Is academia really worth it?

This post was written Dr Kathy McKay,a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of New England. Her work revolves around listening to stories of suicide, healing and resilience within communities and within literature. It’s a sobering reflection on this academic life – but I thought it articulated views and feelings that need an airing in the current climate of government cuts to higher education and research.

Screen Shot 2014-07-27 at 9.37.10 amIn January this year, Rachel L. Swarns wrote a piece for The New York Times that scared me so much, it’s taken until now to write about it.

‘Crowded Out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty’ follows the employment trajectory of an early-career academic in America, James D. Hoff. Since being awarded his PhD, he’s had no fixed or full-time employment, rather relying on subject-by-subject contracts at more than one institution. There’s no certainty or security as subjects can be dropped without notice and juggling across-institution teaching hours doesn’t allow for him to spend enough time at any one institution to be recognised as someone who works there. While he tries to find a permanent position, his debt is mounting and his fear is growing.

This isn’t an ‘only in America’ story. A UK article has only just come out decrying the high wages of university Vice-Chancellors when other staff are fighting to remain employed after the financial crisis. In Australia, early career academics face years of insecure contract work before any permanency is offered.

As I face 2014 patch-working a job and waiting to hear about grants, I wonder what else I should have done to make my luck run a little longer, where I’ve failed and what I’ve missed. In the academic arena, with its constant resubmissions and rejections and redrafts, you learn far easier your weaknesses than you do your strengths. Yet, you go on; as I’m learning from my friend Sarah’s PhD, you reconceptualise and reframe hope as necessary.

A PhD is no longer enough to gain permanent employment. Working hard is no longer enough. Saying yes to everything is no longer enough. All these things are necessary but they’re no longer enough. Luck and serendipity help; being in the right place at the right time, selling a project that is on-trend for that point in time, helps. Focusing on the ‘hard’ sciences helps, although that is no longer a sure thing. Choosing to focus on teaching is a surer way to a permanent position in Australia but not always.

Since completing my PhD, I’ve managed to be very lucky but luck only ever runs so far. And it’s not been without hard work either. My life as an early career academic is by no means unique. I balance teaching, research, and service. Long weekly hours that creep over to weekends to allow time to write with fewer disturbances have been the norm for as long as I’ve worked at a university. I’m not sure I’d know what to do with myself on a weekend if I wasn’t writing. It’s not unusual to have Skype meetings with a colleague on the other side of the world at times so early in the morning we forgive each other our pajamas. I check my email before my morning run just in case. I’m not always sure what that ‘just in case’ is, but it’s been necessary often enough to incorporate that as a ritual. Indeed as a single childless woman, it’s presumed to be easier for me to work these sorts of hours.

And these are all my choices. As they are the choices for many of us who struggle to balance work and life in an era where the potential for constant availability means we are assumed to be constantly available. However, the more weekends I work – the more of my own money I use to fund the conferences necessary for career recognition and advancement but which are not always covered by a university – the more of myself I give to a career that seems to be becoming less secure, not more so – the more I question whether it’s worth it. And it’s a question I’d (naively) never thought I’d ask and one that that is truly gut-wrenching to consider.

I love my work; it makes my heart beat; it’s constantly bubbling behind every thought (obviously I’m super at dinner parties). Yet, faced with such uncertainty and insecurity all of a sudden, after always trying to do the right thing – publishing and co-authoring, teaching and mentoring, saying yes to absolutely every email that crosses my path – I’ve started to question my decisions.

And not just, should I work this weekend? All of a sudden, in a quest to simply keep my job, I’ve become career-focused, more insular because, for all is collaboration, academic work is predominantly a lonely activity. I’ve chosen work over life many times in an attempt to make sure, like James D Hoff, I’ll be positively seen in the university doing the right thing – better to be known as the girl who writes on Saturday than the girl who does the minimum. Now that my luck has run its course, have I made the right decision?

Like Hoff, I may be well liked, even respected, among my colleagues and students, but this hasn’t been able to be translated into permanency, especially in a tightened economic environment. I’ve made decisions based on a job that no longer exists and now, before I get too old when I’m scared it will feel too familiar, I’m searching for reasons to stay. I’m questioning whether you can achieve balance in an uncertain area; more pragmatically, I’m wondering whether I can pay my bills until the next grant comes in, if the next grant comes in.

