Suddenly I was out of work, I could not rejoin the postdoc, and I had to move to Sydney once again, to see if I could find anything. I did do some teaching at UNSW, but that was about it. I was in dire straits. And the Straits of Dire were to be my home for the rest of my career. Having injured my back I could not find work in a manual job, and being, by then, around my mid-50s, I could not find work in academe. Believe me, I tried. I applied for over 500 jobs around the world. Most did not reply, some did but to tell me I had not been selected for an interview. I did get one interview, and I was told I came second, but lost out to a rising star from Germany with a Name advisor. He left after 6 months, and I did not get an offer – in fact, that university did not fill the position again.
Now I cannot prove this was ageism. That is one of the ways ageism evades capture. Unless you have access to the hiring data of the institution, which you cannot (privacy! is the cry), you cannot show the pattern of behaviour. Yet, everyone knows it happens. And this is rather curious, once the fury has ebbed. Academe is the field in which knowledge and experience is supposed to be valued, but the reward structures from government, the university marketing departments, grant agencies, etc., goes to prevent knowledge and experience from being even considered. University hiring practices are aimed at picking winners in the absence of any evidence of achievements by candidates that are favoured, so long as they had the right advisor at the right institution.
Often, in my experience, this is occurring at the human resources department stage. They filter applications routinely so that the search committee doesn’t even see applications from anyone whose career path is out of the ordinary (unless you are an ex-politician or celebrity). One job I was asked to apply for, by the head of the search committee, who later asked me why I had not applied. I had, the same day. She never saw it. My advice to older applicants – send a copy to the head of the committee separately, even if they application process says not to.
So, effectively blackballed by the granting organisation, unemployable by youth-centric universities, and living in the then-most expensive city in the world, things looked bad for me. Then I got an email from my advisor, Neil Thomason. Would I like to be the project coordinator of his new grant funded project? Off I headed down the road to Melbourne on my trusty (and rusty) Suzuki Bandit motorcycle.