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That time I ended up unemployed…

January 24, 2021

Because reasons, I am currently unemployed.  I’ll get to those reasons in a minute.  They are good reasons in the grand scheme of things, but the path I’ve trodden has not been easy, and probably will not be for a while yet.  I am not the only one walking such a path.  There are several hundred thousand of us already unemployed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and there are likely to many thousands more before this is over.  It’s the first time in 20 years of work that I’ve been unemployed, and I’m hoping that it won’t be for too long.  We are also reasonably comfortable financially, and without that comfort the stress level would be considerably higher.  As a result, I consider myself one of the “lucky unlucky” ones.  But what effect this has had on me is what I want to explore.

My predicament is largely self-inflicted; it is only tangentially related to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Just before the pandemic got properly serious, my wife and I were considering the future anyway, and for reasons associated with the finances of the university we both worked at, and we decided that moving on might be worth exploring.  Posts at a prestigious university came up, we both took a punt and got through to the final interview (all online by this point).  Two weeks later, my wife got an offer of employment.  It was an offer that would be very difficult for her to refuse, and I was keen for her not to.  I was, of course, anticipating that I too would get the nod, but alas this was not to be.  So, we had a quandary: do we stick or twist?  Sticking would not necessarily be the safe thing to do, and my wife had the best opportunity of her professional life.  The only option, as I saw it, was to take her opportunity, leave my job, and hope for the best.

The plan was that I would take voluntary severance, which provided a reasonable redundancy package, and spend some time writing whilst I looked for a job nearby our new home.  The advantage of this was that I could help our son settle into school whilst my wife settled into her new job.  So far, so good.  And then it hit me. My career could be over. They didn’t employ me because I wasn’t good enough, and I never will be, I thought.  I liked to think I was one of the best in the world at what I did, but now I had objective evidence that I’m not even the best sport scientist in my own house.  I would look in the mirror and not really know who it was who was staring back at me.  I would look at my wife and son and feel like I’d let both of them down.  I needed help, and for a couple of weeks I was completely unable to function.  I got over this, with help from my wife, who has been amazing, from friends and family, and mental health professionals, but it was a very dark time. Those feelings come back from time to time, often with little or no warning. I’m just a bit better at controlling them.

I can’t help but reflect on the fact that if I was female, taking a career break to help my husband’s career would be perfectly normal.  What kind of husband would I be if I didn’t do the same?  There was never a doubt in my mind that this change was the right one to make.  But it nearly destroyed me, and that meant that I was unable to celebrate my wife’s career success in the way I should have done.  That made me feel even worse.  I’ve spent the better part of eight months reflecting on what I have lost, rather than what we, as a family, and I, as a scientist, stand to gain.  I’m now in a place where I can start to look forward, rather than back.  But the psychological effects of all this are most likely common to others who have gone through similar upheavals.

We normally think of “the unemployed” as a statistic reported in the media. Just a bunch of numbers.  But each individual is going through one hell of an emotional process.  A feeling of utter uselessness is the obvious one.  If I’m not contributing financially, I am worthless, or so the internal monologue goes, which is, of course, untrue.  But try telling your own brain that.  My unemployment is special in the sense that I received a pay-off from my previous employer, and was kept on to teach out the autumn term.  I will miss all of my colleagues immensely.  Being part of a school, an institution, is something I’ve taken for granted, and I really miss it. 

A severance of this kind goes through specific steps.  The first is to apply.  The second is wait for a week (the “cooling off” period).  In this phase you can change your mind.  I didn’t, and actually felt better when this deadline passed.  Then the letter confirming the legally binding agreement gets sent.  Ever since, I’ve felt like I’m on borrowed time.

What I didn’t anticipate was the degree to which my job defined me.  I felt like I was nothing without it.  But, of course, I am still a scientist and have a brief opportunity to explore things that I probably wouldn’t be able to if I was in a full-time academic role.  But to take those opportunities requires a frame of mind I’m not sure I’ve achieved yet.  Who wouldn’t like a year off to just write stuff?  That is more or less what I have.  But it’s extremely difficult to focus on that when there is no assurance that there will be a job at the end of it all.  This is not a Disney film; there is no guarantee of a happy ending. My head feels like it is full of ants, and at least once a day I replay parts of my unsuccessful interview.  The need to move house, and the stress that creates, has certainly not helped.  But that, too, will resolve itself soon.

So I would not recommend the path I’m treading, but it is my path.  I get to decide which direction it takes (within certain limits – like where we live), and that is exciting.  But one person’s excitement is another’s fear, and these emotions just happen to both occur in me.  The worst year of my life could well lead to the best, so forwards I go, Dr Mark Burnley: husband, father, scientist, unemployed guy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Saïd permalink
    January 24, 2021 10:10 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Long time follower. Sorry to hear about your situation. There’s a potential position being vacated at a UK uni (not my institution) by a researcher with very similar interests to yourself. It’s not impossibly far from where I think you’re looking to move. High spec labs waiting to be used. I thought you might want to hear about it. Drop me a line if so.

  2. December 3, 2022 5:56 pm

    Hello Dr. Burnley,
    I read your article today which was written in the year 2021. I hope everything is going good now. I would like to introduce myself in brief. I am a masters student in kinesiology at UNT, Texas. I will be graduating in December, 22. I am happy to say that I am doing my thesis on “Effect of hypoxia on moderate and severe intensity exercise” and your research work and you tube videos has helped me in a great way. Today, when I was preparing for my presentation, I came across your article and it was interesting to read as it was kind of a story telling where in a simple way you explained about your work and results.
    I am aiming to continue my work in this field and can bring innovative result in the world which can help many athletes and body functioning shouldn’t be a restriction for them two achieve their goals.
    Let me know if it is possible to set up a meeting where we can have a quick chat on exercise intensity domain research.
    Thank you,

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