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.

End of the (PhD) Road: Reflecting on 5+ Years of Graduate Studies in Archaeology

Last week, I (finally!) graduated from the University of Bradford with my PhD in Archaeology, ending a decade-long academic journey that was a culmination of approximately 5 years of PhD studies, 1 year of MSc studies (Archaeological Sciences), and 4 years of BA studies (Classical Archaeology and Anthropology)…and boy, am I tired.


Here you can see me looking absolutely thrilled in a puffy hat.

So, after all of these years, we get to the final question…was it all worth it? Well…maybe. Okay, that’s a bit of a cop-out, but to be fair that’s a pretty big question to ask a recent graduate! But I do know that many current postgraduates and potential postgraduates read this blog, so it feels as though it may be useful to provide a brief summary of my experiences as a postgraduate in archaeology – for more detailed experiences, you can check back in my PhD Life blog series.

The Good

One of the main reasons why I wanted to continue my studies as a postgraduate was that I was very keen on specialising as an archaeologist. After my undergraduate studies, I was well-versed as a classical archaeologist (with some detours into Viking Age archaeology and anthropology), but I also knew that I wasn’t satisfied with that. Frankly, I ended up really disliking classical archaeology by the end of my degree, and knew that I wouldn’t be happy continuing that line of study. But I knew that the extra years of study granted by a postgraduate programme would enable me to not only experience other subfields within archaeology, but also eventually specialise in one of them; this would also be much more appealing to employers, as I would have years of focused experience rather than a couple of years of general archaeology education.

And this did work out for me – had I not done my postgraduate studies, I wouldn’t have become a zooarchaeologist. Of course, I think some of this may be unique to archaeology, as it is a much larger discipline than what the general public may think. In addition, I knew that I was missing a lot of what archaeology had to offer due to my undergraduate department; in the United States, many archaeology programmes have a strong connection to anthropology, going as far as being considered a subfield of the discipline. As such, I was well-versed in interpretation and theory alongside more general cultural and historical studies, but lacked practical and analytical skills. In the United Kingdom, however, archaeology is often seen as a science, first and foremost. Here, many programmes focus on analytical applications of science for archaeology, and really emphasise the need for fieldwork experience. That said, both the US and the UK certainly have programmes that contradict those general statements, but this has always been my experience in both countries. For me, doing a postgraduate (and specifically moving abroad to the UK) would mean getting what I considered to be the “full picture” of what archaeology had to offer – and again, it did work out for me, as my PhD research allowed me the space to apply both analytical and theoretical methodologies to my topic.

Finally, it must be said that there is a definitive confidence boost that postgraduate studies can provide. Increasing my expertise and specialisation through postgraduate studies provided me with a confidence that I completely lacked during my undergraduate (and, if we’re being honest, I also lacked it during my MSc and my first few years of my PhD!).

The Bad

To start, I will be very honest and transparent about the financial burden that postgraduate studies have left me – as of right now, I’m looking at approximately $200,000 in student loans that will need to be paid off. Of course, a lot of this is entirely on me and my poor financial planning – I knew the risks of taking out loans by that point, although I will also say that, at least in some American academic spaces, there is a lot of propaganda that can convince students that they’ll only make a decent wage if they have a postgraduate degree. But not every postgraduate finishes their PhD with the intentions of becoming an academic – and the number of people leaving academia seem to be getting larger and larger each year, especially since the pandemic (Woolston 2020). Personally, I am keen on remaining within the field as a researcher and post-excavation specialist, but the lack of opportunity to teach during my PhD has left me feeling unqualified to ever apply for a lecturer position.

Besides the financial burden, I will also admit that my postgraduate studies took a massive toll on my health. Readers of the blog may know that I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder at the start of my PhD after a nervous breakdown that nearly jeopardised my studies. And at the end of the degree, I am facing a similar set of diagnoses and disabling conditions. While I can’t put the blame for my declining health entirely on postgraduate studies (I don’t think the PhD has the ability to give me a joint disorder!), I also can’t say that the overwhelming stress and anxiety that came from the process really helped. In fact, it does not seem to be all that uncommon for PhD students to have health conditions either develop or worsen during their studies (Allan 2014, Anonymous 2018, Nguyen 2021).

