I work at a university.
I have a PhD.
I do research. In my field, related to my field, things I am directly interested in, and things related to things I am interested in.
I write. Reviews, publications, notes. Journal papers, research reports, grant, award and ethics applications. Progress reports.
I read. I have days where I do nothing but read.
I travel. I have travelled around the country in the past few years.
I have an office, a computer, access to all resources I need to do my work, and to those I don’t need but are nice to have. Like a nameplate, business cards, and entries in the staff directory with my areas of expertise listed. I can order all the stationery.
I rarely have more than one meeting a week.
I do not have a formal workload allocation or work under a formal performance management program. I have no KPIs.
I have strong networks within and outside my field; effectively, a personal research-teaching nexus.
I work with some excellent people: smart, articulate, informed, engaged, hard-working, ambitious.
My workload is good. ‘Manageable’ might even apply.
I have time to think.
I may well have one of the best jobs in higher education.
I work at a university. I’ve taught and researched in universities for 10 years. I’ve had thirty-seven job numbers, filled out over two hundred time sheets. I’m often not counted in official figures, and when I am, it’s not as a full body but as a fraction.
I have a PhD. The work I do is not classified as ‘academic’, but as ‘professional’ or ‘general’. The PhD means I get about $5 an hour more.
I do research. I cannot talk publicly about most of the research I do because to talk publicly about the research is to own it. And I do not own the research I do.
I write. My name doesn’t always appear on the journal article. It never appears on the grant application. It can’t appear on the grant application.
I read. My reading is directed at understanding developments in what is now my sixth, maybe seventh, discipline. In my reading, I cross disciplinary and faculty borders; the scholarly equivalent of a long distance trucker, picking up projects and driving them, running with them; collecting so much useful/less, insider/outsider knowledge of academia, academics, disciplines, scholarly cultures, ways of thinking and talking and judging and being along the way.
I travel. Not to present at conferences but to support project teams. I set up seminar rooms. I hand out surveys. I talk to research participants about the weather.
I have an office; a computer; access to most resources needed to do my work. I haven’t handed out a single business card; no-one pays attention to the nameplate; and I can’t supervise anybody in my areas of expertise.
I rarely have more than one meeting a week. This is because I am not in a role that can Make Decisions. Also, I am not eligible to sit on any committees. (As a PhD student I was eligible to sit on All The Committees. And sit I did: academic senate, research & learning-teaching award and grant panels, the library committee, AUQA-now-TEQSA panels, grading committees. Etc.).
I do not have a formal workload allocation. I do not know what I will be working on from one week to the next. I sometimes do not know if I will be working one month to the next. My ‘performance review’ this year consisted of the statement “Let’s get as many things onto your CV as we can”.
I teach. When I want to, and no longer because I have to. I haven’t wanted to for a while. This is because when I was teaching, I couldn’t help thinking that I could do this work so much better, so much more effectively, if I had more support. I’m not just talking about professional development or access to the photocopier, although those things are useful. I’m talking about basics like sick leave so I didn’t feel as though I had to rock up to a tutorial wondering if today was going to be the day I threw up in front of a class. Or personal leave so I could attend a funeral. Or any kind of paid leave really, so full recovery and recuperation from lifework/worklife was possible without having to worry about Less or No Money For The Week.
After a decade of working in this place, I still don’t have paid leave. But there’s less guilt and angst around not doing quite right by students. I now have no contact with students; something I miss.
I have strong networks within and outside my field. This is because of the many projects I have worked on. It is also because I have Engaged, Participated, Listened, Nodded, Expressed Enthusiasm, Played Nice, Stayed Quiet, Never Said No. I Have Understood. I have ‘That’s interesting’-ed, ‘I can do that’-ed, ‘You could do this’-ed, and more daringly, ‘We could do this’-ed. I play very well with others, sometimes while screaming with frustration on the inside.
I work with some excellent people. People who care and worry, who look out for others, while slogging their guts out for what’s become a greedy institution.
My workload is good. My career prospects, trajectory and job security are not.
I have time to think. I think about the support received during the PhD; the intense and focused multi-team effort directed at squeezing us out of the system as PhD qualified researchers, with what I now realise was extra-ordinary attention and assistance, the likes of which we will never see again. All that care, and then as soon as you hand that thesis in…
Maybe I have too much time to think.
I have one of the most invisible jobs in higher education, and I’m not the only one.
Who are we?
Good one Karina!
Thank you and great to see you here!
So… what’s the punchline – that these are the same person?
“I play very well with others, sometimes while screaming with frustration on the inside.” Perhaps we should do less of this.
A welcome from me too, Andrew.
Karina, since reading your piece I’ve been thinking more widely about this issue of double lives within academia. It’s not just something that affects casuals—we’re all concealing details of workload and stress, and we’re not the only professionals doing it in this climate. But academic casuals are under greater pressure to conceal, because in so many places they are expected to mask their true work history, including from students. The idea of someone with 37 job numbers and still a really uncertain employment future is so at odds with the image of academic careers that universities themselves promote, both to potential PhDs and to the wider community.
Totally agree about the greater pressure on academic casuals to conceal both the realities of their working lives and the particular stresses that emerge from those. Turn up, Teach Well, Smile Wide is the go, and woe betide if you stray from that (see the post from our anonymous tutor from a few weeks ago). In the role I’m in now, I only have to do the first. It’s both a relief and sad – I do miss interacting with students – it’s part of the reason I signed up.
I haven’t thought so much about having a ‘double life’ – as you say, workload and stress are part and parcel of all jobs. For me, it’s more the rather funny situation that, in a way, I’ve got *exactly* what I signed up for when I did a PhD, as outlined in the first bit of the post. The devil really is in the detail though – scratch the surface and what you’re left with is the ideal academic job (for me) completely hollowed out by various forces of casualisation.
Hi Andrew and a really warm welcome to CASA,
It is indeed the same person – me. I’m a research assistant, employed on a casual/hourly basis.
I think I agree with you but want to check – which should we do less of – the playing nice or the screaming on the inside? I don’t think I can do less of the playing nice. I could do less of the screaming, I suppose – downgrade to very heavy sighing!
Seriously though, we’d love to hear from you and other readers working anywhere in higher ed about how you manage the everyday contradictions, and sometimes, sheer weirdness (putting it diplomatically) of your roles.
And on a more personal note, I’m really hoping I’m not the only one who fiercely lovehates her job and laughcries about it, sometimes at the same time.
Sorry, was a bit busy and missed your replies – thank you.
I suspect the “lived experience” of work is concealed across the board of work-types for a variety of reasons. But it takes on sinister aspects with precarious work. Some colleagues of mine are working on a book that tries to make lived work visible.
As for lovehatelaughcryscreamco-operation:screaming on the inside ain’t healthy! And often playing nicely only enables further exploitation. We can be parties to our own exploitation in a way that I think is rarely recognised by the union.
But this also reveals something about the “successful” researcher: there’s a certain amount of selfishness that is required.
Your story saddens and frustrates me, but unfortunately doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been researching the lived experience of women casual academics for a number of years and the fear of speaking up/out is a recurring theme in my research. Until we have formalised, transparent and equitable recruitment process, where casual academics have a clear role description and supervisor/manager, we will perpetuate a culture of fear of speaking. Until we have course coordinators who receive professional development on how to engage with and support casual academics we will always have fear of speaking up/out.
I have a large amount of data on informal, ad-hoc recruitment practices and poor support of casual academics by course coordinators untrained and supported in their role of working with casual academics, and identify the issue as institutional and not personal.
I am sorry that this story is your story and applaud you for speaking up.