Ten things about working in academia that no one told me and I wish someone had

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Academia. What a weird job. At least in the humanities. There you are, reading dense, impenetrable books and thinking very very hard about a subject so specific others will wrinkle their brow, raise their eyebrows and go ‘Plays about council estates? You can get a PhD in that?’, when all of a sudden you realise you are building a career and you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. Weirdest of all, there’s almost no training, yet, nonetheless, the moment you start your first job everyone presumes you are already familiar with basic aspects of the academic system that nobody bothered to tell you about.

Here are ten things I had to work out for myself, which I pass on in the hope that they might help you (please note this is a UK arts/humanities context and the below points may not apply to STEM, or to all international contexts, so take them with a pinch of salt):

  • You have to pay to attend conferences, even when you are giving a paper

This is the first thing that really surprised me about academia. I seriously struggled to accept the premise that I would give my labour to realise someone else’s event and pay for the privilege. No thank you, I thought. My paper can stay in my head and I will save £250 and the price of a train ticket to Lincoln. But then I attended and organised some conferences and understood that they are expensive to run, funding is scarce and the price of a conference fee usually just about covers running costs. (Having said that, conference organisers: please, I paid to be here. Give me lunch, and a pen).

The exception is if you are an invited speaker, or the keynote. Then you can usually expect some form of remuneration – at least a fee waiver and the cost of travel. If they invite you and can’t be arsed to pay for you to be there, they don’t really want you. As I learned recently when I paid to attend a conference at which I was an invited panel speaker (I agreed, against my better judgement, because otherwise every invited speaker would have been a (white) man), and the organisers left it to me to buy drinks for everyone in the pub afterwards. If the organisers of that conference are reading this, I will not be contributing to your special issue, please stop sending me emails.

  • You call the shots

You do not have to wait for someone (a supervisor, your line manager) to give you permission to write a journal article or present at a conference (if you are part of a large project or research team or discipline where your supervisor is default co-author ignore this advice and ask whoever is in charge before you use shared data). You can just do it as soon as you think you are ready. Do it before you’re ready, no one will mind.

  • People don’t remember bad conference papers (unless they are given by the keynote)

Honestly, I promise, if your paper is boring or poorly written, riddled with errors or unconvincingly argued, 90% of the audience, at the very minimum, will switch off and doodle on their conference programme, or check to see how long it is until the free wine is served. The exception to this is if you are offensive towards a minority group, or if you are a famous scholar. People remember and engage with good papers. It will not ruin your career if you give a presentation that is forgettable. What I am saying is, speak at the conference. Now is the time (once you have some findings and some ideas about them, or one of the two).

  • There are ways to earn money from academic writing

Not a lot of money, but a bit. Despite what people will tell you, some unknown scholars get advances for their first academic book, so you should at least ask if an advance is a possibility. I would advise not agreeing to publish with any publishing house that expects you to pay for the privilege.

ALSO: As soon as you publish anything sign up with the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS, click here), who will collect money for secondary rights due for your work and pay you any funds collected twice annually (you’ll likely receive more than you expect). Do this for everything you publish, however niche, in a book, journal or magazine. If and when you publish a book register with the British Library’s Public Lending Rights service (click here), who will pay you when your book is borrowed from public libraries.

But…

  • Protect your copyright

I am so cross that I have happily signed copyright over to academic publishers when I didn’t need to. I find it unbelievable that I had to work out for myself that I didn’t always need to, and that none of my colleagues have ever thought to mention to me that this is often optional. If you are presented with an agreement where you are asked to assign copyright to the publisher, you should write to whoever sent you the agreement and ask instead to publish with a licence to publish agreement. You are not being difficult. This is an option that many academic publishers offer, but most of them won’t tell you about (although some will charge for). Check the publisher website before you submit and choose only to publish, where you can, with those who let you keep the rights to your work for free.

Join the Society of Authors and actively campaign for better conditions for academic writers.

  • No one cares if you aren’t an amazing teacher

Except you and your students, obviously.

It takes lots of us a while to find our teaching stride. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t come naturally, if you get mediocre (or even bad) evaluations or if students seem hostile or indifferent to your charms. Teaching is hard, we all know this. Students can be unreasonable and teaching evaluations are heavily biased. You aren’t going to lose your job because you gave a boring lecture. I swear.

  • Feedback is a gift

It won’t always feel that way. Often, even the most benign of criticisms about our scholarship will feel deeply wounding. Even praise will sometimes feel deeply wounding (this evening I have had to text four friends to cope with an email I received from a colleague calling my latest chapter ‘very interesting’). Peer reviewers can be snarky and pompous and deliberately cruel. But feedback is a gift. Those offering thoughts on your work are doing so because they want you to make it the best it can be. Feedback is a gift. Feedback is a gift. Receive it with grace.

  • No one cares if you skip a meeting

It took me a long time, having worked in ‘industry’ (scare quotes because I hate that word, but it is nearly midnight and I can’t think of another), to wrap my head around the fact that you can just give apologies, not attend a meeting and no one will care. I think this is an unspoken secret, because I’ve never heard anyone actually say it out loud. But almost always, at any academic meeting, half to one-third of the invited participants won’t be there, because they have other things to do. And that’s fine.

