The academy I dreamed of for 20 years no longer exists, and I am waking up

Ellen Kirkpatrick has yearned for an academic career for many years. But 18 months after finally earning her doctorate, she is no longer sure she wants to remain in a sector defined by precarity, exploitation – and ‘quit lit’ 

May 23, 2019
Source: Getty

“Be careful what you wish for: you might just get it!”

Those cautionary words ring through my past and are now set to resonate through my future. The “what” in question was a place on a PhD programme and the prospect of becoming a fully fledged academic. I wished for it, I worked for it, and, in late 2017, I got it. But, like a dog pursuing a car, I focused so hard on chasing down my prize that I failed to notice the landscape changing around me.

Nearly a year and a half on from my viva, I find myself preparing to answer a new set of questions – not only whether I still want to be an academic but how much I want it. Because of course I want it – I’ve spent the past 10 years of my life working actively towards it – but I’m just not sure what it is any more – and if I want whatever it is enough to do all the things necessary to secure it.

Let me explain by way of an origin story. My answer to the timeless childhood question about what I wanted to be when I grow up was always the same: “I don’t know, but something to do with words and books.” Growing up in a house full of unbookish people, I could not then imagine the careers – bar the obvious – that we might carve out of a love of words, books and stories. My indecision continued through my teenage years and so I hedged my bets by taking an undergraduate degree in literature, politics and philosophy at a redbrick UK university.

It was the mid-1990s and mine was one of the last few cohorts to receive free tuition and maintenance grants. We were taught in small classes and one-to-one tutorials by unruffled tutors who told us of the other projects they were working on: articles, books, poetry collections, documentary films. One esteemed and aged tutor was even known to smoke an occasional illicit cigarette during tutorials held in his irrevocably tobacco-stained rooms.

They were different times. Not better, but very formative of my sense of what an academic career could and should be. I discovered that some folk got to do more than just teach or amuse themselves with the subjects they loved; they were able to make a living by immersing themselves – becoming expert – in them. I was hooked. I decided in my final undergraduate year that, somehow, some day, I would become an academic, too. I too would spend my days teaching, researching, thinking and writing about subjects I loved – comics and superheroes, identity, socio-cultural transformation – in a collegiate and collaborative environment.

I am not so naive or nostalgic as to imagine that turn-of-the-millennium British academia was a Utopia. Yet, as a creative, bookish, free-spirited twentysomething, it looked like the only place in the world where I could be paid a respectable wage to follow my intellectual interests and curiosity, learn continually, collaborate freely and contribute to critical discussions on the ways of the world and how we might more equitably transform them. It was as close to Utopia as I could imagine.

My undergraduate years form only a small, heart-shaped part of my backstory. I took a long break between being awarded my BA and my MA – the travelling and temping years. But I continued to write in my little red notebooks and to read critically and voraciously. During my travels, I held the dream of being an academic close to me. And when I was lonely or at a loose end in new places, I made straight for the university district. There was something safe about them, as with libraries and old bookshops. They always felt like home. 

I started to seriously pursue my goal of becoming an academic in 2006. I got married that year too and moved to Wales. Having secured my MA, I was accepted into PhD programmes in 2007, 2008 (part-time) and 2013. The first fell though because of a funding glitch. The second was cut short when a supervisor left the department, but I came out of it with an MPhil. The third – as for Goldilocks – was just right. I secured departmental funding, an editorial position at a prestigious journal and, at the end of 2017, my PhD. I was still working part-time in my beloved public libraries and holding fast to my academic dreams – raggedy as they now were after two decades of rattling around my heart.

But it was becoming increasingly difficult to overlook the changing atmosphere on the sparklingly refurbed campuses I attended, both as a home and guest student. I was finding it harder and harder to align my imprinted idea of academia with the culture I observed around me.

