Dreams of Ivory, part 2: ‘Nought but grief an’ pain’

The temptation to ink a personal motto on my body has never troubled me, but if ever a drunken state of folly lands me in a tattoo parlour then the following would serve well as a permanently etched reminder of lived reality:

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / For promis’d joy!

At the risk of insulting the literary knowledge of my readers, the lines are from Robert Burns’ 1785 poem ‘To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough’. A field mouse has laboriously and carefully constructed a nest in order to stay warm and secure through the winter. Unfortunately, along comes Mr Burns with his plough, accidentally destroying the creature’s home. Burns does what any of us would do: he decides to write a poem, reflecting philosophically on how the poor mouse’s calamity reveals the universal truth that (to Anglicize the lines) ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and leave us with nothing other than grief and pain instead of the expected joy’.

Like the mouse and her nest, I regarded my Cambridge application as a fine plan with prospects of security and joy. My hopes were boosted by the fact that Cambridge were seeking two researchers: since I’ve hardly ever come first in any application process, but have been second a few times, it was reassuring to know that my perennial runner-up status would be enough for Cambridge. Then, the day after the application expiry, Cambridge decided to extend the deadline. Aside from reflecting that I needn’t have gone through all the stress of meeting the original deadline after all, I inferred positive signs from this development: of course, I reasoned, Cambridge desired a little more competition for my own obviously outstanding application. (What was it again, according to the proverb, that comes before a fall?)

In the meantime I learnt that I had been shortlisted for a couple of small teaching roles, interviews for which took place the week before Cambridge’s own proposed interview day. At the very least they would provide some practice before Cambridge, but my sights were set higher on a run of success that would mark a resounding academic comeback. The two interviews went well: I came out of each with a good feeling about my chances. I was runner-up in both.

This setback was a pinprick to my optimism in relation to Cambridge. On the day when Cambridge had promised to contact shortlisted applicants a few ripples of pessimism were lapping at my hopes. The ripples gradually expanded into waves as my inbox remained devoid of the hoped for invitation to interview. Each new email alert on my phone was a ping of promise, only to be followed by the disappointing discovery that it was merely a new notification on Facebook or a suggestion of someone to follow on Twitter. By early afternoon I reasoned that, doubtless because of the extended deadline, the selection committee had to work into the afternoon to finalize the shortlist. This line of reasoning became increasingly unconvincing as each hour passed. By late evening I was clinging to an irrational notion that the selection process had got bogged down for some unforeseen reason. Over the next few days, however much I knew the game was up and that I had been unsuccessful, vestiges of hope refused to disappear entirely. It is perhaps not surprising that having poured so much into believing something I was unable entirely to let go of that belief. Even on the scheduled day for interviews I momentarily imagined that Cambridge had had to postpone the process and that perhaps my application was still in the running. It probably took another week before I completely resigned myself to the certainty that I had been unsuccessful.

And so my application concluded not in appointment, not even in a tragi-comic tale of a disastrously bizarre interview performance, but in the short journey from receipt to the rejection pile and the bin. A close friend reckoned that this was ‘Cambridge’s loss’. Yet I doubt that. I may have been deluded all along about the merits of my application, but not even I think that Cambridge has made a grave error of judgement that will cast a long shadow over its future. I am not (yet) mad: the academic job market is incredibly tough, and I’m realistic that my CV does not make me especially competitive. I also know that you can’t lose something you never had in the first place. So I lost nothing… apart of course from two f***ing weeks of my life, and a whole load of hopes and dreams…

However, I am not interested in organizing a pity party but rather in having a really good rant making constructive criticism about the application process. First, consider what I wrote in the first part of this post, about the hours, days and weeks, the effort and energy invested in the application, the accompanying hopes and stresses, and the time given freely and generously by my referees. Now consider this: the University of Cambridge did not bother to acknowledge receipt of the application, and their policy is not to inform unsuccessful candidates of the outcome of their application.

Every job application is in part a direction of focus and interest towards the potential employer. For sure my primary concern lay with my own career prospects, but inevitably this involved considerable attention to how Cambridge would benefit from employing me. I was not expecting a bespoke token of gratitude for these futile efforts: a handwritten and courier-delivered letter, stained with tears of appreciation and regret, is not numbered among my fantasies. But some sort of communication might have been decent. I’m well-versed in job applications and almost equally well-versed in the experience of rejection, and it is usual that applications are acknowledged and rejected applicants are informed. Of course, all of this is done by automated email and prefab rejection templates, hardly sublime examples of the human touch. But they are better than nothing: somebody somewhere thought it might be good to keep all applicants informed; perhaps they thought that the efforts and interest of the applicants deserved a small return on their side.

I can only guess at why Cambridge adopted this approach. It can hardly be due to stretched resources: the University of Cambridge is among the wealthiest in the world, and to employ someone to prepare email templates, set up automated replies, batch applicants and press ‘send’ is not likely to bring their entire administration to a grinding halt. Maybe it reflects a culture of arrogance specific to Cambridge, a reluctance to engage in contact with the many common failures who dare to wish to work for them. Possibly Cambridge regards the arduous process of applying to work for them as such a privilege in itself that any communication from them would lead to applicants feeling spoiled. Or perhaps it is part of a deeper malaise of dehumanization in academia, in which a cold wind of bureaucratic indifference blasts away simple human niceties. For while I accept that my complaint is essentially trivial, the point is that what is most human is frequently what is most trivial: the polite acknowledgements, the unnecessary yet kind words, the myriad tiny ways in which we show recognition and mutual appreciation of one another as human beings.

Still, I must be honest. Would I have felt better had Cambridge kept me informed of the progress of my application? Not really. It would have spared me anxiety and uncertainty, but it would have made no difference to my disappointment. Indeed, I should be grateful to the Cambridge application process. For I can now console myself with things I do not actually believe, such as that ‘I would not want to work for an institution that treats people like that’. It means that rather than focus on the shortcomings of my application I can wrap myself in indignation at the way Cambridge goes about things.

But I suspect that a cloak of indignation was not going to keep Robert Burns’ mouse sheltered and warm over the months ahead. Burns concludes his poem, however, by arguing that the mouse has an advantage over humans: whereas the mouse is concerned only with the present moment, doubtless laying down another ‘scheme’ without worrying whether it will go ‘agley’, Burns cannot avoid dwelling gloomily on past and future. In difficult circumstances we may sometimes challenge ourselves whether we are ‘man or mouse’. Burns’ poem suggests that ‘mouse’ may well be the better answer.

So I have woken from my dream of ivory with thoughts only of new plans. Oh, okay, mostly of new plans. But I spend no more than an hour or two each day panicking about the uncertainty of my future, no more than a few minutes feeling resentful about the University of Cambridge application process, and merely a second or two dwelling on the words ‘cold arrogant f***ers’.


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