Or I could make a career of being blue / I could dress in black and read Camus

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 24 November 2007

This is best done with a parable.

There was once, in some entirely fictional department in some entirely fictional university, at the end of a long, dark corridor, an office with 'Teaching Assistants' on the door (printed, incidentally, on a sign so old that I don't think the font used even exists any more). This office had several desks. 'Several' is the word here.

TAs who were also PhD students still working on their theses used the office, but only for their scheduled office hours. It was, after all, a cold, dark place, and PhD students had their own desks in a much nicer office down the corridor. TAs only relocated there permanently once their PhDs were finished, in what we'll generously call the 'gap stage' between the end of the PhD and the start of the first job that pays you enough to live off.

With the job market being the way it is, and with university finances being the way they were, the department's TA numbers crept higher. The desks in the TA office filled up, and other people's office hours involved a carefully-choreographed pantomime of eyebrow signals and coffee breaks when a student turned up.

Desks in the PhD office needed to be Officially Assigned to new students, and thus students at the other end of their PhD life - preparing for the viva, making post-viva corrections - had to be dislodged. Where to put them? The department did not want any of its young to go deskless, but space was short, and, well, they were still students, so - ah! Most of them teach, don't they? And even if they don't, there's loads of space in that TA office! Problem solved.

Except for the evictees, who turned up, box-files in hand, to discover that a) there were indeed several desks in the TA office, and b) 'several' meant 'four', and those four were full.

The department meant well. It's just that they didn't have much cause to take the long walk down the dismal corridor to the less-than-pleasant TA office themselves. Why would you, unless you're a TA or a student looking for one? The currents of academic promotion had long since carried them away to better rooms on nicer corridors and the TA office had become in their minds a grand and limitless place, with desks for all and ample shelving. It's not as good as having your own office, of course - they knew that much - but beggars can't be choosers, and so when TAs and end-stage PhD students began sentences with "But I don't have a desk," they smiled in a collective, avuncular way and reminded their young charges that there was "always the TA office." Really, they meant well. They just didn't know that by 'no desks', the students meant 'no desks, anywhere, including the less desirable ones in the TA office, which we would still take, because they're better than no desks at all.'

And all of this is what went through my head during the three versions, I am not kidding, of the following conversation which I found myself having this week:

DR. HELPFUL (in various guises): So, how's the job hunt going?
ME: Eh. Miserable. There's been nothing advertised for weeks.
DR. HELPFUL: Well, you know what you should do? You should start applying for temporary one-year posts. And you should start looking for jobs all over the country, not just in the places you want to live.

No, see, when I said no jobs...