The Verdict

So, were my postgraduate studies worth it? I think so. There are connections and friendships that I would not have made without pursuing them, there is a massive amount of confidence and knowledge that I have gained in the timespan of my studies…hell, I couldn’t even imagine the person I would be right not without having done my MSc and PhD studies. But again, a lot of that is a testament of the gigantic life changes that my postgraduate studies necessitated – moving abroad, meeting new people, changing my life goals and desires around my circumstances, etc. And of course, not all of those life changes have been entirely positive either, and there are still many obstacles I face that are a direct result of having done my postgraduate studies – student loan debt, the constant fear from being a precarious migrant, my worsening health, etc.

I think that, overall, I have become a better person from my postgraduate studies. And I think that, despite a lot of the negative fallout from finishing my degree (which I am obviously much more fixated on, the joys of anxiety!), I have a lot to offer as a newly minted PhD in a discipline that is at a breaking point in some respects (Alberge 2021, Schofield 2021, Slotten 2021), and I hope that I can wave my new title around as I charge in headfirst into the fray…I mean, the PhD is a shield, right? Although I guess I wish it were a sword, sometimes…

Anyway, the point I hope I’ve made is that postgraduate studies are ultimately a massive commitment for an extended period of time – frankly, my experience represents one of the shorter periods of study you can expect for your MSc and PhD, as timeframes do vary by country and discipline. I urge students to make these decisions with as much care and consideration as you would for any other major life change, because ultimately, that’s what your postgraduate studies will become – a massive shift in your life that may lead to many good things, but also many bad things as well. It’s a risk, as are most big life decisions, and its necessary to think about how much you’re willing to do for it. But at the same time, these considerations will need to be happening continuously, because its also okay to change your mind as well! Hopefully this blog post helps put things in perspective, and at least illustrates that postgraduate studies aren’t a linear path to success – in fact, its a big squiggly line of successes and failures and sometimes chronic illness and a global pandemic and a foster cat or two and…well, you get the picture.

References

Allan, K. (2014) A Reflection on Chronic Illness and Graduate School. PhDisabled. Retrieved from https://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/a-reflection-on-chronic-illness-and-graduate-school/

Alberge, D. (2021) Help our profession or UK’s shared history will be lost, say archaeologists. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/30/help-our-profession-or-uks-shared-history-will-be-lost-say-archaeologists

Anonymous (2018) We need to talk about disability and chronic illness during the PhD. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2018/02/28/we-need-to-talk-about-disability-and-chronic-illness-during-the-phd/

Nguyen, L. (2021) Coping with a Chronic illness during a PhD. Voices of Academia. Retrieved from https://voicesofacademia.com/2021/02/19/coping-with-a-chronic-illness-during-a-phd-by-lieselot-nguyen/

Schofield, J. (2021) Six reasons to save archaeology from funding cuts. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/six-reasons-to-save-archaeology-from-funding-cuts-161465

Slotten, C. (2021) UK Archaeology Has a Problem. Women in Archaeology. Retrieved from https://womeninarchaeology.com/2021/06/09/uk-archaeology-problem/

Woolston, C. (2020) Seeking an ‘exit plan’ for leaving academia amid coronavirus worries. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02029-6


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.

How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating and Do My PhD Corrections

For the record, I didn’t actually submit my corrected thesis with that title but I might has well have!

A little over nine months ago, I successfully defended my PhD thesis with major corrections. And then, just a month ago today, I submitted my corrections.

A total of 15,414 additional words and 70 pages over what I’d love to say was a six month period…but due to procrastination? More like a two month period. Oops.

I will say that the support I received during my corrections period was great – my supervisors were always there to discuss changes, and to provide support if I felt as though a suggestion did not entirely fit with my vision for the thesis (and to tell me when I was getting a bit too carried away as well!). And, similar to my actual viva, my external examiners were extremely gracious with their time and advice – they allowed me to ask for clarification, they heard my justifications for modifying different aspects of the thesis, and they would also give general support for my well-being, suggesting approaches to handling the corrections in a way that wouldn’t stress me out too much.

So then…why did it take me so damn long to do the corrections?

Well…a couple of things: Stress. Fear. The real world (remember the pandemic that’s still kinda happening? stuff like that).

