Stitching together an intellectual life


I am looking at a flyer for an amazing opportunity to hear one of my intellectual heroes speaking. Registration for the symposium costs $100. In my head, I do the calculations: $100 for registration, an hour to get there and back and probably two hours if I just stay for one talk, so that’s four times $55 (the per hour rate I would be getting for doing what I am paid to do), which makes it $320 to hear a keynote. I sigh and push away the enticement.

Someone asks me to read their paper, or their ethics application, and the calculation fires up – can I afford to be a good colleague this week?

These are the daily decisions you make when you move from a salaried role to a casual one. They are also the decisions that cost the most, not just in monetary terms but also in professional development, networking, the chance to hear about opportunities and to stay current with reading and thinking.

I read articles about following your passion and chasing your dreams and I am angry and tired. Honestly, I’m pretty much always tired and have a low level thread of anger running through my system. I am a very interesting person.

I think what strikes me hardest about my precarious academic life is that this is not where I imagined I would be at this point in my life. We all have mental pictures of our futures and while mine was necessarily vague, it included worthwhile work, financial security, and intellectual challenge…making a contribution in some way to learning about our world. I believed, perhaps naively, that publishing, getting research money, having industry experience, and teaching would lead to job security. It did not.

I started out well with a nice office, research time, mental space to develop research projects, publications and research grants. Through a series of university restructures, I ended up orphaned, without the necessary champions to move my career forward. A senior academic suggested that I “update my currency of teaching” so I accepted a contract teaching role. Several contracts later, I was offered continuation in the role as a casual – “You’ll make more money this way and we can sign off on all the things you’re not allowed to do as a casual” (quiet aside: after you do them). I chose to walk away from that role as a form of protest (that really didn’t make an impact on anyone) and focused on casual roles that had less grief and more intrinsic reward.

A few weeks ago, doing my taxes, I realised that I am earning somewhere between Newstart (unemployment benefit) and the Australian minimum wage. Less, in fact, than a PhD scholarship offers at the moment. I have had 15 contracts in the last 18 months, several of them concurrently. I have been rejected for many jobs, some on the basis of having too much academic experience and not enough management, and some for knowing too much about management and having an eclectic academic publication record. Several of the interviewers have confided in me that I am the person they want to work with because I “ooze competence but…”. This is what comes from being confident, competent and personable, qualities that come from an accrual of life experience, but are slowly becoming tarnished in the tumbling of the job market.

It is hard to maintain an inner confidence, to stitch together a life of the mind in a situation like this. It is hard to know that one reason you don’t get ongoing roles is because then you wouldn’t be available on tap to collect research data, manage projects and write papers unsupervised, sometimes for the people offered the job that you weren’t, who turn out to be unable to do the role. It takes a certain mindset to keep talking with colleagues, making the connections that these unadvertised casual contracts require, working the system, running the multiple timesheets, asking for things that you might not be officially entitled to (like a hot desk, or project printing, or even just a place you can put things down while you use the toilet) but that your contacts might procure for you.

It also takes social and economic capital: a partner with a good income, housing security, the ability to carry costs for months before reimbursement, providing your own technology and printing, people who trust you to deliver (which also means always delivering). It punishes competence. If you are scrupulous in timekeeping and efficient, you don’t always use all your allocated hours. I know exactly how many hours now it takes to produce a literature review in an area with which I’m unfamiliar and can cost fieldwork down to a few dollars. I try not to allow this to disadvantage me.

It is a spoken but unaddressed truth: academics are expensive. A colleague recently told me that, on retirement, they moved from being paid $140k plus with 17% superannuation to teaching exactly the same load for around $25,000 per year as a casual. They weren’t complaining, simply observing economic realities. I am an intellectual gig worker.

The flip side is that I get paid to do research and I usually don’t have to go to meetings. I’ve become quite hardline in refusing unpaid “opportunities.” I am constantly running a cost benefit algorithm in my head. I no longer feel guilty leaving at 4pm to pick my kids up from school.

I understand the structural inequalities behind this. I know as a woman and as a mother I am operating in a system designed by and for men. I’ve been told by women colleagues that I should be working more, not have kids, sacrifice other relationships *if I want to succeed*. I am a little bloody minded here and want to show that you can make a contribution, stitch together those ideas, have something worthwhile to do and say and still have a messy, complicated, real human life. I applaud those who succeed.

I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this juggling.

At what point do you lose your intellectual shininess and become too jaded? Can you keep balancing the knowledge that universities are the “bad boyfriend” and still keep being attracted by the possibilities that the boyfriend might change, even if you know the statistical probability is near zero? Can you keep being a good person and not give into the petty jealousy and viciousness that come through comparing yourself with people who have “real jobs”?

How long can you pursue your passion? And what will it cost you?