Fixed term and permanent: my two academic lives

Rejection hurts more when you don't have a long-term contract to fall back on, says Helen Lees

March 29, 2016
Double exposure of woman's face

I have lived two academic lives. In one, I died, or rather was killed. The other is my present lecturer life where I live, flourish and create impact. How was I killed the first time around? I was on a three-year fixed-term research contract.

I actually did pretty well in that dead life, the one where I was killed by redundancy. I had two books published within my first two years of a full-time, post-PhD academic post. I founded an online academic journal, still going strong. I met great people during many conferences and seminars. Networked my socks off and laughed; I worked hard and tried hard.

There were also, given my role was in large measure making funding applications, a lot of rejections and sadness. No funding meant impending, increasing doom. I also struggled to understand the rules of journal writing. I made mistakes around being too original for comfort or just got the format wrong and so on. Rejection, rejection, rejection; no feedback, just rejection. It felt like being punched over and over in the stomach.

Academic life is full of rejections and some acceptances, and I enjoy increasingly more and more of the latter, which is nice. I did gain resilience after my first few years in academia and nowadays don’t care very much about being rejected; it is just par for the course. Perhaps if one is lucky, some helpful critical advice to improve with will emerge from trying.

But, when I receive rejections nowadays, the circumstances are very different to my past life. This time I am not in the process of career death as my research contract comes to a slow and inexorable end; I am not unwanted by my department or the university. In the past, I had been hired to be expendable, whatever the rhetoric, so every rejection of my attempts to build a career was another nail in the coffin. This time, in my comfy office, with my steaming cup of good coffee, with my books arranged on shelves and my kind, supportive, also “permanently”-employed colleagues around me – and most importantly with my “permanent” job in hand – I look at the patch of cloud and move on.

While on a contract I wrote a number of articles in the media about the system causing the death of research excellence because of the short-termist contract-based vision of what research and researchers are. What I didn’t realise fully enough back then was the huge, intimately emotional, personal cost a researcher suffers from “playing the research game” with all its inherent, inevitable rejections because no one and nothing supports fixed-term researchers to bear those rejections.

Long-term employment for research staff is not just a moral or industrial relations imperative. It is about care and careful knowledge creation. To deal with the cut-and-thrust of academic life and funding, while also dealing with the personal response to constantly being told “no” – all the while facing the end of your employment – is a powerful force for suicidal thoughts. It is beyond the pale as an industrial tool for efficacy. It is not suited to any kind of civilised academy.

Yes, make it competitive. But employ people who must base their existence in academia on surviving rejection after rejection and use fixed-term contracts for the sustainable creation of new knowledge? I reject this imperative as bad science.

Helen Lees is lecturer in education studies at Newman University. She is co-editor, with Nel Noddings, of The Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education and editor-in chief of www.othereducation.org.

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