The insecure scholar: Breathing space at last

Landing work provides a little relief, but the long-term future is as unsettled as ever

March 9, 2010

Discussing my situation in the previous couple of columns, I considered some of the broader issues in the academy. The last column seems to have stirred up some debate. I probably came across as quite angry in my denunciation of the 1960s and 1970s generation of academics who allowed the university system to be colonised by the forces of managerialism. It’s true that these columns provide a cathartic outlet for my frustrations, but I have not just been spending my time brooding on the inequities of academic life. In the past few weeks, my hustling has been more intense than ever – and finally, things seem to be paying off.

A few weeks ago I heard about a small family trust that funds work in my area. I went to meet the trustees, and they encouraged me to make a bid for a research grant. As a family trust, they don’t have reams of bureaucracy: the application was quick and easy, and the response came in a few days. I was successful, and I now have a modest amount of funding for a project that will take nearly a year to complete. Although the stipend works out as about half the amount of my previous grant, the money reduces the financial pressure on my family and me. The grant doesn’t come with full economic costs, but it is being channelled through my university, which is good for my reputation.

A few days after hearing from the trust, I was invited to bid for some consultancy work for a small charity. The amount on offer did not cover the work that was involved, but I was able to bargain for a fairer deal. Now, for three or four months, I will have another source of funding that will take my total income to something almost respectable.

So I can breathe again for the time being.

Still, although my affairs have taken a positive turn, nothing has really changed. All the issues and problems that I have discussed before – and in fairness, the positive things, too – remain the same as they ever were. I am still an insecure scholar with no permanent position. I cannot immerse myself in the research and consultancy work that I have succeeded in getting because I have to think about where the next grant is coming from. I am already worrying about how I will find the time to work on the large research council funding application that I really need to do, to say nothing about the inconvenient timing that will leave me juggling the consultancy and the research. And on top of all of this, there is the constant churn of occasional teaching, paid and unpaid writing and the myriad unrecompensed activities that academics need to do to maintain their status.

This is my life for now, and it may remain so indefinitely. It is a life of constant stimulation and excitement that comes from never knowing what possibilities may open up tomorrow. It is also a life of financial worry, ill health, insecurity and ambiguity. I will keep fighting and will keep focusing on The Work – the thing that makes everything (almost) worthwhile.

Perhaps there is a point in most careers when working life seems like an endless process of repetition. I am reminded of a T-shirt I once saw: “Cheer up, Britney: try working in a fucking call centre.” At least the repetitive woes of my career are balanced out by the chance to produce something that is uniquely my own. That’s much better than working in a fucking call centre.

This is the penultimate “Insecure Scholar” column. Because nothing has really changed and to continue would only be to repeat myself, it seems an appropriate time to stop. Next week’s final column will be published in the print edition of Times Higher Education (out Thursday 18 March) as well as online, and I will take the opportunity to reflect on what I have learned in writing it, as well as what I believe is the wider relevance of my situation.

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