Bettina Rösler is a casual researcher and university tutor. She completed her PhD thesis, “Reimagining Cultural Diplomacy through Cosmopolitan Linkages: Australian Artists-in-Residence in Asia”, at the Institute for Culture and Society (University of Western Sydney) in 2015.
Bettina has also completed master degrees in English Literature/Cultural Studies at TU Dresden (Germany) and Translation Studies at Auckland University (New Zealand). The primary focus of her work is cultural and arts policy, Australia-Asia relations, and the translation of cultures and intercultural dialogue, with a focus on cultural activities and the arts.
We invited Bettina to share her perspectives with us as part of the lead-up to the #securework tweetchat on FRIDAY 17 July, 11am AEDT. The tweetchat aims to be part of a national conversation around insecure academic work. Also participating will be @unicasual @NTEUnational @acahacker @KateMfD and @NAPUAustralia.
The semester is long over, yet I’m spending some time every week answering student emails regarding grades or additional feedback for assignments.
There seems to be an expectation for me to be eternally available for any potential issues relating to the particular units I taught. Students request more feedback on assignments or new unit coordinators require details from last term.
The problem here is the fact that I am not on anyone’s payroll and I am not getting paid for the time I spend responding to emails. I am a casual academic and I am not alone. More than half of universities’ academic staff are only casually employed (Bexley, James & Arkoudis 2011). These already high numbers of casual academics are increasing (Rea 2014), and I personally know at least a dozen highly qualified and competent early career researchers who struggle under precarious work conditions.
Like many others, I have recently completed a PhD and fought ever since to make a living.
Every term, I have to renegotiate work contracts, which can involve weeks of uncertainty and, sometimes, no secure contract until well into the semester. After an already long ‘income pause’ (i.e. semester break, which is even longer and more daunting over summer), any further income delays are likely to test my credit card limit. Receiving a salary for about 26 weeks a year is simply not sustainable.
I am in my mid-thirties, still sharing a flat (OK, I live in Sydney), cannot afford a car, and have not had a holiday in over a decade. I couldn’t even get credit for a new computer. Twice every year, I seriously consider going on benefits because I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay rent.
Biannually, I am thrown into deep existential debates on my position in this flawed academic system, and what I could do differently. How can I improve my chances and further my career? But it is very hard. For half of the year, I over-commit to make up for the time I’m not teaching. Finding suitable in-between research assistant gigs is rare and generally doesn’t match up with the semester dates. This has affected my social life and mental state. Sadly, this is likely to affect many casuals’ teaching quality (Clohesy 2015). While I am putting a lot of effort into tutorial preparation, I always feel I could do so much more. I could run a blog or Facebook group for the students; I could find more additional material; I could help develop and improve the unit content and incorporate some of the students’ feedback. Unfortunately, casuals are rarely given the opportunity or platform to do so – let alone be paid for it.
As a casual academic, paid time will always have priority over other (potentially better career-furthering) activities. This is a huge problem for casuals as an important part of an academic career consists of in-kind contributions in form of journal issue editing, articles or book reviews, sitting on boards and committees, chairing conferences, and so on. I simply don’t have the time to properly develop my research profile. I cannot attend conferences as they are too expensive, and I have no affiliation for potential funding. This lack of affiliation is often additionally problematic in terms of grant applications. Moreover, there is very little time left for substantial writing between teaching, marking, and job applications.
Applying for academic positions is tedious and almost a full-time job in itself. Numerous highly complex criteria need to be addressed. Besides, in the current job climate, it can be a very depressing activity. Not only are there very few permanent and/or full-time positions available, but in my area in particular there are just so many highly qualified young academics out there. If you get an average of 100 applicants for an academic positions, obviously the one with the most closely aligned research background, experience, and highest number of publications will get the job. There will always be an (almost) perfect candidate with specialised skills, which makes any other applicant’s transferable skills seem redundant. Unfortunately, I feel my research area is one of the least funded, with hardly any suitable jobs available.
Even securing suitable casual teaching can be a challenge.
While there are so-called eligibility lists and casual staff registers, hardly any unit convener or coordinator ever seems to look at those. Most jobs are shared via connections, and these can be hard to establish. I have made connections to various unit coordinators who praised my work and loved my initiative. Yet, many of them are only casually employed themselves, thus in no position to re-employ tutors for another term.
Another problem with this ‘system’ is the fact that, in some cases, the most convenient staff option (i.e. the nearest available casual) may not be the most suitable person for the job. Not everyone has the necessary skills to teach, let alone run, a unit. However, for casual employment this doesn’t seem to matter too much. Many of these eligibility lists or casual staff registers have strict selection processes in place, including complex applications and interviews, and it is frustrating to know that no one is really taking your skills and experience seriously enough to even consider your application.
