This is a cut and paste of a Twitter thread, which I want to save here because my tweets autodelete after 3 months.
Here are some thoughts regarding finding out that I’m #autistic, the way I approach my ‘obsession with work’, how that has changed, and why I’m happy about it. These will be… relatively random thoughts.
Some preliminaries: those of you playing along at home will know that I was originally (mis)diagnosed with BPD – misdiagnosis of this type is fairly common for late-diagnosed neurodivergent women. I also have bipolar type 1. This is not, I believe, a misdiagnosis.
Many autistic people have what is referred to as a ‘special interest’. These aren’t just ‘interests’, but they also aren’t ‘obsessions’ – they are things that bring deep joy and contentedness. I firmly believe that my ‘special interest’ is… ancient Greek history.
In some ways I think I am pretty lucky about that – for many reasons, which I could go into, but mainly because it is now my job (paid or unpaid…) to think and read and learn and teach others about ancient Greek history, and that I am encouraged to immerse myself in it.
BUT: because it’s work, I have also been encouraged to not immerse myself in it too much. To ‘rest’, to ‘take time off work’. Even when I didn’t want to. And, frankly, that caused me immense anxiety. Some of that anxiety is the normal junior-academic-not-doing-enough-ever type.
Some anxiety is related to feeling shame over the fact that I wanted to learn and read and be immersed all the time. I am now working though trying to figure out those two different anxieties and address the former with rest and the latter with rest – but different types of rest.
And so, I’ve taken a weird step for a professionally trained ancient Greek historian: I’ve started reading ancient Greek history trade books on topics that I know about but not loads, but which aren’t directly related to my research.
Academics are often discouraged from reading trade books (this is changing, there’s loads of great trade books that we could learn a lot from!) because they aren’t rigorous, they don’t cite exactly (many in ancient history do!). In short: they aren’t valuable for research.
I don’t care if they’re valuable for research. I have the skills to look stuff up if I want (after all many of the big-name trade-book writing ancient historians are also working academics who publish peer-reviewed academic work too!). I care that they’re interesting.
I care that they feed my seemingly unquenchable thirst for that knowledge. And that is, I think, why I have been less anxious – more broadly – since I have started to figure myself out.
I am autistic, and I’m the same person I was before I knew that – but I feel like now I have the right version of the manual for my brain, and I get to figure out all the things that felt and seemed wrong over the years.
And frankly – I think my acceptance and exploration of my autistic brain makes me a better academic anyway.
You can serve this cake at any time, but it is best consumed alone in a dark room in the middle of the night when you are having a panic attack about facing the Person Who Is Bullying You the following day even though you have done nothing that person could possibly comment on.
Like a lot of early career academics, I've read a lot of quit lit, but I honestly never thought I'd be on the verge of writing my own. But things have changed a lot in the last (academic) year and I wanted to chronicle that in some way even though I'm not ready to write 'quit lit'.
And finally, the usual caveat: quit lit isn't ever about an academic quitting academia. Sometimes it's about realisations that academia isn't right for you - perhaps that's some of where my feelings are headed - and sometimes it's about a system that gives up on early career academics - that's definitely a part of my story. Sometimes, too, it's about the ways that personal circumstances create a cumulative effect on the work that a precarious academic can do. That's also a part of my story. And sometimes it's about the way that other people interject into one's academic career to derail it, whether purposefully or otherwise, and that's also part of my story. There isn't ever a single reason: 'I couldn't get a job' or 'academia wasn't right for me'. There's always a multitude of things that combine like ingredients to bake a cake of failure (or a cake of opportunity, or perhaps they are the same thing).
I don't think it's a secret that I've been struggling this (academic) year. Things haven't been great, and that's been really affecting me in ways I was not quite ready for. One of the things that's happened is that I have two important things that need revisions completed on ASAP that I haven't been working on. My career feels like it's stalled. My book needs to be done, like, now. The article revisions are now overdue (though I am not holding up other people's work, it's for a general-submission journal). So that's what I'm trying to do. To remember to be in love with my research. I do love it, I just have to get though the panic attack to realise that.
I am currently working on the revisions for my book and for an article, so I wanted to write down a few things about how I tackle revisions. It's probably one of the most important things that we do as researchers, and something that is a constant in the lives of academics from the undergraduate thesis onwards. How we get revisions changes, though, from the revisions that we get from supervisors who are (hopefully, generally) supportive and want to work with us to make sure our work is the best it can be. Peer reviewers ostensibly want the same things, but that doesn't always happen (I've commented multiple times on Twitter about the review I got that included the ego-boosting phrase "You know nothing about Greek religion"). I've also commented on giving peer reviews before, which I don't want to do here. I want to think about what I do when I get a review.
