Leader: Why must so many go it alone?

Pursuit of an academic career forces many scholars to make personal sacrifices that are bad for them and for the profession

April 5, 2012

Robert Markley has made it to the promised land, securing a tenured post at a large research-intensive university that would be the envy of a thousand early career hopefuls.

But it's not all milk and honey. He is on his second marriage (and attributes the break-up of his first directly to his work), sees his new wife only during holidays and on occasional weekends, and spends up to 40 per cent of his income on the travel and two homes that make even this possible.

The professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is among the scholars in our cover feature who go to extraordinary lengths - and accept extraordinary personal sacrifices - to "make it" as academics.

The problem is particularly acute in the US because of its geography, but it is by no means an exclusively American phenomenon.

Zoologist Dora Biro is based at the University of Oxford; her partner, a professor whom she met in Oxford, has a post in Belgium, where he lives with their four-year-old daughter.

To balance their personal lives and careers, academics adopt all sorts of strategies.

A common route is for one partner to take a back seat - if both are scientists, say, one might work as a postdoctoral researcher rather than a principal investigator, or angle for a job working in a more junior post with their partner (or at least nearby).

Whether this is always appropriate and transparent is questionable, and complaints about "nepotism" attributable to such situations are not uncommon.

Many aspiring academics are forced to make tough decisions at the postdoctoral level about where to go next in their careers and what that means for their lives outside work.

While people in every walk of life face difficult decisions, personal and professional, the extremes in academia are striking and highlight a conflict at the heart of the profession.

On the one hand, academics - particularly those who teach - are seen as having a "caring" vocation, yet on the other they themselves are expected to be "care-free".

Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at University College Dublin, has argued that the idealised academic has no ties or responsibilities to limit their capacity to work. "To be a successful academic is to be unencumbered by caring," she says.

Yet scholars who take a PhD, pursue a postdoctoral job and set their sights on a professorship down the road are not signing up for the priesthood. If the system is skewed to allow only care-free individuals to succeed, it puts at risk the caring vocation implicit in an academic role.

Recognising this dilemma is one thing; deciding what to do about it is another matter.

Universities would not be expected to meddle in the personal lives of their employees, and will feel that they cannot worry excessively about the private arrangements of those scrambling for position in such a competitive profession. Some may take the view that the barriers help to filter the best and the truly committed from the merely very good.

But it is incumbent on universities to do what they can - and many are, whether formally or informally - to support those who persevere in spite of the difficulties. The idea that only the care-free should thrive cannot be sustainable.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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