Get a job in academe? You must be joking

November 7, 2003

You're underpaid, overworked and unloved - and you're too gutless to do anything about it, says Tina Brown.

Teaching undergraduates and postgraduates certainly has advantages over teaching schoolchildren, but you can't beat the latter for entertainment.

There is always something new. During registry of a class of 13-year-olds the other day, someone let off a stink bomb. Assuming my severest expression, I thundered: "I want the person who did this to stand up and admit to it now!" To my utter astonishment, a boy actually stood up. Surely a first in the entire history of school teaching.

I have been supply teaching for the past year, having come back to schools after a break of about seven years in academia. By 1995 my school-teaching career had reached rock bottom. Since graduating from teaching-training college three years earlier, my morale had been steadily worsening. The pay had seemed less and less worth the burgeoning workload and red tape. Most of all, the children's behaviour had become abominable.

So in 1995, I got out of school teaching and into academia. For a while beforehand, I had become fascinated by a particular subject in medieval history. Thus, the obvious step seemed to be to start a PhD. It was seven years before I discovered what an unwise decision this was.

The PhD was hard, slow-going work. I did not get a grant, so had to finance myself as best I could. I had saved enough money to pay the fees, but I had to find money to support myself while studying. I signed up to teach four undergraduate history courses by distance learning.

At first I assumed it would be nothing like school teaching. Certainly, behavioural difficulties were not an issue. No undergraduate ever let off a stink bomb. It was a relief to be able to interact with fellow adults. And they were bright adults, too. One thing never changes, though - no matter what the age range, the students bring out the parental feeling in you. One cannot help but want the best for them all, even if one feels disliked by a particular student.

But I soon discovered that this lecturing was no way to get an income. My job description stated that I should be working about five hours a week for each course. I ended up doing about twice that. Learning the course materials took all my time, including weekends, for the first two months.

Emails and phone calls from my students flowed unceasingly into my home. By the time it came to marking essays, I had long since realised that the estimates of the time needed for each job were laughable. The job description said I should spend half an hour to mark each essay; it took me three times this. I learnt later that seasoned lecturers at this university could manage to mark only one essay an hour. Worst of all, there was a vast pile of staff development manuals that I never found time to read. One, titled Am I Doing a Good Job? , gave my friends and me great cause for mirth. At a realistic average of £5 an hour (not the fanciful figure of twice that provided by the university), I was damned certain I was not doing a "Good Job".

My PhD study time inevitably got whittled down to almost nothing. After four years I had managed to write only two chapters of my thesis. My department pressured me to hurry up. Opportunities for supply teaching had thinned sharply and it was now clear I could not make enough money to live on by part-time lecturing and work full out on my PhD. I was forced back onto the dole for the first time in a decade.

I got through the last 18 months of my PhD only by adopting an attitude of cold determination. (My partner, Harry, revealed to me much later that I frightened him during that period. I had become, he said, "a bit like a Dalek, only less cuddly".) In the final six months I was near to cracking: only a steady supply of Prozac saved me. Still, my determination paid off.

I duly passed my PhD in 2001. Much joy and relief all round (the latter especially from Harry). Not unnaturally, I thought then that my troubles were over.

But what followed was two-and-a-half years of struggle to find a full-time lecturing job. I had originally thought that to become a lecturer, one needs simply to get a PhD. This turned out to have been woefully naive. For a start, the jobs were thin on the ground, especially in my subject.

Second, you need publications - and preferably lots of them. I tried and failed to get my thesis published as a book. Then, I looked into publishing individual chapters of the thesis in academic journals - but I soon gave up on that idea. I found that even if I could get a journal to accept a proposal, it would take much work and sweat to craft one into shape. And it would all be work for no financial gain - because these journals never pay royalties. I had long since resolved that I was no longer going to burn my brains out for nothing, not after what I had been through with the PhD.

The last straw was my discovery of just how little academics get paid, even for full-time jobs. I had never looked into it before - I had simply assumed, probably along with most of the population, that academics do pretty well. After all, they are members of the upper-middle class, are they not? Perhaps so, I concluded, but they are also a rather unloved group among the upper-middle class.

On the one hand, successive governments, most notoriously Margaret Thatcher's, have shown an almost contemptuous attitude towards them. On the other, academics do not seem to want to do much about their work and financial position. I was unable to comprehend the attitude of the full-time academics I spoke to about such matters. They would just smile resignedly (and, I occasionally thought, with a certain curious smugness) and change the subject. To be blunt, I began to see a certain lack of guts among academics as a whole. Why - I continue to ask - do they not exert some muscle?

So, finally, I went back into teaching in schools and further education colleges. It was like coming home after a long and rather rocky journey. I signed up for more supply teaching, but since Harry and I had now moved to Somerset, I was now teaching different children altogether. Behaviour problems among my new charges seemed almost non-existent.

I shall miss my undergraduate students - they were a delight, and I remain in contact with many of them. But there is something very wrong with the state of the academic world. I sometimes wonder if the root problem is a certain antipathy towards all things intellectual. Whatever, I am happy to be back in the world of school teaching, and I shall remain here.

Tina Brown is a former lecturer in history who now works as a supply teacher.

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