Can I succeed as a working-class academic?

Life as an early career researcher is hard, but when you add being working class into the mix, the obstacles are almost insurmountable, writes an anonymous academic facing the death of her university career

March 7, 2019
sad woman in the rain
Source: Eva Bee/Getty

I am a working-class academic. That is true at the time of writing but it may not be by the time you read this, as I am currently “at risk of redundancy”. Unless something sensible happens, my career could shortly be over. And if that transpires, I will certainly feel a deep sense of personal failure. But I will mostly be angry at the institutional and structural problems that caused this situation.

I was the first in my family to go into higher education. My parents were manual workers: my mum – a Romany Gypsy – had been a cook in domestic service and my dad was a boiler stoker in local army camps. They did not understand my secondary school homework, so could not help me with it. And, of course, we had very few books or educational trips. In careers lessons at school, I was asked if I would prefer to work in a shop or a factory. So I left school at 15 and, like the rest of my family, took up manual work in a range of jobs: shopworker, postwoman and factory worker, among other occupations.

When I was 23, I saw an advert for my local college offering grants to “mature students”, so I took A levels there. One of the teachers encouraged me to continue to higher education, so I enrolled at a London polytechnic. I received no careers advice about where else I might have studied, and after I graduated I did not have the confidence to apply for a professional job. Although, by now, I knew some middle-class people who had these jobs, I assumed they were superior to me – I did not think I could do the same. So I went back to manual work, as a motorcycle courier.

However, because I was always very active in my local community, I eventually met a professional community worker. I had not realised previously that you can do community work for a living, but the idea strongly appealed, so I went back to polytechnic to do a diploma in youth and community work. The boost it gave to my confidence was such that, at the age of 35, I started my first professional job.

About 15 years later, however, community work was being transformed and diminished. For this and other reasons, I went to university to do a master’s and then a PhD. It was an elite university, but I chose it because it was close to where I lived.

I finished my PhD without corrections, which had rarely happened in the department before. But although I’d done well academically, I’d had no guidance about how to pursue an academic career. So I accepted whatever short-term, part-time academic contracts I could find – some of which lasted for just two weeks, or offered only a few hours a week. These earned me just £4,000 in the entire first year, yet, despite living well below the poverty line, I could not claim state benefits because the hourly pay was quite high: I just did not have enough hours.

Illustration of crumpled paper

I tried to get other work, signing on to agencies to do washing-up or office work, but they all said I was overqualified. I made some extra money proof-reading and, at one point, renting out my bedroom while I slept on the floor downstairs. My house was badly in need of repairs, as it had been throughout my PhD, but I could not afford to have them done. Most worryingly, the chimney was loose and could, at any moment, have come crashing through the roof. It was very stressful to live in such unhealthy and dangerous conditions.

In spite of it all, when not proof-reading and doing casual academic jobs, I spent those first years publishing, writing funding bids and applying for jobs. But, although I was frequently invited for interview and given good feedback about my performance, I never got any of the positions I applied for. I went to the careers service at the university to try to understand how I could overcome this but they could not tell me. They said my written documents were great and so was my interview technique.

But when there were internal competitions for jobs or fellowships, my applications were always rejected on spurious grounds, such as my supposedly not having enough publications, when I had more than many of those who were put through to the selection committee. When this happened for the umpteenth time, I finally complained and my bid was put through for the first time. This gained me a three-year fellowship.

Before the bid came through, however, my working life had become very difficult. I went from under-employment to over-employment, juggling up to 10 small contracts at a time, stopping and starting with increasing regularity. After four years, university policy stipulated that I was entitled to be moved on to a more secure contract, but the only security that I gained was that the university now had to go through a redundancy procedure at the end of some of the contracts. This should also have given me the right to redeployment, and on two occasions it did yield more part-time, short-term work.

However, all the other interviews I had under redeployment were undertaken by principal investigators who wanted their posts advertised externally. As there were no other candidates in my redeployment interviews, the only way they could refuse me was to make very extreme statements about my incompetence. So they did. I was told that I was incapable of doing research in my key topic areas, even though I had been doing it successfully for years. This was a particularly upsetting aspect of the whole situation.

