I didn’t get the job

A recruitment story

If the revelations of the secret lives and decisions of moralising politicians revealed anything in the last weeks, it’s that nothing much stays backstage in Canberra – whether it be paramours or au pairs. Backstage, a lovely metaphor for what is meant to remain invisible to the audience.

I muse on this, and wonder whether the bush is the great backstage of my country – if examined closely it reveals everything that white, urban Australia wishes to hide. The bush holds the scars of that which must shame us: a continuing war both against the First Nations people and Gondwanan ecology. Evidence of non-native species all around, impossible to completely eradicate, co-existing under sufferance, no negotiated compromises. The bush is always asking us: can we live together?

Over January I went to such a place, next to a river, tall Eucalypts surrounding a small campsite. Over the days, friends and their young families joined us, and we perched there, to wonder at our tenuous welcome, bat away flies, introduce toddlers to coarse inland sand, and forget our mortgages for a weekend or so.

A prominent Canberra couple officiates over the campsite, assuring we keep to the rules, and generally practising the ‘neighbourhood watch’ theory of regulation. They are successful, wealthy and committed to justice and sustainability, not necessarily in that order. As is increasingly custom in such post-boomer-pre-gen-X households, they have two large adult sons, who have accompanied them from the family home to the family camping trip.

All large adult sons look the same to me, so I’m not sure which one attempted to balance on my friend’s two-year-old son’s soccer ball, disfiguring the ball in such a way that the next time it heated up under the midday sun its rubber inner exploded with a sound like a firecracker. The noise reverberated around the campground, shocking the lace monitors snoozing in the shade into unplanned evasive action.

Yes, we mildly resented the presence of the large, adult sons, impinging as they did on free and intimate conversation, borne of decades of friendship; careless, as they were, of little belongings that didn’t register as precious to them; oblivious, as they spoke, of the experiences and expertise of others, particularly given their own relative inexperience and clumsiness of lives barely lived, of adult milestones untouched.

They mercifully disappeared only a few days in, and my friends headed home too, not blessed with the long holidays of the between-jobbers. My partner left to retrieve his kids and for 24 hours I was to be alone at the campsite. In a gesture of easy social grace and generosity I was invited to join the caretakers’ table for dinner.

I headed over as the day was cooling down and joined the mother by the fireside. She’s a large lady too – larger than I will ever be, in a corporal sense, as well as a social, political, material and wordly one. Her shadow extends far beyond mine, curled up, as I am, on a camp chair with my legs tucked up underneath me.

Self-driving cars came up (as they do) in the idle fireside chitchat, and I mentioned a public lecture on them and other progression of the digital age I had listened to recently (as one does). It turns out (of course) the caretaker was oldtime cronies with the Distinguished Speaker – it’s a Canberra thing, this constant uncovering of connections. It goes hand in hand with the difficulty of secrecy, anonymity, and the relative recklessness in even considering publishing this blog.

It is about this moment that I consciously decide not to mention that I had applied for a job with the Distinguished Speaker right before leaving frontstage urbanity behind. The conversation moves on, now to the career ambitions of the large adult sons, and their mother…well, I want to write boasts, but perhaps comments will do. I sheathe my claws. The mother comments that her eldest will be starting a PhD with the distinguished speaker later in the year. I wonder at distinguished speaker’s ability to set up a PhD program so quickly, given their very recent hop, skip and jump from private profit to public purse. But lo! The PhD program has not in fact been set up yet, nor an admissions process, nor any of the pesky details that usually hound young people intending to embark on a postgraduate journey.

Conversation moves on. Dinner is served – gourmet camp food of a kind I have never before experienced, except for several nights previously when one of the sons had generously handed around some of the best campfire pizza the world has ever seen. My sour grapes shrivel further when the father makes a sincere offer of mentorship as I transition into a postdoc from my drawn-out student status. I feel small in comparison to this family, an insignificant flibbertigibbet who is missing the rules of achieving local, national and global significance. I am not on a trajectory, I merely puddle around.

