Post-PhD Precarity: A Rant

As those of you who follow me on Twitter may know, I recently passed my viva voce examination with minor corrections.  I completed these corrections a couple of weeks ago and, all being well, I should be submitting the final revised version of my thesis this week.  Since reaching this milestone, I have been asked a series of similar questions by several (uncountable) people including ‘So what are you doing now?’ and ‘Any luck on the job front?’.  These questions are difficult to answer.

In terms of what I’m doing now, I explain that despite being “finished” with the thesis, I’m not really finished.  I’m keen to publish the material I’ve produced throughout my doctoral research and I’m busy working away on various different projects connected to this goal.  I’ve got a couple of articles on the go – one on childhood temporalities, earlier versions of which you can read here and here, and one on seascapes and immigration, partly inspired by an earlier post on immigration and death which you can read here.  I’m also working simultaneously on a postdoctoral research application and a book project that will develop one of the chapters of my thesis on performance in post-Franco Spanish cinema, which I’ve previously written about on this blog (see here).

I also have a job, which I’ve had throughout my time as a doctoral student.  It’s not connected to the world of academia (sometimes I think that’s a good thing) but it pays me relatively well for what it is and it allows me to use my days “off” as days to work on research.  The disheartening thing is that I have been doing this type of “unskilled” job for the last 15 years.  To have spent the time I have gaining three qualifications and to still be working in this type of employment is extremely demoralising.

With regard to the ‘Any luck on the job front?’ question, the short answer is no.  I’ve applied for a multitude of academic jobs since finishing the thesis, including post-docs, Teaching Fellowships and Lectureships.  I’ve been shortlisted once (but didn’t get the job).  I’ve had good feedback and I’ve been told that my CV and my academic profile are impressive for someone at my stage but that has yet to lead to any job offers.  Even more irritating is the fact that in the last two days, I’ve heard from two different sources that both a former colleague and a former student have been singing my praises about my strengths as a teacher and a researcher.  I’m not sure what else I can do.

The frustrating thing is that I have been offered hourly-paid teaching in two departments at my home institution.  But I have had to turn these offers down.  On a practical level, the time that teaching takes up is never adequately reflected in an hourly-paid contract.  At my institution, we are paid one or two hours for preparation (depending on the course) and one hour per class taught as well as time for marking assignments, if appropriate.  I’ve always had to spend more than one or two hours on preparation (especially for film when the films we’ve had to watch usually last this entire time!).  Not included is the time you spend replying to e-mails or meeting with students.  Furthermore, I now live some 30 miles away from campus.  Travelling into the city centre not only takes up valuable time that I could be spending on my research, but is also expensive, involving petrol, parking and/or bus fares.  To spend time and money travelling into the city centre for a full-time position would be different, but to do so for a handful of tutorials on an hourly-paid contract just is not worth it.  I love teaching and I would much rather by teaching than working the part-time job I currently have.  However, the reality is that teaching on hourly-paid contracts is just no longer a sustainable option for myself, neither in financial nor emotional terms.  Hourly-paid contracts, if there are to exist at all, need to prove sustainable for those undertaking them.

Writing this post might be a risky move, but I’m frustrated at the precarity of my academic situation and the lack of awareness with regard to the unjust practices at work within the institutional framework of the university.  I hope that in writing this I’m not just getting these thoughts off my chest, but also raising awareness about the challenges us post-PhDers face.

ADDENDUM: I should have noted above that I’m in the fortunate position to be able to turn work down.  Although I did not receive funding (other than having my fees paid) for the PhD, I have been fortunate to complete my research without amassing any debts.  This is because I have worked throughout my doctoral studies and because I have an amazing husband who has supported us both during our last seven years of living together.  There are many PhD graduates who simply cannot afford to turn work down and who would not, like myself, be able to refuse to undertake exploitative hourly-paid contracts.

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One thought on “Post-PhD Precarity: A Rant”

  1. Thanks for this, Fiona. Yes, they’re such awkward questions. I remember having a go at someone not yet ‘finished’ who in a group email congratulated those who managed to get ‘proper jobs’. I felt indignant at the implication that my Post-PhD minimum wage job for the Co-op didn’t count. I hated it, but it saved me, and is a job that needs to be done. Four years on, I’ve done well to now be on my fourth full time temporary teaching contract, but given the now hundreds (seriously) of positions I’ve applied for, it feels like I’m really only failing better in good old Beckett tradition.

    Your addendum is indicative of the guilt and need to justify our personal decisions academics often feel. We’re too quick to judge each other and it would be great if we felt no need to announce such disclaimers. In our situations, we may be aware of our levels of luck, but things are still tough and far from ideal, and we’ve had to make concessions to figure out how to live our lives while fostering our research. Managing every stage of this is exhausting.

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