The insecure scholar: between a whinge and a smug place

Reasons to be cheerful without a proper job

November 17, 2009

A few weeks ago, someone on the comment thread suggested that these columns be re-titled “the whingeing scholar”. Well I have to admit that so far, I have used the space that Times Higher Education has given to me to discuss the more difficult aspects of my situation.

These columns have coincided with a particularly challenging period in my career with the end of my contract approaching and great uncertainty as to what comes next. But, mea culpa, sometimes the dividing line between incisive criticism of the uncertainties of temporary research contracts and tiresome whingeing about my own situation is less than clear. So let me state for the record: sometimes being an insecurely employed scholar on a temporary contract is just great.

That sentence perhaps sounded sarcastic but I’m being completely honest: sometimes I love the way my career has turned out. Here are some of the reasons why:

I have a huge amount of freedom to set my schedule as I like as I am hardly ever required to be at my university at fixed times. I do not have to commute and I get to see my kids when they come home from school;

I get to spend most of my time doing research. Research-only contracts may be a cul-de-sac in terms of advancing along the academic career path, but when all is said and done I get paid to do what I love;

I may be cut off from the status of a “proper” academic position, but I am also free from many of the worst aspects of academia. I have very little admin to do and I do not spend my time in endless departmental meetings. Although I do teach a little, I am not caught up in the endless and impossible task of reconciling teaching and research commitments;

I am also freed from the intense pressure to publish articles in obscure academic journals, rather than in publications that people actually read, by not being returned in the research assessment exercise – and presumably the research excellence framework when it happens;

I am a “free agent” – this being the flip side of my university having little commitment to my career development. So I can develop projects with whomever I want and pursue whatever leads interest me;

I have, above all, the freedom to dream. In not knowing where my career is going, in not being locked in to the treadmill of a permanent academic position, I can keep alive the possibility of a life in which the best is yet to come.

Let me be clear, though: I would drop all this freedom if an appropriate position came up. In any case, academic positions are in many respects much more flexible than most other jobs, so it is not that I would lose all of my liberty. Still, when I read through the THE each week I can’t help but note the intense managerialist pressures to which academics are subject to from all sides and there is nothing to suggest that things will get any better soon. So I do have some protection from the worst aspects of academic drudgery.

I am caught between two conflicting desires: I want to do interesting work in my field, publish widely, take part in public and academic debates, be part of a global community of scholars – these are all things that can be accomplished within an insecure career as well as a more secure one (albeit sometimes with difficulty).

I also want to provide for my family, have a decent pension, have some job security, contribute to an institution, have a reasonable job title and related perks – and these things can be had only in a secure academic post.

For the purposes of morale I try to focus on my first set of desires. I remind myself that I am fulfilling many of my ambitions and that I am contributing to scholarship.

The older I get though, the more this is not quite enough.

When I did not have a family, I could revel in an insecure career. As I advance further into middle age, I yearn for security. Sometimes this yearning gets on top of me and I resort to impotent whinging.

This is where I stand: between the whingeing scholar and the smug scholar – between a rock and a hard place.

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