By Juliana Adelman
I think the first time that I truly understood the term ‘existential crisis’ was when I learned that thirty-eight painters are engaged full time to paint the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It wasn’t the tedium of their work that struck me. In fact, I doubt that painting 100 to 200m up in the air over some of the world’s most stunning scenery could ever become tedious. It was the fact that their work would never be done. Not ever. They would retire without feeling that sense of completion that I associate with work. Their job is to make something appear as though it never changes.
As the preceding paragraph has made abundantly clear, I should stick to history and stay away from philosophy. Nonetheless, the past few years have made me increasingly question the point of what I do. Will anything I write change anything or am I maintaining the paint on the Golden Gate Bridge? It seems to me that this is a crisis of navel gazing which is almost unique to the postdoctoral fellow, although feel free to tell me that I am wrong. A faculty member has PhD students and so is very likely to at least have some effect on the ideas of one or two people, even if she never publishes a word. A PhD student, when not convinced he will never achieve anything, thinks she will change the world and that everyone before her was utterly misguided. Your examiners provide an audience, however small. A postdoc has incredible freedom (a freedom which is unlikely to be repeated in ANY type of future employment) but it comes at a price. You are free because you are largely invisible: you keep the bridge painted.
I am not saying that no one reads your work until you become a lecturer or that all university lecturers and even professors produce the most profound or important work. In fact, many postdocs have a higher rate of publication than many pensioned staff because they have to (we always have one eye focused on not falling off the bridge). Nonetheless there is a sense in which developing an influential body of work relies on having a relatively lengthy career and not even the most sanguine postdoc can feel assured of that at the moment. Also, I often wonder (as many people do) if the pressure to produce publications in order to increase your chances of getting shortlisted for a job is exerting a downward pressure on the impact of those publications. There is too much to read and it is often too narrowly focused. Having big ideas requires time to think, read and write and then to rethink and revise. Postdocs don’t have time: they have one to two years to produce enough publications to become a serious candidate for jobs.
A full-time university lecturer has, of course, even more demands on their time and research must often be confined to times between terms or occasional sabbatical leaves. Nonetheless, teaching seems to me very likely to have a positive impact on the scope and quality of what you write. Teaching requires you to read outside your field and to articulate your views to a wider audience than the few specialists in your area. And occasionally one of your students might even ask a question you haven’t thought of before.
This ramble brings us then, finally, to the question I started this article with. Who am I? Am I in training for becoming a lecturer? If so, it’s pretty poor training and no wonder that a few of the lecturers I had in college were not quite up to the task. Am I a bridge painter? If so, it is a very expensive bridge and getting more so every day. At least the scenery is pretty good from up here.