The internal review of my first grant application (which I’m really enjoying writing and am really excited about) said my track record was “very good, not excellent, but that’s not a problem at this stage”. It has taken me a few days to decide it’s ok for me to be upset about this.
My initial reaction was “quiet moodiness” (one of my faves) while I told myself to be more “resilient”, because that’s what we’re supposed to be, right? That’s academia. They said “very good”. You can’t take “not excellent” as an insult. Get over yourself.
Then I accidentally cried all over Rob’s shoulder a few minutes before we had to go for a meal with his parents. (Dried my eyes, re-did my mascara, fake smiled at my “not excellent” self in the mirror to check it looked real, and off we went… resilience!)
I slept on it, I felt better, I stopped caring so much, I slept on it again, and now I feel I have some clarity on why I was (at least initially) upset. And why it’s ok to be upset by this.
When you put everything you have into a job. Everything. So that sometimes you don’t sleep properly for months, because if you wake up in the middle of the night, you spend the rest of the night thinking about work.
When you look forward to weekends when you have nothing planned, because that means you can get more work done.
When you leave work at 10 or 11pm, because you were genuinely too “in to it” to leave earlier. Then you get home and work some more.
When you’re 33 and you can’t afford to buy any sort of home, let alone even consider having kids. You haven’t even got a cat, and you REALLY want a cat.
Basically, when you’re constantly making huge sacrifices for your job, because you bloody LOVE your job…
To be told that all those sacrifices and all your hard work, enthusiasm and passion have left you with a track record that is “not excellent” is… deflating.
What else was I supposed to do? In the 4 years since I finished my PhD, how many more papers was I supposed to write? How much harder was I supposed to try? Who is trying harder than me? How can I be like them? How can I be “excellent” too? Is this person ok? Do they have a life outside of work? In what other ways is this annoying prick better than me? I bet they’re married with a nice house and a cat. The reviewer said “not excellent”, BUT, “this isn’t a problem at this stage”. So what does this mean? If I can just improve my track record, I can be considered “excellent” too… Except that would involve working harder, sleeping less, spending less time with my family and friends, running less, eating less, crying more… It’s just not an option.
It made me seriously consider giving up my job, because this is all I can do, I don’t have more energy reserves to throw at this. I’ve failed at academia. Not resilient enough. Not excellent enough.
Once I’d finished looking for jobs at PHE and I’d filled in an online career matching questionnaire (that told me I should be an intelligence officer for MI5, or a university lecturer), I considered that the reviewer might have meant that I just hadn’t had time to accrue an “excellent” track record. Which is fair. I’d wholeheartedly agree. They even said “but this isn’t a problem at this stage”. Which is fine, but then, if they are taking into account that I only finished my PhD 4 years ago, why did they even need to tell me that my track record is not (yet) excellent? What can I do with this information? How is this constructive feedback?
The internal review system, which is requested by the funder and designed to make sure the university doesn’t put forward an embarrassingly crap proposal, is not, presumably, supposed to make candidates with a “very good” track record feel like they should give up on their career. But that’s what it did to me.
And yes, maybe I’m especially sensitive and emotionally unhinged and not resilient enough and I read too much into one comment and maybe I even misinterpreted what it meant.
But crucially, I know LOTS of other people (mainly women) in academia who would respond EXACTLY like this, and that makes thoughtless, unconstructive comments on our careers a barrier to our progression. We’re perfectionists. That’s what makes us good at our jobs, and that’s why you should care about not losing us.
A couple of days after receiving the reviewer comments, I have, thankfully (I don’t want to work in MI5), realised I shouldn’t quit academia. This person doesn’t know me, and actually (like Rob and Mum always say 💕), I AM excellent. I was the first in my family to go to university. I worked bloody hard to get here, and I did it the difficult, financially crippling way while dealing with a lot of other “life shit”. The idea that I’m not resilient enough is pretty laughable. Got resilience coming out me ears, mate.
If I had a conclusion or a good way to end this rant (I don’t), it would be that reviewers, and in fact anyone offering feedback on a colleague’s or a student’s hard work, should be considerate of the emotional investment that person has probably made. Feedback should inspire someone to make their work better, not leave them feeling deflated, worthless and ready to quit.
That’s right, this has nothing to do with running, it’s very out of place on this infrequent blog about infrequent running, but I don’t have a blog exclusively for rants about work things, so it’s here. Soz!