Writing this, I don’t want it to sound ‘poor me’; this is not the intent. At the end of the day, if I have to serve coffee, stack shelves, while continuing to write, than that’s what I’ll do. I’m not denying this is the bed I’ve made and on days when the words I write are beautiful, when an interview uncovers something heart-stopping and makes the person feel unburdened, when a student’s assignment has just really got it – those moments are worth all the uncertainty. At the end of the day, it’s not that I, or any of my colleagues, want things to be easy. We want to earn the rewards; we want our publications and grant applications to be fairly reviewed; we want to be intellectually challenged so the work becomes better and stronger.

However, it also needs to be acknowledged that, much like Little Orphan Annie, it can be a hard-knock life for an early-career academic while we wait for a Dean Warbucks to offer a permanent position. Until then, we are, as Jorge Cham so aptly puts it, “hobos with a PhD”. This sort of lifestyle, no matter the positive spin we constantly reinvigorate it with, no matter how hard we work to rectify it, does begin to leech the colour from your spirit. It’s hard to stay passionate in your work if you’re only allowed to whisper it in the margins.

I’m a hopeless romantic at heart, an eternal optimist. As much as I’m more afraid than ever before, I’m trying to figure out how to keep my passion, to still love the teaching and research. I’m borrowing money to go to a conference that extends my track record and will rejuvenate my mind. My greatest fear is that all the colour will eventually leech – I’ll be a hollow academic, one that does work only to keep a position, rather than strives to set the world even a little on fire. I used to always think that I would choose passion over certainty but now I’m not so sure.

Universities need their academics to be passionate, dynamic, and intellectually stimulated so as not to stagnate. As academics, we need to be unafraid of criticism and willing to be bold in the research we undertake and the way we teach. However, in this current climate of burnout and uncertainty, are universities really creating the most fertile environment for the next generation of academics?

As I am fond of saying to anyone who listens – good people always have another option. Universities are relying on our passion to carry us through – but I fear the best of the next generation of academics is just going to get sick of it and move on. What do you think?

Related posts

What if I NEVER get a job?

What’s your edge?

It’s not just about the thesis


69 thoughts on “Is academia really worth it?

  1. Taryn M says:

    Wonderful post. It’s exactly this line of thinking that made me leave my PhD program five years in. I realized then it wasn’t my passion, even though I still consider myself an academic at heart. Kudos to you for sticking it out. Your work seems meaningful and uplifting– I hope you can continue doing it. 🙂

    • Shereen Shaw says:

      I began my research in 2010 and I just submitted my thesis! wohoo indeed. What a sense of relief it is. I always say to people it isn’t about being clever or smart, it is a test of patience and perseverance and knowing how to juggle. One comment you said in this article really made me smile. You said “I don’t know what to do with myself on the weekends if I wasn’t writing” I used to feel like that too but when I had my son who is now 3 years old back in the 2nd year of my research, things changed. I was focused in the hours I had to work because I knew I had to be a mum. Having my son gave me the focus and appreciation of time that I needed as well of course as the motivation to succeed in finishing it to get a job. I told myself I will not let him down and I kept going. Emotionally after a bad meeting all I was thinking about and looking forward to is disconnecting from “academia” by spending time with my son. This has put things really into perspective for me. I think now that I completed it and waiting for my defense, I am looking forward more than every to start work to build the life that my son and myself both deserve.

  2. Tantrum says:

    The recent suicide of Prof Stefan Grimm suggests that it’s not much better for previous generations either. I’d say unless it’s the only thing you can see yourself ever doing then just move on.

  3. Martin Davies (@wmartindavies) says:

    I think this issue arises only when we wistfully recall how academia used to be in the 50s-70s — the halcyon days of *real* tenure, full government funding, and plenty of security. However, that era was an aberration and has long gone. Now university employment is like employment in any other field: uncertain, subject to rapid change, insecure, and serendipitous. Very little of one’s success in academia is based on merit, publications, and certainly not at all on qualifications (a lot of it, I suspect, is based on *brown-nosing* and just being lucky). I have two doctorates, lots of publications in A-ranked journals, and until recently had a supposedly *continuing* post as an Associate Professor. I’ve just been made redundant along with lots of my colleagues. I think that as long as one is physically healthy things are good. Look on the bright side, and move on. There is more to life than academia.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I know how you feel but look around. People in many other allied sectors say the same thing: government agencies, including arts and sciences, are being slashed, publishing is doing it hard. People get retrenched and not replaced, part-time and casual people never know if they can get more hours or another contract, everyone is working far too hard. So the grass isn’t greener, I’m afraid. Which may sound depressing, but here’s the thing: we may as well do what we love, do what makes our hearts pump. We may not have tenure, but at least we have passion.

