Academics with real jobs

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.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. Interesting article, well argued. I don’t think we have a fix at all on what it means, professionally or career-wise, to be an academic. There’s this ongoing chat in Ireland about whether Irish academics are over-paid. The discussion generally begins with someone saying that Irish lecturers and professors get double what their German counterparts are paid, and how scandalous is that? But the real issue is that someone with the qualifications of an academic could get paid twice as much again in industry.

    We expect academics to see their careers as vocation, not employment, and therefore to be willing to make sacrifices. But equally, we have no idea as to how to evaluate what they do and don’t do, and how to assess whether their performance is satisfactory. The whole things is increasingly unworkable, and we need to think again.

  2. I have witnessed what you are talking about, and also people clinging to any tenuous connexion to a university (for the purposes of conference badges) rather than risking having “independent scholar” written under their name.
    That term conjures images of both cranks family history buffs, but also implies someone of INDEPENDENT means pursuing academia for the love of it – which as you point out, is rarely the case.
    There does seem to be an institutionalised expectation that people will stick around, hover at the margins after a PhD, scratching together part-time work (a set-up that works well for universities in the market for cheap contingent labour), and that those who leave for completely different employment avenues are not “committed” to academia.

  3. Thanks for a great and important blog post!
    Yes academia is a class system with more than just the “obvious” matrix of letters to add before and/or after one’s name, but also an economic class system (tenured job in academia, temporary job in academia, member of an almost unpaid or unpaid labour force).
    Yes, there are fewer jobs in academia for people with “strange” specialisations. But on the other hand: there are less such people too. At least in philosophy (and as far as my experience and information from hearsay goes) the number of applicants for professorships with one of the “usual” denominations by far exceeds that of the applicants for professorships in smaller niche subjects of philosophy.

    @Katrina : I tend to agree to some extend to the statement that “those who leave for completely different employment avenues are not “committed” to academia”: I myself *am* one of these people: I left academia after my PhD (for jobs in IT, library and information services, research administration), and returned to university only because my present employer wanted to have me here (and made a decent offer). And I like being here, I like my job, and I try to be good at it. But still: it’s only a job to me, not a place in paradise. I don’t think that the world really needs my research; I like to do it but I don’t feel compulsory need to do it; I don’t think my publications are a major contribution to a better world; I like to teach, but I don’t see myself as a priest with the task to initiate students to a holy profession. Should I some day change once again to doing something not focussed on scholarly research endeavours and/or teaching I will be able to do so without remorse, without feeling phantom limb pains, etc.. Yes: I *do* lack the amount of commitment that would make me accept doing things like those mentioned in the blog post (like adding to the prestige and laurels of an university which does not employ me by flashing it’s name on a conference badge (yes, not only does the person in question half-fake her academic affiliation, but that institution does 100% fake the claim that they have a person who is an expert on whatever that person’s conference paper is on (unless, of course, there are other such experts there – which will be unlikely)), like making it possible for university X to display a greater number of faculty than it does pay, etc..)
    And, even worse: I do believe that academia would be a better and more honest place if there were less people there without that type of commitment.

  4. Sorry, the last sentence of course should read “I do believe that academia would be a better and more honest place if there were MORE people there without that type of commitment.”
    Sorry again.

    And, BTW: I don’t think that “money” is a dirty word. [:-)]
    “Wissenschaft als Berufung” instead of “Wissenschaft als Beruf” however IMO is a dangerous concept.

  5. This is sadly very true, and equally sadly, not uniquely true of academia. I know it doesn’t feel that way, but if anything, you’re lucky.

    The arts have the same sort of hierarchy, requiring at least the same amount of unpaid work and struggle before landing a job. As someone who’s mug enough to have both a phd and a career in the theatre, the latter seems tougher, the competition fiercer than getting that first lecturer’s contract. And when you do get a job in academia, the pay is approaching twice that of starter jobs in theatre; *more* than twice that of the average freelance earnings.

    Not that that makes it right.

  6. Do we need qualifications and academics any more? Google knows more than all the lecturers in the British Isles combined.

    Academia could easily become a branch of entertainment. I am sure that people will always pay good money to see Richard Dawkins or David Starkey. People further down the food chain will have to work out their own strategies for making money out of their interests.

    Governments might want to fund universities or they might have better ways of spending the cash. It doesn’t seem to me that academia should have any particular special privileges

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