This (un)certain life

Academic precarity is a special kind of ‘torture’, observes Siobhan O'Dwyer, but scholarly life is not all doom and gloom

May 3, 2016
A tightrope walker
Source: iStock

I recently finished reading Sheri Fink’s Five Days At Memorial. A compelling piece of investigative journalism, it explores the euthanasia and abandonment of hospitalised patients during Hurricane Katrina. The complex issues and Fink’s exploration of them are particularly relevant to my research, but the book also got me thinking about academic life. As one of the doctors accused of euthanising patients waited to hear if she would be tried for murder, she was quoted as saying that not knowing what would happen was the most effective form of torture.

So much of my academic life has been characterised by “not knowing what would happen”. I spent the past five and a half years on a series of short-term research fellowships. Funded by what’s known as “soft money”, these were discrete fellowships, secured through a competitive process, with no possibility of renewal. The two and a half years before that were spent at a not-for-profit organisation, the funding for which was at the whim of the nation’s politicians. The three and a half years before that were spend doing a PhD and the year before that was spent working part-time as a research assistant – again funded by “soft money” – while caring for my grandfather. I moved house eight times during this period; twice interstate and once overseas. I only had three holidays that weren’t tacked on to the end of academic travel and all were less than a week.

This experience is not unique. Almost every academic I know has been through some version of this. And the “torture” is not just psychological. It’s also physical, emotional and financial. When you don’t know for more than a year at a time where your salary is coming from, it’s almost impossible to save money, buy a house or take a proper holiday. When your ongoing employment hangs on the outcome of a fellowship application that has a less than 20 per cent success rate, it’s easy to abandon self-care in favour of working nights and weekends to increase your chances. When moving interstate or overseas is the only way to pursue your vocation, it’s hard to maintain a relationship or a sense of self. Almost every academic I know is either overweight, living with a mental illness or has an autoimmune disorder. Those who’ve been lucky enough to avoid these things tend to be single, childless against their will or in unhappy marriages. Almost all of them are financially worse off than their same aged, non-academic friends.

So you’ll understand why I put everything I owned in boxes and got on a plane when I was offered a permanent academic position in the UK. Although the move will set me back financially and require me, once again, to build a life from the ground up, it’s a small price to pay for certainty and the opportunity to pursue my passion for research and education at an international level.

But here’s the thing: I still don’t feel certain. Twelve years of uncertainty and instability has taken its toll. Multiple moves have taught me never to get too comfortable; to not recycle the packing boxes but instead keep them at the back of the closet. As a result of the unpredictable mix of fellowship successes and rejections, I have internalised the message that I am not good enough. Too many “down to the wire” moments –  in which I was forced to wait until just a few weeks before a contract ended to find out if I would have another – have made me question my worth. And so I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I keep wondering why they hired me. I hesitate to buy new clothes or appliances, knowing that they’ll max out the 30kg luggage allowance if I have to move again. I was genuinely confused when my new boss suggested that I spend my first few weeks “just getting to know people”.

I described these feelings to a dear friend as being “like academic PTSD”. She said “it’s not like PTSD, it is PTSD!” PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a serious condition and I wouldn’t for a second think of comparing my experience with that of refugees, soldiers or abuse survivors. But the parallels are compelling and, I think, warrant further consideration in research and academic policymaking.

Although academic uncertainty is a special kind of torture, it’s not all doom and gloom. If a friendship survives this kind of uncertainty, you know that it’s for life. As a result of all my moves, I have been blessed with a network of lifelong friends and a place to stay in more countries than I can count. Although starting from scratch in a new place is exhausting, it’s also exhilarating. Finding a new yoga studio, a new cafe and a new cinema has brought me so much joy here in the UK. Although financial security is an oxymoron for academics, the opportunity to spend time in San Francisco or Amsterdam after a conference or research trip is not to be sneezed at. And although health problems have threatened to derail my life and my work, they have taught me not to take anything for granted. But perhaps most importantly, all this uncertainty has brought me here. To a place of relative certainty.

So I will hold tight to the good things as I process the events of the past 12 years and embark on this new, more certain, stage of my career. I will draw on the support of an international network of friends, work on my “down dog”, and embrace the opportunities for international travel. But I will not forget. And I will continue to speak out on the challenges that face academics who want nothing more than to do research that makes a meaningful contribution to the world and educate students who will go out and do great things in the world. Because I recognise that certainty is privilege. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll recycle the packing boxes.

Siobhan O'Dwyer is a senior lecturer in ageing and family care at the University of Exeter Medical School. This article originally appeared on her blog.

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Reader's comments (2)

What were you told about the REF before you accepted the job? What passport do you have? US citizens seldom get work permits in the UK, unless they are being bought in as 'stars' Good luck: remember that the first rule about academics is "if they are not rats, they are mice."
as to the header, the French government defined précarité in 1987 as follows « La précarité est l'absence d'une ou plusieurs des sécurités permettant aux personnes et aux familles d'assumer leurs responsabilités élémentaires et de jouir de leurs droits fondamentaux. L'insécurité qui en résulte peut être plus ou moins étendue et avoir des conséquences plus ou moins graves et définitives1. Elle conduit le plus souvent à la grande pauvreté quand elle affecte plusieurs domaines de l'existence qu'elle tend à se prolonger dans le temps et devient persistante, qu'elle compromet gravement les chances de reconquérir ses droits et de ré-assumer ses responsabilités par soi-même dans un avenir prévisible. » The New York Public library has an excellent Reader's Guide to Precarity, available on line. If anyone knows of an earlier use, please post.

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