The years after finishing my doctorate were challenging because it seemed to get harder to work out what I needed to do next. Initially, the path seemed fairly clear, if daunting: write applications for postdoctoral funding, apply for jobs, and publish. And yet all of these goals seemed to have a disconcerting habit of moving as I approached them: the first funding application I wrote was a continuation of my doctoral project. This seemed like a good idea at the time: there were (and are) productive ways of building on that piece of research. But although the project was a good idea, the particular skill set needed to do it wasn’t really mine, and it didn’t fit me the way the PhD project had. I could see why that proposal wasn’t successful, but didn’t yet have a new idea I wanted to pursue.
At this point, I started to feel a bit lost, a feeling exacerbated by a spell away from academic work through family illness, and the frustrating silence with which the various job applications I sent off were met. This was tiring, and produced quite a lot of self doubt, which was even more tiring (what if it’s not the parlous state of the job market? What if it’s you?). There were, however, some things that helped. Most important was the support I had from my former supervisor, and the practical form it took: she was kind enough to put my name forward to write a piece for someone else’s book project in her place. This was a confidence boost (look, someone has faith!) and, even better, a practical task that I could tackle. This is something Graham Harman expresses very well in his posts on the writing process, which I’ve found extraordinarily helpful, especially this one and this. Harman argues for the value of saying ‘yes’ to invitations as far as is humanly possible, because the work that comes out of that is easier: you have motivation (you don’t want to let anyone down, especially if you like the person you’re working for), and you have parameters. Rather than the intangible expanse of infinite possibility, you know that you’re writing something that serves a clearly delimited purpose: it’s a practical problem. And, happily, this kind of writing can also lead elsewhere: the thing I wrote gave me the idea that turned into my current research project, which got me an early career research fellowship and, a little later, a job.
The other major thing that helped was practical advice about how to turn the thesis into a book, with the revelatory suggestion that it’s possible to send out a book proposal without sample chapters. I did this, and the first press I sent it to asked for sample chapters, at which point I asked for six weeks to write them (I was advised that this should be fine, and the press didn’t bat an eyelid). This way of approaching the book was so helpful because it made the project feel like something someone else – a real someone else, not a theoretical audience – wanted, making it easier to write, and putting it within a finite time frame. It gave the whole thing impetus. That press didn’t take the book in the end, but the second one did.
If I did get a job, at last, that wasn’t the cure for my post-PhD malaise; it was a symptom of the productivity that came from focusing on what I could do where I was, rather than the very real anxieties and problems I couldn’t fix directly. I also thought about whether or not I wanted to do the things I could do where I was, and the answer was a qualified yes: there were a couple of particular projects, and a set period of time. Beyond that, there were things I wanted that I wasn’t prepared to trade for the uncertain chance of a job in the field, and the security that came from knowing that I’d established limits of my own helped me to do the work I wanted.
Elizabeth Elliott is lecturer in English at the University of Aberdeen. She got her PhD in 2006.