When you can’t always get what you need

mayngoMay Ngo is a recent PhD graduate in Anthropology from the Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.

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.

May has a blog at The Violent Bear it Away, and tweets at @mayngo2.


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.

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz | unsplash.com

Photo by Sebastian Boguszewicz | unsplash.com

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.

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12 Responses to When you can’t always get what you need

  1. Most of those who don’t initially get at least a post-doc or visiting lecturer position aren’t going to break into academia anyway whether they use personal resources to try to do so or not. There are simply too many good candidates in most searches that search committees don’t need to look at them. So, I don’t think that these people are providing unfair competition to those that aren’t doing these things due to circumstances.

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  2. Dani says:

    Thank you! Both my partner and I have PhDs (in engineering and science; supposedly “safer” fields of study to qualify in) and although we both have jobs now, both of our research contracts end early next year and we are freaking out. I work ridiculous hours and have taken on a multitude of “extracurricular” activities in the hope that they will help me get a permanent position one day- but I don’t hold my breath. I am good at what I do and wouldn’t have an issue holding down a permanent “normal” job, but as a researcher I have no idea whether I’ll even be able to use my qualifications next year. A sad state of affairs.

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  3. MJJ says:

    Absolutely: the issue is with the structures and levels of support post-PhD, but we are stuck in a Catch-22 situation. With things the way they are and the time it takes to campaign to fix them, our own careers will never get off the ground unless we try and build them ourselves, putting pressure on ourselves, our families, etc, and ultimately facing the possibility of not succeeding. I saw a call for ECRs and temporary teaching staff to Unionise some time ago, and campaign for better conditions and more investment in post-doctoral work. That would benefit the next generation of ECRs possibly, but meanwhile, it’s still a crap situation for the rest of us to be stuck in… And I say this as a dedicated DIY ECR. I have no savings and a low paid job, but at least it’s a permanent 11.5 hour contract within my institution! I’m massively fortunate in that regard, which is galling considering the exhausting hours of juggling workloads, and the lack of financial security. What steps could we practically take together as ECRs under these circumstances to actually make things fairer and better?

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  4. May Ngo says:

    I’m not sure what the solution is MJJ, I feel like I am just managing to tread water everyday, never mind thinking of campaigning. Also, I think that it’s also an issue of transparency and communication, as an ECR by definition we don’t know much aobut how the university system works in terms of decisions made and why in relation to doctoral and postdoc studies. Maybe what would be helpful is some kind of mentoring system, even if it is not one on one, that allows those more experienced to help guide younger ECR. Because I feel like I’m treading water in lost seas. On the university side there definitely has to be more investment in postdoctoral work, but again I don’t know enough about how the system works. Generally, I think there has to be a groundswell of voices before the university will listen, but how to bring this about I’m not sure.

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  5. Pingback: When you can’t always get what you need: response to “entrepreneurial” academic careers | The Violent Bear It Away

  6. Pingback: Best Industry Transition Articles Of The Week For PhDs (September 20, 2015) | Cheeky Scientist® | Industry Training For Intelligent People

  7. Dr Sandy O'Sullivan says:

    I know this is your experience, May, but I have to confess to being dismayed by this, mostly because we’ve had a position going for an Academic Level C (could have been a recent post-doc with management and organisational skills and a VERY modest research record) in Darwin at Batchelor Institute and didn’t get a single bite, in spite of it being research only and across research areas that are supposedly never research-only.

    The job is for a Director of the Graduate School (for anyone interested) but half of the job is own research work (and the research candidates have their own supervisors). Despite being across Creative Arts, Education and Languages (all with an Indigenous focus, but applicants didn’t need to have experience across these areas in their research), we had no applicants and no real interest. I am sure a part of it is that it’s located in Darwin, but I can’t quite comprehend why people would pass up a job that runs at least 100K with the opportunity to do significant career boost and work on national competitive grants… it really leads me to believe that some of this supposed lack is actually very narrowed interest. (We ran a similar job doing just research eight months ago with few – and no qualified – applicants).

    Meanwhile if anyone wants a fabulous job, rather than complaining about one not existing… welcome!

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    • Dr Sandy O'Sullivan says:

      Sorry I should have said that I think your advice is really sound, and a key issue for engaging in most professional careers, actually.

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  8. Lisa says:

    “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.” Yes. It’s already troublesome that getting into a phd program (and succeeding through undergrad and a master’s) often involves quite a bit of financial and class privilege, as well as white privilege. But when writers advocate for continued unpaid labour post-phd in the academy, and if hiring committees see such unpaid labour as a sign of engagement, and not a problematic symbol of privilege, then you’re increasing the chance that certain types of privilege will dominate research, and that that privilege will drive (and blind) research.

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  9. Chris Satterley says:

    Sustaining credible scholarly output whilst having another job or career is exceptional and only really possible in certain disciplines. It is completely unreasonable to use these odd examples either universal exemplars of standard practice or, even more perniciously, use them to ask the question “well why aren’t YOU doing this?”.

    My view of this is that it is part of a wider cultural issue of normalising the exceptional and then demanding it from everyone; especially as the specific nature of the privilege and other situational factors that enable this exceptional performance are oftenconveniently ignored. This has arisen from the individualisation of the ‘continual performance improvement’ culture in business.

    Having spent the majority of my career in industry, I’ve experienced this frankly wrong-headed culture first hand, where last year’s performance, no matter how exceptional is used as a basic benchmark for this year. Also, often performance is compared with others regardless of the reality of their working practices (for example looking at gross output rather than productivity or assuming everyone is a full-time worker) . The only two outcomes in this culture are either burn-out or people who are disincentivised from performing at their best in order to keep getting realistic targets.

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  10. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for your comment, and I totally agree you. The hidden unpaid labour that is expected of CVs in general and in post-PhD CVs in particular privileges people from certain backgrounds and with certain resources. It’s a really unfair system, but seems so par for the course normal and goes unquestioned.

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  11. Katara Jade says:

    Great analysis of what is going on there, but I think it is time for a mass exodus from Academia and leave the privileged classes to toil in their ivory towers while the rest of us do the real work in the world 😉 Be the change you want to see.

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