Sunday, 2 March 2008

The Politics of the Academic Career.

New Kid on the Hallway recently posted about her frustrations at having to live so far from her parents due to her career. As I look for work in the world of academia, this is an issue that has being playing on my mind too. There is an expectation in academia that you will move to find work, which combined with an expectation that you will spend the next 5+ years post-PhD on temporary contracts means moving repeatedly for work. I think there are real political implications to the expectation that you will move around the country for your job.

From my experience most people receive their PhD in their late twenties and early thirties at an age where they have usually settled down with a partner and may be considering starting, or have already started, a family. Neither moving nor living apart from your family is a good choice for people in that situation. The academic spouse usually has a career that he or she wishes to pursue and, unlike for academics, by the time he or she is in their late-twenties, he or she has often established themselves in their careers. Expecting your spouse to follow you around the country, giving up permanent and exciting opportunities, for a TEMPORARY contract is unreasonable. This is not a story of moving and re-establishing yourself- this is a tale about moving for a short time and then moving again. This is also inherently problematic if you have children. Academia can be a demanding world and, while it often has fabulously flexible working hours, having wider family to babysit and for support can be really important. Furthermore, if your children are older, moving them from school to school, with each transition to a new group of friends, can be disruptive to their educations and socialisation. This is an issue that affects men and women, but it can be more pressing for women, who are still frequently the primary care-givers and are more limited in their choices about when to start a family. Waiting until you forty might be too late for a woman.

It is not even as if this situation is entirely driven by the job market. Post-doctoral fellowships (which are so important to the new PhD’s career) often require applicants to move to a new institution to benefit from the experience of working in a new environment, often only for a year. This might be fine if universities littered the country, but they don’t. Most are geographically spaced out, requiring people to move. Furthermore, some specialisms are not equally represented in all universities. There are only two Universities in the UK devoted to my specialism, although I could work in a larger department which houses a range of specialisms. Then, as a new researcher, you are expected to move to a department where you can be appropriately mentored by someone in your field, yet usually the best person for this job was you PhD supervisor, and, beyond this, it can become spurious arguing that x is the BEST person, when he or she is evidently not. As a historian, there is also the issue of sources. Often you selected an institution for your PhD that allowed you easy access to the sources for your field. Moving hundreds of miles away is just inconvenient and doesn’t aid new research. I appreciate the benefits that come from seeing how other institutions do things, but do they seriously outweigh the benefits of being in the right place and working with the right people?

As a Scot, I also think this raises important questions for the Scottish economy. Most PhD’s eventually move to England for work. Sometimes they come back, but most of them don’t. MSPs like to complain about the ‘brain drain’, but what are they doing to make it easier for us to stick around? For those of us who love living in Scotland, it isn’t the best feeling to know that you will inevitably find yourself south of the border. This is exasperated by the requirement to move to a new institution, when there are so many more choices and opportunities in England. This, of course, applies to many other graduates and skilled workers who have to move to England to find appropriate work or, in many cases, significantly better paid work. Yet, it is often worse in academia. In other fields, people move for permanent rather than temporary positions and most of the moving is done while they are still in their early twenties, before the desire and necessity to ‘settle down’ is as pressing. The PhD leaves university old, over qualified and destined never to be rich.

The upside is that academics get to do something they love; something that excites them; and sometimes they feel like they have made a real contribution to society. This is something that few jobs offer and it is why we will continue to put up with the inconveniences. But, it doesn’t mean I am not going to moan about them.


Sage said...

The number of years it can take to get tenure, and the insecurity around ever getting tenure at a university kept me teaching high-school even though I was strongly encouraged to do a PhD (did my Masters) because there are so few women in the field (philosophy).

My parents had to deal with this though - moving six kids from city to city until they each found a job in the same city, with two universities. My dad often commented that it was hard on the marriage. My brother's marriage dissolved when he ended up at the other end of the country from his wife and kid who refused to keep travelling with him.

In my parents' day, they really did get four months off every summer. Now, the PhDs I know without tenure, work all summer long, barely able to manage a week's vacation. Bletch.

I prefer to read on my own time, and blog nonacademic drivel instead of submitting to that kind of pressure.

Feminist Avatar said...

Welcome Sage!!

I don't blame you. I think if I had kids and a less sympathetic husband, I would be less likely to move around. My husband, who is a high school teacher, (and ambitious- he wants to move up the administrative ladder!) and I have an agreement that he will move for something permanent, but we aren't willing to chase every short-term contract, because his career relies on stability. I guess we figure these things out one step at a time.