The insecure scholar: The little perks make all the difference

A modicum of respect would do wonders for casual staff’s morale

October 13, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, I served as the external examiner for a PhD viva voce – only the third time I have done so. Happily, the candidate’s thesis was excellent and was passed without changes.

Acting as an external examiner is a real thrill for me. It’s a validation of my expertise and a chance to make a difference to someone’s life. I love working with students and since my post is non-teaching, this is a rare chance to do so.

I am ashamed to admit that the most satisfying part of the viva had nothing to do with the PhD, but with the lunch beforehand. The chair, the internal examiner and I shared a plate of sandwiches, crisps and fruit in the examination room while we discussed the thesis. It’s not that the food was particularly good – it was standard-issue university canteen catering – but I am so unused to even the smallest perks that being treated nicely was a bit of a novelty. Getting a free plate of sandwiches and a £150 honorarium is quite an event for me.

Although I am only a fixed-term researcher, I have no complaints about my salary. It’s not that great but it’s not an insult either, and in any case I didn’t expect to be well paid when I went down the academic route.

But it’s the lack of the little things that say I am valued that really bugs me: I share a workspace and don’t have an office to call my own; I don’t have access to the departmental conference fund; the university doesn’t print business cards for me; I wasn’t entered into the research assessment exercise. In short, the message I get from my university is that it wants to get away with giving me as little as possible, because as a fixed-term researcher I am not a “proper” member of staff.

Against this backdrop, I cling on to any little perk and sign of respect, so a plate of sandwiches is a big deal to me. It’s also a sign of just how low my expectations are.

Part of the frustration is that most universities do not seem to realise just how much of a difference the little things make. A few years ago, I worked on a project that required me to attend regular meetings at a major City law firm in London. The air-conditioned meeting rooms had free pens, pads, a selection of soft drinks and sweets, as well as the usual teas and coffees. There was someone whose job it was to deal with requests.

OK, I don’t expect a university to provide a plush environment, but I would imagine that these little things didn’t cost much: however, the benefits in terms of staff morale were enormous.

Academics on permanent contracts have precious few perks, but at least they have a measure of security and status. Fixed-termers like me don’t even have that, so I am inordinately impressed by even little gestures of kindness or generosity.

As a social scientist, I am supposed to retain a certain distance from the temptations of the material world if I am to produce incisive work, yet here I am, distracted by the smallest treats. Maybe I’m superficial, but I want a working environment that makes me feel comfortable, that takes care of the little things so I can think about the big things.

I can cope with a fixed-term contract, but I want business cards, I want a conference fund, I want free stationery, I want an office to myself, and above all I want some respect. I know I could probably get these things if I fought for them, it’s just that to do so would be pretty humiliating.

I can put up with insecurity, but I can’t put up with feeling like an irrelevance, pathetically grateful for the smallest crumbs from the permanent faculty’s table.

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