In praise of redundancy



I thought I had this academic job business pretty much sewn-up: a double doctorate, six books and 70+ scholarly articles, over a million dollars in competitive research funding (in teams or solo). I was what they call “research active”—and I still am. I am also—by any measure—a good teacher. Moreover, I had a continuing position in a research-intensive university. If anyone was “safe”, I was.

Then it all went belly-up.

Seven of us were turfed-out unceremoniously with redundancy packages. The Faculty had decided we were all surplus to requirements.

Joseph Furphy began his under-appreciated magnum opus Such is Life with these immortal words: ‘Unemployed at last!’

Now I was going to know what it felt like.

I had been used to reading the occasional article about the parlous state of employment for doctoral holders—some of it on

These refrains are becoming all too frequent. I also occasionally come across PhD holders in Melbourne who drive taxis. I know that getting a PhD is not a necessary condition of gaining employment—indeed, it can sometimes hold one back. But I never thought that unemployment—redundancy especially—would happen to me. I was about to learn a salutary lesson.

Being unemployed, and holding a PhD, is nothing new. However, it seems to me that there is a silver lining in the dark cloud of the redundancy experience (or at least—foolishly perhaps–I choose to see it that way):

You are not alone.

Redundancy is a common enough experience amongst academics. I have met others who have been through it three times. One guy was a microbiologist. Another friend, who has never managed to nail an academic job for more than a few months, did his well-regarded doctorate in biochemistry (cancer research). I would have thought that specialisation was pretty necessary in the scheme of things, but no.

The redundancy experience spares no discipline, no matter how useful that research area might be.

It’s an outcome of the entrepreneurial university.

Universities, like widget factories, are no longer collegially-run places insulated from the Big Bad World by generous government funding. Now they are run by CEOs and accounts departments; hence, they are always scratching about to save money. Kicking people out is not driven by research considerations: it’s just a matter of book balancing.

Don’t take it personally. They might just as flippantly re-hire you when the good times swing back.

It’s a generational thing.

One of the most discussed topics on the TW is this one. It concerns the age imbalance of academics with older “baby boomer” academics not retiring and allowing younger academics to have a go. While this issue can lead to unnecessary and gratuitous age-bashing, there is no doubt that—with older, more experienced academics hanging on–there are fewer positions to go around.

When culling is needed it’s (generally-speaking) last on, first off—all things being equal (oddly, this is in dramatic contrast to the corporate world).

You had a shot at it.

Being made redundant means that you had a job to begin with. A lot of academics don’t even get that. If you are in any doubt read the story of one academic with a PhD in Sociology who gets called “complacent” by his JobSearch advisors for not answering ads for work as a cleaner or checkout operator. Sobering stuff.

It could be worse.

There are plenty of nasty diseases out there; these are far worse than not having a job I reckon. And when it is all said and done, getting rid of me was their (It’s important to be positive.)

Pay off the mortgage!

Since when does one ever get a large bucket of money to not work? This has a good side. It can be used to pay off ones’ mortgage. Provided the funds are not splurged on drowning one’s sorrows, this can be a definite benefit.

It draws a line.

One thing I found was that I could draw a line under the boring and tedious Faculty meetings that I never liked attending anyway. I could also sever ties I did not really want to keep. I could also spend some time finalising and completing all those “back-log” papers and advancing new ideas for books. Now, a year after the big event I have finished all those things I never thought I’d finish. This is quite satisfying. The research slate is clean and there is now time to read and write on new topics. Since being made redundant I have churned out four papers and a book (all published). I would have never have had this level of productivity whilst immersed in admin, meetings, and other duties.

So there’s a good side to the redundancy experience I suggest. Naturally it is preferable if it can be avoided. But it is not the end of the world. Would I recommend it? Sure, but finish your PhD and get a job first!

Author Bio: Associate Professor Martin Davies is an honorary Principal Fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.