Last Tuesday I fell into a hole.
Not one of the existential holes I’ve been finding myself in lately, wondering about career, work, family and whether my brain has reached peak information, but an actual physical hole. It was a steel-lined, steel-pinned, local government-owned, no-warning-sign hole, in the middle of the path, leading up to the train station where I was headed on my way to speak at the prefix for this event with Kate for CASA.
As part of a panel on career conversations, we were due to talk to PhD students about our academic careers, such as they are. We were going to talk about the state of the academic labour market and about researching and knowing your options within and beyond the academy. We were to talk about what ‘counts’ as far as having a successful career, about knowing if and when to give up or let go. About taking preventative or evasive action, and about valuing oneself as a professional.
But first I had to get out of this hole.
I climbed out. Thought ‘What is that wet and sticky feeling in my sandal?’ Looked down to see a spreading lake of blood at my feet, and my trousers looking like I had been stabbed in the leg. Which I had been, and by a steel spike.
Fast forward through scenes of faces including that of the owner of the café where I’d ordered a coffee while reading through work emails, and who now had blood all over his shiny white concrete steps; and that of my partner, whose taking-charge of the situation speaks of long experience with medical emergencies and getting to a hospital quick smart. Those too, of passers-by who were doing their very best to both ignore and avoid stepping in the pools and footprints of blood I had somehow managed to leave all over the pavement.
To the hospital now with a cleaned up but still gushing wound, and having been assessed by triage – Hello, my name is Angela. When did you last have a tetanus shot? – and sent to the registration counter.
Medicare number? Name? Date of birth? Address? Employer? Was this a work-related incident?
Raised eyebrows. Did you do this at work or on your way to or from work? Um, I was on my way to speak at a conference?
OK then. Your supervisor’s name? Um, my supervisor’s name?
*speaking slowly* The person who manages you? Er, she doesn’t have anything to do with this, she doesn’t know about this. She doesn’t know where I was or that I’m here.
We’re going to need these details especially if you need to put in a WorkCover claim.
At this, heart sinking.
How could I ever put in a workers compensation claim for this?
How to explain that I was going to a ‘work-related’ event but not at all related to that of my current employer or actual employment? Yes, this event was ‘work related’ in that it was something that would fit on (and count) on an academic CV under ‘Professional Service’, but not in the sections called ‘Employment history’ or ‘Positions held’. That this was part of my work but not part of my job.
Yes, I had been reading work emails at the cafe before I fell. And if things had gone according to plan, I would have been working some more on the two hour train trips: drafting the methods section of a paper I’m writing with a colleague, or reading any one of the four articles I drag with me everywhere in hopes of actually reading one all the way through. On one level, I was doing my academic work and maintaining my academic career. Doing All the Right Things.
And on another level, I was working for no pay and all risk, on the outside (just) of the terms and conditions of my current role as a casual research assistant.
Which one would count when it came to Work Cover?
Turns out I didn’t even need stitches. A complete diva of a cut, a whole lot of fuss and blood over absolutely nothing. But it could have been Something.
If I had sustained a serious injury and put in any sort of claim for this incident, I’ve no doubt it would be denied. Employed casually, I would not be eligible for workers compensation for the ‘management of an injury’ obtained outside the very blurry lines of my actual casual role at a university.
And there are so many things that we do as casual workers in higher education that fall on or outside the lines of our actual casual employment contracts: the marking of essays in a café (no space for casual academics!), the answering of emails at times when we should be eating or sleeping. Drafting journal articles while travelling to present at a conference that was paid for out of earnings as a casual tutor. Thinking, thinking all the time about the next class, the next paper, the next grant application. All to maintain those critical networks and connections to our disciplines and to our careers. So we can get that precious ongoing academic position.
Where we are right now, it’s not a case of climbing the ladder, it’s scrambling, reaching, straining just to touch it. Working to obtain the status to put a foot on the first rung. It’s bloody hard reaching for that ladder (and then when you get there, you find that the ladder is not on stable ground).
And so I have been asking myself this week a version of the question one of our fellow panel members asked the audience to think about: is it worth it? how much do you want to do this?
This career, where status is everything (and mine is ‘casual employee’ and therefore, ‘precarious’) and thinking about my family and household with its sole breadwinner (me), am I being irresponsible for continuing to work at this? Am I being not-smart (surely not – I have a PhD!), not-logical, not-rational, not-strategic in pursuing this? Putting myself in a position where even a small cut on a leg brings great stress and possible great loss? What does it mean for your work health and safety – physical, psychological, emotional – if you’re working-as-academic but what you’re actually doing is beyond the remit of what you’re paid to do or outside your employment contract?
And what happens if you fall into a hole?
The only answers I come up with are not comfortable ones. All this, amidst the very important discussion about precarious employment in higher education, when perhaps we should be talking about academia as precarious career.