A very ranty blog post

I realised the other day that I had forgotten something. I have been writing a book about someone deciding to leave a career in academia and I had forgotten the real reason why she would want to leave. I had forgotten the reason why I had decided that my career lies elsewhere and why I was not going to work on building a career at uni any more.

I forgot that the thing I can’t stand about university is that you can work your butt off and then get nowhere. I forgot the absolute devastation of working so hard for funding and then having no chance in the world of getting any because the person who gets funded has already got (somehow) an associate professor position or 100 papers and 300 citations and there’s no way you can compete. The agony of working for years to prove yourself as a researcher and teacher and then to get overlooked over and over again for a job because someone else has the shinier qualifications or has hit the jackpot in the funding lottery. The amazing way that you get absolutely no recognition for a job well done because no-one is watching and no-one cares or the people who are watching and do care have no say. And then, a once in a lifetime opportunity comes up,  there is a job going and you’ve done it, you’ve done that exact job in a make-shift capacity for the last two years and you’ve done it well, so you think that your hard work will finally pay off and that all the sacrifices that you and your family have made will be worth it because you’ll finally get job security, and then management doesn’t even glance in your direction, well, that’s why I gave up trying to make it in academe.

And I could be bitter but by the grace of God I’m not too bitter. I could be a lot worse. I had obviously forgotten the pain I went through in the three years I took making the decision to stop trying. I blamed Sydney and the boss there. I had forgotten just how hurt I was by Tassie and the people here. I have only remembered now, watching a friend go through the same pain. Watching her unable to hold back the tears at the rejection and the frustration and the utter futility of trying when the decks are stacked against you. Now I remember what I was feeling when I decided to quit trying.

My supervisor in Sydney told me that being a computational chemist is good because you can work on your holidays – you can work from anywhere that there is internet. What kind of boss expects you to work on your holidays? What kind of place expects that kind of dedication with no reward? What kind of place will happily uproot an entire family and send them overseas for a year and then not give any reward for the effort when they get back, but instead extend the lecturer’s probation for another eighteen months? And expect her to be grateful to have had the experience!

I remember having to tell myself that other jobs aren’t like this. That people can actually appreciate the work you do. That it is possible to work week days and take time off on weekends and to have holidays. This is what happens in other people’s lives. And I don’t have to live like being a professor is the only thing worth living for. Because I’ve seen the lifestyle, and while they are great people, it’s not the lifestyle I want.

Yes, everyone everywhere is being asked to work harder for less pay. I understand that. But it’s not about the pay, it’s about the fact that you get told that you will only get rolling three month contracts because if you want a longer one it will have to go through a vacancy management process and then you’re likely to lose your job because someone else will be shinier. And those with tenure expect you to be content that you know that the contract will roll over because you’re needed in the position. But you don’t know, all you know is that in three months time you may have no job and that your bosses don’t think you are worth enough to stand up against others for the same position. Even if you have taught that subject with barely any support, three semesters a year, for eight years. But you know that if the position goes to vacancy management you will no longer have a job. They will give it to someone that somehow, somehow looks better on paper.

It’s about the fact that you are susceptible to the anonymous biting nasty comments of the students on the survey forms because you know that the senior management will take them into account when deciding your fate. Even though they are not supposed to use them for anything to do with your performance. But they do. And the nasty comments, the nasty anonymous comments are enough to keep them holding you on three month contracts or casual work because otherwise ‘vacancy management’.

So I still work at the uni. Part time. And I like the research so I will probably keep working for as long as they want to pay me. And I love the teaching undergrad and postgrad though I am concerned that the students might think that university life is the way to go. I won’t pretend that academia is a good career path, and I will encourage my students to have a work-life balance, and I will remember that the university’s value of me is NOTHING like the value that I actually hold. And I will write and maybe one day I will write novels for a living and leave the ugly place behind.

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5 thoughts on “A very ranty blog post

  1. I’m so sorry. That’s hard. I’ve literally just left a meeting where I had to listen to management tell staff how hard part timers make timetabling and how next year’s staffing is up in the air because of it. And so I feel guilty but also resentful, because they obviously don’t realise how hard it is to be a mother and a part time teacher. But we are obviously just seen as an irritant. So, at this moment in particular, I understand where you are coming from.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your insights Ruth. It’s easy to see why universities were originally structured the way they are, and why we have to jump through ridiculous sets of hoops just for the hope of receiving funding, but these systems have become corrupted by career researchers motivated only by the desire to make themselves appear ‘shiner’. Being a career researcher now seems to be all about ‘playing the game’ and knowing the right people. Selfishly motivated individuals that only seek to further their careers have mostly ‘taken over’ research, taking funding away from those who actually fueled by a passion for science. Thankfully there are still some wonderful and passion people like you and ‘your friend’ who hang in there, making a real difference instead of pretending to do so. You’re the best!

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    • I think that one of the things that is wrong with the system is that we are actively encouraged to be ‘selfishly motivated individuals’ that only seek to further our careers. That is the university’s ideal researcher. If you just want to do a good job, that is not enough.
      There are so many people who have been hurt, not only emotionally but also financially, by the system. And there are many good people trying to make a real difference. (Probably the same people).
      Thanks so much for your encouragement! It makes it easier.

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