I think the first thing is to read though the reviews. I find this incredibly difficult, but it has to be done. Go to a nice place - maybe a cozy pub or café you love, somewhere you feel good. When I read though the reviews I have my laptop or a notebook and for each point I write it down in my own words, as I understand it, in one of two columns: 'things to do' and 'things not to do'. It's okay to decide not to act on a comment you receive, but you will need to keep a record of these so you can write down the reasons why in your letter back to the editor. If you are going to submit elsewhere I think it's still a good idea to keep a track of things you don't want to act on, because these are things that may come up in another review. Anything that's just nasty (see the above comment that I received...) or off the mark, or just plain unconstructive, feel free to ignore.
When you start your revisions do so from the list of things to do that you made, with each point written in your own words. I personally find this way less stressful that having to go back to the reviewers comments again and again, particularly if they were framed in a non-constructive or mean way. In some ways this becomes just like working though your own editing.
That's where I am right now with my article. With my list of things to do, written in my own words and ploughing though them as quickly and thoroughly as I can. I'm currently flip-flopping back and forward between the book and the article, not sure which is more important to get finished. I think the article, as it will be a quicker process. Answers on a postcard, please!
I'd love to hear your strategies for dealing with peer reviews! Let me know below!
This blog post comes from two places - first, the fact I am writing my first cover letter of the job season and second, a series of tweets I sent yesterday that I've been thinking more about. Here are the tweets:
I have spoken before about my chronic illness, and my finishing my PhD as a single parent, and the hardships that those things brought upon my work, my career progression, my ability to work (effectively) three full time jobs: the one I was paid for (that is, the teaching), the one I had to do in order to get my publications and research in order to get a permanent job, and the one I had to do to ensure the tiny human in my care was... well... cared for. You might notice that this does not account for any time I may have to manage my illness, care for myself, or have any kind of a life that didn't revolve around either the academy or my child.
Several years on from that, I've reached a point where I am exhausted. I have been in various full-time teaching-only roles for the past several years and, if I'm honest, I just want a break from it so I can build up other parts of my CV. No doubt some will say that this is proof that I think I'm too good for teaching or that I don't value or enjoy teaching. In fact, I love teaching and I think it's hugely worthwhile and therein lies my problem. The past few years I have worked above and beyond in order to deliver innovative, engaging classes and this has left me precious little time to get my research and publication on track.
Why do I bring this up, though? Because I want to highlight some very serious issues in the way that permanent academic jobs tend to be won and lost. And, in so many case, it's in research (either not enough of it, or what's there isn't good enough). Teaching is something that is ticked off as experience rather than by quality. This is, I think, demonstrated in the way that teaching and research requirements are articulated in job adverts. So, when I have a limited amount of energy to give, and I want to move toward my goal of a full-time, continuing (i.e. permanent) academic position of course I will, in part, want to stop doing one of the things that's taking so much time and energy. That can't be parenting, and it also can't be research. That's a simple calculation based on my energy levels and my long-term goals. It is not a value judgement on any of the activities I am currently engaged in.
And, of course, this directly links back with mental health and ill-health. Mine, here, is obvious. I have a serious but well managed set of illnesses that demand some work, time, and energy on an ongoing basis. But more generally academia is demonstrably bad for the mental health and well-being of early career academics - whether in teaching-only, research-only, teaching-and-research positions, or are not currently employed in academia (which may occur for a whole host of reasons from being too ill to the simple fact that there are far fewer academic positions than qualified candidates). The mental well-being needs of each of these groups will be different, not because the positions or pressures are different (indeed the pressures are pretty generally something like do all the things) but because people are different.
I assume that my musings on mental wellness and early career academia are not over, but, at least for now, I am going back to my CV and cover letter, trying to get ready for the job season without scrawling across applications in desperation: "I've had a pretty tough time of things and please keep that in mind when judging me!"
Well. Yesterday I started thinking about completing my goal for the month, which is to write a new career/publication plan. I couldn't really be bothered starting from scratch and I had seen that jobs.ac.uk had some career planning toolkits on their site, so I thought I'd review them. You should watch the video before reading the rest of this post.
