Future Paths For Early-Career Academics

Or: Having A Meeting On Short Notice In Which I Have To Work Out My Future

Today I met with one of the senior staff in my Faculty to discuss what I want to do next year after I submit my PhD thesis. I uttered phrases such as “I think I’m more on the academic track” and “I’d like the security of a full-time position”, and assessed my weaknesses and made considered statements about whether I want to stay in Wollongong or go somewhere else. In short, I was An Adult talking to A More Experienced Adult about what my future might look like.

Problem is, I want everything. I want to have a secure, well-paid full-time position and have time to continue with my creative work. I want to be independent and I want the support of a faculty structure. I want to stay in Wollongong but I don’t want to be stuck here forever but I have a partner here but I might have a better chance of work elsewhere.

I find it very easy to think in binaries: practice vs. research, art vs. money, here vs. elsewhere. That’s the structuralist in me, finding patterns, slotting things into categories. No matter what I choose to do, I make the decision based on what that course of action makes possible, and what it excludes.

I am not very postmodern!

And, on a psychological level, I think I associate flexibility with fear. Flexibility means not having any ties, and not having any guarantees that things will stay the same. I prefer certainty. I prefer the things that can be fixed into a certain shape and then left as foundation for other things. The idea of Wittgenstein’s Ladder, which I can dismantle and reposition after I’ve climbed it, does not reassure me. It makes me panic.

Unfortunately for me, the state of academic employment in the humanities is highly uncertain. It’s a high-risk enterprise because the humanities does not offer good economic return, and so within universities humanities programs are usually at risk of being downsized, reshaped, reorganised, commercialised, or cut entirely (that’s just my theory, by the way, that university downsizing is economically motivated and that the structure of arts and humanities programs is directly related to their perceived economic value). There’s not a lot of money for staff. Or for resources. The humanities is not a good investment: we don’t develop patents or create start-ups or do anything that particularly benefits the university as a whole and in fact it’s really lucky, for us, that cultural production has any place at all within a capitalist market because in the scheme of things it just doesn’t have a very good cost:benefit ratio.

What I realised in my meeting today is that I’m really tired of being in a position of having no money and no security. Five years of undergrad plus an honours year on governmental student support (read: welfare). Nearly three years of postgrad research on a government scholarship (read: yes that’s your tax dollars too) that, based purely on the figures, keeps me just below the poverty line. A smattering of teaching under a pretty pathetic casual academic pay award, but not too much teaching because if I teach too much, I’m no longer eligible for my scholarship. As a result of only being able to work limited hours, I would never be offered anything but casual teaching, but that doesn’t matter because the university prefers to keep a massive pool of casual staff on call rather than fill full-time or even permanent part-time positions.

Of course I am also writing a thesis amongst all this. I try to think of that as my full-time job, as comparatively lousy as the salary may be. It is, in fact, the most stable situation I’ve been in in my entire adult life. And maybe that’s the root of all this anxiety. As much as I complain, I can live quite comfortably on my scholarship. I need the teaching, for experience and to get me out of my own head once in a while, but I could give it up and still survive. What comes next could well be another period where I can’t be secure and I’m suddenly terrified that I haven’t done enough to protect myself, as an academic and a potential employee in a real workforce.

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