Is it possible to escape the casual teaching trap?

This post, by Robin May of Melbourne University, is on a matter close to my own heart – casual teaching. Sessional lecturers, or  ‘adjuncts’ as they are sometimes called in the United States, are an increasingly common feature of the Higher Education workforce worldwide.

I was a sessional lecturer for 11 years. While some of that time it suited me to be free and easy, eventually the lack of secure employment started to grate. I was not eligible for a mortgage and I started to resent the full time lecturers for their travel budgets, superannuation and ability to take holidays at will. So when Robin, who is actually doing her PhD on the issue, offered a post I jumped at the chance to publish it!

Robyn is a Research Fellow at University of Melbourne and her recently submitted PhD examines the causes and implications of insecure academic employment in Australia’s public universities.  The research is part of a wider ARC project at Griffith University looking at gender and employment equity in the university sector.  Before undertaking her PhD Robyn worked for the National Tertiary Education Union, and has also worked as a researcher and casual academic at RMIT University, and in research positions in New Zealand and the UK.

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 5.33.32 PMHaving recently submitted my PhD with timely support and advice from various thesis whisperer posts, I thought that the findings from my PhD might be of use to those of you in the thesis whisperer community.

My PhD was an investigation of the casualisation of academic work in Australian universities. My research involved a large survey of casual academic staff across 19 universities and interviews with casual academics. I also worked as a casual tutor and researcher during my studies. The research was part of a wider ARC Linkage project examining gender equity in Australian universities, based at Griffith University. My own interest in this particular topic stemmed from a background in trade unions and from working on other research projects examining insecure work. I was also very conscious that this was a topic that had not received the attention it deserved and the investigation was timely if somewhat depressing!

My purpose in writing this post was really to synthesise some general advice, based on my findings, for post-graduate students who juggle casual teaching along with their studies. In particular my comments are aimed at those who take on casual teaching work in the hope that it will assist their aspirations for an academic career. I acknowledge that not all of those who teach on a casual basis in our universities do so because they want this career. The casual teaching workforce is highly diverse, both in terms of motivations and life stage, which can mean that the needs of those who are seeking an academic career are ignored.

The highly insecure nature of much of the work (both teaching and research) in universities is only beginning to be raised in wider public discussion. My research, using our survey data and analysis of the university staff superannuation fund, shows that casual academic staff are the majority, on a headcount basis, of academic staff across Australia’s universities.

This casual workforce undertakes a large proportion of the undergraduate teaching in the sector. Casual academics are younger, and more likely to be female than their continuing academic counterparts, and the survey data showed that the majority already have, or are working toward, a PhD qualification. Most would like a more secure academic position and only one in ten say that casual work is their preferred option.

By casual academic staff I mean those who tutor, lecture and demonstrate on an hourly rate basis, and I use the word casual, rather than ‘sessional’, deliberately, because I think it is important not to lose sight of this most essential nature of the employment arrangement, its hourly rate basis. Whilst the capacity to employ academic teaching staff on an hourly rate is not new, what is new is the size and scale of the casual workforce, the growing separation of this workforce from the continuing academic workforce, and the length of time many aspiring academics spend in casual employment before they get their first continuing appointment, if indeed they ever do.

All of this is occurring in a context where students are paying more for their university education than ever before, the student population is highly diverse, and the implications of a highly casualised workforce are enormous. The evidence suggests that universities will continue to expect much from their casual teaching staff, promising little security and support in return, and that this workforce will keep growing. As a postgraduate student how do you best navigate the ‘flattering’ offers of casual teaching in order to maximise the experience for your CV without taking your eye off what is really valued in the sector, your research output?

Understand how the hourly rate works: I know of new tutors who spend up to 8 hours preparing for a one hour tutorial. They would earn a better hourly rate at McDonalds! The tutorial rate, for example, includes 2 hours of payment for preparation, administration and student consultation. Every extra hour you spend with that needy student or on that time wasting administration process decreases your hourly rate and eats into your study/writing time. Set clear boundaries and let the academic you work with know if you feel you are being forced to work beyond that you are paid for. Some universities are introducing extra payments such as paying for a weekly student consultation hour separately.

Remember that teaching one semester is no guarantee of work the next, so don’t assume you will get economies of scale when you develop that fabulous course in your spare time. And that the intellectual property belongs to the university who employed you to write it (even if it was a ‘love job’).

Take advantage of any professional development on offer: some universities are better than others in offering basic training for tutors. Many academic colleagues are not aware of what is on offer so you may need to make inquiries of other staff in your faculty or approach the teaching and learning area of your university.