Affiliated academics I knew and followed on social media, blogs and podcasts talked more and more openly of being overworked, undervalued, over-monitored and underpaid. Many reported that they had less time and incentive to pursue curiosity-driven research owing to the combined effect of teaching loads and the “cursed” research excellence framework, as one senior academic put it. There were similar comments about the rise of student feedback/evaluation forms. Some academics indicated an altruistic reluctance to supervise new PhD students because they were neither able to offer the students the level of attention they deserved nor willing to delude them into thinking that a doctorate would be the gateway to the career they always dreamed of. These were different times. Not better.

I found myself supporting – and being supported by – fellow early career researchers who had done everything they were supposed to do in terms of garnering experience, publications and mentors, but often weren’t in a position even to apply for the entry-level academic jobs on offer – most of which are poorly paid, short-term and hundreds of miles from home. I saw my future through clear eyes then – and it was far removed from my academic dreams.

We formed a little support club: we called it the Amitié Alliance. Its membership also included friends who had secured their first academic positions but whose joy had soon graduated to anguish. We watched as the most sure-footed early career scholars succumbed to anxiety, frustration, debt and exhaustion. This was my second glimpse of the future. No one, it seemed, was immune from the struggle. We saw our experiences reflected daily on social media, and we sensed a transformation taking place within academia. Not a bold, swift revolution that could perhaps be forcefully and collectively resisted, but a gradual, inexorable shift. And although many of us still hadn’t been admitted far enough into the academy to fathom the scale of the change taking place, we were becoming increasingly exposed to the publish or perish culture – and internalising the anxieties that come with it.

When I began to feel surprising twitches of anxiety and competitiveness within myself, I realised that it was not only academia that was changing. I was changing with it. And I wasn’t sure I would grow to like these new versions of either of us.

Despite these gnawing reservations, I spent the first half of last year working solidly towards securing my place in the academy. I could not quit now; how could I possibly begin to rationalise doing so even to myself – never mind to the family and friends who had stood by my offbeat dream for so long?

So I changed my Twitter bio from “PhD candidate” to “Independent Scholar” and appended those influential three letters to my username. I worked with an eminent academic on getting my thesis published with a prestigious press. And I spent my days, nights and weekends writing articles, nurturing networks and applying for every fellowships and job going.

Well, maybe not every job. Unlike many of my peers, I could not – or, perhaps more accurately, was not prepared to – relocate for much of the short-term, underpaid, precarious positions that were advertised. Then again, I was not often faced with the “apply?” dilemma since I could count the number of jobs that I had a realistic chance of getting on half of one hand.

Part of the problem was that I was not getting my work or my name “out there”. My articles were grinding their way through the increasingly ill-famed publishing machine, and my book was at least a year away from seeing the light of day. Nor was I presenting my work at conferences. I could not afford the expense. I followed #InsertAcademicConferenceNameHere on Twitter, of course, but it felt like I was standing at the back of a concert: I could get a fair sense of what was happening, but not enough to allow me to join in. And maybe it’s just me, but scrolling through the tweets also reminded me that in not being there I was not part of the conversation, the community, any more.

Living away from the networks I had nurtured at my “home” campus also served to heighten my growing sense of remoteness. I became unsure of how to introduce myself to a new academic community now that I could no longer rely on my benign PhD status to open doors. And as the polite rejections to my applications for early career positions started to pile up (one, bewilderingly, explained that I was too “early” in my career), a question occurred to me that, surprisingly, I had never thought to ask myself before: would I ever be welcomed into the academy’s inner sanctum?

Just 11 months post-viva, I began to worry that my CV was already looking dated. My precarity had prompted me to reduce the unpaid work I had been happily doing in academia for years and to give up my professional memberships. The publication of my “career-building” book was being jeopardised owing to my inability to present myself on its dustjacket as a fully paid-up academic. (A typical catch-22 in modern academia.) And then, with one final automated message, my access to the library systems of my doctoral institution ended. My last official tether to academia was cut.

Cast adrift, I began to feel increasingly perplexed. How could I continue to work independently if I could not keep up to date with advances in my fields because I could not afford journal subscriptions? And how could I support myself – respect myself – if I was not fairly remunerated for my time and labour? And what was the point, anyway, if my work was not going to get published and form part of the conversation?

