Jigsawing your salary – the happy and untenured researcher

Abel PoleseAbel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser. He is the author of “The SCOPUS Diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries. His ORCID is 0000-0001-9607-495X.


blue and red jigsaw pieces
Photo by Lydia Tallent on Unsplash.

Had someone asked, when I defended my PhD, what my biggest aspiration was, my answer would have been “to get a professorship”.

To get there, however, I had to survive my “transitional years” and build a profile.

Everyone told me how important it was to show a successful funding track-record and publish well. Accordingly, I built on my limited fundraising experience to teach myself the art of research grant writing. I also tried to publish as much as possible while applying for professorships, convinced that my decent publications and good funding track-record would make me noticed by some hiring committee.

I tried hard. One year, I collected 56 rejection letters, two interviews, and zero offers. For a long time, I felt incomplete and that I had underachieved. What was wrong with me? After surviving on external funding for nearly ten years, I finally admitted to myself that my “transitional years” had brought me very far from my initial objective. My transitional job was actually my daily job.

True, I still had no permanent job but I was working with whom I wanted, where and when I wanted, and on what I really liked to do. Was I really ready to give up all this to get some security?

The fun and useful principle

With no scholarship during my PhD years, I specialised in the art of fund-saving but also tested different money-making options: delivering training, studies, paid internships, teaching, playing music in bars, short fellowships, prizes, and project evaluations. Some tasks were paid more, some less. Some tasks were not paid at all but I estimated that they would bring me the knowledge, expertise, and networks that I could then use at a later stage to get access to something else.

Unpaid work is a controversial thing. It can drift into exploitation (i.e. you teach for free, we give you a certificate so you can boast teaching skills on your CV) but it can sometimes be a win-win situation. Think of helping a local organisation with no funding who support homeless people in your area: you get enriched and gain project management experience or social skills.

As a father of four, I needed money but I also tried to concentrate on things that were “fun and useful”. Fun means that I enjoyed doing something to a fair extent. Useful meant that both sides gained something from my action.

For some clients, I would do a one-off consultancy like running a training course or a report. With others, I developed a long-term relationship and would get regular tasks. Some clients disappeared, others popped up through my network or through fortunate coincidences.

I was worried at first – and I still get worried from time to time. If I lose this (or that) well-paid task, how will I compensate financially?

Jigsawing your salary

To minimise risks, my strategy was to secure a base of income that I knew would pay my rent in any case. Anything on the top of that would be a bonus.

Just like with wine, some years were better than others. At times, I would worry that I was not earning enough; I would dream of a permanent job and even try some options. I tried working as a civil servant only to understand that it was not my calling in spite of all the security the job could offer. When I left my job as a civil servant, my colleagues could not believe what I was doing. “You are leaving? Ah, you’re changing department?”

No, I was leaving for good. I never regretted that and I was not alone. The other two people who left this kind of job to work on their own told me the same thing: “Do not blame yourself for leaving what your parents would consider a dream job; we are not cut out for this”. We are few, but strong.

Over time, I came to terms with my fears. I still think “what if nobody needs me for the next month?”. This is a possibility but I value being able to work at my tempo so much. I value the search for partners, encountering and forming alliances with amazing people who inspire me. I love having a business meeting and then going to dinner or a drink, knowing that interesting discussions about life, the universe, the world will follow and we will share ideas and come up with things that did not exist before.

‘Did not exist before’ – that is a leitmotiv in my life. Most of what I propose is met with “We cannot do this. We’ve never done this before”. Then I break through and people say “Well, it was not that hard after all”, almost as if the following sentence would be “I knew from the start you would manage to do it”.

If that’s the prize, then I can put up with a bit of uncertainty. But I acknowledge that it’s hard, and scary when you start. Or even now.

In praise of mixed careers

When I started my path I had no role models. Out of conventional wisdom, I considered that stability and security could only come after tenure. Experience and colleagues’ stories taught me a different story. Tenured professors can be made “redundant” or the department can undergo “reorganisation” (basically, you are fired but using nicer words). Besides, the price of stability might be getting trapped in an environment you do not like or where your talents are overexploited just because hey, who would give up a permanent position to get into the unknown in these (permanent) times of crisis?

But how many researchers work as lawyers, accountants, artists, and doctors? I mix academic articles with studies for the government, studies for international organisations or training kits for development organisations. Likewise, my friends advise governments on public health issues, foreign policy, security or risk in international conflicts. Career trajectories are varied and each strategy and path is unique.

Mixing a half-academic career with other professional activities is a reality and should receive full acknowledgment. While having a professorship and undertaking other roles is considered normal, a non-tenured scholar changing institutions every 3-5 years, or remaining an adjunct professor while doing other things, is still perceived as “not accomplished” or their career as incomplete.

Why? Feeling accomplished is a matter of being comfortable in what you’re doing, not of satisfying criteria defined by people away from your world and reality in time and space. This is how it worked for me but I would bet that there are many other ways to compromise between what you’re supposed to do (to earn money) and what you enjoy doing. Identifying a new path might be painful, involve falling and doubting about yourself and your capacities many times. But your success is eventually the very by-product of your many attempts and failures.

5 comments

  1. Thanks Abel- as someone midway into her PhD and thinking that tenure is definitely not something I want to do, your sharing helps me to envision different other possibilities!

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  2. Thanks for sharing this perspective on academia. Career growth across industry really does feel like a jigsaw puzzle. I am still tinkering with mine and like puzzles, every piece is there for a reason, while the overarching theme is designed to produce something that makes you feel accomplished.

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    • Thank you Kariema, I agree that it sometimes looks like wandering blindedfolded in the dark…but sometimes this is also a good way to “find yourself”, at least for me it was, whenever I felt lost I was deconstructing what I was doing and reflecting on it. Good luck!

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  3. Thank you Kangli, happy to be useful, there are many ways to put your PhD and research skills into use beyond academia and I wish you all the success in finding your own way!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for sharing. I am about one third of the way through my PhD and decided that professorship is not quite my ideal career. I enjoy writing and am a published author. Therefore, blogging came naturally. It appears that your career path was detected earlyish on. Plus as amazing as this post was, you chose wisely. This was a true inspiration and again, thank you for your post.

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