When I first got the official papers with all of the comments from my external examiners (mind you, I also knew the general gist of these comments already as we obviously discussed them at the end of my viva), it felt like someone hit me with a brick. Maybe this is more to do with my general lack of self-confidence, but anytime I get comments on something I’ve made, it’s hard not to take them personally! So seeing the comments written out, single-spaced and taking up about three pages? I felt sick. And so I avoided them, using a form of stress-fuelled procrastination to do literally anything else besides my corrections. Finally, I got a reality check in the form of an email from my supervisors, and soon enough, I was working on my corrections in a guilt-fuelled rush. By that point, I was able to actually reread the comments and fully digest them, and you know what? They weren’t mean, or aggressive, or overtly critical like I somehow managed to believe. In fact, they were written in a kind and supportive tone, emphasising that these comments were meant to add to my already good work, to fully flesh out my ideas in a way that actually showcases my abilities. Realising this helped me maintain a somewhat healthy work ethic, knowing that this was less about some weird form of “repentance” for my academic sin of misspelling the word “cave” on page 230 – this was about that finally push, supported by a team of more senior academics, from “student” to “expert”. Sure, it wasn’t the prettiest of labours, but I’m proud of the result. Not only did I (most likely?) fix my weird misspellings, but I also ended up having several new realisations about my work, further developing my conclusions in a way that I think has elevated my original findings into something better than before. But also, I had a lot of misspellings…what a betrayal from Spellcheck, am I right?

To end this blog post, I want to provide some completely unasked for advice for those of you in the corrections process right now:

  1. You’re Not Alone. I had this ridiculous notion that the corrections period was supposed to be this intense, solidarity process in which I reflected on my faults and tried to fix them for weeks on end. Yeah, that’s not actually how this is supposed to work, surprisingly enough! You’re still “allowed” to discuss with your supervisors as well as, depending on your particular university’s policies, your external examiners as well. In some cases this can even include sending drafted parts to your examiners for feedback (although again, check with both your examiners as well as your university’s policies). Even if your corrections aren’t necessary too extensive, it is probably worth maintaining some form of communication with everyone, especially as you will probably jump into working on publications after the corrections are finished, and often times the corrections themselves can provide better insight into what you might decide to develop further.
  2. This Should Be Collaborative. This is something I said regarding the viva as well, but despite having a reputation for being a particularly combative or frustrating part of the PhD process…it actually shouldn’t be! Obviously this is unfortunately not the case for everyone, but PhDs should be a period of collaboration – not only are you adding to your particular field, but you’re also gaining experience and improving your own skills. No one should be setting you up to fail! With that in mind, the corrections should be similar – it is about improvement. The goal should not be “how do I perfect this thesis” but instead, “how can I improve this in a way that shows off everything I have learned and worked for?” And, following the first point, your supervisors (and potentially examiners as well) should also be working with you under that same mindset.
  3. But Don’t Be Afraid to Disagree! That said, collaboration isn’t just about saying “yes” all the time! One of the most important things I learned was that at this point in my career, I can actually disagree with the comments. Unlike high school (where most disagreements with a grade resulted in being ignored or, at worst, further deductions…yikes), you are now at the point of expertise where your input matters – so use it! Obviously this is not to say that you can ignore all of your corrections and say you know better (I wish!), but you ultimately know your work best at this point. For me, a lot of my disagreements had to do with focus and flow, so I ended up placing new additions in a different section than the one that was suggested. So long as you can justify it, you should be good – but again, talk to your supervisors/examiners as well. You may know your work best, but they may have additional advice to help you truly demonstrate that.
  4. Record. EVERYTHING. No, not in The Room way. But another great piece of advice I got early was to keep track of the actual changes I made by annotating a copy of the comments form. Not only does this showcase how much progress you’ve made (a huge thing for someone like me who needs to have that bit of encouragement!), but it also lets you pinpoint to the examiners where you’ve made changes, and provide justification or clarification if you decide to modify one of their suggestions or ignore it outright.
  5. This Is Not a Punishment. I already touched upon this, but it bears repeating: this is not a punishment! Technically speaking, you’ve passed and – unless you manage to do something drastic to your thesis – you’re likely to end up with a degree after your corrections are done, regardless of whether they’re “minor” or “major”. But academia, being the way it is, loves to foster a toxic atmosphere of competitiveness and aggression (which frankly isn’t helped by the fact there are loads of academics and Reviewer #2’s that perpetuate that sort of toxicity), so it’s understandable why you may feel like you’re being punished or unduly criticised. Ultimately, this is about making you the best you can be – preparing you for not only publication but also for post-postgraduate life. Regardless of the stress, doing the corrections helped me recognise the actual merits of my work – something I had yet to really realise. For me, corrections weren’t about taking an eraser to my mistakes, but providing further supports and structures to the foundation which was my work, and preparing myself to build upwards from there.

Corrections can be scary, but they’re there to help you. You just gotta…you know…actually do them. At some point. Eventually.


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.