You are in a small sanctuary, near the banks of the river Acheron, in the Western Peloponnese. A priest comes to fetch you. ‘It is time’, he says, leading you through the darkness. Stop. Breathe in deeply. What can you smell? The fertile soil, wet and black. The moss that covers the stone temple. You think you can just hear the river, gurgling away in the background – leading the souls of the dead down, down, down into the Underworld. That is why you are here.
As you enter the temple feel your body getting heavier. Relax your head, and neck, relax your shoulders. Feel a fog of tiredness wash over your mind.
You are about to commune with the dead.
You do not know how long you will spend living in the darkness of the temple, but you know it will be at least a week. You enter a long corridor. On your left, three arched doorways lead to the three small rooms you will live in. Here, in the impenetrable darkness you will prepare. You find your first meal in the room through the first arched doorway. Pork, broad beans, barely bread, shellfish. These are the foods of funerary banquets. You lift a cup to your lips – expecting wine, you start back as the sweetness of honeyed milk fills your mouth. This is a banquet for the dead – and you begin to realise the seriousness of where you are and what you are doing. You are putting yourself in a state between the worlds.
Days pass. You don’t know how many. You are disoriented. The mild toxicity of the broad beans begins to affect you. Slowly at first, but then one night – or day, you don’t know which, it’s all night right now – you feel your brother’s strong arms around you, in a cold, dead embrace. You start to believe that you have died, and you are at your own funeral. The banquet truly is yours.
Breathe in, deeply. Smell the dank, wet stone. Smell your own sweat and tears and mud and excrement.
A man enters? Is it the priest? He brings a sheep, presses some smooth stones into your hands. He guides you down a deep passage that seems to never end. He tells you to throw one of the stones in a pile, and then takes you into a room to wash your hands.
You take the sheep. The man tells you to dig a hole and hands you a knife. You are disoriented, but suddenly you snap back as the sharp metallic smell of blood fills you. You have slaughtered the sheep. Your hands are covered in blood and as you cut the sheep up the smell of half-digested sludge and offal overwhelms you. Now there is smoke, you don’t remember setting the fire – it must have been the priest. In this small passage way the smell and the smoke and the bile in the back of your throat have no-where to go. They linger, settling on you, surrounding you, obscuring the way out and the way forward.
The man pulls you to your feet and directs you into a winding, twisting series of passages. You turn the wrong way and hit a wall. You stop, and weep.
Breathe in. What can you smell, in the darkness? The metallic taste of blood clings to your hands. The smoke is still billowing up behind you. Your own panic begins to rise in your throat. You hear someone – or something – coming up behind you. You move on.
Finally, you enter a great hall, the air is clearer in here. Before you enter, you remember – somehow – to throw the barley in your hand onto the ground. You throw the final stone into the room and you enter.
Sinking to the ground, a figure appears in front of you. You can’t quite see it properly. You blink, hard, several times. The figure moves towards you. Who is it? You can’t tell. You try to speak – but the words don’t quite come out the way you imagine. Your brain spins. You breathe in. Blood. Smoke. Sweat. Shit.
Whispers in the dark that you cannot make out. The figure moves, shifts, swaps, slowly levitates. A different figure comes out. You are disoriented.
You think you ask the questions you came to ask. You think you get an answer. You’re not really sure. You fall into some kind of black oblivion.
Some period of time later, a man – the priest – enters the room and helps you up. He asks if you got the answers you wanted. Confidently, you say yes – and that feels like it’s true. In your sleep you had a vision of the future and you know what you must do.
The priest helps you out though a different door, and leads you to a room – bright, clean – and lays you on a bed. He helps you wash, gives you clean clothes. He lays you down and tells you that you’re back from the other side. You must stay here to cleanse that miasma of the dead away from your skin.
Breathe in. Sweet, bright flowers. You hear the river in the background, gurgling the dead into the Underworld…
Image by Samuli Lintula CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227193
Two weeks ago I asked classicists on Twitter for their advice to incoming classics students:
Sometimes I get asked if I'd 'recommend' having a baby during a PhD. That's a difficult question for me to answer for a few reasons. First, I haven't done a PhD without having had a baby in the middle of it. I don't know what that experience is like. Second, the right time to have a baby is always when you want to have a baby - if that's mid-PhD then you will make it work. Like I did:
I started my PhD on Monday 6th September, 2010.
I had Kiddo on Friday 11th October, 2011.
My PhD viva was on Friday 14th November, 2014.
I graduated on Wednesday 22nd July, 2015.
