Academia: an addendum

To get a job in academia, you can’t be unemployed first. You can’t work in another field and transfer in, unless you’re a superstar. No, the thing about academia is you have to be in it, to get in it.

As soon as you graduate, the clock starts ticking. You have about 5 years to make it in academia, before you’re considered stale. Always remember, no matter how much effort your degree took, no matter what the personal circumstances that intervened or delayed your start, there will always be someone – usually a dozen people – who did it 5 years earlier than you.

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But let’s say you’ve graduated (50% don’t.) No employer will hire you unless you’ve got publications, teaching experience and good references from a high profile university. Don’t have those things? You can teach contract/part time, but beware getting used as classroom fodder. Even Ivy League schools have a habit of hiring lecturers for five years and then letting them go. You can make a decent living as a contract lecturer if you’ve got a good union, or you can end up on food stamps.

Let’s say even that option is unavailable. You have to publish academic articles. No one will ever read them, and no one will pay you to write them. The ed boards that accept or reject them probably won’t see a dime either; only the publishers will make huge profits, based on institutional subscriptions. (Whoever thought of a business where workers provide free content, not because of the joy of writing but because they have to, to get a job, must be quite wealthy by now.)

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How do you support yourself during all this research? Or doing contract teaching that often pays a couple thousand dollars per course, per term? If you can find a postdoctoral fellowship, you can support yourself in the same poverty as during grad school. If you’re wealthy, you can take your time. If you have to work, good luck finding the time and energy to research.

I read a discussion on The Guardian’s higher ed board sparked by a recent graduate who was disappointed at having gone to the jobs centre and been offered menial labour. A mancademic (man + academic, not a Mancunian professor) shot back that he should do anything, anything at all to support himself while he job-hunted. If that meant scanning groceries at a till, so be it: ‘Spend every spare second when you’re not at work researching and publishing.’ As so often with macho academics, the inference was that the responder had dug coal for 10 hours a day and then gone back to his candle-lit shack to write on phenomenology, so, therefore, we all could. In fact we were lazy if we didn’t.

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I spend 8 hours a day at work. I have an hour lunch, which is usually spent running errands and checking in with my girlfriend or friends, neither of which I’m willing to sacrifice – that contact is what keeps me sane. But sometimes I can read for 25 minutes and take a few notes.

At night, I get home around 6:15. After cooking, cleaning, exercise or a nap if I’m too tired, it’s about 8:30 and I can go to a cafe to work for an hour or two. But I’m usually too tired to concentrate much. By the time I get home and have my lunch and outfit ready for the next day, it’s midnight. I’m up at 7. This doesn’t count social contact, or my other two jobs: teaching a night course (not great after a full day, and I have to prepare during nights, but it makes me think academically) and applying for work.

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I’m lucky if I can finish a few applications a week: they take a couple of hours each. Research demands long stretches of reading and writing to build a coherent paper. It’s impossible except on weekends – when I have to clean, do laundry, buy groceries and maybe see my girlfriend to make all this sacrifice less onerous. In short, it’s impossible to research for a half hour here, an hour there and come up with anything coherent. At least when you’re sleep-deprived.

So why bother? Because the flexible schedule of academia, and the occasional stimulation of the subject matter, is more interesting than most other jobs, at least the 30+ jobs I’ve experienced over my lifetime.

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I’m not writing this for the exceptions, the people who found a niche. I’m not claiming I have it harder than most people, though I have it harder than some, and all of us have it harder than the 1%. I’m writing this to process my own disappointment and disillusionment with the complete waste of time, professionally, the last decade was for me. How buying the lies of re-skilling – just get more qualifications and improve the quality of the labour supply – has left me penniless. Even as I know capitalism divides workers sectorally, it’s also made it harder to sympathise with academic working conditions. I struck to defend academia from austerity a few years ago, but at the moment, I just think about what a privilege it is to do that for a living. I would love a labour of love right now. I don’t like seeing my sense of solidarity being ground down.

I would stop wanting to be an academic if I could find an alternative. Except that all industries that involve the remotest amount of job satisfaction also expect you to work for free, with no prospect of paid employment. Academia, like art and NGO work, is a way to squeeze free labour from its workers. I’m sick of giving all my free time to something that has given plenty back in theory – and provided no way to practice it.

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Sigur Ros. They get it.

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