The long road to the end of the beginning.

With that verbose and overly poetic title, my time as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow officially comes to an end.

I was going to write a post about how amazing the experience has been, share some highlights, encourage others to apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie (MSCA) project etc etc. All of that would be completely true, but I decided that it would also be kind of boring and predictable. Besides, most of you will have seen all of that stuff on Twitter anyway! So, I’m taking a different and somewhat less celebratory approach to mark the end of this remarkable and truly life-changing time.

Day One in Vienna, outside the Hofburg. It was cold, and frankly a miracle that Adam could stand upright at all!

I have no idea where the last 24 months have gone. The project has been a whirlwind and some of it is still a bit of a blur. In contrast, my memories of getting here are incredibly vivid. I remember flying to Vienna in August 2016 to write my first attempt at an MSCA (which eventually failed). I remember trying again the following year and having an almost total breakdown when I was put onto a waiting list after having missed out by 0.2%. I remember conversations about giving up entirely and moving to Tasmania where we would get a dog and some bees and just live a normal quiet life. I remember sitting on our Ikea Karlstaad sofa and crying out of sheer relief almost six months later when I received the letter from the European Commission confirming that my project had been funded. I remember selling most of what we owned, putting the rest of our lives into boxes, and moving out of our apartment. I remember a near family tragedy days before my departure that could have been life-changing in a very different way. I remember saying farewell to my family and friends. I remember frantically buying any legal painkillers at a local pharmacy after my partner somehow hurt his back whilst packing his backpack and becoming virtually immobile TWO HOURS before we had to leave for the airport to board a 26-hour flight. I remember sobbing quietly as the plane’s wheels lifted off the ground, spending the entire journey feeling in limbo (or should I say, “InBetween”) and wondering if I was doing the right thing. I remember crying again the second the plane’s wheels skidded onto the tarmac in Vienna, knowing that this was the moment that everything became real. I remember that it was 42ºC on the day we left Sydney, and that it was -2ºC and snowing when we arrived in Vienna. That was perhaps the biggest shock of all.

I ordinarily have a weirdly vivid long-term memory for a lot of totally random things (much to partner’s frustration!), but I think the reason that I remember the process of moving to Vienna with such clarity is because of how difficult it was to get here. I don’t mean logistically difficult (although it was!), but emotionally.

From the outside, what I’ve done for the last couple of years might seem like ‘success’ (whatever that means), but what most people don’t know is that my successful MSCA application was the last in a string of 29 rejected applications to various other jobs and grants over a period of about 2 years. As I said earlier, it was also my second attempt at an MSCA application and even that wasn’t so straightforward. My application was favourably assessed, but I missed out on automatic qualification by 0.2% and was placed on a waiting list. That 0.2% deficit felt as wide and impassable as the Grand Canyon. To miss out is one thing, but to be so close yet still unsuccessful hurt me more than all of those other 29 rejections combined. Like someone was slowly pushing a dagger into my chest and was laughing as they did it. I had reached my lowest point, and I didn’t know what more could I possibly do.

It’s the little things…

I didn’t sleep at all that night, and the next morning, I got out of bed and unleashed all of my frustration on my poor unsuspecting partner. I was crying hysterically, shaking, and shouting in his direction, all before 8am. At that stage we had been together for about 12 years, but he had never seen me like that before. In fact, I don’t think even I had ever seen myself like that before. Nevertheless, he knows me well enough to know that trying to console me would be the worst thing he could possibly do. So he just sat silently, listened, and let me get it out of my system. I went to work at the gallery that morning, trying to be normal, but when one of my colleagues said “Morning, how are you?”, just as they did every morning, I completely broke down again, and hid in the toilet. It was a rough day. But I came back home to find a smiling face and a little bunch of flowers, and I knew that I would be OK.

The reason I’m telling you this story is because I know I’m not alone in the frustration and anger that I felt before finally landing the MSCA project. But mainly also because I think this side of Academia is something that too often goes un-discussed. In day-to-day conversations and especially on social media, we’re bombarded with images and stories of people being “successful”, but all of these images and tweets and Facebook status updates can sometimes cause people to compare themselves to this particular brand of “success”, which can in turn make people feel inadequate. ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is a real thing, and people at every level experience it. I grapple with it all the time. But what I realise now (and what people don’t say enough) is that for every “success”, there are who knows how many ‘failures’.

