Grant-getting targets have made academia resemble T-shirt selling

Working in the academy reminds Duncan Money of his brief time on a market stall. Time to swap it for a stable job that pays the bills

一月 4, 2023
Source: Alamy

I can do a convincing impression of a successful academic. I get invited to give lots of talks, receive great teaching evaluations and generally have a lot of the kind of news that gets prefixed with “I’m thrilled to announce…” on social media. What I don’t have, though, is a job.

Until recently, I was a historian at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in my sixth year of temporary contracts since completing my PhD in 2016. My situation is not unusual. Leiden employs lots of people on temporary contracts. A 2021 report by Casual Leiden, a group of staff campaigning against casualisation and overwork, found that 78 per cent of teaching-only academics were on temporary contracts, and the situation is similar at many other Dutch universities. What should be a core activity of universities is done by people whose presence is temporary.

In my six postdoctoral years, I’ve published a book and edited two more, on top of writing 13 journal articles and seven book chapters. I’ve also supervised four PhD students to completion, run the graduate programme in my department and taught all manner of courses. But there will be no seventh year. My contract was not renewed for one simple reason: the primary condition of my continued employment was external funding and, despite many applications, I didn’t manage to get any.

I once briefly had a job selling T-shirts on a market stall. I mistakenly imagined that when I became an academic, the metrics for success would be different. In fact, they are the same: generating revenue for your employer. Teaching, publishing, supervising, administrative work: ultimately, none of this is important or valued in career terms. Had I supervised no one, published little and got student teaching evaluations that read “could learn more from reading Wikipedia”, I wouldn’t be writing this piece if I had only landed a grant. I would instead be posting on Twitter: “I’m thrilled to announce that I have been appointed…”

But it is hardly a surprise that my grant applications were unsuccessful. The last time I applied, the success rate for the Dutch Research Council’s Vidi grants in the humanities and social sciences was 10 per cent. These are gamblers’ odds, not something to base a career on. I would have been better off staking a chunk of my monthly salary on horse races. This would also have been less time-consuming.

Many early career scholars are aware that the employment situation and working conditions in their home countries are dire. Often, they are advised to broaden their horizons, be mobile and apply everywhere. I did this. The day after my PhD viva in the UK, I upped sticks and moved to South Africa. While there, I had visiting positions in California and Norway, and three years later I moved to the Netherlands.

The search for a permanent job is a search for El Dorado, however. Their numbers are dwindling and my subject of history is in terminal decline as a professional discipline. What’s more, working conditions even in permanent academic jobs are deteriorating.

My workload at Leiden was punishing, and the same was true for lots of other staff. Part of the reason in my case was that in successive years I had to take on the work of colleagues who had burnouts. Indeed, the only reason my contract was renewed in 2021 was because I stepped in like this. But this meant I had a very heavy teaching load while also being expected to publish and apply for funding to pay my salary in future years. I felt like I was cracking up.

Demands for unpaid work are a particular problem for junior scholars, who are expected to do whatever is asked of them in return for a vague hope of future employment; the people making the requests are usually the same people who renew (or don’t renew) temporary contracts. The result is structural overwork.

As my workload became more intense, I was reassured by the fact that I was being integrated into my department and making myself indispensable. I hoped and assumed that it would result in a permanent job. This was painfully naive. Someone else was recruited to do the teaching I did. They are on a one-year contract, too.

In my final term at Leiden, I was offered teaching work at a university in a neighbouring country to cover the course of an absent colleague. But there would have been no pay at all for doing this. The professor running the programme could only assure me that the university “might” be able to cover my travel expenses.

There are many things I achieved during my brief career that I’m proud of, principally digitising the archive of the Mineworkers’ Union of Zambia and supervising those PhD students to completion. This sense of professional satisfaction, however, does not pay the bills. It is time for me to do something else. And my advice for other early career scholars is to prepare to do the same.

Duncan Money is a freelance historian and researcher.



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Reader's comments (1)

I know how hardworking you are Duncan and reading this made me realise how exploitative academia can be. I truly hope there will be a sweeter story to tell from you pretty soon.