For me the biggest impact of precarity is the effect it has on my capacity to plan my academic career. Unlike many others my age (late 30s), I don’t have a family to support, and am lucky to have some financial back-ups I could rely on in the event that I had to change career direction, or drop back to casual work for a while. But there’s still a loss of dignity in being almost 40 and not feeling like I know where my career is heading, as well as an impact on my capacity to be an effective academic. There’s time wasted on looking/applying for more secure positions, and on weighing up whether it’s worth putting in grant applications that might come through after my circumstances have changed (and therefore prove to be unnecessary). I’m currently stalling on making improvements to some of my courses, because it’s not 100% clear whether I’ll be teaching them next year – depends on what happens with my contract. I also end up spending time ferreting around for information about what’s happening with funding streams and faculty budgets in general, as a way to get insights into what the most likely options might be, and whether there’s a way I can position myself in order to ensure a good outcome. All of that adds up to a bunch of wasted time and energy, which I doubt would be taken into account in any economic assessment of the relative benefits of offering contract vs. secure employment options. I feel like the current shift towards casualisation significantly underestimates this kind of wastage – which must of course be much worse for those on shorter term contracts / casual roles. I’d love someone to do a test – set up two parallel programs, one with contract staff and one with ongoing – and see what the productivity outcomes of the two are after, say 5 or 10 years. Not even close, I suspect. Then translate that added productivity into outcomes like greater grant success, higher student satisfaction – and you’d see a bunch of improvements to things that universities currently claim to care about a great deal (and are spending big dollars on trying to improve). I realise there are significant budget pressures for universities, driven by poor government policy, but I still suspect there’s the capacity to shift the needle on this a fair bit – if only the real costs were fully accounted for.
Content Warning: Suicide
This is a narrative I wrote at a particularly low point in recent years. I am on a much more even keel now, but these words still feel true:
I loved you once. And though I wouldn’t admit it, I wanted your love too. Your recognition. Your respect. Some sense of my self worth bound up in your gaze, and to receive your praise was verification and success. Even though I always knew that really, it was bullshit. I knew that those who earned the badges of success didn’t always have integrity. I could always see that it was a game, and some people played it well – amassing brownie points through having the right connections and the right sales pitch, landing the big money, pumping out the papers.
I knew I was never a good game player. I had competing loves whose demands I thought more important. The emotional well-being of my small child, who thrived when her days at childcare were short, and didn’t cope when she was asked to remain in the company of strangers for 8 or 9 or 10 hours at a time. Witnessing how much better everyone was when I could switch off from work and the unachievable running list of tasks and the bottomless pit of emails. So I chose to work part time and stuck to reasonable hours. I didn’t attend the after hours networking events. I missed the meetings that were held on my days at home. I believed all that could wait. I still worked hard though. I taught my classes, I applied for grants, and did research, I published like mad and went to all the right conferences. I may have left the office early but I settled down to work once the kids were in bed. I pursued work I really believed in, the work I held close to my heart, taught the stuff I thought was important. And I still tried to be a loving and compassionate mother and lover and daughter and sister, to care for my community, nurture my friendships. I didn’t sleep much.
But you never saw any of that. And certainly you did not value it. Then I made a terrible mistake. Desperate for that permanent job you said you would give me, I went hard out trying to prove myself. I spent summer holidays sitting in the campground with my laptop writing grant applications when I should have been chilling with my family. I said yes to all the invitations to give public talks and attend symposiums and apply for grants. I pushed myself hard. Too hard. So hard that I flipped into a state of permanent anxiety and despair. No longer was I able to set aside that endless running list of tasks, and I let the emails follow me to playgroup and ballet classes… But at last it all paid off. I got that Big Grant, the one that is supposed to make a career, the one that would be followed by better conditions – a pause perhaps, and space to do the research, maybe even an employment contract that would make that possible. But no.
Thanks for the prestigious grant, you said, but we’re still not going to give you a job. Forget the contract extension, it’s down to casual work now. I thought perhaps I had done something wrong, perhaps I hadn’t done enough. But I couldn’t actually have done any more. I limped onwards, still trying. Coming back again and again the way an abused wife keeps returning to her abuser to be beaten again, convinced that this time the love would prove strong, and maybe it would all work out after all. I started contemplating suicide. The survivors of domestic violence eventually stop going back for more. At some point the accumulated violence becomes unacceptable, and no amount of remorse or new set of promises can erase it. That’s when you run, and when you’re at a safe distance you apply for divorce. I’d like to be a survivor.