Missing out on opportunities is an unfortunate and ugly part of this game we call Academia. Every one of my 29 rejected applications hurt. Every one chipped away at my confidence and self-worth a little bit, and my efforts to cope came crashing down when I ended up on that waiting list. It took time, a lot thinking and self-reflection, but most of all A LOT of support from friends and colleagues to be able to pick myself up and keep going. It’s OK to be angry, and to be frustrated, and to cry, and to feel dejected. It’s necessary to work through those emotions. But that support from trusted friends, at least in my case, is what got me back on my feet.

“Success” means different things to different people, and we need to try not to measure ourselves against others. An impressive CV and a long publication list can get you so far, but in my opinion, a strong and supportive network of friends and colleagues is the most valuable asset anyone can have. Friends and colleagues who you can trust to be honest with you, who give you the ability to see yourself from the outside, and who will help you deconstruct yourself only in order to rebuild a more resilient version of yourself. People who understand that everyone’s journey is different, who will guide you away from bad decisions, but who will support your choices even if they aren’t the choices that they would make for themselves, and who will still be there if you decide to follow a different path. In turn, we need to lend the same support to those people who support us, because nothing is ever a one-way street.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had so many such people help and support me over the years, and even more fortunate that this network has expanded further since coming to Vienna. There are too many people to thank –collaborators, co-authors, workshop participants, friends, and more. I would love to name you all, but I know that I will unintentionally forget some of you. You all know who you are, but I want to make special mention of (in alphabetical order) Natasha Ayers, Bettina Bader, Andreas Dorn, Angus Graham, Amber Hood, Barbara Horejs, Lucia Hulkova, Christiana Köhler, Paul Lane, Greg Marouard, Nadine Moeller, Vera Müller, and Annik Wüthrich. All of you either (or both) helped me with the process of getting to Vienna or have helped me survive while I’ve been in Vienna, and I’m sure the support and friendship will continue. I hope you’ve found it mutual.

But the biggest portion of thanks goes to my partner, Adam, who has been been an unwavering source of love, support, and encouragement for 16 years now, who gave up so much to let me follow this path, and who has agreed to stay here for at least a couple more years. No amount of gratitude comes close to being enough.

That time a nerdy kid of an immigrant family from Sydney’s outer suburbs can’t quite believe that he was somehow invited to give a lecture at Cambridge. Jan 2020.

So, with that, the MSCA comes to an end… at least on paper. I don’t say this about many things, but the last two years has been truly life-changing. I’ve had experiences that I’d never imagined possible, seen things I’ve only ever dreamed about, and met people who were previously only names in books. All the way, I always remember how long it took to get here, and the dark places that I had to claw my way out of in order to keep going. I can’t say I enjoyed that process, but I also know that the low points make me appreciate the high points so much more.

And now, onto Living Nubia. But first, that grant report isn’t going to write itself!

Author: Aaron de Souza

Aaron de Souza is an archaeologist specialising in Nubian material culture of the Second Millennium BC. He obtained his PhD at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, with a dissertation on the ceramic traditions of the so-called Pan-Grave archaeological culture. Aaron is currently the Nubian ceramics specialist with the Tell Edfu Project (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago), and has an ongoing involvement with the Hierakonpolis Expedition (University of Oxford), where he recently excavated two of the last remaining Pan-Grave cemeteries. Aaron has also recently worked with the Aswan-Kon Ombo Archaeological Project and the Swiss Mission to Elephantine, and has previously worked as ceramicist with the Dendara Necropolis Project (Macquarie University), and the Helwan Project (Macquarie University). Aaron has also conducted extensive museum-based research at the Museum Gustavianum (Uppsala University, Sweden), and at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. For more information and a CV, visit Aaron’s Academia profile.

2 thoughts on “The long road to the end of the beginning.”

  1. Oy yes Aaron – thank you for putting all this into words. I will ask my HDR students to read this post – if you don’t mind.


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