  • Everything takes, on average, three times as long as you think it will

This applies both to things you do yourself (organising events, writing articles and books, preparing teaching, marking etc.) and to things you are waiting for others to do (such as peer review, reply to an email, send you the article they promised for your edited collection, answer the phone). The latter is infintely more maddening.

  • You can ask what the acronym means

Universities are riddled with acronyms. Some of these (REF, TEF, HEFCE) etc. are national, some (SCUDD, ACLA, RGS) discipline specific, some are institution or even department specific. You will spend a lot of your working life sitting in the meetings you do attend, struggling to understand what everyone is on about and surreptitiously googling acronyms under the table. Save yourself the bother, ask.

 

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But, Andrew Adonis, I don’t want to work hard

Over on Twitter, if you move in academic circles, you’ll almost certainly have seen a whole load of controversy over some tweets that Andrew Adonis (the former Labour politician) sent out about the state of Higher Education. To summarise: He is upset that academics have ‘three months off’ over the summer. He thinks there should be two-year degrees. The University of Oxford rocks.

Most of the replies to Adonis’ tweets pointed out that the ‘three months off’ thing is a fallacy — that during the summer months academics are writing books, applying for grants, undertaking research, assessing, reading, preparing modules, attending and organising conferences, catching up on admin that used to be undertaken by support staff, dealing with admissions and so on. Many pointed out that parliament too breaks for a long summer vacation and that moaning about academics’ June-September workload fell into either the pot-kettle-black or the people-in-glass-houses arena of hypocrisy. The two-year-degree argument was rehashed again.

Yes, it was all quite predictable and dull in many ways, but I found myself riled up by it nonetheless. I take issue with Adonis’ tweets not so much because of their inaccuracy (yes, they are inaccurate, but also, yes, things do slow down in the summer for many of those academics fortunate enough to be employed on decent permanent contracts), but because of the ideology that underpins them: the ideology of ‘hard work’ as a virtue, of ‘productivity’ as necessarily positive.

Here is the tweet that got right on my wick:

 

I don’t want to live and work in a world where the only important thing is how much you ‘do’; where you are measured by how much you ‘produce’. Nothing is improved in either material or spiritual or creative (or even economic) terms by blind ‘productivity’. You cannot advance knowledge (the cornerstone, surely, of an academic career) by just churning out more and more and more stuff because Andrew Adonis thinks that the point of any job is to do as much as possible, regardless of what actually needs to be done. You do not create a fulfilling, balanced and enjoyable life — let alone society — by working obsessively to the detriment of your family life, social life, and mental and physical health. It is so obvious that I am surprised in even needs saying.

We are in the grip of many social crises, including, most acutely for those of us who work in HE, a mental health crisis in young people that shows absolutely no signs of abating. The wider social and political climate increasingly places pressure on the population to dance to the tune of neoliberalism, where the only possible measure of a country’s (or indeed a person’s) success is economic. This economic imperative is expressed in moral terms, so that whizzing through a degree in two years, writing four books in decade, or teaching back-to-back classes from September to September with no break appears as if it is an elevated moral choice, rather than a deeply unhealthy drive to appease the masters of the infrastructure under which we all operate. It is no wonder our students are crumbling emotionally when they can only see their own value in the numbers assigned to them — another result of a social and political culture where success is defined in limited and ideological terms and used as a tool by which to understand our self-worth. If we are deducting marks from primary school students SATs because they drew a comma the wrong shape, then we can hardly be surprised when, aged 18, they are preoccupied with achievement and riddled with anxiety and feelings of self-loathing.

I don’t want to work hard in the summer. I want to write slowly and read interesting books. I want to walk my dog and visit my elderly grandmother and volunteer in my community. I want to spend whole afternoons sitting in a chair and thinking about the colour of the sky. I want to have long lunches with my colleagues and hear about their research, and their cats and their children. I want to have time to conceptualise new projects, work on creative pursuits and give real head space to the thesis I have to examine. I want to go to Portugal for my cousin’s wedding and not have to take my laptop. I want to visit friends in London and laugh until my stomach muscles hurt. I want to gather interesting examples of creative and cultural practices to use in my module on street performance next semester.

What would be better, in the world or the country or even in my department, if I went into work every day and taught students so they could finish their degrees slightly quicker (and enter a volatile and uncertain job market at 20 instead of 21)? Why does Andrew Adonis want me to work 60 or 70 or 80 hour weeks all year-long, just for the sake of ‘hard work’? What is the point of my writing another four articles that a maximum of 200 people will read and fewer still will remember, unless they add something of real value to my discipline?

In her book All About Love: New Visions bell hooks reminds us that all social justice movements have had a love ethic at their core. More and more I see the refusal to work hard as a way to choose love: love for ourselves and time to give love to others; a turning away from competition that opens us up to love for our colleagues and our disciplinary communities. Refusing to work hard does not mean we stop working, but it means we cultivate a love for our work that allows us to treat it gently and cautiously, with respect.