    • Snow says:

      I agree with you Anonymous. My father left school at 14 and spend all his working life driving heavy machinery (up at 4am 6 days a week for 30 odd years). At 60 he was told he was too old to continue and because he had no formal education he was discarded (even though he was an expert at what he did). He killed himself at 63. Tenure or no tenure I consider myself ‘ most fortunate’.

  5. Marcel Hofeditz says:

    Wow! This has been an exciting read for me. I could feel every word you wrote. I just posted a note about the end of work-life balance in academia. I tried to sketch the modern academic as a juggler, an inspiring artist. I think that there is still hope for our profession. The case of Prof. Grimm made we wonder if the academic path is worth it and despite your intention to remind us of the pros and cons. It keeps fascinating me how someone can be so passionate about something and write about it the way your write. Then, it may be worth everything… It opens your heart and fills your lungs with the fresh air to breath, to wake up and go on what you are best at: teaching and research.

  6. Jenni Hyde says:

    Reblogged this on Early Modern Ballads and commented:
    As someone who is searching for any form of fulfilling paid employment and is struggling to find it, in academia or beyond, this really strikes a chord. Still awaiting my viva, by the way – it’s due at the end of January.

  7. Brian says:

    I think this is a wonderful and telling post about what to do with a doctorate. I am halfway through my data collection (via interviews) and have been wondering how the doctorate will relate to my future employment. I am, what is colloquially known as middle-aged, and wonder if I will ever get employment value out of my doctorate when I am finished.

    I think my age limits future university employment as there are so many younger doctorate holders vying for the same job I would be. I am in the public service, and have no decided to effectively stay there and look for future employment in this domain. But, where? That is the question.

    Thanks for your post.

    • Jennifer Eagleton says:

      I did my PhD for my own personal satisfaction – after doing research assistant work for years; If I had done it 15 years ago there would have been better chance of full-time employment at a university, but maybe we just have to settle on part-time and not bust a gut trying to get a full-time one. Luckily for me my research topic relates to where I am living right now (Hong Kong) and managed to get a small post-doc fellowship position, not that long-term, but still it’s something. Don’t just think of academia, think of other ways/jobs that you can use what you have learnt.

  8. Bec J. H. says:

    This is such a sad thing to read, but very true I’m sure (I’m currently just finishing up the honours year of my undergraduate degree, with a view to doing a research Masters and a PhD).

  9. Sarah Thorneycroft says:

    I am one of the “lucky ones”, in that I have a permanent academic position (I haven’t even finished my doctorate yet, quelle horreur), and yet I still ask myself this question all the time. Constant restructures, whim projects from executives, bullying, little room for non-standard career paths and the ridiculous system that is academic grants and publishing all have me shaking my head on a regular basis. I still don’t know, ultimately, if it is in fact worth it – but for now, I’m still here.

  10. gensimpson says:

    I agree with Anonymous above – this position, unfortunately, is not specific to the academic community. I chose to do a PhD after having ten contracts in three years while working in the public sector. I enjoyed working there, including the opportunities available for training and involvement with a variety of working groups, but I found the constant uncertainty difficult. Uncertainty is both logistically difficult and also demoralising. A 3.5 year scholarship seemed a healthy alternative, but now I know I’m facing a similar sense of uncertainty on completion. (Incidentally, my boyfriend had a ‘permanent’ position at a city-based engineering firm – until he and around 60 of his co-workers were made redundant.)

    Earlier this year I saw a presentation by Jonathan Rigg, where he discussed the evolution of society from a proletariat base to a base of ‘precariats’. The word seemed an apt description for the devolution of our working environment to a place of precarious employment.

  11. Rory Mulcahy says:

    I agree with your article 110%. But I cant help but feel that after looking at my institution that the older generation in academia are holding onto their positions for far too long and this is increasing the log jam for young academics coming through. It surprises me the number of senior academics that depend upon their past successes (eg. publications, grants, teaching awards etc). My opinion is that academia needs to adopt a industry approach to hiring of staff and that positions should never be ongoing for the sake of it, but rather be performance based. This will stop senior academics which have “past their time” hogging a position when young academics with far greater outputs are either not rewarded or ignored.

    • Jennifer Eagleton says:

      Not all “oldies” are necessary past their prime…don’t be ageist (and I am not employed full-time in academic, but just because you are young, doesn’t mean that you can still have fresh ideas. I agree that there should not be permanent tenure, but maybe longish contracts and then occasional appraisal.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t think that was the point of above. More that at times there are those that are under performing relying on past successes

  12. Sandy O'Sullivan says:

    I wonder about this issue of what I could have done this year, what did I miss in my plan etc, and I *have* a secure work contract (thanks to the NTEU, and my home institution – Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education – that welcomed it). The reason that I’m worried about it is that it affects people around me, the work that we do, the environment that we do it in and the well-being of the entire institution. It affects our overall purpose. It affects the overall purpose of the entire sector, which should be focused on education and research.