Another difficult aspect has been the bullying. Bullies are renowned for targeting precarious workers, especially those they consider weaker because of their gender, class or race. As part of my union activity, I have complained about casualisation. One professor felt very threatened by this and sent me a stream of hate mail, copied in to colleagues, calling me various names and denigrating my Romany Gypsy heritage. I went to see those charged with ensuring “acceptable behaviour” and there were a few meetings. But the professor refused to attend, and the university decided in the end not to take it further because he was feeling stressed. He also brought a lot of money into the department, but that was never mentioned.

Readers might think that my performance is poor in some way: that I do not publish or bring in funding or create impact, or that I am not a good colleague. That is not the case. Seven years after finishing my PhD, I have more than 60 publications, many in high-quality journals or with quality book presses. I have brought in hundreds of thousands of pounds in grants – often more than the professors who are denying me the jobs. My work has influenced government policy in a number of countries. I have never been disciplined and have always had excellent references from my various managers. And my work supporting my colleagues as a union representative over the past three years has been unpaid, since I am not core-funded.

Some will say that this is just the way academic careers are these days, and I agree that many early career researchers have had a difficult time in recent years. But I do think that my class is the main reason that my career might soon end.

First, the lack of confidence and role models that kept the prospect of an academic career out of my sights for so long counts against me because people expect you to be young when you apply for early career positions. Yet this is a common problem for people who come from groups that are marginalised or oppressed.

Second, my absence of any sense of entitlement or belonging to academia was what propelled me to accept jobs that were well below my capability and suboptimal for both my career and my budget. Getting my PhD without corrections boosted my confidence for a few months but the constant rejections made me ultimately doubt myself. Impostor syndrome is, of course, a common affliction, but it is worse for people from marginalised backgrounds. I felt privileged to be able to work in a university under any circumstance.

Third, because I had economic pressures, I did not always make the best decisions about which jobs to take. I know of middle-class people who went off on world tours after their PhDs, or took time out to write a few papers. I did not have that luxury. There was no one for me to turn to for financial help. I had to work the day after my PhD funding ended. So my CV seems excessively diverse to some employers and I have been refused jobs for that reason.

Fourth, I have not benefited from the close friendship networks in academia that could have given me informal advice about how to manage my career. I always felt intimidated around middle-class people as I had previously only ever known them as social workers, doctors, bank managers: people who controlled my life and could make decisions about me that I might not like. I have some middle-class friends outside academia and a few among fellow early career academics, but still virtually none among senior colleagues. Occasionally, a few senior academics have given me advice when I have requested a specific careers meeting, but because they are not my friends, I am not with them during the relaxed hours when the most honest advice is often passed on. I had so little in common with them, as they discussed holidays and their dilemmas about home improvements – whether to opt for a marble or granite worktop – while I wondered if I would ever get a day off and how I could hang on to my home. By contrast, I have made genuine friendships with the receptionists, cleaners and other working-class university staff. I feel sad when I see other academics treat them as if they do not exist.

Fifth, I do think that there has been some prejudice against me in interviews because I do not come across as middle class in terms of manners, speech and dress. I often come second in appointment competitions, and when I meet the other candidates, the successful one always oozes confidence, speaks with a middle-class accent and wears expensive-looking clothes.

Finally, the prolonged stress caused by the insecure work and the bullying impacted on my health, in particular, triggering a voice disorder linked to trauma called spasmodic dysphonia. I was left with a strangled voice and, for about a year, I could hardly speak at all. Now, almost four years on, it has improved substantially, but it still undermines my performance at interviews, as some interpret it as nervousness, illness or weirdness. Had I been middle class, I feel that more people within the academy would have defended me and recognised the harm that the bullying was causing. When middle-class people cannot pursue their careers for any reason, it is considered to be a tragedy, even if it is their own fault. But when a working-class person cannot pursue their career, we are just consoled with how well we did, “considering”.

At the time of writing, my fellowship, ironically called a Future Research Leader Fellowship, has about two months left to run, after which I face unemployment. My managers just casually tell me to keep making grant applications to avoid redundancy but they don’t understand that they are making me ineligible for most of the funding available by not giving me a secure and progressable contract. Moreover, I am not allowed to have pending grant applications that, if awarded, would account for more than 100 per cent of my time. So if I apply for a full-time grant, I have to wait for up to a year to find out if my bid is successful, and then, if it is not, I have to wait another year to hear about my next application. Alternatively, I could put in five bids at a time, each accounting for 20 per cent of my time, so as to have a better chance. But the chances of getting all five would be low, and I could end up working just a day a week.

