Working for the rat race, are you wasting your time?

evan-smithEvan Smith is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of International Studies at Flinders University.

He is interested in contemporary history, politics and criminal justice research. He blogs about his research and aspects of 1980s popular culture at:

Evan tweets from @hatfulofhistory. His ORCID is 0000-0001-7453-2075

As we’re interested in #altac trajectories, the Research Whisperers approached Evan for a guest-post when we realised that he had been a researcher in the public sector who had returned to academia. How did these job changes happen? What were the drivers and challenges?

He has kindly shared his story with us here, and provided five strategies for keeping your research career options open.

I am a historian and a criminologist. Historian by training and criminologist, first by default, then by profession.

My postdoctoral career has been varied, and I’ve spent the last seven years in and out of academia (simultaneously – like Derrida, I am not a fan of binary oppositions).

In 2007, I finished my PhD in History at Flinders University, I then spent the next two years in casual academia while my post-PhD colleagues and I competed for jobs around Australia in history and politics.

In 2011, I started work at the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) in Canberra, conducting research into money laundering and organised crime. I didn’t have an undergraduate or masters degree in criminology but, in a stroke of luck, I had met a colleague at Flinders in the Criminology discipline. While I was a casual teacher, we had been building a research project that combined history and criminology.

By the time I was employed at the AIC, I had had two co-authored publications in the interdisciplinary field of historical criminology and another one had been accepted. Slowly immersing myself across disciplines, I had also taught law and criminology topics at Flinders, and it is this evidence of my transferable skills that (probably) made me employable by the AIC.

For family reasons, I changed jobs in late 2011 and worked for the Office of Crime Statistics and Research (OCSAR) for the South Australian Department of the Attorney General. While my work at the AIC had was quite literature-based, the work at OCSAR was a mix of qualitative and quantitative, and I ended up working on very diverse and highly practical projects within the South Australian criminal justice system.

While I enjoyed working in the area of practice-based criminal justice research, working in the public service – at both Commonwealth and state level – was quite precarious and my employment was based on the projects tendered by outside stakeholders to be undertaken by the AIC or OCSAR. Full-time academia was less precarious than working in the public service, but obviously more difficult to obtain entry into. Not living casual paycheque to casual paycheque, I was more selective in what I applied for, but still applied for academic positions in my field(s) within Australia.

In December 2012, I started a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the School of International Studies at Flinders University. My current research project is based in the history discipline, but still has some connections with criminology and politics.

I realise that I am pretty fortunate to make the transition back into academia, but my position is only for three years, so I am now starting to think about the next step.

One of the perks of my position is that I can focus on research and my best chance of furthering my career in academia is building up my publications profile. But a suitable academic position to jump into is not guaranteed, of course, and it might be the case that it is somewhere else that my research skills, along with those that I picked up in the public service, can be utilised.

With my diverse career experience in mind, here are five things that I’d suggest researchers keep in mind when considering work in the public sector:

1. The job that pays a decent wage is the right job for that moment.

One cannot stay on the casual teaching wagon forever. PhD students have traditionally grown accustomed to living frugally and may be able to survive for a few years on casual teaching wages (helped if you have no dependents or mortgage to pay for). Other casual academics (such as myself) have to rely on their partner to pay for lots of things, and promise that one day they’ll be an equal contributor to the household budget.

If a job pays a decent wage and you may have the necessary skill set for it (and it doesn’t go against your morals – like working for the Liberals), apply! Working in the non-academic sphere is better than holding out for an academic position and living a crappy hand-to-mouth/no savings existence.

Sometimes, it involves tough decisions. My partner and I were expecting our first child in 2010, and I was offered two jobs starting in early 2011. One was a very prestigious postdoctoral research project in historical criminology, working with a big name in criminology and at a well-respected UK university. The other was working at the Australian Institute of Criminology. The former would have boosted my career, but it only paid a fraction more than the job based in Canberra, and it would have sunk us into a lot of debt to move to the UK. The AIC job paid a decent wage and that was what I needed at that moment. Sometimes, paying the bills has to come first.

