The insecure scholar: My name badge is about to let me down again

Our new weekly online blog on the daily struggles, petty indignities and insecurities of an academic life on casual contracts

October 6, 2009

Conferences are fun but the chat about position and status can be so embarrassing, and it’s about to get even worse

I am about to pack for a major international conference in my field in one of the more attractive European cities. It’s a mouth-watering prospect: I’ll overdose on papers, present my own work, meet old friends, make new contacts and doubtless stay up too late and drink more than I should.

These days, though, there is a persistent feeling of anxiety that goes alongside the excitement as I contemplate a conference. When I was a PhD student, conferences were a source of unalloyed excitement. They formed a central part of the learning process. I knew my place. I was a PhD student and conversations with academics or other students took on a familiar form: “what’s your topic?”, “when’s your viva?” etc. Now, though, things aren’t as simple.

Yes, I’m fully qualified with a good track record of post-doctoral research and publication. But my position within academia since completing my doctorate has been unclear. For a number of years after completing my thesis I did not hold a university position, subsisting on freelance community research projects. In those years, I came to dread receiving an integral part of any conference – the name badge. I had no institution to put underneath my name. When I bumped into people I knew, they would frequently come out with something like: “so you’re now at... oh”, looking embarrassed at my lack of affiliation. I’d have to quickly summarise my complicated employment situation before apologetically explaining that I was still doing some academic writing in my field.

As the years went by, I started doing some (very) part-time teaching with The Open University. I would put the OU on my conference name badge. But conference conversations would stall as it became clear that I wasn’t actually a “real” academic member of staff but a tutor (the OU now calls them “associate lecturers”). As most academics know that there are hundreds of OU tutors, my name badge started to smack of desperation and hubris, with my longing to validate myself with some kind of tenuous university connection embarrassingly apparent.

Then, two years ago, I appeared to make a breakthrough when I became a fixed-term university researcher. I could finally put a “real” university on my name badge and claim to be a “proper” academic. Or so I thought. While I can wield my conference name badge with pride, the conference conversations are still tinged with awkwardness. When I talk about my post I have to admit to not being a lecturer (I am research only and do not teach) and since my fixed-term status precludes me from much academic admin, I am a peripheral member of the department and the university. When academics I meet at conferences want to gossip about people who are my ostensible colleagues, nine times out of ten I barely know them.

This is still a better situation than having no university position at all, but soon I may once again have no affiliation to put on my name badge. My contract runs out in a few months and it is unclear what will happen to me then. For most of my contract I have shoved this insecurity to the back of my mind, preferring to concentrate on my work. Increasingly, though, it has become clear that I can’t simply ignore my future and will have to grapple with what happens when my funding runs out.

This dawning realisation of the difficulties that lie ahead has been accompanied by a desire to hold on to the limited “privileges” that I have. Obviously, not being paid will be the worst aspect of my contract running out, but there are other things in life than money. I like working at a university, I like being an academic. Even if for the purposes of conference conversations my current situation is imperfect, it is far better than before, when I had no affiliation to speak of. I don’t kid myself that being an academic makes me highly respected in society as a whole, or even particularly by my peers, but I need a “home”, somewhere to identify with, some way of forestalling awkward conversations about “what do you do?”.

So now I will need to think about where I go from here, what my future holds. Times Higher Education has given me this blog to chronicle my progress in doing so. Hopefully I’ll be able to illuminate some of the difficulties that attend not just my own situation, but tenuously employed academics as a whole. In the meantime, if you’re an academic and you see someone with an ambiguous name badge at a conference – try not to ask too many questions.

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