The Exhausting Quest of the Moving Target

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Inherent Flaws in the System

My mother was a brilliant, loving, indefatigable person. All she wanted was world peace and global prosperity and an end to climate change. No big deal. I joke, but she also did everything in her power to look out for other people even when they hated her. Seriously, there is a woman out there who threatened my mom and was emotionally abusive towards her and would spend hours berating her just because … because. Mom saved her life. There was a moment when this woman who was evil to my mother would have died of mom hadn’t intervened. Mom knew she was a bad person and knew she would never stop trying to hurt others, but recognizing her humanity, mom stepped in and saved her life. And this woman repaid that unpayable debt by continuing to harass, belittle, and abuse my mom until mom passed away at 62 years of age.

Mom gave endlessly of herself and all she wanted was peace. She worked in medical ethics and cared deeply for other people’s health and comfort. She had wanted to be a nurse, but gave it up for my father. She did manage to work her way up the medical ethics ladder from Institutional Review Boards at the local hospital to the Pentagon, but at every turn people who didn’t know her doubted her simply on the basis of her lack of any university degrees. My mother wrote some of the ethics regulations that keep you safe, but there was a point in her career where a prospective employer was afraid that she did not have the educational background to thoroughly understand one of the regulations she herself had authored.

Mom’s proudest moment then was when I was able to call her and tell her I had passed my viva. Well, actually, she had gotten anxious and called me and luckily we were in my supervisor’s office having some celebratory prosecco. (I’m a bit hazy, but she may have actually called my supervisor’s landline.) But what I’m sort of glad my mom didn’t live to see is that the doctorate didn’t help me.

Everyone struggles and bleeds and gives of themselves in graduate school. Graduate school is hard. It’s meant to be hard. Both my master’s degrees were moderately difficult but my doctorate was — at the time — near impossible. And that’s fine. The point of a doctorate is that you are discovering and proving something that no one else in the entire world knows. It would be kind of pathetic if that task weren’t super hard. The additional point of it is that it’s your first hurrah. You’re supposed to carry on proving things no one else knew for the rest of your career. Basically, the PhD is meant to show that a.) you’re not entirely stupid and b.) you can utilize the scientific method and whatever resources you have at your disposal to learn/prove something new about the world.

And if the world wasn’t inherently messed up I would be out there statistically calculating the morphology of femoral heads and the distribution of cortical bone to determine health in modern and archaeological populations and possibly cure or prevent some forms of osteoarthritis. That is my jam. I am a massive nerd.

The thing I didn’t mention though is while my PhD was hard it wasn’t really the academics or mathematics or laboratory methodology that was hard. That stuff sometimes took a bit for me to figure out but was ultimately what I expected and frankly, pretty easy. I mean, if you have a set of coordinates and a predetermined algebraic function that you didn’t even have to work out for yourself calculating shape and relative variation of shape is super easy. What was hard was getting the resources to do any of that.

I needed money, I needed lab time, I needed access, I needed RAM, I needed specialize equipment and software, and I needed time in general. And despite having been accepted into a PhD program I got very little of this without a fight. Money I raised through multiple and concurrent part-time jobs. Lab time and access were provided to me, but I had to ask repeatedly for the RAM and ended up providing my own after I crashed all the lab computers, it took several years before the right hardware was supplied to me and it was only after I threatened to quit the program and use my tuition to buy it myself, and then because that set me several years back and I then had an adversarial relationship with the department I had to fight to stay in the program. All while working part-time.

But the carrot here is that once I got my magical PhD I’d be able to publish and then get a job researching.

Supposedly.

That actually didn’t happen. Partly it didn’t happen because I haven’t been able to publish due to various tragedies in my life and my autism and part of it is due to the fact that I’ve never had a full-time job. I watched a lot of my classmates do this after undergraduate. They wanted to start working, but outside of unpaid internships there was nothing available. I actually sort of did this myself. I had an internship that was supposed to count as job experience. It was in headhunting so when I needed a job in between degrees I applied to a headhunting agency. I was asked if I had experience and because internships are by definition experience and marketed as such, I cited it. The interviewer said that internships do not count as experience. I did not get that job.

But through all this I was assured that with advanced degrees came employment. Said employment would not be lucrative particularly at first, but I was assured that I would have *a* job. I was promised that if I just got a bit more education I’d be able to do what I want and be financially independent. Not wealthy, but I’d have enough money to buy food and pay rent.

Yeah, so, they lied to me.

I’ve been given various reasons as to why any of the now hundreds of companies, agencies, charities, and universities I’ve applied to won’t hire me. I’m told my CV is quite excellent and that my application was absolutely stellar and well written. At least once that I know of I was rejected because they felt I would likely find a better position elsewhere and leave. So I guess that’s a nice reason to be rejected, but it’s still a rejection. I still have no money. But quite a few places I applied where I knew I was a good if not the best candidate I later found out had hired — instead of me — a white man. Usually he has the same qualifications as I do or fewer, but he always gets hired over me. I’m not supposed to complain because, of course, being a woman with autism, I’d be a “diversity” hire. It doesn’t matter that I’m more qualified than a homogeneity hire. I’m supposed to be grateful they even condescended to consider me.

At present the reason I’m often given is that I’m too good or don’t have exactly the right set of qualifications. Fabulous. I mean, I spent my youth getting those qualifications so that I would be right and I was always told that if I just worked a bit harder I could have a job and maybe even a career. But yes, my qualifications are either too much or not quite right.

Soon though, it’s going to turn. Soon the reason I’m not going to get hired is because I’ve never been hired. The target is moving and there’s not a thing I can do about it. I see it moving for millions even billions of people like me who are smart, hard working, qualified, but just not the “type” that “should” succeed.

I want to fix this. Having no career I figured I’d change careers. So I applied to a few government agencies. I offered myself to run for office. I applied to more charities and NGOs. But no, they don’t want me either.

Everything is wrong with this world because based on sex and race and supposed disability young and brilliant people like me are being told to just shut up and go away. I know of brilliant young climate scientists who are being ignored because they’re doing what they know rather than what they’re told. It’s incredibly frustrating to have jumped through all the hoops and then be told that actually no, there’s no reward, they were just hoping I’d fail.

I’m white and straight so I’m not on the street. Yet. But my mom did everything she could and was met with these moving targets. I’m seeing the targets move now in my life. We are not asking to be rich. We’re not trying to hurt others or take things which we did not earn. My mom succeeded in making the world a kinder and better place. I would like to find a way to do the same. This is not an unreasonable demand.

And yet here I am being told after everything, I’m just not good enough for these several thousand jobs, but good luck in your future endeavours.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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