Beware the casual teaching trap: Topping up your scholarship with some casual teaching can be useful financially and for your CV however years spent in casual teaching employment beyond PhD completion can detract from the search for a more secure appointment rather than enhance the chances of scoring that better job. This is largely because of the time-consuming nature of the work and its detrimental impact on research productivity.

Have a plan for how long you will work as a casual after your PhD completion. My research suggests that if you have not found a more secure position within three years of PhD completion it is increasingly unlikely that you ever will.

Understand the marking formula: If your university pays you to mark three exam scripts in an hour then mark at least three scripts an hour if not more.

Tread warily with course coordination: While this is not a task that is supposed to be undertaken by casual staff, the practice is widespread across the sector. Course coordination is stressful and comes with a high workload which is very likely to derail study progress. Proceed very carefully.

A love of teaching is not enough! Many of the casual academics I interviewed told me how much they enjoyed teaching and interacting with students and how they got great student evaluations. The brutal truth in the sector is, however, no matter how good a teacher you are it is unlikely to be the factor that secures you an academic position. A little teaching experience counts on the CV but ultimately we are judged on our research outputs, and the competition is fierce. Not only are fewer academic positions coming up but there are large numbers of highly qualified international applicants bidding for those positions.

The shape of things to come: The academic labour market has changed rapidly over the past decade and those who suggest there are likely to be opportunities open up when the baby boomer generation retire have got it wrong.

Many of the baby boomers who do retire are hired back as casuals – universities recognise this as a potent source of trained labour.

Academic work is rapidly changing; technology, outsourcing and funding constraints are likely to contribute to further shrinking of the continuing teaching and research academic labour force and increase the bifurcation between ‘secure’ and insecure academic work. Universities are getting better at ‘managing’ casual academics and will increasingly resort to student evaluations to determine hiring and to mediate quality concerns, particularly where there is a good supply of casual labour (that is a large post-graduate cohort).

Finally if you think the fact that our universities are being propped up by an insecure and often exploited workforce and this bothers you, do something about it. Join the union. Talk with fellow casual staff about the situation. Find out about your university’s collective agreement and whether your university has adopted any new provisions or policies to create more secure academic positions, or if they have resisted these claims in bargaining ask why.

This discussion all points to a wider question about what purpose the PhD and what role universities should play in providing realistic career advice about post PhD options beyond the academic career path. A whole new post!

Love to hear your thoughts.

Related Links

What’s your edge?

How to get a job in academia when you finish your PhD

27 thoughts on “Is it possible to escape the casual teaching trap?

  1. eleanor says:

    Huh. That’s extremely illuminating, thank you. One of the disheartening things I have noticed when applying for academic jobs lately is that everyone seems to want ‘proven success at grant writing’. I even saw this recently for a postdoc! How on earth are we supposed to win grants without the backing of a permanent position. This seems like a catch 22. Any thoughts?

    • Ben Wilkie says:

      I’ve seen this a few times, too.

      Postdoc fellowships, DECRA, and other ECR positions seem to be getting more difficult for PhD graduates to secure. One academic I work with pointed at that many of them are being appointed to Level B Lecturers who are a just few years into their existing (permanent) position. Technically they are ECRs, but I’m not so sure that’s the spirit in which postdoc positions are created.

      A lot of feedback I’ve got from applications for these jobs have included statements to the effect that the most competitive applicants have at least one monograph and a successful grant.

      So, I agree with you. Many postdoc positions now require experience and achievements that can only be really gained during another postdoc position. Which is crazy.

      • Peter Bentley says:

        The issue of post-doc fellowships is that it seems they are not designed for someone immediately graduating from their PhD. When I graduated with a bachelor degree, my first job was a “graduate” position which was restricted to very recent bachelor graduates. I didn’t need to compete with people with 10+ years of experience, it was about demonstrating potential, rather than demonstrating competence based on past performance (which inherently favours the experienced).

        The Catch 22 is partly due to the informal channels for academic experience. People don’t move between advertised positions from a PhD —>Post-Doc—> T&R position. The pathway is much more complex and very likely to include periods of work gained via informal channels, which in turn strengthen one’s merit for when positions are advertised (assuming that advertisement precedes the selection process). Robyn’s survey data shows that most causals got their position via informal channels, and most ongoing or fixed term staff worked as a casual during their PhD. I suspect that many people who are successful in DECRA and other schemes also gained some form of research work via informal channels too.

