Ellie Mackin, who has over the last few months been posting a series of thoughtful and helpful articles on ‘Post-PhD Life’ on the jobs.ac.uk blog, has written a very honest, brave and moving piece called Falling at the Last Hurdle, about the experience of post-interview rejection: so near and yet so far, doing all you can and it’s still not quite enough – or, it’s something about you personally that isn’t right. She offers wise advice on how to learn from the experience by seeing it not as a waste of effort and preparation but as practice for next time – but is also entirely open about the emotional side of things:
Let yourself cry, if that’s your style. Let yourself feel rubbish, and eat ice-cream, and lay in bed watching reruns of House. And then, pick yourself up and make the next application, next interview better. You’ll get the job you’re meant to get, and so will I.
Discussing her willingness to admit how much the rejection hurt, Ellie observes that “I know I cannot be the only person who has cried after not getting a job they were invested in getting. Or even one they were less invested in getting.” Yes, definitely, and what I haven’t said as yet to her or anyone besides my wife and close friends is: me too. Apart from the bit about House. I prefer Community as comfort viewing.
Why haven’t I admitted this in public? It’s not that Big Professors Don’t Cry – okay, to be strictly accurate, I generally reserve my crying for sick and dying cats, but I do know the feeling of rejection all too well. I’ve held back from expressing full solidarity with Ellie’s post in part because of a wish not to advertise to current colleagues that I’m seeking to abandon them – I’m very conscious of the fact that having a loudly or even quietly disaffected person in a department can be disruptive and depressing for everyone else, and of the risk that it might look like a passive-aggressive means of demanding special privileges.
But still more significant is the fact that the feelings of colleagues actually are something I have to worry about in this situation – that is to say, my response to failure and rejection is cushioned by the fact that I have a permanent position, even if for various reasons I fancy a different one (mostly, the simple fact that I’ve been there for twenty years and feel that it’s time for a change), and hence ongoing relationships with colleagues. Expressing solidarity and empathy with those who are struggling desperately for a one-year or even ten-month position, any such position, because the alternative is unemployment and academic limbo, and who would dearly love to have colleagues with whom they can develop relationships, could reasonably be seen as bloody cheek.
I am painfully aware of how lucky I’ve been in career terms – not least, the fact that I started on this path twenty-odd years ago, before casualisation and insecurity became such a theme. Yes, I got rejected from numerous Oxbridge JRF competitions without a moment’s thought (but that’s not me, it’s them…), but I then got a temporary teaching position in my very first interview, and a year later got my position at Bristol in my second ever interview. They don’t come much jammier. Of course, this does mean that, twenty years on, I’m distinctly short of the right sort of experience and resilience to deal with rejection.
Actually I find the rejection less bad than the waiting-to-be-rejected; the former is something concrete that can be dealt with, eventually, whereas in the latter situation one’s spirit is gnawed away by uncertainty. To quote John Cleese in Clockwise: It’s not the despair. I can handle the despair. It’s the hope… (Incidentally, this state of limbo is the encoded theme of my post on J.G.Ballard and time from two years ago, though I’ll readily admit that this isn’t immediately obvious to anyone who wasn’t aware of the context in which it was written).
One might produce a version of the Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grief’ thing for the emotional roller coaster at such times. Denial: yes, I know it’s been nearly a week and they said they’d be in touch in a couple of days, but maybe their Dean’s been too busy or the external assessor has been ill. Anger, mostly self-directed: how could I have been so stupid in my answer to that question, I hate this stupid profession, it’s Not Fair. Bargaining: I’ll sort out my eReserves for next year’s teaching well ahead of the deadline – and Fate will notice and I won’t need them after all. Depression: ’nuff said.
The obvious problem is that this isn’t a linear progression from stage to stage, but an unpredictable lurching backwards and forwards between different emotional states, trying to edge towards Acceptance but constantly falling back into Denial (okay, it’s over a week, so they’ve definitely offered it to someone else, but that person obviously hasn’t accepted yet so maybe there’s a chance their current university will make them a better offer and the whole thing will be wide open again…) and the rest. You can have a productive session with students or a nice conversation with some colleagues, and start to feel, hey, actually it isn’t so bad to be staying here – but this doesn’t last. It’s the hope; danger’s comforter, a perilous and misleading thing (as the Athenians observed to the Melians), but something apparently impossible to expunge fully from the human psyche.
Because, I suppose, occasionally it turns out to be justified. When I started thinking about these ideas last week, it was a means of trying to push myself towards the Acceptance stage more quickly; and, as noted above, I wasn’t planning to advertise to colleagues that I have been dallying with other possibilities, so this was something I expected to remain private. I’m publishing it now because I’ve got lucky again, and will at the end of the summer be moving to Exeter. It’s incredibly exciting – and of course the fact I’m going to be leaving allows a new, less jaded perspective on how lucky I’ve been to work with some truly fabulous and interesting people over the last twenty years in Bristol.
But it does mean that expressing solidarity with the miseries of insecurity and rejection for ECRs may now seem not so much cheeky as downright insulting. So will someone please hurry up and give Ellie a job?