Dirty realities: before we were academics

Can academics’ prior experiences of employment help them with the day job? asks Matthew Reisz

February 12, 2016
Source: Alamy Montages
There must be a research insight in here somwhere

For all its trials and tribulations, academic work is far pleasanter than much other work.

So we thought it would be interesting to ask a few scholars about their memories of particularly ghastly holiday jobs or jobs they did before deciding to make a career within universities. Were these just awful experiences best forgotten, or can they help to put current problems into perspective, offer salutary insights into other people’s lives or even open up possible new avenues for research?

What did we discover? As he explains in a feature published in this week’s issue, Richard Sugg – lecturer in English at Durham University – had a particularly ghastly time of it working in a cheese factory. Yet this not only taught him about “the ordinary madness of people who work in places like cheese factories and get used to it”, it also opened up perspectives that have influenced all his later research, notably about the “dirty realities” of life that often get lost in the “flat and bloodless pages” of much academic writing.

Sas Mays, senior lecturer in English literature at the University of Westminster, describes the very real downsides of working as a shopfitter’s labourer – which led to chronic fatigue, vibration white finger and even foot rot, “picked up from wearing a dead man’s steel toecap boots I had found on site” – and then going on to set up his own painting and decorating business. Yet the latter in particular also gave him skills that have proved very useful for “academic project management and funding applications”.

Others report on horrible bosses, harassment in the supermarket and scenes of life in the burns unit, behind the scenes at a football club and in “the nut division” of a large food company. Even work as a bellhop (carrying guests’ bags to their rooms) in a glitzy Catskills hotel like the ones featured in the film Dirty Dancing offered some surprising insights to one future academic, about “the war within every profession” and the “deviousness” it often takes to succeed.


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