If you don't like your job ..

... try the real world and see just how lucky we academics are, says Tim Birkhead

May 22, 2008

I was sitting with colleagues over coffee last week when one of them asked me with a wry smile what I would be writing about this month. When I told him I was going to write something positive about being an academic, he and several others stopped in mid-sip and looked at me with bemused expressions. There was a long pause and then one of them said: "Yes?"

Academics were born to whinge. In fact, everyone is. The grass is always greener somewhere else, but it is all relative. At the height of the UK's rail incompetence a few years ago, I was in Switzerland waiting for a train. Suddenly aware of the shuffling of irritated feet on the platform, I asked what the problem was. It was that the train was going to be one minute late. Whingeing bonds us together against our common enemies.

A few years ago an academic colleague got himself into trouble by saying in public that he enjoyed his job so much he'd happily do it without being paid. The press got hold of it, and shortly afterwards when academics failed to get a much-needed pay rise, those he worked with held him partly responsible.

The truth is that academics, unlike people in other forms of employment, are not motivated primarily by money. Rather, the most positive aspect of academic life - and I realise that this will vary enormously from institution to institution and what I write here reflects my own situation - is probably freedom.

For much of the time we can organise our agendas, choose who we interact with and what we study. There's even sufficient flexibility and freedom that we can fail occasionally in our research ventures without fear of draconian repercussions. Most of the time we work with individuals with similar interests, outlooks and aspirations. A fellow academic summed this up for me by saying that he felt he was embedded in a global community of like-minded people. That sense of community is facilitated by another extraordinary privilege we have as academics: access to the very best technology and technology support that facilitates our collaborations and social networks.

One only has to go into other workplaces to realise how lucky academics are to be surrounded by enthusiasts; people who are highly motivated and goal oriented. Think of the factory worker's poorly paid tedium or the GP's well-paid tedium. I once had an extraordinarily able graduate who, after obtaining a first-class degree (at a time when "first" meant first), worked for me as a research assistant for a year.

Later, when the funding ran out, she started working in the local bank, which had a nose-to-the-grindstone, hurdle-jumping attitude to employees. When she came back and heard academics and support staff complaining about their jobs, she was quick to point out that they should try working in the real world. In fact, it might not be a bad idea if departmental awaydays involved each of us shadowing someone in another profession - for starters, how about a trawlerman, a steel worker, a City slicker or a gangmaster - to see how tedious and/or unpleasant life can be.

Another major benefit of being an academic is our potential to change lives. Not every academic would place undergraduate teaching among his or her favourite activities, but by inspiring undergraduates through effective teaching we have the opportunity to change both the way they think and their aspirations.

For many academics, research is their major focus and motivation. Research brings its own rewards - mainly the excitement of discovering something new but increasingly the excitement of knowing that they have put cash in the university's coffers and the payoff that may bring. Because research is essentially social, interacting with other researchers, including our PhD students and postdocs, is both extraordinarily stimulating and gratifying.

Perhaps the single most positive thing about being an academic is integrity. Doing research is basically about trying to find out why things are the way they are: "the truth", as it is sometimes pompously but accurately known. Despite the Government's best efforts to treat universities as businesses, most academics reject the business "mode" and pretty much all that goes with it. By comparison with most other professions, we relatively rarely have to deal with moral dilemmas - unlike the newly formed private dentistry practices for example, where every patient represents a financial opportunity, or veterinary surgeons: "I could let Rover die, or there's this new (and expensive) treatment we could try."

There are two other benefits of being an academic we can celebrate. The first is our academic freedom. Yes, it has been eroded, but we still have more freedom than most. Relatively few of us are told what to do; we are, by and large, trusted to get on with the job. Second, the variation that an academic life brings is extraordinary - no two days are the same. They might not always be inspirational, but our jobs are never routine.

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