I have been to quite a few academic conferences this month and was shocked to see the conditions under which some of us work. On the surface it all looks perfect. Dr So-and-so from such and such a university giving a paper on his recent research on x, y and z. Their affiliation is perfectly inconspicuous. And then during the break over coffee or lunch, or in the evening at the bar, the truth comes out. Her second one-year contract has run out, and she can’t find a new job. So she is clinging on to her old institution as long as she can while thinking about going abroad. A colleague from southern Europe, despite holding various positions and titles at his institution, is not paid for his teaching at all. He can only hold on to his ‘job’ because his wife brings home the money. Only by the end of the second day of the conference do I find out that he has a ‘real’ job as well that pays at least some of the bills. But he won’t tell me what it is. Academia seems to be the last bastion where ‘money’ is a dirty word. You’re expected to live alone on the love for your subject, and if you can’t , you are somehow inferior to the others. Because it means you are somehow not quite good enough to have made it.
As someone who has struggled herself and whose income derives at least in part from journalism I know how this feels. But I also know how much luck there is involved in getting that job, and how much is actually about who you know rather than what you know. It’s all about having the financial support you need at the right moment, and about having an emotionally supportive environment as well. Your subject also matters. If you study an obscure medieval or early modern philosopher you are less likely to get a job than someone able to teach World War II, just because more students will be interested in the latter than the former. The phasing out of History before 1700 at one university and considerations of axing the chair of palaeography at another shows that higher education (at least in the UK) follows the market rules of supply and demand as any other business. So you have to adapt or die. Unfortunately that is not so easy if you have a PhD in the wrong subject.
One PhD candidate told me he had to work in a shop for a number of years after school and even cleaned toilets in a factory before being able to afford the cost of a university degree. Good on him he is now in, and he is doing a PhD as well. I genuinely wish he will finally get the job he deserves. There are endless stories of excellent academics slaving away as sessional lecturers and tutors who can’t live on their teaching income because they are only paid for the six hours in the seminar room or lecture theatre and not for the other 34 hours preparation. They have to find a second job in the real world to pay the bills, while their social life vanishes and their academic career goes down the drain because there’s no time left for original research or producing publications. They have become the academic proletariat caught in the treadmill of hard labour without any of the usual rewards, but with plenty of better-off colleagues looking at them down their noses.
How about employing some of those hardy proletarians full-time for their transferable and life skills? They would be a great asset to any university trying to improve the employability of their graduates. They could teach students how to manage their time and juggle their degree and part-time work. They could teach them diligence and determination, responsibility and persistence. They could also teach them humility and modesty, and how to survive on very little money until the economic crisis blows over. They could teach them how to be creative and resourceful and proud in the face of adversity, and how important it is to do something you love and never give up.