I have no answers to these questions, yet. But I know this. I do not want to further the culture of precarity by relocating for a temporary position. I do not want to prop up the current academic publishing model, in which publishers take all of the profit and bear none of the risk. I do not want to teach so many hours that I cannot pursue my intellectual curiosity and creativity: the things that got me here in the first place. I do not want to nurture that nascent competitive twitch over my collaborative sensibilities. And I do not want to sacrifice my work-life balance and, it follows, my mental and physical health.

In knowing all these things, is it possible that I am saying, without saying it, that I do not want to be an academic any more?

True, it is still possible to be an affiliated academic while resisting these trends. I have seen it done: and in those creative and collaborative moments, I get another flash of the future. I know many academics are boldly resisting and agitating for change. I know there are many independent and “rogue” scholars pushing back against the system. I know there are alternative publishing models and opportunities. I know that conference organisers and publishers now regularly encourage contributions from independent and junior scholars. And I know that I am not a quitter.

Indeed, I do not know one person with a PhD who is a quitter. That is why, despite the ring to it, “quit lit” is such a bad descriptor of the burgeoning genre of articles written by academics leaving the profession. It has a strong whiff of voluntarism about it, placing the responsibility of the “decision” to leave squarely with those doing the leaving. People are leaving academia not because they are quitters but because the system is broken. Their stories are more than just plaintive shouts into the wind: they are reminders and invitations. If we must coin a rhyming new genre, let’s call it exit lit.

The reminder is that the current system is not working for everyone – and not just early career researchers: even senior academics are “choosing” to leave academia. And when the system isn’t working for everyone, it is working for no one.

The invitation is for us all to remember that academia, despite the rampant commercialisation, is a collegiate system: “constituted as a body of colleagues” and “belonging to colleagues, combined”, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. We are more than cogs in a machine: together, we are the machine. It matters how we treat each other. It matters which journals and publishers we choose to publish our ideas with. It matters which conferences we choose to attend. It matters who we collaborate and constitute panels with. And it matters how we talk about our working practices. Being overloaded is not a badge of honour.

By changing these things within our control, we can help build a movement towards taking control of the things we cannot currently change. But, personally, I am not sure if I have another 20 years of dreaming left in me, even if I get that permanent academic job I always wished for. I am not sure if I am resilient enough – or resilient in the right way. I am not sure if I can take the financial, professional and emotional strain of being the change I want to see, in the face of all the pressures on me to be the status quo – or to leave.

So although I don’t want or intend it to be, this essay may yet turn out to be just another piece of exit lit after all.

Ellen Kirkpatrick has a PhD in cultural studies from Kingston University. She writes about popular culture (notably film, comics and TV), identity politics, social activism, fan cultures and the civic imagination. Her book about superheroes, activism and fandom is forthcoming. She is the commissioning editor for comics and graphic novels for the journal MAI: Feminism & Visual Culture.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Brought down to earth

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Reader's comments (17)