Having a baby during your PhD and finishing "on time" is possible. It's doable. I did it. Would I recommend it? Probably not. There's a lot of time that goes into a child, and a lot of time that's needed to go into crafting an academic career for yourself - if you (like me) get a teaching only position out of your PhD, how and where do you find the time to do the publishing required to get a permanent job, for instance?
And there's a difference, too, between having a child and having a child and a chronic mental illness. The latter necessarily makes the former harder, and together they make crafting the academic persona much, much harder. Trust me when I say that there is no instance in which a mental illness does not make a pregnancy, birth, and parenthood more difficult, and no instance in which a mental illness does not make crafting the academic persona more difficult. So...
Some days I feel like a total superhero. I want to shout from the rooftops: I did it, I survived! Hoorah!
Most days, days like today, I berate myself for thinking about how much easier my life - and particularly getting into my chosen career - could have been. I do feel jealous when people who haven't had the kinds of set backs I have get permanent jobs. Of course, if we're all honest about it jealousy is another huge part of the early-career run-around, so I don't think that's a particularly wild statement to make. But it's being hung up on how unfair the whole thing seems. Not that academia was ever fair.
I would never give back my child, obviously. She is a joy. But being a person who survives in the world with bipolar (type 1), or BPD, or chronic dissociation is hard enough. Keeping up with a bright, excitable, energetic, wonderful, six-year old when one feels completely removed from the world*... that's tough. Trying to finish my book - a book I have been trying to finish since I finished my PhD - as well as writing two grant applications (because - lets be honest - my 10 month job will come to an end before I have time to sneeze) and trying to get my two 'new research' articles through seemingly-endless revisions.
When I think about how much further behind I am because of my illness and my Kid I don't get angry. I feel a resigned hurt in my chest that these are the things which probably will cost me my academic career. But there's nothing much I can do about that but just keep plugging away.
*This is how I described it to my husband in a text message this morning: "I feel like an astronaut. I mean, in actual space. Like inside a life support cage in a totally alien and unknown environment where I have really limited vision and no understanding of the change of gravity so I can't really walk properly".
This will be the third incarnation of the Academic Kindness Gift Circle - but given some of the issues I've had with past gift circles (time, resources, cost, and - most importantly - people not receiving gifts! This is a totally unacceptable situation - I run the Academic Kindness Gift Circle based on trust and kindness!
This time I've decided that the gift circle will be a postcard exchange. There will be an international pool - however, there is an option to tick if you cannot afford the cost of international postage, to ensure you are matched with someone in the same country (or as near as possible) as you.
Please feel free to post your postcards on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #AKPE and #AcademicKindness
So, as always, the rules:
Yesterday, I watched a Facebook Live with Karen and Kellee from The Professor is In. You can watch it here. In it, they spoke about how to know when it's time to leave academia (don't worry, I'm not adding to the pile of quit lit just yet). Something they discussed at several points was setting and sticking to your own limits. And peoples limits are different. This really struck a chord with me, because recently Andrew and I have set a very hard limit on what we'll do to keep my academic career afloat. And perhaps this thing will be the death of my life as an academic.
We bought a house. We have discussed leaving London several times, and each time we come back to the feeling that we just don't want to leave London. We love London, and we want our daughter to grow up in a stable environment, where she can make friends and not have to move half way though primary school. And we were in a very specific place where (with lots of help, specifically with a government Help to Buy scheme) we were able to purchase a house. So we did.
It's terrifying. And wonderful.
I also made a commute limit, and won't apply for jobs outside that line on the map. I don't want to keep spending nights away from my family just to keep my career as an academic alive. I've spoken recently (predominantly on Twitter) about the pull I feel between loving being a researcher and a teacher and an ancient historian but hating academia. Between the strike and the emails my VC sends about cost cutting and what's happening in other classics and archaeology departments, and recently taking a 10 month contract, and basically all the permanent jobs going to Oxbridge or internal candidates (yes, that's a slight exaggeration, but it's not far off the mark), and everything else. I just... don't want to keep moving around (both figuratively and literally) in order to keep doing the things that I love, while I have no power to change the things I don't. Precarity is that double edged sword.
So, this is what I have. I said I would keep going until I didn't have a job and I might do that. Or I might not. For now, I am writing my book (and actually enjoying it!) and I will settle down into life in my new house, watch my Kiddo settle into her life, make friends, grow up, be a force for change in the world. And hopefully I can also be a force for change - in some way or another.
Update: A Twitter thread I made about buying a house in London
If you like what I do here, and on YouTube and Twitter, you can buy me a pinch of fairy dust.