The real lives of British academics

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2004

The Guardian has a report on what academic life is actually like in the UK today: the pressures of the RAE, invasive management practices, requirements to mollycoddle students, requirements to provide an audited paper-trail documenting the mollycoddlling etc. It also comments on the fact that for many academics there is no clear boundary between home and work. As the report say, we get no sympathy, because the public image is of people giving the odd lecture and reading at the leisure in the library.

{ 24 comments }

1

John Quiggin 11.16.04 at 9:55 am

I’d be interested in thoughts on the RAE. Compared to the alternative on offer in Australia, which makes research an unfunded mandate except for the small minority who can get access to grant funding, I think the RAE seems the lesser of evils.

The alternative proposal on offer here is to arbitrarily classify some universities as teaching-only and invite the likes of U of Phoenix (or wannabes like Uni of Melbourne Private) to enter this field.

2

FA 11.16.04 at 11:50 am

Maybe academics get no sympathy because some of them extol a life of “farting around”?

3

Matt McGrattan 11.16.04 at 2:58 pm

You can express the view that life might be nicer if we all had more time for farting around without actually being someone who does much farting around.

4

Leda Swan 11.16.04 at 3:30 pm

After an MSc in Economics England, I definitely do not feel any simpathy towards most of my professors. I believe part of their stress comes from the fact that they only seek recognition and they forget completely about the human interaction that ought to be among them and the students. They have chosen to feed their egos and forget about humanity, so no wonder they are all alone and stressful. Hopefully this article will make them recognize that they are not alone in the universe, that they should contribute to mankind both through their research but mostly through their classes. This could make their lifes easier.

5

fa 11.16.04 at 3:36 pm

matt, of course one can. But it’s seems obvious that someone who thinks life is better with more farting around is likely to choose a profession where he thinks he can fart around as much as possible.

6

RS 11.16.04 at 3:44 pm

Perhaps people would have more sympathy for academics’ poor work-life balance if they didn’t go straight on to expect the same from those following them on the academic career ladder.

7

Jason 11.16.04 at 3:47 pm

Very little sympathy from me (I’m late stage Ph.D., and looking for various jobs, occasionally considering academia). They all knew what they were getting themselves into.

That said, IMO, I feel there are a number of ways the industry isn’t well organized well, and academics are asked to wear many hats (despite being trained in only one small area). Most schools require good researchers, good teachers, and passable administrators (and probably some other things). One exception I have been told about was HBS, where your tenure grant was measured by “impact,” so you could get tenure without doing any research (if you were a great teacher, or produced some phenomenal cases, or raised the image of HBS some other way). That seems to me a much healthier system.

Now, if only they were hiring in my area.

8

Chris Bertram 11.16.04 at 4:18 pm

I’ll not bother to comment on the other comments, but this …

They all knew what they were getting themselves into.

… is just plainly false.

Those who picked an academic career in the UK before the RAE, before Subject Review, before a two or threefold increase in teaching ratios, before ever more intrusive demands from government departments and funders, before widening participation targets — I could go on — did _not _ know what they were getting themselves into. And, actually, the report I linked to makes this clear.

9

jamie 11.16.04 at 4:31 pm

A couple of things:

Chris: Did you ever, as a less mature academic, think you’d use the word ‘mollycoddle’ non-ironically?

I don’t know anyone who works as an academic, but I do knowpeople who work in various other public services. The general feeling isn’t so much that they’re being used by the government but that they’re being fidgeted with incessantly, so I sympathise. Also, I suspect that the largest swing against Labour at the next election will come from public sector workers.

10

dsquared 11.16.04 at 4:38 pm

I think that there might have been maybe five people in the history of paid employment who “knew what they were getting into”, but I certainly don’t know any of them.

11

Matt McGrattan 11.16.04 at 4:49 pm

The ‘knew what they were getting into’ argument is a bloody stupid one anyway.

People can know what they are getting into without that immediately absolving employers of all responsibility to make the lives and jobs of their employees tolerable.

Everyone entering medical school, for example, knows that at some point they may have to work stupidly long hours without sleep. That doesn’t mean that employers aren’t under any obligation to find ways to make their junior doctors lives easier. The fact that young doctors work under intolerable conditions just doesn’t go away or cease to be important because those junior doctors were partially forewarned.

Similarly, people in dangerous or unpleasant jobs know that the job carries risk but it’s still the responsibility of the employer to minimize that discomfort and risk.

[And before someone deliberately misses the point I am not saying that academic jobs are dangerous, or unpleasant or like being a junior doctor.]

In the same way, people can go into academia knowing there are problems and knowing that it might not always be easy. They can make that choice because they still really love their subject, or want to teach, or whatever.

That still doesn’t mean that Universities and the government can just chuck any old crap at academics and expect them to take it because they were, at least partly, forewarned.

