>I’ve been tinkering with this entry for a long time now and have decided to just go ahead and post it. I hesitated because I’m not sure I think this way all of the time. Chances are, this is a particularly cantankerous view brought on by recent discussions with friends and colleagues. It was getting long enough so I’ve saved my Phd-by-publication rant (which some of you have been unfortunate enough to hear about) for another post:
This entry is prompted by Galaxy‘s recent post about an academic career session she’d attended. She described the speaker as one who had incredible energy and drive (3am to 10pm workdays, anyone?). The executive summary of the advice from the session? Work hard. Plan your career. I know I’m simplifying what the speaker said (given that I wasn’t even there and that I’m weaving this from a 2nd-hand account, this is from necessity rather than design), but thought I’d impose my $0.05 on you all.
This is a downer of an entry in many ways, so if you’re looking to be cheered up about academia and its current direction, this post is not for you.
I come away from these kinds of ‘how to be a successful academic’ sessions (that I used to attend regularly as a postgrad) with equal amounts of inspiration and exhaustion. Inspiration because I like hearing how people get to where they are, and the ways they negotiated the funsterish game of academia. Exhaustion because the people who are invited to speak at these things are invariably the incredible, over-achieving, very focused types who want to exhort all to rally around and attain similar success.
It’s my humanities training that makes me not buy it. It’s the cynicism, the awareness of fear/favour in the system, my distrust of ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategies, and a general malaise that has a lot to do with the corporatisation and benchmarking fetishes that increasingly beset universities.
I’m not saying that you can’t get this ‘academic success’ that’s being showcased if you employ the same manoeuvres. Just this: Given the changed conditions of working in tertiary education these days, I’m somewhat dubious that anyone coming through the system more than a decade ago could really understand the pressures and despair about jobs/careers that many early career academics feel (I include myself in the category of people I’m dubious about…). It’s a different ballgame, and what was thought to be a restricted set of work options back then is now even worse. I know that I wouldn’t necessarily be encouraging people to do postgrad work, not unless they were particularly driven (and, thusly, they probably wouldn’t need any encouragement…ahem). There are no guarantees of work. You sometimes have to do stuff that sucks big-time, and to keep sane you have to stop reminding yourself that you studied for a poverty-stricken decade for this.
I realise the weirdness (ungratefulness?) of someone who’s in as cushy a position as I am having such a jaundiced view of academia. It’s treated me well. I’ve gained a lot from it, and continue to do so. From recent conversations with current postgrads, and early- to mid- career academics, I realise repeatedly how lucky I’ve been to get the positions I have and how little I want to compete in the aca job market for a ‘real aca job’ (meaning, more often than not, one where research is a luxury ill afforded). Oh, the pressure to do research is there, along with significant teaching and admin loads, and unrealistic DEST publication point targets and research grant projections. It’s all very well to generate all this activity and gain all these caches of funding, but when does anyone actually DO the work? And if it’s always done on the fly, or in a compromised intellectual relationship (this would apply to most Linkage projects I’ve heard about), what does that mean for the level of critical engagement and the quality of the subsequent work? I’m not saying it can’t be done; I am saying it is asking more of a sector that is already comparatively underpaid, overworked, and increasingly unsettled. I can’t help feeling that the emphases are on the wrong elements. You are asking for levels of commitment and industry from people to whom you are (often) barely promising secure jobs, let alone careers.
Having ranted about all that, I’m currently in a dream-job that allows me heaps of flexibility and support for my research. More than I’ve ever had before. If I could have this job forever, I would jump at it.
Back to the talk about having an academic career and the ‘plan and work hard’ adage:
As many of you know, I’m not averse to the ‘how to’ format to discuss issues around academia. I indulge in a fair bit of it myself. What I’d like these sessions to include, however, is an honest account of the conditions in a contemporary university. Yes, it can still be a dream job for some. Yes, it may well be the only thing that certain students want to do and they’re willing to brave the angst/uncertainty. I think it’s only fair to emphasise that even if you follow everything that’s said about savvy career moves and enact every networking tactic, the simple truth these days is that there may not be a job to be had.