    I’m a researcher, so it also affects the work that happens across the sector I work in, and it takes a lot of my time thinking about this. I presented on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander insecure employment in the sector at the NTEU’s Insecure Work Conference in November, and it opened my eyes to a lot of what was happening here (in Australia) and internationally.

    At a personal level there is no deep breath taken, in the sector that we are in, a secure work contract is only kinda secure. Okay, so I’m permanent, but when would the Institute or any other university decide that I cost more to them than a year’s payout? What does this say for the planning within universities that someone like me, who is making fairly high level decisions concerning staff can’t really map this out. And so much of that has *nothing* to do with my institution, which is enormously supportive, and a great deal to do with the sector, which is not. That we are losing people to other professions has been a bleed for a number of years. I work across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contexts (I’m a Senior Indigenous Researcher – and a Wiradjuri woman) and we just won’t keep our academics, we won’t build our numbers in the academy and we won’t truly participate to the extent and level that we should be. And that’s worrying.

    Nothing that you’ve written had me thinking you were doing a ‘poor me’, almost all of it made me think ‘poor university’, because they are poorer for not recognising that the people who are going from contract to contract are not able to adequately plan their lives OR their careers… and you know what? The university needs them to plan their careers, that’s how they make money… oh sorry, that’s not what education is about. Actually let’s just pretend that it’s ALL that it’s about. An insecure workforce is NOT cost efficient. It’s not. It involves a huge amount of money and time (money) to manage, and until the government supports (or requires) universities to think about their whole of workforce plan, it will continue to bleed money, and dare I say, teaching and research quality, from our institutions.

    • Murri says:

      I have found that regardless of how well qualified Aborginal/Torres Strait Islanders are, it is very rarely enough to gain full time employment.
      Even in faculties and unis that have fancy documents saying how supportive they are towards Indigneous Australians, the reality is that often they want mainstream thinking (assimilated) academics who can write about Indigenous Australians as ‘they’ rather than ‘we’.

      On top of this is the generic nepotism that can see unqualified relatives/friends/spouses get the permanent positions, who then expect to gain qualified Indigenous academics knowledge for free, or even appropriation/theft.

      • Sandy O'Sullivan says:

        I would never write about us as ‘they’, and I got an ARC on the basis that I would never do that (explicitly it was about an internal view). I think positioning those of us who work in institutions as assimilated is appalling and just sounds like a cheap insult, to be honest. And the concept of the generic nepotism sounds like the academy of 15 years ago, not now. I’d be reporting it if I saw anything like that happen, it’s a joke when it does.

      • Murri says:

        I appologise to you unreservedly Sandy, what I had hoped to convey is that is their ideal attribute. I totally admire so many strong Indigenous academics who are working full time at our universities, but there are too few.

        I did not intend to imply that those working in ed institutions were assimilated, but wanted to state that it is what is seen as distincly desirable in appointments. This is probably because so many of our mob who are there challenge the Eurocentric focus of the curricula.

        I know and admire a few strong Indigenous academics from the NT, and I would never intentionally insult them as I now see my earlier post could be taken.

        Working and listening to non-Indigenous academics and university workers, sometimes without them realising it, prompted my response. Regarding nepotism, it is still part of the academy and if it is not part of your institution you are blessed indeed.

        Having read quite a few thesis by Aboriginal people, the use of ‘their/they’ rather than ‘us/we’ is jarring when it occurs. However, I am very aware that it is mostly attributed to the heavy hand of their supervisors and their supervisors non-Indigneous world view that came through in the writing. Speaking to many of the graduates later, this is a major irritant to them, that they felt forced into.

      • Sandy O'Sullivan says:

        Nah, I totally overreacted… I’m really sorry, it’s one of those hot buttons at the moment, because so many on the political right are on about many of us being stooges, so it funnily enough ends up being the same argument. I think if the worst that comes out of our engagement in the broader academy is that we have to work harder than whitefellas, then I don’t really mind, cos work is good, we get to do more, gawd knows we need more of us in the mix and we need more activity.

