When you can’t always get what you need
15 September 2015 12 Comments
Her thesis examined the role of religion in humanitarianism within the context of irregular migration in Morocco. Her research interests include religion, migration, development, theology, and fiction.
She is also developing her father’s memoirs of his time with the Vietnamese communist army as a collection of short stories.
This is a post in response to two blog posts on post-PhD graduate careers (How to construct a DIY scholarly career and 21st Century Scholar) that reflect a growing trend of what each post has termed a ‘DIY scholarly career’ and an ‘entrepreneurial 21st century scholar’, respectively.
In response to the increasing casualisation and scarcity of academic jobs, and instead of just waiting around to get an academic position post-PhD, these posts exhort graduates to make themselves more competitive by engaging in various academic activities (research, attending conferences, networking) without the support of a university position.
This would run parallel with what they are already doing job-wise, supposedly. Inevitably, all of this is self-funded, and includes an investment of time and energy outside of one’s regular job.
I found it interesting that both bloggers who advocate this have been able to get work in universities, in non-academic jobs. This implies a minimum level of working conditions and job security.
I work in a casualised, low pay, no-paid-holidays job. I do this out of necessity. I come home physically tired, cranky and, most of the time, not in a capacity to think – let alone write – academically.
What I push myself to do in terms of trying to get a foot in the door of academia are postdoc applications, which always involve writing well-thought out and well-written research proposals that take a lot of time and energy.
Apparently, this is not enough. Imagine my jaw dropping when I read one of the blog posts advocating that research could be done during lunch-breaks, at night, and on weekends. And, furthermore, that the research trips and conferences she attended were self-funded and used annual leave from her job. I thought, “This is a particular world where there are paid holidays and job security, but it’s not currently mine”.
I know I’m not alone. If what is happening in academia reflects what has been happening for a long time in other industries – the casualisation of labour, job insecurity, and scarcity – then this means that more graduates are necessarily having to take on more precarious jobs.
In fact, it’s estimated that young people in Australia, who have attained higher levels of education than their predecessors, are now engaged in more casual work: one in two in 2013, compared with just over one in three in 1994. The DIY/entrepreneurial scholar approach sure sounds a lot like working yourself into the ground for free in the hope that you’ll eventually get the job/career you want- but is that a realistic solution for everyone?
That’s my main contention with this approach. It masks the fact that not everyone will have the same capacity to do what the proponents of this approach are doing; it can only work for the lucky few over the long term.
One of the bloggers said that “it takes focus and discipline”, and getting serious about wanting an academic job. But this obscures the fact that many people live in conditions largely out of their control. It hides the fact that being able to do what the proponents do involves having money, connections, and support.
One of the bloggers says that she has treated her academic career the same way that writers and actors have always seen their careers, as “precarious, patchwork affairs”. But it’s no accident that the majority of writers and actors come from particular backgrounds. These backgrounds provide financial and support structures that enable these creatives to continue working precariously for their ideal career over an uncertain and potentially long period of time.
It’s the same with unpaid internships, where the majority of interns are students who have parents who can support them while they work for free. These internships can be for long periods of time. In Europe, for example, six months is normal, and some may do this for multiple internships.
It’s a similar situation in arts organisations – another industry that’s underfunded and precarious.
When I worked in an arts organisation a few years ago, where we were underpaid and routinely expected to work evenings and weekends without extra pay, it was dominated by young women from a particular background. Young (because they didn’t have families to support financially or time-wise) and from a particular background that enabled an acceptance of much lower pay because they had other resources. I was one of the only non-white, non-middle-class people on permanent staff, and I struggled in that position.
What ends up happening in all of these cases is that the pool of potential candidates becomes limited to those who have the means to support low pay and precariousness in order to do what they love. It is not only unfair, it also makes the industry – whichever it happens to be – a lot poorer when only people from certain backgrounds are able to succeed in it.
In terms of the academic world, this has a concomitant effect on the research being done: from the research questions being asked, to the perspectives and experiences that are being brought to the table.
I’m not saying that having a PhD entitles me to an academic job – those days are long gone.
My point is that these DIY and entrepreneurial ‘strategies’ demand that people do even more, at a time when many struggle to keep their heads above water. This is especially so for those who do not have the requisite connections and money. Painting this as the way forward in response to increasing precariousness and casualisation in academia is unrealistic for a lot of people and increases inequity in an already inequitable system.
These ‘strategies’ buy into the neoliberal concept of putting the onus on the workers to adapt and work even harder, without recognising the broader structural barriers that are making it more difficult for people to get by, let alone build a career.
A myriad of factors can prevent someone from being a ‘DIY 21st entrepreneurial scholar’, and we should recognise and address these, rather than putting the entire burden on the graduate.
Otherwise, academia remains a domain only for the privileged.