12

jif 11.16.04 at 5:12 pm

And I thought all the micro-managing mollycoddling was an American thing. The perma-hazing PhD rituals, lecturing as a late stage grad student at a ‘prestigious university’ and the demoralizing academic job search completely turned me off academia. What other profession requires so many years of credentialing followed by several years of back-breaking tenure chasing, hundred hour work weeks, cut throat competition, and then pays you so little? The teaching is not appreciated (by either the administration or the student body), the workloads insane and beginning an academic career all but requires moving to some blighted hellhole from whence you will send out reams of applications in the hopes of escape. I’m happy to say that I took a sane friend’s (who had long before left a PhD program at NYU) advice and followed the love. Right out of academia.

But I do have to say that the idea that we all knew what we were signing on for at the outset just isn’t true. It is partially self-delusional, sure, but some of the calculus in determining an entrance into academia changed over time- even in the eight years I worked on my PhD. My job prospects actually shrank, the competition got stiffer (there are more PhD’s being graduated for one thing). But the places I was interested in teaching at (public universities like the one where I did my undergrad) are hardly hiring anything but adjuncts. So, really, not what I signed up for at all.

13

Dan Simon 11.16.04 at 5:26 pm

“….So the Country Mouse published a long, detailed report analyzing the many sources of stress undermining his quality of life. The City Mouse was unimpressed. ‘Hah!’, he said, ‘your life is a piece of cake, next to mine’….”

14

Matt McGrattan 11.16.04 at 5:43 pm

Dan Simon:

Not sure what the exact intent of that little tale is :-) but if it’s supposed to be that academics live in neverland and have no idea how hard it is in the real world, I suspect that’s not true.

Many people I know who are academics, or are, like me finishing up grad study and doing ‘adjunct’ style teaching, etc. have had ‘real world’ jobs and are perfectly capable of making the comparison.

There are some who go straight from school to university and never leave. But I suspect, increasingly, those people are in the minority. Might be wrong, though.

15

harry 11.16.04 at 5:45 pm

The problem with leda’s response is this. There was a time when an academic could be rewarded well (in terms of appreciation from colleagues, students, and even managers) for devoting themselves to being a really good teacher. But all the pressures in academia (UK) are against being a really good teacher; your colleagues need you to publish (for RAE purposes) and help them administer the often Kafka-esque regulatory burden, your managers insist on the same — they want you to publish even when you have nothing much to say — and my sense is also that visibility is rewarded (someone who teaches a lot is not visible to colleagues or managers). The quality of teaching must have suffered for this, but it is not (or not only) the academics who are to blame.

Not asking for sympathy for myself, I work in a large American public university which is as far as I can tell extremely well managed, and gives me ample time to do research that matters to me as well as to teach well, spend time chatting liesurelily with students etc. Suggestion: the UK looks at the best public reseacrh universities in the US and tries to figure out how they manage so well.

16

Jason 11.16.04 at 5:50 pm

Going into academia isn’t like picking up a new career. A large part of your Ph.D. involves (or should involve) working around and with professors, and imitating various functions they have (for longs hours and no pay).

Yes, the trends have made the life of a professor harder than before, but over the course of 5/6/7 years working with these people you should at least ask some of them what the trends are like and prospects for the future before signing on.

My personal feeling is that most people know they are not going an easy road, but do it for a number of other reasons – prestige being one of the most important ones, the standard of “once you leave you can’t come back” being another (along with “love” of the job, distate for business, desire to work alone, and be around smart people – there are probably more I didn’t list).

17

Matt McGrattan 11.16.04 at 6:20 pm

“My personal feeling is that most people know they are not going an easy road, but do it for a number of other reasons – prestige being one of the most important ones, the standard of “once you leave you can’t come back” being another (along with “love” of the job, distate for business, desire to work alone, and be around smart people – there are probably more I didn’t list).”

Sure, all of those things are probably true. Irrespective of people’s reasons for wanting to do it, and irrespective of how much they did or didn’t know before going in — and I think Chris has a good point about academics who’ve been in it for a while — none of that absolves the management of responsibility to do better.

[Of course they, management, are in a difficult position too…]

It’s always interesting when these kinds of topic come up (which is regularly) how often the responses basically come down to “tough shit” (it’s hard but put up with it) or “stop whining, cry baby”. Which just isn’t good enough.

18

Timothy Burke 11.16.04 at 7:05 pm

Those who just see this story as another excuse to bash academics as overprivileged whiners are really missing the point.

What the article describes is the continuing impact of a massive transformation of the internal workings of the British university system whose substantial accomplishment is to degrade the quality of higher education in the UK and prevent its best employees from doing their best job.

If American state legislators pressing for more pervasive systems of monitoring academic productivity in public universities would like a look at how not to go about that task, the UK is a marvelous example.

It’s definitely not what anyone in the UK who was hired more than a decade ago thought they were “in for” when they became academics. That’s less important than the sheer bloody-minded counterproductivity of the system that’s been put into place. World-class programs have been broken on the wheel of petty bureaucracy, good teachers systematically discouraged from committing to their pedagogy, and research productivity reduced to a fetishistic count of articles published.