        It is a really tough problem to solve. We can’t expect every short-term research position to be advertised, universities are too slow and bureaucratic, but the growth has been in short term positions based on “soft money” which is controlled by senior researchers.

  2. Ben Wilkie says:

    Excellent post!

    I’m betting I’m not the only one that spent the summer writing applications and proposals for jobs in the hopes that ‘something will come up’, only to find ourselves burnt out by it all, in the middle of February, signing up to another year of casual teaching because it’s there and we can.

    So I especially agree that we all need to set a limit for ourselves and I think it should be added that, for most of us, this is going to require swallowing our pride and learning to cut our losses.

    Research students need to be made more aware, from the very start, of a) the prospects for academic employment, b) their transferable skills and c) that it’s totally fine to not want an academic career. It seems to me that many research students feel there is only one career path for them, and perhaps this is why so many of us also get stuck in the casual teaching trap.

  3. Anon says:

    Even with a ‘grow you own’ strategy taken by unis to increase the employment of targeted marginalised groups, with all the encouragement and rhetoric, it is impossible to beat the academic class jobs for mates rule.

    I actually had a dean say to me in a job interview ‘why do we need you now we have your work available in your thesis?’ Needless to say the spouse of an upper-echelon academic mate got the position despite their qualifications being in a totally different discipline and with less qualifications.

    The academic class will exclude if you are not from the corporate culture using unquantifiable reasoning like – the other person interviewed better, or their (co-written with spouse) publication list is impressive while omitting these same publications are with dodgy-bros publishers.

    Such is life, where the privileged will fight to keep their privileges amongst their own.

  4. WildlyParenthetical says:

    This feels a bit disingenuous to me. We all know that if we do a crappy job on the marking because we’re sticking to the marking rate set by the university, it will come back to bite us in the form of appeals or complaints. We all also know that unless we’re willing to go above and beyond, we won’t get the next contract.

    I don’t disagree, really, about what you’re saying here about needing to stick to the letter of a contract, but let’s be real: no one does, and it’s not because they’re donating out of the goodness of their heart. Permanent staff don’t, and so they often think it’s reasonable (it’s not) to ask casuals to do more, and resent those who won’t go above and beyond. The issue is more than casuals are being asked to invest more now for a payoff that may never (and is unlikely to ever) come.

    Finally, on the NTEU… well, they’ve been getting better on supporting casuals, but the issues related to the exploitation of casuals are not usually centred in union log of claims, and they are *certainly* not what people understand themselves to be protesting around when there are pickets. (E.g.: at the University of Sydney last year, the pickets were simply about a pay increase. There was nothing in the log of claims about casuals except attempting to decrease the numbers – not their exploitative conditions – through semi-demi-pretend-you’re-temporarily-permanent-so-you-can-sit-on-committees-too positions). I agree that people should support the union, but I also think that the union needs to be a *lot* better at supporting casuals. I heard way too much of the ‘needing to pull together’ bs around the EB last year!

  5. JD says:

    I fit the criteria of younger, female and working toward a PhD to escape the the casual teaching rut. Thanks for the article.

  6. Mandalay says:

    Thanks for the post. For those who haven’t heard about the US crisis in higher ed for PhDs, have a look at The Professor Is In blog ( – it’s an equally sobering/depressing view on the future. Just a few extra comments on this post, and I am being a Devil’s advocate. Universities have a vested interest in producing lots of PhDs (more income), regardless of job prospects. It seems there is little consideration of the impact for current/future PhDs who invest time, effort and money in the belief they are setting out on an academic career (and I take the point that there are diverse motivations). What is inevitable, in Australia’s shrinking job market, is that qualification creep sets in (a bachelor’s degree required to be a cleaner, PhD to be a secretary). I was wondering whether Robyn’s research included unemployment stats on tertiary qualified job-seekers? Perhaps it is time to start a PhD graduate ‘where are they now’ list, according to university and discipline? Secondly, of the 10 most recent appointments in our faculty, eight were international applicants (including six who were already working in the faculty on visas). If this continues, what is the Australian PhD worth? Finally (sorry, Robyn) I have my doubts about the NTEU – my membership rate was $65/month which wasn’t sustainable on short term contracts. And, given that many of the NTEU members at my university were already tenured, senior academics, didn’t inspire me with confidence that casuals/sessionals/fixed term’ers would have any real union support.

    • Ben Wilkie says:

      Really good points.

