Foggy road

It’s almost a year since my last post for FiSch, on writing my acknowledgements to my recently completed thesis. Since then I’ve defended and finalised it: anyone who cares to can now download 100,000 words on ‘Anchoritic Prayer in Time‘! Since this is a pandemic year, of course, some things are still a little in limbo – I haven’t yet graduated, or formally deposited my thesis as a bound copy (which I was quite looking forward to doing!).

Here is where I would have perhaps expected, when I started my graduate studies, to tell you about a next step: a postdoc, a lectureship, some kind of move forward into the academic life which has been my ‘plan A’ since making the decision to apply for a Masters. But I don’t have anything of that kind to report. Last June, I started a job as an administrator in a hospital, working full time over four days a week; I’ve done a couple of terms’ teaching on my day off; and I’ve applied to, and been rejected from, a couple of dozen academic roles.

This was hardly unexpected: the academic job market in the Humanities is unforgiving, to say the least. I had explicitly planned to find a non-academic job at least for a time and to balance it with working towards becoming more competitive. But my own reactions to actually taking this step took me a little by surprise.

I suspect this year has been a sharp shock to many of us in terms of our expectations and plans. As I began 2020 without any clear path beyond ‘finish my thesis soon’, I perhaps had a head start on realising that I was stepping into an uncertain future: looking back at my New Year post, on following God when the road ahead is a blank, I have to laugh at how very, very true it turned out to be! But even aside from the disruptions and disappointments of a Covid era, the last year has forced me to repeatedly face the fact that all the planning in the world can’t guarantee where my life will head, or what doors will open for me.

I’ve been writing and talking for years now about the place of academic work within the life of faith, so it was easy at times to think I had solved the problem of tying my self-worth too tightly to my academic success – of course, academic work is for God’s glory, and my vocation is to follow him in whatever path I take. But in discerning how to move forward, amid the seeming impossibility of carving out a stable living in academia, I’ve had to confront deep feelings of anxiety and shame. I’m still there – in the difficult ‘middle’, without knowing what shape my life’s story will eventually take.

There is a lot I could say about my experiences of life after the doctorate, so far. I could talk about the pressures of precarity, especially in the Humanities, and my reasoning behind taking a non-academic job; about my varying attempts to balance that job with keeping a foot in the door of the academic world; about the complicated feelings about identity and success that have sometimes made me shrink from writing posts like these, or giving advice, or accepting invitations to speak on my work. But I think the first and most important thing to say, as I write from ‘the middle’, is that Christ has remained faithful to me. I have learned a little more, I hope, about giving thanks and resting at his feet. Ultimately, though, it’s not my faithfulness or success that matter, but his steady, encompassing love, his plan to ‘give me a hope and a future’.

Alicia Smith
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Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.