PhD Update 6 – Submission!

Hello, Strangers!

It’s been a while. I’m going to blame the final weeks of my PhD being filled with an overwhelming amount of work and anxiety. The last round of revisions took all of the motivation I had left in me. I wrote this over the past week or so, relishing my relative freedom since submission.

My present freedom is relative, because I have now started in my full-time, non-academic job. I want to be a bit vague on the details, at least in public, but what I can say is that I have a research administration role at a medium-sized university based in Victoria.

With the start of this new job, I am also coming to grips with the death of my academic career, at least in the standard sense. For the last few years, in my head at least, the path was clear, if difficult. I would submit my thesis, keep going for precarious teaching gigs while I build up my publication record, and hope for the best in the Octagon.. er.. I mean the job market. With the onset of the pandemic, as well as a shift in my life priorities, this is no longer of any significant interest to me (I mean, if I got a fancy tenured gig at a good place, sure, but in the real world..).

There are a number of reasons why I changed my mind. Over the past year we’ve all seen the egregious way universities in Australia and elsewhere have reacted to the pandemic. I don’t want to go into the well-documented history of wage-theft, mass-firings, and government-enforced austerity that has rocked the sector here. And it isn’t the case that I wasn’t aware of these problems before – but the pandemic has accelerated the rot in a way that is hard to overlook.

The few job opportunities that I have available in my field are difficult when it comes to planning a life. They are wonderful opportunities – for the kind of person that is willing and able to travel internationally for a 12 or 24 month contract with little or no hope of renewal. My partner had once graciously agreed that if I was to get such a job offer, she’d agree to move with me, but as I get older and my life priorities shift towards wanting stability, I am simply unable to apply for this kind of jobs. I would absolutely love to work with some of the people who are currently advertising post-docs, and I might forever be envious of the people who end up getting these positions. But I have life goals that make me not want to be moving across continents every year or two.

A different aspect of my changing perspective is the somewhat arbitrary nature of success. So much in academia depends on pure luck, manifesting in getting sympathetic reviewers in journals, in getting the right supervisors, in stumbling upon a topic that’ll be hot in the literature, in having the right kind of background to not get in your own way, to be healthy both physically and mentally, etc. And though I have been lucky in many of these ways, the fact that so much of success is outside of your hands, means that even if you are doing absolutely everything right, there’s still no guarantee of a stable gig, or of getting the right publication opportunities. Consider how many brilliant papers get rejected every year, just because of the whims of reviewers.

And no matter what one accomplishes, there is always another grant that needs to be applied for, another paper that needs to be submitted, another round of student assessments that need grading over the weekend, all just to keep one’s head above the water..

With these sort of challenges comes a heavy toll on one’s mental health that manifests itself in many ways. In my case it is a constant anxiety deep in the core of my soul. I have some other stuff going on too, in that regard, that I might discuss better another time. In general though, the constant uncertainty about the future, the constant pressure to keep putting in more work for smaller and smaller rewards, and the inadequacy one can experience at every step, all add up to a number of mental health risks. I am seeing a therapist, which is immensely helpful, and it has made me realise that I don’t value certain parts of the kind of career I had hoped I could have.

It’s not all bad, of course. There are aspects of the academic life that are immensely pleasurable. During my PhD, I got to work on my project for almost four years, during which I could pursue my ideas however I thought was best. I was able to travel to beautiful places to think and discuss my ideas with people who are now my friends. I had the opportunity to teach and to write and to think for a living. I worked with a mentor I consider to be an absolute superstar. And these are the things that attracted me to this kind of career in the first place.

But in the end, I need to worry about myself and my family. I don’t have any family that I can lean on for financial support, so getting by on precarious teaching gigs isn’t much of an option for me. I’m not in a position to travel across continents every year or two while I hope to land a tenure track job. I don’t have an elite pedigree or a superstar’s publication record. The reality is that most doors into academia have closed for me.

All this said though, I don’t feel this is a sad post, or a sad moment in my life.

I have been lucky to get an administrative post at a university which allows me access to a library and the long-term stability I want. My job is interesting and demands the kind of skills one gains during a philosophy PhD program. I work with researchers in fields wildly new to me, so I get to learn about a whole new range of topics. While I won’t ever get the kind of prestige that comes from ever fancier academic titles, I have the resources and time I need to continue my research and other writing projects that matter to me. I even have enough leave at work that if I want to go to a conference or two during the year, I can.

