Senior academics warned that my university cared more about cheap labour than launching academic careers. It turns out they were right
As I reluctantly consider quitting academia after a year-long research fellowship, I find myself recalling a drug dealers line in the film Withnail and I: If youre hanging on to a rising balloon, youre presented with a difficult decision let go before its too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? His words describe my dilemma: do I hold on to my dream of a permanent university lectureship or abandon it as illusory and hazardous to my mental health?
Im not, of course, the first postdoc to feel this way. As I neared the end of my doctorate in 2013, I read an essay by Rebecca Schuman, which argued that getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor. Her article added to an expanding genre known as quit lit, which reflects the growing disillusionment of many academics with university culture.
Perusing job ads, it strikes me that lectureship vacancies are rare, in contrast to the plethora of positions for university bureaucrats. When permanent jobs come up, the ensuing feeding frenzy sees hundreds of applications from superbly qualified candidates. Ive got peer-reviewed publications and a book contract and so has everyone else.
When I was considering whether to study for a doctorate, I heard my chosen university disparaged as a PhD factory. At the time, I took this to be a sign of efficiency. Now I understand. PhDs are manufactured; they drop off the end of a conveyer belt, but no one cares what happens to graduates after that. All universities care about are the fees paid by students and the cheap labour they provide. This is the opposite of efficiency: no factory would mindlessly churn out goods that no one wants.
Even so, I began a PhD knowing that I stood a very small chance of securing a permanent academic job at the end of it. Why didnt I quit? Undoubtedly, self-delusion played a part. Most of the other postdocs Ive met share a similar faith in the ability of their star to ascend against the odds. A similar cognitive dissonance probably affects anyone trying to establish themselves in a ferociously competitive field.
Few actors, athletes or musicians enjoy the luxury of continuous employment. Its reasonable to assume that people who choose these occupations do so knowing that their decision entails a large element of uncertainty. In these professions just as in academia its no secret how slim the chances are of making it. Were aware that the world doesnt owe us a living in our dream job.
But theres one crucial difference. Permanent positions are not an embedded feature of the entertainment industry, but they are promoted rightly or wrongly as the ultimate goal within the academy. You succeed if you land a permanent contract, you have failed if you remain locked into an endless cycle of postdocs.
Moreover, film-makers, actors, writers and musicians do not require institutional support to work. Publishing work online has never been easier, but to function effectively as an academic, you need the sanction of a university. You cannot be an academic outside of the academy.
An often-repeated line is that postgraduate study doesnt have to be vocational; its worth pursuing for its own merits. While this may be true, its also disingenuous as it doesnt reflect the aspirations of doctoral students the overwhelming majority of PhD students Ive encountered desperately want a career in academia. They didnt saddle themselves with debt because they wanted intellectual stimulation. Given university marketing departments desperate trumpeting of the value of employability, its surprising that taught and research postgraduate degrees seem exempt from this consideration.
Ive had a year as an academic, for which Im grateful. Ive got a nameplate on my door (which I intend to take with me when I leave). Do I feel like a failure? No, I did everything I reasonably could to make myself employable. But I can see that the PhD production line is broken, and it wont be fixed any time soon.
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