As long as American private colleges and universities (not to mention some elsewhere) remain a substantially better employer, the current regime in the UK is a wonderful foundation for a disastrous brain drain. Sure, there will be enough people always to fill vacant posts, but in fairly short order if present trends continue, quite a few of them are going to be people who do a disastrously poor job of being teachers and reseearchers.

Once you ruin your system of higher education, trust me, it’s pretty hard to rebuild it, not to mention expensive.

19

Timothy Burke 11.16.04 at 7:07 pm

Those who just see this story as another excuse to bash academics as overprivileged whiners are really missing the point.

What the article describes is the continuing impact of a massive transformation of the internal workings of the British university system whose substantial accomplishment is to degrade the quality of higher education in the UK and prevent its best employees from doing their best job.

If American state legislators pressing for more pervasive systems of monitoring academic productivity in public universities would like a look at how not to go about that task, the UK is a marvelous example.

It’s definitely not what anyone in the UK who was hired more than a decade ago thought they were “in for” when they became academics. That’s less important than the sheer bloody-minded counterproductivity of the system that’s been put into place. World-class programs have been broken on the wheel of petty bureaucracy, good teachers systematically discouraged from committing to their pedagogy, and research productivity reduced to a fetishistic count of articles published.

As long as American private colleges and universities (not to mention some elsewhere) remain a substantially better employer, the current regime in the UK is a wonderful foundation for a disastrous brain drain. Sure, there will be enough people always to fill vacant posts, but in fairly short order if present trends continue, quite a few of them are going to be people who do a disastrously poor job of being teachers and reseearchers.

Once you ruin your system of higher education, trust me, it’s pretty hard to rebuild it, not to mention expensive.

20

Jason 11.16.04 at 7:46 pm

I wasn’t trying to bash academics. Were I a superstar, that’s where I’d be headed right now, and I have a number of friends in academia on both sides of the Atlantic. I even mentioned what I think is a prestigious school (HBS) which measures success differently in order to provide ammunition for people wanting to do more than just complain.

I personally really like teaching, which is why I won’t be going into academics.

The complaints have more force to me if they are backed up by actual moves out of academia. When someone says “this is why I *left*” I listen more than when someone says “this is why I deserve more respect.”

It is not like you’re chained to the job. You could quit, and pursue something else.

I’m not trying to be snide, I am faced with this choice right now, and I feel academics probably isn’t for me. There’s an oversupply of people prepared to work really hard to be an academic. The way to put pressure on management is to reduce this supply by exercising your option of leaving.

21

Jason 11.16.04 at 8:14 pm

FYI, I have 5 good friends from my cohort who are junior faculty (MIT, LSE, UCSC, Purdue and NWU). All 5 enjoy their jobs immensely, and keep encouraging me to join them, two of them claim to work less than 40hrs/wk.

That said, none of them value teaching as much as I do, and I know I’d work much more than that as I would feel obligated to the students.

22

Richard Zach 11.16.04 at 11:56 pm

Most PhD students who continue in academia are trained at top departments at top universities. When they get a job in academia, however, they’re quite unlikely to end up at an institution that’s comparable to their graduate institution. During graduate school, they see their professors, who are at the top of their field, with the salary, prestige and recognition that comes with, with teaching loads somewhere between 2 and 4 semester courses a year, with lots of secretarial and teaching support (TA’s). That’s what they hope and expect to do in their own careers. Instead, most of them will teach 5 to 8 semester courses a year, will get no TA’s and consequently do all the grading, will have comparatively little research funding or the motivation that comes with outside recognition. In many cases they won’t have graduate students, who can be a source of inspiration as well as help (research assistance). I can’t imagine what it must be like if you’re in a system that, on top of that, also imposes the RAE on you.

23

Tracy 11.17.04 at 8:11 am

If academics are finding life stressful and the job not rewarding, then there is likely to be a decline in the number of academics or at least their quality, regardless of whether the academics knew what they were getting into. Assuming you think university lecturers and researchers add more in value to the world than they cost (an assumption that some readers may disagree with, but probably not all), this is a bad thing.

Something of the shortage of social workers and nurses could also, I think, be attributed to potential social workers and nurses having a fair idea of what they were letting themselves in for and deciding to pursue another career.

In other words, since we don’t live in a world where slavery is legal, then working conditions are of general concern for keeping good staff, no matter how well informed people are ahead of time about working conditions. In fact, better information about working conditions may make it even more important to keep jobs pleasant, not less.

24

aeon skoble 11.17.04 at 2:21 pm

As to the “you knew what you were getting into” argument: that presupposes that all academic jobs are identical or that college seniors can predict the future, both of which are false. When I was in grad school, my profs had 2/2 loads, less if they had a lot of dissertations, and they made upwards of 80K. I make far less than that, and have a 4/4 load. The point is, looking at my profs when I was in grad school would be a totally unrealistic way to predict what the job might actually be like.

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