In the short term, I have a few academic projects that I want to see to completion – this includes submitting a few papers and a book proposal based on my thesis. These things can all happen partly because of my new gig, since I have all of the resources I need to do any additional research. I’m most likely to get into the swing of these things after my examiners’ reports come back, but I also have a few things that are expected by editors in the near future that I need to do. Hopefully this means I can share good news about them here soon.

In the medium and long term, I don’t think I can plausibly stop myself from carrying on some sort of research programme along with some sort of writing practice. I have plans to put together some lectures and possibly another long-form research project. Beyond this, over the past year I’ve been increasingly interested in writing short fiction and poetry, as well as in writing philosophy for a more general audience. Without the kinds of pressures that I would face in a teaching and research job, I am able to pursue these projects in whichever direction brings me most joy.

The last year has distilled what’s important to me. And as I’m sure you can gather here – I want to remain able to write, to think, to pursue ideas. An academic career, however, though it can centre those things, has ceased to be the only way I can imagine living this kind of life. And at this point, I am very excited to see how things end.

PhD Update 4: Pandemic Edition

Greetings from the Quarantine.

I’ve been meaning to write an update for a little while now, but honestly I found it hard to articulate my thoughts about life in a pandemic.

Day to day operations in the HQ have not changed much, which isn’t to say there haven’t been many changes.

We’re all struggling.

I’m heartened to see the many positive responses to the pandemic – national governments quickly ditching their nonsensical programs of austerity and extending their social welfare nets, communities coming together online to offer mutual support, etc. After the initial shock and panic buying, this is a nice change.

My problems are minor compared to those of many others – my heart goes out to everyone affected in various ways. I already work primarily from home, so as far as my day-to-day life goes, nothing has changed really. My partner’s job wound down significantly (she’s a florist) – they’re no longer allowing customers into their shop, and there is only ever one employee in at a time with the owner, so my partner is only working one or two days a week (until told they are to close completely). Her boss has announced that he intends to fully support his staff to the best of his ability through the pandemic, which means my partner’s job is safe.

As far as my work goes, the lack of disruption in my normal schedule hasn’t translated into smooth sailing. Like everyone else, I’m suffering from cognitive overload and trying to process the situation. Finishing a PhD under ideal circumstances is hard enough – doing so while under duress is shit.

In the past two weeks I thought I’ve managed to do some solid writing, but as it turned out, most of it went nowhere. I took today off to meet with my supervisor and discuss how to take this chapter forward. To paraphrase Bear Grylls, we must adapt, react, overcome.

Like in many other dire times, I’ve found some relief and pleasant distraction in philosophy. The Monash MAP chapter has started up a reading group on classical Chinese philosophy. We’re following the chapters in Bryan van Norden and Philip Ivanhoe’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy as well as van Norden’s Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy – both of which are excellent and accessible introductions to the topic.

Kongzi (Confucius) wrote that hardship affects everyone, both the ‘gentleman’ and the ‘petty man’ – “The difference is that the petty man, encountering hardship, is overwhelmed by it” (15.2). There are many ways of being overwhelmed, of course. I think however, that if we are to be virtuous, we should turn to looking at why we are feeling the way we are, which will allow for us to overcome our present adversity.

I think for me, it isn’t the pandemic in itself – scary though it is. It is the fact that we live in a kind of political system that not only exacerbated the issue, with decades of cuts to welfare and healthcare systems, with its emphasis on individual rights, and with its disdain for community. The pandemic has, if nothing else, exposed just how shallow all of the arguments for austerity are, and why we can no longer allow for our world to be determined by profits.

I have written up some thoughts on all of this, my short essay is currently with an editor to hopefully get published somewhere with a wider audience (if not, I guess it’ll go up on Medium).

I’m on the hook to review Bruno Lloret’s Nancy (Giramondo, 2020) for 3AM:Magazine. I’m going to submit that soonish, but for now I can say the book is very very good.

I’m also on the hook to write an encyclopaedia entry on Madeline de Scudéry – the manuscript for that is due in May, so I should get started on that. It’ll happen right after the review for 3AM.

In the meantime, here are a few things that you might see here over the next few weeks:

  1. Since I’m the main organiser of the reading group I mention above, I intend to put up some notes for anyone interesting in reading along with us (and also because writing these notes up for an audience will help me remember the material). Expect the first part this coming weekend.
  2. I’ve been slowly putting together a reading list of some books that I think are cool – I want to maintain it here as an ongoing recommendation engine and as something to send to students, those few times a year I get asked for reading recommendations.

Current reading for me: Mo Yan’s Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out
Current reading for work: Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and her and John Norris’ Letters Concerning the Love of God