2. Publish or perish continues despite being outside academia

If you take a non-academic job, but want to (hopefully) get back into academia further down the track, you need to keep publishing to stay competitive. This does mean that you have to work on your research publications outside of work hours, but most academically-minded people have this kind of highly compromised work/life balance already. If you can demonstrate that you can maintain a publication record while working in a non-academic/professional capacity, this might help you stay ‘competitive’.

3. Maintain academic status or an active connection with a university

This is linked to the point above. While you can publish as an independent researcher, having academic status makes things much easier. Because I was working on a project with someone in the Flinders Law School during the years I worked in the public service, I applied for academic status as an honorary scholar with this school.

This also helped with my research. Academic status at Flinders meant that I still had access to the university library. I routinely used the e-journals and document delivery services offered by the library. My research would have suffered greatly without it.

Be sure to tell your employer when you begin that you intend to maintain academic status with a university and that you intend to publish your research. You may have to sign some kind of form saying that this research has nothing to do with your paid work, and that you will conduct this research in your own time.

4. ‘Real world’ experience PLUS publications can be favourable for academic employers

In some fields, particularly in the social sciences and law, professional experience and a demonstration of academic research can be favourably looked upon.

A background in public policy, the legal system or industry-based research (for example), as well as the necessary publications and academic qualifications, would be desirable for those seeking to work in the disciplines of law, criminology, sociology, politics, labour studies and social work, among many others. Many universities would like to employ more people with ‘real world’ experience, but not enough of these professionals have the academic traits necessary to take up positions in academia.

5. Small research grants can lead to big research outcomes

Being outside of academia means that you are not able to access research and conference funding generally, which can be detrimental to your research agenda, particularly if you need to travel for fieldwork purposes. However, there are a number of grants awarded by various organisations that you can apply for, regardless of academic status, and these can be very helpful.

When I was a casual academic and working in the public service, I was awarded two $4000 grants (one from the Museum of Australian Democracy and one from the Australian Academy of the Humanities) that allowed me to perform archival research in Canberra and London. I turned this research into several different publications.

These small grants usually pay for an overseas airfare, accommodation, and some other small expenses. It does, however, mean that you need to take annual leave from your non-academic job to do the research.

I hope this piece offers some insights into how to ‘survive’ professional employment, even if academia is your preferred destination.

Those in the post-PhD limbo who are struggling to find an academic job might consider whether their research and writing skills can be transferred into the professional world. The pay is usually pretty good, and you can learn different and new skills. As long as you keep publishing, the door to academia won’t close entirely.

Please note: this is a piece about the academic and professional worlds in Australia. Your mileage may vary in other parts of the world, so US-based casual academics may want to take this into account before commenting.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I also live in Australia and am not feeling terribly confident about academic work post PhD. With funding cuts to education, we are losing teaching staff, (I have no sessional teaching work this year), and upon PhD completion it is likely there will be no academic positions available yet we could be considered overqualified for anything else, perhaps. I like your idea of remaining linked to a university and publishing while working in the public sector…. best outcome to hope for in the current climate.


  2. I think that the points you make apply in the UK too. I’d say that there is an additional consideration here, which is that long-term employment as an academic in Humanities and Social Sciences tends to depend on having demonstrated an ability to teach. For this reason your time on ‘the casual teaching wagon’ will probably serve you well, particularly if you also do a bit of teaching during your post-doctoral fellowship.


  3. I found it very hard to have any kind of balance between work and family time when working full-time in a non-academic job AND trying to do academic writing. So, my academic writing fell to the wayside, with not just a small sigh of relief (it must be said).

    Now, back in an academic job, the prospect of creating that publications pipeline again is extremely daunting.

    Liked by 1 person

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