“Nobody goes to the grave happy having spent their life working all the time”

Cross posted from the Boundary Objects’ blog.

Someone said to me the other day, “nobody goes to their grave happy having spent their life working all the time.” As an aspiring, early career academic, I found myself instantly disagreeing.  All my work related aspirations rely on the basic principle that I am willing to do a lot of work, in a short time for little or no pay. Because doing so, being active, allows me to hear that one sentence I hate to love; “This will help you get a permanent academic job”.

For every hourly pay I get as a part time teacher at the university there are three unpaid working hours. For every one project I get paid for, there are two I’m doing on my own time and my own dime. Never has this been as true as now, three weeks before the end of the school semester. Student emails and requests have doubled, I have student projects to mark, questions to answer, papers to write, projects to finish, classes to prepare for, books to read, revisions, meetings and transcriptions. The list goes on and on. I haven’t even started on the list of things I should be doing, like networking, sending proposals, job applications, grant applications, doing talks and interviews. The third list would be my social responsibilities, but that one has been lost to dust and forgetfulness on top of an old abandoned cupboard in my mind. Yet, I consider myself one of the lucky ones.

Perhaps I’m suffering from a severe case of academic Stockholm syndrome, but I am one of those people who, mostly, loves what they do. I enjoy teaching museum studies at the University of Iceland. It is satisfying when you start noticing that students are responding to your lectures and taking an active part in class discussions. Thinking about my talks outside the classroom. That moment you can almost hear the clicking noise when the light-bulb goes on in the students’ brains. Some of the greatest compliments I have received as an academic come from my students, when they come up to me and say “I was walking along the other day and noticed something that made me think of the lecture you gave in class last week”. Because that sentence means that the long hours staying up late, trying to make up an interesting and beneficial lesson plan, all those hours reading the materials and making presentations were worth it. I have finally crossed that line from student to educator. From sitting in the chair at the back of the classroom, to standing at the front sharing my academic interests with a classroom.

By not saying no to anyone I have created quite the chaos for myself this winter. And during all the worst, longest hours, that one sentence about life being too short to work hard has been repeatedly ringing in my mind. Was I wrong? Did I make the wrong choice by spending four years working hard for a PhD and countless hours since trying to build up an academic career? Am I, in fact, any closer to getting a permanent academic job at all?

I can’t really answer that last question fully. I have received a two year post-doctoral grant from the University of Iceland, allowing me to continue my doctoral research, expanding it in ways I wanted to but didn’t have time or space to do during my studies. Perhaps that is a sign of good things to come. For me, it was at least an acknowledgement that I was not always at the ‘bottom of the pile’ for these grants. It meant that at least one of the dozens of things I have been involved in, have been seen by others as beneficiary in some way. As something worth looking into and doing. That is one reason why I continue to pull up my coat collar and keep walking against the wind, determined to get somewhere.

Back to the other questions, did I waste my time? Will I look back at my life and mourn those years I lost to hard work? What will stand out from this transitional time in my life? The hours of anxiety when I feared I’d be in academic limbo for the rest of my life? I hope not. I hope I will never lose sight of what I’m actually doing and why.

I have been on the job market more or less since I was about 16 years old. I have worked in all kinds of places, doing all kinds of things. I have worked with people that made work feel fun rather than a chore as well as people who made fun into a chore. I have worked night shifts, day-shifts and evening shifts. All these jobs have one thing in common; I was always waiting for my real job, for that permanent job I’d keep until I retire and discover Alice Cooper was right; golf is not a terrible waste of time. I can also reveal, quite confidently, that no matter how short the shifts, although perhaps longer, my free time was no more rewarding than the few, short social interactions I have with friends and family today. I will always have moments of stress, distress and doubt, but at the end of the day, I go to bed happy in the knowledge that I am working hard to reach that golden gate that is a professorship.

But have I really crossed that line from student to academic? It is quite clear to me that I am no longer a student, those days are firmly over. Yet, I am clearly not a fully-fledged academic yet either. In the words of Johnny Cash, “I walk the line.”

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