Academia and the gig economy: how to survive in the post-golden age

Academia often treats leavers as failures, but some of our smartest scholars are starting to see walking away as liberation, writes Inger Mewburn

November 19, 2017
I Was A Teenage Frankenstein
Source: Alamy

I do research on research – at least that’s the way that I explain myself to taxi drivers and at parties. I let people stop laughing, then I try to point out how important it is to study how our universities work.

Higher education is a massive export industry that affects everyone. If we didn’t educate doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers – even lawyers and bankers – most of the comforts of life that we enjoy would not be possible. If we didn’t educate historians, philosophers, economists and sociologists, we would not critically examine our society or our past. Universities also support research that the private sector will not pay for, but that contributes to human advancement.

Despite all this, those of us who make universities an object of scholarship remain strangely invisible. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of serious higher education scholars are academically homeless. Education departments house a few, but most of us can be found in professional development units where we make a living running workshops on teaching or helping PhD candidates.

The marginalisation of higher education scholarship has consequences. The festering crisis around the casualisation and under-employment of early career academics was bubbling along for more than a decade before the rest of the academy seemed to wake up and complain about it.

As a tail-end member of Generation X, I’ve been in the box seat to witness changes to the status and working conditions of academics over the past three decades.

In fact, I’ve had the dubious privilege of seeing the situation from both sides: as a student in the so-called golden age of academia, and then as a precarious academic during its so-called decline. As a new undergraduate in 1989, the university didn’t look much like the fabled land that I hear so much about from some of my greyer-haired colleagues.

I endured many a boring lecture by academics who had never been taught to teach, let alone understand learning. The university that I attended didn’t give us much reason to want to spend time on campus. A decent coffee was not to be found for love or money.

In many ways, the academy is much improved since then. No doubt there is still many a boring lecture, but the lecturer will at least know about it via the student evaluations, on which they can choose (or be forced) to act. I also welcome the opportunity to buy a savoury croissant with my excellent coffee.

However, the post-golden age is certainly worse for academics, at least in those nations that have drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid of winding back government funding on public services. The statistics about our working conditions are stark, even frightening. In my country, it is estimated that 60 to 80 per cent of the teaching is done by casual and contingent labour and only a minority of PhD graduates will have any kind of stable employment on graduation.

I am a product of this academic “gig economy”, in which higher education has grown while being wrung dry of cash.

My new book, How to be an Academic, is an extended meditation on how to survive in the contemporary academy, but in my mind, there’s a question mark in the title. There is no “one way” to be an academic any more. Pathways to success are much more opaque. Rather than claim to have definitive answers, I offer a range of strategies to resist, rethink and otherwise re-create an interesting life for yourself in the academy.

If you do score a permanent job after your post-post-postdoc phase, the feeling is more akin to that of a plane crash survivor than that of a success story. And there is a sting in the tail.

My 2016 paper with Rachael Pitt titled “Academic superheroes: a critical analysis of academic job descriptions” found that the list of skills and qualifications that one needed to obtain even a part-time lectureship was astonishing. Will you publish in top-ranked academic journals? Can you draw in funds? Can you teach huge classes online? Do you have international links? Do you present well at open days and entice more undergraduates in to help pay the bills?

No wonder new academics must gig around – it’s what most of them are offered anyway, and it’s quite a good way to get the required experience. Yet those who do it “too long” can be treated as somehow defective when they front up for a job interview, largely because people who make the employment decisions have often never lived this system. We should not make the mistake of blaming the victim of our terrible workplace structures.

I’ve been teaching workshops for a decade and, up to now, it’s always been hard to convince PhD candidates to come to workshops that stress non-academic skills and career avenues. Now I have trouble keeping up with demand for my services, especially my academic career advice, which focuses on hacking the system rather than conforming.

While academia, unused to self-examination, often treats leaving as failure, our smartest people are starting to see walking away as liberation. If that doesn’t scare us into change, nothing will. 

Inger Mewburn is director of research training at the Australian National University. Her new book, How To Be an Academic: The Thesis Whisperer Reveals Allis now available.

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Reader's comments (1)

"it’s what most of them are offered anyway and it’s quite a good way to get the required experience" In many areas with a professional bent, counter-intuitively you'd be more likely to be offered a full-time academic job by leaving academia and building a successful professional career than becoming a jobbing academic (leaving aside the financial issues and pension contribution issues that you suffer trying this approach).

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