        And yes, I shouldn’t have suggested it happens nowhere anymore, but it has changed radically across a lot of institutions (though sadly, I can think of a dozen where it hasn’t). But it isn’t more prevalent in Indigenous units than in non-, it was just that there was always more of a panoptic gaze attached to our operations – there was always this pivot point of either too much attention (where they thought we were incompetent, suspect, dodgy), or not enough (fear of saying the wrong thing/being racist). I reckon, sadly it happened across institutions and across all contexts because of terribly hiring practices and HR skills generally in higher education institutions, where rather than simply jobs for the boys, HR areas could only rely on the who we knew/what was possible. But yeah, I am really lucky that our processes have been rigorous, to be honest otherwise you sometimes have to work with people who aren’t that good and that’s such a worry and a huge risk. It’s been some of the justifications for short term contracts, but I don’t buy it… they work both ways, they’re bad for institutions (people are on the lookout for other jobs, are not encouraged to see the specific as their ongoing vocation) and terrible for the staff for all the reasons listed above.

        The they/their stuff is something that I still use as a counter to pan-Indigenising, but I would never use it for either my own community or our own collective of communities (Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal People, Wiradjuri, World Indigenous Peoples, First Peoples etc), and I realise there are some disciplines where this boundary still needs to be pushed, but if not us, who will? I’m of the opinion that if there is no place for context, then the article or chapter may as well have been written by a machine, who we all are matters in the context of the work we’re producing. Which also leads me to think that it’s problematic to see non-Indigenous people writing about us and saying they/their and never locating their own positionality, bit of a missed opportunity to cast perspective.

  13. Sandy O'Sullivan says:

    I’d also challenge the idea that this is some kind of remembering of the good old days (across comments here). The most chilling report from the NTEU Insecure Work Conference was from the Director of the ARC, and the reporting on the average age of researchers getting national competitive grants, and how that had changed since the ‘good old days’. It had increased by more than 20 years over only 30 years, this is an example (in the context of research, the work I do) of the way that a career can build and the expectations can be appropriate to the focus of the institution, when an academic is supported and can grow in their position(s).

  14. lunalovebooks says:

    I find this both depressing and comforting (I’m glad to know I’m not the only person who has these thoughts about the academic job path, a path that as a PhD candidate I am only just starting out on…). Thanks for the read!

  15. Sandy O'Sullivan says:

    I have to confess to also being somewhat confused about some of the situation at the moment too (my comments above, notwithstanding). At my home institute we advertised a job – based in Darwin – two and a half years ago and then advertised it again a year and a half ago, and it was a temporary contract, only three years. The job was advertised as widely as any other position. Yes it was in Darwin, it was for a C, D or E (depending on experience, but we would have been appointing someone to that position and salary who was probably at a B, C or D level, so a level above). The position asked for someone who had some knowledge across Indigenous contexts (no they didn’t have to be Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, and frankly they needed more interest than experience) and in one of the following areas: languages, creative arts or education… all of them VERY broadly imagined, so could have been anyone across those areas. The job involved being a researcher and bringing their research ideas, motivations to the Institute, doing some supervision (probably less than is required of a lot of teaching academics at other institutions) and that they have a modest track record. We got a couple of deeply inappropriate bites, but in both cases we could barely interview (the second time it ran, we didn’t). The position was likely to be converted, it was a great opportunity for someone wanting to position themselves and do research work of their choosing, but it didn’t work – we didn’t get anyone interested. It’s fascinating really, because the salaries are the same as other institutions, it was a location in a capital city (albeit our smallest), it did involve opportunities for international and national work, I might be biased but it is a great place to work, it did give academics a chance to do their own research, but yeah, no interest. I realise geography played a part, but no interest at all? So I wonder, too, if there are other factors at play that limit academic interests/whether people feel that they should be moving in one direction and have no idea how to be strategic in what they do? Of course there is no real mentorship about movement across the sector, which might speak to the real issues.

    • Murri says:

      It could be because it was not seen outside of your area. I certainly did not see it, or I would have passed it on to a few of my contacts.

      The other is that Darwin has a reputation for being short of housing and what is there is exhorbitant.

      • Sandy O'Sullivan says:

        Nah, it was advertised really widely in all the major newspapers,, in NIT/Koori Mail and on about every social networking space. Yeah it is expensive in Darwin, but it isn’t more expensive than Sydney, and considering the person would have been earning significantly more than they would have received somewhere other than Sydney, there was clearly something else going on.

