In praise of redundancy

We hear a lot about under employment at the early career research stage, but not much about employment issues at the other end of your career.

What happens if you are made redundant later in life? This post is by Associate Professor Martin Davies, an honorary Principal Fellow in the Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. He picked up a satisfying non-academic job four months after being made redundant and tells us what he learned from the experience in this post. You can find out more about Martin on his website.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 11.46.21 amI thought I had this academic job business pretty much sewn-up: a double doctorate, six books and 70+ scholarly articles, over a million dollars in competitive research funding (in teams or solo). I was what they call “research active”—and I still am. I am also—by any measure—a good teacher. Moreover, I had a continuing position in a research-intensive university. If anyone was “safe”, I was.

Then it all went belly-up.

Seven of us were turfed-out unceremoniously with redundancy packages. The Faculty had decided we were all surplus to requirements.

Joseph Furphy began his under-appreciated magnum opus Such is Life with these immortal words: ‘Unemployed at last!’

Now I was going to know what it felt like.

I had been used to reading the occasional article about the parlous state of employment for doctoral holders—some of it on The Thesis Whisperer.

These refrains are becoming all too frequent. I also occasionally come across PhD holders in Melbourne who drive taxis. I know that getting a PhD is not a necessary condition of gaining employment—indeed, it can sometimes hold one back. But I never thought that unemployment—redundancy especially—would happen to me. I was about to learn a salutary lesson.

Being unemployed, and holding a PhD, is nothing new. However, it seems to me that there is a silver lining in the dark cloud of the redundancy experience (or at least—foolishly perhaps–I choose to see it that way):

You are not alone.

Redundancy is a common enough experience amongst academics. I have met others who have been through it three times. One guy was a microbiologist. Another friend, who has never managed to nail an academic job for more than a few months, did his well-regarded doctorate in biochemistry (cancer research). I would have thought that specialisation was pretty necessary in the scheme of things, but no.

The redundancy experience spares no discipline, no matter how useful that research area might be.

It’s an outcome of the entrepreneurial university.

Universities, like widget factories, are no longer collegially-run places insulated from the Big Bad World by generous government funding. Now they are run by CEOs and accounts departments; hence, they are always scratching about to save money. Kicking people out is not driven by research considerations: it’s just a matter of book balancing.

Don’t take it personally. They might just as flippantly re-hire you when the good times swing back.

It’s a generational thing.

One of the most discussed topics on the TW is this one. It concerns the age imbalance of academics with older “baby boomer” academics not retiring and allowing younger academics to have a go. While this issue can lead to unnecessary and gratuitous age-bashing, there is no doubt that—with older, more experienced academics hanging on–there are fewer positions to go around.

When culling is needed it’s (generally-speaking) last on, first off—all things being equal (oddly, this is in dramatic contrast to the corporate world).

You had a shot at it.

Being made redundant means that you had a job to begin with. A lot of academics don’t even get that. If you are in any doubt read the story of one academic with a PhD in Sociology who gets called “complacent” by his JobSearch advisors for not answering ads for work as a cleaner or checkout operator. Sobering stuff.

It could be worse.

There are plenty of nasty diseases out there; these are far worse than not having a job I reckon. And when it is all said and done, getting rid of me was their loss (It’s important to be positive.)

Pay off the mortgage!

Since when does one ever get a large bucket of money to not work? This has a good side. It can be used to pay off ones’ mortgage. Provided the funds are not splurged on drowning one’s sorrows, this can be a definite benefit.

It draws a line.

One thing I found was that I could draw a line under the boring and tedious Faculty meetings that I never liked attending anyway. I could also sever ties I did not really want to keep. I could also spend some time finalising and completing all those “back-log” papers and advancing new ideas for books. Now, a year after the big event I have finished all those things I never thought I’d finish. This is quite satisfying. The research slate is clean and there is now time to read and write on new topics. Since being made redundant I have churned out four papers and a book (all published). I would have never have had this level of productivity whilst immersed in admin, meetings, and other duties.

So there’s a good side to the redundancy experience I suggest. Naturally it is preferable if it can be avoided. But it is not the end of the world. Would I recommend it? Sure, but finish your PhD and get a job first!

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15 thoughts on “In praise of redundancy

  1. Good side only if you have saved enough money to pay the rent and eat. And if in the USA pay for health insurance if you live in a non-medicaid expansion state. Oh yeah… and those student loans. Economic hardship deferment only lasts for 3 years. It is also pretty hard to find a job after a gap in your vitae too. For the lucky few this might be a “good thing” for the rest of us, we already ate enough ramen in grad school.

