A little rant about something that happened at work

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!

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9 thoughts on “A little rant about something that happened at work

  1. Gemma, this was a wonderful read. Your post accurately sums up that feeling that so many of us have, and it made me feel good to be understood. Thank you so much for posting this, and thank you so much for being so passionate about your job! Your love for it shines through and academia is so lucky to have you.

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  2. Dear Gemma
    What you write struck a chord with me. I am at the end of my career but it reminded me of its beginning. The reviewer was probably trying to come up with a few more words so the review wouldn’t look to short. In my humble opinion your career will go very well. Prioritising publication will give you plenty of options for where you choose to work. Thank you for your piece. Best wishes Peter

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Gemma, I think you come to the wrong conclusion: maybe you SHOULD quit. I’ve been in a similar situation last year and it almost broke me. Then I realised that academia is just living in a bubble. It is a small part of society. At the same time it is the most toxic environment I have ever worked in. Now, I have a job in the industry and people tell me I’m doing great work. I feel being valued. Still working 50 hours a week, but I get paid for it. Leave academia and seek hapiness somewhere else, because we only have one life and sacrifizing this for science is not worth it.

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  4. Hi Gemma, I’m very sorry to hear about your experience, it sounds awful! I can’t believe you were told that despite the number of hours you have worked! Well done for sharing it, you are very brave.

    I’m also an ECR, and I can understand why you feel like you want to stay on in academia, despite the enormous amount of pressure it is putting on you. I am torn, my heart is telling me to stay in academia but my brain is advising me to flee. I am looking for jobs outside of academia, but atm it appears to be difficult to get my foot in, but I know I need to keep trying. If I had been willing to down the lectureship route (where a permanent position is more likely), I perhaps would have been more likely to stay on, but on short term contracts, with the pressure to get grants and publish, academia is increasingly becoming more and more of a toxic environment.

    Good luck in whatever you decide to do, but please do prioritize and look after your physical and mental health.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gemma, thank you for having the courage to write this and fortunately for the rest of us to share it openly. I have been studying personal resilience for the past year as part of a new role I have in my organisation. The subject is far more complex than I realised when I started 13 months ago. It is also not exactly what I thought it was either. Like many I expect I forsaw resilience to be about being tough, strong, impenetrable and so on. As I work in the Military it is perhaps not surprising that I had been almost conditioned to think this way.

    I am not arrogant or skilled enough (yet) to even begin to dissect your situation in resilience terms. However, I am confident that your passion, supportive partner and even one day an affectionate cat all provide you with protection that you may not have noticed. If resilience is about bouncing back (and maybe even growing as a person because of the experience) then it already sounds like this is happening for you. Your job gives you and your life real meaning. That sustains you. As a result it is understandable to feel knocked back by such insenstitive apprasials. However, aligned to your strong relationships and sense of purpose, the meaming you draw from your work will allow you to prevail…

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  6. A very, very long time ago, I read an internal report on a job application which said something like ‘We gave X a starred First, which was richly deserved, but I didn’t then think of X as a high flyer.’ This made me realise that I would never make the grade in academia, so I got out, and have never regretted it!

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  7. Gemma you’re totally right and you shared what must of us are experiencing. However, I would like to add something. Once you become a mother and give full time for your kid, it’s game over. You can be the smartest (and in general women are smarter than men because they want do understand before showing off) it does not matter. On my floor in my previous lab there was only one woman PI. No kid no attachment. Think about it. This job requires a lot of flexibility which you lose when you have a baby. Unless you made this baby alone or with a partner who is keen to follow you anywhere with no career perspective. My advice if the lab you’re in is rich and comfortable enough to keep you forever and allow you some freedom, stay there as long as you can.

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