My university could easily continue to employ me. It made a surplus of almost £50 million last year. But my departmental managers say that my research is not in their particular niche area. They say this even though I research sustainability and environmental issues. We are told that we have just 12 years to make the changes that will save us from catastrophic and irreversible climate change, and I am passionate about being part of the solution. I did not come into academia for my own status or wealth: I did it to try to make a difference in the world. I felt that academia would be the perfect place to do that. My university says that it wants to be in this market, and sustainability is in the senior management’s key strategy document. But they do not create the jobs that would provide the necessary expertise – and fail to require the departmental managers to do so.

Meanwhile, any number of the people that the university does core-fund, interested only in their own careers, have trodden on me and used my ideas and work for their own benefit. Quite a few of these were cruel and classist and racist. I am very disillusioned.

Universities could do more to mentor their staff from working-class backgrounds. They could also do more to understand how economic pressures shape our CVs and careers, and they could use their surpluses to create more secure contracts. They could take classist bullying seriously. They could develop class-based diversity and equality policies. They could review their current policies, such as redeployment, to make them less likely to cause harm. And they could recruit, retain and promote more working-class people as academics and managers, not just support staff.

Until they do, what could I say to a working-class person who was considering working or even just studying at university? Could I encourage them?

I wanted to succeed in part so that I could be a role model to them. But I have spent 10 very stressful years with a precarious income and, to date, seemingly no secure career at the end of it, while becoming overqualified and under-experienced for most other jobs. I have been bullied and harassed by wealthy and privileged people. Instead of being welcomed, my voice has been a problem in academia, and I have been silenced in every way. What kind of role model am I now? l

The author has chosen to remain anonymous. She is interested in starting a network of working-class academics in the UK, to offer mutual moral support. If you are interested, please send an email to wearewclass@gmail.com Note: Since this article was submitted and edited, the author has received and accepted a fixed-term job offer from another institution.


A bridge too far: is a degree the right path?

Studies of graduate destinations generally report positive outcomes for working-class graduates, particularly professionally validated programmes such as pharmacy or social work, which offer specific career pathways.

However, I know of working-class graduates with good degrees from good institutions who are in relatively menial positions in the leisure and retail sector. It is as if such students are unable to move beyond working-class jobs and embrace the middle-class careers that a degree should unlock.

This is not a new phenomenon. Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden’s classic 1962 text Education and the Working Class illustrated that even working-class children educated at grammar schools still often ended up in traditional working-class jobs.

The reasons can be diverse, but as the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu suggested, they include a deficiency of cultural and social bridging capital, lower levels of self-assurance and commercial awareness, and very often an inability to enter or exploit the fertile professional networks that might boost confidence and alert them to employment options and opportunities. This leaves working-class graduates in ignorance of why they have not received even an acknowledgement of their application, let alone an invitation for interview.

My university, which has a lot of working-class students, scores well overall for graduate prospects and offers a rolling schedule of excellent programme-level careers advice and one-to-one support, both throughout the course and for many years beyond. We also have a mentoring programme, primarily to help students better understand the workplace and what is expected of them. Such schemes, common across the UK, are welcome as many students do not appreciate the importance of organising themselves and their CVs in their final year at university.

But while I strongly support widening participation initiatives, I also think that university applicants should be helped to think through their career aspirations and to consider whether a degree is really necessary. Higher-level apprenticeships, for example, are an alternative way of learning at university while accessing a professional qualification in areas such as business management, law, financial services, policing, engineering and IT.

With many apprentices remaining with their training employer, it would seem that for some working-class students, getting “one foot in the door” without having to study full-time for three years is a viable remedy for deficits in their social bridging and networking.

