You should be so lucky

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 30 December 2007

A few days after handing in my PhD thesis, when I was still coasting on a wave of euphoria so high I couldn't even feel what should by rights have been a fairly nasty hangover, one of my non-academic friends from long ago got in touch to ask what I was up to. She'd been out of the loop for a while, so I not only explained that I'd finished the thesis but gave her a brief overview of the months leading up to it - last buses home from the university, sleeping in offices, living out of vending machines - just to underline why I was so pleased the thing was done. Yay! I said.

Yay! she said. And then she added: But now that your cushy student life is over, you'll have to get a proper job and join the rest of us poor sods in the real world!

So I shot her. No, I didn't. I don't quite remember what I did, except that I think some of the other people in the office took me for a coffee and spoke to me in calming tones for a while. I'd had the exact same argument with this girl a couple of years before, which is why I was so careful to point out that "Thesis done!" came with a backstory of "...and it was really hard work, before you ask," and in a sense I wasn't even surprised to find out that she hadn't quite got it this time, either. And hey, I got to read books all day, right? I was doing what I loved, right? She has a 9-5 job in an insurance company; why on earth would I complain? Obviously, I must not understand the workings of the Real World. I was lucky.

Okay, this isn't a post on Why Some Of My Friends Are Clueless. Thing is, this attitude isn't exclusive to my friend, nor to the non-academic world. The recent fight in the academic blogosphere over whether junior academics should ever - dear God! - look for jobs at other institutions comes from the same root, with the people in the 'no' camp arguing on the grounds of ingratitude and selfishness on the part of the job-hunters: if you really loved your subject, and if you were really dedicated to your department and your students, you wouldn't care where you lived and worked! You're getting to do a job you love, at a time when there are dozens to hundreds of unemployed academics who'd be so glad to get that job they'd never complain about anything, and you're still not happy? Don't you know how lucky you are?

And we internalise it, because we recognise that there's truth in it - life of the mind! getting paid to do what we love! teaching the next generation! reading books all day! Does life get better than this? - and resolve to appreciate our blessings and not complain about anything but plagiarists, and thus we rise through the ranks, until we're junior staff somewhere with a massive admin workload and bitchy colleagues and far too much teaching of students who just don't care and not enough time left for the research our heads of department are breathing down our necks to make sure we publish, and realise this is not what we thought we were signing up for, and then we snap and decide we hate everything, everything, about our jobs, except obviously we can't complain to the people on the rungs above us, so instead we get drunk at department functions and explain our woes to the PhD students, who nod and look thoughtful and say they're taking our warnings on board, but who are actually thinking - I guarantee you - something like "Oh, diddums, I do thirty hours a week at a retail job I hate, and you've got the job I want, and you complain because you have to go to meetings? Don't you know how lucky you are?" And so it continues.

Lucky or not, we're all going to go insane if we think like this.

I work for the university now, in several different jobs which still don't pay me much combined, but I've done jobs that were harder and paid me less. The lowest-paid was a care assistant, for which I got minimum wage (and because I was under 21 for most of it, not even adult minimum wage) and worked ten- and twelve-hour shifts, split between day and night. It's a hard, important, underappreciated job that deserves to be paid much, much better than it is - God knows how my colleagues were managing to raise families on that kind of money - but it's not the worst job out there, by a long way. I remember Dorothy, an 89-year-old resident, telling me about working in the mills when she was sixteen; 6am to 6pm six days a week, no talking on the job, half an hour for lunch, an hour's walk there and back, and all the pay to her mother at the end of the week. Since me and one of my colleagues had just been grumbling about working the dreaded 1-10pm shift, I was expecting her to follow this with a dressing-down about not knowing we were born, which wouldn't have been out of place. Instead, she said "I'm so glad you girls don't have to work like that any more." There were people (the boss included) who didn't seem so bothered by the terrible wages care assistants got, because it's a vocation, and you wouldn't do it if you didn't love it, but Dorothy and her friends weren't among them; the loudest protests I heard about our pay when I was working there came from former mill girls.

Which isn't to say that academics don't have it much better than care assistants, nor that care assistants don't have it better than 1920s mill girls, nor that 1920s mill girls didn't have it better than 1850s child chimney-sweepers. (People working 9-5 jobs in car insurance come somewhere between 'academics' and 'care assistants', I reckon.) But there isn't a point on that scale at which all complaints become irrelevant.

And yet, this seems to be how we think. As one example: my TA cohort was recently caught up in a pay dispute with the university over a proposed hefty pay cut to our already-measly wages. A lot of people were reluctant to take the protests beyond office grumbling and into actual negotiations, and they weren't entirely unreasonable in that; nobody wants to piss off the department, and some teaching for low pay is better than no teaching at all. Still, most of the reasons given centred around TA work not being a real job, because it's something we're training to do and because it's something we need for our CVs anyway. If we're doing this for the experience, not for the money, we should consider it a favour that the university pays us at all. And they could always give our teaching to somebody else; we should consider ourselves lucky to get any teaching, shouldn't we?

Well, no. Individually, the university is indeed doing me a favour by giving one particular group of first-years to me rather than another TA; collectively, the university benefits far more than we do by giving all those groups of first-years to TAs rather than hiring teaching fellows. We do need the experience, but this doesn't stop it being exploitation. That's what makes it exploitation. And yes, we love the work, and we didn't go into academia for the money, but I'm not asking for a company yacht and a £15k bonus, here. I just want my three jobs to add up to enough to pay the bills. Please.

We do need to accept that we're lucky, that there are people out there doing far worse jobs and living far worse lives than ours. But if we act as if all our good fortune will be snatched away from us the minute we dare to express any discontent with anything, we're only going to be hurting ourselves. It's not a betrayal of everything we stand for if we want to move to another institution, or if we protest a pay cut, or if we point out that sleeping in the office is not exactly the best way to spend a night, and smiling through all of that won't create solidarity with the rest of the world. It'll just drive us crazy, and then we'll snap and start biting students or something.

We do live in the real world. We know that, right?


  1. Laz Says:
  2. Is that insurance person the person we were talking about yesterday? Cos that was my first thought and how I laughed...

    If I had thought a PhD would have been easier than a "real" job, I'd have stuck into my BSc, got the 1st Class Honours I'm capable-of-but-too-lazy-to-work-for and done the bloody PhD.

    No chance - too much like hard work, if you ask me.

  3. Yes, that's her. However did you guess? ;)