GIVING ADVICE ON ACADEMIC CAREERS: AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK

In the last month I have given advice to three students who’d like to pursue an academic career and, to be honest, I didn’t know what to tell them. The easiest part is describing the mechanics of doctoral programmes and the accreditation system. The hardest part is assessing for them their chances to ever get a job as a university teacher. Slim, really slim.

I myself came up with this crazy idea that I wanted to be a university teacher of Literature at 17, in my last year in secondary school. My family are working class and I knew from a very early age that a) I didn’t want to work in a factory, b) I didn’t want to work in an office. Being a teenager myself, and not liking teenagers that much (nor younger children) but having a vocation to teach, I realised the university had to be my choice.

Also, the person I most admired then was my Spanish Literature teacher, Sara Freijido Fidalgo, a formidable woman. I was in such awe of her wisdom that I even failed an exam with her, the only time I’ve failed a Literature exercise in my life. Retrospectively, I wonder why someone as brilliant as Dr. Freijido (I think she was a doctor, I’m not sure) had not been kept by the University of Barcelona, where she’d been an associate teacher, rumours indicated. Add to this the mysterious words that my friend Eva Ceano pronounced when I announced to her my decision to be like this other Sara but in a university context (and teaching English, not Spanish Literature): ‘You know they’re a mafia, right?’ No, I didn’t (Eva had the middle-class background, not I) but her warning has helped to keep me on my toes. Since then.

Mafia, no, not quite. Feudal system (that’s another label often heard) no, not quite. What is true is that, as I discovered in my own case, university teachers are also talent scouts, always bearing in mind certain talented students for whenever a job comes up. In my own case (sorry to sound so smug), I did get a call, but then I had to compete hard for the position that had opened. I continued competing hard with others for the following 11 years, until I got tenure –endogamy, yeah, sure… Not for me.

When I responded enthusiastically to that early call, the person who made it poured a little cold water over my hot head by warning me that the pay was low, less than I was making as an English teacher in a language school. Who cared? I was in… Nobody warned about what was coming to my life, which often felt like the worst nightmare, but I would not have listened anyway. That’s the problem with vocations: you don’t listen.

So when I meet students as keen as I was on an academic career and I paint to them the whole black panorama, I still see that look of resistance in their eyes –I’m going to try, anyway, I don’t care what you say. When I tried myself, there were full time jobs for beginners without doctoral degrees because the Socialist Government was investing much money on public education and the university was soaking it up. Today, 23 years later, the full time jobs are gone and nobody knows how we’re supposed to train the new generation of teachers. According to a recent report by the Tribunal de Cuentas, a major problem is that the although the Spanish university has too many teachers, it keeps on hiring staff and even offering tenure. This totally mystifies me, as it is by no means what I have seen in more than two decades in my own Department. We have always had too few teachers.

Actually, the situation is getting worse all the time. Just last week, we were told that the vacancies left by retired or deceased teachers will simply disappear in a new ‘clean-slate’ policy. We counted on these vacancies (six in our Department) to consolidate the aspiring tenurees with accreditations who’ve been around for more than ten years, as no new positions (as mine was) are being created. I’m well aware that other Departments are overstaffed but I’m more and more certain that this is a case of ‘justos-por-pecadores.’

I’ll explain, then, in case someone else is interested, that whereas I could produce my doctoral dissertation in three years while I was employed full time as a teaching assistant by UAB, now aspiring academics are on their own. From the beginning of the MA to post-doc level universities offer practically no help. I’ve seen recently a very brilliant student, with close links to the research group I belong to, be denied all grants – he’s migrating to Holland. Clearly, they’re cropping us off at the bottom, and at the top. I very often feel I’m the last of the Mohicans.

I guess that those with the stamina which the challenge requires will find ways to train on their own for an academic career and then come knocking on our doors in ten years’ time. Necessarily, some position will then come up, unless the plan is to wipe out the entire Spanish university. A fast ageing teaching establishment makes very little sense in a fast changing world. When I mentioned there were plans to perhaps extend our retirement age to 75 (it’s 70 currently) one of my male colleagues expressed his hope that the authorities would take into account weakened prostates…

There are days when I feel not only privilege but also guilty when I think about the future of the younger academics, even though I’m trying to do my best to help them. The only thing I can say is good luck, don’t give up, fight the fight. We do need you.

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4 Responses to “GIVING ADVICE ON ACADEMIC CAREERS: AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK

  1. Samuel says:

    We’ve discussed this before, but I still found this post very illuminating.

    I got my MA part-time while working above full-time: I had a full-time contract with one company and I worked evenings and weekends elsewhere – and I still managed to get a Distinction. However, that was two years ago: Despite calls to publish, my Dissertation is sitting in my laptop and I haven’t done any more research, simply because I’ve been too busy with my career: After everything I’ve experienced in the corporate world, I don’t want to be an employee, which means that I have to work very long hours to become established as a self-employed professional and I have to take lots of different courses to get all the certificates and diplomas I’ll need to show my worth while I’m still establishing myself.

    While I’m very happy doing all of this (I genuinely love my profession) and I’m starting to see some recognition in terms of getting more quality work (and better pay too!), this has come at the cost of my academic interests in gender and other “special interest” areas where any time spent won’t bring me any money.

    Sometimes I think that when I made the choice to one day be self-employed an rely on no one but myself and my own abilities, I also made it very difficult for myself to ever be able to spend any significant amount of time doing research and writing articles. But then I read posts like yours and I realise that, actually, it probably would have never happened for me anyway, and at least I went straight into business after my degree and got a head start just as things were also getting more difficult in my current profession.

    I guess the answer for me, like we’ve discussed in the past, is to start up a blog or start working on smaller-scale projects and go from there. Perhaps once I’m more established I’ll have the time to embark my PhD…

  2. Samuel,
    I think that your case and those of other aspiring academics should lead to a re-invention of the way knowledge circulates. As I explained to you, you can self-publish using a blog, a web, even portals like Academia.edu. You can also submit work for peer review as an independent scholar. Even if you managed you write an publish ONE article a year, this would be fine, as I know many academics who manage less. Quite anothar matter is a PhD dissertation. Two of my doctoral students have crashed against the wall of full-time employement, another might. I don’t know how that hurdle is solved. But then in your case, I’m sure that you could manage.

  3. JoseAngel says:

    There’s one advice to be given to graduate students wishing to embark on an academic career…. stick to it, stick to it, stick to it— as eventual success is guaranteed well to no one but you’ve got the best options if you keep attending those conferences and walking those corridors and waiting on the list for half-time or less than half-time substitute posts. Be around, all the time, make yourself useful, and eventually you’ll get in. But it is advice one hesitates to give, because it’s not reasonable to expect anyone to burn out their lives on such slim hopes (Better of course if you’re absolutely brilliant…). But the middling ones who stick to it eventually get in, and the brilliant ones who get tired are lost sight of. Now there’s one more piece of advice to be given to prospective, at least from personal observation, a darker piece of wisdom: identify the alpha male or alpha female in the program or department in question, and become a faithful retainer, ready to do the dirty work. Sell your soul, at a low price, and you’ve got a better chance to get in.

  4. Stick to it sounds very well to me – alpha people, um, and a Faustian pact, well, I did try to avoid that… and vowed to myself never to be the one buying souls!

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