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.
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.
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