It is a sad thing, leaving a job.
Back when I, and all my friends, were PhD students, I was all too fond of saying to people: ‘Jobs are like boyfriends [or girlfriends]. You only need one. That’s all you’ve got time for. And most of them would only make you miserable.’ I don’t think it was much of an insight, but it was a comment in the vein of ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’. Mostly, I reckoned, people who you wanted to go out with, but who didn’t want to go out with you, could perceive some incompatibility you couldn’t see yourself. OK, it might just be that they don’t fancy people with your kind of hairstyle, but in my more optimistic moods I thought usually not. And I tried to believe the same about jobs I didn’t get, and persuade my friends of the merits of this belief.
So – if you’re buying into this analogy at all – it follows that once you have got a job you really wanted, even if you and your employer both knew it wasn’t going to last forever – a job that took up almost all of your attention and energy for a year, was fun, stressful, emotional, during which you changed a little, probably for the better – breaking up packing up the office is hard to do.
Then there’s the whole question of identity. (Don’t stress, this isn’t about to turn into an undergraduate essay on Hamlet.) For all that people dismiss it as a bourgeois thing to say, for all that it’s always embarrassing when you say it to someone who’s unemployed, still the main question everyone always asks when they meet you is ‘where do you work?’ or ‘what do you do?’ I’m very happy saying that I have a temporary job as a university lecturer. I’m not so hung up on status that I want to claim anything more impressive – though sometimes I wish it wouldn’t lead on to having to have a conversation about how likely it is that I’ll get a permanent job some time soon and where that might be, which is always inane and always leaves everyone feeling awkward.
But in a fortnight’s time, I’ll have to say one of the following things: 1) ‘I just followed my husband here.’ 2) ‘I’m out of work.’ 3) ‘I’m an independent scholar.’ 4) ‘I’m writing a novel.’
All of these are obviously unappealing. Everyone’s seen a sitcom or read a novel that laughed at the final category. But number 3 is pretty desperate too. In the world of academia, being ‘without an affiliation’ – i.e. without a home university that is willing to own up to having anything to do with you is just dreadful. It implies that you’re unemployable, eccentric, possibly mad. People may listen to you at conferences, but only if they can’t avoid you because you cropped up on a panel between two speakers they actually wanted to hear. It’s sort of the human equivalent of the publisher’s slush pile.
So, I hear you say, why should all this status stuff bother you? It’s pretty shallow, isn’t it? Well, it kind of is, and that’s what I’ve been telling myself. But I think it’s basically human, too. And it’s a double blow: I really liked the job I resigned from; and now I’ve left it, I’m no one.