Understandably though, most overworked and often casual unit coordinators simply don’t have the time to look at long lists of potentially more suitable applicants. Most unit planning is dictated by student enrolments, which puts unit coordinators in an impossible position. They cannot offer jobs until enrolments are finalised, and often need last-minute tutors. Besides, many universities appear to prefer parallel tutorials as most students prefer certain times over others. This means tutors cannot get three or four tutes in a row; rather two different tutors will have to cover the parallel sessions. Moreover, many schools don’t want to have tutors taking on too many tutorials as tight marking deadlines may not be met. Many universities are conscious of the hours casual tutors work due to their right to seek conversion to permanent employment if employed on a regular basis. Consequently, I often end up teaching various subjects in a number of schools.
I have been a casual or sessional academic for more than two years now. I have been doing everything from teaching to research assistant and admin.
I love teaching, but hate the work environment. So much so that I am seriously considering saying goodbye to academia. It feels like a Catch 22 from which I cannot escape. I see many senior academics toil away and, while most seem to enjoy dedicating their entire lives to research, this does not work for everyone.
Increasingly, I think it may not work for me.
Should it really come down to a choice between working 70+ hours weeks on continuing (or ‘tenure-track’) vs casual academic precarity? I believe that there needs to be an option in between: solid academic positions for highly qualified people who appreciate a decent work/life balance.
Bexley, Emmaline, James, Richard & Arkoudis, Sophie (2001). The Australian academic profession in transition: Addressing the challenge of reconceptualising academic work and regenerating the academic workforce. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education.
Clohesy, Lachlan (2015). The Casualisation of Academia: impacts on Australian universities. The AIM Network.
Rea, Jeannie (2014). University work becoming more precarious. Connect, 7(2). p. 7-8.
University of Western Sydney (2011). UWS Code of conduct: Guide for academic and professional employees.
Yes, it makes no sense when a considerable proportion of Australian sessional academics work at a single institution for many years (sometimes over a decade), going from one short contract to another.
Thank you for your comment! Yes, it is pretty outrageous, given the fact that universities are the highest level of education available. Another issue, that I haven’t even touched on in my post, is the problem of office space, computers and so on. Casual academics don’t have offices or work computers. Yet, we still have to do hours of on-line staff training regarding safe work place assessment. Unpaid, of course.
Leave academia now. Realistically, the situation will get worse not better. Like all of us, you bought into the idea, propagated by senior academics who easily got an academic position 15 or more years ago, that your PhD would readily get you an academic TT role in a university. It is just not true. In addition, in New Zealand at least, the universities almost never hire people with a PhD from NZ, and perhaps the same situation is occurring in Australia. Perhaps that is because overseas candidates just look better on paper, or maybe they try harder when inflating their achievements in their applications. Just leave, you will be happier in the long run and you might well find a more fulfilling position that uses your talents outside, somewhere in the ebony moat (i.e. industry). Best of luck.
Thank you for your comment! Sadly, that seems to be too true – it’s very unlikely to get better. And yes indeed…I could develop my achievements-inflating skills!
Regarding finding jobs elsewhere, ironically this is actually complicated by my PhD. I have tried looking into research in the private sector and got in touch with a recruitment agent. They wouldn’t even consider someone with an academic background. This is one of the problems particular to Australia, I find. Academia is this unknown blurry something for many and there’s a strong sense academics can only work theoretically – we are often not believed to function outside of the ‘ivory tower’.
The other idea that puts the life of thousands of people like Bettina into a endless loop is that a PhD is essentially seen within academia as a route to an academic career. Universities – both on the academic and admin side – tend to look at PhDs to this and don’t do enough to prepare PhD graduates for other forms of working life.
I know how prevalent this mindset is as someone who did a PhD after already having an established career. Many people within universities don’t understand why someone would do a PhD unless they want to become an academic.
The result isn’t only the bind that Bettina finds herself in. It also discourages people from doing PhDs, which reduces national / sectoral innovative potential.
It’s not surprising that people outside universities can slip into the same mindset, especially when the CVs that are put to them focus on things that aren’t relevant in other types of workplaces.
One thing that would be very helpful for people in Bettina’s situation when they do try to seek work outside academia is to be able to reconfigure what have achieved during their PhD and teaching into responsibilities & achievements that translate into another work environment – rather than seeing the PhD itself as the achievement. E.g. managing x other team members = getting honours, masters etc students focused on the goal; examples of positive feedback from students and industry/research partners = customer feedback; setting up analytical kit = purchasing/commissioning technology.
Thanks Miriam! Very good advice. And I have actually been doing this to some extent. It’s almost like a translation project and I have consulted with friends and colleagues regarding the best way to sell/repackage my skills. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ‘hide’ the PhD in my CV and sadly too many people draw the wrong conclusions (e.g. “academics don’t have their feet on the ground”).
I started teaching twenty five years ago as a casual and, while it was better than today, it was still very, very hard to get a full time job. Many brilliant contemporaries washed through the system and and left academia in frustration. Tenured staff and our union should have done more for casuals before now. The university managers are the villains. The university that employs me and Bettina has nearly two admin staff for every academic. Until that problem is addressed then deserving PhD graduates will continue to be excluded. Here’s something I prepared earlier:
Thank you for the support, George! I think this is the greatest problem – highly educated people are “washed through the system”. All the potential for relevant research and inspired teaching completely nipped in the bud. And it is happening everywhere – here’s a recent publication from the UK that details very similar frustrations (www.historytoday.com/mathew-lyons/young-academics-great-betrayal).
