THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

August 4, 2011

Life as a postgraduate is tough. For those who overcome the initial funding difficulties, there are still numerous challenges as they juggle low-paid teaching and other part-time work with all the other things considered essential to building an academic career.

This "strangely skewed economy of the academy" is analysed in a blog post by Melonie Fullick, a doctoral student at York University, Toronto, who focuses on the prohibitive expense of attending academic conferences.

"Conferences can be a great academic opportunity and are presented to graduate students as such," she writes. "You can meet others and share ideas, as well as giving and receiving feedback and discovering new possibilities for collaboration.

"But...conferences are also expensive. Attendees must pay for travel, accommodation and the ubiquitous registration fees."

This cost barrier is part of a wider issue, Ms Fullick believes.

"For many graduate students, it's an expense that is beyond their limited budgets. Yet there is little hope of finding an academic job without attending and presenting at conferences during the course of the PhD.

"Grad students aren't paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It's all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers...What this means is that in graduate school we get used to working for nothing."

She quotes a tweet from another PhD candidate in a similar position, Ernesto Priego (@ernestopriego), who says this system perpetuates privilege because only "those who have afforded to work for free will get jobs. The vicious circle is maddening."

The result, Ms Fullick argues, is that "in spite of increasing accessibility in terms of enrolments, graduate education still tends to be stratified by socioeconomic class".

This is further entrenched by the changing nature of the academic profession in the US. "The assumed, eventual 'payoff' is now less available than ever," Ms Fullick writes.

"The 'academic economy' I described may have made more sense in the now-distant past when tenure-track jobs were more readily available, and when publishing was something you could leave until after graduation. But permanent-track professors actually don't really do these things for 'free'. They earn a stable salary and they receive institutional support for research-related activities, which are considered part of the job."

She concludes by saying that her point "is not that we should do nothing for free, or that we should all leave the academic profession for higher-paying jobs in other areas".

Rather, "what I want to emphasise is that many graduate students have little sense of the worth of their contributions...Because academe presents itself as a meritocracy, often those who 'fail' tend to blame themselves for it. But 'pure' meritocracy is a myth. This is why knowing your own value means understanding not just what you have to offer in multiple contexts, but also that you have real choices, that there are fruitful possibilities, and that given the kinds of sacrifices involved, 'traditional' academic work may not be the best among them."

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