after the smoke has cleared

Well, it’s been a minute, hasn’t it? Futures Brought to Life in Vienna (on which more anon) seems like it happened aeons ago, but it also somehow seems like between now and then I’ve achieved next to nothing of note. This, to be clear, is entirely a matter of appearances, an effortless self-deception; I’ve done a bunch of stuff since then, and I have the receipts to prove it! I’ve just not done anywhere near all the stuff that I had planned to do since then.

I’m not sure who the Craig that authors this blog actually is, other than knowing he’s one of the Mark Fisher disciples; people don’t seem much interested in having an ‘about’ page these days, which I suppose might be a wise move with regard to employability in the UK in academic-adjacent spaces. But this post of tips regarding surviving the PhD process reminded me very much of my own doctoral experience, and also of a joke which exists in various forms, but which boils down to something like this:

Every PhD is by definition unique, but the one thing every doctoral researcher learns, regardless of field or discipline, is what burn-out looks like from the inside.

Har har har… and yeah, #notalldoctoralcandidates, hell knows some folk just cruise on through, whatever. Point being, burn-out is pretty common, and I sure as shit had a serious case back in The Year Of The Corrections Twice… though the thing is, you don’t really recognise it as such. All you know is that, while there may or may not be any obvious major physical pathology going on, you’re simply incapable of doing stuff, up to and including thinking straight.

Having burn-out once means you recognise it much easier the second time. I’m told it also increases the odds of there being a second time, though whether that’s some causal mechanism or simply indicative of a propensity to push oneself too hard and take on more than you have the capacity for, I dunno, ask a doctor. (The other sort of doctor.)

So I know I hit the skids again on my return from Vienna; I recognised (and, for a little while, refused to acknowledge) that complete incapacity to do anything, and kept trying to do it anyway. There are factors in the mix beyond personal decisions, I suspect; an asymptomatic rematch with the ‘rona seems plausible, given L____ and others around me had their own bouts around that time, or perhaps my not having really stopped working since the OG encounter back in January contributed to tipping me onto my arse and holding me there. But causality’s just narrative, anyway. Point is, I had a few weeks in May when I couldn’t even write. I mean, I could move the pencil across a page and form words, sentences even, but there was no animation to them, no flow; it was a purely mechanical operation, devoid of any thought beyond anxiety and self-recrimination.

And it was terrifying, frankly.

I mean, sure, warn me about overidentifying with my work under late-late capitalism; I’ll hear you and nod along, but writing isn’t just my work, it is my art. It is the thing I do—the thing from which all the other stuff I do, for money or for pleasure or for both, springeth. It is, for better or for worse, what I am. And to not be able to do it was… well, I want to say like losing a limb, but that’s an ableist metaphor, innit? So say instead it was like losing a major skill through which I understand and construct my sense of self, and leave it there, I guess. Lacks poetry, perhaps, but who needs poetry anymore, amirite?

That bad patch, which seems mostly to be over—but which has displayed a remarkable aptitude for coming back through the door, saying “And another thing…”, when I thought it had buggered off for good—may have been amplified by my being forced to drop some commitments to write things (which pushes the SHAME button real hard for me, because reasons), and my receiving some difficult and disappointing bits of news regarding my attempts to get past the postdoctoral bottleneck. On the other hand, it may be that the impact of those bits of news was made worse by the physiological circumstances. (Again, ask a doctor.)

All of the job applications I spent the whole of January writing have—finally—come back with a “thanks but no thanks”. Yes, that’s a five month wait, which is pretty standard for bottom-rung faculty positions in Swedish academia. Hiring a new HOD can take three years, by which time the candidate has quite frequently secured another job of equal or better pay and stature elsewhere. Everyone concedes that this is a crazy way of doing things, and no one can change it. Selah.

There’s a few other applications still in the pipe, and some apparently serious prospect of some budgetary hoopla extending my current project (due to finish at the end of September) by another six months. Which means I should be thinking about the next couple of big-ticket grant applications, which will be due for submission early next year.

And I’m looking at that prospect—the prospect of a couple of extra months of full-time labour on top of what I’m actually contracted to do, which will translate to a couple of d20 dice-rolls in which a critical hit is the only chance of getting through to the interview or second review stage—and I’m looking at the fucking state I’ve been in over the last six weeks or so, and I’m thinking maybe it’s time I took a good long look at the sunk cost fallacy.

I love the work I get to do in academia, but I’m not sure I can survive the extra work required to get to be allowed to do the work I love. Factor in the flipside of having been lucky with research-focussed postdoc positions (namely zero formal teaching experience, meaning that in many ways a freshly-minted PhD from the Swedish system has the advantage over me on more than the language question) and, well, yeah. Part of my brain says, brightly—hopefully, even!— “you’ve gotta roll a 20 eventually, right?” The other part—the part that is middle-aged and tired, and has spent the last fifteen years hustling its way from being an unemployable no-one to being whatever the hell it is I am now—says “the house always wins in the long run”.

Which is a typically long-winded way of saying, to myself and the sparsely populated void that is this website, that I’m starting to think about reassessing my mid- to long-term goals. Staying in Sweden is non-negotiable, for assorted quality-of-life reasons. But all the rest is up for debate.

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