The insecure scholar: Do the hustle

Efforts to climb several rungs of the career ladder at once

November 24, 2009

The “ivory tower” myth was part of what attracted me to the academy in the first place. The image of the don sucking on his pipe in a book-lined study within a medieval cloister as he contemplates his next great work; the refined conversation with other great minds over port in leather-upholstered chairs in front of a roaring fire; the brilliant young protégés (and protégées) eager to learn at the feet of the master: all this was deeply attractive to me.

My time as an undergraduate at the University of Oxford allowed me to see what I wanted to see in the don’s life. The myth pulled me into the academy, although I knew from the experiences of a close relative who lectured at a 1960s-built university that the reality was very different.

Now, pace last week’s column, I should probably state that I’ve experienced some pretty ivory towerish moments over the years: I work in a room crammed fit to bursting with books; I have time to think and write; I enjoy donnish conversations at conferences; the odd eager student does contact me for advice. Nor am I going to count the ways my life isn’t ivory towerish – almost any academic in these managerialist times, insecurely employed or otherwise, could do that as well as I could. What I do want to remark on is how far my insecure scholarly career depends on a practice that seems to be the very antithesis of tweedy, pipe-smoking donnishness: what I call “doing the hustle”.

Doing the hustle means more than just selling myself. The conventional way into an academic position – seeing a job advertised and applying for it – requires the candidate to present themselves in the best possible light to recruiters. But my hustling goes beyond applying for jobs. As I’ve explained in previous columns, my peculiar career history and needs make it difficult to find a job that would be suitable for me. In any case, I’m not prepared to sit around passively until the right post comes along: I’m a mid-career scholar with a family and I can’t afford to wait years (decades?). So doing the hustle means trying to make something happen for me out of nowhere, convincing the right people that I am worth a punt, building some interest in the only product I have on offer – me.

What doing the hustle means in practice is meeting academics with similar interests to my own and attempting to interest them in ideas for joint research projects. It also means trying to find a department willing to give me some kind of honorary or “zero-hours” position that would allow me to apply for grants.

This week has seen me go into hustling overdrive. I’ve fired off nearly a dozen emails to academics I know, some slightly and some quite well. I’ve sent them one-page outlines of research ideas, together with suggestions about who to approach for funding. I’ve met up for lunch with a couple of senior academics who might be in a position to offer me the post I need. I’ve presented myself as enthusiastic, creative and buzzing with ideas.

The word “hustle”, of course, implies that I’m trying to pull a fast one, which I’m not. I’m completely honest about my motivation and skills. At the same time, in selling myself I am also striving to tell people what it is they “really” need and trying to circumvent the conventional process of academic recruitment.

Hustling is about as far from the ivory tower myth as you can imagine. But in an environment that has fallen prey to the logic of the market, it’s inevitable that the market will also give rise to a kind of shadow economy in which – ahem – “entrepreneurs” try to play the system.

Doing the hustle is not what I imagined when I wandered and fantasised among the dreaming spires of Oxford. It can be frustrating and even humiliating, particularly when those I approach give me “thanks, but no thanks” responses. It can also be exciting: there’s always the possibility of pulling off the “big score” and climbing several rungs of the academic ladder at once. It’s this possibility that is keeping me going as I watch my contract rapidly run out.

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