PhD and a side order of reality

September 24, 2004

After gaining a doctorate, academics face years of poverty and semi-skilled jobs, says Simon Francis

Young academics might think things will get better after they have gained their PhD, but their relief soon gives way to the realisation that there is yet more researching and writing to do to "prove" themselves to prospective employers. The dreaded research assessment exercise sets what feels like a new lot of goalposts far, far off on the horizon.

The only way for PhDs to deal with this problem is to organise their days in such a way that they have enough to live on, but still have the time to do all this extra academic work - for which, of course, they don't get paid.

As one history PhD puts it, this means "recreating pretty much the life you had as a doctoral researcher".

After leaving Manchester University in early 2003, he soon discovered the size of the task ahead of him. "I always knew that I had to publish to get a full-time lecturing job, but I just put it out of my mind. It was hard enough just writing and finishing the PhD."

He says: "I met up with my ex-supervisor soon after I graduated and he spelt it out for me: I needed at least three journal articles under my belt."

For him, this means working in the university library 20 hours a week, plus two hours' part-time lecturing. Weekends and evenings are spent writing the second of his journal articles.

"It's a gruelling life," he says, "and what grates so much is the fact that after so many years of study I'm still living on the same income I had as a student."

The issue of what exactly to do to support oneself can become very thorny.

The obvious choice, part-time lecturing, is often more trouble than it's worth. Many believe that lecturing takes years of experience before you can get a good ratio of time put in against money earned. One economics PhD says he spent about three hours preparing for each hour he taught in his first year. It worked out at about £4.50 an hour. Also, as many new PhDs know, part-time lecturing experience doesn't help you to get full-time lecturing jobs - only publishing can do that, as long as the RAE is still with us.

For a few, the only way to live in moderate comfort is by means of the dole and black-market jobs. One philosophy graduate explains: "If you're burning your brains out doing academic work of the same - or higher - level than your PhD, and you find out that part-time lecturing pays so little, the idea of doing mindless work to earn your cash becomes attractive."

After a one-term part-time lecturing contract at her alma mater - Aberystwyth University - she now juggles her academic work with a variety of semi-skilled jobs.

This may sound dispiriting - but she takes a surprisingly optimistic view.

"I began to wonder if I wanted to be a full-time academic. But doing these sorts of jobs helped reawaken my desire for the academic world. They showed me that academia is the real world for me no matter what other people say and I'm determined eventually to be part of it."

Many, though, are not so willing to see the bright side. There's a fundamental illogicality in the way the Government wants to treat the education system. As with teachers, so with lecturers: it wants more and more work out of them while exerting ever tighter control over them. But it never, ever wants to improve pay and conditions beyond a piffling percentage. The RAE is a perfect example of that illogicality. Never mind that it has a demoralising effect on established lecturers - it demoralises many young PhD holders to such a point that they seriously consider the sense in ever taking up lecturing as a career.

Simon Francis lectures in politics at the Open University.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments