On Embracing Liminality and Fighting Precarity: Moving Onwards from 2022

It’s been a tough year…for everyone, to be honest! But for me, it’s been a bit of a wake-up call after finding myself somewhat comfortably situated in grad school life since 2015. At the end of 2021, I graduated with my PhD and had secured my first proper research position at a university (albeit in a field far from archaeology). Although it wasn’t exactly how I envisioned my post-PhD life to begin, I also knew that I was quite lucky to land a research job so quickly after finishing my PhD and that the road ahead would be far from the dream I had as a newly minted Doctor of Archaeology.

Image Description: A close-up photo of my blue work lanyard covered in badges and pins, from top down: a yellow pin that says “Archaeologist”, a cloud-covered blue badge that says in rainbow text “Invisible Disability Club”, a badge with the colours of the pansexual pride flag behind a wolf skull, a blue pin that says “Science Communicator”, a silver badge bearing the logo of the University of Bradford, a dark blue badge with a red and yellow heart on it, with white text on top that says “Surviving Purely Out of Spite”, a pink pin that says “Researcher”, a black ping that says “she/her” in white text, and a bright green pin that says “Doctor”.

And boy, did I underestimate how rocky that road will be (and still is!).

I’ve never been the most consistent blogger (although my 2023 resolution is to get better – which, funny enough, was also my 2022 and 2021 resolutions…), but as readers may notice, I’ve been particularly spotty over the past few months. Frankly, it’s just exhaustion – I had said “yes” to a lot of things this year and it was finally catching up to me. But also, I was exhausted of the constant “no’s” as well – I spent most of 2022 job searching as my research contract was set to end, and it was a huge wake-up call for me. I’ve written about this more in-depth on here, but basically I was faced with the reality that perhaps, despite years of studying and research, I might not have a career in archaeology after all.

Of course, it’s still quite early on in my career to say that with certainty – after writing that blog post, I received a lot of kind messages from current and former early career researchers and archaeologists who faced similarly tough journeys in the first few years post-PhD, and that unfortunately its a common reality that isn’t always articulated to PhD students. But I think my cohort of graduates, and those who come after me, are likely to face a more difficult time at properly starting our post-PhD careers, with many of us stuck in an extended period of precarious contracts than perhaps other cohorts.

Precarity isn’t necessarily new to me – as a migrant descended from migrants, precariousness has been embedded into my life and has often felt like its own rite of passage, particularly as someone who now faces precarity within the Hostile Environment of the UK’s immigration system. As a migrant, precarity is pervasive – any change to immigration laws, even the smallest one, can completely make or break your ability to remain in the country. But its only been recently that I have really faced the reality of career precarity – something I knew existed, of course, as I watched year after year of friends and colleagues in academia strike against the further spread of precariousness within higher education in the UK. Although I am currently in a postdoc position that I genuinely enjoy in the wider heritage sector, it is also my second fixed contract research position – and it won’t be my last. As someone who truly enjoys researching and expanding my intellectual horizons, the idea of being able to move from project to project is somewhat exciting…but of course, the fact that I will be facing the dreaded job search after every contract and risking periods of unemployment (that I cannot afford) is terrifying.

So, for 2023 I choose two things: I choose to embrace liminality, but at the same time I also choose to fight precarity. Liminality (the concept of in-betweenness that constituted much of the abstract interpretations for my PhD research) has been something I’ve been thinking about with regards to myself for a while now, particularly as a mixed race, queer migrant. Finding my personal identities within the in-between spaces has been a difficult but important journey of self-realisation and reflection, and I think it has also begun to seep into the ways I view my professional life as well. Archaeology is, of course, a formalised discipline, but I also think that its margins are somewhat liminal – there is an interdisciplinary nature that is inherent in all archaeological research, and I think it isn’t too difficult to expand the boundaries of what entails archaeological work. As someone who has worked across different subfields within archaeology and have delved into other fields during my research, I think I’ve already experienced that sort of disciplinary liminality – I do refer to myself as a zooarchaeologist, of course, but realistically I’ve worked beyond that subfield as well, doing funerary archaeology and human osteology, even dipping back into anthropology in parts of my PhD.

As I brace myself to work more and more outside of archaeology, I choose to embrace existing in a sort of liminal space as a researcher – not quite an archaeologist, but not quite anything else. One of the most difficult things to grapple with during 2022 was my professional identity crisis – if I’m not paid to do archaeology, am I an archaeologist? But I still work to inform and shift archaeology, and much of the tools and frameworks I’ve developed and learned in my career will be useful in other fields as well. In this liminal space of research, beyond disciplinary borders, I can see the ways in which my work informs each other, and I think that’s a healthier way to view my career progression moving forward. At heart, I’m still an archaeologist – but my professional research and work exists to be embedded across disciplinary lines, emanating from this liminal space.

But on the other side of the coin from liminality is perhaps precarity as well, and that is why I also choose to fight precarity as much as I can in 2023. On one hand, I will admit that I will likely have to take on more short-term contracts just to survive – but that doesn’t mean I can’t continue to support existing movements working to end precarious contracts in academia and research. I have ended 2022 completely burnt out from saying “yes” to so many things, most of which were unpaid. As such, 2023 is my year of “no” – no to unpaid labour, no to being exploited by institutions who should know better, no to creating further precariousness to myself by burning myself out and making myself seem vulnerable to exploitation by others.

2023 is a year of getting comfortable in the unknowable – in the liminal spaces between professional identities and academic signifiers – yet not allowing the unknowable to harm me. It is about living across boundaries of expertise and discipline, but also allowing myself the freedom to set boundaries as well when I need to protect myself. It is about being me, a researcher who loves to research and carries with her a strong sense of responsibility and humanity that years of training and struggling in archaeology has instilled in me, and not letting the unkind and hostile worlds of academia and research chip at this complicated sense of self I’ve developed over the years.

