Stitching together an intellectual life

Photo by Quinn Bidmead | unsplash.com

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. Read more of this post

Leveling up in saying ‘no’

Photo by Jason Leung | unsplash.com

Photo by Jason Leung | unsplash.com

If there’s one thing that seems to dog many academics’ lives, it’s the inability to say ‘no’.

We often find ourselves over-committed and frazzled with deadlines…and it can be a frenzy of our own making. I’m not talking here about being given inappropriate workloads or sky-high benchmarks to be met. These are larger structural and equity issues that need broader institutional change.

I’m talking about the culture of overload that is normalised, and the ways that we sometimes pile on the commitments despite knowing that we’ll regret it. We do have some control over what we take on – it can be a matter of doing some cold, hard stock taking about priorities.

Once upon a time, I was a menace to my future self for taking on too much and assuming things would work out OK. They often did work out OK, but only because I had to put in extreme hours, pull overnighters, or lose several weekends in a row to get things done when there was a deadline log-jam. Now, with a household that includes two kids, an elderly parent, and my partner, as well as various furry and feathery critters, I can’t (and don’t want to) carry out this kind of work blitz any more.

To aim for balance and a good life (not just surviving), I use a few methods that I’ve been trying haphazardly over the years. They’ve now crystallised into a good set of strategies for me to manage work and enjoy life – and manage life and enjoy work (seriously – it’s true). Read more of this post

Do I have to move up the ladder?

Photo by Geran de Klerk | unsplash.com

Photo by Geran de Klerk | unsplash.com

My last post about sharing hard truths in the academy seemed to really strike a chord, particularly with early career researchers who confirmed that hearing the truth was better than being placated with false assurances. People contributed some great comments: well considered and sometimes sad.

One of these comments, from Megan, included an interesting question:

I have one, maybe slightly odd, question. I did a PhD so I could work in research, not to scale the heights of academia. I love my job but I love other aspects of my life just as much (!) and am not keen to have to put my job above all else as it seems is necessary to progress (from what I have observed anyway). Basically I would be more than happy to keep working as a level B, say, on different projects and feel confident enough in my general skills (I had a career before academia) that I could do this. I also know that senior academics need good people at that level to actually deliver their projects.

However it seems to me that staying at the one level is not possible as a career path – the institution kind of forces you to look and move ‘upward’ because of the need / desire for high performing researchers. And while I know some projects have non-academic project managers I’m not as interested in that as would still like to use my academic skills / write a bit and so on. Just wondering if anyone had any thoughts on this.

This prompted so many thoughts that I had to write this post! My caveat for this is that it is drawn from my own experiences – I would be very interested to hear from anyone who knows of research into promotion patterns and aspirations in academia.

So, where to begin?

The short answer is that you could have a career as a Level B academic. If you manage to land a continuing Level B position (title of ‘lecturer’, 2nd step up from entry-level continuing academic appointments), you could – if you wanted to – stay at that level for as long as you like. That is, as long as you’re not made redundant by your institution, or ‘fail’ to do your basic job as an academic (in which case, you may then be ‘performance managed’ out of your role).

If you’re fulfilling the job of a lecturer (and probably beyond), and just don’t ever feel like applying for promotion, this becomes interesting. I’m writing a chapter for a book on ‘academic wellbeing’ that focuses on the very question: what it means when you know that fighting for your work/life balance means a direct compromise of promotion chances and track-record building opportunities. Read more of this post

Choosing balance

Wayne Chan is a Physiotherapist at Chi Lin Nunnery Elderly Services and a Visiting Lecturer at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

He was formerly a full-time lecturer, and taught a number of subjects ranging from paediatrics to geriatrics. He is interested in geriatric rehabilitation, dementia, and active ageing.

He tweets at @WaynelsChan.


Photo by Eaters Collective | unsplash.com

Photo by Eaters Collective | unsplash.com

When I graduated from university, I never thought I would study for a PhD.

I’m a physiotherapist and love taking care of people with needs.

I hate being stuck behind a desk doing lots of writing and data processing on computers.

Due to the economic recession, however, there was almost no jobs available for physiotherapists.

Around this time, I joined the geriatrics program at The Chinese University of Hong Kong as a research assistant. With a passion for clinical research and having built a reputation for being reliable, I was given the chance to study for a doctorate.

The reasons I decided to do a PhD were two-fold: to give myself more options, and bargaining power, to choose what I would like to do at work, and to be less affected by the changes in overall economics. I had never previously thought about being an academic. Read more of this post

Beware excellence

At a recent international conference focused on research administration, there was the usual palaver about every researcher, their institution, and their dog achieving excellence.

It’s presented as why we’re in the game – to achieve this highly circumscribed and metricised ideal of ‘excellence’.

We’ve all heard this rhetoric before so I have a certain level of ennui every time I see the posturing.

This feeling also emerges for me these days when people use ‘innovation’, ‘engagement’, or ‘impact’. I’m extremely fond of Rolin Moe’s statement that “innovation means less than any other word we use in regular discourse” (The Innovation Conundrum).

I would say the same applies to ‘excellence’. Just about every organisation uses it, government policies are ridden with it, and senior executives at universities mouth it at every opportunity. But it usually signals little, and indulges in the conceit that if we say we have it, it makes us better than others who don’t say they have it (it doesn’t actually matter whether they have ‘it’ or not). Read more of this post

When you can’t always get what you need

mayngoMay Ngo is a recent PhD graduate in Anthropology from the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.

Her thesis examined the role of religion in humanitarianism within the context of irregular migration in Morocco. Her research interests include religion, migration, development, theology, and fiction.

She is also developing her father’s memoirs of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a collection of short stories.

May has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away, and tweets at @mayngo2.


This is a post in response to two blog posts on post-PhD graduate careers (How to construct a DIY scholarly career and 21st Century Scholar) that reflect a growing trend of what each post has termed a ‘DIY scholarly career’ and an ‘entrepreneurial 21st century scholar’, respectively.

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz | unsplash.com

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz | unsplash.com

In response to the increasing casualisation and scarcity of academic jobs, and instead of just waiting around to get an academic position post-PhD, these posts exhort graduates to make themselves more competitive by engaging in various academic activities (research, attending conferences, networking) without the support of a university position.

This would run parallel with what they are already doing job-wise, supposedly. Inevitably, all of this is self-funded, and includes an investment of time and energy outside of one’s regular job.

I found it interesting that both bloggers who advocate this have been able to get work in universities, in non-academic jobs. This implies a minimum level of working conditions and job security.

I work in a casualised, low pay, no-paid-holidays job. I do this out of necessity. I come home physically tired, cranky and, most of the time, not in a capacity to think – let alone write – academically.

What I push myself to do in terms of trying to get a foot in the door of academia are postdoc applications, which always involve writing well-thought out and well-written research proposals that take a lot of time and energy.

Apparently, this is not enough. Imagine my jaw dropping when I read one of the blog posts advocating that research could be done during lunch-breaks, at night, and on weekends. And, furthermore, that the research trips and conferences she attended were self-funded and used annual leave from her job. I thought, “This is a particular world where there are paid holidays and job security, but it’s not currently mine”.

Read more of this post

Goodbye academia?

BRoesler1Bettina 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.


#securework tweetchat on FRIDAY 17 JULY 11am AEDT, Join in, and share your stories and experiences!

The #securework tweetchat takes place on FRIDAY 17 JULY 11am AEDT.
Join in, and share your stories and experiences!

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.

Read more of this post