      There is some data and reports from 2012 on postgraduate employment outcomes here

      Unfortunately the reports don’t seem to include information about how long out of a PhD the respondents are/were, which I think is key.

      Just regarding the NTEU, my fee was about $65 annually. I think their approach to casuals has been mixed. The new Scholarly Teaching Fellow-type positions we’re seeing in some recent EA are a good initiative, though limited and geared towards ‘lifting up’ some casuals to a Level A position. As such, they don’t deal with the difficulties faced by those who are not luck enough to be offered such a position.

  7. Mandalay says:

    Hi Ben, thanks for passing on the link, and agree that length of time post-PhD should be a key feature. I was a little puzzled (maybe I’ve missed something) but the report indicates 78.8% of PhDs ‘available for full-time employment’ although 83% are categorised as ‘in full time employment.’ Perhaps this needs further clarification, as to whether those self-identifying as employed are on contract/sessional arrangements and therefore are still looking for continuing or permanent employment.
    Re the NTEU: I gave up membership about 18 months ago so it must have changed after that.

  8. Robyn May says:

    Thanks for the comments! On your questions Mandalay about the destinations of PhD graduates, I didn’t specifically look at these issues but I understand that around 25% of PhD qualified people across Australia work in universities. PhD graduates tend to have higher labour force participation rates than the wider labour force – for science qualified PhDs its around 10 percentage points higher – I suspect that might be the 78% figure you quote. This doesn’t of course tell us what jobs these people are doing and I have heard more than one anecdote about a PhD graduate working at the deli counter at Coles.
    The Go8 argued in a recent paper on ‘the changing PhD’ that Australia needed more PhD graduates but also acknowledged that there were limited academic positions for these graduates. Convincing industry in Australia of the usefulness of skills gained during a PhD is often challenging.
    On the issues raised about the NTEU – its not for me to speak for the union other than to make the general point that in my opinion collective activity is the best chance of improving conditions for casual academics. Some improvements have been made – such as separate payment for marking and new early career positions – through bargaining. More needs to be done.

  9. kjmacleod says:

    “A little teaching experience counts on the CV but ultimately we are judged on our research outputs, and the competition is fierce.”

    So true. Research is what I love the most, but I see doing some teaching as a responsibility – I suppose I have an old fashioned notion that Universities are centres of learning, not just hubs of business churning out publications…

  10. Peter Bentley says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing your insights. Too often I hear from senior staff (not on casual contracts) that causals prefer this type of employment. Some do (such as senior ranked retirees), but most aspiring academics don’t.

    It is also a contradiction of terms when it is said to individual casuals that they are “essential” to certain departments. If someone is essential, then they should not be on a casual contract.

    In my view, casuals are only justified to meet the unpredictable fluctuation of student numbers. If a certain baseline student load can be predicted, then universities can afford to hire teaching staff on longer-term contracts (with casuals to cater for the year-to-year fluctuation). Instead, we see that casual perhaps teach the majority of students, which suggests to me that casuals are doing teaching which is relatively predictable from year to year, with causal appointments being based on ideology, not rational needs for “flexibility”.

    • Anonymous says:

      thanks Peter, yes unfortunately many of the senior decision makers in the sector are informed by the time when combining post graduate study with a bit of tutoring ( with a nice small class as well!!) led seamlessly to an ongoing position. Those days are well and truly over and the new myth is that of the ‘portfolio career’. I am sure we all know of someone who has attempted this but with work so inherently insecure its pretty hard to imagine it as part of a career strategy. Likewise the ‘industry professional’ is an overstated category. The two largest surveys of casual academic staff, mine and that by Anne Junor in 2004 find that most casuals would prefer a more secure appointment. Of the 22 casual academics I interviewed for my research only 2 said they preferred to stay casual, even those I categorised as ‘retirees’ as they were over 60 said they would prefer an ongoing part time position as they felt it would allow them to do their job better and be more available for students.
      The reality is our sector is addicted to flexibility more so than most industries yet it is well hidden with students often unaware that their tutor has no office and no job security beyond the teaching hour.

      • Anon says:

        Perhaps it is time students are made aware that their teachers are casuals – it challenges the notion that education leads to better opportunities. Actually it sort of devalues the whole tertiary education system.

      • Peter Bentley says:

        I don’t think much has changed since Junor’s study. I think there is also some scope for casuals in guest lecturing or teaching specialist classes, including industry specialists, but the key characteristic is that they are not academic career aspirants.

