by Jenny Pickerill, Professor of Environmental Geography, University of Sheffield
In light of the recent trend to #ShareYourRejection on twitter, meant as a way to encourage others to persevere in their chosen profession or passion, I was struck by what that really meant in academia. While I know it is good to share our rejections (and I do), my experience of early job rejections means little now. Fourteen years ago, when I applied for my first lectureship, was an entirely different market. Casual teaching posts were rare. I got a permanent lectureship without any articles published, let that sink in for a minute… I secured a permanent academic job in Geography at Leicester University, having never published a journal article.
I did have a book just published and had previously secured a Leverhulme Trust grant to fund my post-doc, but I know that in the current academic job market that would not have enabled me to immediately go on to get an academic job. The bar is so much higher now. The time between PhD and permanent position is about 5 years, at least. But it was not just that it was easier to get a job, but that by gaining a permanent position early I was afforded the opportunity to spend my energy applying for grants and publishing, rather than continuously job hunting and taking on new and different heavy teaching loads every year. I had a stability that few have now. That early stability has radically shaped how I have been able to endure rejection and cope with the changing demands of the job, because I rarely feared my monthly income was at risk.
This is not to say that I did not struggle. I found the early few years of being a lecturer incredibly stressful. I had to take leave for stress, I considered leaving academia, I suffered paralyzing imposter syndrome, and I could not sustain the expected long working hours. Which makes knowing what current ECRs go through all the more distressing, because I had it easy in comparison and yet I still struggled.
This makes the need to improve the current system vital and it makes the need to support ECRs rather than exploit them crucial. I am a Professor now because I had early stability and support. In the current system I would either not be an academic or would be much further down the hierarchy. Those of us in secure senior positions need to improve the current process, support ECRs, reject casual short term posts, not create them in our own funded projects, and don’t give our PhD students irrelevant career advice.
Let’s share our rejections, it helps demystify the idea that everything we do works, but lets only do this by revealing the privileged context we speak from. My success is not just down to trying hard enough. My success is a result of an educational structure of a bygone era. This is not to say academics cannot succeed now, but to acknowledge that rejection is now more common, more destructive and more life-changing. We need new ways to support each other in this new harsher era.