How To… Survive in academia without permanency (a story from the humanities)

Casual and contract employment pervade the academy, as they do many parts of the contemporary labour force. In this week’s blog post, prolific blogger and tweeter and Research Fellow at Flinders University, Dr Evan Smith, gives us his tips about how to survive being a non-tenured historian.

Evan-SmithI have decided that the best way to write about being a non-tenured academic in Australia in the humanities/social sciences is to talk about surviving. But it is not about personal resilience in an attempt to overcome the problems of academia, but about recognising that working in academia on a casual, fixed-term or independent basis requires survival in the face of institutional pressures and pitfalls.

In the ten years since I acquired my PhD in the history discipline, I have had two fixed-term positions in academia, three stints in the public service (also fixed-term) and have been casually employed for a number of years. I love doing research and enjoy teaching, so that’s probably why I have stuck at it for so long. However, at the same time, the unpredictability of academia has produced implications beyond the realm of employment. I have experienced major bouts of anxiety. I am very lucky not to have experienced the same levels of mental health issues as some of my peers. But as I wrote on my blog, I recently had to quit everything for a two-month period for the benefit of my mental health, which I had never done before in my life. Overwork was the norm.

When I was first starting my postdoctoral fellowship back in 2013, I had recently come back to academia after two years in the wilderness of the public service. I wrote a blog reflecting on how to maintain a research profile while working in ‘alt-academia’. Although it contained some good advice about keeping your research active whilst not having a full-time academic job, I look back on it now and think that it was very optimistic. If you’re working a ‘9 to 5’ job, working on a casual basis or fixed-term on someone else’s project, you have to do research in your own time. Needless to say, this personal research goes unremunerated. And despite it probably being necessary to maintain your profile and to be ‘research active’, extra-curricular work can get old fast.

Recognising your own limits, as well as acknowledging the pressures of ‘publish or perish’ and the institutional perversity of academia is key to ‘surviving’ in the neoliberal higher education environment. If we mix up our Gramsci and our Althusser, we must recognise that we are in a ‘war of position’ inside the university structures – being within, yet trying to resist the ideological apparatuses of academia. I want to stress that survival is not about the individual and an idea of perseverance to keep going in the face of adversity. It is about us, the untenured, those in precarious employment on the fringes of academia, collectively trying to change academic culture. Some of the debates that have emerged out of the USS strike in the UK recently have been really heartening, as they seek to challenge the pressures of modern academia.

For those in the humanities (and some of the social sciences) who are in precarious employment, but also want to do research, I would still recommend making the most of the resources available to you. Try to get affiliation to a university, primarily so you can get access to the library (especially for online resources and hopefully document delivery). Make the most of the growing number of digitised resources; this is making a huge difference to historians who cannot afford to visit archives. Apply for some of the smaller grants that are offered. Most offer a few thousand dollars, which can be very helpful for doing primary research. Most also don’t require a university affiliation as a condition of the award, so independent researchers can apply. In Australia, the State Libraries of NSW and Victoria, the National Library, the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland, the Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide, and the Australian Academy of the Humanities all offer small-to-medium research funding, which can be invaluable.

Connect with others, either in person or via social media. Despite it regularly being a dumpster fire, Twitter has been immensely helpful in building my research networks all across the world. It has allowed me to discuss research projects, locate different resources, develop collaborative research opportunities and learn about new research (and helped me gain access to online resources not available to me through my own institution).

Working with others also helped me survive these years of precarity. While some academics dislike collaboration, some of my best research has been collaborative and also interdisciplinary. These collaborative projects helped me survive because you can share the workload, you can bounce ideas around and it can drive you towards a common goal. When I had to step back from research late last year, the fact that my co-authors and co-editors were able to step in helped me greatly.

And this brings me to my last point. Surviving in academia while in unstable employment means trying to push back against the pressures to always be working. The mantra of ‘publish or perish’ weighs like a nightmare upon the brain of the precarious academic. The ability to say ‘no’ needs to be learnt to help lift this burden. Stepping away is OK, but I also understand that it is really hard to extract yourself from a culture in which you have been immersed for many years. It’s hard not to internalise this culture and believe that your own tenaciousness is the factor between academic success and failure. I think it’s important to remind people: never blame the individual, blame the system.

Surviving academia means working together. As collaborators, as colleagues and yes, as comrades. Become a member of your union. Form academic networks. Reach out to fellow adjunct staff and PhD students. Join a Facebook group dedicated to your research interests. We only survive academia if we pitch in together.

Thanks to Ana Stevenson and Anastasia Dukova for their comments on earlier versions.

Dr Evan Smith is a Research Fellow in History in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University, South Australia. He has written widely on the history of national/border security, political extremism and ‘race’ in Britain, Australia and South Africa. He blogs at Hatful of History and tweets from @hatfulofhistory.


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