This post is by a colleague we know through our Research Whisperer community.
She has chosen to remain anonymous to share her experiences of being part of the academic precariat in Australia.
I am looking at a flyer for an amazing opportunity to hear one of my intellectual heroes speaking. Registration for the symposium costs $100. In my head, I do the calculations: $100 for registration, an hour to get there and back and probably two hours if I just stay for one talk, so that’s four times $55 (the per hour rate I would be getting for doing what I am paid to do), which makes it $320 to hear a keynote. I sigh and push away the enticement.
Someone asks me to read their paper, or their ethics application, and the calculation fires up – can I afford to be a good colleague this week?
These are the daily decisions you make when you move from a salaried role to a casual one. They are also the decisions that cost the most, not just in monetary terms but also in professional development, networking, the chance to hear about opportunities and to stay current with reading and thinking.
I read articles about following your passion and chasing your dreams and I am angry and tired. Honestly, I’m pretty much always tired and have a low level thread of anger running through my system. I am a very interesting person.
I think what strikes me hardest about my precarious academic life is that this is not where I imagined I would be at this point in my life. We all have mental pictures of our futures and while mine was necessarily vague, it included worthwhile work, financial security, and intellectual challenge…making a contribution in some way to learning about our world. I believed, perhaps naively, that publishing, getting research money, having industry experience, and teaching would lead to job security. It did not.
I started out well with a nice office, research time, mental space to develop research projects, publications and research grants. Through a series of university restructures, I ended up orphaned, without the necessary champions to move my career forward. A senior academic suggested that I “update my currency of teaching” so I accepted a contract teaching role. Several contracts later, I was offered continuation in the role as a casual – “You’ll make more money this way and we can sign off on all the things you’re not allowed to do as a casual” (quiet aside: after you do them). I chose to walk away from that role as a form of protest (that really didn’t make an impact on anyone) and focused on casual roles that had less grief and more intrinsic reward.
A few weeks ago, doing my taxes, I realised that I am earning somewhere between Newstart (unemployment benefit) and the Australian minimum wage. Less, in fact, than a PhD scholarship offers at the moment. I have had 15 contracts in the last 18 months, several of them concurrently. I have been rejected for many jobs, some on the basis of having too much academic experience and not enough management, and some for knowing too much about management and having an eclectic academic publication record. Several of the interviewers have confided in me that I am the person they want to work with because I “ooze competence but…”. This is what comes from being confident, competent and personable, qualities that come from an accrual of life experience, but are slowly becoming tarnished in the tumbling of the job market.
It is hard to maintain an inner confidence, to stitch together a life of the mind in a situation like this. It is hard to know that one reason you don’t get ongoing roles is because then you wouldn’t be available on tap to collect research data, manage projects and write papers unsupervised, sometimes for the people offered the job that you weren’t, who turn out to be unable to do the role. It takes a certain mindset to keep talking with colleagues, making the connections that these unadvertised casual contracts require, working the system, running the multiple timesheets, asking for things that you might not be officially entitled to (like a hot desk, or project printing, or even just a place you can put things down while you use the toilet) but that your contacts might procure for you.
It also takes social and economic capital: a partner with a good income, housing security, the ability to carry costs for months before reimbursement, providing your own technology and printing, people who trust you to deliver (which also means always delivering). It punishes competence. If you are scrupulous in timekeeping and efficient, you don’t always use all your allocated hours. I know exactly how many hours now it takes to produce a literature review in an area with which I’m unfamiliar and can cost fieldwork down to a few dollars. I try not to allow this to disadvantage me.
It is a spoken but unaddressed truth: academics are expensive. A colleague recently told me that, on retirement, they moved from being paid $140k plus with 17% superannuation to teaching exactly the same load for around $25,000 per year as a casual. They weren’t complaining, simply observing economic realities. I am an intellectual gig worker.
The flip side is that I get paid to do research and I usually don’t have to go to meetings. I’ve become quite hardline in refusing unpaid “opportunities.” I am constantly running a cost benefit algorithm in my head. I no longer feel guilty leaving at 4pm to pick my kids up from school.
I understand the structural inequalities behind this. I know as a woman and as a mother I am operating in a system designed by and for men. I’ve been told by women colleagues that I should be working more, not have kids, sacrifice other relationships *if I want to succeed*. I am a little bloody minded here and want to show that you can make a contribution, stitch together those ideas, have something worthwhile to do and say and still have a messy, complicated, real human life. I applaud those who succeed.
I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this juggling.
