Academia: It’s a mug’s game

This is an unusual post for me. It has no images. It has no jokes. It’s just a cathartic rant I need to get out.

On the 24th of February 2015, I had the successful viva of my PhD thesis. It was not a particularly joyous occasion. I had a good idea what was going to happen. Nothing. And indeed, three years later, here I am, not having held a single academic job, and severely depressed by my prospects.

I in part blame the way I was treated by my university, who gave me no teaching opportunities during the course of my PhD. I signed up to everything I could, volunteered for all sorts of positions (just Google me, I’m everywhere), supported other PhD students, and went to a plethora of lectures and research seminars. I strove to make my government-funded research relevant and accessible to the public: starting this blog, for instance, and experimenting with different kinds of outreach and engagement.  But when I came to apply to be a teaching assistant, I was turned down. I was pretty angry as it mean I wouldn’t be able to apply for any academic jobs when I finished my thesis on time. I spent the next two academic years hanging around my university, getting what teaching assistant positions I could alongside admin and website work, including teaching a pre-set BA1 topic course, and organising a conference, that I really should have been able to do during my PhD.

So now, here I am, in the midst of a third academic year since my completion, with the basic experience I should have had in hand three years ago. But fellowships begat fellowships. People move from institution to institution. Once you’ve fallen out of the system, it’s very hard to get back in. You lose access to libraries, your username and password to online journals, you lose your email address, you lose a community. You become a try-hard pariah.

I worked on what I did because I thought it was important. I see the English parish church as this massive untapped body objects of knowledge, that unfortunately is side-lined as a picturesque curiosity for handful of retiree enthusiasts to visit. But universities are becoming nothing more than neo-liberal degree factories.  They don’t want hard research first. They don’t primarily need exciting new ideas. First and foremost they want good lecturers who the consumer students will immediately take to. The higher the customer satisfaction, the more they will be able to charge. Simple as that.

The sheer amount of nepotism I’ve seen in academia is quite disheartening. I’ve seen job searches take place when the ideal candidate they want is all set up in advance. I get quite a lot of interviews, but I often feel that the whole position is a done deal, and I’m just a patsy. I don’t even get my travel expenses to get there and back. I carry on with some honorary positions at charitable organisations I care about (that means unpaid), a few sources of unreliable freelance work, but I’m losing the will to actively research my long-planned post-doctoral project on parish church chancels, or keep up with academic literature. There’s only so long you can go on without validation.

The idea of a humanities PhD having at its core a single significant research topic is looking highly flawed. The American PhD takes around five to eight years, and is a lot more rigorous. The British PhD looks like the musings of an amateurish gentleman scholar by comparison. The best plan in this country is to apply for jobs during your PhD – something I was actively discouraged from doing because the university doesn’t want to suffer the black mark of a funded non-finish – and then just work on the thesis at weekends and hand it in at some distant date when it’s eventually ready. As universities become ever more like corporations, fighting profit margins and paying their CEOs (vice-chancellors) hundreds of thousands, what place is there for someone who just wants to rescue English medieval architectural history from literal ruin? Seemingly not much.

If the governmental regulation and reform of the higher education sector continues the way it does, and universities end up in the sorry state of so many of our schools, then after Brexit, our university system is going to be a joke. A joke I don’t think is funny anymore.


6 thoughts on “Academia: It’s a mug’s game

  1. beatricemontedoro

    I think we can only agree with you. I think I made a mistake moving to the UK to do my PhD… I feel disconnected, not validated by my university…I am finding it very hard at times to motivate myself as I am getting older and the light at the end of the tunnel seems getting ever more distant. Luckily I have been proactive in seeking out other activities which have kept me going, but if I think simply about how my PhD has been and is going now I feel very angry and upset. I was expecting so much more from it and from myself, but for me there were simply not the right conditions. And now I fear for my future, as you describe here. I think it is particularly frustrating when you have been proactive and done everything possible to make it happen but the system ignores you and closes you out. What about jobs with the national trust or something archival, where you could still give your academic input and perhaps then think about a postdoc?

    1. beatricemontedoro

      Bottom line: it is very very tough. Sometimes it seems a bit unfair as well. But then I do wonder how different other jobs are…? It is certainly tougher though to stick to the dream and pursue a job that you really like. Most people just do a job they don’t like and just get on with it. I guess we are lucky in that at least we can try get what we want… what a curse though to be “lucky”.

    2. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Problem is all my degrees are art history. I’d be happy to do anything, but as an archivist or something they’re seen as a bit soft. I try a lot for heritage industry jobs but they’re very competitive. And they’re even more profit-driven than universities.

  2. anon

    The personalities of people who hold power are also good to suss out before entrusting them with any sort of guardian role over one’s studies and career. Your talent is obvious, and your subject important, and you should be given the support you need.

  3. writingitsagiftisntit

    I really appreciate your posts. They are so interesting. For your sake I regret that I belong to the 60+ generations so that my comments cannot be practically helpful to you. Please don’t stop your blog. Maybe look at the U3A for support. Maybe do something for ITV on parish churches. Maybe work with Songs of Praise. Maybe approach the City of London for support. Accademia is a many-headed beast. Push at the top not the bottom. Write to known historians. Consider working under the title ‘The development of the parish church alongside the town and the river: how they influenced each other’.


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