Surviving a PhD Defence at the End of the World (aka at the End of 2020)

I had originally planned on writing this blog post shortly after my defence (known as a viva here in the UK) back at the start of December, but life got in the way…and by that, I mean my job closed down due to the pandemic and we moved house and then the holidays arrived and I was trying (and failing) to get my visa extension application submitted prior to the end of the year…yeah, sounds like 2020, doesn’t it?

My set-up for my viva: a can of soda to make me feel even more sick than I already did, my sticker-filled notebook with a dozen pages of viva-specific notes, my personal copy of my thesis with so much highlighter/notes/sticky notes weighing it down, and a positive, feel good message of encouragement to myself (“You can do this, bitch!”)

Similar to how I felt when I submitted my PhD thesis at the end of September, I didn’t exactly feel as celebratory as I probably should have felt…I mean, I did celebrate, of course. There was a lot of wine and takeaway and enjoying the start of my post-PhD life, but it didn’t feel like the end of anything. And that’s true in some respects – I still need to do my corrections, of course, which consists of about 10,000 additional words in the next 6 months. But what I always felt would be a huge milestone felt more like a single stepping stone.

And there’s probably a few reasons for that, of course. Yes, 2020 was the Year from Hell but let’s be honest, the only new thing it brought to the table was a global pandemic. That’s not to minimise the effects (which are still ongoing and likely to continue far beyond 2020) of coronavirus, but rather to say that it ultimately intensified things that were already in play: austerity, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, class warfare…the list goes on. Before I even started my PhD, I knew I was taking a risk – academic archaeology jobs in general are not plentiful, much less so for immigrants. But I wanted to continue my academic journey to the “end”, aka the PhD, and I wanted to remain in the UK for as long as I possibly can alongside the family I’ve created since moving here in 2015. As we leave 2020 behind, I find myself looking at an even more diminishing job market, saddled with student loan debt and the ever present threat of the Home Office still at my side.

It’s difficult, at least from my perspective, to then see my PhD as a jumping off point for bigger and better things when I have no idea what the future holds – not just for me, but for everyone, for the entire world. And that’s not to say that I won’t continue to try, either; alongside my corrections, I will be shopping a postdoc idea around in the hopes of getting funding for it here in the UK (or at least get the funding for a pilot study). I’m gonna fight like hell to continue to do what I love – to research, to explore our past and how it connects to the present and the future, to showcase how much we can learn from the dustiest, tiniest bones hidden away in a museum collection somewhere. But I’m also absolutely terrified at the same time, and I doubt I’m the only PhD student who feels that way right now.

I don’t want this post to be so negative, though! I should emphasise that I absolutely loved doing my viva. My examiners, Dr. Hannah Koon and Dr. James Morris, were so accommodating and nice! They went out of their way to make the viva a productive conversation that made me feel just as smart and professional as they are, they never asked “gotcha!” questions or tried to make me feel unwanted or unworthy of the PhD. To be honest, I don’t think I really felt like an expert until my viva, and it is definitely thanks to the care and kindness they provided during the examination. And this also made for my results – major corrections – to not feel like a major failing! They stressed it was about improving my work, and that made sure I was an active participant in discussing what exactly needed work. It was a fantastic three hours (that honestly flew by!) and I want to reiterate just how thankful I am to the both of them that my viva was such an enjoyable and productive experience.

I also want to thank everyone who reached out to me prior to the viva with advice, and let me pay it forward by providing some of my own tips for surviving the PhD viva below:

  • Yes, reread your thesis! I did not (and still do not) want to ever look at my thesis again, but if you do anything prior to your viva, I would at least suggest reading it once more. Not only is it good to have a refresher (I know people who waited 6+ months to do their viva) of what you actually wrote, but you may already have had enough time away from it to see places where you could improve (and thus prepare ahead of time for when your examiners likely bring it up).
  • Look at your last few drafts. Connected to that last point – it might be worth rereading some of the comments from your last few drafts. Obviously depends on your supervisors, but mine were always quite good at pinpointing potential talking points for my viva, even months and months away from the actual examination. Ultimately you cannot predict what will and won’t be asked at your viva, but the more prep work you’re able to do, the better.
  • Remember: It’s Your Viva. Something I was extremely appreciative of during my viva was the ability to take the first 10 minutes to present the major findings of my work and the key themes of my thesis. I’m aware that not everyone will get that luxury, but I think it does speak to something that you should strive for, if possible: setting the agenda. It’s your viva, ultimately, and although your examiners will be the ones asking the questions, remember that you can lead the conversation where you’d like. And that of course includes everyone’s favourite phrase: “That’s an interesting question, but it is beyond the scope of this research.”

Have a Happy (and Safe) New Year, Everyone!


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.