  2. I can understand the “good side” of redundancy and I attended a key note by Prof. Ian Lowe who is was a noted chemistry scholar and now after leaving academia, is a noted sustainability scholar working on meaningful projects. However, as a tenured academic I see the ever rising performance expectations in my business school and wonder whether this will be the fate of many academics (including me), especially those deemed ‘older’ as a justification for redundancy/early retirement. Like this writer I know of a number of academics with a good record of research and teaching that have been moved out of academic positions. The brave new world of precarity.

    • “Precarity”, yes it’s true. But there is little point whingeing about it and getting depressed, and wishing for the Halcycion days of 100% government funding and “old tenure” (I am not accusing you of that). I ain’t going to happen again.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experience. Although I understand the benefit of looking at the good side of things, like Susan Mayson, I can’t help but feel a little worried about what this means about the state of higher education… Of course it’s a good thing that universities should be accountable somehow, but how can it be profitable to fire someone who is qualified, experienced and active? Was it presented as a sort of “early retirement”? Surely you can’t fire someone just because they are getting old!

    • I don’t think the fact I was research active, etc., was even a thought in their heads actually (I’ve since been nominated for an Australia Day Award for services to education too). None of this matters a whit. They just needed to save some money and our department was the easiest to get rid of. What does it mean for the state of higher education? *There is no security anywhere.*

      • Maybe job security is not the only issue here though, i’m thinking short term vs long term, quantity over quality etc. And the general impression that current politics would not even mind if the higher education was ruined, many just don’t see the value in it (that is, in the long run, not as immediate profit). But i guess it’s nothing new… it has happened at other times in history. Sad to see it happening again now.

  4. Good on you Martin! I’ve been reading some of your articles, but didn’t realise your productivity stemmed from redundancy. I too was made redundant at a similar time to you, from the same institution. It was my second redundancy, and I highly recommend it! It’s not often we have time to focus on things that we’re interested in, and to clear the backlog, as you say. The generational issue concerns me too, and I wonder how many of us leave academia not because we wouldn’t make good academics, but rather, because we graduated at the wrong time. Some of my colleagues are truly brilliant and lead highly successful careers and lives in industry, which is great for them, and great for industry. We can only wonder what their contributions may have been, had they been given an opportunity to excel as an academic.

  5. I particularly liked the theme of this post, how to make the most of your talents in the face of redundancy. This is why I enjoy this blog. Real people, real experiences, so much to learn from.

  6. Re the point about the ‘generational thing’: I’m 57 years old and approximately six months away from PhD submission, which places me in both the age bracket of many established academics and the experience bracket of the emerging researcher. The best or worst of both worlds, depending on how you look at it.
    I’ve spent the past 40 years accruing ‘life experience’, raising kids, and fitting in additional academic qualifications when I can. Five years ago, finding myself in that happy place when my kids and my parents were leading independent, competent lives, and my partner was willing and able to cover the income side of things, I finally got to start (part-time, initially) on my doctoral studies – a long-held goal. But now I’m faced with a dilemma. Can I, in fact should I, try and compete for academic positions against young people who need to kick career goals more than I do? And yet, if I don’t, have I wasted everyone’s resources over the past five years? I figure I have another ten years or so that I can contribute to the academic world – I’m fresh and enthusiastic, and I don’t feel ready to be ‘retired’. I believe my research has the potential to make a difference, and that this will be more likely in a Higher Education context.
    What to do? I don’t want to do someone else out of a job, but I don’t want to sacrifice everything I have to offer, either.

  7. Having worked in both academia (limited) and the corporate world (35+ years) with a Master’s degree, and experience in my chosen field of corporate training (now called Learning and Development of course) and HR – I have seen both sides and experienced it. Truthfully, I made a decision years ago to not pursue an academic career and transition to corporate training focusing on workplace learning to avoid the dilemma you described. Ironically, I have witnessed and experienced a similar outcome in the corporate world. I understand the need to be positive. I get it. But you must be prepared in order for that to work. Preparation meaning you need significant funds in the bank to cover the next “job search”. Preparation meaning you have the contacts nurtured warmly and in place to help you navigate the waters that are looking for much younger, less tenured and skilled peers. Preparation meaning you have been working on a “Plan B” that will generate income that replaces your salary – in the event, you must pivot from your experienced, chosen path in order to survive. What the positive tone of the article should remind us – it is hard to stay positive when you are downsized out of the door, and your have no backup resources. “One paycheck away” means within weeks, you are not focused on a quality of job – you need ANY job to keep from ending on the streets or sleeping on couches or the car. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs clearly illustrates that unless the basic needs are handled effectively – it is hard to focus on the higher needs (and thus job hunt and interview well).

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