Carole Binns is a lecturer in criminal justice studies at the University of Bradford.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The end of my tether

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Reader's comments (18)

So the answer it yes. Congratulations. We could all have avoided an extended whinge of woe-is-me if this had been printed at the top of the article: "Since this article was submitted and edited, the author has received and accepted a fixed-term job offer from another institution." Turns out class is not a barrier to securing full time academic employment.
She obviously had to go through an enormous amount of classist bullying and rejection and, even now, she has only secured a fixed term job, so she will presumably be facing redundancy again soon. You only have to look at the statistics to see that class is very much a barrier to a secure academic job and it is important to hear these stories to understand how this occurs. It takes courage to speak up about injustice and abuse and it does not help if people such as yourself dismiss it as a whinge.
I am a female academic from a working class background, and although both these traits have disadvantaged me at times, I have nevertheless found a secure academic post early in my career (after one two-year fixed term post) and progressed to a professorship. Where I did have an advantage over the author of this article is that I managed to go to university from school -- and I wonder if that helped me to overcome 'imposter syndrome' earlier -- and perhaps also meant I did not have to deal with ageism (or racism) as well as sexism and class discrimination (though when I interviewed for a university bursary for Master's study aged 25 I was told that I was 'not getting any younger').
The bulk of the article isn't about any sort of mistreatment, but rather about financial challenges that most 'middle class' (*not* the same as 'wealthy') academics face, and the author's various inferiority complexes. Diddums...
It's shocking to see the lack of sympathy and understanding from people in the university to an article like this. To spend one or two years in an american university is enough to witness the cultural, educational and financial gaps between the haves and have nots. If you're one of the have nots, it's not hard to see. But it is difficult to speak up and tell about them - especially to a majority who are not afflicted by them. Being middle-class and male with perhaps only one parent or aunt/uncle who went to college marks a significant advantage. For those of us who aren't any of those things, it's rare to read someone telling their story.
Following the timeline of the writer's thread it would seem they are in their early Sixties. ( Started a masters and then PhD in early 5Os). Then they imply having subsequently been on a variety of contracts for around 10 years. Rightly or wrongly, its hardly surprising they struggle to establish an academic career at an age when many others have long been retired off (and not always voluntarily). Indeed sounds like they have done remarkably well for someone starting out in academe in later life. Or have I got the timeline wrong?
Life can be tough. Whining about it gets you nowhere, though. After working full-time all my life, I had a period of unemployment from 2009 to 2014, with only a couple of low paid part-time temporary contracts, nearly lost my home, yada yada... but now have slithered into academia, have embarked on a part-time PhD alongside a full-time job, and am respected by colleagues and students alike... at the grand old age of 59! (Oh, and I do have imposter syndrome...) But when things are going wrong for you it is all too easy to blame others, to emit shrill yells of "If they weren't ageist/racist/classist/sexist/whateverist I would have been the one appointed". It's more comfortable than looking long and hard at yourself and figuring out how to maximise your own chances, make yourself into the candidate they just have to appoint.
why has the THE combined these two articles. One talks about the genuine experience of working class academics. The other writes about "deficits in their social bridging and networking". We are NOT deficienct, we may lack the network opportunities of colleagues but that is not a personal attribute it is a product of social structure and claiming that universities exist to remedy or compensate this defincicny further stigmatises working class students by creating a false "normal" to which they should aspire.
There's something that makes my hackles rise the more I read the articles and comments here, and it pretty much explains a lot of the experience of the first contributor. Lots of the discussion of being "working-class" paints a picture of "otherness", and a sense that somehow it is to be worn like some kind of badge of shame. It's instructive that the second piece talks about Bourdieu's suggestion of "a deficiency of cultural and social bridging capital". So let's lay it out. I am from the working class. And worse (heaven forfend!) I'm northern, to boot. I've worked in HE for around 20 years now, in both academic and professional roles. I'm not proud of where I'm from, but I'm not ashamed of it either, it is simply part of who and what I am. I grew up in a stable environment and made something of the chances that came my way. Some of that is about me, some is just plain luck. And yes, in some places you have to fight against entrenched snobbery and a sense of privilege. But it it were not about those things, it would be about something else, because that's what some people are like: they like to play games and mark territory, usually because of some underlying deficiency on their part, not mine. To rathet pretentiously steal from Derrida, context is all. The social and cutural networks in the academy are highly contextual, and there are institutions and disciplines where the context is different. The fact is, if you are not form a particular milieu, there are some networks where you will simply not fit, and that fit is not always about class. But sometimes it is. But that is the case outside the academy too. But what rankles is that in some quarters we're beginning to see a fetishisation and ghettoisation of being "working-class", and the inevitable wringing of hands. Perhaps if some people stopped talking about social mobility as the one way process it has become (how many Old Etonians slum it on the checkout at Tesco, eh? Jarvis Cocker pretty much nailed that one backin in the 90s), and stopped looking at being working class as some kind of afflication that must be treated, then we wouldn't get into these tangles. BUt I don't see that happening anytime soon, I'm afraid.