The rot is spreading because proper academics have allowed failed academics - awarded managerial positions by other academic failures - to infantilize them with childish away-days to petting zoos etc, by replacing cheese and wine academic parties with such nonsense as guess the number of sweeties in the jar games and quizzes, and replacing academic seminars with "research sandpits". Next, they promote failed academics - who can't teach can't write, can't research, can't win a grant or contract, but can bully and 'only follow orders' - over the heads of proper academics. Then those so called "managers" get their spiteful jealous revenge through micromanagement, snooping and bullying. in this way they drive out proper academics and start to recruit a new cohort of even more vulnerable and dependent victims. The result is that things can only get worse. This is why the mental health of academics is deteriorating so rapidly. Those who support this behaviour in HR, administration and other services are part of the problem, not the solution.
That technique is not limited to academia, which is why companies make older staff redundant and replace them with vulnerable younger staff who can be more easily cajoled. And yes it is a management style built on inadequacy and incompetence but while those who practise it are responsible for reporting how successful it is without scrutiny, it won't change.
I would recommend the church as a new intellectual home. You have to believe in God of course, patriarchal fellow that he is, though fundamentally well-meaning.
Your story reminds me of a number of glaring problems, now of long standing: - Like the NHS, UK HE has been mortally wounded by bureaucracy, managerialism and waste, but with the addition of consumerism, marketisation and quackery. - Alongside malaise, exhaustion, institutional mediocrity, frustration and then what you refer to as ‘exit’, signs of this are the jargon and clichés of ordinary working life in HE, such as ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, ‘outcomes’, ‘rigour’, ‘robust’, ‘embedding’ this and ‘underpinning’ that, and so on ad nauseam. - It is not the professional administrators (except for some HR lackeys), but the ‘academic leaders’ who are to blame. There is often a culture of bullying as well. - To strengthen their position, these ‘academic leaders’, although very often failed academics with little or no publications to their name, have hi-jacked professorial titles (and there is evidence that their resentment of true academics has then led to denial of such titles to those who might better deserve them). - Much of so-called ‘educational research’, focussed typically on worn-out studies of assessment mechanisms and manipulative preoccupation with ‘teaching excellence’ has helped to turn academics into hopeless automata. There is of course a very close relationshjp between ‘educational research’ and bureaucracy, and so this pseudo-academic field continues to grow, with ever more encouragement to produce repetitive articles and worthless textbooks, often leading to quack professorships. I remember finding myself completing a 60-page course visits permission form designed by my dean (not surprisingly someone with a ‘taught doctorate’ in ‘educational research’). - It has to be said that these problems are greater in the post-92 universities. Of course government policy is partly to blame, but older ones have the tradition, confidence and resilience to resist them more effectively, and those who lead the older universities are usually real academics. Not surprisingly, the contempt for and rejection of managerialism and bureaucracy seems to be strongest in Oxbridge. My advice? Be an independent scholar. Otherwise you would probably find that there was only time for research at weekends and in the evenings. Try to get an honorary affiliation with a proper (therefore older) university once your book is published, and at the same time attempt to earn a better living by finding another full-time job in a professional environment that has not yet been devastated by bureaucrats and charlatans. Recognition by a quack manager-professor in a cod university is worth nothing, and you probably wouldn’t get it anyway. Meanwhile you could keep your health!
I also found that the Academic Lifestyle was not as promised. My 10 years as a Lecturer in Business was tormented by senior staff being miffed that my publication and presentation record was always in the top 30% in the Business School, and that I had created two new units (Small Business, and Entrepreneurship) which no-one else had any idea of the material required to run these courses. The real problem in the Business School was that most of the staff were affiliated with the Labor Party (left wing) whereas myself as an Independent Small Business Owner was affiliated with the Liberal Party (right wing). Furthermore, because I had run my own businesses I was used to making decisions by myself and was an Independent Thinker used to doing things differently from others. The worst part was that other staff were taking bribes from Overseas Students and Local Students in return for better grades. I spoke out against this practice and found that the level of corruption was not just in the Business School but it went right up to the Vice Chancellor - one staff member was finally caught with $500,000 in an overseas bank account, but was allowed to continue teaching until his contract finished. The end result was that I was abused, harassed, bullied, and discriminated against by most other staff, and was told that I could not even speak to an intern from Durham University, even though I had developed the exchange links between my University and Durham - I did this one my own initiative. I was subsequently sacked (just like the people from Murdoch University) for speaking out against the corruption and cheating. Fortunately I was able to purchase other Small Businesses and act as a consultant to Small Business Owners in order to provide for my family. "Be very careful what you wish"