To 2022, I say good riddance. To 2023, I say good luck.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.

Entitlement, Bitterness, and Grief: The Post-PhD Job Hunt Experience

More than half of those have resulted in rejections so far and that’s not even all of the jobs I’ve applied for this year (lol sob)

If you follow me on Twitter, you have likely noticed the uptick in Tweets complaining about my job search over the past few months – most likely before either unfollowing or muting me (and frankly, I can’t blame you!).

With my current contract ending in a few months and lacking the legal entitlement to any form of unemployment or financial aid due to my migrant status, avoiding gaps in employment is pretty important for me, so this has already been an anxiety-inducing situation. What has amplified matters even more so has been the fact that this is my first proper job search since graduating with my PhD – in a weird way, it really felt as though I had something to prove?

And perhaps that’s one of the many reasons why this has been a demoralising, miserable experience – my mindset heading into this job search has arguably set me up for failure, especially when I do know, deep down, that having a difficult time finding a job post-PhD isn’t an uncommon experience, particularly in a field like archaeology.

I really wanted to reflect upon this a bit in a blog post, not only to help myself navigate these feelings but also in the hopes that it’s useful for anyone else in a similar position. So, I want to take a look at what I’ve now identified as the three major feelings I’ve had lately: entitlement, bitterness, and grief.

Entitlement

It’s important for me to start off with the feeling that has arguably brought out a rather ugly side of me that I really need to work on. It’s difficult to admit, but part of me absolutely bought into the false premise that being a PhD was the key to career success. And, to be fair to myself, this propaganda has been strong throughout my life – my father, whose own academia career suffered after dropping out of his PhD programme to care for his ailing father, had always instilled this notion in me that no one would take me seriously without a doctorate. Similarly, I spent most of my undergraduate degree being told that there was no real way to have a career in archaeology without a postgraduate degree – something I obviously took to heart as I barrelled through without any breaks from my undergraduate to my doctorate.

So yes, it’s unsurprising in that light to observe an undeserved level of entitlement in feeling as though I am guaranteed a job simply due to a piece of paper! And again, I know from friends and colleagues that the job market is difficult and that many (all of whom are much more talented and smarter than I am, by the way!) have often gone through hundreds of rejections before landing a poison – why would I be any more special to warrant an immediate job?

Bitterness

I should note here that I have actually been applying to a wide variety of jobs, not only in archaeology or heritage sectors, but more broadly in research and EDI professions. And the only places I’ve actually been shortlisted for jobs has been in these latter professions – I’ve never been remotely close, it seems, for any archaeology job.

This constant failure to even get to the interview stage of any archaeology or heritage job has also brought up another unpleasant emotion that I need to work on – bitterness. In some ways, I guess it’s the reaction to not achieving what you feel entitled to, and it’s arguably not particularly deserved here. Not only because I have never been entitled to a job to begin with, but also because it ignores the real limitations of my skills and expertise – there are real reasons as to why I’m not getting the jobs I’d like to get, and I need to be better at identifying those reasons and working to build those missing or lacking skills and experiences.

That being said, there is a component of bitterness that perhaps isn’t entirely unwarranted here – as many know, I have previously spoken out about the lack of diversity in British archaeology. There is a bitter irony, in that case, that while I have several papers in review discussing the structural obstacles to a more diverse and inclusive archaeology sector, I’m most likely facing a future outside of the field anyway.

Grief

And I think this is when real feelings of grief start to sink in – with the context of how non-diverse the field is, it’s devastating to realise that I may in fact be another statistic falling by the wayside, that my inability to remain in the field is ultimately a “win” for the field to remain as staunchly white, cis-het, able-bodied male as it’s always been.

And, in turn, that becomes feelings of failure as well. I so desperately wanted to remain in the field as a stubborn obstacle against the continuation of a non-diverse, colonial endeavour and actually fight for change. But as I continue to get rejections from archaeology positions across the sector, it feels like I’ve failed – as an archaeologist, as a person who wanted to see the sector change, as someone who did three different degrees to gain expertise…I have failed to prove my worth to the field and now I’m no longer in it.

I feel as though I’ve wasted the past decade of my life – because how can you spend so long studying in a field only to not even seem employable? I feel as though I’ve wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans on degrees that will never see use. And perhaps the most painful failure of all? I’ve become a sort of hypocrite, writing constantly about ways to change the field when I’m not even in the field myself. I’ve ended up in such a depressive episode that it’s been hard to find the motivation to continue to try, which exacerbates the problem as well.

I wish I had a happier way to end this blog post, but here’s the truth: I’ve applied to nearly 100 jobs in the last five months, a mixture of archaeology, heritage, and other research jobs. Of these, I have had 7 invitations to interview – none of them archaeology or heritage jobs. Indeed, all of those jobs have been outright rejections so far. I’m resigned at this point to spending the next few years in non-archaeology or heritage roles, and with every new rejection, I inch even closer towards completely leaving the field altogether.

I wanted archaeology to be my whole life, but now it’s likely to become more of a hobby. And while I am happy to try and remain in the field as best as I can, I’m also preparing for a future where I’m just not able to. And it breaks my heart.


If you’re financially stable enough, why not donate to help out marginalised archaeologists in need via the Black Trowel Collective Microgrants? You can subscribe to their Patreon to become a monthly donor, or do a one-time donation via PayPal.

My work and independent research is supported almost entirely by the generosity of readers – if you’re interested in contributing a tiny bit, you can find my PayPal here, as well as my Amazon Wishlist for research material.