So… What do you do?

It’s a standing joke among my colleagues that people don’t know how to explain what I actually do, and I have a few different answers depending on the person who’s asking. I’m a maker. I’m an archaeologist. I’m an academic. I’m a research scientist. I’m a journalist. I’m a writer. I’m … well, I’m going to be a dad soon. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s amazing, and I’m incredibly excited. I’m also running the whole gamut of human emotions about that, but ‘excited’ is probably the easiest description of how I feel.

While we’re financially fine as a family, I’d love to be able to generate some extra income to make our life more comfortable in the coming months. The problem is that I’m an academic, and at about this time last year, my university employment contract came to an end. It wasn’t a complete surprise, because as a research associate I’d never had any long term job security. Like almost every other RA at a UK institution, I was reliant on short term contracts and funding from government bodies with an application process that can take a year or more to complete. So when funding really didn’t come through, I had a backup plan. I would register my own business, start writing for magazines again, and take other temporary jobs if I needed to. If that plan didn’t seem to be working well enough, I’d muddle through until I could get another permanent position. Yes, it was a terrible plan, but hindsight is 20:20 and the risk was minimal because I’m not the only person earning money. In fact, I’ve never been anywhere near to being the main contributor when it comes to calculating household income. As a family, we’re doing fine, and I’m good looking and suave enough to slip seamlessly into the role of a trophy husband. I might be beautiful now, but I know my looks won’t last for ever, and it’s not a role I’m comfortable with in the long term.

I started a business in October last year, writing articles for magazines and selling vintage items on eBay. I spent my week trawling local auctions, restoring and repairing broken furniture, fixing tools, and finding other items to sell. I made small profits, but when you took into account all of the fees from eBay, Paypal, postage and insurance, it just wasn’t a sustainable way to make a living. The worst part part of selling on eBay was that items that would get lost or damaged in the post, or were stolen by buyers who claimed that they never received them. Small errors in calculating postage costs or insurance could really cut into my earnings, and I genuinely believe that some of the customer complaints and threats I had to deal with were made by people with serious mental problems. The whole business of selling on eBay was stressful, time consuming, and yielded unpredictable profits. After several months, I decided I needed to find a more regular source of income.

I’m not too fussy about what I do for a living, I’ve got 25 years of work experience in both industry and academia, a broad skill-set, and a PhD.. How hard could it be to find a suitable position? Well, reader, I’ll tell you. It was, and continues to be, very hard. For unskilled jobs, I can forget being called for an interview, because I’m just going to be too expensive. The majority of big companies with a high staff turnover (where you’d think it’d be easy to get job) won’t even entertain my application, because they can get a 16 or 17 year old to do the same job for a lower rate of the minimum wage.

Even worse, the qualification I’d worked so hard for in the past is now a millstone around my neck. For most jobs, I’ll be told that I’m ‘over qualified’ for the current role. I’ve never been able to figure out what people who use this phrase actually mean. Do they think that I will find the job too boring, or that I’ll just leave one day in an SUV with blacked out windows because a secret government brain harvesting division has recruited me? If I’m as smart as they seem to think I am, surely I would have already realised that I was over qualified for the job and wouldn’t have applied for it. Do they perhaps think that there’s only a finite amount of educational space in my head, and the additional learning has erased the skills and abilities I had before? I worry that there are careers advisers going around schools saying “Well, Sam, you can become an academic, but you’ll lose the ability to put boxes on shelves or cook a burger if you do…”

Meanwhile in the present day, the job hunt continues. I’ve got work coming in writing articles and making things for people, but it’s not as much as I’d like it to be. I’ve filled in innumerable application forms and sent out more CVs I can count, and at the moment I’m sick of trying. It’s not the rejection that wears me down, it’s the repetitive, grinding realisation that I’ve been rejected by a system, rather than an individual. The worst feeling is when I discover that the job I’ve just spent an hour applying for never actually existed – it was just a way for a recruiting agency to add my details to their database. Sometimes, the rejection is so bizarre that it’s actually funny. After a convoluted batch of online multiple choice tests, a carefully crafted covering letter, and uploading my newly redesigned CV, I was rejected in a matter of minutes by an automated system that had analysed my application and decided that my name was Training Course, and my current occupation was Combustion.

If I did get a full time job now, I probably wouldn’t get paternity leave, and I wouldn’t be there to help out at home as much as I will need to. That’s not something I’m comfortable with, so I’ve found myself stuck in a sort of limbo, looking for part-time or remote working opportunities in an area that’s not known for research, feeling over qualified, feeling too-old, and feeling slightly dazzled by the prospect of being a first time dad at the age of 41. All I can do for now is try to find more work as a writer and a maker, and help support my family in any way that I can. Sometime next year, once the baby is here and we’re settling into a routine, I’ll start looking for a more permanent position again. In the mean time, I’ll keep doing what I can to make the best of it.

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3 Comments

    • I know, I’m so much more than that… But for for the sake of modesty I felt compelled to stop there, regardless of how far short the description falls.

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