployment story? How did you get through it?

5 thoughts on “Confessions of an unemployed academic

  1. Thanks for sharing your story and offering some advice and insights into that situation. I was in it too, and may face it again soon. I think it’s healthy to get the words out of your head, but also to let others know that they’re not alone. Very nice post!

  2. We need to hang out again soon – thanks for this – jz

  3. Your experience matches my own, albeit more than a decade ago. I had the generous use of a university office and computer, and convinced myself that this period of unemployment would be a great opportunity to write more, publish more, and do all the things that people with demanding schedules struggle to fit in (one academic even opined that I was ‘lucky’). In the event I discovered that having more free time meant that I accomplished less. My focus evaporated. This was particularly bad for my mental health because I felt that there were no excuses to fall back on. Luckily I fell into one of the opportunities that crops up if you hang around a university department for long enough trying to make yourself useful, and that was the fillip needed to get me back on track.

    The lesson from this is, sadly, that in order to stay in academia, you might sometimes need reserves or support to fall back on. Many people don’t. To my mind this is one of the biggest unrecognised filters preventing those from some backgrounds from forging a career in academic science. It’s analagous to island hopping in biogeography; those that make it across are a non-random subset. Well done for making it to the next step, and good luck!

  4. Thanks for sharing this. I lost my soft money job (an autocratic director in a “right-to-work” state in the USA can terminate you without cause at any time). I believe I’m being blackballed by that same director. This was about 6 months before I was to get married abroad. In that 6 months the program manager of my three government grants failed to respond to dozens of e-mails and phone calls on how long I had to find a new position without losing my grants. And I was too upset and ashamed to share my unemployment situation with more than a half dozen of my closest friends and colleagues. Eventually I emigrated to my new husband’s country and got a university job there. In general university positions in his country are much less prestigious and less secure. Because of my new immigrant status I didn’t have the support system you reference. Next year I’ll apply for more competitive jobs in North America or Europe, hoping the gap looks like a valuable experience in diversity and a waiting game for my husband’s visa. I can say keeping things quiet has probably lost some opportunities and definitely support. But given my circumstances it’s easy to chalk up the change to personal circumstances. I wonder how harmful a gap really is in academia???

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