  16. paddy says:

    It certainly is quite depressing… as I near the end of my PhD, I think it’s really important to reflect on how far one has come (what do you know now that you didnt know before?). I have found it useful along the whole process not to marry myself to academia per se and keep in mind all the ‘plan b’s’ – i.e. if I cant find work now or later (will stay as long as I can), what skills have I developed through this process that i can apply elsewhere? Perhaps it’s a pipe dream, but I think the worry of impending doom is more counter-productive than is the general aim of continually moving forward, diversifying and developing. We certainly get that from a Phd/academia along with all the other soft skill – though sometimes it’s easy to forget. Look at that CV beyond the ‘product’ (publications etc)! Just some thought – albeit more positive 🙂

    • Sandy O'Sullivan says:

      I agree Paddy, and it’s a far from depressing space that people are entering – education and research should be something to feel positive about, it should be expansive not this odd reductive and limiting space we’re talking about (and making or permitting). The idea of a workforce that is really well qualified is great, the idea that everyone with a PhD should see academia as the only destination is kind of a shame and probably a university-led failure. I think a really positive way to move forward would be for unis to provide scaffolding that highlights the soft skills/real skills that people get aside from singular thesis trajectory of completion/assessment. And even though some disciplines have always done this, the sector in general isn’t good at it, and in all honesty we either have to get better or we’ll be letting people down.

  17. Abigail says:

    I think universities & supervisors should talk more about alternatives to academia, and be honest about where the jobs are and what qualifications are required. I meet around 6 hopeful Hons students in my field each year who want a PhD scholarship followed by a career in research. Sadly there is only 1 part-time research position at our uni (and so far the professor has only employed friends from interstate in the job). It just seems like these bright, promising, hopeful students are being set up for a hard slog followed by disappointment that the job they want doesn’t actually exist.

    • unrelatedwaffle says:

      Oh hey, this is me! Fifth-year, ABD, a hair’s breadth from just chucking it all. I enjoyed the learning part, but the disillusionment is real.

      The truth is, departments are not honest about these things because it would mean fewer grad students, which would mean fewer low-paid grad student teachers, which save the universities thousands of dollars. It would also mean acknowledging that the meritocracy doesn’t exist, that students’ fates are ultimately not in their control, and the kind of blood, sweat, and tears that academia requires is ludicrous when compared with the pay scale. There is also a huge chip on the shoulder of tenured professors who assume that they made it because of their own spunk and brilliance, not because they brown-nosed their way to the top or happened to be in the right place at the right time. If you don’t make it, well, it’s your own fault!

      Who should spend 40+ hours a week taking the kind of insulting, ego-crushing beating that is writing the dissertation and having 5-6 people rip it to shreds. . .for minimum wage? I’ve come to recognize that settling for “doing what you love” drives down wages and hurts workers, and makes brain-focused professions limited to the wealthy yet again (as scholarship largely was until this century). The problem of adjuncting is just a symptom of the larger problem in the world economy of the shrinking middle class and the global race to the bottom.

      • Murri says:

        Hang in there and get your thesis done.You have gone this far don’t let the beggars beat you.
        Walk away with the Dr in front of your name. Publish you work if relevant, but be selective on where you say you are from. Consultant can be a useful term. The minute you mention the uni’s name they get browny points.
        It is a pity they don’t tell you the lack of career prospects when you start.

        • Jennifer Eagleton says:

          A PhD is not just about working in academic – it might be a major reason, but it would be good if people focused on other things you can do with it.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Many thanks for writing this article. Although it reflects the sad and depressing reality, it actually made me feel better because it reminded me that I am not the only ECR battling with uncertainty and all the other issues you have mentioned. Just yesterday I received an email that my paper for a conference has been accepted and instead of feeling happy, I started think about how I can afford to pay for yet another conference. Choosing to give up an academic career is not an easy decision. An academic job is not just something we do to earn money; it is who we are and who we want to become. I think this is the reason that most of us keep trying to stay in academia. It is almost holding on to a desired identity that we have invested so much time and energy.

  19. Chocoholic says:

    Even though it has always been clear in my head that Post PhD I will return to my old job (self employed consultant) with new skills and a wider network, I sometimes find myself getting swept into the romanticism of wanting a permanent job in academia. Objectively I know jobs are rare, (early career) wages low, hours long and progression limited (particularly if you seek a work-life-family balance), but I still catch myself dreaming of landing a permanent position.

    I think there’s probably not enough exposure to the ‘real world’ at universities, so there tends to be a view that if you’re not on an academic path you have failed. This silo vision also prevents academics from seeing the pressures they face in redundancies, budget cuts, casualisation etc are realities in most workforces these days.

  20. Ali says:

    As someone just starting out his PhD, this really makes for a nightmare after having left a well-paying job in my home country. But it also puts the current realities of academia into perspective. From where I stand, non-academic positions for doctoral graduates are a route worth exploring and thankfully my university recognizes this need. Nevertheless, i hope my luck sticks around with me after I graduate for the elusive “permanent” position in academia. Chip up and hopes up!! Thank you for the post!