At what point do you lose your intellectual shininess and become too jaded? Can you keep balancing the knowledge that universities are the “bad boyfriend” and still keep being attracted by the possibilities that the boyfriend might change, even if you know the statistical probability is near zero? Can you keep being a good person and not give into the petty jealousy and viciousness that come through comparing yourself with people who have “real jobs”?
How long can you pursue your passion? And what will it cost you?
How can you help?
- If you’re on selection committees, read CVs with “wokeness” – don’t be distracted by glitter and swagger or dismiss people who have a string of casual gigs, but look at the experience people will bring to the role. People who have been in the precariat have deep experience of university systems and the knowledge of how to work them that will benefit your department.
- Don’t be embarrassed about offering work to casual colleagues – most of us are not going to feel that you look down on us and we really need the work.
- Make sure you offer the resources people need to do the job for which you’re hiring them: equipment (IT and other), supplies, printing and a desk.
- Make sure that their name is on a paper if they write it or parts of it – don’t take advantage of casual researchers.
- Push for contracts (even short-term ones) instead of casual because that means increased superannuation contributions.
What we need to do is warn students that an academic career, for most people, is one of casual work, and low pay. We should urge students to do get a qualification which provides options outside academia, so they will not be trapped in this system and exploited by it. By all means encourage them to follow their passion and chase their dream, but they should also have a “Plan B”. Also I suggest higher degree research students do some entrepreneurial training, to gain skills in promoting yourself, and a taste of what an uncertain working life is like.
This applies not just to academics, but to other creative professions, even entrepreneurs. Recently I was giving advance to students undertaking a start-up competition. My worry was they would be caught up with the idea that billion dollar companies had been founded by drop-out billionaires. I urged them not to neglect their studies while working on their great business idea. They can pursue their dream of their own company, but still have the fall-back of a qualification which would get them a job.
If anything, those in the start-up industry are in a worse situation than academics. Rather than working for low pay, they are working for no pay. If the company does well, they may get a paying job, and stock options, but it is very likely they will get nothing. For some this is okay, as they are getting experience which will be useful. For others it is okay, as they have in-demand qualifications, and can walk into a conventional job whenever they want. But some may be trapped in this system.
Higher degree research students, I suggest, would benefit from doing a start-up course. This teaches you to focus on what the customer wants, and where you will get money from. It cuts through the academic myth that if you focus on excellence you will be rewarded. Also it gives a taste of what it like to live in a contingent employment world.
Hi! This is such a prevalent experience in the countries where neoliberal projects got hold of universities in powerful countries that seemed to have different stories regarding the importance given to education and research (Spain, England, France, etc.). Are we constructing a transnational awareness and movement, the “academic precariat”? I invite you to read my bit on this, and let’s stay connected! http://www.nadiahakim.com/en/2019/07/30/reproductiveacademicwork/
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This reads like my bio too. I feel your pain! When will the unions fighting for benefits for full-time/ permanent staff wake up and realise that the super sweet super deal is one of the contributing factors to casualising the workforce? When will they actually work for the academic ‘workers’?
I’m also an ‘interesting…. angry’ academic…
FWIW, I think that looking for funding for research you want to do can be a very different approach than reshaping your research interests into what can be funded. What is your perspective on that?
I think that academics who are paid by the hour (like the anonymous author) often don’t get to do either. Casual, adjunct and sessional roles like this generally provide payment for teaching (with no research component) or for research assistance (on someone else’s research project). Academics who are paid by the hour, if they do their own research at all, generally do it unpaid, as a labour of love. They are often prohibited from applying for research funds by the terms of their employment (when universities prohibit hourly workers from submitting grant applications) or by the funder (when they require applicants to have on-going employment at a university to apply).
Either of the options that you suggest work better when researchers have an on-going contract that provides a secure wage.
Having said that, I’m not sure that I agree with the framing of your question. All research funders have priorities that shape how they chose who gets funded. Some of these are very specific and quite focused. They are looking for researchers who are working on those specific topics.
A very small number of funders use ‘Excellence’ as their overarching selection criteria, which provides a space for funding curiosity-driven research. These are generally national funding agencies such as the Australian Research Council, the US National Science Foundation, the UK Research Councils and the like. They generally reject 80% (sometimes over 90%) of applications. The people who are successful are generally senior (predominantly male) professors with tenure. That is, people who are in the exact opposite situation from the author.
There are other ways to fund curiosity-driven research, such as crowdfunding. However, it generally provides a tiny amount of funding compared to research grants, and is most suitable for academics who have built up an audience for their work. It isn’t suitable for many researchers.