At a birthday dinner at a London restaurant, I lean in to tell a story to a group of friends. “You will love this,” I say. “You remember that my book was published last year? Well, it was shortlisted for the BBC Ethnography Award.”
A flurry of gasps and congratulations ensues. “But wait. It was taken off the shortlist. Because I don’t have an academic job.” First, silence. Then, outrage.
“Well, I guess the book is less good,” jokes Tom, a maths PhD in financial services. “Is the point of the award to promote the academic sector? Or to limit competition?” ponders Jeff, a literature PhD employed as a solicitor. Jenny, a PhD in cultural studies who owns a tutoring service, teases, “The person who signs your pay cheque determines the quality of your book.”
Chris, a project manager with a history PhD, remarks: “Universities do not have the monopoly on smart people and great books, especially when they refuse to offer decent jobs to retain those people. Having smart people operating outside academia upsets the myth of academic superiority, exclusivity and legitimacy. As does the fact of PhDs leaving academia to get great jobs elsewhere.”
It took me a while to get here, shrugging off lost awards and smirking about academia. But compared with most of the academic precariat, I had a head start in criticising the myth of the life of the mind. During my PhD at Yale University, the graduate student unionisation movement campaigned against the casualisation of academic labour. In the 2000s, the extent of casualisation was shocking – at 30 per cent of academic jobs. In the US, it has now swelled to 76 per cent. The situation in the UK is not much better.
These numbers reveal that the term “alt-ac” – used to refer to positions within higher education but outside the professoriate – is a misnomer. Well-paid permanent academic jobs are, in fact, the “alt-ac”. The majority of jobs – part-time teaching/adjunct – are dismal in terms of pay and conditions. I met a recent PhD who had cobbled together several teaching contracts over the year only to find himself in debt because his salary did not pay the bills.
Meanwhile, the holy grail of a permanent position leaves much to be desired. Staff are overloaded with teaching and administrative responsibilities and yet still expected to publish outstanding research and win grants. Unsurprisingly, women and people of colour tend to be overly burdened with teaching and administration, which handicaps their ability to publish and win grants, and thereby replicates structural inequalities – the very inequalities that many academics hope to bypass by working at universities.
It took time for me to develop such a critical stance. In graduate school, I felt ambivalent about academia, but I dutifully continued because there was a set path. Fully funded, I won prestigious grants for fieldwork. I landed in Amsterdam and stayed to write my dissertation – not least because the Dutch welfare state seemed cosy compared with writing at Yale while teaching massive undergraduate classes and begging for medical insurance.
Upon graduating, I moved to London. Despite possessing a PhD from Yale, my lack of publications and connections meant that a full-time academic job was off limits. I found potential teaching work that paid £100 a week. After calculating the hourly rate, I realised that serving coffee was more lucrative. Resolving not to subsidise universities with my free labour, I switched to the private sector. I transitioned to work as an applied anthropologist in design, innovation and branding.
There are consequences to widespread precarity and low wages as the dominant form of labour in universities. As my social circle illustrates, plenty of PhDs refuse to accept these conditions and go elsewhere. As Ruth Barcan describes, options include selling gelato or, as in my case, going into consulting. I’ve done fascinating ethnographic research in this context. I’ve listened to immigrant mothers narrate their encounters with medical discrimination. I’ve observed robotic surgery and attended wrestling matches in Mexico.
The objective of my work is to create people-centred products and services, to, ultimately, help my clients achieve more profitability. Were all those years of higher education – subsidised by the US government – intended to benefit the private sector? Also, the public cannot access my work because of confidentiality agreements.
If labour conditions in academia are so terrible, what does it mean for those who remain? I’ve witnessed three behavioural patterns. One is ambivalence, illustrated by Times Higher Education’s 2016 University Workplace Survey, which found that 39 per cent of UK academics consider quitting. The second is a stance of fear, paralysis and defensiveness resulting from an inability to transition to other sectors.
The third behaviour is a complicit denial among both the successful and the aspiring. They champion university life while turning a blind eye to the economic realities of the part-timers in their midst. They often vociferously articulate against inequalities outside the ivory tower but remain silent about those within it. This group, especially when social scientists are to be found among them, is the most disturbing because its members disengage from reality, calling into question the quality of their scholarship.
How many Marxist scholars are incapable of identifying the exploitation of themselves and their colleagues?
Going back to my storytelling in the London restaurant, most of my listeners scoffed and joked at my anecdote. But a PhD in his sixth year of part-time lectureships remained silent. Afterwards, he pulled me aside. “You could have used the award to get an academic job,” he told me.
“But why would I want one?” I replied.
Nazima Kadir is an urban anthropologist with a PhD in anthropology from Yale University. She works in design and innovation. Her book, The Autonomous Life?, was published by Manchester University Press. She also runs a blog.