  21. The Gospel of Barney says:

    After two Masters degrees, I decided the Ivory towers were filled with idiots who had never actually practiced what they taught, nor had they ever taken a class on how to teach! No Academia would never be worth suicide! It is so dysfunctionally disconnected from real life as to be totally laughable!

  22. Rosie Mead says:

    Very interesting post. As a second year part time PhD candidate I worry when I hear about the lack of funding and loss of jobs in academia. I just hope things brighten up by the time I graduate…

  23. San Fran says:

    Thanks for this post! Two observations from a (soon to be former) academic. First, as a previous commenter said, ‘poor university.’ Having read the events re Prof Grimm in the UK, we are watching the degrading of research and researchers. By agreeing to sometimes impossible, unattainable, goals in publishing and grants, expectations that academics (including postgrads) will work long hours, and take on classes with crazy student numbers (hundreds), we are all complicit to a system that doesn’t recognize human limits. At my former uni, these targets are often set by administrators who have few tertiary qualifications, have never taught, and interpret achievement by numbers. And then they advise us on our research performance!!

    Secondly, I was teaching a course for undergrad students on transitioning into work and the following info is just as applicable to postgrads and others thinking of leaving academia. Think about what HR people call transferable (soft) skills developed during the PhD: project management, written/oral communication skills, stakeholder engagement and liaison, analytical skills, etc. Talk to career counsellors at your institution, have them review your CV, cover letters, selection criteria responses. Contact people working in areas you are interested in, do informational interviews with key people (practitioners and HR) to gain insights on how that particular industry works, what skills they look for, what tasks and projects are undertaken.

    On a personal note, I love research, but do not want to continue supporting what has become a morally bankrupt institution.

  24. Martin Davies (@wmartindavies) says:

    In the margin: I know a very well-published bloke who did his PhD on some aspect of cancer research — protein kinase c (whatever that is). You’d think someone youngish, and well-published in an important area such as this would find a niche in academia wouldn’t you? No chance. Confined to Australia for various personal reasons, and sick of the insecure drudgery as a casual running tutorials and labs, he’s been made redundant once, and is now–after 11 months of unemployment–trying to make a career giving talks to anyone who will listen on ‘alternative health’ . It isn’t easy out there. By contrast, someone else I used to know did a PhD on AFL — yes football — and is doing quite well.

    • San Fran says:

      Hi Martin, I’ve just read the Times Higher Ed article, and it is a start. Unfortunately there are still far too many academics who (a) have never worked outside academia, and (b) have no idea on how to write a non-academic CV or advise students on a career path outside the ivory tower. One political scientist I spoke with recently from Canada chuckled when I asked how he advised students on non-academic careers – said he didn’t have a clue, had never worked anywhere else. Totally not helpful to students and a sad indictment of academia’s response to the current lack of career paths for both undergrad and postgraduate students.

      In Australia, I think the tide is slowly turning as undergrads in particular are expecting some career advice and exposure via internships through their degree programs. Perhaps this should be the next step for postgrads, integrating external to academia work in their doctoral or masters programs (if they are enrolled full time)? This would then place some onus on universities to ensure PhDs have requisite experience when they can’t obtain academic work.

      All the best for your future endeavors, you are not alone in the post-ac world 🙂

  25. A Writer With Something To Say says:

    As a new PhD student, I often worry if I will get a job at the end of my strenuous journey. Currently, I’m taking my first research class and although I love it, the reading is SO time consuming. I find myself reading on the bus, on my lunch break, and when I can at home. Working full-time as an account manager and going to school is tough. But, I love this blog, Thesis Whisperer. You bring out a lot of points that newbies like me have thought about.

  26. A Writer With Something To Say says:

    Reblogged this on The Krystol Meth(od) and commented:
    To all of the PhD and even college students, I think you should read this article. It has some great points that I think should be questioned. Check it out. I love this blog! I will have an updated post this weekend. Guess, what? Today is my birthday! Yes, I am officially in the 30 club now! Yikes!! Thanks again for the support.

  27. Les Back says:

    This is so heartbreaking to read. It is shameful that the life of the mind has come to this. I hope those powerful senior academic who have swallowed the neoliberal cool aid read this. As WEB Du Bois once put it “let the ears of the guilty people tingle with truth”.

  28. the édu flâneuse says:

    Dear Kathy & Inger

    I can’t speak to being an academic but I am a PhD researcher who is also an educator and a parent of small children. I agree with you, Kathy, that our passions are what drives us. I’m hopeful that I will be able to continue to pursue my passions (with remuneration) post-PhD but am open to this working out in unpredictable, non-linear and non-academia ways.

