Exempting exemptions, eh?

[2009 entry re-discovered]

This entry will try and resist being a rant.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was in the process of completing two major research project funding applications. They were to be submitted through the ARC (Australian Research Council), which is the peak research funding body in Oz.

Every year, hundreds of academics slave over huge applications, massaging jargon, honing buzzwords, fitting all manner of national priorities, and coming up with credible, hugely time-consuming budgets. It’s a huge industry within the institutions. There are specific administrative staff members whose roles are to support academics in putting these arcane, multi-part applications together. It all feels very Brazil.

While one of my applications is internally submitted and is shaping up nicely (it’s a collaborative one with Monash U colleagues), the other is dead in the water. Yes, dead in the water after solid weeks of work in the writing and checking and reviewing.


This 2nd application is for a fellowship, a QEII/Austn Research Fellow application to be precise. It requires that applicants be less than 8 yrs post-award of their PhD. At first glance, I am outside this time-frame, seemingly closer to 9.5 yrs. Once one counts maternity leave (6 months) and non-academic work (1.5 yrs), this comes down to just under 7 yrs. Never mind, there’s an exemption process where you ask for consideration of time out of academia, where you outline career interruptions. It was all going to be quite straightforward, or so I thought.

My exemption request was refused. Despite the best efforts of the research office and myself, we’ve been unable to ascertain on what grounds. The implicit advice that we’ve managed to glean gestures towards the idea that, even though the work I was doing was ‘non-academic’ (i.e. affected my research track record), it constitutes professional experience that I have chosen to pursue. ‘Chosen to pursue’ is an interesting way to put it. I guess one does choose to have a wage once in a while, or take a job because nothing else is around at the time. I wouldn’t say, though, that I was choosing to interrupt my research career when there wasn’t actually one to be had. Things are still a bit up in the air about the whole process (and I’ll have a few official words to say about the utter lack of transparency from the ARC on this issue), but I think the fellowship application has been skewered. Which is rather a pity as I’d worked on it enough that I was excited when thinking about carrying it out.

OK, maybe I haven’t been successful in not-ranting.

The issue I wanted to bring out here is about career choices in academia. I’ve written about this several times, and my paper on Academia 101 about this career trajectory stuff gets a gratifying number of hits; this # of hits is probably dismal to some, but I’m used to a very cosy readership… 😉

The notion of a seamless career path appears to be a cherished one, even in this day and age of (still) scarce humanities academic positions, the casualisation of university labour and the corporatisation of the university itself, the reification of ‘industry experience,’ etc. I’ve been on a research fellowship selection panel where many profs around the table were shaking their heads at the work history of a particular applicant. This applicant had worked for a couple of years in a totally non-academic job, to pay the bills and sustain his family (this was stated in his application). One panel member said that (paraphrasing) if this person wanted a research career badly enough, he would’ve done whatever it took to stay in the game. You can imagine my internal eyebrows shooting up about that one. The darndest thing was that the comment came from someone whose work, and attitude to his peers, I’d admired tremendously.

If you finish your PhD, and there are no decent academic positions going (and you would prefer not to have to traipse around the country/world for a paltry fixed-term position), and you need money to live on, are you really choosing to opt out of academia? I should declare my bias here: I find it difficult to imagine that many tenured professors would have a very good handle on the current struggles and career dilemmas of newly graduated/graduating academics, especially if the profs emerged in a time when it was common for continuing jobs to be offered before people even submitted their doctoral theses (which still happens occasionally these days, but the number of these situations are like the teeth of hens, no?).

Because I’ve chosen a research-only path thus far, I know I’ve had to compromise on several fronts: job security being number one, and promotion/career progression another.

I think it’s a bit rich, though, for peak organisations and senior institutional staff (among others) to presume that those who take work outside the straight’n narrow research/teaching modes are not serious about having a research career (and to penalise them for this).Taking a wage outside academia is often necessary, and not many of us are spoilt for choice when it comes to options for working within universities at a level commensurate with our years of study and experience. As much as I love the flexibility, independence and focus that comes with a research-only position, I daydream constantly about job security, roles that allow you to ‘check out’ mentally when you go home (I’m getting better at this, it must be said), and no more endless hoop-jumping. Very occasionally, when my masochistic streak surfaces, I relish the hoop-jumping, especially if it’s a hoop I’ve never jumped before. It’s not a pleasant or peaceful way to live a professional life, though. I want to rest on my laurels for a while, and for those laurels to proliferate even though I’m resting on them very heavily…


2 thoughts on “Exempting exemptions, eh?

  1. Kirsty 05/02/2009 / 4:19 am

    >But what an articulate rant.I have to say this is the thing that confuses me most about academe. People do all sorts of good ethical activism in their work, but when they meet relative disadvantage in the hallowed corridors it all proves a little too uncomfortable and the judgements start flying as scarily as those flags on Australia Day. Suddenly it becomes a personal defect not to have found a job in academe rather than a systemic problem?!I’m sorry you had to do all that work for a kick in the teeth. Hope they take note of your official complaint.

  2. tseen 05/02/2009 / 6:19 am

    >Yes! Absolutely re the blindspot if they have to deal with disadvantage in their own backyard (so to speak). The judgements made are very automatic and old-school, in my opinion. I had hoped that things might have shifted, particularly given the long-term erraticness of the university sector and its employment strategies. Have yet to craft the official ‘note’ to the ARC. I’m trying to strike a vaguely helpful note – that is, ‘it would be very useful for future applicants to know that the ARC makes its own judgements about what constitutes adequate “career interruption” by a non-academic job…’ (see? still too bitter’n twisted to write at the moment).

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