Why don’t we acknowledge the long-term unemployed researcher, asks Michelle Newman
I recently read an article discussing how mental health in academia is taboo. While this is likely to be true, I feel that there is another area that encounters silence — the long-term unemployed academic.
The dilemma of the postdoc and early career researcher is nothing new, and has been written about again and again. From an economic standpoint, more PhD students mean greater productivity. The question in the past has been, “What do we do with all the postdocs?” It has been suggested (and in reality is quite obvious) that having a PhD isn’t tied to long-term employment because hiring is based on the amount of research funding available, and there is no need to offer permanent positions due the constant influx of ‘fresh’ graduates. So this means the question should be: “How do we help the researchers who are (still) unemployed?”
As a postdoc who worked as a research assistant for many years prior to undertaking a PhD, I was no stranger to the plight of the postdoc. What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional rollercoaster I experienced over my impending, and currently ongoing, unemployment. What I experienced, I realised, was grief.
At the heart of the grieving process was my sudden lack of identity. As I transitioned from denying that I would be unemployed, to throwing myself into applications, emailing contacts, attending networking and career events, I began to question whether I had actually ever been a ‘real scientist’. Was I seen as a scientist? Was that why I hadn’t found a job? Imposter syndrome, questioning whether you know your topic and whether someone will call you out, is not unknown to academics. In truth, constantly questioning our work is at the heart of the scientific process, but being unable to secure employment added crippling feelings of failure, shame, and guilt to my imposter syndrome. One article on understanding grief associated with job loss summed up my feelings nicely: “…if a loss cannot be easily integrated into one’s existing sense of self, it represents a significant threat to one’s self-worth and sense of self in the world.”
Recently, I spoke to an academic who conducted a study (unpublished at the time of writing) into understanding why researchers leave academia. People from a number of different disciplines and career stages replied. Overall, the study found a lot of common ground. Respondents had issues around self-identification, feelings of ‘abandoning a sinking ship’ or of just ‘giving up.’ Given that grief is also a response to a change in the sense of self and self-worth, based on the perception of economic security and social identity, these responses are not surprising. The overall desire of the people participating in the study was to have their voices heard, highlight the problems, and to also offer hope. The participants were aware of the emotional toll of being an unemployed researcher, and wanted to reassure others that it is not a reflection on your skills or your CV.
In terms of research and academia, it is clear that there isn’t a support system in place for those experiencing ongoing unemployment. I read one article by a PhD graduate struggling to find work which said that job agencies were not equipped for dealing with the specialised nature of academic employment. This has certainly been my experience — I was advised by a job agency to “just continue with what you are doing.” When I asked what else I could do, the reply was, “I don’t know. I have never dealt with a scientist before.” To me, this sums up how insular research and academic employment is. How can you help someone if you don’t understand how the system works?
The meeting left me with feelings of hopelessness. Added to this has been the ‘helpful advice’ from friends and family who are not familiar with research, which actually just makes me feel like I am not trying hard enough.
I am not sure whether I have quite accepted my situation yet, but I have come to the conclusion that failing to acknowledge that there is an emotional toll is detrimental. But talking to other scientists who are unemployed and struggling to find work — who understand — has reduced the emotional stress.
Academia needs to acknowledge that there is an emotional toll of long-term unemployment. A toll that arises from the stress of seeing the gap between publications increase, feeling that your career is disappearing, to feelings of shame, or that it is a reflection on your skills as a researcher. In part this is due to a lack of dedicated support services created by those who have a true understanding of academia and research. It is time that we started addressing the need for these services.
Michelle Newman is a postdoc currently navigating the job market and dabbling in scientific writing on her blog. When she is not searching for interesting things to write about, she can be found weaving through the streets on her bicycle.