Career Path, Women, and a Non-Medieval Book Recommendation

I have too many feels to respond properly to Kiera’s post on choosing to stay in Australia (except when she says many of her teachers/mentors pushed her to preference overseas opportunities, mea culpa. My opinions on that are mellowing the longer I actually spend overseas…). But it seems to me that all aspects of career planning in academia are fraught, especially if you’re a woman (and compounded if your family are not from the professional classes, and you’re not white, and/or you’re not in robust physical and mental health…). Even the way we concieve of and relate to role model / mentor figures is fraught. I for one have spent some years both wanting to emulate an early mentor and simultaneously compensate for ‘flaws’ in her career path. It’s weird. I don’t recommend it.

University_of_Sydney.svgA while ago, I dipped my toes in the twitter discussion #medfemlist, which Kiera talked about here. I drew a blank on nominating people: no big name scholars came to mind. I ended up listing locals, only one of whom had a strong impact on the feminist bent of my research. Quoted in Kiera’s post was my recommendation of Stephanie Trigg, not so much for her scholarship (which is great, but I’ve never actually had cause to cite her), as her blog and public modelling of self-care and work/life balance in academia. Like Sam I had to mention Andrea Williams (@adhocery) not because she supervised my MPhil (although she did, and was pretty good at it too) but because wee 18-y old me glommed onto the fact that she got paid to talk about lancelot as a job. I wanted to be her when I grew up.

My big influence, though, was one Dr Melanie Heyworth (whose old staff profile still exists). No one big, no one fancy, not even anyone particularly successful – Melanie never held a permanent post anywhere. She was a ruthless critic and a great mentor. She put up with me whining about how I liked women’s history but I hated all this feminist wank – she just set me ever more sneaky essay questions which I wouldn’t be able to answer without picking up rudimentary feminist theory.

Thing is, I didn’t want to be Mel when I grew up. I could already see that her ties to family, to Sydney, meant she had no permanent academic job prospects. Once upon a time, Melanie introduced me to one of her mentors, at a small local conference. That mentor waited until Mel was out of earshot and said to me “you will not make Melanie’s mistakes. You will go overseas and you will study Latin.” I never went to Toronto, which is what that mentor advised, and therefore I have not studied enough Latin, but I am overseas and my current uni has the resources to keep training me in medieval Latin (something USyd’s medieval studies program says it does, but only intermittently runs courses in – invariably just after I’ve finished a degree). And it’s awesome but having lasted a year here I no longer think it’s responsible or realistic of me to pass that piece of advice down to everyone (sorry, Kiera). I don’t know much about Melanie’s life now, but unless something’s gone terribly wrong since last I heard of her, she’s probably a happier person right now than I am. Moreover, there’s also absolutely no guarantee that I’ll have any better job prospects at the end of this degree than Kiera will at the end of hers, the academic job market being what it is. (Nor, immigration being what it is, is there any guarantee that I won’t end up back in Sydney with two suitcases immediately after my contract here ends.)

Dorothy Whitelock, National Portrait Gallery, London (she did get recognition, eventually, but never a faculty post)

Fortunately for my sense of realism, the bygone academic woman I identified most with was Dorothy Whitelock, so, as I told Twitter, I’ve always expected to be underpaid, underemployed, under-estimated, single, and poor. Whoo, low expectations! (I could’ve identified with Dorothy Bethurum, instead, but nope, I picked Whitelock, and the unregarded Misses Gunning and Wilkinson who did most of Skeat’s translations of Aelfric from the Old English).

The mythical ‘ideal’ young medievalist, or, an early introduction to shame

When I took advice that mentor-once-removed, I planned to go o/seas straight out of Honours: into an MA at Toronto or a PhD in the UK, as my immediate teachers had (Andrea Williams; John Pryor; Dan Anlezark – although Kiera now tells me he started postgrad at Macquarie and transferred). I didn’t. I burned out. My hons year was personally & emotionally hectic (got out of rather bad relationship! had rather distressing becoming-athiest experience! realised i liked ladies! also a 5 hour per week job turned into 10-25 hours!) I couldn’t face applications for either Oxford or USyd in October 2008. I couldn’t keep up my then blog. My family encouraged me to apply for a government job, which I did, mostly because it seemed what everyone does with a BA. I was in the process of applying to work as a teaching assistant in France – a job I really wanted, but which would require me to rely on my French (my weakest subject) and which would require me to find a temp job & save up a lot of money between end of Hons and the intake of the teaching program. When the govt job came through, I took it. It was safe. There is a reason that when I decided to apply for the MPhil, I titled the post what would you do if you were not afraid?

A list of things I have been ashamed of for crummy reasons:

  • Not getting medalist class honours (I got 1st class despite the crap listed above. Ergo had I not dated the awful man, and thus not been a mess in 2008, I would likely have done better).
  • Doing a Masters in Australia. This is not a required piece of the academic path in Aus. I could’ve done my PhD with Andrea and been Dr Brown by now. But I wanted to go overseas, and I wasn’t awesome enough to get in off the back of my Hons marks alone (see above). I now realise that almost no one is that good anymore. The options that were open to John Pryor and Antonina Harbus at Toronto are no longer available (no one gets fully funded for the MA+PhD combo anymore, and there are far fewer int’l studentships for the PhD) and those which funded Andrea Williams and Dan Anlezark in the UK are far more competitive. The Commonwealth Scholarship hasn’t gone to a medievalist for a very, very long time. I feel mollified given that of my undergrad cohort in medieval studies, 3/6 of us who (that I know of) went on to doctorates did so via an MPhil.
  • Not even trying for an o/seas post until after the Masters. This was actually a realistic assessment of my chances, but I still felt it was copping out somehow.
  • Doing an MPhil, and taking the full two years (plus some – I was ill). Very few people do MPhils on purpose (they’re the degree you get if you can’t complete a PhD) unless they’re planning on finishing early or upgrading to a doctorate overseas. Right?
  • Having taken time off to work in the government. I stopped feeling second-class about this once I realised how very useful it was as a teacher to have had the kind of job people employ Arts students to do. I don’t feel ashamed of the subsequent year off after the Masters, because I trained in ESL, worked as a proofreader, and taught ESL classes as well as an USyd course. Those are useful things.

Time, teaching, and real life has taught me a bit about the stupidity of those points as causes for shame. But there was a book that helped, and I would like to recommend it to you. I recently bought a copy for a fellow student here who was asking many people about how they balanced work and family, prospects for childrearing in the academy, and so on. The prospects, I’m afraid to say, are grim. But my fellow student also seemed bound into the same logic as I was exhibiting in those anxieties above: the myth of an ideal academic life-course. I had a face to put on my Ideal Academic – that genius undergrad colleague, who knew, from his entry into first year, that he wanted to be a professor. He changed subdisciplines over time, but that’s about it. He won prizes, he assisted our centre director with research projects, he did brilliantly in honours, everyone wanted him to go straight on to a PhD in the UK. (Much to my surprise, he didn’t! He wanted to be close to his family, and that’s where my mythologised version of him as the ideal baby professor started falling apart. He had priorities outside of work! My god. Now he’s in Cambridge and he is brilliant, but he’s not the mythical perfect mini academic I imagined him to be.)

The Myth of the Mathematical Life Course: a useful comparison

Women Becoming Mathematicians: Creating a Professional Identity in Post World War II AmericaWhat’s helped me pick apart the ridiculousness of the one-size-fits-no-one academic life myth is this here book: Women Becoming Mathematicians, by Margaret A.M. Murray (MIT Press, 2000).

Murray assembled a list of all the women (roughly 2000) who earned PhDs in the USA from 1949 to 1959. The list is more populous at the beginning of the period, as women were recruited to further research projects and teach classes while the boys were off at war. After the war, women recieved fewer and fewer scholarships, and where they did, were more likely to work in applied mathematics (apparently geometry is particularly girly????). Murray does some statistical analysis of what is known of the whole 200-strong cohort, but most of the book is based on oral interviews with 36 PhD holders – most but not all white, and many of them no longer working in higher ed (teaching senior highschool maths, especially at girls schools, was a popular choice).

I quote the publisher blurb:

The book is based on extensive interviews with thirty-six women mathematicians of the postwar generation, as well as primary and secondary historical and sociological research. Taking a life-course approach, the book examines the development of mathematical identity across the life span, from childhood through adulthood and into retirement. It focuses on the process by which women who are actively involved in the mathematical community come to “know themselves” as mathematicians. The women’s stories are instructive precisely because they do not conform to a set pattern; compelled to improvise, the women mathematicians of the 1940s and 1950s followed diverse paths in their struggle to construct a professional identity in postwar America.

A surprising number of Murray’s interviewees did not hold bachelors degrees in maths, or initially favoured their other undergrad specialisation. Many worked outside of the academy either between degrees or after the doctorate. Some raised children during the doctorate, some after, some never. Most of those now outside of the academy are happy about it. All wished their docotral and early career environment had been less sexist, but none seemed to regret too many of their choices.

Miss Louisa Macdonald, principal of The Women's College, c. 1890s (Wikimedia commons)

Miss Louisa Macdonald, principal of The Women’s College, c. 1890s (Wikimedia commons)

I have always fancied myself an old-fashioned bluestocking (thus, Whitlock. Also my long-standing admiration for Louisa Macdonald, another woman who was not able to make her way in research academia, but became a key player in Australian women’s education). I’ve no talent for maths, but I identified with these women. I needed to know that the women who came before me in academia had not only been held back by explicit discrimination, but by the fact that even old-fashioned bluestockings have priorities outside of research. They supported families (natal and marital), they raised kids and cared for elders and followed husbands or had breakups and were people. If Louisa’s decision to take the job in Australia rather than stay on in London and hope for more chances at archaeology field trips to Egypt wasn’t influenced by the fact that the job allowed her to support her life companion (official Women’s College policy: don’tsaygirlfriendnobodymentionthelesbians) Evelyn, I’ll eat my hat. Nay, I’ll buy a 19th-century ladies’ hat and eat that.

I read this book while I was working in Canberra: I didn’t shuck all my shame at once, but I did start to identify that I felt ‘not good enough’ not because I wasn’t but because my idea of ‘good’ was a bizarrely strict, conformist script which just wasn’t always going to work for me. (Nor, as I later learned from watching my male postgrad peers, does it even work for most men! Not even the most outstandingly geeky and dedicated of men!) I needed to know academics, and especially academic women, were human beings. And that’s me: I already knew by 2009 that I didn’t want kids and I still don’t plan on following any husbands around. Aside from the mental health I’m basically the perfect career bitch!

In conclusion: read Women Becoming Mathematicians. Knowledge of maths not required. Knowledge of humans will be increased, I promise.

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