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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Education and ‘Value’

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Since, approximately, the beginning of time, politicians, journalists and, if Guardian comments threads are anything to go by, members of the public, have been debating the ‘value’ of Higher Education, and, indeed, education more generally. This debate has grown ever more intense as university fees have increased to £9,000 per year for the average undergraduate, and as more and more students enrol on both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Much of the discourse on education and its ‘value’ revolves around ‘employability’– universities are increasingly measured, in both league tables and the public eye – by how well they prepare students to enter the labour market, and how much more money graduates earn than those without degrees.

As graduate wages fail to vastly outstrip those of non-graduates and growing numbers of students graduate with ‘good’ (2:1 or above) degrees, politicians, journalists and social commentators speculate – in various ways – that the education system is failing its students. Implicit (and often explicit) in their arguments is the assumption that the rigour and worth of formal learning and academic qualifications declines as the numbers of people achieving qualifications rises. There are too many of us getting degrees and – just like the A grade at A’level – that means they’ve become worthless.

But, although it’s nice to get a cash return on your investment, as anybody who has studied for the love rather than for the money knows, education is not like a diamond or a precious metal. Its value doesn’t lie in its scarcity. Education is more like a child or a lover – it’s ‘value’, should you wish to discuss it in such crass terms (and you surely wouldn’t, if you knew anything about its value at all) is in the way it enriches your life, and the lives of those around you.

Undoubtedly, I agree that ‘education’ is about more than formal, institutionalised learning. Such formal learning, however, importantly offers the time, space, expertise and resources where a particular kind of intellectual creativity can occur, and where students can engage with (and with any hope come to challenge) the thinkers, thoughts and traditions that have created the foundations of the subject they love. The opportunity to engage in formal education is ‘valuable’ for all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways, and we should be thinking about how we can open, rather than reduce, access to it.

In my discipline – drama, theatre and performance studies – there are on-going discussions about how we might demonstrate the value of what we do. The urgency with which we feel we must justify our existence has no doubt been compounded by the Coalition’s denigration of arts subjects in compulsory education. In a desperate scramble to prove our worth in ‘their’ language we supplement our well-worn arguments about the intrinsic value of beauty, the social benefits of arts practices, the positive impact of theatre on the self-esteem of participants and audiences. We point out that arts graduates fair particularly well in terms of graduate ’employability’ due to the ‘transferable skills’ offered by arts degrees, and we remind ‘them’ that in economic-speak arts make up 0.4 percent of GDP, with just 0.1 percent of investment.

I feel profoundly uncomfortable about this.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of talking numbers when it comes to education – whether in the arts, humanities or STEM subjects. Yes, how much we spend on education has to be considered in terms of wider concerns around public funding. But those of us working in the sector need to resist defining its worth in numerical or monetary terms. Education is too important. It is more than dollar signs. It needn’t be a scare resource to offer something valuable.