I still haven’t given up on the dream of a ‘proper’ academic job. I may yet get to a time and space where that dream just seems unattainable but for now I’m still hanging in and at the moment that means continuing to apply for those ‘proper’ academic jobs while I keep up with contract research work. For me applying for academic jobs often brings to light issues I’ve been happy to put up with or let ride simply because I’ve enjoyed the flexibility that being on contract brings – the ability to dip in and out while I had my children, for example. Sometimes though, what I’ve compromised in my trade for flexibility begins to feel unfair and it is hard to simmer down.
In my current position as research assistant I cannot access the development services, career guidance, grant writing workshops etc. available to academics. I have been denied academic library borrowing rights even though it is my job to perform research. I’ve written and contributed to journal articles for my academic unit and the university counts my papers in its metrics. I however, cannot be counted in same metrics as a member of the unit for which I work because according to the rules I am not a member of academic staff. Ironically, I discovered I could get access to all of these things as an unpaid honorary fellow. And, as (unpaid) honorary fellow, I could also be counted as a full member of my academic unit. I have required this honorary status to legitimately access academic services.
At my Australian university the distinction between academics and general staff, or professional staff as we are most recently rebranded, cross cuts issues associated with the casualization of university labour. Staff are categorized and assigned as academic or non-academic such that people in academic positions (contract or ongoing) are the only staff understood to be carrying out academic work. The reality of my work history, and no doubt many others however, reflects something more hybrid. In the last 10 years I’ve had academic appointments as postdoctoral researcher and professional staff appointments as research assistant. I’ve done 2 years of casual teaching as well as 3 six month teaching appointments. I’ve been happy to take on these kinds of bits and pieces because they have also provided the flexibility which my appointed colleagues do not have and the reality of also being fixed geographically means that I simply do not have opportunities to apply for work elsewhere. In the very supportive research unit in which I work, contributions – rather than categories – have tended to matter more.
The stark reality of the academic/professional distinction however was brought home to me (again) last week as I applied for another job. Writing the most recent application, and following my mentor’s advice, I asked a few colleagues to read my CV. I’ve been working continuously since my second baby and I had thought, that all things considered it looked OK. I knew incumbency was a problem and I’d worked to explain that in the context of child rearing. I knew publications might be an issue and I’d been working on writing for quality high ranking journals. Instead, I discovered a new problem I didn’t know I had: holes. “Your CV’s pretty patchy, you’ll need to plug those holes.”
That my CV was pieced together seemed fair enough. What I hadn’t fully comprehended was that the patchiness wasn’t just about lots of different kinds of work – it was specifically about the periods I had worked as professional staff. RA work was the holes I needed to plug.
Research assistants are a growing phenomena in my faculty. A bank of recent ARC success has meant that Professors with RAs outnumber those without. Some of this work has been by appointment, where clearly related projects have followed in quick succession. Other positions have been filled through interview in a competitive process. Some RA work is casual, paid on an hourly rate. Contracts range from 6 months (more common) to 5 years (very uncommon). RA work is no longer, if it ever was, literature searching and an extra pair of hands for field work. It ranges from administrative and technical work to project reporting.
Many RAs have PhDs or are PhD students and quite a few of them have ended up either writing or contributing to written publications from the projects they are assisting. The extent to which RAs do this varies but there are clearly academic benefits to those who write as RA, even if they are not remunerated as academics. In my own case I had thought of RA work as bridging the different bits of academic work as it became available. In calling for a bit of CV spakfilla however, my experienced colleagues clearly knew things were perceived differently. Was RA work undermining rather than bridging together my hoped for academic career?
How do casuals and contract staff negotiate this conundrum? Apart from not having access to the career development service that might have pointed this stuff out, would I have been better not to take on RA work when there was nothing else available? If so, how to maintain publication output for that ‘proper’ academic job when an opportunity does come up? And what of the distinction between academic and professional work? Many academics I know bemoan the administrative work they do as unrecognized and undervalued. In the same vein, is there also academic work done by professional and casual staff not recognized as such? Is there a better way to organize ourselves and value a more hybrid research economy?
These distinctions should matter to all of us: overworked tenured staff, professional staff looking for work beyond each ARC round and graduating students alike.