or: precarity and a dream for academia
My boyfriend is an accountant and it’s almost April, which means he is overwhelmed and always working. He also recently switched jobs and moved from London to Edinburgh, which has been more than a little disorienting. I am a PhD student trying to enter a field of uncertain future – or so it feels more and more by the day, as academic strikes ripple through UK universities for the third time this academic year.
One of my supervisors told me early last year, in response to my confession that I had no idea what I was doing, that a PhD necessarily requires you to become completely intellectually unmoored, so that you can actually find something out and not just regurgitate something you think you already know. Unmoored I have become – in more ways than one. I don’t need to tell anyone doing who’s done a PhD how lonely it can be, sitting at a desk, with only your own thoughts for company, trying to turn those thoughts into ideas into arguments into a thesis into a degree into a career. Throw covid in and you’ve effectively turned the PhD into a period of solitary confinement (I am now in my second year and have yet to meet a single member of my cohort in person).
As a result of all this, our relationship has been imbued with a feeling of everything sort of falling away, where neither of us know where we’re going next or how we’re getting through the next few months. The other day I told him, ‘even if our lives feels unsure, we can at least be sure of each other’. I kept thinking of this image from Spirited Away, where two of the main characters are falling through the air holding hands.
Being in this situation while at the same time watching daily testimonies of precarity in academia float across my twitter feed has me thinking about what it means to have someone’s back, especially professionally. While during the strikes there has been a great show of solidarity, and I am often impressed by the lengths people in academia will go to help one another – sharing access to articles, lending a second pair of eyes to a piece of writing, offering advice or resources for applications – I am most often inundated with the kind of competitive, ladder-climbing success-signaling that we’ve somehow convinced ourselves is necessary to make a career in this industry that’s, as far as I can tell, deliberately trying to drive us out of it. (That or a constant flow of negativity, which is still somehow not immune to one-up-manship? Complaining about how much one is working comes to mind…) One of my best friends, who also happens to be fairly good at twitter, has recently given up the whole thing because, in her words, everyone on twitter is so ‘pick me’.
Obviously twitter as a medium kind of exists to shout your own praises, or platform your thoughts as worth reading, and I think people should celebrate their own success, but there is a point at which it feels like we aren’t engaging with one another as much as we are Building a Brand or Making a Name for Ourselves. I am not above this; I stay on twitter because I have seen how being someone people recognize on twitter is good for your career. I once went to a zoom lecture given by a twitter cool girl and there were at least fifty people there, which feels unheard of. Conferences organized by the in-crowd get more, better submissions. Tale as old as time. The fact remains that I think most of the time twitter facilitates researchers talking past one another instead of to one another, especially amongst PhD students and ECRs, forced to see one another’s accomplishments as another yardstick by which to measure oneself. I can name a number of down-to-earth and generous academics who seem to defy this tendency of social media, but as I list them off on my head, they are all employed or well-established, further removed from the academic collosseum that is ‘finding a job’.
Twitter is not real life, as I tell myself daily, but this competitive spirit exists in the offline academy too. A friend of mine told me that during our MA he asked another student on our course if she could read over his PhD application; she said yes but only because his specialism was different to hers, so she wouldn’t be putting herself at a disadvantage by helping him. A first-year PhD student I met last week thanked me for taking her and her work seriously even though she was unfunded; ‘most people I meet who have funding look down on me’. Who is doing this! Anyone with funding should know better than most how close they came to not having funding – the fact that I can (just about) support myself doing my research is because I had the right topic in the right place at the right time, and I know that because I applied to 11 universities and received fully-funded offers from two – one in the UK, one in America.
I’m kind of echoing some themes I touched on in my last post; a hypercompetitive job market makes us see one another as enemies. We are forced to push against one another for limited resources. I once went out for a scholarship where after interviews all the candidates were made to sit in a room together until the interviewers came in and told us all together who had won. (Those of us who didn’t all went and got drunk in my hotel room, but I still think about the pair who won, how if they’d joined us we could have celebrated them instead of pitying ourselves.)
But as so many people have said during these recent strike periods, another academy is possible, and we don’t get it by turning on one another, even if current conditions of the academy seem hell-bent on forcing us to do so. It is exhausting to exist in a university and know I am underpaid for what I do for them, to know that I am not guaranteed a future here, and to know I may be working myself to the bone for nothing. But how much worse is it to do that alone? How much worse is it to not be able to commiserate over a beer with people in your same boat, for every social event instead to be something to pad out a CV, that the people in attendance feel like they’re imposters for not having done it already, for someone else’s opportunity to be yours lost — how tiring!
To be clear, this is no one’s individual fault. This is a consequence of precarity and, in many ways, the idea that we are still operating within some kind of fair or reasonable meritocracy. We have lost something in academia because we have all shifted into survival mode, which we have been forced to do. It is difficult to simply enjoy the conversation or to have laid-back events ‘just for fun’, when you have no time and no money to do everything you’re told you need to do to have the barest of shots at a career in academia. I’ve lost track of how many times my supervisor or older members of my department have told me about events they used to host—parties for visiting scholars, jazz and poetry nights, reading retreats in Cornwall—that ‘could never happen anymore’.
The feeling in academia right now is that the floor has fallen out from under us. We’re all working away pretending we aren’t falling and that we’re the exception to the vile conditions of the university, except for these weeks on strike when we’re allowed to drop the façade without the fear that other people will think we aren’t very good at our jobs, that we’re not clever and don’t have a future here. But this future is unsustainable in itself, and we know that. We’re falling through the air – can’t we at least hold hands?
On the picket lines, we fight for fair conditions for all of us, not the special few who ‘make it’. In the rest of our academic lives, we have to stop treating each other (and ourselves) according to the rule of the special few. If we want to remake the academy, we have to refuse the conditions of the current academy down to the social level of our cohort, our colleagues. We ought to engage with the life of the mind for fun, not for clout, or networking, or career-building – because isn’t that the best part? Occupying a space surrounded by really interesting, clever people, who really care about what you care about? If we can’t have jobs, can’t we at least have that?