I am writing now to let you know I am filing for divorce. I thought we had a future you and I. But I was wrong. You will keep asking for more and again more, and it will never be enough. I will become ill with stress, my body will bend to the cost of hours of anxious typing and not enough sleep and never relaxing and needing a bottle of wine a night just to get some relief. I look around me and I see my colleagues, stretched so far they are paper thin and their skin is permanently grey. This is no longer the place I loved. There is no more space for genuine scholarship. There is no longer a place for nurturing our passion for knowledge or our search for understanding, let alone a full humanity. This is no longer a place where we can, with heart, share what we learn and build a new generation of thoughtful and compassionate people. We all stay, and we all put up with inadequate pay and unrealistic expectations because we still see the glimmers of what used to make universities so worthwhile, and we still hope for it. But not me. It’s over. …oh. Hang on, what did you say? A fellowship? Oh. Well… maybe it will be different this time…
My career was suddenly and ruthlessly halted. Now, I rely on contacts for a little casual teaching. This has been one of the most traumatic events of my life — going from ‘tenure’ to precarity. The only upside is that I received a substantial payout due to the length of my career and the hard fought for Enterprise Agreement. This enables me to live (for now) but does not compensate for the loss of my livelihood and academic life/career. The impact of this precarity reach is beyond me. My postgrad students have suffered enormously. Several have simply withdrawn due to a lack of alternative supervision. I continue to supervise in a voluntary capacity. Colleagues have largely abandoned me with several notable exceptions. You certainly learn who your real friends are when you are precarious! My career was in full swing. At 60, I was disposed of regardless of how well I met the system’s ‘metrics’ and other measures of success. My redundancy was described as ‘not personal or professional’ but as a ‘change of direction for Uxxx’ (a GO8 university).
Content warning: Miscarriage
I was desperate for another child. I couldn’t wait until that illusive full time job. So we got pregnant. I was a sessional. So excited about the future despite the lack of stability. At 12 weeks, on a full teaching day, I noticed blood. Some anxiety rose. More blood. I continued to teach all day as I slowly became aware that I was losing my baby. By the final class I was in pain and bleeding heavily. I smiled. I lost my baby that night. I was working in the bed the following day. I told no one at work. I miscarried at work.
I’m often positioned in diversity roles. I have been leapfrogged over by white women with less quals, less experience & less skills who were aligned with white men & socialised with them in different ways to us black women & women of colour. They then became the boss in the area over us, including of the diversity & equity space. I see this in numerous areas. I was shocked the first time it happened to me. I’ve also seen alignment in the workplace along alcohol drinking between men & women. That is, this is the same social networks they congregate in at uni functions & this they share invites with each other to key events, sit together & represent together. Others this are not included in this circle of invitations. It’s really disappointing!
Stirring the Precarity Pot
I commit to continuing the conversation about academic precarity.
Upon finishing a PhD I immediately moved into casual teaching where I teach three subjects at a small university. I was initially offered my first teaching job only three weeks before the start of semester and had to prepare an entire course from scratch without being properly compensated for preparation work. I learnt that I basically lost money when teaching a subject for the first time – the number of hours that go into properly preparing a course are far beyond what I would ever get paid for. Re-running the course in the second year gets a bit easier. But after two years of doing this my research slowly slipped away. I never got around to publishing articles from my PhD as I simply did not have the time or energy to dedicate toward this. In order to pay the rent I also do tutoring, extra marking and thesis editing. Conferences are simply out of the question as there is no way I can afford the fees and associated travel costs (sometimes I volunteer at conferences and the conference fee is waived but this is only useful for conferences in Sydney). It is anyway hard to commit to a conference because I have no idea of where I will be working. What this means is that postdocs and ongoing positions become increasingly out of reach as time goes by. As my university is a predominantly teaching orientated university, I have little opportunity to engage with researchers in my field. At the end of every semester, I walk into my bosses’ office and ask about what is available for the next semester. In one of these awkward conversations I once caught a glimpse of a list of subjects (including the ones I teach) with potential lecturers next to them. I always hoped that maybe the university would offer me something more stable but it has now been made pretty clear that there are plenty of other casuals willing to do the work. They never even showed me the staffroom let alone a workspace so I don’t know why I expected so much. To be honest it is just depressing. I can barely pay my rent.
