Is academia really worth it?



In January this year, Rachel L. Swarns wrote a piece for The New York Times that scared me so much, it’s taken until now to write about it.

‘Crowded Out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty’ follows the employment trajectory of an early-career academic in America, James D. Hoff. Since being awarded his PhD, he’s had no fixed or full-time employment, rather relying on subject-by-subject contracts at more than one institution. There’s no certainty or security as subjects can be dropped without notice and juggling across-institution teaching hours doesn’t allow for him to spend enough time at any one institution to be recognised as someone who works there. While he tries to find a permanent position, his debt is mounting and his fear is growing.

This isn’t an ‘only in America’ story. A UK article has only just come out decrying the high wages of university Vice-Chancellors when other staff are fighting to remain employed after the financial crisis. In Australia, early career academics face years of insecure contract work before any permanency is offered.

As I face 2014 patch-working a job and waiting to hear about grants, I wonder what else I should have done to make my luck run a little longer, where I’ve failed and what I’ve missed. In the academic arena, with its constant resubmissions and rejections and redrafts, you learn far easier your weaknesses than you do your strengths. Yet, you go on; as I’m learning from my friend Sarah’s PhD, you reconceptualise and reframe hope as necessary.

A PhD is no longer enough to gain permanent employment. Working hard is no longer enough. Saying yes to everything is no longer enough. All these things are necessary but they’re no longer enough. Luck and serendipity help; being in the right place at the right time, selling a project that is on-trend for that point in time, helps. Focusing on the ‘hard’ sciences helps, although that is no longer a sure thing. Choosing to focus on teaching is a surer way to a permanent position in Australia but not always.

Since completing my PhD, I’ve managed to be very lucky but luck only ever runs so far. And it’s not been without hard work either. My life as an early career academic is by no means unique. I balance teaching, research, and service. Long weekly hours that creep over to weekends to allow time to write with fewer disturbances have been the norm for as long as I’ve worked at a university. I’m not sure I’d know what to do with myself on a weekend if I wasn’t writing. It’s not unusual to have Skype meetings with a colleague on the other side of the world at times so early in the morning we forgive each other our pajamas. I check my email before my morning run just in case. I’m not always sure what that ‘just in case’ is, but it’s been necessary often enough to incorporate that as a ritual. Indeed as a single childless woman, it’s presumed to be easier for me to work these sorts of hours.

And these are all my choices. As they are the choices for many of us who struggle to balance work and life in an era where the potential for constant availability means we are assumed to be constantly available. However, the more weekends I work – the more of my own money I use to fund the conferences necessary for career recognition and advancement but which are not always covered by a university – the more of myself I give to a career that seems to be becoming less secure, not more so – the more I question whether it’s worth it. And it’s a question I’d (naively) never thought I’d ask and one that that is truly gut-wrenching to consider.

I love my work; it makes my heart beat; it’s constantly bubbling behind every thought (obviously I’m super at dinner parties). Yet, faced with such uncertainty and insecurity all of a sudden, after always trying to do the right thing – publishing and co-authoring, teaching and mentoring, saying yes to absolutely every email that crosses my path – I’ve started to question my decisions.

And not just, should I work this weekend? All of a sudden, in a quest to simply keep my job, I’ve become career-focused, more insular because, for all is collaboration, academic work is predominantly a lonely activity. I’ve chosen work over life many times in an attempt to make sure, like James D Hoff, I’ll be positively seen in the university doing the right thing – better to be known as the girl who writes on Saturday than the girl who does the minimum. Now that my luck has run its course, have I made the right decision?

Like Hoff, I may be well liked, even respected, among my colleagues and students, but this hasn’t been able to be translated into permanency, especially in a tightened economic environment. I’ve made decisions based on a job that no longer exists and now, before I get too old when I’m scared it will feel too familiar, I’m searching for reasons to stay. I’m questioning whether you can achieve balance in an uncertain area; more pragmatically, I’m wondering whether I can pay my bills until the next grant comes in, if the next grant comes in.

Writing this, I don’t want it to sound ‘poor me’; this is not the intent. At the end of the day, if I have to serve coffee, stack shelves, while continuing to write, than that’s what I’ll do. I’m not denying this is the bed I’ve made and on days when the words I write are beautiful, when an interview uncovers something heart-stopping and makes the person feel unburdened, when a student’s assignment has just really got it – those moments are worth all the uncertainty. At the end of the day, it’s not that I, or any of my colleagues, want things to be easy. We want to earn the rewards; we want our publications and grant applications to be fairly reviewed; we want to be intellectually challenged so the work becomes better and stronger.

However, it also needs to be acknowledged that, much like Little Orphan Annie, it can be a hard-knock life for an early-career academic while we wait for a Dean Warbucks to offer a permanent position. Until then, we are, as Jorge Cham so aptly puts it, “hobos with a PhD”. This sort of lifestyle, no matter the positive spin we constantly reinvigorate it with, no matter how hard we work to rectify it, does begin to leech the colour from your spirit. It’s hard to stay passionate in your work if you’re only allowed to whisper it in the margins.

I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, an eternal optimist. As much as I’m more afraid than ever before, I’m trying to figure out how to keep my passion, to still love the teaching and research. I’m borrowing money to go to a conference that extends my track record and will rejuvenate my mind. My greatest fear is that all the colour will eventually leech – I’ll be a hollow academic, one that does work only to keep a position, rather than strives to set the world even a little on fire. I used to always think that I would choose passion over certainty but now I’m not so sure.

Universities need their academics to be passionate, dynamic, and intellectually stimulated so as not to stagnate. As academics, we need to be unafraid of criticism and willing to be bold in the research we undertake and the way we teach. However, in this current climate of burnout and uncertainty, are universities really creating the most fertile environment for the next generation of academics?

Author Bio: Dr Kathy McKay isa Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of New England. Her work revolves around listening to stories of suicide, healing and resilience within communities and within literature.