As a rule, I tend to think I’m too old to wax all introspective about my career trajectory. So, why the sudden bout of introspection? I’m about to celebrate my sixtieth birthday. I don’t know how most people feel about the event, but for me, it leaves me questioning what I’ve done with my life, and whether I’ve fulfilled the potential I might once have been thought to have had.
I’ve written often enough about how I chose music librarianship before completing my first attempt at a PhD (a big mistake! It never got completed). I’ve been a music librarian for 33 years, but 19 years into the long haul, I registered for another doctorate.
The maths didn’t really stack up. First time round, it was full-time research, then a diversion via a library graduate traineeship, followed by a postgraduate Diploma in Librarianship – with a Distinction in the Diploma, but no PhD. Second time round, I was working full-time whilst raising a family, but I did complete the part-time PhD in five years, and I’ve since attained a PGCert in Learning and Teaching in Higher Arts Education, along with a couple of Fellowships.
The student who was expected to get a PhD in some aspect of mediaeval English music at the age of 24, never did. To be honest, I had spent a summer teaching English at a language summer school immediately after getting my first degree, and after that experience, I couldn’t imagine myself standing in front of a lecture theatre, leading a seminar or taking a tutorial. (Teaching English to a lively mixed assortment of teenagers and adults who were combining a foreign holiday with language classes, bore no resemblance to any kind of learning experience that I myself had ever had!) And during my mediaeval scholarship years, I never wrote an article, gave a paper or had the chance to try any kind of academic teaching. I do regret that these opportunities never arose. On the positive side, I became the first music postgrad to collaborate with the Computer Science department in terms of a statistical analysis of some plainsong repertoire. That felt quite good. And I did a one-week course in Basic – an early programming language. That was quite fun, too.
Academic librarianship seemed a good way to continue a career that was at least related to subject specialism. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that someone who once might have completed a PhD, was actually just someone without one. It didn’t compare with those of my peers who had actually gone and got one, and no-one was remotely interested in the polyphonic cantus firmus research that never got completed! (Indeed, my first music librarianship post was in a public library, where I suspect I might not have got the job if anyone had asked just what my later university years had actually been devoted to.)
‘What does a librarian want with a PhD?’, someone once asked in a meeting. I wasn’t at that meeting – I was told this years later, after I’d successfully completed my second attempt at the age of 51. I just wanted to do research again, and most of all, I wanted to prove to myself that I could complete a PhD! The subject seemed relevant to the institution where I work, and I could achieve most of my research without leaving Scotland. That was important, given the other pressures on my time.
Second time round, I’ve published a book and a number of articles (not to mention the social media and blogging); I’ve given papers on my subject specialism, I’ve talked about various aspects of the research process – and I’ve done no end of sessions about online-searching and bibliographic software! The PGCert was the final validation for the timid music graduate who couldn’t see herself teaching in any kind of group situation. Stand up in front of a group? Well, yes – no problem!
Right now, I’m combining librarianship with a second postdoctoral research secondment, so I’ve moved in the right direction. I successfully applied for a research grant – my first attempt. I’m achieving quite a bit. But a little voice inside me still nags at me. Could I have achieved more? I stayed in the same library job. A colleague who didn’t stay long, said that you weren’t successful if you didn’t keep moving onwards and upwards. Does that mean I failed, spectacularly and resoundingly? Juggling working parenthood and other responsibilities, staying put seemed both pragmatic for myself, and fair to the family. Someone else without those responsibilities really has no idea of the way one is tugged in all directions as a working mother.
I haven’t make it to a full academic position. Does that count as failure? I’ve got three music degrees, but the only performance I do is as a church organist. That might be seen as failure, too. Am I even entitled to aspire to achieve greater things? Does anyone expect me to?
A stupid, trivial occurrence yesterday was the final straw. I went to see about getting a concessionary bus-pass, and that meant getting a photo. The photo-booth didn’t seem to be working, and the enquiry desk man was derisive. “Do you want me to come and look at it for you? Sorry, folks, I’ll be back in five minutes. THIS LADY can’t work the photo-booth.” So that’s it, is it? A wee, late-middle-aged lady who can’t even take her own photo, fit only to be humiliated in front of a queue of people? Is that who people see?
Deflated, I took a little perverse satisfaction in the fact that THAT YOUNGER MAN couldn’t work the spanking-new, just-installed booth either. (Truth to tell, I should have looked round the back to see if it was even turned on, but by this stage I was just a little irritated!) I did manage to work the second photo-booth (I’m good at second-time-around opportunities, after all!). Indeed, the machine refused to take payment – how good is that?
My concessionary bus-pass might even lure me off the trains and onto the buses for future research trips – I won’t be going on pensioners’ mystery trips “Doon the Watter” for a good while yet. Bingo on the way to Blackpool? Not on your life! I’d sooner spend a summer picking strawberries!
Meanwhile, folks, please don’t write older colleagues off as finished just because we’re sixty. You might be surprised by what we achieve in the years that the government has determined will still be our mature working lives.