I love what I do and I think I am quite good at it. I publish with excellent journals and my PhD book will shortly be published by a top University Press. Despite this I’m finding academia harder and harder. I can’t stand the lack of ethics among the Level E cohort, and the way that fixed term junior postdocs hired for as long as they serve that professor’s immediate needs, and then turfed out like trash. Senior academics seem to forget what it is like to have a mortgage, kids or other responsibilities, so act as if it is no big deal when junior staff contracts end and there is no hope on the horizon. I find myself advocating every day for those worse off than me. The casuals, those whose contracts are up. But it isn’t easy when my situation is almost as precarious on short fixed term contracts. I hope it doesn’t come back to bite me, but I can’t turn a blind eye and I refuse to be complicit in the exploitation of my peers. Being a precarious academic has a gendered impact too. I have had a number of short-term contracts in a row now, so I qualify for maternity leave (and am of an age where I need to have kids soon if I am ever going to do this). But what am I meant to do? Get pregnant on week 1 of my next contract, then get only three months of maternity leave and no prospect for contract extension? It is the latter that is particularly scary, even if I could manage the financial loss. What chance would I have of getting another contract if I took even six months out? I know so many precarious junior female academics who are taking only six months of mat leave. Is this a financial decision, or is it because they don’t think their careers can survive a longer disruption? I suspect it is the latter for many of them. Finally, I’m used to precarity now and I’m not worrying about the end of my contract yet. But I just discovered that it is a huge source of stress for my partner. His job has been a bit unstable of late, and I realised that part of his stress about his job is that he knows he needs a good ongoing job because we can’t rely on me getting contract renewals forever. The money I earn is great for now…but how long will it last? So the strain reverberates across families, even if I personally think I’ve learned to manage the precarity quite well.
I have been working as a sessional tutor and lecturer for the last 5 years and the working conditions, the utter lack of benefits and employment security beyond the semester combined with being underpaid, but asked to do so much is disgusting opportunism by those universities I have worked for. It is a total abuse of the academic landscape by the university sector, knowing how desperate junior academics are to get a foot in the door. You are asked to do so much preparation to put lectures together, general administration etc., yet get paid for when you are physically there and no other benefits whatsoever, not even working space most of the time. I’m pretty sure universities realise the amount of work needed to coordinate courses and how inadequate the sessional pay contract and conditions are is in the face of that, but it suits their economic models to “casualise” the sector more and more, without seeing the psychological and financial outcomes for many of us that undertake such roles.
Furthermore, teaching takes so much of your time, well beyond being physically on campus that it is also impossible to take another job to supplement your pay. In fact, in most cases I never knew if I had employment for the following semester until the preceding break, which is a tremendous source of anxiety especially when undertaking your PhD at the same time. You just can’t plan ahead. Not knowing where your money for rent, bills etc. will come from is so stressful. There has been so many times where I was depressed and anxiety ridden thinking ahead of future bills that would arrive. It was even more heartbreaking when the university I had regularly worked for for 4 years couldn’t show the decency to communicate with me that there would no sessional role for me in the following semester. Not even the head of the politics department returned my calls when I wanted to inquire about any future employment. Silence was assumed to communicate I would have no future role. This was extremely unfortunate given my four years of regularly tutoring and coordinating units at the university. However, I was not surprised, as I know from experience that it is a very unfortunate climate for academia.
The most heartbreaking is knowing that now that I have finished my PhD there are very little positions available for someone like me at this stage. I will have to continue to do the sessional rounds for the next year or two, continue to build up my publications and hope I am then competitive enough to land a post-doc, which is only 2 years long anyway with no security beyond that either. Is it worth it? I guess that depends on each person’s situation. For me, it’s not, not the conditions for junior academics in Australia. I’ll look to take advantage of my networks overseas for positions. If that doesn’t happen then I’ll consider other areas to find work. It’s too hard and the burden on my mental health is too much of a trade-off to battle to stay in academia.
Precarity manifests as having to say no to colleagues and students, having to turn down invitations, having to say ‘sorry, I’m not sure where I’ll be’, having to say ‘if I have a job I can certainly do X but I can’t tell you yet’. And having to tell my partner ‘I’m not sure what my job will be, but I’ll find something and we’ll be ok’. Precarity manifests as saying goodbye to valued colleagues and good friends – I have watched so many talented early career academics walk out the door. Precarity manifests as anxiety, as depression, as anger and exhaustion. I do not manage precarity, precarity manages me. The past few months have been a real turning point. Previously I had expected that if I did all the right things, ticked all the boxes, there would be a secure job. So I got the grants, I published the articles, I went to the conferences, I supervised the students, I supported my colleagues, I built the networks. Precarity has been very productive. It wasn’t until a HR rep told me to my face that I was ‘not required’ beyond my contract that I realised it didn’t matter how good I was, it didn’t matter how much grant money I won, how many prestigious journals I published in, the institution would not commit to me because they didn’t need to. There would always be others lining up to fill a similar position; others who were likely more compliant, more grateful, less likely to raise a complaint. A friend reminded me recently that you don’t work FOR a university, you work AT a university. I had been profoundly mistaken in thinking that I worked for ‘my’ university, and that all the years of education, service and relationship building amounted to something. I work at a university, and likely only for another few months. Then I will work at another one.