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My Absent Career 8: A second chance

Last updated on 1 Jan 2023

So, at this point I am now 50 or so, doing my postdoc at UQ with Paul Griffiths, and living with my family just pre-separation (the divorce came a few years later). Two things happened.

The first is that I started to gain confidence, Now, this may shock those who have known me for a while, as I am told I come across as very confident, but it’s all a front. In the trade it is called Imposter Syndrome, and of course it was first described for high achieving women. But in academe it seems to be an equal opportunity affliction. I was chatting with my head of department once, who was an internationally recognised expert in his field, and I mentioned this to him, and he replied, “Well, we all have that. I do.”

Now not every academic is a sufferer. I know a few who have a family history of academic achievements, who act as though they are to be listened to no matter how ridiculous their opinions. They tend to be the ones who, in the Q&A after a talk, will start by saying “Now, this is more of a comment than a question…” and go on to speak for ten minutes on their favourite diversion, thereby making it impossible either for the speaker to respond, and for anyone else to ask a more interesting question.

But to hear this professor of philosophy of science say this, shocked me. Then he described being the first child of his family to go to university (like me), and who grew up in a regional part of Australia, finding himself on the international stage not only with philosophers but also with scientists in his field of interest (like me) and I began to understand. In Australia we tend to devalue academic achievements. So unless we are raised among the tribe, we don’t think we deserve to be there, male or female. Of course, women have an even worse time of it, because they are routinely gaslit by male academics, especially those in positions of management.

Which gets me to the second thing. A renowned woman academic in our department was being sexually harassed by a man in a position of power. She rebuffed him, not only because she was married but because he was an awful human being, and so this male organised a review of the School, the sole substantive recommendation of which was that her position be abolished. That she taught over 500 students a year, while others had far fewer, seemed beside the point (she also had grants), so Paul and the head of discipline told the dean they would leave and take their funding (around 75% of the faculty grant funding) with them.*

I, being a pessimist, told them both the dean, the deputy vice chancellor and the vice chancellor would not support them, because I knew from my experience in the past that there simply is no “interests of the faculty/university”, only the career interests of those in management. I was proven right, again.

So they left and I was an orphan, academically speaking, because my postdoc was funded by the university. I was put under the supervision of Phil Dowe, an excellent metaphysician, so I was not left bereft and a discussion with Phil led to my publishing with Paul Griffiths much later my most cited paper, although almost certainly not Paul’s.

But this meant I had no future. Paul, the gods bless him, wrangled a position at Sydney as a research Professor (in Australia, Professor is the most senior academic position one can hold, not just anyone who teaches), and invited me to apply for an Australian Research Council postdoctoral position, which I got, working on the evolution of religion. I still remember the reviewer of my application indignantly telling me that Buddhism was not a religion as it had no gods and no doctrine, which a quick visit to the Encyclopedia of Religion dispelled. Since I expected not to get the award, I was not … restrained … in my language in reply. Good times.

So off to Sydney.

* I know this puts me at risk legally, but I have no assets, so if they want to sue, I will plead nolo contendere. I’m involuntarily retired and on a state pension now.