        I don’t think students would care much about casual employment, many probably resent needing to go to uni for the credential and would associate cheaper tutors with lower tuition fees. Casuals also seem to do a pretty good job at teaching, at least in terms of course satisfaction.

        Do you think there is scope for the NTEU to negotiate an increase in the causal loading rate? That would be a clear and simple casual reduction strategy.

  11. eleanor says:

    Robyn, when you found that 3 years was generally the most amount of time that one could stay as a casual and still hold out hope in finding a permanent position, were there fluctuations in this time frame across disciplines?

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Eleanor, thanks for the question. What I found was that beyond 3 years post PhD completion survey respondents were overwhelmingly negative about their perceptions of ever gaining an ongoing position. I didn’t investigate this specifically by discipline, but in other analysis of the survey where there were bigger numbers of respondents significant discipline differences did emerge between those who were satisfied with their opportunities and those who were very unhappy and felt they had limited mobility. Unsurprisingly there were high levels of dissatisfaction amongst those in the humanities and social sciences disciplines where levels of PhD qualification/studying for PhD were high and opportunities outside the university sector were poor (and where budget cutbacks often hit hardest within universities). Cohorts in male dominated disciplines such as engineering had lower levels of PhD qualification but much higher possibilities of being mobile and were much happier, as were those in mixed gender disciplines such as business or law.
      The casual academic labour market interacts strongly with the outside labour market for the related profession, not necessarily because people move between the two, I think this is overstated except in the case of say nursing or education, but because opportunities (jobs and pay) outside the sector shape the size of the pool of labour for casual work inside the sector. And this varies by location of university too – a city based uni may have no trouble getting casual tutors in law, for example, however a regional campus possibly would.
      A complicated picture! We have published an article in Labour and Industry 23 (3) 2013 (May, Peetz and Strachan) with more details if you are interested.

  12. Anonymous Academic says:

    It is a sad paradox that universities are there to provide an education to students, but don’t seem to value the quality of this, as indicated by the way that casual (and tenure) staff are treated. Staff with teaching loads fall behind in research outputs, particularly if they are dedicated to providing quality teaching. This means that research-only staff have an unfair advantage when it comes to promotion. Yet, the universities need students to survive financially, so it is the staff who teach that provide this life-blood…

  13. oatsofwrath says:

    Great (but a bit depressing) post! Thank you very much, and I look forward to reading further articles out of this research.

    I’ve been a casual teaching staff member at my university since I was an undergrad. I’m now in the last 6 months of my PhD…all up, I have about 6 years of teaching experience. There are a couple of things I’d like to add. Some universities have transition fellowships for those casual staff members who have been employed for X number of semesters over Y years. I’m sure the details vary. I know they exist, but I’ve never come across one, never heard of one being offered. Maybe they have been, but certainly not in my department. We need to make sure that the agreed upon number of these fellowships is being offered each year, and frankly, we need our department heads to put the pressure on.

    Secondly, a bit of solidarity would be nice. I can’t really blame someone for agreeing to work in positions that they should not be employed in on a casual basis, or for agreeing to do more work than they’ll get paid for, or accepting that their tutes have been reclassified as ‘workshops’ so they can be paid less. I get it. We’re poor and we need the money and the experience, and we all hope that it will lead to something better. But here’s the thing – as long as we keep agreeing to work under dodgy, EB-violating conditions, it won’t lead to anything better. When you finally refuse to be exploited, state your rights and say that to do that work you need a proper contract/adequate budget/more support, whatever, they just move on to the next desperate hopeful. They don’t value your experience. They don’t value the work you’ve done, or what you’ve accomplished. They don’t fight for you. They discard you. Once again – I don’t blame the casuals who do it – certainly I’ve done it. But it’s how the administration uses us (up) and it’s a dead end.

  14. PE says:

    I’m an adjunct faculty member in the US because I am an unfunded Ph.D. candidate. The school at which I teach pays only for classroom hours; we are not compensated for prep time or office hours (which we are required to hold). Professional development is limited to 5 hours. Many casuals trying to pump up their CVs to get a full time job are doing committee work for free. Often, they are also working at multiple schools to support themselves, and they are often passed over when full time faculty are hired. The skeptic in me wonders if this is because the school is already getting almost full time work from them for much less. All they would get out of the casual who is already teaching 3 classes and doing volunteer committee work is perhaps one more class and a little more committee work. Why make her full time (and yes, the female pronoun is meaningful) when she already gives you so much for so much less? And the last few hires have all been Caucasian men. It’s very disheartening at times.

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