This is nothing new. I come from three generations of academics, all insiders who were lucky to have secured good permanent posts. We’ve all had to up sticks in pursuit of a proper job but have settled comfortably. There have always been overqualified phds who couldn’t get a permanent post, and those who have been disillusioned with the academy. But compared with most other jobs the academic life is one of the most rewarding. My advice: look beyond the UK and keep at it. Le jeu en vaut la chandelle
"all insiders who were lucky" - is this luck or privelege? and how would you recognise the difference? seuls ceux qui possèdent la chandelle peuvent jouer au jeu?
oh dear I seem to have misspelt privilege - how ironic
How sad. I'm an extremely late entrant into academia, having wandered through undergraduate/postgraduate study in botany, a dramatic shift into computing, working in a software house and as a consultant before developing skills in this new-fangled web thing, drifting into FE via a webmaster post, becoming a teacher and finally being hired by a university as an 'e-learning developer'... where I've embarked on a PhD alongside a shifting job profile that now sees me teaching and running final year projects... and I'm loving every minute of it! I'm so sorry to hear about those for whom it's not working out, but for me this is my dream job, 5 years after I walked in the door not quite knowing what I was doing here (but needed a job!).
I kind of mentally caved in when people started using lego to demonstrate what happened at Stalingrad as a valid teaching aid
She writes about popular culture (notably film, comics and TV), identity politics, social activism, fan cultures and the civic imagination. I think I can see where the problem lies. These are barely subjects worthy of serious academic attention.
I'm responding to will.mington - many would not agree with you, including me - there has been some serious funding given by major funding bodies for projects in popular culture, e.g. hip hop, graphic novels and cultural identity etc etc. And since when is social activism not important enough to receive serious scholarly attention? I completely understand where she is coming from - and I'm researching a more established top (art, war and politics since 1914). I've edited a collection of essays with highly regarded scholars, edited a journal volume, published several essays and book reviews and regularly present my work at major conferences. I'm less than two year out of my PhD, have secured a lot of funding for my research but no job in academia. I start a non-academic job in two weeks because I cannot survive being paid only for contact hours (e.g. teaching) despite handling many other responsibilities. Academia has degenerated in a way that is destroying careers because early career academics are treated as cheap labour. Too much work for so little reward eventually has an impact on one's mental health and wellbeing.
On "worth" of subject, I think will.mington's comment is about the wider conversation. As the situation is one of too many PhD graduates chasing too few jobs (relative to PhD graduates) because there's too little funding (relative to PhD graduates), one legitimate response is - UK society as a whole doesn't need to fund such jobs; so yes whilst you have employability problems stemming from the level of competition for these jobs why are you surprised, and are you seriously asking the taxpayer to fund more such posts just because you want one...? On early career academics being treated as cheap labour, again it's the level of competition - although I would note early career academics are only cheap relative to the hours they are actually required to put in (a much more complicated area). However, the main thing is that this points to there being an over-supply of PhD graduates, or at least of ones aiming to get into academia (with allied problems including a lack of awareness of the reality of academic work, of their chances of getting in, and of alternatives to academia).
It would be interesting to know what you consider a topic worthy of serious academic attention. And how the importance of the topic (or lack of) justifies bad working practices, such as those discussed in the paper. And whether or not you believe that PhD students and ECRs working on "important" subjects are somehow immune to unfairness, abuse and toxic environment typical in academia these days.
I know where you're coming from.
The system (at least in the Anglo American world) is rigged and messed up. It's all about proving ambulance chasing research publications in areas of not necessarily of own's own interest but where it will 'speed up the research ranking and raise the profile' and more importantly securing funding 'through any means necessary'. Rumours among colleagues were one professor at a top university even bribed a foreign minister to secure funding for the department in post Brexit climate! Things are slightly better in North America and Oceania, though problem equally persists there and in some areas, fare worse. However, in the US, things are comparatively better in the sense that PhD candidates by the time they reach for their thesis defence, they already have under their belt decent network of high value contacts within and outside academia, high profile fellowships, number of publications, hence secure the assistant professor role within 12 months of PhD completion. Yes, securing a tenure in the later stage of the career is a wholly different story and different ball game altogether, making it near impossible to achieve.
There seems to be a delicious connectivity between the senselessness of the above bot hack (I wonder if Dr Tunde's spells also work University administrators) and the other aimless musings on this thread. Academics have it so good in the grand scheme of things. Citer aléatoirement le français est idiot.

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