The experiences highlighted in the article ring true for many academics from working-class backgrounds. Classism is real. The biggest shock for me as a working-class person starting out in academia was the culture of individualism - I was used to people helping each other out at work! The presence of working-class academics can be a threat to middle-class colleagues when we start to change the culture and encourage collectivism (of course, we need secure jobs to be able to do so, and those of us who do now have continuing positions have a responsibility to support those who do not). Solidarity with the author and my fellow working-class academics around the world.
Very self indulgent piece. And what does being working class have to do with the admittedly difficult nature of the academic job market?
I sympathise with the first contributor, and although I agree with others here that academia is a tough career choice and difficult to enter, she has suffered a triple whammy of class, gender and age bias. My experience of working as an academic for several years in the UK is that class affects everything. The contributor's working class background has affected her educational opportunities and job choices. Her gender has then likely played a role in the direction she has taken in ensuing years. By the time the contributor has been awarded her PhD, published academic papers etc, her age has become a factor when applying for full-time academic positions. I am currently a professor in Australia and have sat on many job selection panels. Ageism plays a strong role in ranking applicants although no-one would ever say so openly. The situation is exacerbated here by the absence of a mandatory retirement age here.
I am shocked by some of these comments - 'whining', 'whingeing', 'self indulgence' and even 'diddums' in response to someone speaking their truth about oppression. Do the people who wrote these comments really think that this is a decent and humane response? I am surprised THE has allowed the publication of these nasty comments given that this woman lost her voice for years due to the trauma of the situation. However, they do illustrate the point that she makes - the lack of understanding of classism and the cruelty among some academics. This woman is not asking for pity - she is asking for justice. She outlines the policy that needs to change and she explains why it should change by giving an insight into the problems that working-class people can face. She then wants to set up a network to help others (and herself) - she should be admired for her courage, determination and resilience, not bullied as these comments seem to do. I suspect she has touched a nerve - is this middle class fragility showing its ugly face?
Be careful with your comments. I'm the first person in my family to go to university (let alone become a lecturer). I am not middle class. I've faced discrimination and harassment because of my nationality (I'm an immigrant) and my sexuality. I also have a disability. So I am fully aware of the difficulties facing anyone who feels different in our profession. Perhaps I just have a different way of responding to it.
This links in with another article the THE did not so long ago. "an academic career arguably remains as remote an aspiration as it has ever been for working-class academics. That is because even if, against all the odds, they excel at school and – perhaps via a widening participation initiative – find their way to a top university, they must still negotiate an alien, emphatically middle-class cultural setting, not to mention sustain themselves during the various periods of low or no income that early career academics typically have to endure." This article talks about the often invisible barriers that working class academics have to face. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/being-working-class-academy
I'd say call out the academic who "[called you] various names and denigrat[ed your] Romany Gypsy heritage" as the bigot he is - shameful. Now you've secured another post, circulate those e-mails he sent . . . .
To the article’s author — I am so sorry about what you went through. Shame on the above commentators who accuse you of whining — how morally reprehensible. The lack of empathy among those posters is thoroughly pathetic. The author is right that the academic job market is often not about merit or ability. It is a nepotistic system in which academics hire their friends and people they know. Yes, meritocratic hiring does happen sometimes — but in my department most of the people hired for lectureships have been friends of people on the panel, their PhD students or people they used to work with. I have seen it happen in nearly all cases of hiring for various jobs from lecturer to professor. Getting hired for a postdoc is even more nepotistic and my advice to people applying for post docs and finding a lot of rejection is also apply for permanent lectureships. With many academic jobs, in manh cases, the job ad is mere tick-boxing to satisfy laws about equal opportunities. In reality they often already know who they want to hire and the other candidates are just there to give the impression of a fair selection process. The nepotism is, I think, class or other demographics and also about more basic friendship networks. It is possible for new academics without influential networks to get hired in subjects where supply is low (such as a very niche field). Otherwise when there are 100+ applicants for jobs the unknown hardly have a chance. They will look at who you know through your co-authors, etc. I just want the article’s author to know it is not their fault that academic hiring is corrupt and unfair. Take no notice of the appalling commentators showing you no empathy.
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