British Academia: abandoning the next generation

Pithy summary by Maria Pretzler of the situation facing junior academics in the UK today (and applicable in the US too, from what I hear):

The fate of young academics in UK universities looks increasingly bleak: the chance to reach paid employment as an academic in the Arts and Humanities increasingly depends not only on talent and a willingness to work hard, but also on access to considerable funds.

The problem is that universities increasingly expect early career academics to take on heavy teaching loads for a pittance, and often such jobs are paid only for eight or nine months. Yet, when those same institutions hire people for ‘real jobs’, they expect CVs with large amounts of research – the kind of CV you can’t achieve when you don’t actually get paid research time.


I know this situation well myself. Compared to a number of my peers, I have been very lucky. A mere year of employment uncertainty – little bits of teaching here and there at two institutions and two part time office jobs  – was followed by a year’s postdoc and now my three year post at Oxford. I am in a better position than many. But I still have anxieties. My publication credits are not as healthy as I would like, and I’m prone to self-criticism on that front. Why haven’t I written more? Why did I waste all that time? Why did it take me three years after the submission of my thesis to submit the MS of my first book, given it’s a (developed and expanded) version of my thesis? Then I remember how for the year after I submitted my PhD, I had panic attacks because, despite picking up bits of teaching at two different universities (in two different towns!) and working 18-20 hours a week in an office job, I was barely making ends meet, and my meagre savings had been exhausted by personal circumstances meaning I spilled over from my intended 3.25 years for my PhD to almost-four. I was certainly not in poverty, but the psychological toll of having no safety net was quite heavy. I was too tired during all this to make much progress on writing, particularly since I had to spend so much time filling in endless job applications. I was lucky enough to be offered a post within a year; many of my friends have carried on working in this exhausting, miserable way, where you are paid by the hour to do a little university teaching, which will probably not entirely compensate you for your teaching prep and will definitely not fund your research efforts, and you fill up the holes in your bank account by doing fairly menial work. There’s no shame in honest labour, and I didn’t think that I was “too good” for data entry at £6.50 or £7.50 an hour – that’s above minimum wage, after all. But when you have spent years developing a particular skill set, it’s frustrating not to be able to use it: particularly when you know you won’t be able to get the job you need to be able to exercise those skills unless you amass more publishing credits.

Well-meaning older academics, who pretty much always got permanent jobs straight out of their PhDs, would advise me (and friends in similar situations) to write in the evenings and at weekends. Of course, that’s what many of us did. But I think these academics also don’t realise how tiring (and by this I mean not only physically, but intellectually and creatively exhausting) it is to work all day in a job where the only tasks are simple and repetitive, and where when your wage slip comes in you realise that you’re poorer than you were when you were a grad student, because you have new expenses like council tax to pay. Or how tiring it is to receive rejection after rejection for jobs – jobs that often aren’t even very good jobs, and in fact seem designed to squeeze the maximum amount of teaching out of a temporary faculty member for the least amount of money, but that receive dozens or hundreds of applications because the market is just that bad. Or to lie in bed thinking: what if this is as good as it gets?

That last part’s the real killer, of course. What if your prospects never get any better? When do you say: enough is enough, and give up the dream of academia? It’s easy enough to say, when you’re not in this situation, “oh, I would give myself __ months and then move on”, but given that academic culture – particularly in the humanities, it seems to me – implicitly encourages seeing academia almost as a vocation, giving up the dream of an academic career is not just a disappointment: it can cause a profound crisis of identity. These short term job contracts make the decision to cut loose even more difficult, because you’re still connected to an institution; you are so close to your dream job (or at least a job that would get you one step closer to the dream) that you can taste it. You have colleagues. You have students. You have fleeting moments of feeling like a professional academic. But they don’t last, and every day brings you closer to your final pay cheque and another blank space on your CV. 

Having now had two years in continuous employment, in a job which is well compensated and that I love, I know that I couldn’t go back to that kind of precarious existence. I hope that after this, I will find a job that lasts. I have some reason to hope: I’ve used my time here reasonably well, in career development terms, and I have a better CV than before I came here. However, nothing in this job market is certain, and plenty of well-qualified people are unemployed. All I know is that I’ve given myself a bottom line: that I deserve better than working for scraps. But if no job comes up on the horizon, who knows how long this resolution will hold?