Almost everything you say is true here in the UK. I’ll repost your message to people in the Union and hope that sharing the message helps make some small change.
Thank you for sharing! I agree, it is increasingly a problem in many countries. As long as universities are run as profit-oriented businesses, education will get the short end of the stick.
Suggestion: apply for learning facilitator positions with training organisations. Pay not quite as good, but better than sessional teaching, online delivery and far more flexible than universities I their requirements, plus NO requirement to publish. You’ll get your life back.
Thank you for the suggestion! I will look into it. Getting publications as such, isn’t even the problem. The sheer output expected of academics combined with all the other unwritten requirements is unworkable for most casual academics.
Why do you never spot the fact that your iPad has transposed things until after you’ve hit publish?
[…] This is the question also asked on the excellent Research Whisperer blog this week by a guest writer thinking of leaving: […]
Decide between killing yourself over a tenure track job vs continuing to pursue “casual academics”? Neither of which pay well at all…
There is a Third Way: get out of academia altogether. The fact is that the skills that you developed in working towards your PhD are much more highly valued outside of academia than inside.
Ever notice how your friends outside of academia are much more impressed with your work than your colleagues?
Start talking your way thru your network. Let your network know that you are actively searching for a new direction in your career.
Avoid asking academic higher ups for advice on career development and career changes…. They have no idea, as they’ve never made such changes. In fact, it is my experience that even without skin in the game, academics go out of their way to promote and defend academic jobs, even in light of their deficiencies.
List the things about your work that you enjoy and are “expert” at. List those as assets and skills on your resume. Work backwards from skills to job. Ask your friends what “alternative directions” they see you succeeding in. Learn how to condense your CV into a focused and tight 2 page resume.
You will (1) free yourself from the bullshit that is desperately important in academia but doesn’t even amount to a “blip” in the outside world; (2) make more money; (3) get regular sleep; (4) learn what security feels like.
Thank you! I am definitely working on this… it can be really difficult finding viable alternative directions. I just wish more people would see that the academic experience includes more than reading, accessing the library and writing theoritical stuff. Sadly, this is what many people outside of academia seem to think when they see my CV.
I have worked as a sessional (on and off) for 20 years now. Most of what you wrote was true back then as well, there never was an easy or open market.
The main change that I have noticed is the over-administration that has come with the monetising of tertiary education, the academy itself is a different beast that it once was but it has always had too-few jobs.
I have a love/hate relationship with sessional work – I don’t like the meetings and admin that comes with working on a contract ( I have held a couple of full time positions over the years). I feel that being a sessional makes me less visible to admin (always a good thing) and allows me to focus more on teaching, which is what I love. Of course, the stress of not knowing if work will be ongoing or not is tough and getting tougher (I also live in Sydney).
One of the biggest disillusionments re the academy for me was realising that the academics I had looked up to and respected- you know, the ones who teach humanities subjects and who are passionate about left-wing concerns – well, they may be writing articles that discuss progressive political views but it is these very people who have watched as you and I struggled to find work, to pay the rent or buy food. So while they waxed wildly lyrical about a better, more equitable world in the lecture theatre or in their latest journal article, the fact is, they are indifferent to what they are directly confronted with every day.
One of the best things I ever did was to complete a Dip Ed and go and teach secondary school in the country for 4 years. Like the university situation, I found that I loved teaching and the students but the admin was a killer. However, I do have the option of doing relief teaching in secondary schools as well ( I am from a different state and need to get my Dip Ed translated here). Having a PhD as a secondary educator is increasingly desirable, and not only Ed.D either, subject/discipline knowledge is held in high regard.
If you are frustrated after 2 years ( and, of course you are, it’s damn frustrating!), then get out now while you are young enough to use your PhD and the skills you have developed in completing one to find something rewarding and financially stable.
You are right, there are some advantages to be appreciated. But increasingly these don’t seem to weigh out the disadvantages any longer. I do know quite a few senior academics who are very aware of our situation; yet there is very little they can do.
Financially stable employment would be great – does this even exist anywhere though? I think a lot of non-academic sectors are faced with very similar issues. Maybe it’s just the Zeitgeist and we just have to get used to it. Let’s hope not!
I struggled with exactly the same dilemmas back in the late 1990s when I graduated with my PhD. In the end I moved into academic (textbook) publishing which was one of the few areas where having a PhD was seen as a plus. Although not well paid compared to other industries it was stable work where I could find seniority and respect for the work I did, and my experience working in the university sector was a plus in dealing with academic authors. Unfortunately the publishing industry is now in crisis mode due to the erosion of textbook sales/availability of free online content so I have now gone back into the university sector, albeit in research/grants development. There is life outside academia and it is definitely worth pursuing – you can only put your life on hold for so long. If I had not moved to industry when I did I would never have been able to afford a mortgage, travel etc that is for certain.
[…] Every week I seem to read a new article about the sucky nature of being a postdoc, and how hard it is to find work in research. That terrifies me into thinking that I’m actually not working […]