Fast forward about a month, when all of the beneficial effects of the camping digital detox have well and truly worn off. I am very surprised to be offered a ‘preliminary’ telephone interview for the job I had applied for with the distinguished speaker. After answering nine selection criteria and completing a writing task, this interview will be the final step before…proceeding to ‘step 2’ of the recruitment process, according to a tongue outside cheek email I received from HR.

As is custom, I received word of who would be on the recruitment panel prior to interview: Distinguished Speaker, Internal Academic, External Academic and Academic Manager. Quickly googling each one I’m not familiar with, I am momentarily surprised that the first two hiring decisions were to a) promote an inexperienced (white able-bodied male) administrator to the position of manager and to b) have a non-doctored (white able-bodied male) risk analyst as the one ‘setting the research agenda’. I further find that the [Eurasian woman] appointed as administrator has approximately the same minimal work experience as the school manager – I have to assume that the open hiring processes they went through must have fairly revealed their differing abilities and potential.

The day of the interview snuck up on me. To be honest my head was lost in my research explaining the relationships between injustice and tax fraud – but now I think about it BaO3Si is as good a formula as any for learning how to avoid both the fiscal demands of government and transparent recruitment practises.

I answer the call, and learn, to my horror and disgust, that a Large Adult Son, for reasons unexplained, is listening in on my interview. It turns out between his mother’s promise of entry to a PhD program, and me getting through to round 1(d) of this recruitment, he has been hired and allowed to sit in on a moment of vulnerability and privacy for the global candidates for a cherished postdoctoral position. What is in my head is unspeakable. What comes out of my mouth for the next 20 minutes is rubbish as I try to quieten my invasive thoughts. In short, I crumble, fumble, mumble and stumble. I get off the phone filled with anger and shame.

After, I keep thinking of Ruben Dario’s immortal line – if your nation is small, you dream it big – and I wonder what it would be to dream myself big, to occupy all the space, to be loud when I feel quiet, to have voiced the monologue in my head which said – how DARE you put this undercooked and overfed beast as witness to my humiliation, how DARE you allow him influence and voice over others’ hard-won careers when barely out of graduation robes, even if he and his could claim it as a mere sneak peek into his own manifest destiny.

Of course, it is unwise to burn bridges (even though I am an exceptionally good swimmer, with lifesaving qualifications – this is to dream myself big) in this frontstage town of ours. You never know when you might need someone to tolerate your off-key singing at a backyard deck party until all hours of school night, for example. So I bin my rage-filled email to the Distinguished Speaker, and shrug. Shrug and shrug.

I idly reflect that, this being Canberra, my current supervisor is also the mother of a school friend. I further reflect that should I have been excluded from hire on the basis of personal connections, I would have had very few jobs, instead of the track record of pretty much continuous employment for the last 25 years, starting, age 12, coaching gymnastics at my local club. It is just the way things are, and I haven’t been very often on the losing side of history.

But I have to confess to feeling more than a little irritated when Distinguished Speaker tweets about diversity and inclusion in her discipline, waving flags for gender, justice and transparency. Then I shrug. Shrug and shrug. The limelight, with its promise of sour exposure, was never going to be for me.

Give me backstage, the commons, the slow, the small and the humble. Give me thinking watching the cockatoo traverse the powerlines outside my living room is more important right now than both this blog and my professional activities. I can live with this.


A very dear friend wrote to me after I posted this story. She wrote

“I just worry that your ‘sour grapes’—although you state it so honestly—won’t help you. Underneath sour grapes is usually sadness—a cognition of injustice, much broader and deeper than its effect on any single, educated, white privileged person [which you are always aware you are]. The unveiling is the problem—the rage of being chained;  but in its current state, I feel corralled into the sourness of your writing, whereas I suspect where I need to be is singing the collective lament with you.
I wonder if on some level you feel unworthy of the rage in you—that you have no right to it; but of course you do, for Justice is a great and statuesque woman. She does not have to cower by the campfire”
She’s right, of course, it’s rare that she isn’t. I decided not to change it though – because I wanted to own my limes. But I’m adding this, as a reminder of my hope to find her statuesque woman within, but also a kinder, gentler, more tolerant one. Make lime cordial, as it were. Like my grandmother did.
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