A career in academia? ‘Twenty years of schooling and they’ll put you on the day shift’

Fancy a career as a university lecturer? The image of the job certainly used to be seductive: interesting work, developing the minds of eager young students, overseas travel, good pay, high status.  And there was a sense in which reality corresponded to the image.

When I got my first (temporary) post at the University of Durham I remember sitting in my office and marvelling that anybody would pay me to do such a wonderful job! But that was then – 1983- and this is now. I had had the luxury of doing two undergraduate degrees for free- one on a full government grant in the 1960s, another as a privilege for staff family members in the 1970s. No masters, but a PhD funded by the ESRC.

No such luck for today’s aspirant academics. Three years of undergraduate training with fees of £9000  (£27000 debt piling up for the future). It is almost obligatory nowadays to do a masters (another chunk of debt, or a break to earn some money and live like a pauper to get yourself through the year). Then if you seriously want to build a career as an academic, you will really need a PhD. Funding is highly competitive and increasingly hard to come by. Then another 3 to 4 years out of the labour market, another three years of financial struggling, helped by some ill-paid hourly teaching or laboratory work.

Seven years of training – but don’t think that now you can leap into well-paid secure work. Unless you have enough publications already to be ‘REF-worthy’ you won’t find a permanent post in a time of retrenchment and cuts. It’s normal to hold temporary/part-time contracts, as a research assistant, a teaching fellow or if lucky a funded post-doctoral position. If you work beyond the call of duty to get a few more publications  (on top of the work you are being paid to do) you might be fortunate enough to get a permanent job after your first contract ends. More commonly, people have to complete two or three.

So, after some ten years of ‘training’ you are now in your late 20s or (more likely) early 30s. And you have your first job! But sadly, it is not going to be like my Durham experience. Since then the advent of research assessment, the development of bureaucratic and the intrusion of the market into universities have drastically altered the nature of academic life. You are no longer free to carry out research according to your own personal interests or inclination. Your research plans will be persistently monitored and controlled by your line managers. You will be required to get external funding for your research.  You will be set daunting targets for regular publications in top journals. You will be subjected to workload planning processes which are intended to be ‘fair and transparent’ but seem to result in extra teaching and assessment work being piled on to young lecturers (their seniors score lots of workload points for filling managerial roles and are more likely to be bought out of their teaching on fellowships or grant money). You will be told that if you want to get promoted you will need to take on substantial administrative tasks. Your students will probably love you because you will put tremendous energy and enthusiasm into your teaching – and they will seek you out for academic and pastoral advice, as you are more approachable than those eminent professors.

So: you are working a 60/70 hour week, stressed, anxious, prone to catch every virus that’s going (that legendary freshers’ flu). You have no time to take any annual leave, you are terrified about  your promotion chances, your line manager is perpetually nagging at you (does this constitute harassment?); and you daren’t complain about any of this in case they decide you are ‘not fit for the job’ and slap you into capabilities procedures.
Welcome to the university of the twenty-first century and the flexible labour market! Twenty-five years of schooling and….

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