    Ideas about juggling and balance in life are tricky. I tried to wrestle with some of that in a recent post on finding work-life fulfilment in today’s world: . I think your point about choice is key: we all make our choices!


  29. Clare Xanthos says:

    It was a great feeling when I completed my PhD in 2004. However, what I did find almost depressing was the realization that the PhD itself was not enough to pursue an academic career. One is still expected to jump through more and more hoops (e.g., postdoctoral fellowship, publications, grants, tenure). If you want to stay in academia, the need to prove yourself never seems to end, which I feel is kind of sad.

  30. Zendo Deb says:

    I was accepted to a fairly prestigious Midwestern PhD program in 1984, but I had seen enough of friends in the various hard sciences getting their PhDs and then getting nothing, or offered positions in small colleges where you would never choose to live if you had any other choice.

    I always wanted a PhD, but that made me realize it was a crock. So I went west to Silicon Valley and started a career in IT. 18 years later – long before I would have had tenure anywhere, I basically retired, and moved aboard my boat.

    I lived in California until it made me sick, I lived in Chicago to be close to family for a while. I moved to Florida when I got sick of the snow. Went to Ohio for an opportunity that proved to be a mistake in some respects and good for me in others. But I never moved where I “had to” to find a job. Try that freedom in academia. Unless you are Einstein – or the equivalent in your field – you will go where you are lucky enough to find a job.

    Clare Xanthos – you always need to prove yourself, you can never “rest on your laurels” no matter what you do. But in academia, you can prove yourself over and over and never get tenure. Or even a steady job. Because the old guard isn’t retiring.

    And the ivory tower isn’t the most welcoming place for people with ideas they don’t approve of. And having been the victim of a violent crime in college, in a city where I was “disarmed for my own safety” I definitely have ideas that the ivory tower does NOT approve of.

  31. Katy Mitchell says:

    This is a fantastically written post, and very apt. Having (almost) completed my PhD, I made the decision a few months ago that I could not continue in academia.

    Even this early, the life was leeching out of me. My university’s staff lament the days in when they only had to do a PhD in four years. During our tenure as postgrads we had to do our PhD three years, teach, mark, publish, attend conferences, do anything else we could to build our CVs, and try to have a life. Big research funding bodies like the EPSRC are reporting 0.01% success rates in many of their main categories. With rejection after rejection, on top of everything else I was trying to do, I ended up on a maximum dose of antidepressants and having to take a two month leave of absence.

    I’m married, and my husband and I want to have children. I want to actually be able to see my husband, my family, my friends. I want to be able to come home from work and just “be home”, not squirrelling myself away to do more work.

    I worry for the future of academics, and I worry about what will (and is already) become the norm. With articles already citing 60+ hour work weeks and some of the highest percentages of mental health problems, what does that say about the people we are asking to further the knowledge of the human race? ‘We care about science, but not the people doing it?’

    I had to bow out gracefully. I simply cannot withstand that kind of pressure. I’m now applying for an applied doctorate in Clinical Psychology working for the NHS where I work 40 hours and then I get to go home. I can take more than two months for maternity leave without risking my job. I can make plans for my weekend. And most importantly, I can preserve my mental health.

  32. JSutt says:

    To paraphrase “A Ph.D. Is Not Enough” by Peter J. Feibelman, written more than 20 years ago:
    ‘A professorship is essentially several jobs rolled into one – most professors spend many more than 8 hours a day at work. They are expected to attend meetings, teach courses, apply for (and receive!) grants, mentor students, mark exams, fight for research space, etc etc. Most professors don’t have much time to read a novel or play with the kids. The job is demanding, frustrating and stressful…all of these tasks take many, many hours of work for little immediate reward. The hours are long, the pay is terrible and the job security is bad.’
    So guess what? It’s part of the job, and it has been since long before the current economic difficulties. Sounds like the author hadn’t done her research before setting out. Getting a PhD has never been enough to guarantee a ‘life of the mind’ – get real – the purely intellectual life of the mind has only ever existed for the rich. If you don’t want to be an academic, fine, leave and make room for someone else, but why try and talk other people out of it? Tell me a genuinely good job – other than mining or something equally odious – that doesn’t require sacrifices and donkey work. Poor, poor me…

  33. phdinprogress42 says:

    Thanks for voicing that which I feel. I have a full time appointment but have felt “lost” after the completion of my PhD two years ago. As if I can just not find my feet/direction in life. My passion is fading….and I am confronted with life changing decisions related to by future career engagement as an academic.

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