I've technically been unemployed for the same three months of the year for the last five years. It seems to be the nature of the new academic, the average academic anyway, that there are years of this in-between-ness before obtaining an ongoing position (I want to say 'tenure' but it's not tenure in the US use of the term). It's a state described well this The Higher Education article on para-academia or the 'casual periphery', where you have the full responsibilities but little of the stability of your colleagues.
The bureaucracy of the university has essentially given me a series of 9-10 month contracts (Feb-Nov), slotting just neatly around the teaching semesters and a little left over to cover the exam periods. This effectively shuts me out of university policy to "upgrade" to an ongoing position after three years because I haven't been working continuously over that three year period. Loophole.
Instead of the promised land of an ongoing position, I have self-funded holidays imposed upon me each Christmas season because the university doesn't want to pay me to do research. Three months that I save for each year to keep our family afloat. Three months out of every twelve that mean we never really get ahead - we simply keep treading water.
But this year is different.
This year it feels like unemployment. It feels more and more intense and scary as these three months tick past and our savings drain away because the promised contract hasn't arrived. And it's not going to. Not this time. Instead of another fractional appointment or a full-time load, I've been offered a half-handful of casual hours - not even enough to make up a day but just enough to cover the cost of a day's worth of childcare. To be honest, the offer made me feel like a whipped dog, crawling back to its master because I want to take it; I want to grab at whatever crumbs they're giving me because I don't know where else to go or what else to do.
So I've been applying for jobs.
I've been fiddling with my CV, and writing cover letters and long pages addressing the key selection criteria. I've been applying for academic jobs at other universities for which I am well suited and moderately well-experienced for, and for local and state government jobs that I'm qualified for but lacking in experience, and 'real world' jobs for which I am infinitely over-qualified but terrifically under-experienced. I've been shortlisted and pipped at the post and I've been ignored and outright rejected.
I've applied to study, taking up my back-up plan.
And I've been accepted. Full time study by distance doesn't scare me but the arrangements for the compulsory practical components (five weeks in the first semester) are next to impossible to fit around academic work and looking after my boy. We aren't eligible for government support (Austudy or Family Tax Benefit payments) because I've already earned too much this financial year (ironies). So I might have to decline or defer. Or we'd need to move far, far out of the city where the rents are cheaper, doubling or tripling Lovely Husband's daily commute and losing any time with his boy during the working week.
I know this all sounds a bit whiney. I want to work. I love my job. I just wish someone would be willing to pay me to do it. A lot of these are first-world problems and pretty luxurious ones at that. But these are the problems I've got at the moment. The ones that keep me awake at night (literally) and make it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Through all of this, I feel inordinantly lucky and panicked at the same time. We have our belts cinched in but we aren't struggling to breathe, not yet. We've done this three month stint before; I've worked shit jobs before to make ends meet. But the closer to the start of semester we come, the more I worry I'll miss the boat - and that's half a year to wait for the next round of work. The closer to the start of the semester we come, the more I feel like a failure that I haven't been able to pull the rabbit out of the hat this year. The closer to the start of the semester we come, the more I feel like my life isn't going to be measured by semesters for much longer.
I'm looking for advice and answers and solutions instead of all the problems I keep seeing. I'm tired of only seeing the problems. So my questions are these:
- How long do you hold on to or hold out for the job you love before you give it up?
- Where does one go from academia? What's next?
- How do you move on without feeling like a failure?